Bustling, reverberating, full of life — these words perfectly describe Puerta del Sol, or the Gate of the Sun in English. A gargantuan, irregularly-shaped plaza in the midst of Madrid, it serves as a focal point from which important streets like Calles Preciado and de la Montera branch out and lead to various other major Madrid spots, like Plaza del Callao and Gran Via, respectively.
Needless to say, Puerta del Sol is the heart of Spain.
Whether you’re a backpacker, a first-time traveller, or a high-flying businessman-jetsetter en route to Madrid, it is a must that you include Puerta del Sol in your itinerary. Surely, you will by enthralled by the place and its immediate surroundings as you spend the whole afternoon exploring its attractions, souvenir stores and kiosks, casas de juego (slot machine shops), spanish cafes and restaurantes, churches, and a lot more.
Here are 10 things that you will want to see and do in and around Plaza del Sol:
1. Step on the Kilometro Cero Marker
The Kilometro Cero marker is proof that Puerta del Sol is the heart of the country. Located on the sidewalk in front of the Ayuntamiento building, take a picture of the marker with your feet stepping on it. This is traditionally done if it is your first time in the square.
2. Ogle at the Oso y el MadronoThe Bear and the Strawberry tree statue is regarded as one of the city’s important symbols. In fact, you will find its depiction in the official coat of arms of Madrid. El Oso y el Madrono is one of the most visited attractions of the square.
3. Be amused by the square’s street performersStreet performers must be permanent fixtures of Puerta del Sol. You might chance on one corner a motorcycle rider floating high with his bike, and on another a human statue playing chess. Others scatter all around the square as they act out the Predator, Edward Scissorshands, and various characters, mostly from Disney. Each one is eager to get the attention of passing tourists. Be wary about taking their pictures, however, as it isn’t free. See to it that you have at least a euro to pay afterwards.
4. Brought along your little ones? Delight them with kid’s face paintingPuerta del Sol is the ultimate fun place for kids if only because of the street performers dressed up as various fantasy characters. Heighten their excitement even further by having their faces painted with the likeness of popular cartoon heroes like Spiderman and Incredible Hulk. (Find the artist in that part of the plaza nearest Casa de Correos.)
5. Shop till you dropEl corte Ingles is arguably the most popular retail chain in the country. Packed with shoppers even on ordinary days, El Corte sells just about everything, even insurance, trip tickets and pet care supplies. The best times to shop — and get more out of your Euro — are the months when prices are at their lowest, like the mid-year months of July and August, and post-Christmas month of February.
6. Ride the Madrid MetroThe Metro Train Station has several access points in the plaza. Known as the Vodafone Sol, it’s one fast ride that connects Puerta del Sol to other beautiful spots of Madrid. Adequate signs make riding the metro quite easy even for first-time riders. I suggest you take a city pocket map from the metro info counter; it is free, and definitely a handy guide.
7. Explore the Nearest (and equally popular) squareThe historic Plaza Mayor, Sol’s “Little Brother” (as I like to call it), is an enclosed square that once served as a bullring. Walk through the porticoed paths on its sides and check out the souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants. Need assistance in touring Madrid? Visit Madrid’s largest tourism office, housed at the square’s Casa de la Panaderia
8. Buy all the souvenirs you wantLooking for an authentic abanico? Buy a traditional Spanish fan at Casa de Diego. Plaza Mayor boasts of shops that offer tons of souvenir items of all types, like porcelain statues of Flamengo dancers or toreros, Madrid shirts, mugs, and plates, keychains, and many others.
9. Sit by the central fountain
In the midst of the square are two fountains, both of which have ledges that serve as popular resting places. Any spot here is perfect for you to people watch, gaze at the Casa de Correos and the giant billboards, or simply rest and while the time away.
10. Stroll around the royal gardenA must-see is Jardines de Sabatini, which is a mere few hundred meters away from the plaza and just beside the Palacio Real. In contrast to the dizzying pace at Sol, here you’ll experience a relaxing promenade. Filled with manicured hedges and lush greeneries, stroll by the garden’s sandy paths while checking the magnificent view of the Royal Palace from time to time.
11. Chomp on a bocadillo Maybe you turned hungry after all that wandering around all morning. Want to try some Spanish sandwich? I suggest that you opt for some bocadillos of Museo del Jamon, located along Calle Major (there is another one in Carrera de San Jeronimo). Jamon, lacon, chorizo, cheese — you can eat all your favorite bocadillos for 1 euro a piece. Have them served with a cold glass of cola or a chilled copa of beer. What an affordable and satistying snack that’s enough to get you going for the rest of the day.
12. Visit nearby churchesThe San Gines Church (above) and Almudena Cathdral, located along Calle Arenal and Calle Bailen respectively, are popular among the locals and Madrid old-timers. Both are two of the most revered in the city, and are often the sites of the yearly major religious events.
13.Have a feel of Spanish royaltyAppreciate the facade of the stately Palacio Real in Calle Bailen or explore its interior even, to marvel at the finest furniture and work of art created by Spain´s most revered artists and craftsman.
14. Relish on a Suckling PigA few hundred meters from the square, along Calle Cuchilleros, is Sobrino de Botin, famous for its roasted suckling pig. Order whole so you could cut it into half using the plate’s edge. Eating at Botin affords you the bragging rights for having dined at the world’s oldest restaurant.
15. Wiggle your way around on a segwayTour the plaza and beyond by renting one of those fast-riding, two-wheeled, foot-controlled contractions. Many who had done so swore the segway was a uniquely exhilarating way of exploring Sol.
The list doesn’t stop here. In fact, there must be tons of exciting things to do that will make for a truly memorable visit of the square. Drop on by if you’re in Madrid, and find out for yourself why it is a must-see. Do so, for your trip to Madrid, Spain is not complete if you didn’t see Puerta del Sol.