Argentina’s capital is a seductive pleasure that transcends the tango and Evita
Love at first sight in Buenos Aires
BUENOS AIRES — What’s it like to conquer Buenos Aires in 60 hours? Picture sitting down to a nine-course meal, complete with wine pairings, and being told that you have 15 minutes to consume it all before a cranky waiter clears the table and shoos you out of the restaurant.
This was my challenge in Argentina’s capital and South America’s second-largest city. I had visions of bursting into airport swinging a suitcase singing “What’s new Buenos Aires?” and then hopping through the city with the speed of a gazelle doped up on a combination 1970s black market diet pills and Mountain Dew.
I would jump from the posh, Parisian-styled Recoleta neighborhood to the working-class and colorful La Boca without a wasted second. I would turn into an exploring machine, albeit an exploring machine with a propensity to linger on a corner singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to stray cats. I had a strict itinerary and I was ready for business. Yes, my friends, Buenos Aires would be mine in 60 hours.
Then I came to my senses. Travel is not a race to tick boxes off a checklist. I’d like to think that travel is best when it unfolds organically as a series of experiences that ferment into fine memories over the years. On cruddy, emotionally gray days, we can make a withdrawal from the vacation memory bank and relive a relaxing afternoon spent in some sunny, far-flung part of the world. That became my goal.
Despite unnerving traffic jams, Buenos Aires is an ideal city for biking. It’s mostly flat, and, depending on the neighborhood, there are miles of designated bike lanes. It also has a fantastic bike share program. I was staying in the leafy Palermo Soho neighborhood, near a jackpot of parks and bike lanes, so after breakfast of medialuna croissants (essential pre-cycling eating), I borrowed a bike and began my day on two wheels at the Parque Tres de Febrero. There are nearly 350 acres of parks, lakes, and wooded areas, many designed by renowned landscaper Carlos Thays in the 19th century. There’s even a nature preserve in the middle of the city.
The Japanese Gardens (not designed by Thays), with arched bridges, pagodas, and man-made koi ponds were a bit over-the-top for my tastes. When I started seeing more selfie sticks than koi, I hastily jumped on my bike and continued.
I had been told that the Evita Peron Museum, celebrating the life of the beloved, then hated, then beloved former first lady Eva Peron was “nothing special,” so I was reticent to spend any valuable time there. But I was in the neighborhood, and because gay men are drawn to “Evita” the way that Bernie Sanders supporters are drawn to Subarus, I found myself instinctually buying a ticket without realizing it. You don’t need to be a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, just history, to enjoy the museum.
Over a late lunch at the vegetarian restaurant Artemisia, a group of kindly locals saw me jotting down notes with a map and offered assistance. Suggestions from locals are always the best. I made the mistake of asking where I could find the best tango show that night. This was Argentina, shouldn’t I see tango? It was the wrong question for these millennials who proceeded to speak to as if I was their senile abuelo. Instead of tango, they gave me a list of speakeasies and bars. Tango is for tourists I was told. I nodded my head in defeat.
Buenos Aires is one of the rare cities with a long history of legally sanctioned street art. Both the government and building owners have long sought out street artists to practice their craft. I spent my afternoon on a guided tour of murals in the Palermo, which is the largest neighborhood in the capital. I booked it through a company called Free Walks, although this particular tour wasn’t free. World-class artists have been commissioned to create al fresco art here, and a tour is the best way to ensure you see the highlights. Even if street art isn’t your bag of gumdrops, I recommend a tour and educating yourself. The art is not restricted to Palermo. Venture into Colegiales, Villa Crespo, Congreso, Barracas, Montserrat, or La Boca and you’ll see it everywhere.
It was nearing dinnertime for me, but not for the denizens of Buenos Aires. People here tend to eat closer to 11 p.m., so I looked for some of the city’s much ballyhooed street food (I opted for a steak sandwich on toasted baguette topped with chimichurri) in the Theatre District, near the Teatro Colón. I had missed the morning tour of the spectacular Colón, but I wanted to see the beautifully lit exterior at twilight. I had a mouthful of sandwich when I saw a pair of Scottish tourists trying to unload tickets to that evening’s performance of Camerata Salzburg, which is an Austrian chamber orchestra. It was so close to curtain that they were giving away their remaining ticket. I wasn’t exactly dressed for an evening of Austrian chamber music at one of world’s largest, most extravagant opera houses, unless you consider shorts and a chimichurri-stained T-shirt formal attire. I gave them face value for the ticket, kept my head down, and scurried to my seat among the well-dressed crowd.
It was finally a respectable dinnertime in Buenos Aires, and despite the fact that I could barely keep my eyes open I had a serious decision to make. The current culinary trend in Buenos Aires is something called closed-door restaurants. However, it seems that everyone knows where the closed-door restaurants are located because it’s next to impossible get a reservation at popular eateries such as La Pasionaria, an antiques store that becomes a restaurant at night. I decided I should have steak and opted for a modern steakhouse called Don Julio based on a recommendation from my hotel concierge. It was also the only place I could score a last-minute reservation.
Yes, Eva Peron is buried at the Recoleta Cemetery. No, I didn’t go there with the sole intention of seeing her grave. It’s not even the most impressive in the cemetery. I would put this stop high on your list of must-see locations, even if you’re only in Buenos Aires for 2½ days. It’s not an ordinary plot filled with tombs. Recoleta is four city blocks of some of the most unique architecture you’ve ever seen. Some of these crypts are sleek 1980s blocks of granite with glass doors. Others are beaux-arts masterpieces. Quick tip: The best view of the cemetery can be had from the food court of the Recoleta Mall. No joke.
I was already lingering too long at Recoleta when I stopped on a bench to check a map. An orange cat jumped on the bench and settled into my lap. I stroked the cat, it closed its eyes and drifted off to sleep. Initially this made me quite anxious. I didn’t want to disturb the cat, but I also had a city I needed to see. Still, I knew the memory of this sweet furry friend settling itself into my lap would make me smile. So I sat and watched people stroll through a cemetery with a cat deeply sleeping on my lap.
I tried not to think about attractions that I would be missing because this feline needed someone to stop and show him some kindness. Fine, I needed a feline to show me some kindness, too. It was an equal trade.
When it became clear that the cat planned to take up permanent residence on my lap, I gently moved him. My black T-shirt was covered in orange fur for the remainder of the day. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
One of the concessions of my relaxed schedule was the understanding that I would be missing museums. But I refused to miss the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. Let’s just call it MALBA like everyone else, shall we? It began as a collection of 200 pieces of Latin American art from millionaire philanthropist Eduardo F. Costantini. It houses pieces such as Frida Kahlo’s must-see 1942 “Self Portrait with Monkey and Parrot” in a sleek building. It also has a chic café with outdoor seating where I dropped from exhaustion for lunch, taking care not to get cat fur in my food.
I knew that El Caminito, the cobblestone strip that runs through La Boca, was a den of kitschy souvenir shops and overpriced and overcrowded cafes, but after seeing pictures of the joyful multicolor houses for years, I still decided to jump on a bike and explore firsthand. Outside of these blocks, La Boca is a working-class neighborhood with houses that aren’t splashed in higgledy-piggledy blocks of cheery color. This little stretch is completely unique.
I’d like to tell you about the amazing dinner I had my second night in Buenos Aires, but because we’re all friends here, I’ll be honest. I went back to my hotel room and took a nap in my fur-covered T-shirt. I appreciate your understanding.
Cut to midnight, and I’ve decided to indulge in a sip of the devil’s nectar at some of the speakeasies that the judgmental millennials recommended. I started at Floreria Atlantico . It’s a flower shop by day that turns into a bar at dusk. The cocktail list takes its inspiration from the waves of Argentina’s immigrants. From there I went to the nearby Presidente for sushi, and perhaps another cocktail or two.
During my remaining hours I felt obligated to go to the San Telmo neighborhood for its Sunday street fair. I have no idea how many blocks the market fills, but it seemed to stretch an eternity. It began with antiques in the main square, and then as I continued to walk, the goods changed to handicrafts and ticky-tacky bric-a-brac. I shopped for obligatory gifts for loved ones and realized that my haggling game was nonexistent. I also highly recommend coming to San Telmo during the week because it’s just a cool place to hang out with hip little shops and restaurants.
I was about to bike back to my hotel and perhaps make another stop or two before running to the airport when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. A couple, perhaps in their 70s, were dancing the tango in the middle of the San Telmo market. This wasn’t a sexy tango. Maybe it wasn’t even tango. But they embraced and looked at each other as if they were the only people on the planet as they swayed. I stopped to watch. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Her head contently rested on his chest. His hand protectively held her back as they pressed tightly. This sweet couple was nearly as memorable as any architecture I’d seen or any cocktail I sampled. I wondered how many Sundays they’d danced like this at the market while the world rushed past them, perhaps through political unrest and financial crashes. I came up with their imaginary life story.
This was a moment I would cherish from Buenos Aires. This was love.