Do you know the history behind some of Madrid´s most famous monuments?

Puerta de Alcalá

The Puerta de Alcalá, located in the middle of Plaza de la Independencia, next to the Retiro Park, is one of Madrid´s most iconic landmarks. You´ve surely walked past it before, but do you know how it got there?

The arch, completed in 1778, was commissioned by Carlos III to replace another from the 16th century. You might think that the king would have chosen a Spanish architect to design such an important monument, but the architect, Francesco Sabatini, was actually Italian. 

Although it has similarities with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, it predates both of them and was in fact the first triumphal arch to be built after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The origin of the arch´s name is simple – it was located on the route to Alcalá de Henares – however not everything about the monument is so easily explained. You might have noticed that the two sides of the arch are decorated differently, but have you ever wondered why? Some people say that Sabatini sent the king several designs, and that he was unable to choose between them. Others claim that the king accidentally approved both of them, and as the architect didn´t dare point out his mistake, he decided to combine the two!

Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol is arguably the most touristic place in Madrid, and even if you aren´t keen on the crowds, it´s almost impossible to visit the city without passing through here at least once!

To understand the origins of this landmark, you have to go all the way back to the 16th century, when difficult conditions caused many people to turn against the monarchy. For this reason, even though Madrid was not the capital of Spain at this time, the city was fortified with a huge wall to protect the royal guard. 

Whereas nowadays Sol is emblematic of the centre of Madrid, it did not even originally form part of the city but was one of the access gates in the city walls.

There are various explanations for the name “Puerta del Sol”; according to some sources, an image of the sun king was painted on the gate, while others attribute the name to the fact that the gate faced East, towards the rising sun.

The plaza as we know it today was originally meant to be a large rectangle, however eventually a semicircular design was decided upon which would preserve the buildings on the straight side, including the Casa de Correos.

Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is one of the most popular places to visit in Madrid, but there is much more to this destination than meets the eye. Known as Plaza del Arrabal in the 15th century, when it hosted the city´s main market, the square has had various names since 1812 (Plaza de la Constitución, Plaza Real, Plaza de la República), and has only been known as Plaza Mayor since the end of the Civil War.  

The Plaza Mayor has a more dramatic history than you might expect, having survived three big fires. The first, in 1631, engulfed the Casa de la Carnicería, lasting three days, destroying over fifty buildings, and causing three deaths.

In 1672, a lantern caught fire in the portico of the Casa de la Panadería, leaving only the cellar and the ground floor standing. The restoration of the building took sixteen months, and today you can see a plaque in the building which commemorates this event.

The third and most destructive of the fires took place in 1790. It began in the Portal de Paños, and destroyed a third of the square´s perimeter. The fire lasted nine days; as there was not enough water in the surrounding wells, the only way to put it out was to pull down surrounding buildings to block the progress of the flames!

Now you know the secret history of three of Madrid´s most famous monuments, you´ll never look at them in the same way again!