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Just talking about Spain’s capital city of Madrid conjures images of a rich variety of emblematic monuments and attractions. We also recognize it as a cosmopolitan city brimming with cultural, political, and economic energy.
Madrid however has not always been the wonderful city it is today. Urban development did not begin to thrive in the city until King Felipe II established it as the capital and placed the royal court here in 1561. Madrid’s inspired architectural heritage can be observed all around the city center, which is known as El Madrid de los Austrias since the Austrian Habsburg monarchs were responsible for transforming and modernizing the city.
As the home of the royal court the city’s demographics changed dramatically: when Madrid was first established as the capital it had just 10,000 residents, a figure that grew to 40,000 in just 15 years. By the end of the century the population was up to an impressive 100,000 people.
Let’s explore this downtown area, taking a special peek at some of the buildings and architectural ensembles that best capture its Habsburg period.
One of the city’s most symbolic and most visited attractions is the Plaza Mayor (main square). It has always been, and it still is, a meeting point for local residents. 237 balconies have overlooked the square for centuries, from which observers have witnessed bull fights, popular performances and acts of the inquisition. Noteworthy among the square’s establishments are the Casa de la Panadería (House of the bakery) and the Casa de la Carnicería (House of the Butcher Shop), both of which house different municipal institutions today. A statue of King Philip III on horseback occupies the center of the plaza. You can exit the square through any of its nine entryways, including the Arco de Cuchilleros, which leads us to the Cava de San Miguel, the location of some the area’s most traditional and popular taverns.
If we continue on this road we will reach the Palacio de Santa Cruz, the old city jail which currently houses the Department of Foreign Affairs (in the Plaza de de la Provincia). The 17th century San Isidro Church is further along Calle Toledo, which has served as Madrid’s provisional cathedral since 1993.
Close by, in Cava Baja, we find ourselves near one of the city’s most worthy monuments: a restaurant called Botín, considered by the Guinness Book of World’s Records to be the oldest restaurant in the world. Botín has been pleasing picky palates since 1725.
After checking out San Miguel Market we arrive to Plaza de la Villa. This square is the location of historical buildings such as the Casa de la Villa, which was Madrid’s City Hall building until just a few years ago.
We make our way back to Calle Mayor then head along Calle Bailén toward the Plaza de Oriente, an enormous space that traditionally hosted grand celebrations during Franco’s dictatorship. The space is back dropped by the Palacio Real (royal palace), an impressive structure for its size and magnificence. Wandering around the gardens of Sabatini next to the palace we can see the Plaza de Isabel II and the hexagon shaped Teatro Real (Royal Theatre). Following the crowded Calle Arenal, we end up at the Puerta del Sol for photo ops of a few of Madrid’s most recognizable spots: below the clock tower that Spaniards around the country tune in to watch on New Year’s Eve, in front of the kilometer zero mark (Spain’s road network was based on this point), or next to the statue that displays the symbol of the city, a bear and an Arbutus tree.