If you’re interested in learning more about the rich history of Spain through beautiful art and informative accounts of the country’s past, El Escorial is the place for you. El Escorial is a large complex of buildings in San Lorenzo de el Escorial, which is near Madrid. The building has been deemed the most important work of construction of the Spanish Renaissance; the building complex was constructed from 1563 until 1584. El Escorial includes a church, a college, royal palace and monastery, along with a library that was added in 1592.

To get an accurate feel of what you will experience when you arrive at El Escorial, here are some descriptions of the main features of the historic site that will make you even more excited about planning your visit.

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Spain is home to many picturesque sites that creatively teach about the country’s culture. El Escorial definitely fits this description.

Courtyard of the Kings

When you arrive at El Escorial, the first area you’ll encounter is the Courtyard of the Kings. You’ll see three doors: the center one actually leads to more of the courtyard, while the doors on the side lead to the school and monastery.

The Royal Pantheon is part of the Courtyard of the Kings and serves as the burial place for the kings of Spain and has been since King Charles I. Juan de Borbon’s remains, who was the father of king Juan Carlos I, are also at the Royal Pantheon.

The Place of the Austrians, or House of the King, is also in the courtyard, along with the Courtyard of the Fountainheads, which is built in Italian style.

A stroll through the courtyard will definitely give you insight into the cultural diversity that is included in Spanish history. The intricate architecture, along with information on the history of the royalty buried there makes the Courtyard of the Kings especially fascinating.

The Basilica

The church is another beautiful aspect of El Escorial. The basilica was originally designed to look like the Gothic churches of Western Europe and is inspired by the shape of a Latin cross. The altar is perhaps the most beautiful part of the church. The altar sits high, and a reredos made of three tiers sits behind it. The reredos is made from jasper and granite; the positioning of these precious stones shows the care and precision that was put into constructing the basilica.

King Philip, who was reigning at the time of the reredos construction, wanted Titian or Michelangelo to design the altar screens. However, both of these notable artists were in their 80s at the time, so at the suggestion of the king’s advisors, a host of lesser-known artists were commissioned to win the king’s favor and design the reredos. Life-size bronze statues on either end of the sanctuary depicting the praying families of Kings Philip and Charles are also fascinating components of the El Escorial church.

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Spanish churches often include intricately designed alters, walls and reredos to depict Bible stories or concepts of Christianity.

Library, Gallery and Museum

Of course, you don’t want to leave El Escorial without spending some time in the library, taking in all the intricately designed art in the gallery and strolling through the museum. The library contains documents that were donated by King Philip II; the building was designed by Juan de Herrera, who also came up with the concept for the library shelves. There are 40,000 volumes of books in the library’s collection.

The art gallery featured at El Escorial displays art from Spanish and Italian artists from the 15th and 16th century, as well as works from artists of Flemish and German descent. The art depicts aspects of nature, notable figures, and events of the time.

The museum showcases the architectural tools that were used to build El Escorial. It consists of 11 rooms and features copies of building documents and blueprints to provide you with insight into the El Escorial planning process.

These are just some of the intriguing sights that El Escorial has to offer. Keep these points in mind upon your arrival to help you make the most of your Spanish vacation.