Get Cultured: Buenos Aires — A Local Guide to Exploring the Best of the City
On your first day here, seeing this is a must: Buenos Aires has a relatively short list of what people would label must-see tourist attractions. The Recoleta Cemetery, however, is one of them and it is my top sightseeing recommendation for visitors. The chiseled, marble mausoleums and tombs in the cemetery are works of art, and I often slip in just to wander the rows. Regardless of how much traffic is clogging the blocks in the surrounding area, I always find it hushed and peaceful. It is the oldest cemetery in the city, the final resting spot for many of the most influential figures and families in the country’s history, including Evita PerÃ³n and the famed Alvears, a name recognizable from the nearby ritzy Avenida Alvear, anchored by the opulent eponymous hotel, the Alvear Palace Hotel.
Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”… My response to this doubles as a literal interpretation of the question, and that is to drink mate with the locals. Mate is an earthy, bitter tea that keeps Argentines buzzing. Consuming mate has its own set of customs and practices, and it is an integral part of daily life. I explain the whole practice in greater detail, including how and where to drink it in the city in this article Drinking mate in Buenos Aires I penned for BBC Travel. Also, mate gourds, which often display local handiwork and embellished with metal detailing, also serve as great souvenirs.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation: Everyone rides the bus, or colectivo, in Buenos Aires. It is the city’s circulatory system and consists of more than 140 lines, many of which spill off into different branches within the same numbered line. People here say you can take a bus from any one place in the city to any other place, a generalization I have found to almost always holds true. The system was totally overwhelming to me at first, like this other language I had to learn along with all the Argentine lunfardo (slang) here, but thanks to the government’s online map system Mapa BA and tracking Google Maps on my phone I started moving toward mastery.
One friend who came to visit me from New York City got quite a kick out of these raucous, chugging hunks of metal, which the driver often decorates to his (or less often, her) fancy. Boarding a bus tricked out with neon lights or red velour accessories with cumbia music bumping from the speakers, for example, is not uncommon.
I had my best night’s sleep at: I find Buenos Aires’ best lodging offerings to be boutique hotels. The Palermo neighborhood especially is populated with the petit properties, as zoning restrictions prohibit anything much larger from housing visiting guests. Since each boutique hotel only manages a handful of rooms, staff are focused on personalized, attentive service and owners play around with attractive themes and special amenities. Some of my favorites include the Fierro Hotel, which serves the best breakfast in town, a multi-course affair at the on-site HernÃ¡n Gipponi restaurant, and the über cool Home Hotel. Also, the Faena Hotel+Universe over in the city’s sleek riverside Puerto Madero neighborhood is this otherworldly, aesthetically stunning place.
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days: A reservation at one of Buenos Aires numerous puertas cerradas, or closed-door restaurants, is the ticket to tasting some of the best food in town. These small operations, often run out of a chef’s home, are intimate spots with considerate service and delectable prix fixe menus with wine pairing options. You can slice into a juicy steak at a corner parrilla, or steakhouse joint, anywhere in the city, but it is in the closed-door restaurants that you find chefs playing around and producing dishes using traditional ingredients in inventive ways. To taste that “new Argentine” menu at a closed-door restaurant, I highly recommend Paladar Buenos Aires, which has a sweet, talented Argentine couple at the helm.
Also, Argentine ice cream”“helado““is far and beyond the culture’s best foodstuff. Helado in Argentina achieves this perfect flavor and consistency point between creamy U.S. ice cream and thick, flavorful Italian gelato. I have a particular weakness for Un’Alta Volta, which everyone refers to as “Volta” and has parlors scattered throughout the city.
Best place to find artisan handicrafts: The San Telmo fair takes place every Sunday without fail and stretches across blocks of the cobblestoned streets of San Telmo, the city’s oldest neighborhood. The standard tchotchkes abound and tourist pandering happens, but this is also a beloved local event complete with performers and meaty Argentine street food staples. Visitors perusing the stalls can find some beautiful artwork, artisan goods and unique antiques.
Local celebration not to be missed: Two years in Buenos Aires have taught me everything is an occasion to celebrate. There is a day observed for everything and everyone it seems, from various professions, to music and events like the first day of spring, which happened this past Friday and doubles as Student Day meriting a day off school and also serving as an excuse for throwing even-larger-than-normal parties. Join in on any one of the porteÃ±os, or regular celebrations; revel in the city’s nightlife and regard it as a point of pride. Just be prepared for the schedule, because people go out late and stay out late. Most will gather with friends starting around 11 p.m. and descend on the clubs after 2 a.m., when many will catch the sunrise.
Favorite pastimes: This is the land that produced Maradona and Messi, so I have to say soccer, or rather fÃºtbol. Ardent fandom to club teams runs in families, with the majority professing themselves to one of the two biggies, Boca Juniors or River Plate, and hinchas (as the fans are called) follow their teams with a level of intensity the average outsider likely finds baffling. Other popular sports include rugby and polo ““ the Argentine Polo Open Championship, a big social calendar event is approaching ““- and field hockey is the sport to play for girls growing up here.
For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here: Speaking of favorite pastimes, park lounging also is a widely enjoyed pastime. Spending a full day on a patch of grass taking in sun with mate, friends and perhaps the accompaniment of a musical instrument or two is time well spent in Buenos Aires, constituting a productive weekend day and the ideal lazy Sunday.
My favorite park is the Rosedal, which also connects to the Bosques de Palermo. The Rosedal is circular in shape, outlined with a paved mile-long loop favored among runners, walkers and people cruising on rollerblades, which are very popular here, and not ironically so. When the central, gated rose garden is in bloom it produces a vibrant shock of color in an urban environment. People paddleboat on the central lake and cultural programming such as outdoor concerts also take place in the park during warmer months.
The art/music scene is alive and well here: Niceto Club in Palermo Hollywood is a musical epicenter here, putting a mix of local talent and international touring acts on stage. The club also transforms into Club 69 on Thursday nights, a flamboyant party thrown in good fun and hosted by elaborately costumed, cross-dressing performers.
Where the locals get tipsy: The honest response is that most locals are getting tipsy with friends on Fernet and cola at asados (Argentine barbecues) or at home at previas, or “pregames” to entertain themselves in the time before heading out to bars and clubs.
Once out, though, one of my favorite bars in the city is Isabel, this swanky, lounge locale where the clientele leans toward chichi, but the scene is always relaxed and fun, and the DJ knows just what to play. Another one of my top bars is a newer spot called Unicorn Huset, which has a more hipster bend. The interior is decorated with works from local street artists, and the bar contains a dance floor that lights up from below and a spacious, top-floor outdoor terrace.
Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here: The silliest stereotype probably is the idea that everyone here dances tango, or at least knows how to do so. I personally did not have this perception of Argentina before moving here, but I have heard many Argentines lament that visitors often make the assumption, and it is an image the country’s tourist industry exports internationally.
That is not to say I think tango should be overlooked on a trip here, though. Tango, which really is this arrestingly beautiful dance and genre of music, reveals much about the spirit and feel of Buenos Aires and its history. The standard way many tourists encounter the dance is at a tango dinner show, but the insider knowledge about tango is that tango did not originate and develop as a dance to be choreographed, rehearsed and performed. Some of the best tango takes place on the floors at milongas, which are free tango sessions organized in spots like community centers and multipurpose venues. Two of my favorites are the milongas that take place at Salon Canning and Villa Malcolm, and I wrote about them in this article: The tango Buenos Aires tourists never see. While some Argentines do tango, it is a heavily international scene, too. The city has a number of tango expats who move here or visit long-term to dedicate themselves to the nocturnal world of tango.
If I had only 24 hours to explore Buenos Aires I would: My recommended method for exploring Buenos Aires is to pick a neighborhood, wander and observe. That said, with only 24 hours I would make sure to hit the city’s Microcentro, the city center. During the week especially it draws an interesting mix of residents, from suited professionals in and out of high-rise office buildings to the groups invariably protesting one thing or another outside Congreso (the Congressional building) or the Casa Rosada (the Pink House, the House of Government) in Plaza de Mayo. The Buenos Aires Free Tour is a fine way to follow Avenida de Mayo from end-to-end and learn along the way; the zone contains a number of historic buildings that are architectural marvels. Thursday afternoons bring the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of May Plaza) who circle the plaza wearing white headscarves, a sobering reminder of the country’s tumultuous history. Stop in one of the country’s oldest cafes, the handsome Café Tortoni located on the avenue, with its smiling, bow-tied waiters turning tables.
For a very different facet of Buenos Aires, escape to the streets of Palermo Soho, as well, to see the trendiest of Argentines meandering about their day. Pop in and out of designer boutiques and grab a bite at one of the many numerous eateries and cafes, all arranged for prime people-watching.
*For more in our “Get Cultured” series, check out last week’s travel guide to Nairobi and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.
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