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The autonomous city of Buenos Aires is Argentina’s federal capital and has a population of almost 3 million inhabitants. The city runs 19km north to south and 18km east to west with the murky waterways of Río de la Plata and the Riachuelo as the natural boundaries to the north, east and south, and the long Avenida General Paz to the west.
Outside of this area are the suburbs making up Gran Buenos Aires increasing the total urban population to almost 13 million people – a third of Argentina’s population – putting it in the top ten most populated urban areas in the world. But Gran Buenos Aires comes under the governance of the Province of Buenos Aires, whose capital lies in La Plata.
The capital runs on a grid system, with roads divided into blocks with odd numbers on one side and even on the other. Roads running vaguely east-west start at 0 at Puerto Madero and increase in blocks of 100. Roads running north-south are split into two halves by Avenida Rivadavia. All roads start at 0 at Rivadavia and increase in blocks of 100 the further away they go. This does mean that roads will change their name depending on which side of the avenue they lie on, but it’s not confusing – it is a very logical system.
Many maps have the numbers written on to keep track of the street length, grab one from where you’re staying, or the best map you’ll find is the Guía-T. All streets are calles unless otherwise specified which run one way with the direction indicated on street signs. Avenidas, which appear every five blocks or so, are larger and sometimes run both ways.
Below is a rundown of the central well-known barrios (neighbourhoods) containing the highest number of attractions to see but it is well worth grabbing a Guía-T and hopping on a bus or subte to somewhere a bit further out. There you’ll find more of the real Argentina among restaurants, cafés and people, away from the tourists in the centre.
The Centre (sub-barrios of Microcentro, Plaza de Mayo and Montserrat – Buenos Aires’ oldest barrio)
This barrio is half-filled with business, banks and suits by day, the other by shoppers and lunchers on the pedestrianised streets. At night you can find scattered bars, many with live music from new exciting bands and DJs, and street-sellers and buskers out in force. Spacious, palm-dotted Plaza de Mayo (named after 25th May when Buenos Aires declared independence from Spain) is surrounded by historically important buildings including the Casa Rosada presidential palace where leaders such as the Perons have preached from the balcony. This square is full of near-permanent demonstrations, and many others start here; pass by on a Thursday to see the Madres de Plaza de Mayo who protest for justice for the Disappeared in the Dirty War.
Despite its troubled and perhaps corrupt beginnings, Puerto Madero is now a rapidly growing area of restaurants, bars and clubs off a cobbled pedestrian street along four central docks. It was actually based on blueprints from London, which explains its certain resemblance to Docklands. Look up and you’ll see 5* hotels, casinos and head offices towering above. Too ‘Miami’ for some, it contrasts interestingly with the brown river encompassing the ecological reserve on the eastern edge of the port, with a line of choripan vans on the marsh edge to entice any vegetarian. You could do worse than head here for an ice-cream and a stroll on a Sunday, or a romantic dockside walk any time of the week.
Originally home to many Spanish and Italian immigrants in the mid 19th century, La Boca still retains its sense of fun, art and community. A blue-collar neighbourhood close to the centre, it’s seen as a symbol of tango, the sight of brightly painted houses (which originated from poor inhabitants using left over paint from ships coming into port) and home to the world famous Boca Juniors football team. El Caminito is the central tourist spot and a tourist trap like no other with minibuses and coaches constantly shipping through camera-wielding travellers. Despite this you can get a photo with a tango dancer – or a Maradona lookalike – here, pick up some original artwork and pay for an expensive but beautifully choreographed tango show. Though potentially dangerous if you stray far off the tourist path, walk a little further to the river, head into an art gallery and find the real Boca.
Borges described San Telmo as “an older, more solid world” and although new bars and hostels are constantly appearing it still retains its old charm and a view of slightly decaying luxury. The best way of discovering this barrio is to walk and explore the cobbled streets and indulge in the photo opportunities at every turn, peer at the colonial mansions and enquire about their rich history. Many of these have now been converted into museums, antique shops and cafés and are mixed with more elegant restaurants and boutique clothes and design shops. Central are Calle Defensa and Plaza Dorrego, both of which heave on a Sunday afternoon when Fería de San Telmo hits, with hundreds of stalls, buskers and candombe groups filling the streets and it is never the same from one week to the next. It is a barrio which brings up mixed feelings in some as it is still full of generation-old inhabitants and more hippyish porteños but now home to many tourists and expats too.
Though a small barrio, Retiro is extremely varied. There are aspects of the wealthy north such as 20th century French style palaces now converted into ministries, embassies, clubs and museums. There is also evidence of the less affluent south of the city around Retiro bus and train terminal where the famous Villa 31 shantytown lies. Central is Plaza San Martín designed by French architect Carlos Thays and is full of green space to escape to if you can find a spot in the grass between lunching businessmen, friends and lovers. It’s interesting to note the Monumento de los Héroes de la Guerra de las Malvinas ironically and purposefully placed next to the British present for Argentina’s centenary, Torre de los Ingleses.
Now overtaken in wealth and luxury by Puerto Madero, Recoleta still exudes grandeur and timeless wealth – the ‘old money’ as opposed to Puerto Madero’s ‘new’. Fashion and homeware boutiques cover the streets, which are surrounded by converted mansions with Neoclassical façades. This barrio is perhaps most famously known as home to Cementario de la Recoleta where it is reputably reported to cost less to live a comfortable life in Buenos Aires than to be buried here. Opened in 1822, it is a daunting and unforgettable city of elaborate tombs and though fashionable from the 1870-1880s to be buried here, it has only become a tourist destination since the arrival of Evita in 1952. This site was once home to brigands and Franciscan monks which were removed to make space for this burial ground, and the only original buildings which remain are the Basiílica del Pilar on the north side of the cemetery and the Centro Cultural Recoleta.
The barrio of Palermo is large and though reasonably middle class in general it varies a lot within it. The streets are wide and leafy and it has a more airy feel, much needed if you have spent too long in Microcentro. Perhaps the most trendsetting and up and coming barrio in the city, it became the home of art and design after the economic crisis and a boho-chic feel sets the tone in certain areas. Palermo is home to the largest and highest quality selection of foreign cuisine and European influenced cafés and teashops, independent fashion boutiques, bars and clubs.
The area of Palermo Viejo has two main squares, the constantly packed Plaza Serrano with a weekend market and bars surrounding it pumping out cumbia and reggaeton, and the more chilled Plaza Armenia full of sunbathing retirees, picnicking workers and kids in the playground.
North are the extensive parklands of Parque 3 de Febrero (more commonly known as the ‘Bosques de Palermo’), Jardín Japonés, Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays and the planetarium, a 1960s UFO structure complete with a 1500kg asteroid on show inside.
Palermo Hollywood to the north-west of the main railway line running through Palermo, is where you can see the head offices of many TV and radio stations, and though there are no sights to see it is well worth wandering and trying out on of the restaurants, bars or clubs, as this side of the tracks is where the nightlife happens.
The barrio named after Manuel Belgrano who designed Argentina’s flag in 1912, it is a highly popular mix of consumer bustle, leafy streets and spacious parks. Avenida Cabildo is the fast-moving centre with shops, cafés and cinemas but either side of this are quieter tree-lined streets with smaller boutiques and a mix of expensive modern housing and traditional BA architecture. To the north is an area similar to Palermo’s Parque 3 de Febrero with grass and lagoons to relax by.
Where to go for…
…Antiques: the San Telmo streets or calle Defensa’s Sunday market; Feria de las Pulgas, on the corner of Dorrego and Cabrera, Colegiales
…Independant boutique clothing: San Telmo; Palermo Viejo
…High street clothes: Santa Fe’s 50 blocks between Scalabrini Ortiz and 9 de Julio; Av Alvear, Recoleta for upmarket designer names; any of the numerous shopping centres: Abasto Shopping, Galerías Pacifico, Alto Palermo, Patio Bullrich.
…Leather: Calle Murillo around no. 600
…Books and music: Av Corrientes (west of 9 de Julio) – new and used
…Second-hand wares: Feria in Parque Rivadavia
Delivery or Envio a Domicilio
A rather tempting option when it is too hot or too rainy to leave your house is to order food on delivery. Vast number of porteños seem to live off delivered pizza, empanadas and parrilla straight to their door, and when alcohol and even ice cream is available. It’s hard to resist every time…
ARTS AND CULTURE
Having always been full of art and inspiration, the scene has exploded since 2001’s economic crisis and creativity has sprouted many new places to go and things to see. The 90s dominated with lavish productions and snootiness but has now moved aside for high quality on a shoestring budget and unconventionally located performances. With the return of many migrated Argentines new ideas and talent have also been mixed in.
Music and Culture
It is not just a romantic notion that tango pulses through the city. From elaborate expensive dinner shows aimed at tourists, dancers busking in the street, traditional established venues with elderly bands playing, to milongas (group dances) in plazas and converted squats full of young people. FM Tango 92.7 is where to get connected to for your audio tango needs.
Live music in the form of jazz, blues, folk, rock and pop can be found performed both by huge international artists in the football stadiums to small bars and clubs around the city, midweek as well as weekend. There used to be many more independent live music venues before tragedy struck at the end of 2004 when 194 people died in a fire at a rock concert which led to the safety inspection of all the city’s venues. This inevitably led to the closure of many, most have which have not been able to reopen, and with the 2001 economic crisis already affecting many businesses, the live music scene has taken two big hits in recent years.
Candombe is something extremely evident on the streets of the city, particularly in summer. This drumming from Uruguay combining Latin American and African rhythms is performed in groups of five to 50 and can be found live in popular night spots, but also commonly in San Telmo on a weekend with a hundred people behind dancing in the street.
Literature and Poetry
Av Corrientes is the street for bookshops though look harder and you’ll find beautiful antique and second hand book shops and used book markets all over the city. Poetry nights are common, check www.poesiaurbano.com.ar and www.paginadepoesia.com.ar for details.
Buenos Aires contains more than 100 theatrical venues from classical theatre to alternative, independent performances and have an annual attendance of hundreds of thousands. Starting in the 18th century and booming in the 19th, only in the 1980s did theatre start to break BA’s traditional norms and communities started more avant-garde work that’s prevalent today. The traditional centre is Av Corrientes between 9 de Julio and Callao but now theatres can be found all over. Check www.alternativeteatral.com for some original shows or www.cartelera-net.com.ar and 123info.com.ar for more information. Discounted tickets can also be bought, often saving 20-50% on prices, at carteleras.
Film and Cinema
Modern multiplexes with all the box office hits to historical classics with only two feature films at one time, Buenos Aires gets a mix of films from around the world as well as showcasing Argentine work. Remember to check beforehand whether something is dubbed or subtitled and choose according to what you prefer. There are often discounts for matinees, midweeks or early showings (tickets can vary wildly from $6-40) with many cinemas having trasnoche shows (late showings at midnight or later!) on Fridays and Saturdays. www.cinesargentinos.com.ar
There is also a large arthouse cinema scene in Buenos Aires, with cultural centres, museums and bars showing things that you may never again manage to view on the big screen. www.elreverso.com.ar is a great source of information for alternative cinema viewing.
Bars and Clubs
It’s impossible to sum up BA nightlife, only that there is nearly all you could hope to find in a capital city whatever your taste. Boliche is the name of the game, or nightclub in lunfardo. Check guidebooks, ask where you’re staying, consult others (travellers AND porteños) and go out and explore! But remember, don’t turn up to a club before two on a weekend because it will probably be empty, unless you’re sure it will be a busy night or you are short on money as there is often cheap entry if you arrive earlier. Women also often pay less than men, or go for free, and sometimes you can pay a cover charge of $20 or so but you can claim this back on any drinks you buy (a very friendly way of ensuring income).
Art and Sculpture
BA is somewhat of an open-air art museum with both modern works and traditional monuments scattered in parks and plazas. Fine Art can be best found in Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and MALBA, while there are constantly changing exhibitions of modern art in Palais de Glace. Small independent galleries exhibiting and selling can be found in San Telmo and Palermo, with more upscale ones in Recoleta, which open their doors one Friday night a month for Gallery Nights. Street art has also recently boomed with graffiti covering the streets. In the centre are mostly stenciled political slogans and satirical commentaries on social issues, while in San Telmo, Palermo and Belgrano you can find full wall graphics, now also being incorporated into new bars. There are now tours that offer a perspective on this street art scene.
Improve your skills
BA has affordable classes for just about everything from circus skills, yoga, drumming to craftwork and with the continued increase in expats you can probably find an English speaking one too. Check out gyms, cultural centres, Craigslist Argentina and noticeboards in expat-run establishments. You can also pop along to Ciudad Universitaria for a free lesson, just search on the net for the course that you are looking for.
Cultural centres are plentiful in cities throughout Argentina, and Buenos Aires is no exception with tiny local centers to nationally recognised gallery spaces. All hold a huge amount of exhibitions, events and classes, many of which are free. Just look up specific events on the net or just pop in.
Top parks to escape to and explore
Costanera Sur, Puerto Madero: If you make it past the extravagance of the modern Puerto Madero, you’ll find this extensive ecological park of flauna, flora and hours worth of paths to follow. And after all that walking, indulge on a choripan or bondiola loaded with chimichurri from one of the marsh side vans.
Parque Centenario, Villa Crespo: A large circular park with sun, shade, lake and fountains, always full of family, friends and lovers in the grass. Look out for live music, open air film and markets on evenings and weekends.
Parque 3 de Febrero, Palermo: Over 50 hectares commonly known as ‘Las Bosques de Palermo’ this is the largest green space in the city with a lake and peddle boats, rollarbladers and cyclists round the promenade edge and roaming ice cream sellers. Make a day of it and visit various nearby art galleries and the 60’s space-age planetarium. If you like this: check out similar lake and wood beauty just north of Belgrano.
Plaza Fráncia, Recoleta: Beside Recoleta cemetery, the consistently amazing Centro Cultural Recoleta and various great art galleries this grassy plaza is a great place to rest in the grass, particularly on weekends where is a huge craft market, live music, puppet shows, acrobats and homemade pan relleno (homemade filled bread- try the napolitano).
Plaza San Martín, Retiro: Whether you’re waiting for a bus or train from Retiro or need a break from shopping in Microcentro, this plaza has panoramic views over the ironically but purposefully placed Big Ben inspired Torre de los Ingleses and a memorial to the soldiers of the The Malvinas/Falklands War.
And if this isn’t enough, check out the not so peaceful but equally special Plaza Lavalle surrounded by beautiful architecture, Parque Lazama, Plaza Palermo Viejo or Parque General de Las Heras to watch old men sheltering under trees to play draughts.
Who was… Carlos Thays (1849-1934)? A French botanist and landscape architecture, Carlos was studying flora in South America when he was appointed Director of Parks and Gardens in Buenos Aires as the city was realizing its need for calming green spaces. He went on to design Plaza San Martín, Parque 3 de Febrero, Belgrano’s Barrancas and the zoo. Plaza Carlos Thays was honoured to him though it is surprisingly bare, so it seems just that the beautiful Jardín Botanico is now also named to him as well.
Need to get away?
Tigre: Though the train line never leaves the city, Tigre and the river delta are a welcome haven from the centre. Only 35km away (1hr by train or car, 1 ½hrs by bus) this tranquil suburbs gives way to waterways and islands that can either be toured by tourist boat or take a cheaper commuter boat and stop off somewhere to walk along the nature trails.
Luján: West by 65km and 1 ½-2hrs travel, this sleepy, yet religiously important riverside town is beautiful and a good couple of days worth of relaxation. In 1630 a travelling cart was stuck on the road and couldn´t be moved until a small terracotta statue of the Virgin Mary was removed. The owner took this as a sign and built a chapel on site which is now Luján. On the 1st Saturday of October, thousands of Catholics walk from BA on pilgrimage.
San Antonio de Areco: A beautiful town in the Pampas, 2hrs west of BA, has a relaxed atmosphere and picturesque colonial streets with most of the city retaining its 18th century charm. This is also a home of the gaucho and in mid November there is a big festival with horsemanship, dancing and markets.
Uruguay: Eight hours in a comfortable overnight bus, or a 1 or 3hr ferry ride from Puerto Madero, Colonia de Sacramento can be an overnight break from the city if desired. Travelling for a few more hours, you can reach the capital Montevideo or further to the up-market beach town of Punta del Este and neighbouring José Ignacio or the isolated cape of Cabo Polonia. A good friend of Argentina, it is a similar but equally beautiful country to visit with extremely friendly people and a national obsession with mate.