As the clock in the tower of the "Communications Palace" pushed toward 10 p.m. on a recent evening, points of light exploded around the stone face of the building, like diamond studs in the midday sun.

That Spaniards would build a post office and call it the Communications Palace says plenty about the Iberian ego. But the building's design and its nighttime lighting say even more. Built in the early 20th century, the palace boasts an ornate stone facade that calls to mind a regal vision of a Renaissance monarch.

You see a lot of that kind of flourish in Madrid. The architects who designed this city of 3.3 million -- and the government leaders and private benefactors who paid them -- understood the benefit of marrying flair to function. Nothing about Madrid's major public and private buildings suggests cut corners or planned obsolescence.

The fact that the Communications Palace is no longer a post office doesn't really matter. Today, the building serves as City Hall. And like so many of its neighboring beauties, when darkness falls, it sparkles as one of many jewels in a nocturnal crown.

The sight is among many that make going to Spain's cultural and political capital at least as exciting as trips to Europe's other mainstay destinations.

Of course, many things recommend Madrid as a vacation destination, even if its economic turmoil hasn't turned it into a bargain hunter's paradise.

World-class art

The city boasts several of the world's finest museums. The grand collections of the Prado Museum, Spain's national museum of 12th- to 19th-century art, and Reina Sofía Museum, which focuses on modern art, each could take days to completely experience and appreciate. They are filled with Goya, Delacroix, Picasso and hundreds of other artists of equal talent but less name recognition. Other major and minor art exhibitions pop up all over Madrid's storied center.

Madrid's major cathedral and the adjoining Royal Palace are worth a day's touring between them. Retiro Park -- once the exclusive domain of the monarchs, with statuary and gardens surrounding a pristine lake -- is perfect for morning jogs or leisurely strolls to study topiary and people.

You can find fine food at any price, and the city's gleaming subway stations and trains are so clean you'll feel like you could eat off the floors.

A nosebleed ticket to hear the symphony at the Opera House costs a mere 6 euros. Hanging out in the Puerta del Sol (Door of the Sun), a plaza said to be the symbolic center of all Spain, costs nothing.

Nightime beauty

Still, it is when the sun sets that Madrid really shines. The idea that an entire city can be viewed as a single, intricate work of art did not originate here. But if you watch night envelop Madrid from the roof of the Círculo de Bellas Artes building, you grasp how capably Spain has evolved the concept.

My wife and I did just that, going to the fine arts building (itself an architectural icon), plunking down 4 euros apiece and riding the elevator to the seventh floor. The roof attracted as many smooching young Spanish lovers as middle-aged tourists the night we were there. The romance only added to a gloriously eclectic view.

To the north, modern spires of the business district broke the skyline in geometric and abstract splendor. A pair of high-rises, the Kio Towers, leaned toward each other over Paseo de la Castellana, giant symbols of commerce preparing to embrace.

To the west, beyond an urban rooftop dotted with giant black metal silhouettes of cowboys and horses, residential neighborhoods rolled into the hills.

To the south, a tower reminiscent of Seattle's Space Needle poked through a cloudless blue curtain, its hard metal lines spearing what looked like a 1960s sci-fi movie director's concept of a doughnut-shaped satellite. Stone buildings constructed centuries earlier, with high arches and intricate carvings, flanked the tower like an improbable gilded frame on modern art.

And then, gradually, the view changed. It was as if one artist left the studio and another arrived to paint on the same canvas. Vivid natural shades of orange, pink and blue gave way to a brilliant, man-made light show.

It was as focused as a single illuminated church steeple glowing blinding white and aquamarine in the sea of darkened houses to which it ministered.

It was as grand as a golden statue of the winged Goddess Victoria seeming to pour an aural glow on the street below from atop the nearby art deco Metropolis Building.

And it seemed like just the latest example of the Iberian ego at work -- and flourishing.

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123