Buenos Aires has been the city of my dreams for many years. I finally got my wish to see it this past March and spent 10 wonderful days there. Buenos Aires is a city of plane tree lined streets reminiscent of Paris, French/Italian neoclassical buildings, hundred-year-old Art Deco cafes, and plentiful public parks and squares. Its people are down-to-Earth, natural, proud and dignified. The culture is amazingly rich with beautiful architecture, great museums, incredible street art, sensual tango, and talented musicians. Despite all these glowing attributes, sadly, the city feels like it’s decaying. To my eyes, there was little sign of urban construction or cranes (a sign of renewal and growth), and garbage was everywhere despite an the abundance of garbage receptacles everywhere. It felt like a city waiting to be reborn again. Still, it really felt like home to me. I fantasized about buying one of the many corner properties on the tree-lined, cobblestoned streets of Palermo. Ahh, maybe in another life!
Tango is what brought me to Buenos Aires. My husband and I started taking tango classes more than a year ago. At first, it was something that we wanted to try out for fun, but it soon became a part of our lives that we became very excited about. We take group classes in Orange County, CA once a week with an amazing Argentine instructor, Marcos Questas and his equally wonderful wife, Ruta Maria. My classmates quickly became our good friends. It wasn’t surprising why we all got along. People who enjoy tango are generally romantics and appreciate the finer things in life. We share an enthusiasm for seeing and trying new things (I know, a massive generalization). We seem to have all these things in common. When Marcos and Ruta mentioned that they planned on taking the class to Buenos Aires, most of us jumped at the opportunity. To say that I was excited was an understatement. To go to Argentina was a dream, but to go with my tango class and dance tango every day was something that I could never have imagined I would do. My parents also made it possible for my husband and I to make the trip, as they thankfully took care of our children while we were away.
My 10 days in BA were jam-packed! We had our mornings free and would pick a neighborhood to walk through and explore. After lunch, we usually had a few hours of tango classes. At this point, we would be utterly exhausted and yearn for an afternoon nap. Luckily, dinners are extremely late in BA, we’re talking after 9! We would meet our tango class buddies for dinner (usually accompanied by lots of Malbec). Finally, we would finish off the night at either a milonga (a tango party) or a bar somewhere. The next morning, we would wake up and do this all over again. It was all so exhilarating because it was miles away from my normal routine back in suburban California.
Walking through the different neighborhoods was such a joy and each had a distinct character. What I loved was the abundance of green space everywhere, and above all, the tree-lined streets. I savored the sight of all the newspaper stands and bookstores everywhere. We even spotted a few CD shops! It felt as if I was transported back in time to the 90s, but with cell-phones. We had a some favorite neighborhoods that we returned to a few times, namely, Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood, San Telmo, Microcentro (with Calle Florida), and Recoleta. I loved the Palermo neighborhoods in particular because of the smaller residential buildings, cobblestoned streets lined with trees, cafes, shops and parks. It reminded me of Sanlitun, my old neighborhood in Beijing, where I lived for many years.
Eating in BA:
Immigrants from Spain and Italy left a profound influence on the food in Argentina. Pizza places are ubiquitous here. Pasta dishes can be ordered from practically any restaurant. Empanadas and chorizo sausages are also popular foods. What Argentina is known for, however, is their Parillas (steak houses). Argentinians eat an enormous amount of beef per capita. If you know where to go, it is truly amazing. My favorite cut is the entraña, or skirt steak. You must order a side of fries with it. I found their potatoes absolutely delicious. Fries were perfectly made everywhere we tried them (not surprising, as potatoes were originally cultivated in the region). We had many steak dinners while we were there and plenty of bottles of excellent Malbec wine to wash everything down. The thing that puzzled me was that none of our group ever woke up with a wine hang-over!
The parilla dinners were great, but soon we craved seeing greens on our dinner plates. When we ordered salads with our meals, we found them wanting (canned mushrooms and olives with iceberg lettuce). Apparently, Buenos Aires is experiencing a boom in vegetarian restaurants, but I didn’t get to any of them. I noticed there were many Peruvian restaurants in the city, as there are many immigrants from there. We went to Peruvian restaurants a few times and ordered seafood dishes, which was a nice change from the steaks, pizzas, empanadas and sandwiches we mostly ate. These are my recommended restaurant picks:
- Chiquilin is a must. Get the skirt steak (la extraña) with a side of fries. Their steak was the best we had on our trip.
- Güerrin pizzeria: This place is extremely popular, lively, and has been making delicious Argentine style pizzas since 1932.
- El Mirasol de la Recova: Upscale restaurant with excellent steak.
- Piegari Carnes: Another upscale restaurant with excellent steak.
Be sure to try the Empanadas. They are everywhere and have a variety of fillings. They are the perfect food to take while on the go or while picnicking in one of the many beautiful parks in the city.
Cafes To While Away The Time:
Like a typical European city, Buenos Aires has a cafe on every street corner. Many are quaint and nostalgic, and you will want to soak in the atmosphere while sipping a cafe con leche. These places are great to get popular baguette style sandwiches (usually with a slice of steak, sausage, or schnitzel) or empanadas. For something sweet, try the very popular medialunas, which are basically croissants. For dessert, they offer all kinds of cakes, but be warned, practically every kind of dessert will have a dollop of dulce de leche with it. This seemed like heaven at first, but my friends and I soon had dulce de leche overload. Here are a few noteworthy cafes:
- Gran Tortoni Café: Founded in 1858! Come here to take in the history of this beautiful Belle-Époque era cafe.
- Las Violetas: Founded in 1884. Another charming and historical cafe.
- La Biela: If you’re ever visiting the Recoleta Cemetery, this cafe is right across the street. You can sit outside and people watch.
Nightlife in BA
If you like to eat and sleep at a sensible hour, Buenos Aires is not the place for you. Dinner is usually after nine, and bars and clubs are just getting started after 11pm! If you’re planning on going to a few milongas, don’t bother to show up until midnight. Honestly, this was a bit of a departure from my life in suburban Orange County, to say the least! I didn’t mind one bit. It felt so good to be in a city where it was still buzzing at 3 in the morning. It took me back to my Beijing days when it was normal to have a night on the town after any day of the week (of course pre kids!). The areas that are best known for nightlife in Buenos Aires are Palermo and San Telmo. However, good nightlife can be found everywhere in Buenos Aires. Here are some good picks:
- Plaza de Dorrego in San Telmo is a square surrounded by lots of bars. The square itself is covered with tables and chairs. One can sit and enjoy a drink with friends while listening or even dancing to live music. (there was a salsa band when I was there).
- Plaza Serrano in Palermo Soho is another very popular square surrounded by restaurants and bars.
- Floreria Atlantico: This is the most amazing bar hidden below a flower shop (in the Retiro neighborhood). It’s actually rated as one of the best bars in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from its speak-easy style entrance. Once you open a door in the back of the flower shop, you’ll discover a heaving bar with great ambiance and excellent cocktails.
- Victoria Brown Bar: This is a cool cafe (located in the Palermo Viejo area) with Victorian decor. At night, however, there’s a secret brick door in the back of the cafe, which when you push through, you enter a very cool bar.
- Frank’s Bar: Located down a quiet street in Palermo Hollywood, this is another speak-easy style bar where you need a password to get in. Apparently, this can be found on their Facebook page. Once inside, it’s a swanky and classy place.
Art and Culture in Buenos Aires:
Buenos Aires is a cultural power house. High points include great museums, wonderful architecture, amazing street art, beautiful tango, and the incredibly talented musicians that play tango music. During all our milongas (tango parties), our tango dancing was accompanied by a dozen or so musicians. There aren’t too many places in the world where it’s a normal thing to dance in front of a live orchestra of talented musicians (not nowadays anyway). How fortunate I felt to have experienced this.
It felt as though creativity and a spirit of self-expressiveness were pervasive everywhere. I saw this in the amazing art murals walking down many streets, in the political graffiti on the city’s garbage containers, and in the thought provoking or whimsical slogans lining the walls of restaurants and cafes. The city just oozes culture and creativity, and this is something to be extremely proud of.
Tango in BA:
Seeing live tango performances while in Buenos Aires is a must. In fact, I don’t think it’s avoidable, as I saw a few street performances just walking around in Recoleta, San Telmo and La Boca’s turisty areas. In Recoleta, a few of our group of travelers even danced with street performers who dance for money.
We saw quite a few tango performances in Buenos Aires and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. Like my tango instructors in Orange County, the dancers in BA inspired me to develop my tango skills further. It’s really not the easiest dance to learn, and it takes years of practice to become a decent dancer. It’s such a passionate and beautiful dance that I am willing to put in the time and effort it takes to improve.
If you are new to tango, or if you want to brush up and improve, there are many places that offer tango classes. Very often, they are offered right before a milonga and are a great way to warm up before a night of dancing. If you want to see some great tango performances, I recommend La Ventana.
- La Ventana: I thoroughly enjoyed the performances here, which included tango, boleadoras, and indigenous music from the Pampas. You can watch all this while eating a lovely dinner accompanied by Malbec wine.
Day trip to visit with the gauchos:
Real gauchos, or nomadic cattle herders of the South American Pampas, have not been around for about a hundred years. However, the gaucho culture and its proud traditions can still be seen in the dress, dance, music, foods, and incredible horsemanship in modern day estancias (ranches), festivals, and performances in Argentina. There are many day trips to estancias just outside of Buenos Aires where you can take in the gaucho culture. I highly recommend one of these excursions. The countryside around the city is beautiful, and your day will include amazing horsemanship performances, a wonderful parilla (bbq), dancing and singing shows, and even horseback riding. My group visited the Estancia Santa Susana, which we all really enjoyed and would highly recommend to anyone. Some in my group were so impressed by the gauchos that they became smitten with a few of them!
San Telmo Sunday Market:
San Telmo Market is a must-see weekly event. If you are looking to buy antiques, art, hand-made crafts, and touristy trinkets, this is the place. There are what seem to be hundreds of vendors lining La Defense Avenue.
Recoleta Cemetery is one of Buenos Aires’ top attractions. It’s a labyrinth of very ornate mausoleums and statues memorializing major historical figures, politicians, and the rich and famous of Argentina. Many mausoleums are beautiful and their inscriptions touching. Of course, the main attraction of this cemetery is the Duarte mausoleum where Eva Peron is buried.
Other interesting tidbits about the city:
I didn’t know there were Irish people living in Buenos Aires. I happened to be walking through a park in El Centro when I was caught up in a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Strikes in Buenos Aires seem like an everyday occurrence. Some are small, but others are so big that they can shut down many services and paralyze the city. We were in the city center during a large teacher’s strike. Don’t be shocked to see groups of people walking down the center of a street carrying banners. Most strikes are peaceful, but its best to stay away from the crowd.
My trip to Buenos Aires wouldn’t have been complete without a last minute trip to the colorful and ultra turisty Caminito Street in La Boca neighborhood. The area is touted as the birthplace of tango. Don’t bother stopping at the over priced souvenir shops and restaurants. Have a walk around the neighborhood and check out the one-time poor immigrant shanty houses which have been painted over in fabulous colors in the last few decades. You are also bound to walk into an outdoor tango performance or two.
Honestly, writing this blog-post has brought back so many great memories. I can’t wait to go back!