“Plaza de Mayo”
Print out this guide to help you as you explore the Plaza de Mayo, including the Casa Rosada and the Cabildo (Town Hall).
The Plaza de Mayo – or ‘May Square’, is named after the most significant month in Argentina’s post-colonial history – and is where local politicians, military and religious leaders, and the general populace would gather to stage protests, express solidarity or proclaim their rights.
This is the spot where Spanish conquistador Juan de Garay founded the city in 1580. There had been a previous settlement a little further south in 1536 by another Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Mendonza, but the site was abandoned six years later.
If you look around, you’ll notice that the square is surrounded by some the most important political and religious institutions in the city: the House of Government known as the Casa Rosada, with its particular pink hue; opposite, the Cabildo or Town Hall, the whitewashed neo-colonial building on the left side of Avenida de Mayo; the City Government Palace, on the right side of the Avenida de Mayo; and, lastly, the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral, mother church of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, with its Classical portico and unique blend of architectural styles.
The Plaza de Mayo was originally two squares, joined by a set of arches under which flourished a daily market known as a ‘recova’ by the porteños. Porteño is a local term given to all natives of the city of Buenos Aires. It literally means ‘port dweller’ or ‘person from the port’.
In 1880, the ‘recova’ market was demolished to unite both squares and give the city an airier and more Parisian feel. It was named Plaza de Mayo in memory of the 1810 May Revolution, the first step towards Argentine independence (which came a little later in 1816).
The pyramid in the centre of the square was constructed to mark the Revolution's first anniversary. Later, in 1856, it was reworked by architect Prilidiano Pueyrredón, but the original monument still stands within it.
The figure at the top of the pyramid represents freedom. It was crafted by French sculptor Joseph Dubourdieu, who was also responsible for the bas-relief on the Cathedral’s frontispiece.
Surrounding the pyramid, you’ll notice several white kerchiefs or women’s shawls painted on the ground. These represent the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the group of mothers and grandmothers who gathered in the square from 1977 onwards to demand information from the military government about their missing children and grandchildren, all of whom were ‘disappeared’ during the Dirty War between 1976 and 1983. In 2005, the ashes of the founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Azucena Villaflor (murdered by the military junta), were buried at the base of the pyramid.
This is also where the Argentine people received John Paul II’s papal blessing in 1982; and where, a year later, they celebrated the return of democracy after seven years of de facto military rule.
Can you spot the fenced olive tree standing opposite the Metropolitan Cathedral? It was planted by Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and it symbolizes the commitment to peace.
If you now head towards the Casa Rosada, you'll come to the equestrian monument directly opposite. The monument honours General Manuel Belgrano, Argentine military hero and creator of the distinctive Argentine flag.
Now, head to the gates of the Casa Rosada. The Casa Rosada, or Pink House, sits at the eastern end of the Plaza de Mayo. It is the seat of the Executive Power of the Argentine Republic. From its balconies over the years, presidents have addressed the masses gathered in the square below. You may also recognize it from the 1996 film Evita, starring Madonna.
The site was first occupied by the "Fort of Juan Baltazar of Austria", built by Juan de Garay, in 1594. The fort was strategically located on the banks of the Rio de la Plata; in the late sixteenth century the shoreline reached right up to what is now the Avenida Paseo Colón.
Over the centuries, the fort was the center of colonial government and residence of the Spanish viceroys. In 1862, President Mitre had the old fort’s official residence remodeled for himself and his ministers. President Sarmiento, next in office, embellished it, adding interior gardens and its characteristic pink hue, after which is came to be known as the Casa Rosada.
This pinkish tone is the result of a local technique used to waterproof the building’s exteriors. The lime that coated the façade was mixed with ox fat which contained blood residue, giving the building its distinctive colour.
If you look carefully at the Casa Rosada from the front, you’ll notice that its wings are similar but not identical. This is because the actual construction is a fusion of two buildings: the “Palacio de Correos” (or Post Office) to the right and the Presidential Seat, where the presidential office is, to the left. The great arch joining them was added at the end of the nineteenth century.
If you now walk down Hipolito Yrigoyen street, behind the Casa Rosada, you will come across the Museo del Bicentenario, formerly the Taylor Customs House. This structure was built by English architect Edward Taylor and had two exits onto the river, several storage depots and a loading dock where imported goods were administered. At the end of the nineteenth century, part of the Customs House was knocked down and, for many years, its docking areas remained buried until they were unearthed during excavations in 1942.
In 2009, the site was fully excavated and renovated to house the “Museo del Bicentenario”, so named to celebrate the bicentennial of the 1810 May Revolution.
Head down into the museum and continue your audiovisual journey through the last two hundred years of Argentine history. The museum houses a number of historic objects and contains footage of landmark moments in the country’s more recent history. You can also enter the vault that houses the intriguing mural by Mexican social realist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. Siqueiros painted this work in collaboration with Argentine artists Spilimbergo, Berni and Castagnino, and Uruguayan scenographer, Enrique Lazaro.
From the Casa Rosada, walk through the square to the whitewashed neo-Colonial building on the opposite side. This is the Cabildo, or Town Hall, on the corner of Avenida de Mayo and Bolivar.
The building is a National Historic Landmark and one of Argentina’s most cherished symbols. It dates from the city’s foundation, built by the first Spanish conquistadors to serve as the seat of colonial administration. In 1810, a group of patriots convened outside the building to demand independence from the Spanish Vice-Royalty and, later, it housed the first National Government of Argentina.
The original structure underwent several modifications over the years, and only five of the original eleven arches remain. To construct the Avenida De Mayo in 1894, three of the arches on the North wing were removed. A few years later, another three arches, on the opposite side, made way for the Avenida Roque Saenz Peña (also known as Diagonal Sur), to the left.
Today, the Cabildo houses the National Historical Museum of the Cabildo of Buenos Aires & the May Revolution, offering visitors an interesting peek into documents and colonial life from the seventeenth century onwards. The collection includes the Royal Standard and ‘Arca de Caudales’ or ‘Treasure Chest’, where coins gathered from taxes were kept during colonial times.
Head down to the equestrian monument to Belgrano (in front of the Casa Rosada) at any of the followng times, and you'll catch the changing of the guard: 7am, 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, 5pm, 7pm and 9pm. The guards belong to the Regiment of Mounted Grenadiers, founded by General San Martín, liberator of Argentina, in 1812.
When two flags are hoisted on the flagpole over the central arch of the Casa Rosada, you'll know that the President is in the building.