The Plaza Mayor remains one of Madrid’s chief tourist attractions. Though called by many names over the centuries and subject to several fires, it retains its allure. The reasons are not hard to find. While not an architectural work of art, the plaza is one of the best places in Madrid to relax and watch the blend of citizen and visitor.
Over the centuries the plaza has hosted bullfights, political battles, festivals and more than one beheading. Today, the most likely site for a tourist lazily munching on a sandwich and enjoying the sunshine. The surrounding shops offer a good reason for a pleasant stroll and for the truly curious, you can visit the baker’s guild.
Established centuries earlier, the Plaza Mayor took its approximate current shape in 1790 after the most recent fire. The brainchild of Phillipe II, as part of his effort to make Madrid the capital of Spain, it was completed in 1619 under the auspices of Phillipe III. The latter’s statue in the center of the plaza serves as a reminder to all of its patron.
Not large by some standards, it is nearly square at about 100m on each side. But within the area nearly 50,000 spectators have stood at one time or another. Whether cheering and dancing during one of Madrid’s many festivals or gawking and horrified at one of Spain’s many executions, the plaza has served as a public square in the most literal sense.
Weddings have alternated with trials by the Spanish Inquisition. Bullfights have traded places with summer lounging. The buildings surrounding the square provide convenient perches for those who want to look down on the events taking place below.
In the summer those observers will see dozens of tables where a tourist can get a meal or a drink or just take a rest. No matter where you sit, it won’t be long before a waiter from one of the surrounding restaurants arrives to take your order. When he does you’ll have a chance to experience first hand Madrid’s friendly atmosphere.
There are dozens of cafes, bars and restaurants. When you’ve finished your meal, and perhaps had a little siesta, there are numerous shops around to peruse. Antiques, coins, military memorabilia and a variety of other choices are within an easy stroll.
Like any big city, petty crime is not unknown there. Tourists should be aware of their surroundings and take appropriate cautions to avoid being taken advantage of. Paranoia would be extreme, but prudence is called for.
Though one is unlikely to see a royal coronation, looking around it isn’t difficult to imagine what the scene must have been like during some of the historical events centered at the Plaza Mayor. Fortunately, today’s visitors no longer have to be very concerned about witnessing an auto de fe – a ritual of public penance by heretics, after a judicial sentencing by the Spanish Inquisition.
Madrilenos today are much more interested in enjoying life. Come join them in the Plaza Mayor.