With so much rich history around every corner, it’s probably not surprising that the capital of Spain is full of Madrid squares. Spanish friends and family, as well as tourists from all over the world, gather in these squares to meet, stroll and have food or drinks.
The many days of sunshine call for the Spanish to make the most of the Mediterranean climate, and what better way to do that than surrounded by fantastic architecture and lovely monuments? So, without further adieu, here are some of the greatest plazas in the Spanish capital.
Puerta del Sol
Translating as the ‘Gate of the Sun’, one could say the Puerta del Sol is literally the center of Spain, and one of the most well known of the Madrid plazas. In this plaza, it is possible to find the survey marker from which road kilometer distances are calculated.
While shopping may be the main activity for most visitors to this square, you should be aware that this is also a historic square of protest. It was here that the uprising against French occupiers started in May of 1808. Today, the square is still used regularly by one group or another to make their viewpoints known.
If you visit the Puerta del Sol in the daytime, you will see a very busy, somewhat drab plaza that houses one of the main bus transfer stations of Madrid. Return to the plaza at night, however, and you will hardly recognise it!
At night, this plaza becomes a sea of lights, giving the square a tint of fantasyland. Those Puerta del Sol shops you didn’t even notice in the daylight now beckon you with their large neon signs.
The Famous Tio Pepe Sign
Rising high above the square is the Tio Pepe sign. This sign has been part of the Puerta del Sol for absolute ages, and public outcry resulted when the Pepe sign was removed a few years ago. Today, however, you can view the Tio Pepe sign standing proudly on its old perch again.
This marker, located on the pavement of the Puerta del Sol, is on the south side of the square near the clock tower. With all the pedestrian traffic, we actually couldn’t find the marker and had to ask a local to point it out to us. The marker is the official starting point of six of Spain’s main highways!
Madrid Square: Plaza Mayor
As you walk down Calle Mayor from Puerta del Sol on towards the Royal Palace, you may think it would be easy to spot the Plaza Mayor. However, from the street known as Mayor, the building that surrounds the Plaza Mayor does not stand out from it’s other surrounding structures. You will need to look closely for the passageways that form the entrances to this beautiful plaza.
In the past, the Plaza Mayor has been the site of executions, tournaments, weddings, bullfights and Inquisition trials. The huge square is completely surrounded on all sides by a very large square building, from which onlookers would perch to view the festivities in the square below.
Philip II ordered the construction of the square as part of his plan to make Madrid the capital of Spain. In the center of the plaza sits the statue of Philip III, straddling his horse. He is honored here for completing the construction of the square in 1619 A.D.
Much of the history of Madrid, and Spain, is tied to this 17th-century plaza, and today it is still very close to the heart of many that call Madrid home. Visiting the square, you will not witness any executions, but you might witness a coin or stamp show (on Sundays), a free concert, or residents enjoying a peaceful evening stroll.
In the summer-time, the Mayor square is filled with tables, tourists and a lot of hustle and bustle. Take a seat at one of the tables during lunch or dinner and a waiter will arrive from one of the surrounding restaurants with a menu in hand. From here you can settle into some people-watching and notice how the square is often used as a central meeting location for tourist families groups.
On the ground floor level of the Plaza Mayor building are cafes, bars, shops, and restaurants, mostly catering to tourists. Among the shops you may spot some dealers in antiques, coins, and military memorabilia.
Plaza de Oriente
Located next to the Royal Palace is the Plaza de Oriente. The plaza sits on the east side of the Royal Palace and derives its name from this location too (Oriente means East in Spanish). If you’re interested in a tour of the Royal Palace, then you can skip the line and buy your tickets here!
This plaza was completed during the reign of Isabel II but was started by Joseph Bonaparte, who ruled Spain from 1808 to 1814 A.D. In the center of the plaza sits a fountain hosting a statue of Philip IV, which was erected in 1843.
Around the garden of the plaza, you will see some statues of Spain’s monarchs. These statutes were intended to be the line of the rooftop of the Royal Palace, but once they were completed, it was discovered they were actually way too heavy for the building.
Should you find yourself in the Plaza de Oriente during the late evening, you certainly will be treated to beautiful music in the air. Street musicians often set up in the Plaza and on one occasion, we were even treated to a free concert right in front of the Royal Palace.
Interesting Fact: The plaza is actually constructed over a parking garage!
The Royal Theatre
The Teatro Real (also known as the Teatro de la Opera) is among the buildings that are grouped in a semicircle around the square.
In the 18th century, prior to the establishment of the plaza, a group of actors established a theater in this area. In 1818, the theater was demolished and work was started on a royal theatre to replace it. The period between 1818 and 1849 was a turbulent time for Spain and construction of the Royal Theater was delayed until Isabel II stepped in to order its completion, which finally occurred in 1850.
Plaza de Colon
The Colon bus stop is but one of the attractions under the plaza. The cultural center, de la Villa de Madrid, is also located beneath the plaza. If you take the bus from the airport, it will drop you off at Plaza de Colon.
Though this plaza is named after Columbus, the gardens are referred to as the Gardens of Discovery.
See Columbus standing at the pinnacle of a tall column in this plaza. Now, we didn’t actually check, but wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the statue of Columbus is facing west and that the eyes are scanning the horizon, looking for that westward route to the Indies.
At the base of the Columbus Monument is a fountain with a huge cascade of water which has a very stimulating roar, making it difficult to carry on a conversation outside the cultural center.
At the end of the fountain are stairs leading down under the cascade. Take them to check out the cultural center.
A second monument in the plaza honors the voyage of Columbus in a much more striking way. Several large structures expand across the plaza with lengthy inscriptions related to his voyage. When viewed from afar, this modern structure does have an odd nautical feel to it, like ships at sea.
Plaza de Independencia
If you are taking a taxi from the airport to the center of Madrid, you will likely pass through the roundabout at Plaza de la Independencia.
In the center of this plaza sits the impressive Puerta de Alcalá. This large granite structure used to be the one of the main entrance gates to Madrid from the city of Alcalá de Henares. Dating from the 18th century, the Puerta de Alcalá was built by order of Carlos III.
Plaza de Villa
Located very close to the Plaza Mayor you will find the picturesque Plaza de la Villa. This pretty square is also one of the quieter ones and is home to Casa de la Villa, the former Town Hall.
One can walk down the Calle Mayor in the daytime, pass by the Plaza Villa, and hardly give it a second glance-but it was here that Madrid has been governed since its inception.
In the center of the plaza you’ll find an 1888 statue of Don Alvaro de Bazán, the Marquis de Santa Cruz.
Plaza de España
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza watch over the pool at the Plaza de Espana. The plaza was planned by Teodoro Anasagasti and Mateo Inurria and the stone monument was built in 1928.
Located in a forest of skyscrapers, the Plaza de Espana is an expansive green area with a pool and a massive monument celebrating Spanish culture. This extensively used park is home to many children playing, couples strolling, and often a Spaniard taking in a good novel.
The shade-providing trees on the south side of the plaza are particularly welcoming on a hot Meridian day, making this a great place to cool off on a bench under the trees and take in the fountains along with the famous monuments.
For an authentic look into how the Spanish locals live and the rich history behind Madrid, Spain, take a stroll over to one (or all) of these plazas in Madrid. Even if the history behind them doesn’t interest you, you can use these plazas to enjoy some coffee, window shopping or even some people watching as groups get together for their day-trips from Madrid to Segovia or Avila.