From the modern shopping mall of Alto Palermo to the colourful facades of the blue collar barrio of La Boca, Buenos Aires surprises and seduces. Like Madrid, its charm lies in the distinctive character of its neighbourhoods, or barrios as they are known in Spanish. If you are looking for a night out, you’ll probably be best going to Palermo. On the other hand, San Telmo will provide you with an eclectic old world meets urban cool feel. Microcentro is home to the federal government and La Casa Rosada is the Argentine equivalent to The White House.
Although the somewhat down at heel look and feel of some streets serve as a reminder of better days gone by, the city maintains its energy and diversity. Looking for a place to start your travels in South America? Could there be a more European introduction than the self-styled Paris of South America? However, make no mistake, this is no second hand copy of a European city, it’s a South American metropolis with a charm and an energy all its own!
Buenos Aires- The Barrios
Despite being almost my first port of call in South America, it wasn’t until the end of my trip that I really started to get to know this ‘barrio’- and it is worth knowing!
Palermo encompasses a number of sub-districts, each with its own distinct character and flavor, such as Palermo Viejo, Palermo Chico and Palermo Soho etc. From leafy streets like Coronel Diaz to the street art of Calle Nicaragua, Calle Honduras or Calle El Salvador, this ‘barrio’ is packed to the brim with variety. In terms of major sights, Palermo hosts the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires), but perhaps the greatest pleasure is to be found in just wandering its backstreets and discovering bohemian boutiques or finding a little alley that street artists have turned into a piece of living art. This is no ordinary graffiti but rather a riot of colour and artistic self-expression. Another curious feature of this ‘barrio’ is the fact that so many of its streets are named after Central American countries. Please send me your comments if you ever find out why!
Some of the major thoroughfares such as Coronel Diaz are home to run-of-the-mill pizza parlours, while deeper in the ‘barrio’ you will find small decorative little cafes and bistros such as La Pupila Madre at Calle Nicaragua 4899- click here to access their Facebook page. I came this little gem one day whiling away the hours waiting for a friend. Unlike some of my experiences in Microcentro, the service here was friendly and attentive and the decor was eclectic to say the least. Try to imagine white walls with splashes of pastel blue backed by shelves of books that make it seem as if it has just hosted a French poetry party, then you will have some idea of the atmosphere of this quirky little café. To me, it represents the essence of this bohemian and slightly off-beat barrio.
With its parks, charming back streets, shopping and nightlife, Palermo caters to all tastes. It also has good transport connections with the rest of the city with Subte stations such as Bulnes and buses that will take you to San Telmo and La Boca.
Getting there: Line D of the SUBTE serves Palermo
Learning Spanish: Vamos Spanish, Av. Cnel. Díaz 1736, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Telephone: (+54) 11-5984-2201
Eating: La Madre Pupila, Calle Nicaragua 4899, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: 54 9 11 5752-9690
Big Sights: MALBA, Av. Pres. Figueroa Alcorta 3415, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Recoleta has an unmistakable European feel to it and tourists are drawn to it in order to visit the famous cemetery, Cementerio de la Recoleta, which is in fact free.
This has to be one of the highlights of my trip to Buenos Aires. The atmosphere is one of stillness, far removed from the bustle of the outside city. It is the place where the great and the good of Argentinian society have been laid to rest. Statues covered in cobwebs and tombs whose dereliction now exposes the coffins inside contrast with veritable monuments.
On my visit with an American friend, we decided to seek out the tomb of Eva Peron, a true icon of Argentina. After a little searching, we finally found the place and it was quite an experience. We spent some time lingering there watching a mixture of tourists and local Evita aficionados. This was a tomb that was well cared for and the roses stuck to its entrance provide testimony to the ongoing cult of the Perons in Argentina. Recoleta Cemetery was a great place to spend a few hours just wandering aimlessly and looking. Upon leaving, we found a beautiful terrace bar with trees and a view across the plaza. It was a great place just to relax, sip coffee and just soak up the winter sun.
Buenos Aires Bookshop You Must Visit…
Named the second most beautiful bookshop in the world by The Guardian in 2008, the Ateneo bookshop is renowned. Located in Barrio Norte, it makes a good stop before or after a visit to Recoleta Cemetery.
Originally it started life as a theatre, hence the title ‘Grand Splendid’, and its stage even hosted Argentine greats such as the legendary Carlos Gardel. Later it was a cinema and it was slated for demolition before being taken over by El Ateneo publishing group.
Rather than removing the features of the theatre, the Ateneo Grand Splendid has incorporated them. The main part of the store is where the stalls would have been and the busy café is on the stage. Drink your afternoon coffee to the tune of an accompanying pianist. Needless to say, the acoustics are never a problem in this restored theatre. All around the balconies are the reading areas that now house books dedicated to a variety of topics. Going up the staircase provides panoramas of the interior and brings you closer to the fabulous ceiling, which was apparently designed by an Italian artist.
All in all, the Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore is a great place to spend a few spare hours. For book lovers it will be a Mecca, a uniquely atmospheric shrine where we can indulge our hobby. Being Buenos Aires, the vast majority of the books are in Spanish, although there is a small collection of books in English. However, the sheer originality of the building more than warrants a visit even if your Spanish is not quite yet up to reading Don Quixote in Castilian.
Address: Av. Sta Fe 1860, 1123 Buenos Aires, Argentina
Getting there: Callao Subte Station (walk four blocks to find the bookstore)
The following buses also stop near here: 12, 37, 39, 101, 108, 124, 132, 150, 152
|Monday-Thursday||9:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.|
|Friday-Saturday||9:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m|
|Saturday||9:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m|
|Sunday||12:00 – 10:00 p.m.|
La Boca seems to have a reputation in Buenos Aires, not a particularly good one, but a reputation nonetheless. Taking the bus, you will arrive in an somewhat industrial area and it has a certain blue collar feel to it, but it could hardly be described as menacing either.
Locals generally do not recommend spending any time here after dark!
Most of the images that you will see of La Boca are of El Caminito, a street with the traditional houses of this barrio. At the end of the 19th century and during the early 20th century, this port area recycled the wood and corrugated iron coming in off the ships to build houses. Many of the immigrants here were of Italian origin, so the houses were painted in the many bright colours that give the barrio its distinctive look. These days visitors are welcomed to the street by a replica of Pope Francis, or Francisco as he is known locally, who looks down benevolently at arriving tourists from a balcony at the entrance to the street.
The majority of the houses have been converted into shops selling some nice textiles along with various tourist souvenirs. The attitude of the shopkeepers is a little less relaxed than in San Telmo, but it is not by any means over obtrusive. Another statue of the pope welcomed you into a local market, which seems to cater far more to the local population. I have to admit that on my visit I quite liked the atmosphere there that contrasted sharply with the touristy feel outside.
Food and crime tales!
An American friend and I got lost when searching for the Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, Il Matterello, which turned out to be well worth the hassle it took to track it down. It was packed with locals and we soon understood why. The authentic Italian food was genuinely delicious. I had vegetarian cannelloni and the taste was simply sublime. I could have been back in one of my favourite local restaurants in Milan. My friend was also really quite impressed with her food. Given that she had spent some time in Italy too, this truly spoke volumes about the quality of the food.
It was now already after the 5pm witching hour and we decided to quickly find a bus back to the centre where we intended to go to the famous Ateneo bookshop. On our way back we discussed the various warnings we had received about La Boca. I wondered if these were in part inspired by the fact that La Boca is clearly a working class neighbourhood. It was in so many ways light years away from the genteel refinement of San Telmo. However, the experience of living in cities in a variety countries has taught me that areas where tourists congregate tend to attract street crime. Also, as tourists or travellers, we often form a postcard image of places since we don’t have to deal with the realities of everyday life. Better be safe than sorry, as they say.
San Telmo was the barrio that most grabbed my attention on my first visit to Buenos Aires. It had less of a touristy feel than La Boca and it seemed to combine faded grandeur with urban hip. Arriving on foot with a friend, we saw a drunk lying passed out in the middle of the street. He was surrounded by a group of youths taking photos. Some aspects of modern life just leave me speechless.
Continuing on through the streets, my friend and I came across a square with a market. I was struck by the antiquity of some of cars and the fact that so many of the street vendors were drinking mate, the preferred beverage in Argentina and apparently also in Uruguay.
Stopping at a boutique, I was impressed by the quality of the produce. There were scarves and ponchos that I could definitely bring back as presents to friends and family. Inquiring about the prices, we got a detailed description of the provenance of each article. Many of the textiles were from artisanal workshops in Salta and Jujuy in the northwest of the country. However, given the relatively small size of my backpack and the fact that I was already seriously over packed, purchases would have to wait for another day. The shopkeeper was happy to give us his card and hoped that I would be back at the end of my South American adventure.
As we started to look for a café or restaurant, each street seemed to contain new surprises. Taking a photo of a particularly striking building, a local stopped to tell me that that this was in fact one of the oldest buildings in the entire area and that its façade was protected by law. On another street there was a sofa on the sidewalk. Then, cheek by jowl with cool cafes and old world tango shops, there was the graffiti. However, this does not really seem to be the correct name in this case. Far from being urban blight, this was really street art that enhanced rather than detracted from the beauty of the area.
After an exhaustive search, we found a pretty chic restaurant with a lot of vegetarian options. I visibly irritated the fairly uppity waiter by ordering a ‘café con leche’ before my meal. The same guy had been giving my friend and I disapproving looks as we were talking beforehand. I am sure my cardinal error confirmed his impression of us as foreign devils or hopeless barbarians. In any case, the food turned out to be excellent and I loved the décor.
PS: My friend stayed on in Buenos Aires for a poetry festival and eventually bonded with the snooty waiter.
Getting there: Within walking distance of the city centre. Follow the signs from Avenida de Mayo.
There are Subte stations on the fringes of the barrio but none directly in the heart of San Telmo.
Eating: Café Origen
Address: Humberto Primo 599, C1103ACK CABA, Argentina
Phone: 54 11 4362-7979
Big Sights: San Telmo Market (always full of character but at its best and jam packed on Sundays)
San Telmo Market website: http://www.feriadesantelmo.com/ (information in Spanish only)
Top Tip: Sunday at San Telmo market is an experience that should not be missed and it showcases the lively and bohemian character of the city. However, watch out for thieves and pickpockets. Many locals wear their day packs in front in order to avoid theft. Take note!
Puerto Madero and Microcentro
Puerto Madero is the place where Buenos Aires wears its hippest face. Following in the footsteps of notable dockland regeneration projects such as London and Barcelona,it is everything that you would expect from such an area. Home to an array of high-end restaurants and cafes, this is a busy area where the young like to congregate and it makes for a great walk, particularly if you come from Plaza de Mayo.
Plaza de Mayo is the heart of Microcentro, the European heart of this South American metropolis. La Casa Rosada is the presidential palace from whose balcony figures such as Eva Peron, Cristina Kirchner and Madonna (the balcony scene in Evita was actually filmed here) have addressed the masses. Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo demonstrate here every Sunday and their presence is a reminder that the excesses of dictatorship were a reality in this country in the very recent past.
In contrast, Calle Florida, with its shops and cafes) is well worth a walk and there should be many less moneychangers touting there since Argentina abandoned the so-called ‘blue dollar’. However, do watch out for pickpockets when walking here. Like a phoenix, Microcentro dies at the weekend, but is reborn early each Monday morning. Should you decide to stay here, Gran Hotel Hispano is a restored Spanish colonial building with real charm.
Getting there: All SUBTE lines originate in Microcentro
Staying: Hotel Gran Hispano, Av. de Mayo 861, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Big Sights: La Casa Rosada, Calle Florida and Puerto Madero