A PASSIONATE CITY
The best way to enjoy Buenos Aires is to dive into the rhythm of its street life: stroll the avenues, sit in cafes, chat to the locals, see a play, venture into a tango milonga (gathering), get lost in a book shop, go to a soccer game, see a live music gig and of course, dare yourself to tackle a good asado (barbecue).
Such pastimes can make you feel the beat and passion of an intensely alive and welcoming city.
The origin of Buenos Aires dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish conqueror Pedro de Mendoza established a settlement in Riachuelo, in 1536, after a difficult and eventful expedition. That first settlement lasted only five years, due to a siege by the Indians. However, Juan de Garay re-founded it in 1580, but called it Ciudad de la Trinidad.
Until the 18th century, this well-developed city was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which created complications for its administration and the defence of its borders. Spanish King Carlos III decided then to establish the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, which was the foundation of its ongoing development. This situation ended in 1816, when independence from Spanish rule and any foreign domination was declared.
Thanks to its privileged position in the river port of La Plata and its economic boom, Buenos Aires took a leadership role in the nation-building process that led to contemporary Argentina, establishing itself as the capital.
Today it’s the 10th most populous metropolis in the world, with nearly 12 million people, a third of the nation’s population.
Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires, has been nurtured by mostly European migrants since the 19th century, who left a lack of opportunity behind in the Old Continent.
This is why the influence of Italians, Spanish and Russians, among others, has been instrumental in the development of a European architectural style, a unique dialect and a varied and rich cuisine, all of which contribute to the cosmopolitan flavour that is so characteristic of Buenos Aires.
There are around 48 neighbourhoods to visit. You will marvel at the unique streets and houses, such as those in San Telmo. It is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and boasts cobblestone streets, courtyards and low houses, harking back to another era.
The Feria de San Pedro Telmo is celebrated every weekend here; a market display of antiques that fills the Plaza Dorrego. During the week it’s a quiet place to enjoy a cup of coffee in one of the terraces, but every Sunday becomes transformed for the enjoyment of locals and visitors. San Telmo is also a good place to dine leisurely in one of the many restaurants that stay open until late.
Heading south, one reaches the neighbourhood of La Boca, home of the famous soccer team and stadium bearing the same name. Its suburban port past attracted many artists, bohemians, musicians and singers in the 19th century. This place is considered the cradle of Argentinean tango, a dance seen as a shameful practice in its beginning, but gaining a formidable reputation when exported to Europe.
In La Boca we find the picturesque Caminito, a small, colourful and bohemian area that was declared in 1959 an ‘outdoor museum’, after many artists decorated the facades of the houses with carvings, sculptures, murals and paintings. Named after a famous tango song, it’s now a place where tourists buy souvenirs and watch dancers show off for passing pedestrians.
You can attend a milonga dance at any time and in many parts of the city, but the mecca for lovers of this art is the Worldwide Tango Festival; an opportunity to attend classes, seminars and performances.
To connect with the history of Buenos Aires and Argentina, a visit to the Plaza de Mayo is a must. This enormous space, surrounded by historical and governmental buildings such as the Casa Rosada (the seat of Government), has witnessed coups, legendary Peronist speeches and popular uprisings. Today it’s still a meeting place for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who for 30 years have come together to demand the whereabouts of their children that disappeared during the military dictatorship (1976-1983)
Buenos Aires is a city with an intense stage life, where all genres of music and theatre have their space and their audience. It’s considered one of the world capitals of theatre. A visit to the Teatro Colon, one of the most emblematic cultural sites, is a must. Corrientes Avenue hosts most of the theatre venues, and is also an ideal place to spend time in cafes and bookstores, or try a delicious pizza.
Buenos Aires’s most elegant and sophisticated area is Recoleta, an upper-class neighbourhood, resplendent with international fashion shops and art galleries.
Here we find the aristocratic Recoleta Cemetery, worth a visit to see the elaborate burial architecture and resting places of leading figures like Evita Peron, Facundo Quiroga and Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Recoleta also hosts the National Museum of Fine Arts, containing a large collection of European paintings and Argentinean art, both modern and colonial.
To the north, the neighbourhood of Palermo, with its quiet middle class ambience, combines leafy parks with local design shops and markets. Here can be found the Museum of Decorative Art, the Hernandez Museum of Popular Art and the Latin American Art Museum. It is also an ideal place to wander among the many restaurants in the area known as the Palermo Hollywood, which have delivered a new level of sophistication in the preparation of sauces and fillings and the combination of ingredients for Italian pasta and pizza. Traditional empanadas are also greatly appreciated, especially in the company of a glass of good local wine. For those who crave even more culinary indulgence, sweets and breads tempt passers-by from the windows.
One place not to be missed is the Café Tortoni, the first tearoom in the city. Since 1858, it has hosted, with the charm of its art nouveau architecture and high ceilings, many customers looking for a good coffee, chocolate, churros, and other culinary delights, plus a good tango show. Some Buenos Aires celebrities used to frequent the area, such as Carlos Gardel, the most celebrated tango singer and song writer in history, or Jorge Luis Borges, one of the world’s outstanding literature personalities, who was born and raised in Palermo, and visited other trendy cafes such as ’El Preferido‘ or ’El almacén Rosa’.
Borges (1899-1986), had a very close creative relationship with the city. He recounts the inspiration he received after returning in 1921, following seven years of absence:
“The city, not the entire city, of course, but a few places that meant something to me emotionally, inspired the poems of my first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires.”
Any time of the year is good to visit the city. January, in summer, is the quietest, as many residents go on vacation, but its cultural life and tourist services don’t slow down.
The average annual temperature is 18º C, with mild temperatures in winter and summer.
The local currency is the peso, but most businesses will accept US dollars and credit cards.
The Worldwide Tango Festival will be held in August, 2011.
High: Faena Hotel and Universe (Puerto Madero) about $600
Middle: Hotel Plaza Francia (Recoleta) about $120
Budget: Hostel Inn Tango City (San Telmo) $50
Esther L. BelmonteThis article was published on RADAR Magazine Ed17 – 2011