Not Your Grandma’s Guide: Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor is right in the center of Madrid. Its on all the “must-see lists” and someone probably told you that you have to go see it. But here’s the thing- why go to these places if you don’t know what’s there? So thats where we come in….

What Actually Happened in Plaza Mayor?

Plaza Mayor Facades// Dreamstime.com

The Plaza was inaugurated in 1619 and was designed by Juan Gomez de Mora. It used to have gardens, but those were removed just before the Spanish Civil War in 1936. What else has changed? The statue of King Philip III in the center of the plaza wasn’t actually put there until the early 20th century either. The frescoes covering the outside of the now Information Center, once a royal bakery called La Casa Real de la Panaderia, were also added in the 20th century (1992). The frescoes represent different mythological figures, including gods and goddesses, as well as zodiac symbols.

Carlos II of Spain (Habsburg King) // Wikipedia

If you look carefully, you can also see Carlos II’s coat of arms. Carlos II is famous for being the last Habsburg king in Spain. He suffered from numerous mental and physical deformities, which were probably consequences of inbreeding. The Habsburgs were a SUPER important family in European history and you will see traces of them all over Spain and the rest of Europe.

Auto de Fé Painting // Secretos de Madrid

If you want to see a visual history of Plaza Mayor, look around the base of the lampposts around the Plaza. They are like grown-up picture books ūüôā

Black Legends…

Anyway, the Plaza was used for all sorts of bullfights, royal celebrations- birthdays, weddings, etc.- religious celebrations for Madrid’s Patron Saint (San Isidro), and during Christmas, it has a open market with lots of food vendors, a tradition that continues today. So basically like every other plaza in Europe, right? Nope.

Plaza Mayor was famous for executions and the autos-da-f√© that took place there during the Spanish Inquisition. Basically autos-da-f√© were public ceremonies, where people had to confess to religious crimes, and depending on the severity of said crime, they were sentenced to burnings, hangings, or other forms of execution. So basically, not where you want to spend your weekend in the seventeenth century if you were not going to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, San Isidro, or Christmas.

Exploring Beyond

Don’t forget that Plaza Mayor and the adjacent area are¬†famous for a reason – and no it is not because of the chubby spider man who will pose with you for a picture, or for the weird half-man half-goat that scares me without fail every time I see it.

Chubby Spiderman from Plaza Mayor// Youtube: Littlebush Griffin

So we recommend exploring a little. Check out our guide to the nearby area of Sol and discover the labyrinth of medieval streets in La Latina and Lavapiés. You are also right near the Royal Palace and the yummy Mercado de San Miguel. Down the block from the Mercado de San Miguel is another famous foodie mecca, Restaurant Botín. Restaurant Botín is the oldest restaurant in the world. The famous painter Goya worked in the restaurant as a waiter when he was young- meaning the stereotype of the struggling artist has been around for a while.

Sources: Lonely Planet Guides: Madrid and Spain, Madrid Tourism, the Prado Museum,

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About the Author

Anna Whetzle is a native New Yorker currently teaching English in Madrid, Spain. She graduated from Bates College, a small liberal arts college in Maine, where she studied history and Spanish, but mostly just tried to stay warm. After graduation, she packed up and moved to Spain. She loves traveling (experiencing the different places mostly through getting lost/ food/ history/art in that order) and meeting new people. Feel free to connect with her on social media and to check out her other articles!

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