Three Essential Buenos Aires Neighborhoods: Part One, Microcentro

It was a rite of passage in my hometown for most boys to throw their hat into the ring to go on a two-year “mission.” A lot of faith traditions encourage missions or similar activities, of course, and a lot of them do a lot of good. The unique twist on this version is that the kids don’t get to choose where they go, but instead make simply the binary decision whether to go, and then, through some combination of quota, committee, algorithm and maybe even mystical intervention, they’re assigned by HQ to some spot on the globe, which is as likely to be Bangladesh or Bulgaria as it is Boise or Boston.

When my turn came, I was all ready to go to Germany — to Dresden, specifically. Members of my family had gone on missions to Frankfurt, Vienna and Zürich, The Wall had just come down, and, having lived in Austria for a couple of years, I had a decent handle on Deutsch. So it made perfect sense.

“Boowoneos Ehrays WHERE?!” I snorted as I threw the assignment letter to the kitchen floor, dropped the phone (and my girlfriend’s faintly audible “Hey…hello?!”) on its bouncy cord, glared at my parents and bolted past my best friend toward the carport, where I commandeered the Subaru and headed for the hills.

When I resurfaced the next day, friends were in full resuscitation mode:

“You love tamales and bean burritos, so at least the food’ll be good.”

“Dude, the place is full of ex-Nazis. You’ll probably be speaking German most of the time anyway.”

“It’s got an awesome national anthem, ‘Don’t cry for me…’”

My family’s interventionist efforts were somewhat more nuanced:

“It’s an opportunity for you to have an experience that’s entirely your own, unlike anything the rest of us have done.”

“It doesn’t matter where you are; it matters what you do.”

And from my eldest sister, whose orchestra had toured to Buenos Aires, “It’s the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere, but with a very Italianate feel, more dust, and a lot more corruption. You’ll love it, I promise.”

Two years later, I’d spent time all over Buenos Aires, from the glitziest downtown neighborhoods to crime-ridden housing projects in the suburbs to tranquil hamlets (complete with gauchos) on the edge of the Pampas, and, just as my sister had promised, I did love it. ALL of it. It may well have been divine inspiration that the area to which I’d been assigned upon arrival was Barrio Norte, a neighborhood smack dab in the middle of downtown, because in wincing retrospect, I concede that had my adolescent self’s first impression of the country been some of the places I’d lived–and loved–later, without that initial acclimation zone, I may not have lasted.

And so it’s with that same love for this magnificent town and its indomitable porteños (denizens of Buenos Aires) that I share a few ideas that I hope will enrich your time among my friends.

¿QUE ES MICROCENTRO?

Microcentro, as it’s known locally, is the capital’s political, financial and historical center, whose perimeter is defined more or less by the avenues 9 de Julio to the west and 25 de Mayo to the south, and everywhere else by the Rio de la Plata — a name apparently mistranslated by early Brits not as “River of Silver” but as “River Plate,” which, in turn, has endured as the name of one of the city’s major fútbol clubs. And for the purposes at hand, I’ll take a few border-stretching editorial liberties in describing here what I’ll call Microcentro+Plus.

PLAZA DE MAYO AND CASA ROSADA

At the epi-microcenter are Plaza de Mayo and the presidential palace, La Casa Rosada (The Pink House), whose balcony is closely associated with the iconic Peróns, Eva in particular, and whose color, according to legend, owes in part to cow’s blood, which is known, of course, to flow liberally in this land. Consider a tour of the palace (available on weekends) and take a quick peek at the Columbus monument around back. Attractions directly on the Plaza include the Cabildo, which served as the municipal seat during colonial times, and the stately-yet-reserved Metro Cathedral, where Pope Francis presided over Mass when he was Archbishop Jorge Bergolio and where the flag-draped tomb of venerated General San Martín is reminiscent of Napoleon’s at Dôme des Invalides, albeit on an understandably more modest scale. One block south on Defensa is Farmacia de la Estrella, a functioning 19th-Century apothecary whose lavish decor is not to be missed.

RETIRO, PLAZA SAN MARTÍN AND CALLE FLORIDA

San Martín sits atop his steed in the middle of his eponymous plaza at this neighborhood’s northernmost end, one of my favorite spots in the city, which can be enjoyed without much backtracking as follows:

1. From Plaza de Mayo, take a taxi to the Sheraton (or from the Cathedral, take the Subte to Retiro, with a transfer at Diagonal Norte), which is on San Martín at Libertador, overlooking the Plaza Fuerza Aerea. I don’t know whether this tactic works anymore, but try to act like hotel guests and nonchalantly take the lobby elevator up to the highest possible floor, which will afford you a fantastic view: up Avenida Libertador, which heads northwest toward upscale boroughs of Palermo and Belgrano, eventually getting swallowed up into other routes on their way to the swankier suburbs of Olivos, San Isidro and Tigre (Tigre is worth a quiet afternoon visit); of the Torre Monumental, a miniature Big Ben gifted to the city in 1909 by its British residents and called La Torre de los Ingleses (The Tower of the English) until the 1982 Falklands War (known, and enforced strictly, by Argentines as the Malvinas War), during which it was sandbagged to prevent sabotage by ultranationalists; of the Art Deco façade of Retiro train station, just beyond the Torre; of Plaza Canada and its totem pole, to the right of the Torre; beyond Plaza Canada (you’ll need a zoom lens at this point), of both the bus terminal that serves long-haul coaches to all parts of the country; and, on the terminal’s far side, of Cristo Obrero, a prototypical example of the region’s innumerable villas, which are either Argentina’s answer or precursor to Brazil’s notorious favelas, shanty-towns where residents live in rent-free yet regrettable conditions, their dwellings typically of scrap plywood or mortarless cinderblock and chapas (corrugated metal roofing) construction.

2. Down on the plaza — and there is no compelling need to go farther north or east than the Torre itself — take a moment to appreciate the iron work supporting Retiro’s glass canopies, before turning southwest to head up the grassy hill toward Plaza San Martín. At the base of the hill is a monument to the fallen of the Malvinas War, and as you look up to your left, through the interesting trees, you’ll see Edificio Kavanagh, which, I was told, was at one time the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Lingering in the charming Plaza and observing the surrounding facades, especially those along Maipú (including, for example, the wrought-iron gate of the Círculo Militar), one can more fully appreciate the comparisons to Paris. If you get hungry while in this area, I recommend two restaurants on Reconquista: El Salmon, not for the fish (haven’t tried it) but for the excellent and inexpensive handmade pasta, especially the giant “Sorrentini,” or Las Nazarenas for its butter-soft bife de lomo (filet mignon) and provoleta (a grilled slab of non-pasteurized, non-homogenized provolone).

3. At the south end of the plaza begins Calle Florida, Buenos Aires’ most famous pedestrian street. Although its aesthetic is more “What Via Dante Might Have Become Without Zoning Ordinances or Milanese History & Glamour” than it is Kärntner Straße, Portobello Road or Rodeo Drive, it’s certainly worth a few paces, if only for two blocks to see the impressive frescoes in the Beaux Arts cupola of Galerías Pacífico mall.

TEATRO COLÓN, AVENIDA 9 DE JULIO AND CONFITERIA IDEAL

Four blocks due west of Galerías Pacífico sits opulent Teatro Colón, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and–despite some sentiment of it being perhaps past the prime that defined its mid-century golden age when it served as an important artistic refuge from war-torn Europe–still ranks, rightfully, as one of the world’s finest opera houses. Its stage has hosted the who’s who of 20th Century household-name singers (such as Caruso, Callas and Pavarotti), conductors (Bernstein and Toscanini, who was a frequent guest director of its orchestra), instrumentalists (Perlman, Midori, Ma) and dancers (Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Barishnikov). I last saw it before it underwent extensive, multimillion-dollar renovations from 2008 to 2010, and am not sure whether its vast instrument and memorabilia collection is still on display, but a tour of the Teatro (if not attendance at a performance) is essential for any Buenos Aires visitor with even casual interest in classical music, art or architecture. Afterwards, look across adjacent Plaza Lavalle — likely host to a spirited protest or two on any given day — at the quasi-neoclassical facade of the Palacio de Tribunales (Court Palace), home of Argentina’s supreme court.

By now you may have noticed the quaint lane on the Teatro’s east side. Wider than a football field (both the international and U.S. varieties) is long, Avenida 9 de Julio is the world’s most humongous municipal thoroughfare and, together with its 72-meter Obelisco, a hectic, perilous, magnificently cacophonous embodiment of orgullo argentino (Argentine pride). The Avenida’s grandiose, even Icharian, construction–a cautionary tale in eminent domain run amuck–began by taking cues from the Champs-Élysées and summarily proceeding to drawf the Parisian’s scale, bequeathing today’s drivers a circus of enterprising jugglers, sword swallowers and fire breathers, plus panhandlers and scampering pedestrians, at every stoplight. A quick round of human “Frogger” across the Avenida could be a highlight, or lowlight, of your visit.

In the Obelisco’s shadow and within your now-damaged earshot of 9 de Julio’s frenetic din is, at Suipacha 384, a sanctuary of tradition, passion and grace — indeed, of something Argentines revere on a rung shared with Maradona and beef, just below Mary and Evita: the tango. In Argentina, milonga refers alternatively to the rural dance that served as the tango’s pre-industrial, pre-urban ancestor, to the gatherings at which locals dance the tango, and to the locales (whether bars, dance parlors or something more improvisational) where these gatherings take place. There is no lack of reasons to make a pilgrimage to Confiteria Ideal, the tango temple declared a national historical monument in 2003, although despite its name (“Ideal Confectionary”), the food is not necessarily among them. The elegance — indeed, the cultural sanctity — of the place is first intimated by the brass fleur-de-lis out front (forgive their neon counterpart overhead) then reinforced by the wrought-iron elevator cage you circle while ritualistically ascending the steps to the second floor (known in Argentina as the first floor), where mahogany paneling, bronze chandeliers and Corinthian capitals sumptuously designate the altar-floor. The uninitiated can take tango lessons in the afternoon, watch a tango show certain evenings (“tango puro,” as one Confiteria bandoneonista, or accordion player, emphasized to me, not the “tasteless athletic exhibitionism” flaunted elsewhere — but watch for tips on tasteless athletic exhibitionism in a sequel post) or even witness an actual milonga on others, including the late-night sessions at which the bluebloods dance until dawn. A word about milonga decorum: If you can tango, really tango, then join in. If you can’t, then don’t, opting instead to sit reverently at a side table and sip a vino cordobés while watching this consummately Argentine and astonishingly democratic ritual unfold — taking care to observe protocol, because even a certain glance at a stranger across the room means something at a milonga. (Note that at the time of this post, Confiteria Ideal appears to be closed, reportedly temporarily, for renovations.)

PLUS

As I warned earlier, I’ll stray slightly afield of the strict longitudinal boundaries of Microcentro for a couple of nearby recommendations. A few blocks west of 9 de Julio is the Palacio del Congreso Nacional Argentino, or simply Congreso, an attractive, if not particularly unique, example of neoclassical architecture that becomes worth a visit especially if paired with a stop at Café Tortoni on Avenida de Mayo (825), halfway between Congreso and the Casa Rosada and accessible from the Piedras stop on the Subte line that connects the two government buildings. One of the city’s oldest cafés, Tortoni has since 1858 been a favorite with dignitaries, musicians (including Carlos Gardel, the Sinatra of Tango), artists, writers (e.g., Jose Luis Borges) and intellectuals, and some of their memorabilia is on display, not far from the several pool tables. The food far surpassed what I expected from an establishment that could remain viable on nostalgia and ambience alone: I recommend the bife de chorizo (New York strip) prepared jugoso (medium rare), with puré de papas (mashed potatoes).

On the waterfront immediately east of Plaza de Mayo is Puerto Madero, an achingly chic and relatively new burrough resulting from a massive urban renewal effort based around 19th century docks that for decades had been all but abandoned. Here you’ll find galleries, elegant hotels and residences, high-end shops, exclusive discotecas and some of the city’s best dining for a variety of budgets. Consider Siga la Vaca (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 1714), a parrilla tenedor libre (all-you-can-eat grill) for a memorable time enjoying better-than-you’d expect asado, and a well-traveled and widely-dined colleague says that Marcelo (just up the road at 1140) serves the best Italian food he’s ever eaten.

A FEW LAST THOUGHTS

Getting Around: Much of what I’ve recommended here and will recommend in two subsequent posts can and should be walked. However, Buenos Aires is a big town with long blocks, so don’t let the map deceive you. Unless you acclimate quickly to metropolitan transportation systems, taxis are your best bet. (At the time of this post, the jury is still out on Uber in Argentina.) The Subte is very efficient and will add a little charm to your trip, especially if you get on one of the really old cars whose wooden walls flex like parallelograms as the train carries speed around curves. Notwithstanding their endearing charm, leave colectivos (the ubiquitous buses also known as “bondis”) to the locals, because the mangled knot of downtown routes virtually ensures that novices will end up in Montevideo.

Shopping: The town’s most glamorous shopping (both new and consignment) is in Recoleta, the hippest is in Palermo Viejo aka Palermo Soho (hit Calle Murillo in nearby Villa Crespo for leather), and the best antiques are found in San Telmo. Florida/Galerías Pacífico, Abasto and Alto Palermo are fine but aren’t likely to offer anything you can’t find at home.

Security: Take only your day’s essentials with you, leaving your cards in the hotel safe whenever possible. During acute economic crises (which, sadly, means more or less always), tourists are particularly vulnerable to secuestros flash (“flash kidnappings”) in which victims are escorted at knife- or gunpoint from ATM to ATM until they’ve withdrawn their day’s maximum.

Attire: Gentlemen, leave your shorts, baseball cap and Tommy Bahama tops at home. If you forget this, see “Shopping,” above. Ladies, work it and own it.