Perhaps you've heard the clichés declaring Buenos Aires the "Paris of the South" and "the birthplace of tango." After 29 years of visiting the city, I've decided these descriptions lock Argentina's capital into a straitjacket. Its Francophile side is only one aspect of a municipality that the late, great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges pronounced "as eternal as water and air." In just the time I've known it, this resilient conurbation has endured a brutal dictatorship, enjoyed a return to democracy, and experienced a boom-bust-boom renaissance that has made it one of South America's top destinations.
A backwater in colonial times, Buenos Aires pinned its hopes on silver, but its real wealth came from cattle herds grazing the nearby Pampas. The city has been shaped by immigrants—many from Italy and Spain—who helped create a metropolis of almost three million porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires call themselves), with another ten million beyond the beltway. Its many barrios, or neighbourhoods, boast an even greater diversity, including a Chinatown and areas built by recent immigrants from other South American nations.
These influxes helped create a city with a famously vigorous streetlife. Often, it seems, porteños are pouring onto the plazas for political protests, even as parents push their young children on playground swings past midnight. I regularly see culture hounds queuing at museums, diners filling some of the continent's most innovative restaurants, and chic women trolling fashion-forward clothiers.
More than the Paris of the South, Buenos Aires is a New World hybrid that combines the political intensity of Washington, D.C., with a Manhattanite mixture of culture and sights, restaurants, shopping, one-of-a-kind accommodations, and a frenetic nightlife that makes New York look like a city that naps. When I first visited Buenos Aires, in 1981, I was a grad student crashing at his future in-laws' apartment; today Buenos Aires is my second home. Still, the city dishes up something new each time I step outside my door.
It takes full-time residence here to know what will appear around the corner at any given moment. So it is to full-time—and longtime—residents that I turn in my pursuit of the essence of Buenos Aires. I begin with Exhibit A: food.
It is late in the morning when Dan Perlman and I set foot in the warehouse-like Mercado del Progreso, in the bustling barrio of Caballito. We are here to see the literal raw material of Argentine cuisine, a rich amalgam of European cooking traditions serving up everything from pizzas to sausages to empanadas. "This market, a cooperative of growers and producers, has been around for 120 years," Perlman tells me. "It's where the locals shop and where restaurateurs have arrangements with one farmer or another."
Perlman, a cheerful Wisconsin native who attended a New York culinary school, knows those arrangements firsthand. He operates his own restaurant, Casa SaltShaker, out of his apartment in the old-money neighbour-hood of Recoleta and is a food student ("my passion") and sommelier. His "SaltShaker" blog maybe the definitive guide to Buenos Aires dining and Argentine food.
He starts by discrediting a cliché about local tastes: that Argentines consume vast quantities of beef. "That's what porteños eat when they go out. They eat a much more varied diet at home. Every block in the city has a vegetable or fruit stand." In fact, the market's tidy stalls show off crates of yam-like Andean oca, daikon radishes, hot peppers, baby spinach, turnip greens—in the capital of a notoriously carnivorous nation.
Still, the beef butchers are the star performers here, deftly trimming the bife de chorizo (boneless porterhouse) and pounding out flank steaks for matambre—steak rolled around vegetables. I see other butchers purveying duck, chicken, turkey. Perlman walks me to a corner of the market where a sausage-making workshop hums with activity. "Individual butchers can have sausages made according to their customized recipes," he explains. I find myself wondering what this cornucopia of food means for local restaurant kitchens.
At La Cupertina, a homey eatery in Palermo, it means BA's finest finger food. "Among the foodie set, this is the holy grail of empanadas," says Perlman as we seat ourselves at a small table opposite the kitchen. "Here they tend to be smaller, which allows you to try a variety of flavours. What is distinctive is the light pastry crust." Our fillings are a diverse sampler: chopped (not ground) beef, creamed corn, cheese and onion, even chard with a lightly sugared crust. "It's fun to arrive when the empanadas are being made," says Perlman, "to watch the process."
Next we pop in El Trapiche, an immense, no-frills parrilla (grill) where carnivores congregate. We share a salty provoletta—"grilled cheese without the bread, air-dried with a crust," says Perlman—and a savoury entraña (skirt steak) big enough for three and costing less than ten dollars. "Entraña has more flavour than bife de chorizo," says Perlman. "The trade-off: It's usually chewier."
Sharing dishes leaves us room for ice cream at Heladería Cadore, a shop in business since 1957 and named for its founder's Italian village. "They make a traditional Italian-style gelato," Perlman says as he savours a three-flavour cup of bittersweet chocolate, Cointreau chocolate with candied orange, and apple strudel. "The flavours are intense, it has that creamy richness, and the staff take good care of customers."
Argentines rarely dine before 9 p.m., so it's long past nightfall when we taxi to the barrio Parque Chacabuco for the contemporary cuisine at Urondo Bar. "The kitchen takes classic Argentine dishes and embellishes them with touches of spices and herbs from around the world—but leaves them recognizable to locals," says Perlman.
From the open kitchen, our slow-food dinner—three-hour meals are not unusual here—starts with chef Javier Urondo's improvised appetizers. "These are dishes he's experimenting with," notes Perlman. "It's one of the charms of this restaurant." The wine list focuses on small bodegas, like our uncommon Finca El Reposo Saint Jeannet 2007, a "minerally" Mendoza white accompanying the starters. My entrée, matambrede cerdo, a pork flank with fennel, peas, and potatoes, reflects a seasonal menu. Perlman bypasses meat for calamares confitados (poached calamari). A Monte Cinco Reserva Malbec 2004 pairs well with both.
On busy nights, waiting patrons can peruse books on food and wine from around the world. They also can read poems written by Javier's "disappeared" father, poet Paco Urondo, who was a victim of Argentina's 1970s "dirty war." I glance at one on our way out, reminded that, in Buenos Aires, politics always linger just below the surface.
In hard times and good, porteños pay the price to look their best—and they can pay a lot. So when Patricia O'Shea leads me into a utilitarian-feeling men's clothier, Hermanos Estebecorena—its shirts and jackets hanging on rods over plain bakery cases, with prices displayed on an old-style letter board—I feel more at ease.
Despite her surname, O'Shea is a born porteña. After 17 years in Ireland—where she helped organize music group U2's tour catering—she returned to BA to marry English music producer Tom Rixton. They opened Home Buenos Aires, a boutique hotel a few blocks from her elementary school, and she advises guests on where to go and what to buy. She warns me that Buenos Aires's bargain reputation is no longer valid: "Where you find value is in quality. Cheap stuff will dissolve in the wash."
That's not the case with socks we eye at Hermanos Estebecorena. "Men somehow destroy socks, but these are indestructible." Unlike many, if not most, designers, the two brothers who created this clothing line did not start in fashion: They studied mechanics. Alejo segued into industrial design, Javier into fashion. They turned these talents to durable but stylish menswear and created, says O'Shea, "a destination store." Their shared background in industrial design fostered innovations—"My husband got a snowboarding jacket here that turns into a bag"—but they also export traditional leather jackets to boutiques that charge up to four times the price.
Most of O'Shea's choices aren't high fashion and lie in Palermo. "El Salvador is the best shopping street in the city," she says. At the almost nondescript shop Casa de las Botas, the rows of riding boots are the single apparent fashion statement. My eyes scan cognac-coloured boots made of hand-sewn leather and fanciful boots with gold-leather accents. The tobacco-hued boots with front zippers? Polo boots—a must in Argentina, a world polo capital. "I myself have two pairs of riding boots that I got when I was 12," says O'Shea. "They are in perfect condition. Fitters here pay special attention to calves—a crucial measurement for a custom fit."
For men's shoes she likes Calzados Correa, where a sign says, "If you want to shine in life, begin with your shoes." The cobbler started as a storefront in 1955; eventually, says co-owner Dany Correa as he leads us through rooms where craftsmen devote themselves to details, "the workshop and factory ate the house." Correa's shop makes only eight pairs of "eternal shoes" a day.
Argentines adore children, and O'Shea, with a one-year-old daughter, shops the cubbyhole Sopa de Príncipe for cloth dolls of penguins, soccer players, horses, and other totems of popular Argentine culture. "I like the way the store displays things in wooden crates, as though this were a produce store."
Porteño shopping is not just about fashion; it's also about culture. One of BA's glories? It's bookstores. "That bookstores are thriving in this cash-strapped land is amazing," O'Shea observes. The most glorious is Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid, the Metropolitan Opera of bookstores—almost literally so, for it's housed in a former theatre. As you enter, you see the spectator balconies, now lined with built-in bookshelves, and opera-style boxes, where readers relax with the title of their choice. "Nothing compares to El Ateneo," says O'Shea. "It's open 24 hours."
Argentina is also about wines. For her cellar O'Shea contacts 0800-VINO. "It is basically a delivery service started by an English sommelier, Nigel Tollerman, but you can also go to his shop on Anchorena." O'Shea raves about Tollerman's talents: "You call and tell him what your dinner is. He matches wine to the food and delivers it."
Maybe it's because Buenos Aires is a capital in politics-charged South America, or because so many porteños have familial roots in Italy—where everyone is a politician—but politics permeates everything here. So there is no place more fitting for my rendezvous with Martin Marimón than the square that fronts Argentina's presidential palace: the Plaza de Mayo.
Marimón works for Eternautas Tours, an agency that employs historians as guides. With the huge growth of this city, I need someone who will illuminate even places I know. Such as Plaza de Mayo.
Since the time of Juan and Evita Perón, Argentine leaders have convoked supporters to mass demonstrations at Plaza de Mayo. The square's lawns, flower gardens, fountains, and statuary, Marimón tells me, belie its reputation as the "plaza de protestas."
"Everyone has heard of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who started gathering here in 1977 to protest the 'disappearing'—the secret torture and execution—of their sons and daughters by Argentina's military junta. But Plaza de Mayo's notoriety goes back to 1945, when supporters of imprisoned populist caudillo Juan Perón demanded his freedom and changed the nation's history."
On this Monday morning, the only presence is a group of war veterans. Marimón steers me down the Parisian-style Avenida de Mayo to Café Tortoni. The oldest café in Argentina, it is a genteel, wood-panelled landmark that opened with fanfare in 1858. "The Tortoni is emblematic of the elegant cafés that were central to the cultural life of Buenos Aires in the 1920s and 1930s."
That legacy also marks the nearby quarter of San Telmo, birthplace of the tango, even as the area modernizes itself. Cobblestone streets, shops brimming with antiques, and a lively Sunday flea market at Plaza Dorrego make this barrio a must for every visitor.
Marimón dismisses the street of colourfully painted metal-clad houses known as the Caminito—a popular tourist enclave in the working-class barrio of La Boca—for its bad taste. "It mixes every Argentine idiom, from Diego Maradona to Evita to gauchos. It doesn't give a true impression of La Boca, which in the 1800s was the main port of our city." He does approve of Fundación Proa, a waterfront restoration he pronounces "a landmark of the arts scene that appeals to tourists but was not put here for tourists."
In fact, the arts in BA are flourishing. Among the recycled brick buildings of Puerto Madero, "another reconversion of a waterfront area where money is very conspicuous," says Marimón as we pass by, I spot Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's extraordinary Puente de la Mujer, a pedestrian suspension bridge that hovers like an Art Moderne harp over the yacht basin. Here, also, one of Argentina's wealthiest women founded the glistening new, glass-metal-and-stone Colección de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, a museum that focuses on Argentine art.
It's near the lushly landscaped Plaza General San Martín, where independence hero José de San Martín trained troops, that Marimón stops me in front of Palacio Paz. "This was the largest private home ever commissioned in Argentina," he tells me. "The really wealthy gentry tended toward Francophile palaces." Today home to an exclusive officers' club and open for tours, the Versailles-feeling palacio boasts three levels. "One was for social visits; one was for bedrooms [35 in all] and family life; and one was for servants' quarters and the kitchens." Its chandeliered ballroom reminds me that porteños, more than other South Americans, have used Europe as their lodestar.
The Francophile tradition really flourished in Recoleta. "This is the site of one of the world's most visited cemeteries," says Marimón, "the Cementerio de la Recoleta, noted for the crypt holding the remains of Evita Perón." As we roam the alleys and diagonals of this opulent necropolis, it comes across as aggressively secular. "None of the early tombs," Marimón observes, "have crosses or other religious symbols. They're adorned with obelisks and caps, which are republican emblems." In Buenos Aires, even death gives voice to politics.
As a struggling grad student, I couldn't afford Buenos Aires hotels. As a property owner I've rarely needed to stay in one. But there are moments when the idea tempts me, as when I stop at Café Arroyo in the elegant Sofitel, built in the 1920s by shipping magnate Nicolás Mihanovich. A hotel since 2002, the Sofitel sports a light-filled atrium that, notes Buenos Aires publisher and author Mario Banchik, "creates the sensation that the lobby is outdoors."
Banchik knows his hotels. He opened Librerías Turísticas, the first bookstore specializing in tourism in Argentina, in 1987. In 1989 he founded a publishing house; its photographic guide Todo Buenos Aires has sold more than 100,000 copies. He also has taught hotel management.
When Banchik hands me his list of the city's most authentic lodgings, he specifies, "I chose places with distinctive and unique architectural attributes." These include hotels like the Sofitel that are now part of chains. The centrepiece of the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt, for instance, is an extravagant family residence built in the 1930s. "Palacio Duhau, with its mansard roofs and decorative figures, is the last outlier in the Francophile part of the city," he says.
Another, albeit smaller, local "dame" is the tango-themed boutique hotel Mansión Dandi Royal, in San Telmo. All polished wood floors, curving staircase, and rooms adorned with tango motifs, "Mansión Dandi," says Banchik, "also runs a tango academy on site."
Three blocks away and in its own lodging category is the Telmo Tango Hostel Suites. "Though a hostel, it's very luxurious for its category," says Banchik. The reception area, on the second floor, is cheery and bright—a glass ceiling filters in natural light—and packed mid-morning with chatting travellers. Some sit on velvet-upholstered chairs sipping coffee, others are inquiring about tango lessons to be held that evening on the terrace. The 130-year-old building boasts high ceilings and details, such as chandeliers in the bathrooms, "that young travellers don't always appreciate."
A recent phenomenon in Buenos Aires is the short-term apartment rental, an option popular with aspiring milongueros—dance aficionados. "More visitors are coming to Buenos Aires for tango and staying a few months," says Banchik. "A number of agencies offer furnished apartments."
Many apartments are in high-rises, but in barrios like San Telmo we tour low-slung houses that recently have become hotels. Banchik points to the seven-room Gurda Tango Boutique Hotel, an early 1900s casa chorizo ("sausage house") that was created by dividing a larger house in two, with the rooms lining up in a row like sausage links, facing each other. "Families were big then. Married children lived with the parents," Banchik explains. The Gurda, with individually decorated rooms featuring local art and a mix of modern and antique furniture, is hard to define. "It's part French, part Italian…eclectic," Banchik decides.
Across town in the Palermo and Recoleta quarters sit two small hotels in historic buildings: the friendly, modestly priced Miravida Soho, in a restored 1930s mansion; and the new, luxe Algodon Mansion, a boutique inn fitted into a 1912 French Classical residence. Also in Palermo is the 1555 Malabia House, the city's first B&B, which offers another BA experience: It occupies a 19th-century convent that, manager Romina Giunta tells us, preserves its original configuration. "The renovation had to adapt to the residence to maintain its historical features," including 15-foot-high ceilings and such original details as marble staircases. "The baths were once nuns' kitchens," Giunta points out. But the Malabia feels nothing like a convent, with its trompe l'oeil murals, lustrous wood floors, and plush bedding. Like other hostelries in this new-old city, the Malabia is an older structure recast—a far cry from the flophouses I remember.
When I told one of my Argentine nephews that bars and clubs in California close around 2 a.m., his response was an incredulous "Where do you go then?" In Buenos Aires, where dining before 10 p.m. is analogous to choosing the early-bird special, it's no surprise to find partygoers spilling out of bars well past midnight. By the time Diego Curubeto and I wrap up our marathon trek through BA nightspots and I bid him buenas noches, I should be saying good morning. It's nearly 6 a.m. on Sunday, and we have to elbow our way out of Crobar, a club blaring music into the breakfast hour.
This world is part of the job for Curubeto, who covers cinema and popular music for the financial daily Ámbito Financiero.
His first pick is Esquina Homero Manzi, a vintage café with wood-panelled walls and a décor distinguished by fileteado, a local art form akin to art nouveau. The café is named for the lyricist who wrote the famous tango song "Sur," set where the café sits on Avenida Boedo—and tango remains the main attraction here, with nightly performances. "This is a good restoration," says Curubeto, "done in an authentic way before the tourist boom." He also recommends the Wednesday milonga-dance party at Club Atlético Fer-nández Fierro, complete with an orchestra.
Traditional nightlife is a different world in Buenos Aires. The revista porteña—a sort of cabaret review featuring skits, showgirls, and political satire—performed on Avenida Corrientes (the local equivalent of Broadway) is "geared to Spanish-speaking tourists," says Curubeto. "The great comedians of revista offered political humour when that was prohibited."
Over a mojito at the garishly red Soul Café, in Palermo's fun Las Cañitas district, Curubeto introduces me to Agustín Contepomi, a local "video jockey" and musician. "This café-bar combo is a good place to start the evening," Contepomi tells us, "with its live music, but it closes early, by 4 a.m." As we walk through Las Cañitas at 1 a.m., cocktail-wielding patrons of the place-to-be-seen Único Bar spill out onto the sidewalk.
Curubeto's own tastes run more to establishments like the Makena Cantina Club, where a bluesy band plays on a mezzanine stage. "This is one of the few places where good new bands can play live. It can be hard for young new musicians to find venues in Buenos Aires." The nearby Roxy Live Bar is packing them in with established acts performing in a relatively intimate space. "The Roxy is a little strange," says Curubeto, "with a restaurant in front." He spots and greets Latin American rock legend Charly García, who is watching a performance by a band that includes his bassist, Zorrito Von Quintiero—the Soul Café's owner—before they embark on their own headlining tour to Peru and Chile. Lead singer Fabio Posca, also a standup comedian, tells a series of jokes that leave the house guffawing.
By now it is almost dawn. Curubeto suggests we proceed to Levitar, a bar that closes around...noon—but I decline. Buenos Aires does sleep on weekends (I wouldn't have survived here otherwise). But for many, I now know, only after Sunday brunch.
Download the new National Geographic app now. FREE 30 day access on compatible Australian mobiles.
Lead Image: It's puro tango at the corner of San Juan and Boedo Streets. PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB KRIST