The stylish South American capital with an epic history stakes its claim as an international center of cuisine, culture and design
Author Jon Marcus Photography Javier Pierini and Yadid Levy
DAY TWO | After a late start, you make your way back to the Plaza de Mayo and locate the narrow Calle Defensa, main drag of the newly hip San Telmo neighborhood, abutting its southern side. The wealthy who populated this part of Buenos Aires in the 19th century fled after a yellow fever epidemic and rebuilt in the northern districts of Recoleta and Palermo, but now affluent porteños are returning, and Defensa has become a strip of shops and art galleries reflecting the growing local fashion and design scenes (Buenos Aires has been named by UNESCO as one of three Cities of Design, along with Montreal and Berlin).
Your bellman tipped you off to a great lunch spot in La Boca, a working-class neighborhood just south of San Telmo. So you head to the friendly, family-style Don Carlos (1), a classic local joint favored by Francis Ford Coppola (ask to see the owner’s photo album, and you’ll note that the director’s visits have been meticulously chronicled). There’s no menu, but the food — cooked in an asado, or open-mouth oven — is great. After asking, “Meat or pasta?” the owner brings you course after course, from entrée (which, confusingly, means “appetizer,” and here includes a steak) to postre (dessert).
You’re barely able to make it the few blocks to Caminito (2), an unabashedly touristy destination of shops, tango bars and conventillos, the rickety houses built of cheap wood or corrugated metal by immigrants and dressed up with brightly colored paint they “borrowed” from the port. By 1910, half the residents of Buenos Aires were immigrants, mostly Europeans, thanks to an open-door policy intended to populate the vast countryside; La Boca was the neighborhood where many started out. It was here, in La Boca’s plentiful brothels, that the tango was invented. Today, Caminito is a splash of color in this sometimes sketchy neighborhood. You snag a sofa in the rooftop café of contemporary art museum Fundación Proa (3) for today’s merienda: the customary hot ham and cheese (jamón y queso) sandwich, simple but delicious.
It’s time to move your base of operations to the north. You splurge on the 80-year-old Alvear Palace Hotel (4), considered the ritziest hotel in South America, with its gold fixtures, marble embellishments, personal butlers, cigar bar and flawless white-glove service. It’s in the exclusive Recoleta neighborhood, where you discover wide streets, green spaces and mansions built by the Argentine aristocracy, who moved here from San Telmo and made their fortunes supplying the world with beef and other agricultural commodities.
Dinner tonight is at Fervor (5), a steakhouse named for a poem by Jorge Lluis Borges, beloved bard of Buenos Aires. Located just a short block from the hotel, the art deco showpiece is appointed largely in leather, with linen tablecloths and bow-tied waiters in long aprons circulating around the main floor and balcony. After enjoying the hot biscuits, you dig into the rib strip, or asado de tira, from the same part of the cow as the ribs Americans like to barbecue, but cut crossways. You substitute the ubiquitous seasoned frites — the fries Argentines seem to eat with everything — for a side of sublime mashed potatoes. Thinking ahead, you request a half portion …
… Because it’s time to tango. Like everything else in Argentina, this dramatic dance is a blend of cultures: Spanish, French, Italian and African. The woman sits; the man nods; they join and the dance begins. Skipping the pricey tango dinner shows (which are for tourists), you watch and join in with the locals at Salon Canning (6), a milongo in the Palermo Soho section. Milongos typically don’t open until after 9, and don’t really get going until well past that. This one offers lessons, so without any excuses, you end your day like an Argentine: very, very late at night, dancing.