Madrid, both the capital and Spain’s largest city, is nothing if not grand. Wander the streets and you will come across gentile townhouses, elaborately worked balconies, towering columns and ornately carved porticoes. The timeless ambience is nowhere more apparent than in the city’s elegant squares and historic buildings, which have hundreds of years’ worth of history to tell.
One of Madrid’s main squares, the Plaza Mayor is an expansive rectangular square originally dating from the early 17th century. It is lined by impressive three storey houses with overlooking balconies and, at ground level, beautiful porticoes surround the square. Though hundreds of years old in its setting and concept, the design of the square today actually owes more to late 18th century reconstructions, following a series of huge and damaging fires. These destroyed the original structure which, like many buildings of the time, incorporated wooden beams and straw bedding.
The plaza is not just decorative, but also practical, having played a central role in the civic life of Madrid’s citizens throughout its many years. Originally the site of a bustling market, the Plaza del Arrabal, it has taken on many names and been the location for public trials, executions and crowning ceremonies, as well as various fiestas and activities such as bullfighting and football games.
Today, meandering tourists and locals going about their days fill the square with activity, and cafes and tapas bars spill out from the archways. Founded in 1725, the Sabrino de Botin has the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Under the arches are also various shops, including souvenir shops and galleries, as well as theatrical acts and portrait painters. On Sundays there is a stamp and coin market.
Various events are still held in the square on a regular basis, including Easter festivities and the celebrations for San Isidro, the Catholic patron saint of farmers and of Madrid. While it may seem odd for Spain’s largest city to have a farmer as its patron saint, San Isidro is venerated for his ordinary life and faithfulness, and the dignity to be found in honest work. His festival takes place on May 15th. During December, the plaza hosts a Christmas market, complete with various stalls and street theatre acts, a tradition that dates back to 1860.
You cannot come to Madrid and visit at least some of the city’s fine squares. Besides the Plaza Mayor, just a short distance away is the Puerta del Sol, another famous square and one of the busiest in Madrid. Originally one of the city’s gates, it now occupies a central location and contains many important buildings, including the office of the President of Madrid. In recent times it has been the site for democracy demonstrations and New Year celebrations have been broadcast from here since 1962.
If you’re staying in central Madrid, you don’t need a car to visit the Plaza Mayor or Puerta del Sol, as these can be easily reached by walking or by public transport. However, car hire in Madrid is recommended if you are staying further out, and particularly if you want to visit sites further afield during your stay.