When the sun shines, you’d think Plaza Mayor had been custom-built for outdoor dining and arcade souvenir shopping. But the site was originally a food market just outside the city walls, and the current square was constructed in 1619 as the mass gathering spot for the city. People came to Plaza Mayor to see bullfights, attend political rallies, celebrate royal weddings, shop for bread and meat, watch hangings, and witness torture-induced confessions during the Spanish Inquisition. With apartments on the square, the royal family had ringside seats. Little remains of that original square, as the buildings surrounding it burned in 1631, 1672, and again in 1790. The plaza was fully enclosed in 1854, creating the great arches that now serve as its gates. Madrileños come to the plaza for the Sunday morning coin and stamp market and for the annual Christmas market. The plaza’s acoustics are excellent, and musicians often perform in the center near the equestrian statue of Felipe III. The zodiac murals decorating the Casa de Panadería (originally home to the all-powerful Bakers’ Guild) on the north side look appropriately ancient, but they date only from 1992. The most dramatic of the gates is the Arco de Cuchilleros (Arch of the Knife-Sharpeners), on the southwest corner. Beneath Plaza Mayor are the “cave” restaurants that have lured tourists since the days when Washington Irving commented on the spectacle of roast piglet feasts accompanied by copious flagons of wine.
Our Rating Transportation Bus: 3, 17, 18, 23, 31, or 35; Metro: Vodafone Sol, Opera, or Tirso de Molina
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