Buenos Aires is best approached by sea. It’s a port city, after all, whose famous tango was born in seedy docklands, and whose citizens are aptly named porteños. The city sneaks up on you; the Buquebus ferry from Montevideo takes just over two hours, displaying little fanfare as it approaches shore (1). The ferry passes through a narrow opening into the cozy Dársena Norte harbor (2). To the left is the aristocratic Yacht Club Argentino (3), topped by a glowing orb. The city’s skyline is unremarkable; coming into the harbor may be the last time you even think of the word “skyline”.
Buenos Aires is not a city of towering 21st (or 20th) century skyscrapers. It’s a turn-of-the-last-century city. The glorious opera house, Teatro Colón (4), was completed in 1908. The massive central post office, Correo Central (5), was built between 1889-1928. Buenos Aires is a sprawling city, and soon after you leave the ferry building you may never see the ocean again. In this way (and others), the city resembles Tokyo. Although built next to the water, everyday life seems to have little contact with the shore.
What did I know about Argentina before my visit?
I’d heard of the city’s palatial architecture. Of the nation’s “melancholy” mood. The enigmatic, towering Borges. I’d heard of Evita, of course, though I hardly knew why she was famous. I knew about the dirty war, sadly, and the 30,000 desaparecidos. The Kirchners, bond defaults, currency devaluation. Tango.
Take these impressions and imagine a city. Describe it in detail. Make 10 versions…20…100. Do any of them resemble Buenos Aires? Not in the slightest. Buenos Aires is a flawed city, like all cities, but it is far greater than the sum of its parts, and far more enjoyable than I had imagined.
[In this post, the numbers in parentheses refer to the companion map]
I. Argentina’s “accidental” wealth
My first impression of Buenos Aires is of main thoroughfares with large stone buildings, imposing and impressive. And on side streets, smaller stone buildings, beautiful and quaint, as in the northern half of the San Telmo neighborhood (6). The architecture is uniformly delightful. But I can’t help but wonder how all of these buildings were built. Who built them? Who paid for them? How much did it cost?
I recall an article from The Economist that essentially described Argentina’s period of prosperity as being an accident of history. These may not be the article I read, but they paint a similar picture:
“Argentina’s story is that of a decline unparalleled in modern times. Blessed with some of the world’s most fertile land on the endless pampas, Argentina in the 19th century attracted a flood of British capital and European immigrants…By 1913, having grown at an annual average rate of 5% for the previous three decades, it was one of the world’s ten richest countries, ahead of France and Germany. It has been downhill ever since. Exporting beef and grain to Britain ceased to be a passport to prosperity.” THE ECONOMIST, February 2002 – “Argentina’s collapse: A decline without parallel”
The party may have stopped in 1914, but the hosts left behind a gorgeous city. I’ve never been to Paris, yet I kept comparing Buenos Aires to my idealized image of France’s capital. The porteños of today may be living in the shadow of the past, but they are beautiful, well-preserved shadows.
II. City Center
The unifying feature of central Buenos Aires is July 9th Avenue (9 de Julio Avenue) (7), an immensely wide boulevard catering to cars, bus-rapid-transit, and pedestrians. In the middle of the avenue is the Obelisco de Buenos Aires (8), probably the city’s most recognizable landmark.
My friend and I stayed nearby at the Gran Hotel Ailen (9), a slightly worn but generally very nice hotel with attractive prices; we paid USD $248 for 2 people for 4 nights. The hotel is an easy walk to the Obelisk and other major sites like Florida Street.
Florida Street (10) is a pedestrian shopping street that is something of a “must-see”. However, as non-shoppers, we didn’t need more than 20 minutes to walk the street’s length. Although shopping wasn’t on our itinerary, we found Florida Street an excellent venue for currency exchange. As of the date of our visit, the official government exchange rate was 8 Argentine Pesos per US Dollar. However, it was an open secret that you could get a better rate on the black market (the blue dollar). On Florida Street we got a rate of 10 pesos per dollar without any hassle.
(Some people travel to nearby Uruguay to take money out of Uruguayan ATMs. Read this post: The Colonia Dollar? ATM Access in Uruguay)
The subway system in Buenos Aires, known as Subte, is easy to use, inexpensive, and provides decent coverage. Not world-class coverage like New York or Tokyo, but about as useful as Boston’s T, and better than Melbourne’s streetcar network, at least in the central urban core. The subway system, like the rest of Buenos Aires, is steeped in the city’s glorious past. Completed in 1913, the Subte was the first underground railway in the Spanish-speaking world. Trains from 1913 continued to be in service until 2013; known as “La Brugeoise cars“, the historic wooden cars were widely loved and sorely missed by preservationists.
“The antique Belgian-built cars, a symbol of Buenos Aires’s early-20th-century wealth, were taken out of service this year, and their retirement is a poignant example of the city’s struggle to preserve its physical history as some of its icons and infrastructure crumble.” (New York Times)
Although I’m sympathetic to preservation concerns, I’m also partial to safety. Even I had heard of Buenos Aires’ train crashes in 2012 and 2013. And while the antique Belgian cars were (I believe) not involved in those crashes, I don’t suppose that a subway system with 1913 technology is the safest option.
One thing that surprised me about the Subte was that the windows in the subway cars can be opened. I don’t recall seeing this anywhere else in the world (trains, yes; subways, no). There’s something of a steampunk feel about Buenos Aires, and the Subte is exhibit #1: a mechanical marvel from an earlier era.
The following is a video of a ride on the antique subway cars:
In addition to the Subte, there are various commuter rail lines. The train line terminating at Once Station (11) was the one involved in the 2012 and 2013 crashes. Closer to the harbor is the palatial Retiro Station (12):
Food & Drink (mostly drink)
Walking around Buenos Aires at night reminded me, oddly, of Tokyo. Both cities are vast, with a seemingly endless number of low-rise buildings, mixed-use neighborhoods, and bars and restaurants anchoring the busier intersections. In Buenos Aires, I would leave one bar or restaurant and walk with nothing other than a general direction in mind. Without fail I would find interesting neighborhoods and pleasant drinking holes without much effort. One night in particular rewarded me with one of the most seamless and pleasant nights of solo drinking that I can remember.
As afternoon yielded to evening, I explored the surrounding neighborhood, Palermo Soho (14), which is among the liveliest neighborhoods in the city. Centered around Plaza Serrano (15) are a number of bars and restaurants, many with outdoor seating. Wanting a quieter spot, I ended up at Sullivan’s Pub (16), figuring they’d have good beer. Although craft beer isn’t widely available in Buenos Aires, I could often find Patagonia Weisse, a perfectly suitable beer from the brewing giant Quilmes, which has 75% of Argentina’s beer market.
Coffee and Beer: Full City Coffee House and Sullivan’s Pub
After Sullivan’s I head east, then southeast, past attractive eateries such as Ralph’s (17), Quimbombó (18), and Janio (19). Ralph’s is highly-reviewed on Tripadvisor, and the latter two restaurants are located on the tree-filled Plaza Palermo Viejo (20).
I wandered into La Peca (21), enjoying a Quielmes stout and soaking up the fun, casual atmosphere. The streets here are quieter than in Palermo Soho, and there are fewer bars and restaurants, mostly houses.
I continue on, finding my last drink(s) of the night at Nostalgia (22), on the edge of the Villa Freud district. Here, for reasons that Freud could guess, I simultaneously had a beer and mojito-like drink:
After all of this drinking, it’s time for..
…Pizza (a special section, because it’s so important)
At 47.8% of the total population, Italians are by far the largest ethnic group in Argentina (French are second at 15.8%). The preponderance of Italian heritage is made obvious by the popularity and quality of the pizza restaurants in the city. On two successive nights I stopped in for slices at Pizza Guerrin Pizzería Güerrin (36), also spotting the nearby Banchera ‘La Verdadera Pizza’ “The True Pizza”.
Pizza Guerrin has a lively vibe. If you don’t want to go drinking, but want to rub elbows with those who have, this is a fun scene. Even the chefs were having a good time.
As I recall, the pizza was fresh and cheesy, the perfect snack for a night of drinking. It’s named one of the top 5 pizzerias in the city, per the Argentina Independent, and is open late…2 a.m., I believe.
The streets are alive
The streets of Buenos Aires are lively and the parks are well-used. It was a happier city than I had imagined. Maybe we just happened to visit during a time of nice weather? Parque Lezama (24), for instance, was full of people of all ages. Children at the playground, families, teenagers, older people…and a puppet show.
Nearby, in San Telmo (25), I encountered a vibrant street festival, including another puppet show!
Scenes like this gave me the impression of Buenos Aires as a livable city, a place to be savored rather than endured. On a first visit it ranks in the upper tier of any city I’ve been to, beating most American cities.
Water / canals
Although Buenos Aires is a port city, the life of the city is largely divorced from the ocean. The coastline can be divided into two sections, bending in the middle near the Buquebus ferry terminal (1). The upper half of the coast is cut-off from the city by a highway (26). On the inland side of the highway is Villa 31 (Villa Miseria) (27), a large slum near Retiro Station. On the ocean side of the highway is the Zona Portuaria.
The port area is all business, with hardly any people or cars in sight (28). The streets are wide and barren, though a line of trees gives the impression that this could have been an embassy district in another lifetime.
The lower section of the coast is defined by Puerto Madero (29) and the Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve (Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur). Along the edge of the ecological reserve is a long tree-lined promenade that was a complete surprise and and absolute joy. The grey weather may make the photos look rather glum, but it was a dreamlike space where people could walk, rest, grab a bit to eat, and just enjoy being outside.
I stopped for lunch at the north end of this promenade (32), then walked south until the Laguna de los Coipos (33).
On the east side of Puerto Madero is an old series of docks lining the Río Darsena Sur river. The docks have not been working for decades, but more recently the area underwent urban redevelopment, with restaurants, art galleries, etc, and high-rise buildings. Pictured are “Madero Walk Eventos“, a floating event space (34), and a (digitally altered) photo of a cluster of new condo towers.
The southern border of Puerto Madero is delineated by a narrow channel in the canal (39) and a highway overpass that cuts off Puerto Madero from its neighbor, the infamous La Boca.
La Boca and Tango
La Boca (37) is a neighborhood on the southeast corner of Buenos Aires. Its location next to three bodies of water (Rio Darsena Sur, Matanza River, and Rio Dock Sud) made it a natural choice as a port. Here is a photo from 1936 of the “Vuelta de Rocha” section (38) of La Boca, named after the bend (“return”, or vuelta) in the river.
La Boca was, and is, described as a place of poverty and misery. And as the birthplace of the tango. Here’s a passage from World Literature in Spanish: G-Q, page 46:
“Ironically, this working class barrio [La Boca] is today a major attraction for international tourism, though at the time only poor health, prostitution, and delinquncy reigned. Such was the environment that gave birth to Rio de la Plata’s world-famous tango music and dance in the 1880s.”
A concise description can be found on Wikipedia:
“La Boca is a popular destination for tourists visiting Argentina, with its colourful houses and pedestrian street, the Caminito, where tango artists perform and tango-related memorabilia is sold…The actual area visited by tourists is only a few blocks long and has been built up for tourism very actively over the last few years. Outside this tourist area, it is a fairly poor neighborhood that has had many regular occurrences of petty crimes reported.”
Crime is also mentioned in this blog:
“Safety in La Boca: As in most places where a popular tourist attraction sits in the middle of an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, La Boca can be dangerous for visitors who stray off the tourist path.”
Is it really that bad?
From my perspective, it wasn’t as scary as advertised, but I did get a sense that La Boca is markedly different from other parts of the city. Remember when I described how wonderful Buenos Aires is? I wouldn’t make those statements if the entire city resembled La Boca. I experienced no crime, but as I walked down Avenue Almte Brown (40), it just felt vaguely unlovely. Slightly too much graffiti. People slightly less well-dressed than elsewhere. Many things were slightly off.
I got a good view of the Puente Transbordador from the adjacent Puente Nicolás Avellaneda bridge (42); an elevator takes you to the bridge level, which has a pedestrian walkway. Back at the base of the bridge were a number of buildings showing typical symptoms of neglect.
Caminito (La Boca)
Not far from here is the tourist heart of La Boca: Caminito (43). This old alley-way is marketed as a “street museum”, purportedly showing what La Boca looked like during the days of dockworkers and the birth of tango. The two features of interest for tourists are the brightly-painted corrugated metal houses, and the tango dancers who performer outside the many cafes and restaurants.
This is the center of the tourist area:
The dancers were mesmerizing. There were two sets of performers: the first performed what I think of as “traditional” tango; the second set performed a wilder form of dance that included vigorous foot stamping by the charismatic male dancer.
Caminito is decidedly touristy, but it is pretty thrilling to watch tango on the same streets where it was borb.
Soccer / futbol
As cool as it was to see a large stadium like La Bombonera, it was also nice to see amateurs playing in the park.
I’ve spent a lot of time describing La Boca, but before I finish, let me mention a handful of other neighborhoods that are worth visiting.
- San Telmo: I’ve already mentioned this neighborhood, but let me also mention the Feria de San Pedro Telmo (46), an antique fair that take place in a public square every Sunday. Also in this neighborhood are a number of rustic, casual restaurants with beautiful natural old-world decor, such as La Poesia (49).
- Palermo Hollywood (47): a hipster-ish area that seems less mainstream than Palermo Soho. Here’s an example of an intersection: Dorrego 2200 (48). This neighborhood also has a beautiful church, Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Rosario (50).
- Las Cañitas (51): a great blog entry notes this “district is famed for possessing one of the biggest concentrations of bars and restaurants in the city”. In addition to bars and restaurants, this neighborhood has a tucked-away, sequestered feel, with tree-lined streets and an overall feeling of quality (52). I stopped for ice cream and it was delightful.
- Recoleta (53): As described by Gringo Buenos Aires, “With its lavish stately homes and plush hotels, Recoleta is considered by many to be the most affluent neighborhood in Buenos Aires. It is also an area of immense historical interest, namely the impressive Recoleta Cemetery.” Absolutely correct. Cementerio de la Recoleta (54) is something of a must-see, along with its church, Nuestra Señora del Pilar Church (55).
- Palermo Park District: this probably isn’t an official designation, but it’s the term I’ll use to describe the vast parks radiating from the intersection of Avenue Sarmiento and Avenue del Libertador. The parks have a grand feel, like a smaller version of New York’s Central Park. The bordering avenues are wide and prosperous, such as here (56). When we visited, the surrounding streets were closed to traffic due to the overwhelmingly popular free concert by Martina Stoessel, aka Disney’s Violetta.
What better way to end this post than with the enormous image of a Disney star.
Resources, links, and other:
Homer Simpson is a porteno
“In the 43 years leading up to 1914, GDP had grown at an annual rate of 6%, the fastest recorded in the world. The country was a magnet for European immigrants, who flocked to find work on the fertile pampas, where crops and cattle were propelling Argentina’s expansion. In 1914 half of Buenos Aires’s population was foreign-born…It never got better than this.” “A century of decline: One hundred years ago Argentina was the future. What went wrong?” – THE ECONOMIST, February 2014
- “Buenos Aires more than the sum of its melancholy parts” (The Denver Post, September, 2012)
- Art: “Brazilian happiness and Argentine melancholy”
- “Argentina: melancholic, but mad for a scone and footie at its fiercest” (The Telegraph, May, 2010)
- “Buenos Aires’s citizens take to the courts to save the ‘Paris of South America’ from bulldozers” (The Guardian, September, 2014)
- “Preserving history in Buenos Aires” (BBC, March, 2013)
Trains and Subte
- Subte 101: How to Take the Buenos Aires Subway
- Commuter Train Crash Kills Dozens in Argentina (2012)
- Argentine train crashes into Buenos Aires Once station (2013)
- Replacement for the 1913 Belgian trains: Buenos Aires Underground 200 Series
- Buenos Aires urban rail map
La Boca and Tango
- Celebrating Black History Month: The Roots of Tango
- Old photos of Buenos Aires, from Horacio Coppola
- History of the tango (Wikipedia)
- Murder, drug cartels and misery counter Argentina’s claims of falling poverty: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s suggestion that Argentina’s poverty rate has been cut to less than 5% rings false with experts and locals alike (The Guardian, July 2015)
- See also: interactive maps of Buenos Aires
- Buenos Aires habitat
- As you can see from my map, I’ve only scratched the surface of this sprawling city: