Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Category: Madrid

Are you planning a trip to Madrid, Spain and currently in the process of compiling a tentative itinerary for your visit? If so, one of the places you simply must put on your schedule is the Plaza Mayor. A portico square at the heart of Hapsburg Madrid, the Plaza Mayor is located in the older part of Madrid and is one of the city’s most charming districts. In this article we will discuss this historic city square in a bit more detail, including its history and some of the fascinating buildings and monuments that comprise it.

History of the Plaza Mayor

Prior to Madrid being named the capital of city of Spain, with its wide avenues and boulevards, its footprint consisted of narrow streets, alleys and other smaller passageways, reflective of a much simpler age. It is this age that tourists are transported to when visiting the grand Plaza Mayor. Plaza Mayor de Madrid photo credit

After Philip II moved his court to Madrid in the late 15th century, the foundations of Plaza Madrid were laid on the site of the former Plaza de Arrabal, where the town’s most popular market was located. In 1617, the Spanish architect Juan Gomez de Mora was commissioned to create a greater homogeny amongst the buildings in this location, which for centuries had hosted popular entertainment showcases, bullfights, beatifications and coronations. Today, visitors of this historic plaza are treated to some of this brilliant 17th century architecture, most of which is still in its original form, and get a taste of what life was like in the days of the early capital city.

Plaza Mayor: Features

One of the most historically significant buildings in Plaza Mayor is the Casa de la Panaderia, built by Diego Sillero around 1590. Although today only the cellar and ground floor of the original building remain, at one time it served as a model for the remainder of the buildings in the square, and has served many functions over the years, including being the principal bakery of the town, where the fixed price of bread was maintained to ensure the neediest Madrileños would not go hungry. The building has also served as the venue for royal lodgings, the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the History Academy, and today is home to the Plaza Mayor Tourist center. Among the buildings many adornments are the murals on the façade, the work of Carlos Francos that represents mythological figures connected to the history of Madrid, including the goddess Cibeles.

Visitors entering the Plaza Mayor can do so through one of nine archways into the square designed by Juan de Villanueva, the most notable being the Arco de los Cuchilleros. This 17th century Baroque-style arch features beautiful etchings and steep steps leading up to the square. Its name is derived from the cutler’s workshops once located in Plaza Mayor that supplied knives to the butchers in the square, including the Casa de la Carniceria, once the general meat deposit of Madrid.

One of the most valuable and well-visited monuments in Madrid is the statue of King Philip III in Plaza Mayor, shown riding on horseback. It was designed by the artist Giambologna and completed by builder Pietro Tacca in 1616. For years the statue watched over the entrance of Casa de Campo, but in 1848, Queen Isabel II borrowed it for the city and placed it in Plaza Mayor, where it continues to stand to this day.

Of course, the Plaza Mayor of today has little in common with the vibrant market that once sold meat, vegetables, fruit, clothing and other items from the 16th through the mid 19th century. However, tourists can still find a number of traditional and artisan shops that offer a reflection of those bygone days. In addition to the shops, there are many painters, sketchers and caricature artists who still display their work under the plaza’s arcades. The Plaza is especially colorful at Christmas time, hosting a traditional festival market which, among other items, sells beautiful nativity scenes for families to display in their homes.