Every other street in Madrid ends with a beautiful square, with plentiful cafes and bars lined along its perimeter. There is a fascinating story behind each square; Plaza Mayor, on the other hand, a magnet for Madrid’s visitors, hides not just a story, but a grand history spanning several centuries.
Back in the 16th century, Plaza Mayor was known as Plaza del Arrabal. It was a humdrum square; with a badly organized food market. In 1577, King Philip II decided to refurbish the square and turned for help to Juan de Herrera – one of the best Classical architects of his period, and a man behind the splendid Royal Palace of Aranjuez. Three years later the plan was ready, but it was not until 1617 when the construction began under the reign of Philip III. Juan Gómez de Mora succeeded Herrera; however, his work did not entirely live up to our days – it was destroyed by a series of fires in the end of the 18th century. The square as we see it today was designed by Juan de Villanueva, who by that time had already added the Prado Museum to his list of works.
Today, the square is easily one of the top visited attractions in Madrid – it was not much different centuries ago. Soon after the beatification of Madrid’s patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, was celebrated on Plaza Mayor, the square became a popular choice for festivities and all sorts of public events, starting from bullfights and royal weddings to unmerciful autos-da-fé – the rituals of conviction and posterior execution of condemned heretics.
The highlight of the location is the 17th-century Real Casa de la Panadería (Royal Bakery), painted in crimson red, with wrought-iron balconies it steals the show on Plaza Mayor, yet the edifice’s biggest draw are the colorful frescoes, embellishing the façade. These were painted only in 1992 and depict mythological figures and the signs of the zodiac.
The equestrian statue of King Philip III, under whose reign the square underwent the major changes, stands right in the middle. Originally it stood in Casa del Campo and was brought to Plaza Mayor in 1848. It is ever since a popular meeting venue for the locals.
Plaza Mayor is worth the visit any time of the year; although during winter holidays, when a charming Christmas market takes place here, it is even more precious.
Don’t mind cafes and restaurants at the square charging double the price – sipping a drink with views over the Royal Bakery or just exploring people passing by is well worth it while sipping coffee is well worth every cent.
Metro: Puerta del Sol (lines 1, 2, 3)