Fair Winds - Kia Ora Magazine
Story: Michele Bigley for Kia Ora Magazine
The neighbourhoods, or barrios, of Buenos Aires offer insight into how the inhabitants of South America’s most-visited city live – and, more importantly, what they eat and drink.
An accordion player sighs a melancholy tune. A couple spins a sexy tango. Groups of Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) laugh loudly over coffee and medialunas. Hawkers sell mate gourds, dusters made from pillowy feathers and knitted caps. City workers line up at a parrilla (steakhouse), talking football over juicy chorizo sandwiches. A juggler saunters past. Buenos Aires – at once beguiling and overwhelming – beckons travellers to enter her cobblestone lanes dotted with 19th-century architecture and to explore the inner workings of this South American hub of creativity, sophistication and resilience.
Constructed on the Rio de la Plata river as a valuable trade route for the Americas, Buenos Aires was initially a small town populated by gauchos. After a series of invasions, and then battles, Argentina became a republic in the mid-1800s. Under the guidance of ambitious rulers in the late 1800s, the city’s politicians, smitten with European culture, constructed the glorious Beaux Arts buildings lining Avenida 9 de Julio. By the early 1900s the word was out, and immigrants from around the globe began arriving, hoping to settle in the “Paris of the South”. These Italian, French and Spanish influences continued to inspire the architecture, cuisine, arts, language and culture, morphing European style with Argentinian flair.
This brief golden age was upset first by the Great Depression, then by a series of coups throughout the 1900s that sent the country into a rollercoaster of tragedies. Though Juan Perón and his famous wife Eva (the beloved Evita) offered a respite from the chaos in the middle of the century by implementing liberal labour laws, his policies ultimately led to another financial crisis, more instability, and, finally, the biggest blow of all – a violent dictatorship that “disappeared” thousands of young revolutionaries, artists and intellectuals. These policies plagued the nation until a fledgling democracy was created in the 1980s. The honeymoon of peace lasted until a fateful morning in November of 2001, when citizens woke to find the Argentinian peso devalued.
This caused the middle class to tumble into poverty, a tragedy that took years to overcome. While today the government is more stable, these turbulent political challenges have had a marked effect on Argentina’s culture.
Argentinians are spontaneous. They loathe planning events or making reservations and this allows travellers access to most of the city’s best attractions, restaurants and events. Although it is wise to make hotel reservations in advance, especially in high season, diners can often stroll into a popular restaurant without reservations, or pick up ballet tickets at the last minute.
A symphony of character artfully blends Argentina’s international influences to create the distinct Porteño culture. While the personality of each neighbourhood differs, at its core, each demonstrates elements Porteños hold dear – coffee, wine, food and community. Plazas lure couples to smooch under leafy trees, parks provide greenery for families and active types, shops for all budgets line the cobblestone streets, centuries-old buildings littered with protest graffiti reside next to marble statues – and everywhere you look, people caffeinate and toast the good life in outdoor cafes.
El Centro pulses with activity and no place more so than Plaza de Mayo, a symbolic gathering place for protests and celebrations. At its edge lies the peach-coloured presidential palace, Casa Rosada, home to dozens of leaders, and immortalised by Madonna, who waved from the ornate balcony in her controversial film Evita. Put on your walking shoes and explore the stately 19th-century Beaux Arts architecture along Avenida de Mayo, culminating in the awe-inspiring Congreso building. If time permits, tour gothic Palacio Barolo (pbarolo.com.ar), a structure that, complete with gargoyles, pays homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Along Avenida 9 de Julio, the city’s largest thoroughfare, spot El Obelisco, constructed in 1938 to honour the fourth centenary of Buenos Aires. Use this landmark to assist in exploration. Nearby, another architectural treat is the city’s first theatre, Teatro Colón (teatrocolon.org.ar). Constructed in 1908, this tribute to the arts commemorates classical music with stunning stained-glass depictions of muses, sculptures of famed composers, plenty of gold and some of the best acoustics on the planet. In addition to catching a free concert on weekends (or paying to experience the opera), the theatre tours offer insights into Buenos Aires’ cultural history.
Shoppers flock to El Centro, bustling along pedestrian LaValle and Florida streets to buy Argentinian football gear, jeans and leather. Also worth a gander is Galerías Pacífico (galeriaspacifico.com.ar), a mall that doubles as a national historic monument, with many Argentinian brands and cafes. The highlight of the building is the city’s most prized mural, painted by Argentinian masters Berni, Castagnino, Colmeiro, Spilimbergo and Urruchúa.
Once a marshland, now an artsy hub for the rich, this strip of land between the canal and Río de la Plata provides a respite from the vigour of downtown. Primarily the brainchild of entrepreneur Alan Faena, who reconstructed a run-down brick building into the swanky Faena Hotel + Universe (faena.com), crafting destination-worthy restaurants like El Bistro and El Mercado, the sexy Rojo Tango show, the hopping Library Lounge that hosts DJs and bands most nights and the city’s most chic hotel rooms, crafted by French designer Philippe Starck.
Before Faena appeared on the scene 10 years ago, inspiring a slew of cafes and shops to follow, the only draw in Puerto Madero was the Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur (buenosaires.gob.ar), a tangle of trails through the wetlands to the murky Rio de la Plata. Today this green space grants visitors views of native birds, mammals and the abundant flora that thrives in this climate.
Skinny cobblestone streets lined by colourful 19th-century buildings showcase the rich history of Buenos Aires’ most distinctive barrio. One of the first settlements for immigrants, the architecture reveals European influence. The centrepiece of the neighbourhood, Plaza Dorrego, hosts Feria de San Pedro (feriadesantelmo.com) on weekends, a bustling marketplace where you can score classic football trading cards of Diego Maradona, indigenous art and antique trinkets. The weekend antique fair lures thousands to the small square. Most people grab a seat at a cafe to watch free tango performances.
A stroll along the main drag, Defensia, promises ample boutiques, antique shops and cafes. The highlight is the Tuscan-influenced Mercado de San Telmo, constructed in 1897 to serve as the central fruit and vegetable market. These days vendors sell second-hand Messi jerseys, boots, vintage toys, almost every cut of meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables.
Isolated on the southern edge of town, this working-class neighbourhood is considered by some to be on the other side of the tracks. In the 1950s, the government set out to reinvigorate the area by having Benito Quinquela Martín paint the tin houses shockingly bright hues. The vibrant colours are meant to highlight the revolutionary and artistic zeal of La Boca. Today, tango dancers and craftspeople line La Caminito, hustling for tourists’ pesos.
Other than snapping pictures of the colourful buildings, sports fans should experience a game at La Bombonera, home to the Boca Juniors football team. Art lovers will find the exhibitions at Fundacion Proa (proa.org) to house some of the most cutting-edge art in Argentina.
With its regal architecture, array of restaurants, haute shopping and world-class museums, Buenos Aires’ richest neighbourhood tops many visitors’ to-do lists. While this community houses plenty of plastic surgery, ladies walking small dogs, celebrities and politicians, the soul of the community lies in its creativity.
Buenos Aires boasts a staggering number of museums, and the one most worth a visit is Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (malba.org.ar). The stellar permanent collection features artists from Spain and South and Central America, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Tarsila do Amaral. Rotating exhibitions highlight contemporary sculptures, paintings and experimental art. Lectures and musical performances occur weekly. The museum cafe makes a choice pit stop for a cortado (espresso) and a dulce de leche cookie.
The centre of the community is Cementerio de la Recoleta, home to dramatic, and frankly quite beautiful, tributes to the dead, including Eva Perón. The cemetery is adjacent to the charming Plaza Francia (which houses an impressively large rubber tree and a weekend market), Recoleta Mall and the bustling cafes along M. Ortiz. Shoppers will want to wander over to Avenida Santa Fe, which offers kilometres of shops for all budgets, and reaches from the city centre to Palermo.
Considered by many to be the pounding heart of Buenos Aires, Palermo (divided into Soho, Viejo and Hollywood) pulses with activity day and night. Artists, film-industry types and designers have gussied up Spanish colonial houses (a couple of which were the former domiciles of Jorge Luis Borges and Che Guevara), decking them out with murals, botanical creations and colourful paint jobs.
When the sun is out, swarms of young people orbit Palermo Soho’s Plaza Serrano, sipping coffee at the hundreds of cafes, and hunting for bargains in the scores of boutiques. Along the cobblestone streets extending from the plaza, check out 28 Sport (28sport.com) for vintage men’s shoes, score fair-trade gifts at Elementos Argentinos (elementosargentinos.com.ar) and at Paseo Alcorta (alcortashopping.com.ar) check out what locals call hypermarkets (massive collections of reasonably priced designs catering to fashionistas). After spending heaps of pesos, Porteños soak up the sun at one of the many picturesque outdoor cafes.
When you tire of urban life, Palermo’s northern edge features the city’s most enchanting green space, Palermo Woods. Ride bikes, find quiet nooks to read or nap, hop into a pick-up football game, explore the lush botanic and Japanese gardens, catch a tournament at the polo grounds or inhale the sweet air of the rose gardens.
After dark, Porteños flock to Palermo to be seen at sophisticated bars, tango clubs or rowdy nightclubs. Start with a microbrew at Cervecería Nacional (facebook.com/cervecerianacionalbar). Home Hotel’s (homebuenosaires.com) poolside garden beckons guests to sip martinis and listen to international grooves. Tango fans head to Milonga Parakultural at Salòn Canning (parakultural.com.ar) to watch the best dancers in town strut and swirl. If you care to try your skills, Palermo’s happening tango club of the moment is La Viruta (lavirutatango.com), though it doesn’t get interesting until at least 3am.
For most people’s first trip to Buenos Aires, they prefer to stay in the centre of the action. Just a couple of blocks from bustling Florida Street, Alvear Art Hotel (alvearart.com) might be in the heart of the city, but you’d never know it from inside. While the lobby showcases the owner’s impressive art collection, the rooms are subdued and comfortable. Breakfast, a spa, an enclosed rooftop infinity pool and wifi are included in the stay.
Sister property Alvear Palace Hotel (alvearpalace.com) caters to people wanting to get the most of the weak Argentinian peso and live it up. Awash with gold, with Jacuzzi tubs, plush beds, a decadent gourmet breakfast, a pool and spa, the city’s finest French restaurant and extremely helpful staff, guests will definitely feel like they belong in posh Recoleta.
For people wanting something a bit funkier, Home Hotel (homebuenosaires.com) grants travellers an address in lively Palermo Hollywood. Rooms feature bright primary colours, sleek concrete bathrooms and comfortable beds backed against splashes of retro wallpaper. Paired with its summer pool parties, onsite restaurant and spa, Home Hotel feels right at home in its hip community.
Without its surrounding suburbs, Buenos Aires occupies 128 square kilometres, with roughly three million residents. Distances can feel staggering with traffic, but it is fairly easy to walk most of the main neighbourhoods. Taking buses or the Subte (underground subway) is cheap and crowded. Those with limited time should consider taking taxis instead, which are fairly inexpensive, and which offer peeks at the vibrant city life.
The cafe experience infuses every aspect of life in Buenos Aires. In the morning, locals sit at outdoor tables enjoying café con leches and medialunas (croissants that are either sweet or savoury). By midday, cafes switch to lunch service and locals switch to beer as they gossip until dinner. While every neighbourhood boasts plenty of cafes for every palate, favourites include Recoleta’s La Biela (labiela.com), Palermo Soho’s Pain et Vin (facebook.com/Pain-et-Vin-Buenos-Aires-300352516768898) and San Telmo’s funky Coffeetown (coffeetowncompany.com), which is less a cafe experience than a place to grab a perfectly crafted latte, surf the internet and watch the people filter through Mercado de San Telmo.
Porteños adore food. From their perspective there is no experience more intimate than sharing an asado (barbecue meat) and a good bottle of malbec. Most cafes and corner diners serve traditional Argentinian cuisine – asado, pasta, pizza and milanesa – at reasonable prices. Recoleta’s El Sanjuanino (facebook.com/El-Sanjuanino-437592102975847) is a great traditional restaurant known for its decadent (and filling) empanadas – the basement’s barrel-covered ceiling adds to the allure.
Argentinian cuisine is seeing a sort of renaissance. Internationally trained chefs continue to open innovative restaurants. Earning the top spot of late is Astor Manduque Porteño (astorbistro.com) helmed by chef Antonio Soriano. The menu changes nightly, but you can sample the city’s most affordable (and casual) tasting menu. A tartare of nandu (a bird similar to an ostrich) paired with pickles and capers is a dish you’ll be lucky to experience.
Another notable dining trend is puerto cerrados (closed-door restaurants). Pay for tasting menus in private dining rooms, or in chefs’ houses. All require reservations in advance and many ask for a deposit to hold your spot. These dining experiences connect you with locals and tourists, as well as with some of the most interesting cuisine in the city. Favourites worth visiting include iLatina (ilatinabuenosaires.com), Casa SaltShaker (casasaltshaker.com) and Casa Felix (colectivofelix.com).
A traditional parrilla (steakhouse) is the ultimate Buenos Aires experience. And the best is Parrilla Don Julio (parrilladonjulio.com.ar). Guests are greeted by the heat from the asado, brick walls, tiled floors, shelves of wine bottles signed by patrons, and hugs from the family of owners. Go to the barbecue to select your cut of meat, appetisers like mollejas and vegetables.
It’s wise to note that Porteños eat late, typically about 9:30 or 10pm. If you need a pre-dinner snack, head over to Recoleta’s Alvear Palace Hotel (alvearpalace.com) for a lavish afternoon tea, complete with a glass of champagne, plates of smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches, dulce de leche cookies and a large hunk of chocolate cake.
Photographs: Mike Heydon