Buenos Aires is an enormous metropolis, with over 12 million inhabitants in the city and its suburbs. Most of what you'll be interested in, however, is in a compact area near the center of the city's historic core, around Plaza de Mayo. Below we list the neighborhoods you'll most likely see as a tourist, including the general boundaries of each. Keep in mind, though, that even in Buenos Aires, some people and maps call the same areas by different names, so use these descriptions only as a general guide.
Plaza de Mayo Area -- This is not so much a district as the historical and political heart of Buenos Aires, laid out by Don Juan de Garay in 1580 during the second founding of the city. The plaza is surrounded by government buildings and the Catedral Metropolitana, which dates back to the late colonial era. The plaza's defining feature is the Casa Rosada (Presidential Palace), home to Evita's famous balcony. This plaza is the main site of political demonstrations and a shelter area for the homeless and the piqueteros (demonstrators) who often camp out here at night. The most important ongoing demonstration is that of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, which occurs every Thursday at 3:30pm and is a must-see for understanding the country's tragic history.
Puerto Madero -- Once a dilapidated port, the area northeast of Plaza de Mayo is now filled with an abundance of restaurants in renovated warehouses. Offices, high-rise residences, and luxury hotels are gradually popping up as well. The district can feel cold and antiseptic by day because of its vast expanses and new construction, so you might want to come at sunset when the water in the port glows a fiery red and the city skyline is silhouetted. The closest subte stop is Alem, on the B line, and a new tourist train runs the length of Puerto Madero, but walking is generally the fastest means of getting around.
Microcentro -- This is Buenos Aires's busy downtown core, home to many of the hotels, banks, and services that make the city tick. The area's defining feature is the pedestrianized Calle Florida, which runs from Avenida de Mayo to Plaza San Martín. The plaza provides a restful respite from this very compact center. On its edge sits Retiro Station, once among the most important points of entry into Buenos Aires from the provinces.
Monserrat -- Sitting between San Telmo and the Plaza de Mayo, this area is often grouped with San Telmo, though it's a proper district of its own. It's home to some of the city's oldest churches, and many government buildings have been constructed here as well. Some are beautiful old Beaux Arts structures; others, built in the mid-20th century, exemplify South American Fascist architecture, with their smooth, massive walls of dark polished marble and granite and heavy, pharaonic bronze doors. Many unions have headquarters here so they can more easily speak with government officials. To some Porteños, this neighborhood extends up the historic Avenida de Mayo toward Congreso; others call this area San Cristóbal. Parts of Monserrat are desolate and possibly dangerous at night.
San Telmo -- If you think of tango, romance, and a certain unexpressed sensual sadness when you think of Buenos Aires, then you're thinking of San Telmo. This is one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, once the home of the very wealthy until the 1877 outbreak of yellow fever caused many to flee to newly developing areas north of the city center. The heart of San Telmo is Plaza Dorrego, the city's second-oldest plaza (after the Plaza de Mayo). This neighborhood is my favorite, and I like it most at sunset when the buildings glow gold and their ornamental tops become silhouetted against the sky. Many Porteños still think of the neighborhood as dangerous, but rapid gentrification has changed it drastically in recent years. Still, take caution at night, just as you should anywhere.
La Boca -- Historically, La Boca is Buenos Aires's Little Italy, the home of Italian immigrants who came to Buenos Aires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The focal point of La Boca is El Caminito, a pedestrianized roadway lined with buildings painted in brilliant colors, plaques and statues explaining neighborhood history, and stores selling souvenirs. La Boca is my least favorite neighborhood because it so overdoes its efforts to draw tourists that it has little authentic to offer. Be aware that the area is considered exceedingly dangerous at night. When the shops close up, you should head out. There is no convenient subway access to La Boca.
Barracas -- This emerging neighborhood in the south of Buenos Aires borders La Boca and San Telmo. For years, tourists visited only for its famous tango show hall Señor Tango. The neighborhood has the reputation of being dangerous, though the recent influx of artists and young people due to rising housing prices in surrounding areas has caused gentrification. A number of the warehouses and barracks from which the neighborhood takes its name are being converted into luxury apartments and art centers. Businesses here often claim to be in San Telmo.
Recoleta -- The name of this neighborhood comes from an old Spanish word meaning "to remember." Its history dates to the late colonial period and the establishment of a convent where Recoleta Cemetery, Evita's final resting place, now sits. Once on the edge of Buenos Aires, Recoleta is now one of its most exclusive shopping and residential neighborhoods. Marble buildings reminiscent of Paris and green leafy streets characterize this area. Avenida Alvear, crowned by the city's most famous hotel, the Alvear Palace, is lined with luxurious showrooms (some in buildings that were once the homes of the city's wealthiest residents) from the most impressive designers. There is no convenient subway access to this neighborhood.
Barrio Norte -- This neighborhood borders Recoleta, and many consider it to be part of Recoleta. However, while the two are physically similar, Barrio Norte is busier and more commercialized, with shops primarily aimed at a middle- and upper-middle-class clientele. If anyone ever describes to you a place allegedly in Recoleta but with convenient subway access, it's actually in this neighborhood. Most shops are located on Avenida Santa Fe, which is serviced by the D subway line. This area was historically home to much of the city's gay population and services, but that is changing over time as venues spread across the city, especially to San Telmo.
Palermo -- This broadly defined district actually includes a number of smaller neighborhoods: Palermo proper or Alto Palermo, home to the city's extensive park system; Palermo Chico, an exclusive neighborhood of elegant mansions located off of Avenida Alcorta; up-and-coming Palermo Viejo, encompassing Palermo Soho to the south and Palermo Hollywood to the north; and Las Cañitas, a trendy area of restaurants, bars, and shops next to the city's famous polo field.
Congreso -- The western end of the Avenida de Mayo surrounds the massive Congreso building overlooking Plaza Congreso. Though the building and plaza are important and popular attractions, the neighborhood itself has a run-down feel. Things are beginning to change, however, and numerous hotels have opened in this area, though they are not as well known as those in some of the more glamorous parts of the city. To the north along Callao, you'll come across blocks of decaying marble and stucco neoclassical buildings that call to mind Buenos Aires's glory days and Argentina's desire to rise as a global power.
Corrientes Theater District -- The Obelisco at the intersection of Avenida Corrientes and Avenida 9 de Julio is the defining feature of this flashy neighborhood. Avenida Corrientes, widened in the 1930s on both sides of Avenida 9 de Julio, is lined with the city's most important theaters and movie palaces, Buenos Aires's answer to New York's Broadway. The world-famous Teatro Colón sits a block away. Though most of the action is at night, some theaters are worth wandering into during the day as well, in particular the Teatro San Martín, which has ongoing exhibits. Starry-eyed hopefuls from the provinces still come to the area on their quest for fame, just as Evita once did (her first Buenos Aires apartment was in this district).
Abasto -- On first glance, this working- and middle-class neighborhood seems to offer little of interest to tourists. However, it's steeped in Buenos Aires history. This is where tango crooner Carlos Gardel grew up and lived as an adult. Vestiges of that time period include the Abasto Shopping Center, once an open-air market, on Calle Corrientes, where Gardel sang to the vendors as a child and first became famous. The tango show palace Esquina Carlos Gardel was built over a bar he frequented, and his home on Calle Jean Jaures is now a museum.
Once -- The name of this neighborhood is short for Once de Septiembre, taken from a train station that honors the death of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, President of Argentina from 1868 to 1874. Once borders Abasto and has a similar history and feel. It is a historically Jewish neighborhood, and Calle Tucumán in particular still retains many Jewish businesses and kosher restaurants.
Tribunales -- The defining feature of this neighborhood is the Argentine Supreme Court, from which the area takes its name. This massive building, overlooking Plaza Lavalle, is not generally open to the public, but if you can sneak in, it's worth a look. For tourists, the most important feature of this neighborhood is what sits across the plaza, Teatro Colón, the city's supreme cultural center, also in the midst of a serious and terribly delayed overhaul.
Belgrano -- You'll probably be in Buenos Aires for a long time before you venture out to Belgrano, a well-to-do neighborhood in the north of the city, beyond Palermo. Its main feature is its barrancas, a series of hills in the center of the neighborhood and an enormous waterfront park, which is an extension of those in Palermo. While tiny, this is where you'll find Buenos Aires's Chinatown, near the intersection of Arribeños and Mendoza, close to the Belgrano train station.
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