Walking tour: Plaza de Mayo

A guide to the history and monuments in and around the Plaza de Mayo.

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 revolution of May 1810, the most significant month in Argentina’s history,  and is the place where people have gathered over the years to stage protests, express solidarity or proclaim their rights.

This is also the spot where Spanish conquistador Juan de Garay founded the city in 1580 (a previous settlement in 1536 by Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Mendonza was abandoned after six years.)

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 to one side of Avenida de Mayo; the City Government Palace, on the other 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 vaulted market, which was demolished in 1880 to unite both squares and give the city an airier, more Parisian feel.

They revolution of May 1810 was the first step towards Argentina's independence, which was definitively won 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 liberty. 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 ‘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 May Pyramid. 

This square 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? This was planted by Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and it symbolizes the commitment to peace.

If you head towards the Casa Rosada, you'll come to the equestrian monument directly opposite. This monument honours General Manuel Belgrano, Argentine military hero and creator of the country's flag.

Casa Rosada

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 Argentina's executive power. 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.

One explanation for the pinkish tone is 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.

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.

If you now walk down Hipolito Yrigoyen street, behind the Casa Rosada, you will come across the Casa Rosada Museum, 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.

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.

Cabildo

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 one of Argentina’s most cherished symbols. It dates from the city’s foundation, and was 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. 

Tips:

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.