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Top 10 Things to Do In and Around Plaza Mayor Madrid

If you just visited Spain’s beautiful capital for the first time, you might want to go straight to Plaza Mayor Madrid; there’s no doubt that this popular enclosed and pedestrianized square is one of the city’s most important attractions.
imageKnown before as the Plaza Arrabal, the square was first an arena where ancient bullfighting games were held, and so, you can only imagine how noisy the square used to be then, what with the boisterous spectators of the game. I myself was surprised upon knowing about the initial purpose of the square. Obviously, a substantial part of Spanish bullfighting history occurred in this place.

During the early days, fiesta and carnival activities were commonplace scenes in the plaza. Also, at the height of the dreaded Inquisition, heretics and other criminals were persecuted within the area. Those found guilty were put to death by burning or strangulation.

Today’s Plaza Mayor Madrid

imageOne thing you would notice is the uniform appearance of the facade of the structures found on all sides. The buildings also possess the same structural feature, specifically porticoes (porch) at the their front or roof structures over walkways. The thick columns provide support to these structures as they surround the whole square.

The appearance of the plaza was not always like it it now. In the late 1800’s, it was ravaged by a series of fires, and was only restored to its former greatness via the work of Senor Juan de Villanueva, Spain’s respected modern classical architect.

Things to do when in Plaza Mayor Spain

Did you know that the plaza takes on the shape of an almost perfect square? And that all its gates form beautiful aches? Thousands of people can be accommodated at the plaza, and because it is one of the most popular and accessible tourist sites in Centro Madrid, it never runs out of people.

Here are fun things that you can do inside the Mayor Plaza:

1. Dine at any of the plaza’s many restaurants (must get table at the terrace)

imagePlaza Mayor’s sides are lined with many popular restaurants and cafes. I suggest that you opt for the restaurante that offers terrace dining, as it meant the chance to enjoy the best views of exciting goings-in inside the plaza as you relish bocadillos, paella, or other delicious traditional Spanish cocido.

2.Eat bocadillo as you marvel at the beauty of the square

imageOn a hurry to see the plaza? Can’t wait to have a bite on a delicious bocadillo de calamares? Pleasure, contentment, and satiated hunger are easily achieved just by snacking on some hot, take-away bocadillo as you check out the square at the same time. Sandwich bars and cafes are aplenty; these establishments are found on all sides of the square, with prices of bocadillos ranging from 2.70 to 5 euro apiece.

3. Have a picture of you in a chulapo

imageDo you want to see yourself garbed in a chulapo? Find those headless mannequins that are dressed in such costumes. All you need to do is pose behind any of these mannequins and have someone take your photo, and Voila! You have a souvenir pic of yourself looking smart in this particular traditional Spanish costume. All for a fee, of course.

4. Visit the Tourism Information Center Office

imageHoused at the Casa de la Panaderia, the city tourism agency they will help you come up with the best tour itinerary. They also provide free  maps and brochures. Needless to say, the tourist information centre at the square is the most modern tourism information agency in the country. It offers assistance to local and foreign tourists all days of the year, starting at 9:30AM.

5. Purchase Madrid souvenir items to remember your visit by

imageSouvnir paradise, that’s what Mayor Plaza is – the place is where you’ll find Madrid mugs, dolls, abanicos, Real Madrid shirts, Flamenco figurines, and so many more. You will have a grand time choosing souvenirs as there are just many shops around to go to. Most offer fine quality souvenir items, all of which will help you cherish your Madrid Spain vacation.

6. Have a dose of rich Spanish history

I. Arco de los Cuchilleros

imageThere are more or less ten entrance gates to the square, the most popular of which is Arco de Cuchilleros (Arch of Catlers) on the southwestern corner of the square that leads to street of the same name. In this street, the knive-makers’ factories were found, and were there wares are made, to be sold to the butchers that worked in the plaza (Casa de la Carniceria)

II. Felipe III and horse bronze statues

imageA very impressive sculpture, a creation of Giambologna and Tacca, the Philip III statue and his horse statues are two highly valued art creations of the 17th century. The original location of the statues was actually not at Plaza Mayor, but Casa de Campo. In 1848, it was transferred to the square upon the request of Reina Isabel II. She intended it to be seen and appreciated by more residents of Madrid.

III. Casa de la Panadería

imageCasa de la Panaderia, built by Sillero by the end of the 16th century, reveals an original portion that separates it from the rest of the buildings that surround the square. Actually the only original parts of the building was the first floor and cellar.  Still, as you can observe, the buildings around the square are identical in design — they were patterned after that of Casa de la Panaderia.

IV. Gate Arch at Plaza Mayor

image

The arched entrance that opens to the Calle de Toledo experiences high pedestrian traffic since it is one of the touristy streets of the city

7. Join Free Tour

imageTake advantage of free tours that will take you to importnat spots and corners inside the square, but to other attractions of Madrid. Be alert for those who hold umbrellas the say “Free tours!”

8.Book at any of the hotels near Plaza Major Madrid

Hotel Plaza Mayor Madrid

imageHotel Plaza Mayor Madrid is actually not inside the square premises but a few meters outside, at the corner of Calle de Atocha. Still it is the choice of many tourists who want to be just a stone’s throw away from the plaza and other important attractions like Puerta del Sol and Palacio Real. The facade is quite simple, yet you know a lot of history has transpired in this building since it has been in existence since the 1700s. A mix of traditional and modern design in its interior, the hotel is complete with high-tech facilities like modern lighting and free WiFi

Petit Palace

imageAnother must-book hotel if you want to stay near the Plaza is the Petit Palace, just along Calle de Arenal. It is strutegically located, right in the midst of of the city. In fact, you are only a few steps away from Plaza Mayor, which is why it is an ideal place to book a room if you want to be near to the square. It offers vital amenities like free Internet and an iPad for use in your room.

9. Meet up with friends, hang out at the plaza

imagePlaza Mayor is much like Puerto del Sol, it is also an ideal place to meet up with your friends if you’re in the city. After checking out every nook and corner of the square, your group can later proceed to other major Madrid attractions, like Plaza de Isabel II, Museo de los Canos del Peral, or even Jardines de Sabatini, to name a few. Many of these touristy sites are in close proximity to the place

10. Experience a merry Christmas at the square

imageBe a part of Christmas joy in Madrid by visiting its xmas bazaar. As the Yuletide season nears, the place transforms itself into a sort of wonderland for the whole family, where multi-colored lights, kiddie rides, street performances for the kids, and bazaars can be found in the square. The story of the Navidad is usually depicted in the form of clay figures of the men and women during the birth of Jesus, including the Holy Family itself. A miniature town of Bethlehem, where within these figures are positioned to play out the Nativity scenes, are on display in the middle of the square, for everyone to see.

All Roads Lead to the Pradera: Las Fiestas de San Isidro

The official festival of the city is the Fiestas de San Isidro. From May 12 to 16, everyone in Madrid is a witness to what is touted as one of the liveliest, most colorful, and most attended festivities in the city. Yes, it’s a four-day long affair, albeit the 15th is when most of the activities that matter happen, at the place where you will find the shrine of city’s Patron saint – the Pradera de San Isidro. At the vastness of this parque is where chotis is danced the whole day long, performances are held, and thousands arrive to pay homage to Madrid’s beloved saint. The wide, winding stretches of streets around the fields sell Madrileno cocido as well as clavels (carnations), berets, complete sets of chulapas, Castizo souvenirs – just about anything associated with the fiestas.

Where is the Parque de San Isidro?

The Parque, or the Pradera (which means grassland or meadow), is found along Paseo de la Ermita del Santo. It is a wide expanse of land just beside the famous Manzanares River; hence, it’s impossible for you to miss it. How to go? If you’re taking the Metro at Valdeacederas (nearest station to where I live), ride Line 1, and get off at Gran Via station. If you’re coming from Plaza Castilla, take the Line 10 ride to Alonzo Martinez. From there, transfer to line 5 and get off at Marquez de Vadillo. Tread the Calle de General Ricardos, then turn right upon reaching the first corner, at Paseo del Quince de Mayo. Walk the length of this street until you reach the Ermita de San Isidro, the shrine of the patron saint.

What happens at the Pradera?

It was here where the journey of pilgrims to the pradera happened after the saint’s death. The pilgrimage was a major, historic event that it became the subject of one of Francisco Goya’s painting, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro. For four days, the park is transformed into a huge venue offering various activities that everyone can watch, participate and enjoy. It’s quite a huge place, and so probably anyone in Madrid who wants to go there can be accommodated. Entrance, of course, is free. People are expected to wear chulapa costumes, set up their picnic cloth onto the ground to eat traditional Spanish comida (paella, jamon, rosquillos, bocadillos, watch various performances, and dance the hours away. By mid-morning of May 15, everyone is treated to an exciting parade of gigantes, including that of San Isidro and his wife, Santa Maria de la Cabesa.  A lavish display of fireworks is scheduled at midnight of May 16; this signals the end of the festivities.

Celebration all around the city

By the time this article goes online (probably tomorrow), the fiestas will have ended. Today, May 16, the celebration is almost finished, and whole city must be exhausted from all that had transpired so far. Remember that it is a Madrid-wide event, and so while the Parque de San Isidro was the focal point of the fiesta, other areas of the city also participated in the festivities. For instance, the streets of Plaza del Sol and Gran Via were treated to the Parada de Gigantes. Plaza Mayor, on the other hand, was host to the festival of Madrileno dances. Lavapies was the venue to the performances of various bohemian and blues bands. At Templo de Debod, visitors enjoyed concerts on classical music. Those inclined in arts and crafts were able to see the exhibit at Plaza de Las Comendadoras at Plaza Espana, which featured an extensive collection of Spanish ceramic pieces.

Bullfight season

The fiesta coincides with the bullfighting season, which is during the months of May and June. For many, the bullfights add further to the excitement of the festivities. Undoubtedly, Madrid’s bullfighters are known to be the best in the world. By May, however, tickets for the Las Ventas stadium where top-seeded bullfights are held become more difficult to obtain. Hence, it is advisable to get them during off-season.

Few Facts about the beloved Saint

  • San Isidro is not only patron saint of Madrid, but also that of the farmers.
  • A miracle attributed to him involved saving his son who fell on a well. Another account tells about him creating a spring just by plowing the ground. Later, the water that originated from the spring supposedly healed and saved lives.
  • His complete name is San Isidro Labrador, which means Isidore the Laborer, or Isidore the Farm worker.
  • He was born in Madrid in 1070, died in 1130, and canonized as a Saint in 1622, some 492 years after his death.
  • Aside from Spain, the Feast of St Isidore is celebrated in many other countries around the world, including the United States, the date of commemoration of which is either May 15 or March 22, depending on the state. In Catholic Philippines, St. Isidro Labrador is also honored as the Patron saint of farmers.

image I was running late, and so was worried that I might miss the Gigantes parade scheduled at 10AM. I wasn’t sure if I was going the right way, even with the Madrid Metro App and all.  Good thing I encountered these two comely senoras at Grand Via Station, and was relieved when I learned that they were also headed to the Park of Sn Isidro. I wasn’t lost after all. Donning the complete traditional Castizo dresses, they were gracious enough to allow me to take their picture

imageThe amiable gigante and his mini-me wearing identical chulapo, which consists of a checkered cap or beret, waistcoat, and a bright red carnation on his breast pocket. Chulapo is derived from the word chulo, the meaning of which is not quite clear to me. Some websites use chulo to denote a pimp or cheat,  while others define it as  hot and smartly dressed. The Parada de los Gigantes of May 15 started at the corner of Paseo de Quince de Mayo
image Food stalls doing business along the streets surrounding the park of St Isidro. Here is where you can find paella, Grilled pork, salchichon, bocadillos, rosquillas, pulpo, Madrileno cocidos, and other traditional food stuff served during major Madrid festivities
image Paella is one of the popular dishes or “cocidos” sold at the park. The large wok at the photo is filled with shellfish, pulpo, eggs, and other meat ingredients commonly used for paella. The rice or arroz is yet to be addedimageAubergines or baby eggplant, which according to the food seller, is pickled in vinegar, cumin, and olive oil, with some garlic and salt added to taste. It is usually stuffed with sweet red bell pepper

image Pickled stuffed olives wrapped in anchovies are skewered onto barbeque sticks to keep everything (olive and fish) together imageRosquillos de San Isidro – Spain’s version of the donut. These traditional pastries are sold aplenty during the month of May. The most common types are listas and tontas; the former is covered with deliciously sweet fondant, while the latter is baked without any outer sweetened covering image Couples garbed in chulapos perform a traditional dance called the Chotis. The dance was originally Scottish, but was embraced by the Spaniards as their own imagePerformers momentarily rest and enjoy some laughs after a dance performance. Here in Quince de Mayo, just in front of Ermita de San Isidro, some of the most lusty and engaging chotis dances were performed image Like how history happened when the pilgrims went to the hermitage to attend mass and pay homage to San Isidro, I joined many others who visited the shrine at the Paseo de Quince de Mayo to kiss on the saint’s remains

imageI had the opportunity to kiss the reliquary, or the small container holding the remains of San Isidro

imageI rue missing the gigantes parade at Central Madrid (Plaza Mayor, Gran Via) as they were supposedly joined by more characters. The parade at Pradera, of course, was no less interesting. People followed the gigantes of four as they walk the streets of San Isidro. Here, you can see the crowd milling around themimageThe gigantes couples face each other and start to dance the chotis, to the glee of spectatorsimagePerformer dons the costume of a zaldiko, the Basque term for horse

imageThe kiliki, like the gigante, is a popular character of the San Isidro Fiesta. He holds a whip with a foam rock at the end, which he uses to punish erring childrenimage A Latino guitarist performs a traditional Castizo musical piece together with his twin puppets, a fun performance immensely enjoyed by the kids at the park image This is what I only managed to take a shot of – since I was late for the pyrotechnics show. I arrived a good 10 minutes after the final song that accompanied the pyrotechnics display was through. Still, the illuminated Alfonso XII monument and the Retiro lake were a sight to behold.  Along with many other revelers, I decided to stay a few more minutes to enjoy the mesmerizing view until the lights were turned offimageThis Madrileno family, complete with cool sunglasses and chulapo costumes sit upon their chosen spot at the Pradera  near the Ermita de San Isidro.  The gathering together of families at the meadows is a tradition  that has been observed over the years
imagePeople sit on the meadows near the shrine as they wait for the start of the midday mass
image In keeping with the tradition, a open-air midday mass is celebrated at the Paseo de la Ermita del Santo

image The bust of Goya stands at the entrance of the park. One of the greatest Spanish artists ever, he preserved his memory of the San Isidro meadows through his immortal paintings, The Pilgrimage of Sn Isidro and The Meadow of San Isidro, both of which are on display at Museo del Prado

La pradera de San Isidro de Goya This painting offers a lush and vivid telling of the celebration of the feast of San Isidro happening at the park by the Manzanares River. A beautiful masterpiece by Francisco Goya (Source: Public Domain, Francisco Goya, Wikimedia Commons)
image A few blocks from the La Latina, at Plaza de San Andres, is The Museo de San Isidro. Here is where the saint spent his last days. The museum boasts of collections that date back from prehistoric times of Madrid up to its development as a modern city