The stylish South American capital with an epic history stakes its claim as an international center of cuisine, culture and design
Author JON MARCUS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAVIER PIERINI AND YADID LEVY
IN THE HEART OF BUENOS AIRES, just off the avenue that honors the day Argentina won its independence from Spain, is the Teatro Colón. One of the most acoustically perfect theaters in the world, the 2,500-seat venue was designed by Italian architects using Belgian and Austrian marble, with French furnishings and floors made of oak from the forests of Croatia. Like Buenos Aires itself, the theater is a combination of the best of Europe, built at a time when the emergent city sought to become the Paris of South America, before its tortured run of brutal military dictatorships interspersed with fragile, contentious democracies (one featuring Eva “Evita” Perón, the charismatic first lady who posthumously became an international icon). Today, newly reopened after a three-year, $100 million renovation, the Teatro Colón is a symbol of a thrumming metropolis as eclectic as they come, not only in its architecture but also in the mélange of nationalities and cultures that blends European sophistication and Latin spice. The result is a diverse, thriving city that is wholly South American and, at the same time, absolutely unlike any other.
DAY ONE | You check in at the Hotel Panamericano (1) on Avenida 9 de Julio — said to be the widest boulevard in the world, with seven lanes in each direction, plus four more each way on parallel side streets. From the hotel’s grand lobby, with its ornately tiled floor and soaring ceilings, you follow the tuxedoed bellman to your room among the upper suites and studios, and take in the commanding view of El Obelisco, a monument built in 1936 to commemorate the city’s 400th anniversary.
January is summer in South America, so you go outside and explore the grid of streets fanning out from El Obelisco. At the Plaza de Mayo (2), the symbolic center of the city, you get your bearings with a private tour from Eternautas (named for a time traveler in an Argentine comic strip), led by students and professors from the University of Buenos Aires. The guides separate Buenos Aires fact from mythology (of which there is no shortage) while recommending the hippest cafés and dance halls, or milongos.
Tour over, it’s time for a late lunch at Café Tortoni (3), the oldest coffee shop in the city, having opened in 1858. The Tortoni is situated on Avenida de Mayo, which locals, known as porteños, call the “Spanish Avenue” for its architecture. The café is decidedly French, however, with dark wood, stained glass, historical photos, small tables and neighborhood intellectuals holding court beneath ornate high ceilings. “The tourist who arrives in Buenos Aires has the entire city in the Tortoni,” Argentine author José Gobello has said.
An after-lunch stroll down Avenida 9 de Julio brings you to the Teatro Colón (4). So extraordinary is this building that it’s harder to get tickets for the one-hour tours than for a performance; booking ahead was smart. Past the gorgeous lobby and anterooms, the U-shaped auditorium is itself a breathtaking symphony of velvet and gold leaf. In addition to operas from April through December, there are concerts almost every Thursday and low-price standing-room spots high in the balconies, where the acoustics are purportedly the best. Sometimes there’s a free chamber concert scheduled in the gilded patrons’ room, which the local aristocracy modeled on the Palace of Versailles.
Showing up for dinner any earlier than 9 p.m. is déclassé in Argentina, so you have plenty of time to amble along Avenida Corrientes (5), lined with bookshops and theaters. For your merienda, or teatime snack, you pull up a stool at the bar in one of the many pizzerias and enjoy a little people-watching along with your Argentine pizza, which is greasier than what you’ve had elsewhere (though deliciously so), with a doughier crust.
Before heading back to the hotel, you join the flood of workers coursing through the chaotic pedestrian retail strip of Calle Florida and make a quick stop for a cucurucho clásico, a cone of Argentina’s famously rich ice cream, at the Freddo (6) window. You opt for the chocolate amargo, studded with big chunks of chocolate — and are instantly hooked. Fortunately, though maybe not for your waistline, there are Freddo cafés all over town.
After a nap at the hotel, you arrive for your 10:30 dinner reservation at the extraordinary restaurant housed in the Panamericano, Tomo 1 (7), which serves haute riffs on classic porteño fare in a sleek contemporary setting. You’re saving room for all the world-renowned Argentine steak you’ll be eating tomorrow, so you order the classic spinach ravioli. Sated from the food and a few glasses of local malbec from the extensive wine list, you call it a day.