Very close from Puerta del Sol and Plaza de la Villa is located the Plaza Mayor, a beautiful square replete with balconies, pinnacles and typical slate roofs. These kind of squares, typical from Castillian cities such as Salamanca or Valladolid (Spanish capital for a brief period of time 1601-1606), were once the nerve center of the cities and all activity revolved around them.
Plaza Mayor has its origin in the thirteenth century when this area of the city was full of shacks and small streets. At the same time, this humble neighborhood had a main square (Plaza del Arrabal) where a market was installed (Mercado de la Villa). Traders and merchants came here to sell all kind of groceries like meat, fruits, pickled fish etc. Over the centuries, trade activity in this square grew spectacularly and many Jews started their own business here.
In 1561 King Felipe II decided to move the capital of Spain from Toledo to Madrid, a decision that changed the fate of the city forever. One of his top priorities as King of Spain was to rejuvenate and renovate this old and dirty area of Madrid: Felipe II commissioned Juan de Herrera, who few years before had designed the wonderful Monastery of Escorial, to reform the old square (Plaza del Arrabal).
King Felipe II
Unfortunately, in the early seventeenth century the square was in a lamentable state of preservation and Felipe III decided to create a larger square worthy of an important city like Madrid. The architect in charge of designing the new square was Juan Gomez de Mora, a pupil of Juan de Herrera, who was inspired by the drawings of his teacher. Shortly after its inauguration, the square began to be used as a venue for all kind of events such as bullfights, executions of famous prisoners, inquisition hearings or military parades. Throughout its history, Plaza Mayor was burnt down three times (1631, 1670, and 1790) so improvement works were needed again. Before these reconstruction works the buildings surrounding the square were higher than today (five stories). After a controversial debate, the architect Juan de Villanueva decided to design three-story residential buildings with more than 200 balconies as one can see today.
Plaza Mayor has nine entranceways: Arco de Cuchilleros (Cutler´s Arch), located in the southwestern corner on the Square, is the most outstanding of them all. Arco de Cuchilleros (1790) leads to Cutler´s Street where all knife shops and small workshops were located.
Probably the most beautiful part of the square is the Casa de la Panadería (Bakery House) whose façade has been decorated with wonderful frescoes. This building housed the seat of Baker´s Guild. The statue in the middle of the square commemorates King Felipe III, one of the driving forces behind the construction of the Square. The Statue was placed here by order of Queen Isabel II in 1848. Nowadays Plaza Mayor is a meeting point for “madrileños” and a must-visit place in the city for all visitors. A lot of typical bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, antique shops surround this nice square, creating a very special atmosphere. The small Botoneras Street boasts two of the best places in Madrid (Bar La Ideal and Bar La Campana) to eat a typical squid sandwich, real fast-food for “madrileños”. These sandwiches cost less than 3€ and come with mayonnaise (optional). Locals usually drink a “caña” (draft beer served in a small glass) to accompany these delicious sandwiches. Every Sunday morning there is a small numismatic market where you can find different types of coins from Roman or Arab Times to rare coins. This market is held since 1920.
Several weeks before Christmas a great Market, considered the best in Spain, is inaugurated at Plaza Mayor where Christmas gifts, decorations, funny wigs, hats, Christmas trees and joke items can be found in abundance.