We might be four hours behind GMT here, like much of South America, but don’t adjust those watches yet if you want to party like a Porteño, this city may as well have its own time zone.
Soon enough things are warming up downstairs in the darkness of atmospheric basement techno venue, Cocoliche. Truth is most of what you’ll want to see here isn’t open before noon anyway – so there’s nothing else for it – you may as well order another Fernet and coke and party ’til the subway opens again.
Even beyond the almost nocturnal residents, there’s certainly something bewitchingly gothic about Buenos Aires. A trip to the graveyard may sound like a macabre way to initiate yourself, but it’s perhaps the perfect introduction to the melancholic beauty that makes Argentina’s capital so seductive. The Recoleta is probably the most well known cemetery in South America and a monument to artistry inspired by heartbreak, its opulently ornate tombs commemorate loved ones in the grandest way possible. There aren’t any other burial grounds I know of where a selfie seems almost acceptable.
If all that seems just a tad gloomy, right outside the Centro Cultural Recoleta is very much full of life. One of many creative hubs within these inspiringly artistic streets, the building hosts revolving exhibitions and live events ranging from obscure conceptual art pieces to raucous celebrations of soundsystem culture- there is room for all forms of expression. A small gallery shop is packed with the work of local designers and artists and makes one of the best spots to find a unique item or souvenir. Still in the same neighbourhood don’t miss the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes which offers an extensive collection of European and South American works with a particular focus on Argentina’s most important artists of the 20th century.
It’s said that tango is a sad thought, danced and Buenos Aires’s most famous cultural export certainly fits the narrative of a city steeped in nostalgia. Whilst that heritage is alive and well, there’s nothing backward looking within a thriving art scene that boasts more live theatre than anywhere else on the planet. Venues range from the world famous classical opera house Teatro Colon to the hyper-futuristic Centro Cultural Kirchner, a bewilderingly expansive events space based within the old central post office but now sporting a design pulled straight out of science fiction. Refreshingly, every single event and workshop at the CCK is free and there truly is something for everyone. I caught shows from each end of the spectrum, an avant garde exhibition of strange sonics and smells projected in to a pitch black room and the rather more conventional classic orchestral tango music of María Viviana Pisoni.
Somewhat confusingly, the seemingly obscure initialism CCK spells another BA venue, Ciudad Cultural Konex, which hosts Buenos Aires musical institution La Bomba de Tiempo. Loved by locals and tourists alike, the electrifying percussion group get bodies moving every Monday night aided by free flowing Quilmes, the most popular local brew, helpfully doled out in litre cups. Things are only getting started after the encore is over too, when the party spills out in to the surrounding bars and live music continues into the small hours.
A little more sombre but no less stimulating perhaps, El Ateneo Grand Splendid has been entertaining visitors for precisely a century, the building celebrates its centenary this year. The spectacular theatre has now become the most ostentatious of bookshops and is a great place to browse Latin American literature or chat over coffee and cake.
In this city of books, bar cum bookstore Falena seemed the ideal venue to meet Kevin Vaughn, a Californian writer and founder of food tour guide company Devour Buenos Aires, who’s called BA home for more than a decade now. Over a glass of Argentine Malbec we discussed the local restaurant scene before heading to some favourite haunts in his neighbourhood, Chacarita.
Fans of thin and crispy should probably look away now, pizza in these parts is more of a knife and fork affair. At El Imperio de la Pizza their deep and cheesy creations are heavyweight enough to go by the slice, “the best way to decide is head up to the counter and pick what looks freshest” Kevin tells me as I scour the trays of glistening meat and mozzarella covered delights.
Say what you like about deep pan pizza, and I have in my time, but first dare to get through a slice of fugazzeta rellena, heavily burdened with provolone cheese and charred onion, and not need a repeat performance.
As if these liberally endowed wedges weren’t filling enough, round here they like to top things off with faina, a delicious fleshy, slightly crisp and addictive chickpea fritter that feels like the sort of thing that’s probably dangerous to get a taste for.
The Italian influence is strong in Argentina, more than half of all residents can count at least one descendent of that part of the world, but this a nation of migrants from just about everywhere and the food scene reflects that fact. Homely eateries called bodegas are the pillars of communities, often having evolved from grocery shops in to restaurants that specialised in European dishes.
Gambrinus is a good example, with a menu of Belgian beers, German sausages and the adopted Argentinian favourite – suprema a la napolitana, breaded chicken topped with ham, cheese and tomato sauce. It’s clear BA likes to eat out and you can tell more than most customers having been meeting here to do just that for decades.
Perhaps the complex melting pot of European cultures is a nice metaphor for our night cap at La Fuerza, which produces its own blends of house vermouth, helpfully available on tap. The botanical-based fortified wine is experiencing a bit of a comeback and is worth keeping at eye out for at bars around town.
Nearby Palermo was one of the first neighbourhoods to experience hipster gentrification, so get your fix for craft beer bars, vintage clothes shops, dirty burgers and street art here. Some of the liveliest nightlife can be found spilling on to these pavements so if you plan to burn the candle at both ends this could be the place to rest your head. For a more rough and ready vibe, and some of the country’s best second hand leather stores, wander a little further down to Villa Crespo.
Graffiti tours are worth exploring, and galleries aren’t in short supply in Palermo either, but MALBA really can’t be overlooked. The ever-present collection of Latin American art from 1900-1970 is a fascinating journey through the political and literal landscapes of a connected group of countries which has cultivated icons of rebellion like Che Guevara and Frida Kahlo.
Arguably Buenos Aires’s most famous export after tango, Boca Juniors are one of the most successful football clubs in world history and twice counted a certain Diego Maradona within their ranks, who enjoyed spells which bookended his illustrious career. Aside from winning titles with international superstar players, Boca are also known for their crumbling stadium La Bombanera, which is rightfully regarded as one of the most intimidating stadiums in the game. The atmosphere is incredibly intense and if you’re lucky enough to get yourself a ticket prepare for a truly unforgettable experience.
Whether you go to a game or not, strolling the characterful streets of La Boca needs to be on your to do list. The playfully technicolour dwellings are in stark contrast to the grandioso greyscale architecture elsewhere, which has earned Buenos Aires the moniker Paris of South America. In fact this is a neighbourhood which has always tried to set itself apart and even seceded from the country by raising its own flag back in 1882, a show of defiance which only lasted a few days but demonstrated a fierce local pride. Whilst unashamedly touristy, a wander down El Caminito to enjoy a glass of wine and watch a tango show is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Ideally situated and teeming with cool restaurants, bars and a weekly antique market it’s hard to argue against San Telmo being the best area to base yourself to get a little flavour of everything on offer. I spent the afternoon with Antonella Saragó of Parrilla Tours, an ex tango instructor, who’s swapped the pista for the parrilla, and now gives guided tours exploring the best carnivorous stops in Buenos Aires.
We begin with that Argentine staple, empanadas, at Pedro Telmo– a rustic football memorabilia clad joint just outside San Telmo’s bustling food market. Mercado de San Telmo served its first hungry customers back in 1897 and still to this day clatters with vendors patter and clinking espresso cups under the same beautifully constructed wrought iron roof.
The main event of our tour takes us to Gran Parrilla del Plata, a restaurant that used to be a butchers- so you know they take their meat seriously. Lightly dressed, leafy green salads are virtuously laid out before a seemingly never-ending supply of beef begins to arrive at the table, sweetly pink and buttery skirt steak is the highlight. This is how dinner tends to work here, it’s not so much the quick and the hungry as the pleasantly full and the shamelessly gorged – I hope you choose well.
Any remaining space wouldn’t survive past our final destination. Fashioned with wood and stained glass, El Federal is the sort of dusty relic of a bar you dream about stumbling upon, they serve all day and also carry a line of surprisingly irresistible desserts. Keep an eye out for anything made with dulce de leche, the sweet nectarous obsession of almost all Argentinians, who seem intent on piling it upon just about anything.
Where to stay
With so many neighbourhoods vying for your attention it’s difficult to decide where to base yourself when visiting Buenos Aires, if you plan to stay longer than a few days and are travelling light, it could even be worth moving around. The Subte underground system is quick, cheap and safe to use though so wherever you choose it’s worth trying to pick a spot near a station.
I stayed at quirky five room Boutique Hotel Bonito in Monserrat, which has a choice of pretty private rooms each with their own style and character that retains the quaint charm of the building. A generous continental breakfast is served from the cosy lounge area adorned with an enviable suite of vintage furniture. The location is ideal, close to San Telmo and the Subte but situated in a more local neighbourhood filled with cute bakeries, bars and a flea market to investigate.
Plaza de Mayo
No visit would be complete without taking in Casa Rosada, the pink presidential building overlooking civic centrepiece the Plaza de Mayo, it’s free to enter so you can take up position on the same balcony that former leader Evita famously spoke from. Just don’t expect a brisk conversation if you happen to engage any locals on the subject of politics.
Unsurprisingly, Buenos Aires is somewhere you could only just scratch the surface of in days, weeks or even months, but it’s worth as much time as you can find. Despite a blend of borrowed cultures from all over the globe it still feels utterly one of a kind, this is a vibrant modern metropolis ingrained with its fascinating past and guaranteed to get under your skin.
Tim stayed at Boutique Hotel Bonito in Monserrat, for more information and to book click here.
Tim enjoyed a steak house tour with Parrilla Tour Buenos Aires for information and to book click here.
Tim experienced a food tour with Devour Buenos Aires for information and to book click here.