Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Graciela Cattarossi | Hemispheres May 2017
Starting October 28 (subject to government approval), travel nonstop between New York/Newark and Buenos Aires with our year-round daily service. Buenos Aires will be our 14th South American destination served nonstop from the United States.
Imagine a city that has the energy of New York, the architecture of Paris, the café culture of Rome, the beautiful people of Los Angeles, the steakhouses of Chicago, the theaters of London, the wines of Napa, the nightlife of Miami, and the friendly spirit of Sydney. That seemingly mythical place your mind has conjured? It's real, and it's called Buenos Aires.
Argentina's capital hasn't always had it so good. The Dirty War of the 1970s and '80s casts a long shadow here, and the economy is still reeling from a meltdown in 2001. Yet these trials have done little to dampen the spirit of the locals, or porteños, who are affable, passionate, open-minded, cultured, and endowed with a seemingly bottomless appetite for pleasure. They are also famous for their, shall we say, self-confidence, but visit BA and you'll likely come away thinking that this attitude is justified.
In which Justin eats a contender for World's Best Steak, learns about Argentina's gods and monsters, and drinks gin in a flowershop
My first morning in Buenos Aires starts in the most classically porteño of places: a café. The interior of La Biela, in the tony Recoleta neighborhood, is decorated with images of the racecar drivers who hung out here in the 1950s. I'm outside, in the shade of a 200-year-old rubber tree, watching a parade of high cheekbones and skinny jeans while munching on a toasted ham and cheese sandwich and tea with steamed milk.
Life is good at La Biela, but just across grassy Plaza Francia stands a monument to the hope that the afterlife might be even better. Passing under a columned gateway bearing the inscription “ Requiescant in pace," I enter the Cementerio de la Recoleta and its labyrinth of mausoleums—some with gothic spires, others with Italianate domes and stained glass—where centuries of Argentina's elite are interred. It's easy to get lost here, but all you need to do to orient yourself is look for the crowd, which inevitably gathers around the most famous tomb of all. Eavesdropping on a tour, I learn that Eva Perón, Argentina's revered former first lady, died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33, and that her body spent the following decades in transit from here to Italy to Spain (to keep her out of the hands of both her fanatic followers and her husband's political rivals) before it was finally laid to rest in the Duarte family mausoleum in 1976. Evita's tomb is relatively modest, but the burst of flowers that adorns it reflects the country's continued devotion.
After a couple of hours of cemetery-wandering, I'm feeling a need for my own (temporary) resting place, so I stroll a few tree-lined blocks back through Recoleta, below the balconies of Parisian-style apartment buildings, to the Alvear Palace Hotel. The 85-year-old Belle Epoque–inspired lodging would fit in next to any of Europe's finest palace hotels, with its finely woven rugs, expanses of marble, and sharp-dressed staff. In my suite, I take a minute to ponder a painting of hunting dogs over the sofa before moving on to a more modern amenity: the TV on the wall above the bathtub, which I tune to the previous night's soccer highlights as I slide into the water.
Luciano Bullorsky, president, Tours by Locals
Refreshed, I head back out, skipping the hotel elevator for the corkscrewing marble staircase. I'm ready for lunch, and in Argentina that means I'm ready for beef. A short cab ride takes me to hip Palermo, home to Parrilla Don Julio, considered by many to be the city's finest steakhouse. The dining room is lit with wagon-wheel chandeliers and lined with wine bottles signed by the people who emptied them. Opposite the door, for all to see, stands the
parrilla, the restaurant's 10-foot-wide grill. I sit and watch the meat sizzle, steeling myself with a decanter of 2008 Mendoza Malbec. My waiter brings an appetizer of tender sweetbreads and a plate of heirloom tomatoes, followed by the star: the bife de chorizo, an imposing slab of sirloin steak. He lays down a bowl of chimichurri sauce, but the meat, cooked jugoso (medium-rare), is so rich and buttery that it would be a crime to put anything on it. When the dessert of plum ice cream arrives, I wave my napkin in surrender.
After lunch, I meet up with BA native Luciano Bullorsky, president of the international guided tour company Tours by Locals, and Fabian, one of his guides. I'm hoping to understand this city's history a bit better, so they've agreed to take me to the Parque de la Memoria, along the Amazon-wide Río de la Plata. We move slowly up the brick riverwalk, past a series of street signs that allude to the right-wing junta that ruled from 1976 to 1983, and the atrocities it committed during the Dirty War. Along with the people who were “disappeared" were those who were forced to flee. “In those years, like 200,000 people emigrated from the country, and many of them stayed [abroad]," Luciano says. “And most of the people who left had higher education."
“We like to say, 'God is everywhere, but his office is in Buenos Aires.'" —Luciano Bullorsky, president, Tours by Locals
As we walk, the wind picks up to a howl. We reach the end of the pathway and a wall bearing the names of desaparecidos. From here, we can see El Monumental, the stadium that hosted the 1978 World Cup Final. “The stadium and the ESMA, which was a clandestine prison, were just five blocks away from each other," Fabian says. “People were killed there at the same time we won the World Cup."
That was heavy, so on the drive back to the city center, my guides cheer me up with stories about Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest soccer player who ever lived. “El Diego," as he's known here, was a kid from a Buenos Aires slum who won Argentina the 1986 World Cup almost singlehandedly—ask any Brit about the “Hand of God" or the “Goal of the Century"—and was also notorious for his hard-partying lifestyle. “We love him for this," Fabian says. The Pope may be an Argentine, but to the people here, Maradona is a god.
We stop-and-go along Avenida 9 de Julio—16 lanes wide yet still choked with traffic—pulling over just short of the iconic Obelisco de Buenos Aires. I say goodbye to the guys and hop out in front of the Teatro Colón, which was built in 1908 and remains one of the world's great opera houses. At the entrance I meet Eduardo Masllorens, an architect and historian who worked on a renovation of the theater that cost $100 million and saw it close from 2006 to 2010. He shows me around, starting in the auditorium, which, with a capacity of nearly 2,500, is the second-largest of its kind in the world and is one of the top five in acoustic quality.
Tango dancers at La Catedral
Eduardo, who is 70, cracks jokes constantly, telling me about people who ask if Mozart performed here and relating the city's historical pretensions (“Buenos Aires was the Dubai of the 19th century"). Recounting the end of the architect who designed the auditorium, he says, “He died in a very operatic way—he was shot in the face by the husband of a 'friend.'" He's also full of interesting facts: The
theater was financed by 35 wealthy families; the sound quality is best in the standing-room-only balcony, or “the hen house"; the seats are filled with horsehair, as they were in 1908. What I don't need him to tell me is how beautiful this place is. Standing on the stage, looking out at the gilded balconies and frescoed ceiling, makes me want to belt out an aria of my own.
I thank Eduardo for the tour and hop a cab to Colegiales, on the other side of Palermo, for a culinary show. The car drops me in front of a white colonial building that's home to the restaurant i Latina. Opened by three Colombian siblings in 2012, it serves a pan–Latin American tasting menu that incorporates ingredients and techniques that run the gamut from Mexico to Argentina. My seven-course meal includes Peruvian Nikkei ceviche, quail in Oaxacan mole, braised pork in a Colombian coffee and sugarcane reduction, and an Ecuadorian chocolate truffle, each paired with an Argentine wine. At the end of the meal, chef Santiago Macias, one of the founders, stops by to offer a sort of cooking class. “All the countries of Latin America have different types of corn and different techniques to use it," he says, pointing at an ear of corn tattooed on his arm. “So on our menu we have arepas, we have cornbread, we have tortillas. But also, Latin America is mestiza [mixed]. Here, the root is the fusion—our different roots."
Parque Tres de Febrero
Speaking of roots, my next stop is Florería Atlántico, a flowershop in upscale Retiro, near downtown. Inside the store, a crowd of young people laugh and chatter as if they've been enjoying more than the blossoms. I glance at a woman in the corner, and she swings a door open and motions me toward a staircase, which I descend to a basement that's crammed with stylish people sipping cocktails beneath a chipped ceiling. I head for an open spot at the bar, which has been ranked among the 50 best in the world, and order the house specialty: a gin infused with Argentina's signature herbal stimulant, yerba mate, and mixed with tonic and grapefruit. I don't normally drink any of those things, but one sip and I find myself knocking them back. I hope the yerba mate doesn't keep me up all night. Or, on second thought, I hope it does.
In which Justin meets Argentina's mothers, goes on a graffiti tour, and finds BA's most secretive speakeasy
Those mate-gins succeeded in keeping me up, and I could sure use some coffee to kick-start day two. I blearily make my way down to the Alvear Palace breakfast buffet. The array of fruits and cold cuts and breads is impressive, but I keep things simple with a couple of medialunas, BA's beloved croissants, and a cup of cafe cortado. C'mon, joe, do your magic.
It's a lovely morning so, despite feeling a bit crudo, I go for a stroll in this city's version of Central Park, Parque Tres de Febrero, named for the date in 1852 when Argentina overthrew one of its (many) dictators. I wander past a row of fountains that feel lifted from the Jardin de Tuileries and around a green lagoon dotted with pedal boats. As droves of runners and cyclists buzz past me, I begin to understand how the people here can eat and drink the way they do without needing to get their stomachs stapled.
At the edge of the park, a railway track runs atop a series of brick archways, each of them housing a shop or restaurant. By now I've burned off the medialunas, so I take a seat at one of these, the lovely open-air café Naná. As a train rattles overhead, a waiter brings me an Aperol spritz. Suddenly, I'm feeling splendid, and I enjoy an early lunch of fried potatoes with caramelized onion and ricotta, burratta with pancetta, and a paella-esque dish with shrimp, calamari, and ham.
Santiago Macias, chef, I Latina
From here I head to the nearby Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, commonly known as the MALBA. The museum, in a blocky modern building, celebrated its 15th anniversary last year with a reimagining of its permanent collection. The resulting show,
Verboamérica, explores the responses of regional artists to 20th-century sociopolitical shifts, featuring everything from Pop Arty posters about Peruvian agrarian reform to an Eduardo Gil photo of a Patagonian hovel to a José Clemente Orozco painting of Mexican soldiers at a lonely outpost.
The exhibition has made me want to learn about one of Argentina's—indeed, one of the world's—most famous protests, so I take a cab to Plaza de Mayo, the city's main square. It was here in 1977, in front of the Casa Rosada, the seat of the national government, that a group of women marched in defiance of the dictatorship, demanding to know what had become of their missing children and grandchildren. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, as they became known, still demonstrate here once a week, and I see them now, a small group of elderly women in white head scarves slowly circling the central Pirámide, calling out the names of the disappeared, responding to each one, “ presente." It's a strange scene—tourists jump in front of the madres to snap photos, and there's a larger economic protest just off to the side—but there's still something inspiring about the perseverance of these brave women.
“It's difficult to define Buenos Aires on only one thing. You'll find people who are really open-minded and people who only want to eat at parrillas. In a way that's good, because you can find any kind of restaurant." —Santiago Macias, chef, I Latina
There's a more upbeat historical location just a few blocks away. Café Tortoni was founded in 1858, and it soon became a hangout for the city's intelligentsia (a table in the back is occupied by lifelike statues of the writers Jorge Luis Borges and Alfonsina Storni and the tango singer Carlos Gardel). Aside from its cultural significance, it's a gorgeous space, with stained-glass ceilings and Tiffany lamps. It also has a long line of tourists out front, but the staff takes a welcoming approach to the clamor: As my waiter serves me coffee, he snatches my phone off the table and snaps a photo of me. Who needs a selfie stick?
From here, I cab back across town to a residential complex in Colegiales, where I meet Myriam Selhi, a French-Canadian who has lived in Buenos Aires for 11 years and works as a street art tour guide for Graffitimundo. The walls behind the complex's busy playground are covered with giant murals. In one, two minotaurs do battle; in another, a gaucho rears his horse in the manner of Napoleon Crossing the Alps while spraying paint in the air; in a third, Evita shares space with miners, condors, and other Peronist symbols. As we walk past these murals and others, Myriam provides the historical context of graffiti in Argentina. During the prosperous 1990s, many Argentines could afford to travel to cities like New York and Barcelona, where they were exposed to street art. When harder times came, they began to use tagging as a form of protest.
“In December 2001, Argentina went bankrupt," Selhi says. “Everybody lost two-thirds of their life savings. In 2002, because of this crisis, 50 percent of the population of Argentina was living below the poverty line. Protests were everywhere, and people would tag—not punk kids or angry teenagers, but middle-class people. So graffiti in Argentina is a super-middle-class phenomenon."
We stop at the house of a street artist that is decorated with a doll-like mural in the colorful, cartoonish muñequismo style. As we admire it, a man in a cat mask peers down at us from a window. “Yeah, those guys do that," Myriam says, laughing. We continue through the local flea market, its walls covered in graffiti, including an ax-wielding blond woman that Myriam terms “Hello Kitty meets ax murderer." Our last stop is in Palermo, at Graffitimundo's space, Galería Union, which houses stencils and paintings by some of the artists whose murals we've just enjoyed.
I'm a bit arted-out and ready for a nap. Fortunately, Home Hotel, where I'll be spending tonight, is just a few blocks away. The 20-room boutique property is unassuming on the outside, tucked amid cafés, bars, and private homes in trendy Palermo Hollywood, but the interior is überhip (one of the owners is an English record producer). The lobby furniture is mod, there are bags designed by artist Nicola Costantino on sale, and the pool deck is lushly overgrown with flowers and ivy that climbs the rear of the building. My poolside suite has a '70s feel (flowery wallpaper and a pink shag rug), with futuristic touches like electric curtains. I hit the switch on the drapes and dive into bed.
The winding marble staircase at the Alvear Palace Hotel
It's dark when I wake. I walk back through Palermo Hollywood, across the railroad tracks and past an alley where a drum troupe is loudly rehearsing. In Palermo Soho, I cruise by Plaza Julio Cortázar, surrounded by discotheques, and eventually reach Nicky New York Sushi. I'm not sure if the name is inspired by the Manhattanized moniker of the neighborhood, but the restaurant goes all-in on the concept, with a fake NYC address (109 W. 78th Street) and walls lined with white subway tiles. The food, it turns out, is more Nicky (Nikkei?) than New York—top-notch salmon and tuna
tiraditos, ceviche, and nigiri.
The real trick comes at the meal's end (when your waiter asks if you want to see the wine cellar, say yes). A hostess in a black cocktail dress takes me back to a room of wine racks and pulls a mirror open to reveal a submarine-style steel door. She turns a wheel-lock and ushers me into a bar straight out of the 1920s. The walls of The Harrison Speakeasy (named after an apocryphal Prohibition-era New York bar owner) are lined with mirrors and black-and-white portraits, classic jazz plays on the stereo, and the cocktail list includes the creative Mr. Bukowski (Jim Beam, Stella Artois, coffee, Angostura bitters, and tobacco syrup, poured into a beer bottle that's then pumped full of chocolate smoke). On the bottle's label is a Bukowski quote: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us." I think Henry Chinaski would have liked it here.
In which Justin goes running in a nature preserve, catches a street-fair puppet show, and discovers tango
Between all the food I've eaten and all the time I've spent surrounded by athletically inclined porteños, I'm starting to feel ashamed of my physique. So I start today by slipping on my sneakers and hitting the trails in the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur. At the eastern edge of the city, this environmental preserve separates the trendy, formerly industrial port neighborhood Puerto Madero from the Río de la Plata. I jog my way through low-lying marshland, expecting to find a peaceful reprieve from the bustle of the city, but the constant bird calls are so cacophonous I might as well be sweating it out amid the traffic on Avenida 9 de Julio.
My run comes to its conclusion at the front door of the Faena Hotel, a fortresslike red-brick former grain mill that impresario Alan Faena converted into Buenos Aires's most stylish digs. As I enter the long, red-carpeted front hall, a bellman in a white cape and top hat hands me a bottle of water. Now, that's what I call service!
Myriam Selhi, guide, Graffitimundo
After soaking my muscles in the claw-foot bathtub in my room, I head back down to El Mercado, the Faena's brunch spot, which takes its flea market theme to heart. Cabinets and walls are cluttered with tchotchkes, and the tableware is mismatched, as if each set has been cobbled together from market finds. The food is classic Argentine: I start with beef empanadas and carrot salad from the self-serve buffet, after which my punkily green-haired waitress brings me several courses of meat: chorizo and blood sausage, tenderloin, flank steak, and pork ribs, all cooked on the
parrilla in the blue-tiled open kitchen. Is there Malbec? Of course there's Malbec. This isn't a brunch so much as it as an attack on dietary decency.
Post-binge, I go for a constitutional along the Puerto Madero waterfront, past disused cranes and red-brick warehouses that are now home to high-end restaurants. At the bottom of the riverwalk, I cross a bridge into San Telmo, BA's oldest neighborhood, which was mostly abandoned after a 19th-century epidemic of yellow fever but has since been repopulated by the hipster set. On Sundays, cobblestoned Calle Defensa hosts the Feria de San Pedro Telmo, a street fair that stretches at least a dozen blocks past antique stores and beneath the balconies of old French- and Spanish-style apartment buildings. I pick through stalls that hawk leatherworks, mate gourds, and figurines of soccer players, then stop to watch a puppeteer put on a show.
“Buenos Aires is fantastic because it lets you take part in everything. If you want to take a juggling class at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, you can find that class. Once you learn to surf the chaos, it offers you a lot of freedom." —Myriam Selhi, guide, Graffitimundo
At the end of the fair, I reach the Museo de Arte Moderno, better known as the MAMBA. A thunderstorm is brewing, so I duck inside the brick building and wander through an exhibit of drawings by Argentina's greatest artist, Antonio Berni. I love the politically minded Social Realist images, but my favorite part of the museum is its black metal staircase, which winds up from the lobby like a coiled snake.
From the museum, I cab it back to Puerto Madero and my dinner spot. Set in a sleek, modern space overlooking the river, Chila has made the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America list four years running. Chef Soledad Nardelli recently left, but her former sous chef Pedro Bargero has taken over, and the tasting menu hasn't skipped a beat. I have grilled Patagonian shrimp in a yogurt bisque, humita (a traditional corn, pepper, and pumpkin puree) from the north of the country, perfectly grilled Antarctic black hake with pesto sauce, and a flank steak tamal, all paired, of course, with Argentine wines. As I polish off the final glass, chef Bargero stops by my table.
“Ten years ago, Argentine food was not the best, but the gastronomy here has changed a lot," he says. “We try to use different products from all over our country. We try to use all organic produce. We're talking a lot with farmers and chefs, working together to make a new Argentine cuisine."
The Puente de la Mujer footbridge in Puerto Madero
The food scene might be changing, but this city's most famous contribution to world culture endures. The tango dates to the late 19th century, when waves of immigrants, many from Italy, settled Argentina (especially the southern BA neighborhood of La Boca). These newcomers, mostly men without families, melded the rhythms of Spain, Cuba, and Africa into a dance to help them while away their lonely nights. The tango, in all its complexity and sensuality, has become a global symbol for this city, and the flashiest example of it can be seen at the Faena's Rojo Tango show. In a red-draped room, two singers front a five-piece band playing slinky fiddle and
bandoneón music as five pairs of dancers put on an elaborate, acrobatic display. They whirl across the stage, atop the bar, around the audience, the men in impeccable tuxedos, the women in slit dresses, their legs flying about in wild yet precise chop steps. The audience is small, only a couple dozen patrons, but when the lights come on, it roars with appreciation.
Rojo Tango is impressive, but I also want to see a milonga, the bars where regular porteños practice this art. So I grab a cab and head to the quiet residential neighborhood of Almagro. I get out at a borderline-dilapidated building and go upstairs to enter La Catedral. The warehouse space is dark. The rickety walls and vaulted ceiling are covered with art. Makeshift tables are scattered before a hardwood floor crowded with couples who sway to a trio of guitarists and a singer belting out ballads. It takes two to tango, and all I've got two of is left feet, so I order a pint of the national lager, Quilmes, and watch. The dancers slide gracefully around each other, like water over smooth rock. This scene, above all, captures the spirit of Buenos Aires: soulful people wrapped in a sexy dance, in a building that feels like it could collapse at any moment. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Hemispheres deputy editor Justin Goldman loves a good steak—but after this trip he's going vegetarian for a while.