From San Telmo’s boho vibes to the riverside modernity of Puerto Madero, BA’s most emblematic barrios have their own distinct flavour.
San Telmo is one of BA’s oldest neighbourhoods and boasts a vibrant tango and arts scene. Its antique markets, candle street lighting (known as ‘faroles’), cobblestones, old buildings with original facades and décor, all add to the uniquely bohemian atmosphere. Sundays especially buzz with activity as the main market comes alive around the Plaza Dorrego; cafes, restaurants and bars teem with people, open-air tango dancers jostle for space, independent clothes stores, galleries and boutiques sell eclectic garments, art works and jewellery. The Museo de Arte Moderno (MAMBA), a former tobacco factory, is located in San Telmo. Look out for the colourful statues on the ‘Paseo de la Historieta’ (Comic Lane), which pay homage to Argentina’s best-loved comic characters like Mafalda, arguably the country’s most influential social analyst of the 1960s and 70s!
Curious fact: It may now be a centre for trinket-hunting, but Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo was where Argentine independence was first declared in Buenos Aires in 1816.
Home to writer Jorge Luis Borges and possibly the most cultured and ‘European’ of Buenos Aires neighbourhoods, Recoleta is a wealthy downtown residential barrio. It is an area of great historical and architectural interest, its iconic buildings evocative of Parisian ‘petits hôtels’. Many of the city’s most luxurious hotels can be found in Recoleta. Its tree-lined avenues house fashionable restaurants, cafes, boutiques, malls and galleries, and its parks and plazas host street performances, art exhibits and craft fairs on weekends. Look out especially for the flea market in Plaza Francia. Recoleta Cemetery, the final resting place for generations of Argentine elites, is a labyrinthine neo-classical city for the dead, not to be missed. Amongst other attractions, Recoleta is also home to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the National Library, the Palais de Glace, the BA Design Centreand the Recoleta Cultural Centre.
Curious fact: Recoleta in its current splendor was born out of an exodus of wealthy families from the south of the city seeking higher ground to avoid the spread of disease. Deadly cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s ravaged heavily populated southern barrios like San Telmo, and the open terrain of Recoleta became a blank architectural canvas for wealthy families influenced by Parisian styles
Situated riverside along the Rio de la Plata in a former commercial docks, tranquil Puerto Madero is the city’s youngest neighbourhood and a major gastronomic and business hub. Along the canals, former industrial warehouses have been converted into elegant bars, eateries and offices, in one of the most successful urban waterfront restoration projects in the world. The iconic ‘Puente de la Mujer’ (Women’s Bridge), is the barrio’s dramatic centerpiece. Despite its many skyscrapers, the area makes a calming contrast to the bustle of the city centre, and its riverside walkways and green parks make it perfect for strolling, cycling or lingering over coffee and pastries in a riverfront cafe.
Curious fact: Look closely and you’ll see that many streets in Puerto Madero are named after famous Argentine women; from Cecilia Grierson, a pioneering doctor and female rights activist, and the first woman in South America to earn a medical degree (1889), to Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo” movement, dedicated to searching for the ‘desaparecidos’, victims of forced disappearance during the Dirty War.
The city centre is the Buenos Aires’ financial, political and business centre. Landmarks such as the ‘Obelisco’ (erected to commemorate the first foundation of the City) and the beautifully restored Teatro Colón line the busy Avenida de Julio, the largest avenue in the world. This area also boasts some classic porteño cafes, the shopping mecca of the pedestrianized Calle Florida with its many malls, and the hugely impressive Plazas del Congreso and de Mayo, which house the Congress and the Casa Rosada (House of the President) respectively and are connected by the Avenida de Mayo.
Curious Fact: Buenos Aires has more theatres than any other city in the world. Head westwards along the Avenida Corrientes from Avenida de Julio and you’re in Buenos Aires’ very own Broadway.
Retiro is known principally for the enormous bus and train terminal of the same name, but it also contains high-end hotels, historic palaces and boutique shops. Across the street from the station is the big green Plaza San Martín, where the shopping streets of Calle Florída and Avenida Santa Fe converge. On one corner of the Plaza stands the iconic Kavanagh building (completed in 1936), which was at one time the tallest building in Latin America.
Curious fact: The area of Retiro was once a training ground for General José de San Martín’s Regiment of Mounted Grenadiers, which is why today’s Plaza San Martín features an equestrian monument to the hero of the Argentine War of Independence. It also contains a memorial to those who died in the Malvinas War.
Famous for the brightly-painted houses and ‘conventillos’ (housing tenements for the poor) that line the ‘Caminito’, and the famous Boca Jrs football club where Diego Maradona made his name, La Boca is located next to the old port. Rather like New York’s Lower-East Side or London’s East End, it was traditionally an area where immigrants settled – around 6 million foreign immigrants poured into Argentina between 1880 and 1930, half of which are said to have come from Genoa, Northern Italy. La Boca also has some excellent arts and cultural centres, such as the Fundación Proa, the Quinquela Martín Museum of Fine Arts and the Usina del Arte, a handsomely restored former electrical factory, now a new music and arts venue. Its auditoria have some of the best acoustics in the world.
Please note that while the tourist areas in La Boca are safe for visitors by day, it is not recommended to walk the streets of la Boca at night.
Curious fact: The brightly-coloured paint used to preserve the hulls of ships first appeared on the facades of La Boca’s dance houses and brothels in the early twentieth century. In the 1950s, to emulate the spirit of early immigrants to the city, a group of neighbours, led by local artist Quinquela Martín, decided to paint all the houses of the Caminito. It was called the Caminito in homage to the famous tango song of the same name composed in 1926.
Palermo is the largest and greenest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires and is split into several sub-barrios, including Palermo Chico, Viejo (which itself divides into Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood), Barrio Parque, Las Cañitas, Palermo Botanico, Palermo Nuevo and Alto Palermo. With nearly 350 acres of parks, lakes and wooded areas – designed by French landscape architect Charles Thays in 1874 – Palermo’s eastern side is a peaceful retreat from the heady rush of the downtown area. It contains the Palermo Woods, the Botanical Gardens, the Japanese Gardens, the Planetarium, the Paseo de Rosedal, theHippodrome (polo field) and many museums, such as the Museo de Arte de Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), the National Museum of Decorative Arts and the Museo Evita.
As you move away from the river towards the Soho, Hollywood and Las Cañitas areas, the tranquil parks give way to a busy shopping, dining and partying district. BA’s domestic airport, Jorge Newbery (also known as Aeroparque), is also in Palermo, as is the Audiovisual District (hence the moniker Palermo Hollywood), home to radio and television studios.
Curious fact: Argentina is known for having the most psychologists per capita in the world. The southern corner of Palermo has been dubbed ‘Villa Freud’ for the fact that most private therapists and psychologists’ clinics can be found in this tiny little area of the city.
Located in the north, Belgrano is a large leafy residential district with some top-notch cafes and restaurants, and the eye-catching Inmaculada Concepción church, known locally as “La Redonda” (the round one). Traditional mansions rub shoulders with modern high-rises, and the neighbourhood’s eastern side along the Rio de la Plata is a patchwork of public parks and private sports clubs. The River Plate football club is located close by. As well as its weekend crafts fair on Plaza Manuel Belgrano, the barrio is also known for China Town (‘Barrio Chino’).
Curious fact: Belgrano was originally a pueblo to the north of the city. It was founded in 1835 and named after Manuel Belgrano, a politician and military leader from Rosario who designed the national flag of Argentina.
A brief word on some of the rest…
Balvanera is a central commercial area which comprises the Abasto neighbourhood, historically associated with Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s most beloved tango singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Many tango halls and ‘milongas’ can be found in the area, as well as the huge Abasto shopping centre. Sandwiched between Palermo Hollywood and Belgrano,Colegiales is a typical porteño residential barrio, home to the Mercado de las Pulgas, a flea market selling everything from antique furniture to vintage comics, housed in a giant warehouse. If you’re looking for bargains on well-known local and international brands, head to the shopping outlets in Villa Crespo, located to the south-west of Palermo. And finally, although it does not enjoy the same fanfare as the Recoleta Cemetery, the enormous Cemetery in Chacarita is equally a fascinating place to wander around.