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Go Inside Buenos Aires

Experience the City Beyond the Obvious

Street Art in Buenos Aires
The center of the barrio of La Boca is vibrant with street art and tiny cafes featuring tango, jazz, and the blues.

Budget-minded travelers have discovered a way around the blisteringly high exchange rate for euros. They’re way south—all the way to Argentina and its alluring capital, Buenos Aires. No need to agonize over whether to have that pricey cappuccino or forego the evening concert. Cosmopolitan Buenos Aires offers European ambience at prices last seen decades ago. For starters, the cappuccino is usually $1, and tickets for world-class concerts start at $5-$6. Add in a sophisticated, fashionable populace and street after street of 19th century French mansions and public parks, you have a New World Europe.

But how does the traveler get under the skin of Buenos Aires? What are some ways to encounter the local portenos (as the inhabitants are known) on their own turf, or to experience the city beyond the obvious? Here are some suggestions for making a great start:

Savor a drink in the Gran Cafe Tortoni. While coffeehouses in the central city seem ubiquitous, there are none quite like this fine old European-style cafe. Founded in 1858, the Tortoni has been a meeting place for writers and intellectuals for decades. Marble tables, red leather seats, original artwork lining the walls… even friendly waiters. Stop in during the day for coffee and pastry; come back at night for a tango show. What a backdrop. The Tortoni is at 825 Avenida de Mayo.

Ride the subte. The Buenos Aires subway (subte) is South America’s oldest. Built in 1913, it offers safe and efficient routes across most central sections of the city. While taxis are cheap, they’re still prisoners of the traffic, while the subte trundles along beneath the crowded rush hour streets. The real appeal is in the fine azulejo tilework on many of the stations, which depict traditional scenes of regions of Argentina.

Eat the 7-peso tenedor libre at Limon Tree in Retiro. Eating is a delight in Buenos Aires, particularly if you love beef. But even vegans can find choice dishes at one of the many tenedor libres (all-you-can-eat buffets) scattered around the city. One of the cheapest and best is right on Calle Suipacha (cross street: Tucaman) in the heart of downtown Retiro. Over 60 dishes are on offer—many vegetarian—and dessert is flan or multiple flavors of the fine gelato brought to Argentina by the numerous Italian immigrants.

Wander the Museo de Armas. The museum covers the colonial era up to the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982—and if you want to understand the psyche of the modern Argentine you’d better get a grip on the impact of that war. The museum is in the side entrance of the ornate Circulo Militar, on the central Plaza San Martin. Open Monday-Thursday, noon-7 p.m.

Find Evita’s grave in Recoleta Cemetery. The streets of Recoleta capture the mood of discreet upper class Parisian life: art nouveau mansions and wide boulevards. At its very heart—physically and spiritually—is the world-famous Cementerio de la Recoleta, a city of the dead, full of cut-stone streets lined thick with masoleums built in memory of the most patrician of porteno families. But one child of the lower classes lies entombed here amongst the aristocrats: Eva Peron, wife of the late populist dictator Juan Peron—known best to North America through the film Evita. She still commands intense allegiance from her Argentine followers who gather daily at her tomb to weep and remember. Directions through the cemetery would be useless, but one can ask at the main gate. Just remember that Evita provokes strong feelings in the locals—not always positive by any means. Finding the grave on your own is half the fun anyway.

Ride the slow ferry over to Colonia. The 17th century Portuguese smuggling port of Colonia, Uruguay, is a favorite weekend getaway for many inhabitants of the city. High-speed catamarans make the trip in under an hour, but if you have the time, there’s lots to be said for taking the slow, 3-hour ferry. First off, you save money: the fast boats cost $26 each way, while the ferry is only $16 (and a single-day round trip is $21). Beyond that, the pace allows you to savor the views of the vast Buenos Aires skyline as you steam past the yacht club and breakwater; on the other side of the river you can stand on deck to see the islands and tiny peninsula of Colonia coming in to view.

Visit the workshops of Teatro Colon. Teatro Colon is one of the five great opera houses of the world and if a performance is on while you’re in town, it’s well worth the price of admission. (The season runs April to November.) But what can be equally interesting are the daily backstage tours, which not only get you inside the glorious 7-storied central theater but take you underground, through many of the workshops and staging areas. In season, over 1,200 workers are employed here. Check out the massive set design warehouse. Marvel at the elegant human hair wig designs . . . or the elaborate decorative shoes. The tour includes brief performance interludes by members of the cast. Tours in English take place hourly from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m.-noon on Saturdays. The Teatro is adjacent to Plaza Lavalle.

Spend an evening watching the street performers on Calle Florida. Buenos Aires has open-air arts talent busking in many locales, but none as consistently as on Calle Florida, the pedestrian-only shopping street that runs down the spine of the city between Plaza San Martin and Plaza de Mayo. There are tango singers and accordionists, sensuous dancers, paving painters, and even a captivating soccer player who does amazing ball control tricks. Bring a liberal handful of change and drop some coins in the hats of the ones you like the most.

Dance to live blues at El Samovar de Rasputin in La Boca. Not many people come to Buenos Aires specifically for a night of blues. But there are a number of good bands in town—Botafogo, Memphis la Blusera, Alejandro Medina—and the top venue is the Samovar de Rasputin. This casual bar is in the heart of La Boca, the working-class barrio that has transformed itself into a living art museum. You’re going to see La Boca anyway; why not time it to drop in at Rasputin’s during working hours and check out the “dish-of-the-day?”

Attend the weekly gaucho fair at Feria de Mataderos. The legendary South American “cowboys” come to town every Sunday to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, at the site of the former stockyards where fat pampas cattle were driven in to be sold. There are vendors’ stalls, dozens of parilla grills offering multiple cuts of meat, and street dancing galore. The highlight is the mid-afternoon sarteja competition, where the gauchos show off their skills in the saddle. The fair runs from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. To get to Mataderos, ignore the buses (a 90-minute ride) and either grab a taxi ($6-$8 from Retiro) or ride the subte to the end of the E line and take a cab from there (total cost about $3).

See the author's Cultural Travel in Buenos Aires: Exploring the Arts for more ideas and information.