Turn a corner in Buenos Aires and you could arrive in a completely different neighbourhood, a different vibe, and different look. Cross Avenida del Libertador from plush Recoleta to Retiro train station and you’ll move from mansions and embassies to the hugger-mugger of street stalls, pastry sellers, cut-price asados and fake football shirts. Here is a guide to the main barrios (neighbourhoods) of Buenos Aires, each totally distinct.
h3. San Telmo
One of the oldest areas in Buenos Aires is the bohemian San Telmo district. Tenement blocks remain inside the crumbling façades of previously grand Parisian buildings. Antique shops, tango venues and excellent parrillas (asado restaurants) dominate the streets making it one of the most popular destinations for visitors. On Sundays, the streets close for a sprawling craft and antique markets, particularly around Plaza Dorrego. Tango dancers and musicians vie for spare pesos.
The various monikers within this area such as Palermo Hollywood, Palermo Soho, Palermo Viejo, and, god help us, Palermo Dead, hint at the pretence that can often be found in this pleasant, low-rise area. Regenerated beyond comprehension in the last 15 years, Palermo is now the first call for visitors and trendy porteños (as the city’s port dwellers are known). Fine restaurants, boutique hotels, and shops, lots of shops, cater for hipsters. Buzzing 24 hours a day, this is where you nightlife begins.
Blending into Barrio Norte, Recoleta is most famous for its cemetery, a vast necropolis that houses the good, great, rich and, occasionally, scandalous of Argentina’s history. Evita is the most famous inductee, but take time to get lost among the marble mausoleums, wondering at the opulence of the tombs. Elsewhere in Recoleta are vast mansions, many now embassies and some of the most upmarket shopping in the city.
h3. La Boca
La Boca, characterised by brightly painted tenements, is still very much a working class area. The name is derived from its location at the mouth (la boca) of the Riochuelo, and the port is where the roots of the city began. The centrepiece for the area is La Bombonera (the Chocolate Box), which is where Maradona’s former team La Boca play. On match day the area turns blue and gold with supporters. Colourful Caminto is where most tourists get dropped off for a few photos, and its best just to stick to this area.
h3. El Centro
Yellow taxis, hot dog stands and giant swing balls on the streets of downtown Buenos Aires have fooled film audiences into thinking the movie and adverts are set in New York. The high-rise building and skyscrapers can certainly resemble the Big Apple, but dig through the financial district and there are plenty of sights, including the Casa Rosada presidential plaza (where Evita addressed the crowds), Plaza de Mayo, the newly reopened Teatro Colón and the Obelisco in the middle of 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world. Avenida Corrientes, with its theatres and pizza parlours is busy day and night. It is very quiet on weekends.
h3. Puerto Madero
Said to be among the most expensive real estate in Latin America, this regenerated dockland area is the most up market area in Buenos Aires. Skyscrapers are shooting up, and the original red wharf buildings now house expensive restaurants and designer boutiques. It is also home to the city’s most lavish hotel, the Philippe Starck designed Faena + Universe. It is relaxing to walk around the four docks, for a break from the mayhem of downtown. Behind it all is the Costenera Sur, a rare area of green and nature.
For a slice of real Buenos Aires head to Chacarita. Just a little beyond Palermo, this remains a typical Buenos Aires barrio. Elderly women take a break from sweeping to share mate (popular tea infusion) with a neighbour and workers pop into a stand up pizzerias for a slice and drink of sweet moscato. The area is named after another great necropolis, which is where tango great Carlos Gardel is buried. On Sunday there is a flea market.
Image courtesy of Beatrice Murch via Flickr
h3. Once & Abasto
Despite San Telmo’s claim as the tango barrio, it is Abasto where the heritage runs even more deeply. Abasto is still very much a working area, albeit one with the odd touristy tango show and themed restaurant. The stunning art deco Mercado de Abasto shopping centre, refurbished into a plush mall, was once the city’s wholesale market. Whereas Chacarita is real middle class Buenos Aires, Once (pronounced ‘on-say’), is representative of Buenos Aires’ working class and immigrant populations. Hectic, loud and colourful, Once is home to Jewish, Peruvian and Middle Eastern communities all trading on the streets. Although a little edgy, this should be seen by anyone who thinks that Buenos Aires is ‘a little European’ — it ain’t.
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