Begin the walking tour on Plaza Mayor (closest metro is Sol). The Plaza Mayor was the brainchild of King Philip II in 1560, who wanted to transform what was the bustling Plaza de Arrabal into a more streamlined, ordered square. Construction did not start for another 57 years, however, when the architect Juan Gómez de Mora undertook the project in 1617. After a devastating fire, the Plaza Mayor was almost completely rebuilt by Juan de Villanueva in 1790.
Learn more about the square’s tumultuous history by looking at the scenes displayed on the benches that surround its street lamps. They include depictions of bullfights and carnivals, as well as the Spanish Inquisition; the square was the scene of raucous public show trials that would often sentence people to death.
Casa de la Panadería
The north side of the Plaza Mayor is dominated by the Casa de la Panadería, or the Bakery House. As its name suggests, it was once the headquarters of the main bakery of Madrid. Today, it houses the city’s main tourist office, where you can pick up maps, book tickets and get advice. The frescoes on the façade were completed by Spanish artist Carlos Franco in 1992 and feature mythical figures connected to Madrid, such as the goddess Cybele (the Cybele Palace – Palacio de Cibeles – is home to Madrid’s City Hall).
The centre of the square is dominated by a statue of King Philip III on horseback. The bronze statue was designed by Giambologna and finished by Pietro Tacca in 1616. The bronze statue originally stood at the entrance to Madrid’s Casa de Campo park but was moved to the Plaza Mayor in 1848.
Leave the square by the arch on its western side to explore San Miguel Market, a wonderful cube of glass walls and a wrought iron roof that originally opened in 1916 as a fresh produce market. It was renovated after falling into disrepair and re-opened in 2009 with a variety of food stalls selling ready-to-eat food from around Spain, from fresh seafood and jamón Ibérico to tapas, churros and wine. It’s definitely worth a peep but can get very busy – go earlier in the day for a vermouth, a popular local aperitif.
Continue down Calle Mayor and on your left you will see the Plaza de la Villa, a picturesque square that was home to Madrid’s City Hall for centuries. It was housed in the building on the eastern side of the square, La Casa de la Villa, until it moved to the Palacio de Cibeles in 2007.
Keep walking down Calle Mayor and turn right at the end onto Calle Bailén – you can’t miss Madrid’s grand grey cathedral, which looms over the junction here. The Almudena Cathedral was only consecrated in 1993, by Pope John Paul II. It had been under construction, on and off, since 1879. Inside, the décor is sparse, but the space is crowned by some impressive, modern stained-glass windows and vividly coloured paintings, which were completed just before the wedding of the then Prince Felipe in 2004 by Spanish artist Kiko Argüello.
Next door to the Almudena is Spain’s Royal Palace, the largest in Europe by floor area. The palace, which these days is open as a museum and used by the Royal Family for state occasions only, has just under 3500 rooms and a floor area of 135,000 square metres (33.4 acres). The current palace was built between 1738 and 1755 after the former palace, the Alcázar, burned down on Christmas Eve 1734. The original Alcázar was built by the Moors as a fortress in the 9th century.
The Royal Palace sits on the pretty Plaza de Oriente, where you can stroll through the leafy avenues and stop for a drink at the Café del Oriente, whose outdoor terrace has great views over the palace.
Next door to the Royal Palace are the Sabatini Gardens, named after the architect who designed the royal stables, which originally stood on this site. The manicured gardens, which were laid out in the 1930s, are a little oasis in the busy city, and from here you can get spectacular views over the towering palace above.
End the walking tour by walking up past Plaza de España to one of Madrid’s most unusual sights: a real Egyptian temple that was transported and re-built brick-by-brick during the 1960s. The Temple of Debod, which dates to the 2nd century BC, was given to Spain as a thank you for helping Egypt save important relics from flooding during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. It’s a popular spot to watch the sunset over Madrid.