Madrid became capital in the 16th century at a time when the town was little more than that: a dusty town between a series of historically important cities like Segovia and Toledo. However, Spain was experiencing its Golden Age at the time, thanks to its colonies in the Americas, which led to the construction of all sorts of buildings commissioned by the ruling Habsburgs. The part of Madrid referred to as Madrid de los Austrias is so called because many of the area's buildings were built during the reign of the Austrian Habsburgs. It's a charming part of town, where winding streets twist their way through stately noble palaces and picturesque squares. There's a lot to see, and we'll help you discover it all!
Easily one of Madrid's most photographed sights, the city's elegant Plaza Mayor is a spacious, enclosed square built in the 17th century. It was constructed upon the site of a modest fairground at the time located beyond the city walls and, following its construction, became the backdrop to all sorts of events and activities: bullfights, executions, autos-da-fe, football matches, coronations, markets, spectacles and the general hustle and bustle of city life. These days it remains Madrid's heart and soul. The arcaded square is home to a hodgepodge of shops, cafés and restaurants. It has nine arched entrances and the pretty brick buidings surrounding it boast nearly 250 wrought-iron balconies looking over the square. One side of the plaza is dominated by the elaborate Casa de la Panadería, the bakers' guild, whose colorful frescoes are a fairly recent feature, having been added in the 1990's. In the very center you'll find the undeniably impressive equestrian statue of Felipe III, the Spanish Habsburg king who commissioned the creation of the emblematic square.
Situated in one of Madrid's prettiest squares, the Plaza de la Villa, is the similarly-named Casa de la Villa, home to the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) from 1693 to 2007. When Madrid first became the Spanish capital, the first meetings of the city council were held in the San Salvador Church. In 1629, King Felipe IV authorized the construction of a building for government activities and official meetings. Construction began in 1645 and took roughly 50 years and a series of architects to complete. The result? A delightful Baroque building with pretty slate spires from the Habsburg period that's truly a treasure of Madrid de los Austrias.
Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales
The Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, literally the Monastery of the Royal Barefoots, is a convent founded in 1559 by Juana of Austria, the widowed daughter of Carlos I and Isabel of Portugal. The building in which it is housed was formerly the family's residence as well as the birthhome of Juana herself. The religious order, which attracted young widows or "unlucky in love" women of noble blood, each woman bringing with her a dowry. The artwork, sculptures and other riches piled up and, especially when added to gifts from Juana's friends, the convent quickly turned into one of the wealthiest. Its fairly plain-fronted façade gives no hint of the sumptuous decoration that lies within, where you'll find an intriguing Renaissance stairway, beautiful architecture, an elaborate chapel and some 10,000 pieces of artwork.
Jardín de las Monjas
This largely unknown garden is a hidden refuge of tranquility right in the heart of historic Madrid. The small garden with its trees, shrubs and 18th-century cherub-adorned fountain goes back to the 17th century, when it was once the garden in which the enclosed nuns of the Santísimo Sacramento Convent planted and cared for their vegetables within the secrecy of the convent's high walls. The convent was destroyed in the early 1970's and replaced with apartment buildings, but the garden remains untouched and thoroughly delightful... if you can find it!
Mercado de San Miguel
While it doesn't date back to the Habsburg dynasty, the Mercado de San Miguel (San Miguel Market) is an interesting stop found in the area. The iron-and-glass enclosed market was built in the early 20th century and is the only market in Madrid of its kind - known as cast-iron architecture - that remains, as the others were taken down and replaced with more modern constructions. The building was eventually abandoned, but private investors sparked its restoration starting in 2003. The market was re-opened to the public in 2009 and is a wonderful mix of tourism and daily life, fashion and commerce. Stalls selling delectable pastries, colorful fruits and fresh fish provide an intriguing contrast against the locales serving up top-rate tapas and glasses of wine. Visitors and residents alike flock to the market, and it's not hard to see the appeal!
Chocolatería San Gines
If you're in the market for a mouth-watering serving of chocolate and churros, then San Ginés, tucked into the historic and picturesque passageway of the same name, is the place to go. Founded in the late 19th century, it's been a popular café specializing in this tasty combination for well over a century.