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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

36 hours in Buenos Aires, Argentina


The sun sets on Buenos Aires on May 10, 2023. Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, can feel overwhelming, but elegance is everywhere and accessible to visitors.

By Maria Cramer


Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, can feel overwhelming. Main thoroughfares like Avenida Santa Fe are noisy and jammed with zooming taxis and groaning buses. The streets can get grimy. But elegance is everywhere and accessible to visitors. Beaux-Arts buildings along Avenida de Mayo recall the grandeur of old Europe. You can find affordable, handcrafted goods at artisan fairs that abound on weekends in neighborhoods such as San Telmo, Recoleta and Mataderos. The afterglow of Argentina’s 2022 World Cup victory remains — a spiritual salve for many still suffering from the country’s yearslong inflation crisis. Visitors will find a city where people press on. It is that perseverance that keeps Buenos Aires vibrant and thrilling.


Friday


4:30 p.m. | Beauty in Toilets


One unexpected place to enjoy Buenos Aires’ breathtaking architecture: the city’s water pumping station. The striking 19th-century Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes, which takes up an entire block in the Balvanera neighborhood, has an inelegant nickname — the Toilet Museum. It has the moniker because of its large collection of latrines and ornate urinals, including an enormous room showcasing 20th-century toilets and bidets. But the building itself is a beautiful example of the French influence on the city’s architecture. A visit to its museum, which is free and open Monday through Friday, could take 15 minutes or an hour, depending on how much you care to learn about the history of indoor plumbing.


5:30 p.m. | Shoe Shopping


In the affluent neighborhood of Recoleta, merchants selling high-quality Argentine leather are within easy walking distance of one another. Visit stalwarts such as Guido on Calle Rodríguez Peña and Lopez Taibo on Avenida Alvear, where the shoes, wallets and purses are handmade and the strong aroma of fine leather hits you as you walk through the door. For funkier shoes with colorful designs on Calle Montevideo, go to Jessica Kessel, which also has a shop on Calle Defensa in San Telmo (shoes from 36,000 pesos). After shopping, grab some buttery, sweet medialunas (Argentina’s spin on croissants) from Corchio on Avenida Las Heras and walk five blocks to Plaza Vicente López, where you will gaze in wonder at an enormous 200-year-old rubber fig tree in the center of the park.


8:30 p.m. | Eat an Argentine feast


To taste your way around Argentina, South America’s second-biggest nation, without taking a long trek, go to Roux, also in Recoleta. While the food isn’t strictly Argentine, chef Martin Rebaudino, who made a name for himself at the nearby fine-dining restaurant Oviedo, sources ingredients from all over the country: The anchovies are from the coastal city of Mar del Plata, the saffron is from the northwest province of Mendoza, and the prawns are from Santa Cruz, in Patagonia. The mollejas, or sweetbreads, served with a large, velvety raviolo that has a truffled egg yolk inside and is topped with foam, are a highlight on a menu full of inventive dishes. The wine list is vast, and the service is impeccable. Dinner for two, without drinks, around 24,000 pesos.


11 p.m. | Drink from an obelisk


After dinner, head less than a mile to Presidente Bar, which might look exclusive and imposing as you walk through a tall, wrought-iron gate into a dimly lit room with high ceilings, mahogany-colored walls and crystal chandeliers. But the place is run by friendly, knowledgeable servers who will happily go into detail about the cocktails, which range from traditional Negronis to kitschy inventions such as the Buenos Aires Zombie, a rum cocktail mixed with tropical fruit, absinthe and bitters served in a ceramic replica of the obelisk on Avenida 9 de Julio. Presidente Bar offers a gorgeous setting where dressing up is encouraged but pretentiousness is nonexistent.


Saturday


9 a.m. | Coffee and Books


The hand-cut pasta at Quotidiano Bar de Pastas on Avenida Callao is so popular with locals that lines form outside on weekdays at lunchtime. But it is also a wonderful spot for breakfast — a large, airy setting of exposed brick and wood paneling where you can start off your day with strong coffee, housemade yogurt and granola, fresh-squeezed orange juice, avocado on toast, or flaky, sweet croissants (breakfast with coffee and juice from 700 to 2,150 pesos). After breakfast, stroll two blocks to the bustling Avenida Santa Fe, where you can visit El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a cinema turned bookstore that has kept the old movie house’s high, frescoed ceilings, theater boxes and ornate molding.


11 a.m. | Stroll a former zoo


The Palermo neighborhood already had three sprawling gardens within walking distance of one another: Jardín Japones, Jardín Botánico and Parque El Rosedal. Add Ecoparque to that list. Once it was the site of a grand, and very sad, city zoo, where iron cages kept lions, tigers and chimpanzees in cruelly small spaces. The zoo closed in 2016, and since then, the new owners have been converting it into a peaceful nature preserve, where peacocks and Patagonian maras — native, fleet-footed rodents — roam free. While more exotic animals have been sent to sanctuaries abroad, some remain, including giraffes that are too large and old to transport and a puma that had been kept illegally as a pet. The zoo’s gorgeous, antique buildings also remain, their stateliness now an elegant contrast to the wild native plants and brush growing along footpaths. Entry is free.


1 p.m. | Gorge on pasta


If there is one food that Porteños (the name for people from Buenos Aires) take almost as seriously as beef, it’s pasta — a reverence rooted in the city’s Italian heritage. At La Alacena Pastificio y Salumeria, which opened in 2022 just outside Villa Crespo, a neighborhood that borders trendy Palermo but is largely overlooked by tourists, you will find pasta makers behind a counter, expertly rolling out and cutting rigatoni, gnocchi and ravioli, to name a few. Try the housemade focaccia (900 pesos), the polpette al sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce flecked with shards of rich, sharp Parmesan, 2,700 pesos) and fusilli topped with pesto and pomodoro sauce (2,400 pesos). The full kitchen is open only until 4:30 p.m., but the counter stays open until 9 p.m., selling bread, pastries and sandwiches.


3 p.m. | Watch the koi


Work off your meal with a 20-minute walk to Parque Centenario in Caballito. The park, an oasis of trees including tipa and araucarias, sprawling lawns, and a lake filled with koi — the enormous fish that also fill the waterways of Jardín Japones in Palermo — is teeming with locals reading, painting or working out on Saturdays. It also has one of the quirkiest fairs in the city, featuring vendors lined up around its outskirts who sell secondhand clothes, water bottles emblazoned with pictures of Harry Styles and Taylor Swift, and jerseys and socks bearing the names and numbers of Argentina’s soccer heroes. Inside the park, artists sell handmade goods including leather sandals, toys, children’s clothes, intricate wooden puzzles, woolen scarves and jewelry, among other treasures.


7 p.m. | Scope out the market


At Mercat Villa Crespo, a market in an industrial space on Calle Thames, you’ll find shops cooking traditional Argentine fare including empanadas, steak and pasta, as well as cooks steaming dumplings or frying falafel doused in a spicy eggplant sauce. There are plenty of vegetarian options, including vegan ice cream. Alongside the diverse food, there are also wine bars and draft beer stands throughout the cavernous, yet casual and relaxing, space. Open until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.


11 p.m. | Listen to jazz in Palermo


Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood, two adjoining neighborhoods, are known for their trendy bars and nightclubs that stay open until dawn. But both also feature laid-back spots where you can enjoy the city’s nightlife without sacrificing sleep. Borges 1975, a restaurant, bar and bookshop that opened in 2015, has a small, intimate back room that regularly features jazz acts by talented local musicians. During the pandemic, the owners reduced capacity in the club to 40 people, from 65, and kept it that way even after restrictions eased, recognizing that customers were more comfortable sipping Aperol spritzes and espumante (sparkling wine) in a less crowded setting. Tickets are 2,100 pesos.


Sunday


11 a.m. | Go Underground


In San Telmo, you’ll find one of the city’s more unusual museums, El Zanjón, a cavernous mansion that leads to underground water tunnels built in the neighborhood in the 18th and 19th centuries. The house once belonged to a wealthy family, who also kept six enslaved men and women, before it was turned into a tenement home. Little is known about the enslaved residents, except brief, denigrating descriptions that the family logged, such as their approximate age and height. But the museum and its guides, who lead tours in English and Spanish, have made a serious effort to explore the country’s obscured history of slavery with stories and paintings depicting Afro-Argentines of that period. Just around the corner is La Casa Mínima, the narrowest house in Buenos Aires, which is also open to the public for tours (3,500 pesos for nonresidents).


12:30 p.m. | Good Grill


Puerto Madero, a redeveloped dockside neighborhood about a 10-minute walk from San Telmo, has become one of the busiest tourist destinations in the city, thanks to landmarksincluding Puente de la Mujer, a sleek pedestrian bridge designed by the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, and the ARA Presidente Sarmiento, a museum ship that bobs on the Río Darsena Sur river next to a long line of loud, packed restaurants. Less than half a mile farther along the river, away from the crowd, is Estilo Campo, a fantastic parrilla (an Argentine steakhouse, which literally means open grill) with river views and servers wearing kerchiefs and belts in the style of gauchos, to the delight of tourists. But the expertly prepared chorizo, crispy sweetbreads and juicy skirt steak leave no doubt that you are in an authentic Argentine parrilla, and the wine list is expansive. Lunch for two is about 18,000 pesos.



KEY STOPS


Ecoparque, a former zoo, is now a nature preserve where many animals roam free.


Borges 1975 is a bookshop with a restaurant and bar, as well as an intimate back room that hosts jazz acts every week.


La Alacena Pastificio y Salumeria is a cozy restaurant where you can watch pasta makers rolling and cutting fresh rigatoni, gnocchi and ravioli.


Jessica Kessel is a boutique selling funky, colorful leather shoes, including heels, boots, mules and flats.


WHERE TO EAT


Roux offers inventive fine dining, with produce sourced from all over Argentina.


Estilo Campo, a steakhouse in Puerto Madero, serves expertly prepared chorizo and crispy sweetbreads away from the crowds along the Río de la Plata riverbank.


Mercat Villa Crespo is a food market in a refurbished industrial space selling empanadas, steak, falafel, vegan ice cream and more.


Quotidiano Bar de Pastas in Recoleta draws crowds for its pasta and is also a great spot for breakfast and Argentine pastries filled with dulce de leche.


Presidente Bar, in one of the most affluent parts of the city, is a beautiful drinking spot that manages not to take itself too seriously.


Corchio, which has sweet, buttery pastries and great coffee, is a perfect snack stop as you shop in Recoleta.


WHERE TO STAY


Alvear Palace Hotel in Recoleta remains one of the city’s most elegant hotels, with a rooftop bar that has tremendous panoramic views of Buenos Aires. Doubles from around $370 (hotels generally list prices in U.S. dollars).


Ribera Sur Hotel in San Telmo, the city’s oldest neighborhood, has comfortable, simply designed rooms that start at $95 a night, including an indulgent breakfast. It is two blocks from Calle Defensa, where every Sunday there is an open-air antiques market.


Malevo Muraña Hostel, a cheerful hostel in Palermo with a charming outdoor patio, offers shared dorms from about $40 a person and private rooms that fit up to four people from $140 a night. The hostel is on one of the quieter streets of a neighborhood that becomes very loud at night.


For short-term rentals, Recoleta and Palermo, safe, walkable neighborhoods teeming with boutiques, pasta shops, and cheese and wine shops, are the best locations for exploring such a vast city.

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