When Buenos Aires became the capital of Argentina in 1880, the mayor, Torcuato de Alvear, decided to modernize the city in order to leave its Spanish colonial past behind. People of his generation and social class – the upper crust— venerated European powerhouses like England and France and looked down on the local criollo culture, the mix of Spanish and indigenous cultures. Avenida de Mayo is the result of this eagerness for modernity and European style, but the boulevard retains its connection to its Spanish heritage.
Located in the neighborhood of Montserrat, Avenida de Mayo was designed to mimic the open boulevards of Paris. It runs from east to west and connects the two most important places in the country’s political life: the stately neoclassical Parliament building, Congreso Nacional and the pink presidential palace, the Casa Rosada. The president’s post-inaugural procession, accompanied by the historic Mounted Grenadiers Regiment, takes place along Avenida de Mayo between these two key buildings.
The Birth of the Avenida
At first, the plans for the new boulevard met with resistance. Homeowners opposed it because it meant the expropriation and demolition of existing properties. And some council members believed the project was not worth the expense. However, eventually all the parties came to an agreement and Avenida de Mayo became a reality when the work was completed in 1894. It was named for the May Revolution of 1810, which led to Argentina’s Independence.
The Parisian flair that city planners envisioned soon transformed into Spanish charm. Spanish immigrants opened cafés like those in Madrid as well as theaters where Spanish companies performed zarzuelas. They also started social clubs and literary societies on the Avenida. And Spanish architects designed and built apartment buildings, hotels, and office blocks.
The Southern Hemisphere’s first metro system, which opened in 1913, runs under Avenida de Mayo. Perú Station, on the corner of Avenida de Mayo and Perú Street, is part working metro station, part museum and provides an opportunity to experience life like it was in the early heyday of the Avenida. The station was restored in the early 2000s to look like it did when it opened. It has kept most of its original features like tiles, ticket booths, and lamps as well as antique ads on the walls that are modern reproductions.
The City’s Heritage Through Café Culture
Part of the charm of Avenida de Mayo lies in the five old-school cafés that are dotted along the avenue. They were designated Bares Notables (Historic Cafes) by the local council for their historic, cultural and/or architectural significance. They are an important part of the city’s cultural heritage, as well as the daily lives of thousands of porteños, as locals are called.
- Café Tortoni (Av. de Mayo 825), the oldest café, opened in 1858, but it’s been at this location since 1880. Most of the furnishings, like the beveled mirrors and the stained-glass ceiling are original. Generations of poets, artists, writers, musicians, and politicians have gathered here to socialize and to create their art. Nowadays, patrons can enjoy live jazz and tango concerts or poetry readings, among other events.
- Bar Iberia (Av. de Mayo 1196) first opened in 1897, although it closed and re-opened on three different occasions, since its current incarnation. This is where members of the Spanish Republican faction met in the 1930s to discuss politics or flee the Civil War that raged in Spain from 1936 to 1939. They often got into brawls with the opposing Franco supporters who gathered at a now defunct historic bar, Bar Español.
- Los 36 Billares (Av. de Mayo 1271) opened in 1894 in nearby Salta Street, although it moved to its current location in 1914. It’s famous for the hundred-year-old billiards, pool, and snooker tables in the basement.
- London City (Av. de Mayo 599) opened in 1954 on the corner of Avenida de Mayo and Florida Street. The renowned Argentinean author Julio Cortázar wrote his first novel, Los Premios (The Winners), here. Its wraparound windows allow patrons to watch the hustle and bustle of central Buenos Aires.
- The cafetería inside Hotel Castelar (Av. de Mayo 1152) attracted the biggest cultural icons of the 20th century. It is famous for the Spanish afternoon treat, hot chocolate with churros. Federico Garcia Lorca, the celebrated Spanish poet, lived in this 1929 hotel for six months. His room is a museum and can be visited by appointment.
Avenida de Maya showcases some of Buenos Ares architectural highlights that include art nouveau, neoclassic and eclectic styles. They include:
- The Cabildo, the seat of the Spanish colonial government, built in the 1740s. The revolution of May 1810, which sparked the flame of independence, took place here. The unadorned white façade, the wrought iron windows, and the red tiles are typical of Spanish colonial constructions.
- The Quixote statue (Monumento al Quijote) was gifted to Buenos Aires by the Spanish government to mark the city’s 400th anniversary in 1980. The statue sits at the intersection of Avenida de Mayo and Avenida 9 de Julio.
- The Teatro Avenida (Av. de Mayo 1220) opened in 1908. Today as then, local companies put on operas, zarzuelas, and concerts. Wrought-iron awnings and marble steps evoke the Old Country.
- The Teatro Liceo (Av. de Mayo 1449) built in 1872, is the city’s oldest theater. It underwent a process of structural restoration and conservation of its original materials.
- The Palacio Barolo (Av. de Mayo 1370) is known for its eclectic design. It was the tallest building in South America between 1923, when it was built, and 1935. Its design references Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as Indian architecture. It commands spectacular panoramic views from the top. Guided tours are available.
Eating on the Avenida
Avenida de Mayo is the scene of several annual events like: the Gay Pride Parade (Marcha del Orgullo Gay) in November; Buenos Aires Celebra, a festival that celebrates one country and its heritage at a time; and the Carrera de Mozos, a race in which waiters and waitresses from around the country show off their skills and in which speed and balance are key.
The Spanish legacy is alive in the kitchen too. There are many Spanish restaurants on Avenida de Mayo and surrounding areas, including the oldest one in Buenos Aires, El Imparcial (Av. Hipólito Yrigoyen 1201, one block from Av. de Mayo). It serves traditional dishes like paella, gambas, or cazuela de mariscos (seafood casserole).
Avenida de Mayo’s many attractions provide an opportunity to soak up the history’s Spanish heritage and influence.