Emblematic of the oldest part of the city and intimately related to the origins of Madrid—it rests on the terrain where the Muslims built their defensive fortress in the 9th century—the Palacio Real overwhelms visitors with its sheer size and monumental presence that unmistakably stands out against the city's silhouetted background. The palace was commissioned in the early 18th century by the first of Spain's Bourbon rulers, Felipe V. Outside, you can see the classical French architecture on the graceful Patio de Armas: Felipe was obviously inspired by his childhood days at Versailles with his grandfather Louis XIV. Look for the stone statues of Inca prince Atahualpa and Aztec king Montezuma, perhaps the only tributes in Spain to these pre-Columbian American rulers. Notice how the steep bluff drops west to the Manzanares River—on a clear day, this vantage point commands a view of the mountain passes leading into Madrid from Old Castile; it's easy to see why the Moors picked this
spot for a fortress.
Inside, 2,800 rooms compete with each other for over-the-top opulence. A two-hour guided tour in English winds a mile-long path through the palace. Highlights include the Salón de Gasparini, King Carlos III's private apartments, with swirling, inlaid floors and curlicued stucco wall and ceiling decoration, all glistening in the light of a two-ton crystal chandelier; the Salón del Trono, a grand throne room with the royal seats of King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia; and the banquet hall, the palace's largest room, which seats up to 140 people for state dinners. No monarch has lived here since 1931, when Alfonso XIII was deposed after a Republican electoral victory. The current king and queen live in the far simpler Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid; this palace is used only for official occasions.
Also worth visiting are the Museo de Música (Music Museum), where five-stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari form the world's largest such collection; the Painting Gallery, which displays works by Spanish, Flemish, and Italian artists from the 15th century on; the Armería Real (Royal Armory), with historic suits of armor and frightening medieval torture implements; and the Real Oficina de Farmacía (Royal Pharmacy), with vials and flasks used to mix the king's medicines. On Wednesday the Changing of the Guard takes place (every 30 minutes, 11–2) at the Puerta del Príncipe, across Plaza de Oriente, with a more solemn and lavish ceremony (with up to 100 guards and horses) the first Wednesday of each month at noon.