Almost every city has some sort of square, serving an important purpose as a social and commercial meeting place. They are usually surrounded by shops, restaurants, and a city hall. At their center is often a fountain, monument, or a statue. But besides these similarities, town squares also have their own unique history. Today, we look at some of most famous city squares around the world.
The best known plaza in Madrid, Spain, this impressive city square is one of the main stops on any tourist visit. Originally built outside the city walls, Plaza Mayor has played host to bullfights, markets, symphonies, soccer games and executions. The statue of Philip III sits in the middle across from the beautifully painted Casa de la Panadería, the former headquarters of the bakers guild.
The Plaza de Mayo has, since being the scene of the 25 May 1810 revolution that led to independence, a focal point of political life in Buenos Aires and, arguably, Argentina. Several of the city’s major landmarks are located around the Plaza including the Cabildo (the city council during the colonial era). Located in the center of the Plaza de Mayo is The May Pyramid, the oldest national monument in Buenos Aires. The plaza, since 1977, is where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have congregated with signs and pictures of desaparecidos, their children, who were subject to forced disappearance by the military junta.
Trafalgar Square is a large city square commemorating Lord Horatio Nelson’s victory against Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The central monument within the square is a single tall column on which the figure of Nelson stands gazing over London. His monument is surrounded by four colossal lions and a series of large fountains. Much more than just an open plaza, Trafalgar Square is one of the most famous city squares in the United Kingdom and has become a social and political location for visitors and Londoners alike.
Located in the heart of the historic center of Mexico City, the Zócalo is one of the largest squares in the world. It is flanked by the Metropolitan Cathedral to the north, and the National Palace to the east, as well as a number of other historic buildings. A huge Mexican flag occupies the center, which is ceremoniously lowered and raised each day. The city square has been a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times, having been the site of Mexica ceremonies.
The Grand Place (or Grote Markt) is the central city square of Brussels in Belgium. It is surrounded by guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall, and the Breadhouse. Along with the Atomium and Manneken Pis , the square is the most important tourist destination in Brussels. Every two years in August, an enormous “flower carpet” is set up in the Grand Place for a few days. A million colorful begonias are set up in patterns covering a large part of the square.
Located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge, Prague’s Old Town Square is often bursting with tourists and locals in the summer. Featuring various architectural styles including the Gothic Týn Cathedral and baroque Saint Nicholas Church, the city square is an oasis for travelers wearied by Prague’s narrow streets. Among many churches, tourists may find the Astronomical Clock on this square, while the tower at the Old Town Hall offers a panoramic view of the Old Town.
Piazza San Marco, is the principal square of Venice, where it is generally known just as “the Piazza”. A remark often attributed to Napoleon calls the Piazza San Marco “The drawing room of Europe”. It is one of the great city squares in Europe where human voices prevail over the sounds of motorized traffic. The Basilica of San Marco, one of the highlights of Venice, is located at the eastern end of the square. The Piazza San Marco is the lowest point in Venice, and as a result it is the first to flood during storms or even heavy rain.
Tiananmen Square in Beijing is the largest city square in the world. The square is surrounded by Soviet-style monuments and government buildings. Tiananmen Square remains an astounding place and a spot to linger and see visitors from all over China, many visiting their capital for the first time. There is a flag raising and lowering ceremony at dawn and dusk at the north end of the square. There are 4 marble lions in front of the Tiananmen gate, the northwest one has a bullet hole on its stomach from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
A popular tourist attraction in Poland, the Main Market Square (Rynek Główny ) in the Old Town in Kraków is the largest medieval town square in Europe dating back to the 13th century. The square is surrounded by historical townhouses, historic buildings, palaces and churches. The center of the square is dominated by the Cloth Hall, rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style, topped by a beautiful attic. Rising above the city square are the Gothic towers of Saint Mary’s Basilica.
New York’s famous city square, Times Square is located at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue and stretching from West 42nd to West 47th Streets. A place filled with video screens, LED signs, and flashing lights; a top attraction or a tourist nightmare depending on your perspective, the “new” Times Square is a family-friendly theme park of themed restaurants, theaters and hotels, as well as a developing business district. The lights and signs can be viewed anytime, but the most enchanting experience comes when one visits Times Square at night, as all the signs and screens are ablaze with color. Times Square is also well known for its famous New Year’s Eve ball drop.
Saint Peter’s Square is located directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Rome. Colossal Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep, frame the trapezoidal entrance to the basilica and the massive elliptical square which precedes it. At the center of the ellipse stands an Egyptian obelisk which was transported from Egypt to Rome during the reign of Emperor Augustus. It was moved from the circus to its current site in 1586 under the direction of Pope Sixtus V. During the Middle Ages, the gilt ball on top of the obelisk was believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. When the ancient metal ball was removed however, only dust was found.
One of Europe’s greatest medieval city squares, the Piazza del Campo is the principal public space of the historic center of Siena, Tuscany, Italy. It is renowned worldwide for its beauty and architectural integrity. The Palazzo Pubblico and its famous tower, as well as various palazzi signorili belonging to the wealthiest of Siena families surround the shell-shaped piazza. The twice-per-year horse-race, Palio di Siena, involves circling the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds.
Djemaa El-Fna is the highlight of any visit to Marrakech and one of the top tourist attractions in Morocco. By day this square at the heart of the medina is largely filled with snake charmers and people with monkeys, as well as some of the more common stalls. As the day progresses the entertainments on offer change: the snake charmers depart, and in the afternoon and evening the square becomes more crowded, with story-tellers, magicians, and peddlers of traditional medicines. As dark descends the square fills with dozens of food-stalls, and the crowds are at their height.
The Red Square is located in the heart of Moscow and the first destination for most visitors to the city. The square is surrounded by Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the State History Museum, Lenin’s Mausoleum and one of the Kremlin’s long brick walls. The name Red Square derives neither from the color of the bricks around it nor from the link between the color red and communism. Rather, the name came about because the Russian word krasnaya can mean either “red” or “beautiful”. This word was originally applied to Saint Basil’s Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square.