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PLAZA MAYOR

Madrid’s most famous square, completed in 1619, was built on a grand scale. Capable of holding up to 50,000 people, it was intended to impress, and still does. Nowadays it’s a tourist attraction first and foremost: a place for relaxing with a drink and watching the world go by. It was originally known as Plaza del Arrabal (“Outskirts Square”) because it lay outside the city walls. Following a fire in 1791, Juan de Villanueva (architect of the Prado) redesigned the square, adding the granite archways that now enclose it. Plaza Mayor has been a market, an open-air theatre, a bullring and a place of execution. Its buildings are now mainly used by the city government.

NEED TO KNOW

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  • Stock up in the nearby Mercado de San Miguel for a picnic on one of the square’s benches.
  • The painted enamel street signs, for which Madrid is famous, provide a clue to the original inhabitants, such as Calle de los Botoneros (Button-makers’ Street).
  • One of the city’s main tourist offices is located at Plaza Mayor 27: (915 78 78 10), open 9:30am–9:30pm daily (tickets sold only until 8:30pm).

1. Statue of Felipe III

This magnificent statue by two Italian artists, Pietro Tacca and Giambologna, was moved here in the 19th century. Presented to Felipe III in 1616 by the Florentine ruler Cosimo de’ Medici, it was originally in the Casa de Campo.

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The magnificent statue of Felipe III

2. Casa de la Panadería

The headquarters of the bakers’ guild, this house had great power in controlling the price of grain. The portal still survives from the original building which burned down in 1672.

3. Arco de Cuchilleros

Cutlers Arch is so called for the sword-makers who once traded here. Today the street is known for taverns such as Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, named after a 19th-century bandit said to have hidden in its cellars.

4. Casa de la Panadería Murals

In the 1980s it was decided that the façade murals of “Bakery House” were beyond saving, and a competition was held for a new design. The winner, Carlos Franco, painted allegories of the zodiac signs in 1992.

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One of the murals at Casa de la Panadería

5. Arcade Shops

Buying and selling has always been the life- blood of Plaza Mayor, with shops selling everything from espadrilles to icons. At El Arco Artesanía (No. 9), all the items on sale have been made by local artisans, continuing a centuries-old tradition.

6. Casa de la Carnicería

This building was erected in 1617 and was originally the meat market. It is now used by the Central District Government (Junta Municipal del Distrito de Centro).

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The facade of Casa de la Carnicería

7. Cava de San Miguel

When the houses were built on this street adjacent to Plaza Mayor, huge quantities of earth were removed from the foundations of the square. To prevent its collapse, frontages on the Cava were designed as sloping buttresses.

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Madrileños at Cava de San Miguel

8. Lampposts

The modern lampposts set around the statue of Felipe III are engraved with scenes depicting life on the square in days gone by. They include a masquerade ball, an interrogation by members of the Inquisition and a bullfight.

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An engraved lamppost near Felipe III’s statue

9. Terrace Bars and Cafés

Relaxing over a leisurely drink on an outdoor terrace is the best way to appreciate the square. Look out for the speciality bocadillo de calamares (bread roll filled with fried squid).

10. Stamp and Coin Market

This market takes place every Sunday morning from around 10am to 2pm and attracts amateur and expert collectors from all over Spain.

AUTO-DE-FÉ

The cellars at number 4 of Calle Felipe III were once used by the Inquisition to torture those accused of heresy, witchcraft and a multitude of other crimes. The condemned had to undergo a ceremony known as the auto-de-fé. This macabre spectacle, which included a ritual procession and public humiliation, lasted from dawn to dusk.

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