Plaza San Martín & Retiro
Getting There: Take the metro to San Martín.
Start: The east side of Plaza San Martín, facing the Kavanagh Building.
Finish: Retiro Station.
Time: 1 1/2 hours if you're just walking; 3 to 4 hours if you go inside all buildings mentioned.
Best Times: Monday through Saturday between 11am and 4pm (not at night when things are closed).
At the turn-of-the-20th century, some of Buenos Aires's most fabulous mansions were built overlooking Plaza San Martín, and quite a few remain. The enormous plaza, with its overgrown trees and lazy atmosphere, might call to mind the squares of Savannah, Georgia. The Retiro area spreads down a gentle hill from the plaza and encompasses the train station complex built by the British, once the main entrance to this grand city. This tour has a moderate walking level, but steps and a hill overlooking San Martín, as well as an expanse of Retiro, can be a slight challenge.
Start in the plaza itself, looking toward the east at the:
1. Kavanagh Building
At the time of its construction in 1936, this was the tallest building in South America, standing at about 120m (394 ft.) with over 30 stories, and designed as a residential structure. However, it took more than 16 years to sell the apartments in this Art Deco building. Since its construction, many buildings have risen higher throughout the city.
Turn to your right and walk a few meters up the park (you'll be making a circle around the plaza) until you see the:
2. Marriott Plaza Hotel
The grande dame of Buenos Aires's hotels, the Marriott Plaza Hotel, opened in 1908, is among the city's most traditional hotels. When it opened, it was considered so far from the main hotel district (along Av. de Mayo) that many assumed it would fail. History, of course, has proven that sentiment wrong, as numerous famous guests and royalty have stayed here. The facade of the hotel was renovated for its 100th anniversary.
Take a Break -- If you have the time, check out Marriott's Plaza Grill to get an idea of the old-style dining once common throughout the city. This spot has been a center of elite dining and socializing in Buenos Aires for nearly a century. Stop in for lunch or dinner, depending on when you are exploring. This is a full-service restaurant, so expect the meal to take longer than if you were running in for just a snack. Or grab a brandy on the rocks at the adjacent Plaza Bar, where local businesspeople often have strategy meetings.
Continue to walk toward your right around the plaza, with Calle Florida to your left shoulder. Stop when you get to where Calle Santa Fe hits the park and look at the:
3. Círculo Militar & Palacio Paz
Perhaps the most beautiful of the Beaux Arts mansions in Buenos Aires, the Círculo Militar looks plucked from the Loire Valley. It was the home of the Paz family and took almost 12 years to build; the patriarch who commissioned it died before it was finished. The family owned the La Prensa newspaper. The Palacio Paz is now home to the Círculo Militar, an elite organization for retired military officers, which bought the building in 1938 when the Depression made keeping such a home a burden. The Museo de las Armas, which sheds light on the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands conflict, is also in the building.
Continue walking around the plaza to your right. Stop at the:
4. General José de San Martín Monument
This fantastic monument celebrates General José de San Martín, who battled against Spain in the wars of independence and is known as the founder of the Argentine nation. Though the statue was originally designed in 1862, it was expanded in 1900 into the over-the-top spectacle here. You'll see San Martín atop his horse in the middle on a raised platform, surrounded by soldiers and their women seeing them off before battle. The statue is a favorite hangout spot for the young, and it's where visiting dignitaries from other countries usually leave a ceremonial wreath. The best time to see this statue is in October and November, when the jacaranda trees are in full bloom. Unfortunately, many of the bronze plaques and wreaths were stolen when the price of copper skyrocketed in recent years. You can see some of their outlines in the granite base.
Turn around so that the statue of San Martín is to your back and cross the very wide Calle Maipú, being careful of traffic in this chaotic intersection. Walk up Calle Arenales, toward the grand marble building slightly to your right, which is known as the:
5. Palacio San Martín
Another of the grand mansions that line Plaza San Martín, this was the home of the powerful Anchorenas family whose prestige dated to colonial times in Argentina. In 1936, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took over the building, again largely as a result of Depression-era costs of running such a large home. From the street, you'll mostly be able to see its enormous French gates, although these do have intricate grillwork, which you can look through and see the large circular courtyard. The building is open periodically for free tours.
Retrace your steps from here, and head back to the Plaza San Martín, in front of the San Martín monument. Once you reach the plaza, turn to your left and continue walking forward through the expanse of the plaza, following the balustrade, until you come across a large set of stairs cascading down a hill. This is one of the favorite city tanning spots in warm weather. Try not to gawk too much at the bathing-suit-clad locals -- you have other things to do! At the bottom of the stairs, to your right side, you'll come across the:
6. Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands War Memorial
This monument honors the 700-plus Argentines who died in the war over the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands chain in the brief war with Great Britain in early 1982. The war was treated as almost silly by most English-speaking countries that sided with Great Britain, including the United States. Argentina lost the war, but became a democracy once again in the process. The war and sovereignty over the islands still remain sore points among Argentines, and it is best to treat these topics delicately in discussions. The three branches of the military, the Army, Navy, and Air Force, take turns guarding the monument and its eternal flame, and the changing of the guard is worth seeing.
Turn your back to the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands War Memorial and head to the crosswalk across Avenida Libertador. Carefully cross this very wide street and head to the middle of the plaza, to the:
7. Torre Monumental (British Clock Tower)
This 1916 gift from the British community in Buenos Aires, along with all other things British, was renamed in response to the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands War and is called the Argentine Big Ben by some. Decorated with British royal imperial symbols, the base was partly destroyed by an angry mob during an Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands memorial service. Inside the tower, you'll find a small Buenos Aires City Tourism Information Office, as well as an elevator you can ride to the top for an excellent view of the city. The tower was placed here to celebrate the completion of the nearby Retiro Station that was built with British technology.
Walk out of the Torre Monumental and walk to your left in the direction of the:
8. Retiro Station
The Retiro Station was opened in 1915 and built with British technological assistance. Four British architects designed it, and the steel structure was made in Liverpool, England, and shipped to Argentina to be assembled. For years, the station was the main entry point into Buenos Aires before the advent of the airplane. It's still very busy with trains to the suburbs and the resort area of Tigre. The mint-green circular ticketing area is particularly distinctive, among the many interesting details in this station. The central hallway is enormous, and while some of the interior ornamentation has disappeared, you'll still see some bronze lighting fixtures adorning the walls.
A few other train stations are in this complex -- Bartolomé Mitre and Manuel Belgrano among them, as well as the modern Retiro Station Bus Depot.
Enter the station and its main hall. Turn to the left and continue to the end of the hall. Look for signs to the left for the:
9. Café Retiro
This cafe opened in 1915 along with the station. For years it sat empty until recently being reopened in 2003. Its interior is historically listed and this is one of the cafés notables protected by law in the city of Buenos Aires. The ornamentation includes massive bronze chandeliers, stained glass, and columns with gilded capitals. The food here, a branch of the chain Café Café, is simple and Argentine, with coffee and pastries. Now is the time to take a break and celebrate completing this walk.
When you want to leave, the subway Retiro Station is just outside the door.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.