La Boca, on the banks of the Río Riachuelo, originally developed as a trading center and shipyard. It was the city's first Little Italy, the main point of entry for Italians at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, giving the neighborhood the distinct flavor it still maintains. Literally, La Boca means "the mouth," taking its name from a natural harbor formed by a twist in the Río Riachuelo, a tributary that feeds into the Río de la Plata. La Boca is most famous for giving birth to tango in the bordellos, known as quilombos, that once served this largely male population.
The focus of La Boca is the Caminito, a pedestrian walkway, named ironically after a tango song about a rural village. The walkway is lined with humorously sculpted statues and murals explaining its history. Surrounding the cobblestone street are corrugated metal houses painted a hodgepodge of colors, recalling a time when the poor locals decorated with whatever paint was left over from ship maintenance in the harbor. Today, many artists live or set up their studios in these houses. Along the Caminito, art and souvenir vendors work side by side with tango performers. This Caminito "Fine Arts Fair" is open daily from 10am to 6pm.
La Boca is, however, a victim of its own success, and it has become an obscene tourist trap. While the area is historically important, most of what you will find along the Caminito is overpriced souvenir and T-shirt shops and constant harassment from people trying to hand you fliers for mediocre restaurants. In summer, the smell from the heavily polluted river becomes almost unbearable. Come to this area because you have to, but if you are short on time, don't let the visit take up too much of your day. What remains authentic in the area is off the beaten path—art galleries and theaters catering both to locals and to tourists, and the world-famous Estadio de Boca Juniors (Boca Juniors Stadium and Museum). Use caution if you stray far from the Caminito, however, as the less-patrolled surrounding areas can be unsafe. It's best to avoid the entire neighborhood at night, even the Caminito. The police are here to protect the tourists, not the locals, and when the shopkeepers go home, so do they.
One of Buenos Aires's oldest neighborhoods, San Telmo was originally home to the city's elite. But when yellow fever struck in the 1870s, the aristocrats moved north. Poor immigrants soon filled this neighborhood, and the houses were converted to tenements, called conventillos. In 1970, the city passed regulations to restore some of San Telmo's architectural landmarks. Still, gentrification has been a slow process, and the neighborhood maintains a gently decayed, authentic atmosphere, reminiscent of Cuba's old Havana. It's a bohemian enclave, attracting tourists, locals, and performers 7 days a week. A victim of its own success in many ways, the area is home to a large number of English-speaking expats, and sometimes you'll wonder if you're actually in South America when you sit at a cafe and realize many tables are engaged in conversations you can fully understand. The collapse of the peso has also meant that a glut of antiques, sold for ready cash, are available for purchase, though most of the best bargains are long gone. The best shops and markets in San Telmo line Calle Defensa. After Plaza de Mayo, Plaza Dorrego is the second-oldest square in the city.
San Telmo is full of tango clubs; one of the most notable is El Viejo Almacén, at Independencia and Balcarce. An example of colonial architecture, it was built in 1798 and was a general store and hospital before its reincarnation as the quintessential Argentine tango club. Make sure to come here at night for a show. If you get the urge to take a beginner or refresher tango course while you're in San Telmo, look for signs advertising lessons in the windows of bars and restaurants.
Barracas is an up-and-coming neighborhood in the south of Buenos Aires, bordering La Boca and San Telmo. It's not fully on the radar yet, though for years, tourists have been coming to its most famous destination, the tango show palace Señor Tango, all while being told by their tour guides not to wander off, an indication of the neighborhood's rough reputation. As housing prices in adjacent neighborhoods rise, many artists and young people have begun to move here, gentrifying it. The neighborhood takes its name from the barracas, the warehouses and barracks that served as storage areas for the nearby port at La Boca. Long since abandoned, many are being converted into luxury apartments and art centers.
The district's main street is Avenida Montes de Oca. While the neighborhood has working-class roots, Avenida Caseros was lined with beautiful housing for British railroad engineers. Here, you'll find several restaurants, including Caseros and Club Social, which seems a step back in time. The most colorful street is Pasaje Lanín, where, starting in 2000, the local artist Marino Santa María painted each house, beginning with his own gallery at number 33, covering them with colorful mosaics. From July through December, the street hosts a weekend arts festival.
Palermo is a nebulous catchall for a large chunk of northern Buenos Aires. It encompasses Palermo proper, sometimes called Alto Palermo, with its park system extending on Avenida Libertador and Avenida Santa Fe; Palermo Chico; Palermo Viejo, which is further divided into Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood; and Las Cañitas, which is just to the side of the city's world-famous polo field.
Palermo Neighborhoods -- Palermo proper is a neighborhood of parks filled with magnolias, pines, palms, and willows, where families picnic on weekends and couples stroll at sunset. Designed by French architect Charles Thays, the parks take their inspiration from London's Hyde Park and Paris's Bois de Boulogne. Take the metro to Plaza Italia, which lets you out next to the Jardín Botánico or Botanical Gardens and the Zoological Gardens, open dawn to dusk, both good spots for kids. Stone paths wind their way through the Botanical Gardens. Flora from throughout South America fills the garden, with more than 8,000 plant species from around the world represented. It is famous for its population of abandoned cats, tended by little old ladies from the neighborhood, another delight for kids to watch. Next-door, the city zoo features an impressive variety of animals.
There are many sections of this complex park system. Parque Tres de Febrero, a paradise of trees, lakes, and walking trails, begins just past the Rose Garden off Avenida Sarmiento. In summer, paddleboats are rented by the hour. Nearby, small streams and lakes meander through the Japanese Gardens, where children can feed the fish (alimento para peces means "fish food") and watch the ducks. Small wood bridges connect classical Japanese gardens surrounding the artificial lake. A simple restaurant serves tea, pastries, sandwiches, and a few Japanese dishes such as sushi and teriyaki chicken. You'll also find listings for various Asian events throughout the city. Within the Plaza Naciones Unidas, or United Nations Plaza, off Avenida Figueroa Alcorta between Quiroga and Bibiloni is the Floralis Genérica, a 2002 sculpture by the Argentine architect Eduardo Catalano. One of the city's most recognizable symbols, it's a shiny metal flower opening and closing on a hydraulic system near the University of Buenos Aires Law School building.
Previous visitors to the Palermo parks will notice security changes that affect your visit here. As a result of vandalism and theft, driven both by increased poverty and the high value of metals, many statues and fountains are now surrounded by gates, and sections of the park are locked at night. You can still look at the statues, of course, but many are impossible to get close to. Many of the statues and other monuments have been cleaned as part of this, and are freer of graffiti than in the past.
Part of Palermo proper, Palermo Chico is an exclusive neighborhood of elegant mansions off of Figueroa Alcorta, an offshoot of Libertador. Other than the beauty of the homes and a few embassy buildings, this small set of streets tucked behind the MALBA museum has little of interest to tourists.
Palermo Viejo, once a run-down neighborhood of warehouses, factories, and tiny decaying stucco homes in which few people cared to live as recently as 15 years ago, has been transformed into the city's chicest destination. Once you wander through the area and begin to absorb its charms -- cobblestone streets, enormous oak-tree canopies, and low-rise buildings giving a clear view of the open skies on a sunny day -- you'll wonder why it had been overlooked for so many years. Palermo Viejo is further divided into Palermo Soho in the south and Palermo Hollywood (sometimes also written as Palermo Holywood) in the north, with railroad tracks and Avenida Juan B. Justo serving as the dividing line. The center of Palermo Soho is Plazaleto Jorge Cortazar, better known by its informal name, Plaza Serrano, a small oval park at the intersection of calles Serrano (also called Calle Borges) and Honduras. Young people gather here late at night for impromptu singing and guitar sessions, sometimes fueled by drinks from the myriad of funky bars and restaurants that surround the plaza. On weekends, there is a crafts festival, but someone is always selling bohemian jewelry and leather goods here no matter the day. Palermo Soho is well known for boutiques owned by local designers, with fancy restaurants and hotels mixed in. Palermo Hollywood is considerably quieter and less gentrified than Palermo Soho, which, in some ways, has become a victim of its own success, populated during the day by lost tourists with maps and guidebooks in hand. Palermo Hollywood gained its name because many Argentine film studios were initially attracted to its once-cheap warehouse spaces and easy parking. There was an attempt to further relabel areas of Palermo Viejo as Palermo Queens, but this has largely failed.
Las Cañitas was a favored neighborhood of the military powers during the dictatorship period of 1976 to 1982, and the area remains among the safest of all central Buenos Aires neighborhoods. A military training base, hospital, high school, and various family housing units encircle the neighborhood, creating an islandlike sense of safety on the area's streets. Today, the area is far better known among the hip, trendy, and nouveau riche as the place to dine out, have a drink, party, and be seen in the fashionable establishments built into converted low-rise former houses on Calle Báez. Before Palermo Viejo became popular, this was the trendiest part of the city, and its density of restaurants, bars, and design shops, often overlooked by tourists, is still truly unrivaled. The polo field where the International Championships take place is also in the neighborhood and is technically part of the military bases. The polo field's presence makes the neighborhood bars and restaurants great places for enthusiasts to catch polo stars celebrating their victories in season. I group Las Cañitas with Palermo in this guide, though some refer to the area as a section of Belgrano or a location independent of any other neighborhood.
The city's most exclusive neighborhood, La Recoleta has a distinctly European feel, and locals call it a piece of Paris transplanted. Here, tree-lined avenues lead past fashionable restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and galleries. Much of the activity takes place along the pedestrian walkway Roberto M. Ortiz and in front of the cultural center and Recoleta Cemetery. This is a neighborhood of plazas and parks, a place where tourists and wealthy Argentines spend their leisure time outside. Weekends bring street performances, art exhibits, fairs, and sports.
The Recoleta Cemetery, open daily from 8am to 6pm, pays tribute to some of Argentina's historical figures, most famously Evita. Weather permitting, free English guided tours take place every Thursday at 11am from the cemetery's Doric-columned entrance at Calle Junín 1790.
Adjacent to the cemetery, the Centro Cultural Recoleta holds art exhibits and theatrical and musical performances, and includes the Museo Participativo de Ciencias. Next-door, the Buenos Aires Design Recoleta features shops specializing in home decor. On the other side of Avenida 9 de Julio, the Asociación Argentina de Cultura Inglesa (British Arts Centre) offers film, theater, culture, and art programs.
One word of caution about Recoleta: If you're a tourist staying in the area or visiting, there's an assumption that you're extremely wealthy and possibly naive. It's more likely here than in any part of the city that you might be given the runaround by taxi drivers who can't seem to find the location you've requested. They assume that if you can afford Recoleta, you can afford a fraudulent fare, so be extra vigilant and know where you're going.
Plaza de Mayo
Juan de Garay founded the historic core of Buenos Aires, the Plaza de Mayo, in 1580. The plaza is the political heart of the city, serving as a forum for protests.
The mothers of the desaparecidos, victims of the military dictatorship's war against leftists, have demonstrated here since 1977. You can see them march, speak, and set up information booths Thursday afternoons at 3:30pm. The circle of headscarves, known as panuelos, on the ground surrounding the Pirámide de Mayo marks their demonstration route. The use of the headscarves as a symbol dates from a time when the military finally granted the mothers the right to march in protest, but forbid them from speaking to anyone. They wrote the names of missing children on the scarves, hoping someone would see and later, in a safer space, tell them what had happened to their children.
The Argentine president goes to work at the Casa Rosada. It was from a balcony of this mansion that Eva Perón addressed adoring crowds of Argentine workers. You can watch the changing of the guard in front of the palace every hour on the hour, and around back is the Presidential Museum with information on the building's history and items owned by presidents over the centuries.
The original structure of the Metropolitan Cathedral was built in 1745 and given a new facade and designated a cathedral in 1836. The Cabildo, the original seat of city government established by the Spaniards, was completed in 1751 and restored in 1939, with another restoration in 2010. The Legislatura de la Ciudad (City Legislature Building) features a striking neoclassical facade and houses exhibitions in several of its halls; ask about tours. Farther down Calle Perú are the Manzanas de las Luces (Blocks of Enlightenment), which served as the intellectual center of the city in the 17th and 18th centuries. San Ignacio, the city's oldest church, stands at the corner of calles Bolívar and Alsina, and has a beautiful altar currently under renovation. Also located here is the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (National High School of Buenos Aires), where Argentina's best-known intellectuals have gathered and studied. In addition to weekend tours, the Comisión Nacional de la Manzanas de las Luces (tel. 11/4331-9534; www.manzanadelasluces.gov.ar) organizes cultural activities during the week.
Puerto Madero became Buenos Aires's second major gateway to trade with Europe when it was built in 1880, replacing La Boca's port in terms of importance. But by 1910, the city had already outgrown it. The Puerto Nuevo (New Port) was established to the north to accommodate growing commercial activity, and Madero was abandoned for almost a century. Urban renewal saved the original port in the 1990s with the construction of a riverfront promenade, apartments, and offices. Sterile and businesslike during the day, the area attracts a fashionable crowd at night. It's lined with restaurants serving Argentine steaks and fresh seafood specialties, and there is a popular cinema showing Argentine and Hollywood films, as well as dance clubs. The entire area is rapidly expanding, with high-rise luxury residences, making this a newly fashionable, if somewhat isolated and artificial, neighborhood. All the streets in Puerto Madero are named for important Argentine women. Look for the Buenos Aires City Tourism brochure Women of Buenos Aires to learn more about some of them. A sign between docks 2 and 3 explains these spectacular women. At sunset, take a walk along the eastern, modern part of the port, and watch the water shimmer in brilliant reds with the city as a backdrop.
As you walk out from the port, you'll also come across the Ecological Reserve. This area is an anomaly for a modern city and proof nature can regenerate from an ecological disaster. In the 1960s and 1970s, demolished buildings and debris were dumped into the Río de la Plata after the construction of the autopista (highway system). Over time, sand and sediment built up, plants and grasses grew, and birds now use this space as a breeding ground. Ask travel agents about bird-watching tours. In the summer, adventurous Porteños use it as a beach, but the water is too polluted to swim in and you must be careful of jagged debris and the homeless who set up camp here. In spite of limited protection, Puerto Madero development is slowly creeping onto the preserve. While the Ecological Reserve is a lung for the city, the height of Puerto Madero buildings has been blamed for blocking Río de la Plata winds, decreasing air quality in downtown Buenos Aires. The focal point for the Puerto Madero area is Santiago Calatrava's Bridge of Woman, opened in 2001.
Plaza San Martín & the Surrounding Microcentro and Retiro Area
Plaza San Martín, a beautiful park at the base of Calle Florida in the Retiro neighborhood, is the nucleus of the Microcentro district. In summer months, Argentine businesspeople flock here during their lunch hours, loosening their ties, taking off some layers, and sunning themselves amid the plaza's flowering jacaranda trees. A monument to General José de San Martín towers over the scene. The park is busy at all hours, and the playground is often teeming with kids and their parents well after midnight. Plaza San Martín was once the location of choice for the most elite Porteño families at the beginning of the 20th century. The San Martín Palace, now used by the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Círculo Militar, once the home of the Paz family who own the La Prensa newspaper; and the elegant Plaza Hotel testify to this former grandeur. The shift from private residences to apartments and commercial structures began in the 1930s with the Depression, when many residents were forced to sell their mansions. In 1936, the Art Deco Kavanagh Building opened, then the tallest building in South America, and it still dominates the plaza. Temporary art exhibits, usually with a social purpose, often occur within the plaza.
Plaza San Martín cascades gently down a hill, at the base of which is the Islas Malvinas-Falkland Islands War Memorial. The memorial directly faces the Elizabethan-style British Clock Tower, renamed the Torre Monumental, though most locals use the old name. It was a gift from the British who built and ran the nearby Retiro train station complex. It remained unscathed during the war, but was attacked years later by a mob that also toppled an accompanying statue of George Canning, the British foreign secretary who recognized Argentina's independence from Spain. The tower is open to the public and provides a view of the city and river.
Calle Florida, Buenos Aires's main pedestrian thoroughfare, is lined with boutiques, restaurants, record stores, and the upscale shopping mall Galerías Pacífico. The busiest section is between Plaza San Martín and Avenida Corrientes, but the street extends all the way south to Avenida de Mayo, where it turns into Calle Perú. Occasionally, you'll find street performers along the route. Be very careful of pickpockets when watching any of these shows. Calle Florida intersects Calle Lavalle, a smaller version of itself that has even more stores, most of lesser quality, and some inexpensive parrillas worth visiting. The street is also home to numerous arcades, so it's a good place for teenagers to hang out while you shop around -- though beware that seedy characters and prostitutes also hang around the area. Calle Reconquista, east of and parallel to Florida, was pedestrianized in 2009, along with small adjacent streets, and is full of bars and restaurants. The area is a focus of St. Patrick's Day celebrations. In 2010, Calle Suipacha, parallel and west of Florida, was pedestrianized and given a bicycle lane. The city is planning more bike lanes and pedestrian streets downtown.
Avenida Corrientes is a living diary of Buenos Aires's cultural development. Until the 1930s, Avenida Corrientes was the favored hangout of tango legends. When the avenue was widened in the mid-1930s, it made its debut as the Argentine Broadway. Today Corrientes, lined with Art Deco cinemas and theaters, pulses with cultural and commercial activity day and night. It is also home to many bookstores, from the chains that sell bestsellers and English-language guidebooks, to independent bargain outlets and rare booksellers. The Obelisco, opened in 1936 as Buenos Aires's defining monument to mark the 400th anniversary of the first (unsuccessful) founding of the city, marks the intersection of Corrientes with Avenida 9 de Julio. Whenever locals have something to celebrate, they gather here. It's exciting to come here when Argentina wins an international soccer match.
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