Squares. As an Australian, I’m not really used to them. We’re used to Malls (Bourke St, Pitt St, Rundle…) which are altogether different from their American counterparts. Only recently have we dabbled in town squares – Federation Square is the best example – but they are specifically designed, plonked down almost, and not organic like those mainly found in Europe.
Everybody likes squares, though. Unlike churches (of which I’m not compiling a list), the other thing that every village, town and city has, they all seem relatively likeable. They’re often the initial spot from which to start exploring, usually bang in the centre of things. It also helps that coffee is likely to be sourced nearby; fuel for the rest of the morning.
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10. Old Town Square, Prague
Especially if Prague is your first foray into Central Europe, you’ll be blown away by just how cute it all is. Astronomical clock aside (I don’t care much for big clocks) everything on the square matches so well, from the Town Hall to the Tyn Church peeking up in the background, almost as an afterthought. This is also where the Czechs like to have a little market or two, most famously its famed Christmas Market, but they hardly need an excuse for one and there’s often ones on throughout the year. It’s also a place steeped in history, most notably through what’s officially called the Defenestration of Prague, otherwise known as the time when the Protestants and Catholics first decided they weren’t quite fans of each other and resorted to throwing one another out of the window.
9. Piazza San Marco, Venice
I ummed and ahhed about putting this one on the list. Even though I love Venice, it took me a while to appreciate its one and only piazza in town. I consciously avoided it on my first day, trying to save it up to visit later, only to find myself in the middle of it all, accompanied by every pigeon in Europe. The scaffolding and billboards everywhere are a major turn-off, as are the touts and overpriced restaurants. But it is massive, and surrounded by water. The Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Basilica loom up from one side. And, perhaps most importantly, it is free from overdevelopment, something that plagues many other town squares. It is truly unique.
8. Tienamen Square, Beijing
Well, this one has to be on the list be it at least for its sheer size. The biggest town square in the world is a pretty ugly one actually, basically a great big expanse of concrete, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive. You have to enter the square via underground passageways as it’s bordered on three sides by scary roads, and bordered on the other side by something equally as scary; Chairman Mao himself. Needless to say, security cameras are everywhere and the military is ever-present.
7. Pariser Platz, Berlin
What square, you say? This very famous bit of land isn’t really known as a square until you’re on it, nor for its Frenchy name. It’s the square directly behind the Brandenburg Gate, named after the French embassy on its opposite side. It’s a funny looking square, it’s almost rather a pedestrianized section of Unter den Linden to disallow cars from passing through the gate. But it’s basically kilometre zero in Berlin, a stone’s throw from most sights and you can’t help but feel the buzz of it all.
6. Rathaus Platz, Rothenburg
Rothenburg, a tiny village in Bavaria, is really only known for one thing; Christmas. Their giant shop, Kathe Wohlfahrt, has been franchised throughout Europe, famous for its wooden Nutcracker dolls, schwibbogen and rotating pyramids. In Rothenburg, it seems as if it’s Christmas every day, like the shop has exploded throughout the town. The local kids run around in their lederhosen in the town square with tinsel and bows decorating it all throughout.
5. Market Square, Krakow
In a similar vein to Prague, Krakow doesn’t disappoint with its atmospheric Market Square. The second-biggest square in Europe (after Piazza San Marco) is complimented by St Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall and its little flower markets and almost single-handedly puts Krakow on the map as a must-see place on the backpacker trail.
4. Grand Place, Brussels
Everyone knows my thoughts on Belgium by now, particularly its bilingual capital. It is butt ugly, as if the Belgians had been intent on making the city look as horrible as humanly possible. This is the case for everywhere except the lovely Galleries St Hubert, and its Grand Place. Standing in the square, you can imagine what Brussels may have once looked like. Full of gold decorations, extravagant guild houses and the magnificent Hotel de Ville, my advice is to jump out of Bruxelles Central, make your way here, preferably via Galleries St Hubert, and leave again. Don’t allow yourself to be disappointed by the rest.
3. Plaza Mayor, Barcelona
This stately square isn’t even Barcelona’s biggest or most famous square, but I love it. Nestled into the Gothic Quarter, it is surrounded by undercover shopping passages which allow you to almost magically appear within it. Here, the Gothic Quarter’s tiny laneways open up to a vast space, with a fountain at its centre framed by palm trees. It may not sound gastronomically impressive but many of my dinners in Barcelona have been eaten here – a takeaway felafel from nearby – eaten on the steps of the fountain. Here I would people-watch, and it would never be boring.
2. Djemaa El-Fnaa, Marrakech
The biggest public square in Africa feels even bigger when you’re on it yourself; it’s easy to get lost within, between snake-charmers, touts and delicious smelling food. It has different personalities both at night and during the day, and never before had I seen a square be such a tourist attraction itself. Thousands of locals would just come here for the night, and be entertained by the nightly offerings. Everyone was happy, crime was seemingly unknown at it was the most ‘used’ square I’d ever seen before.
1. Il Campo, Siena
I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again; often never seeing a photo of a place before you’ve arrived makes you appreciate a sight even more. This can definitely be said of Il Campo in Siena; I had been in Florence for a couple of days and hadn’t yet warmed to the Tuscan city, so I decided to head down the road to its lesser-known neighbour for the day. The Duomo is just as, if not more, impressive than its big brother in Florence, and its little laneways just screamed ‘Tuscany’. Yet I was still to be blown away by its square, which I eventually stumbled upon. Unlike most squares which have their surrounding city blend into their edges, Il Campo is completely separate, you must go through passageways to enter. Therefore the view is uninterrupted and incredible; the ground dips away, like an amphitheatre, to the 800-year old Palazzo Pubblico at the base. I joined the locals, eating gelati and people-watching. It only gets better twice a year – once in July and in August – for the running of Il Palio, a crazy bareback horserace around the square. “I want to go to there.”