Brussels’ Grand Place, Amsterdam’s de Dam, Derby’s Osnabrück Square…our world was, at one point, built around these public spaces. We traded, we gossiped, we rallied, we celebrated. Nowadays we pop into Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a sausage and egg buttie whilst we watch the tourists feed the pigeons and pose for photos.
Many squares remain fascinating and exhilarating places to spend a few hours, and Madrid is one of the best cities to throw yourself into the square culture. There are loads of them – large and small – scattered across the city. Personally, I’m far from an expert on the subject, so I’m going to team up with a Madrid native. Francisco, our Account Manager for Spanish destinations, once gave us all a wonderful view of Dublin off the beaten track. He’s back to share his tips on his home city, and my-my, isn’t he an abyss of enthralling information about it.
The premier square in Madrid, Plaza Mayor presents an environment typical of the Castillian kingdom. The square is enclosed by a three-storey structure which is mainly used as residential quarters. One side also contains Casa de le Panderia, which is the city’s municipal and cultural building. The statue at the square’s centre is that of King Philip III. Several passageways lead through this building from the city outside and onto Plaza Mayor itself.
Plaza Mayor has seen its fair share of action: bullfights, markets and even public executions. You can still witness occasional musical showcases here. The restaurants on the inside of the square are expensive, but there are much better alternatives close at hand. Running beneath is a series of caves called las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, some of which hold charming restaurants. These are great places to enjoy eating a bocadillo with calamari, accompanied by Spanish sidra (cider) – a local favourite.
Here’s a good local tip: have a tipple at nearby Bodegas Ricla, which does a good line in vermouth.
Plaza de la Villa
This smaller square is the location of Madrid’s city hall. The statue in the centre is of Álvaro de Bazán, a Spanish Admiral. Plaza de la Villa marks the confluence of three medieval streets, which made it one of the main centres of Madrid in its day.
Set in Madrid’s Austrian neighbourhood, Plaza de la Villa and its surrounding area is a great place to admire the historical architecture of the quieter city. Besides the city hall, two other buildings of note that overlook Plaza de la Villa are Torre de los Lujanes and the Casa de Cisneros, which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries respectively.
Plaza de Oriente
This is a beautiful rectangular square flanked by the Royal Theatre to the east and Royal Palace to the west. Plaza de Oriente was developed with the support of Joseph Bonaparte, who was installed by brother Napoleon as ruler of Spain in 1808. It contains the formal gardens of the adjacent royal palace, which are divided into three main plots.
The Central Gardens is the place to view a spot of topiary in the surrounding shrubs and hedges. Its centrepiece is a statue of Philip IV, which stands above a fountain. Lining this plot to north and south are lines of limestone statues that represent former monarchs, called the Gothic Kings. Jardines de la Plaza de Cabo Noval is adjacent to the north and Jardines Lepanto to the south.
Puerta del Sol
Directly east of Plaza de Oriente, Puerta del Sol occupies a very central location in the city and bears the symbol of Madrid: a bear and a berry tree. Puerta del Sol means ‘Gate of the Sun’ and this square popularly marks the centre of the country.
This is the place the locals gather to celebrate special occasions such as New Year’s Eve. It also saw Madrid’s version of the ‘Occupy’ movement.
Puerta del Sol is a relatively busy intersection, so it’s not much of a place for relaxing. Furthermore, this is a square upon which numerous dedicated shopping streets converge. If you came to Madrid for a touch of retail tourism then this area could be right up your ‘calle’.
Plaza de Santa Ana
If you have a taste for tapas, Plaza de Santa Ana has a great deal to offer. A wealth of terrace tables lines the square, so this is the spot to really go local when eating and drinking. Plaza de Santa Ana is a very social place to be and it’s nice to rub shoulders with interesting people.
At its eastern end, Plaza de Santa Ana is home to Teatro Español, which is the oldest theatre in Madrid. Several statues of historical literary figures can also be seen here. Indeed, the surrounding neighbourhood is called Barrio de las Letras and is strewn with plaques commemorating the work of writers during Spain’s golden era spanning the 16th and 17th centuries.
Plaza del Dos de Mayo
This famous square is named after the popular Spanish uprising against the French that occurred on 2nd May 1808. Following this successful revolt, 2nd May is now a national holiday in Spain. Spanish artist Goya’s collection includes a famous depiction of the execution of the French during this chapter of the country’s history.
Plaza del Dos de Mayo and its surrounding area is a good place to browse some ‘alternative’ shops and entertainment sources as well as local trades. It’s quite typical to find an independent butcher’s shop next to a gothic clothing store, for example.
Plaza de Chueca
Chueca is one of the most gay-friendly neighbourhoods in Europe, and is the location of the annual Madrid Pride festival. The neighbourhood (and subsequently the square) is named after Frederico Chueca, a composer of zarzuelas during the latter half of the 19th century.
Besides a number of terrace bars and a lot of services directed at the gay demographic, the area around Plaza de Chueca hosts numerous art galleries and similar creative outlets. It’s a colourful and vibrant area to explore, and can be a good source of entertainment.
Plaza de Cibeles
This is the location of Palacio de Comunicaciones – Madrid’s new city hall, and is a busy traffic intersection that covers a large area. It’s a more modern square of Madrid, and is the venue for the Real Madrid football team celebrations when they win a competition. Close to Plaza de Cibeles is circulo de bellas artes, where you can ascend to the rooftops for a stunning view of the city.
Plaza de Cibeles is named for the statue of Cibeles – Roman goddess of fertility – which stands in the centre. Paseo del Prado starts at this junction, leading southwards towards the Prado Museum and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
Plaza de Castilla
This is a much newer ‘square’ north of Madrid’s city centre, overlooked by Puerta de Europe (the Gate of Europe) at its northern edge. The 92m tall obelisk in the centre was designed by Santiago Calatrava. Mauel Manzano Monís’ monument to José Calvo Sotelo faces nearby Bernabéu stadium and AZCA, Madrid’s new business district.
Standing on Plaza de Castilla, you can look north between the Gate of Europe towards another new business development with an impressive skyline. This is the location of the ‘torres cuidad Deportiva’, the four tallest buildings in Madrid. One of these buildings is home to Eurostars Madrid Tower Hotel – a beautiful five star property favoured by high-flying business types.
Not actually a square, La Latina is Madrid’s Latin Quarter and is situated south of Plaza Mayor. This is the best place in the city to find tapas. A generally social and vibrant neighbourhood, there are many squares, both small and large, to explore. Social activity is especially popular on Sundays, when you can mingle with the locals and follow them to find the best bites in the city.
La Latina is a brilliant area to soak in some local culture; being one of Madrid’s most original areas, there is a great deal of historical architecture to be found, including a number of impressive churches. The neighbourhood was once a busy trading area for grains and grasses, and Plaza de la Cebada – Plaza of the Barley – is a popular attraction. This area is an attractive place to browse the open air markets, especially on Plaza de Cascorro on Sundays.
Well, ten should be enough for now. There are, of course, many that we sadly had to leave behind on our whistle-stop tour. However, the good news is that maybe we can hear more from Francisco about this at a later date. Thanks to him for sharing his wonderful knowledge. What do you think of these squares? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Feel free to leave us a comment and let us know.
Photos: (1) http://www.flickr.com/photos/pikolosa/ (2) http://www.flickr.com/photos/53125972@N00/ (3) http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurapadgett/ (4) http://www.flickr.com/photos/socarbot/ (5) http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurapadgett/ (6) http://www.flickr.com/photos/madridlaciudad/ (7) http://www.flickr.com/photos/comunidaddemadrid/ (8) http://www.flickr.com/photos/turismomadrid/ (9) http://www.flickr.com/photos/javiercorbo/ (10) http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcp_dmoz/ (11) http://www.flickr.com/photos/ibontxo/