Both in Europe and in the American colonies, the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment was a period characterized by science, reason and progress. In Madrid, King Carlos III commissioned modern street paving, sewer systems, garbage collection, street lighting and public hospitals. The era also left a lasting impact on the landscape of Madrid in the form of the many monumental and architectural contributions that are still seen and, to varying degrees, used today. In fact, the Spanish capital’s greatest buildings and sites date from the Age of Enlightenment.
Royal Palace in Madrid — Photo courtesy of Ali Reza Zamli
The biggest palace in Western Europe, Madrid’s Royal Palace is an architectural gem that was built in Baroque style in the mid-1700s. It is full of richly decorated rooms (the Throne Room being one of the most magnificent) and collections of paintings, porcelain, tapestries, furniture and prized objects, including five Stradivarius instruments.
Once the home of Spain’s monarchs, today the palace is open to visits from the public, and state dinners are occasionally hosted there.
The grand Neoclassical building that today houses Spain’s most important museum and art collection, Prado Museum, was originally designed by Juan de Villanueva in 1785. Carlos III commissioned it as a natural history museum, though it was destined never to become one.
In 1819, it was opened as an art museum to display works from the Spanish Royal Collections. Today, the Prado Museum is one of the foremost museums in the world.
Royal Botanical Gardens
In 1774, the Royal Botanical Gardens were moved from the banks of the Manzanares River to their current location on the Paseo del Prado, where the beautiful new gardens were designed by Juan de Villanueva and Francesco Sabatini.
Today, the gardens contain thousands of plant species and are open to the public to enjoy. They are a particularly attractive place to stroll in the spring and summer.
Puerta de Alcala — Photo courtesy of Brian Snelson
Monumental City Gates
Madrid was originally surrounded by city walls. In the late 18th century, King Carlos III commissioned five monumental gates that marked the entrances to the Spanish capital. Each was inspired by Roman triumphal arches and built in Neoclassical style.
All five still stand today. But over time, the Puerta de Alcala has become the most famous. It stands in Independence Square beside Retiro Park.
Reina Sofia Museum
In the late 1700s, Jose de Hermosilla and Francesco Sabatini designed this great Neoclassical building for Madrid’s general hospital. But today, that building houses the main part of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, or Reina Sofia Museum.
Part of Madrid’s Triangle of Art, the Reina Sofia Museum contains an extraordinary collection of 20th-century Spanish art. Besides Pablo Picasso’s "Guernica," the museum contains outstanding pieces from artists Salvador Dali, Juan Gris, Joan Miro and others.