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Destination Argentina

Buenos Aires: Fervor, Sunday Barbecues, and Irrepressible Emotions

Buenos Aires is a metropolis with the soul of a small town where people take siestas at midday and stay up all night. This Latin city with a European air offers many ways to enjoy its architecture, tango, cuisine, soccer, theater, music, and folklore traditions.

By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman

Buenos Aires is classic, colorful, cultured, and entertaining. It is a city with a sense of humor and its brilliant creative types have made it a major player in theater, cinema, literature, and music. The city is so universal that many of us, regardless of where we are from, have at times felt that it is our city, since its music has touched us and its sorrows have made us cry.

Just stroll a few blocks in any direction and you will feel the beat that gets the porteños (Buenos Aires residents) moving. It is as if each corner has its own rhythm: a sax here, a band there, a dancer on Florida, or a singer in the subway car. But it’s not just the street singers. It is also a collective mind steeped in memory: walking to Corrientes 348 while Carlitos Gardel sings in our ears, going to Café La Paz with Fito Paez or to the El Tigre delta with Sandro de América, crooning the ballads of Soda Stereo and Mercedes Sosa over and over as we stroll along Avenida de Mayo, or eating pastries at Café Tortoni. And there are the stars: performers from around the world visit frequently and impress their rhythms on everyday life in the city’s nightclubs and theaters.

There is a reason Buenos Aires is known as the city that doesn’t sleep. As the sun sinks to the beat of alternative rock, the tango comes alive at the open-air club in Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo; the lindy hop holds sway in the city’s most iconic parks with the boys of Swing Buenos Aires and the party continues until the sun rises over Plaza Serrano. The pre-party, the party, and breakfast afterward are essential ingredients of the best nights in Buenos Aires, where rhythms run the gamut of musical subcultures.

But not everything is a party. Since its founding, Buenos Aires has welcomed newcomers from all parts of world, even if they came with no more than hope. Immigrants continue to arrive and contribute to the construction of a metropolis with the soul of a small town where people take siestas at midday and stay up all night. A multi-hued panoply of hands has created the best atmosphere, as is most evident in the La Boca neighborhood on a street filled with music, souvenirs, and good food.

The iconic Pink House, across from Plaza de Mayo, is another example of the synthesis of cultures and influences that inspired the builders of this city. The eclectic architecture spills onto the streets, giving tourists a reason to stop and gape at everything. The buildings of Avenida de Mayo perfectly encapsulate the history of the capital, delighting lovers of architecture. Masonic symbols, art nouveau balconies, century-old clocks, and sumptuous cupolas punctuate the blue skies of the finest summer days.

The city government organizes free walks with trained guides who tell secret stories peopled by famous architects and phantoms that hide behind the windows. You can visit the Pink House (inside and out) on weekends by signing up online in advance and even stand on the balcony where Madonna’s Evita sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

Each neighborhood has its own small cultural center, but art lovers will find the best events at the CCK: theater, music, dance, literature, and fine art come together under one roof with free, high-quality events featuring national and international names.

The city is also full of museums and there is a museum for every taste: architecture, history, design, and even a Beatles Museums and a Mate Museum. MALBA, MACBA, and MAMBA are not just cute acronyms, but excellent cultural centers exhibiting Latin American, contemporary, and modern art, respectively. The Museum of Fine Arts has a collection of more than 11,000 works, the Evita Museum presents a touching history of its namesake, the Gardel House-Museum depicts the life of the singer inside the walls of his childhood home, and the Humor Museum takes visitors back to their childhoods with Hijitus, Mafalda, and many others. This last museum is the final stop on a diverting “cartoon road”: several miles featuring the most famous characters that have sprung from the pencils of brilliant local artists.

Calle Corrientes lights up at dawn and theater fans are spoiled for choice during the season. The actors we follow on the big screen move from scene to scene on this street, perfectly at home: you can see Les Luthiers, trying their best to make us expire from laughter, liven up the Gran Rex; Ricardo Darín serenely goes from live performance to live performance; and on a corner somewhere, the eternal Sandro lives again thanks to the magic of theater. Around the city, small alternative theaters, community theaters, and spaces for up-and-coming artists lend energy to the most out of the way places. If you are in the mood for an unusual twist, try the Abasto neighborhood’s “theater in the dark” for an experience of music, food, and feelings in total darkness. Are you up for it?

Now that we have strolled along Corrientes and gone to the theater, it’s time to eat. Where to start? The rainbow of colorful desserts? The exquisite pastries or the classic alfajores (sandwich cookies filled with caramel)? The vegetables bursting with flavor? The artisan ice cream shops? Or perhaps the famous meat, the mere mention of which makes our mouths water? Let the pizza war begin! The first name that comes to mind is Güerrin. Founded in 1932 and offering more than seventy varieties of pizza, it has witnessed the cultural growth of Buenos Aires. Las Cuartetas and El Imperio de la Pizza, also located on Corrientes, are considered part of the city’s cultural heritage.

There is also competition for the juiciest, most tender cut of meat. At La Brigada, for example, the meat falls apart at a touch, and wine goes down easily in the best company. Siga la Vaca in Puerto Madero is very popular, giving you an excuse to amble around yet another city setting.

Dinner shows are a hit with tourists seeking a dining experience that includes tango and gaucho folklore. If you want to experience the soul of Buenos Aires and be assured that the tango lives on in the hearts of porteños, you need to go to a milonga (tango club), but only as a spectator, please. It would not do to break protocol. A milonga features a set program, with more than twenty options every day of the week.

But the absolute must-sees are the “notable cafés.” There are more than eighty of these venues scattered around the city where wood-paneled walls, tables lit by small lanterns, and bow-tied waiters evoke eras when authors, theater people, and painters famously gathered to philosophize about life and spin tales that would transport us to new worlds. An initiative seeking to preserve these “Bares Notables” works to identify and list the oldest ones in the city. Stand-outs include London City, Cortázar’s favorite; the famous tea room Las Violetas; Plaza Dorrego in the traditional San Telmo neighborhood; and especially, Café Tortoni, which has presided over the city’s best epochs during its hundred-year history. The Tortoni exudes so much history that merely stepping over the threshold brings time to a stop, and the murmur of the crowd transmits the energy of the greats who came before: it is as if Borges, Gardel, and Alfonsina had never left.

Old Tortoni, In your warmth are Quinquela and the poem by Tuñón,and that tango by Filiberto, like you, is not dead, it lives without saying farewell. Héctor Negro

Since we’re talking about local passions —also expressed to the beat of “Razón de vivir” or “Zamba para olvidarte”— on weekends team colors and heightened emotions are on display. Soccer culture is not something to be taken lightly: team colors are in the blood and, on Sunday nights, shouts of joy or frustration float out of windows, bouncing from building to building. Fans of this sport visit the La Bombonera stadium, home to Boca Juniors, to see the stadium and museum and acquire all manner of souvenirs. Outside the stadium is a walk of fame that immortalizes the hand and footprints of the best players; it features prominently in the hundreds of photos taken here every day. The best part is that it’s only minutes from the colorful Caminito, or “street museum.”

Speaking of religions, personalities, and passions, we mustn’t forget that Pope Francis was born, raised, and educated among these fascinating streets. On weekends, the city government organizes the Papal Circuit, a guided tour of the most significant neighborhoods in the Pope’s life. It has already become as much of a classic as the La Recoleta cemetery tour, led by historian Eduardo Lazzari, or the architecture walk along Avenida de Mayo, led by expert Gabriela Chistik.

And there are the traditional markets: how wonderful to spend a Sunday afternoon in the Mercado de Mataderos, where folklore remains very much alive and so intense that you will soon find yourself dancing a chacarera to the beat of a local band. Sunday is also a good day to eat delicious grilled meat in the plaza and buy handicrafts from one of the more than seven hundred stalls.

La Feria de La Recoleta is the largest handicraft market in Buenos Aires, offering products of exceptional artistic value and top-quality materials. Meanwhile, Sundays in San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego bring out every kind of antique in a fair that peaks every November, during the anniversary fête.

If you haven’t yet, you really should resolve to visit the many Buenos Aires scenes that have become the property of us all on the strength of the unforgettable artistic works they have inspired. The “must-see” list is long, especially for those of us who experience Buenos Aires before even setting foot in the city.