The Obelisk of Buenos Aires in the Plaza de la República, with the skyline of the city beyond. (Photo: dolphinphoto/iStock)
Day or night, porteños — as the residents Buenos Aires are called — love to party. Football games are a boisterous national event where 70,000 stadium fans root for their favorite team with a fervor that rivals a religious experience. (The folks at Tangol can help you secure hard-to-get-tickets and navigate the rowdy crowd.)
The intensity at a successful milonga (tango night) infects not just those partnering for the sensual dance, but everybody in the room. In fact, just about everything in this beautiful city of wide boulevards and Belle époque buildings involves passion — and endurance. A Thursday evening in Buenos Aires can last 24 hours.
A street scene. (Photo: Hernán Piñera/Flickr)
Buenos Aires is one of the 20 largest cities in the world. Before you start your night on the town, get oriented on a tour with Free Walks, which, as the name suggests, are free, although tips are appreciated. Led by enthusiastic guides in bright orange shirts eager to share their love of the city, they meet every day at 3 p.m. in front of the gate at the National Congress, in the neighborhood popularly known as “Congreso.” No reservation necessary.
The Argentine National Congress — the perfect place to start a tour of BA. (Photo: Ralf Hettler/E+/Getty Images)
Work off lunch on a bike tour and you’ll not only see some of the city’s main attractions, you’ll get the inside scoop — who would have guessed that revenge was the reason that the city got its first skyscraper in 1935? When an aristocratic family made their son break off his engagement to a girl of lesser social standing, the young lady, Corina Kavanagh, retaliated by commissioning the towering structure known as the Kavanaugh Building in the Retiro section of Buenos Aires, overlooking the Plaza de San Martin. The one demand Corina made to the architect? That the sleek skyscraper cast a shadow over the aristocrat’s church.
If, like me, you believe that you can’t truly know a country until you see where people shop, contact Sandra Gutrejde. Owner of the consummate concierge and travel planning service, My Buenos Aires Travel Guide, Sandra can take you on the ultimate insider’s shopping tour: from the workrooms of jewelry-makers to an unnamed store that sells genuinely good copies of Birkin and Chanel bags. Sandra can also plan all of your tours and trips not only within the city, but around the country.
And then there’s Graffitimundo, whose guides provide a new appreciation for the abundant street art, murals, and tags scrawled across the city. Keep an eye out for the missives from “Cato” and “Thomas,” a couple who leaves spray-painted notes for each other.
A busy street market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. (Photo: Holger Mette/iStock)
Changing money in Buenos Aires can be an adventure. So-called “blue dollars” — currency purchased on the black market — are so ubiquitous that the daily rate is printed in the newspaper. The difference between the official exchange rate and the blue dollar can net you as much as 50 percent more pesos, which buys a lot of empanadas. For the adventurous, street sellers on Calle Florida yelling “Cambio!” will take you to cuevos, where you’ll find currency sellers operating on the illegal market. (I saw any number of tourists approaching money changers on Calle Florida. Still, I decided to save my risk-taking for trying to learn the tango; I asked the concierge at my hotel for the name of someone she knew who would make the blue-dollar exchange.)
Cafe Tortoni, a Buenos Aires classic. (Photo: Gran Cafe Tortoni/Facebook)
It’s going to be a long night, so fuel up for the evening at Café Tortoni, the oldest coffeehouse in Argentina, which is a throwback to a gentler time before we were all glued to our computers. It has white-shirted waiters and artists nursing café con leches while they spend the afternoon painting at marble-topped tables. Try the crispy Argentinian croissants called medialunas.
For a heartier snack, like a chirozo sandwich, check out the selection of food trucks on Avenida Sarmineto, near the Planetarium. Argentinians prefer to eat leisurely meals, but the food truck movement has gained traction in the last couple of years.
The colorful Post Street Bar. (Photo: Fundación Metropolitana/Facebook)
If you’re looking for a friendly haunt where you can grab a beer, a free pizza (Thursdays are free pizza night), chat with local artists, and even score an inexpensive painting, there’s the Post Street Bar. The walls are decorated in floor-to-ceiling doodles, stencils, and drawings. Afterward, stroll around the chic Palmero Soho neighborhood, where some of city’s most interesting boutiques and the outdoor market at Plaza Serrano are open late.
A tasting at the Argentine Experience. (Photo: The Argentine Experience/Facebook)
To learn how to mix delicious cocktails and test your sniffing skills by trying to identify 20 different kinds of wines, don’t miss the Argentine Experience, which is geared toward tourists and starts at the unhip hour of 6:15 (7:30 if you want to skip the wine tasting and just have dinner). It’s a great place to meet fellow travelers and master the art of making empanadas. You’ll also learn some useful Argentinian hand gestures, which can be as important as words. Pull down your under eye lid with your index finger and you’re saying “Watch out!” Tap your right elbow with the palm of your left hand? You’ve just called someone a cheapskate.
8 p.m., 9 p.m. — or so
Casa Cavia, a multi-purpose space. (Photo: Casa Cavia )
Puertas Cerradas, the “secret” restaurants of Buenos Aires, started popping up after the economic crisis of 2001, when opening your home to guests became a thrifty alternative to opening a restaurant. Occupying a gray area between an official eatery and a dinner party, most run Thursday to Saturday and chefs offer set menus; reservations are a must. Among the most popular is Casa Felix, which has home-brewed beer and a five-course tasting menu of fish and vegetables grown in the chef’s garden, rare in this city of meat-eaters. Casa Felix can accommodate to up to 15 guests a night.
Another popular spot is Casa Saltshaker, which seats up to 10 people at a table for a five-course menu, paired with wines. Every meal has a theme, making each dinner unique.
The innovative Casa Cavia is a recent addition to the dining scene, housed in a restored 1927 mansion. You can browse books, buy a candle (vanilla dulce de leche is the most popular fragrance), and enjoy a meal of slow-baked salmon, sweetbreads, beet salad with goat cheese, and other contemporary dishes in the dining room or garden. There’s also a flower shop, a perfumery, a patisserie, and a bar.
The offerings at Sintaxis. (Photo:Sintaxis)
If you’re meat- and gluten-free in this land of beef and bread, go to Sintaxis for salads, lasagna, mushroom ravioli, and desserts so delicious you’ll find yourself double-checking to make sure they’re really 100 percent “Sin TACC” (made without wheat). They are. And, there’s a charming outdoor garden. Closing times vary with the day and are on the early side for Buenos Aires (10 or 11 p.m.).
The scene at La Peña del Colorado. (Photo: La Peña del Colorado)
It’s late, but you still have a couple of hours until Buenos Aires’ nightlife scene really kicks into full action. Grab a table at in the Palermo neighborhood’s La Peña del Colorado, a smallish folk music club where after midnight, customers can pick up a guitar and join performers onstage.
Or prepare to take the stage later yourself, with a private tango lesson from Narrative Tango Tours. Award-winning tango dancer Cyrena Drusine and her staff of teachers will teach you the eight basic tango steps guaranteed to make you feel like pro on the dance floor. They’ll also explain the history and origins of this sexy dance and accompany you to a milonga later at night.
A scoop of addictive ice cream at Freddo. (Photo: Freddo/Facebook)
Right about now your body’s crying for a sugar rush. Satisfy your cravings at one of the city’s many Freddo stores. Argentinians are passionate about their helado and although this is a chain, Freddo offers some of the best ice cream in town. There’s one section devoted entirely to flavor combinations of dulce de leche — the tasty thick caramel-like sauce that porteños slather on everything from sandwiches to crepes when they’re not eating it straight out of the jar. Ice cream is scooped into cups or cones, which come in a towering swirl that rivals Little Richard’s pompadour.
Dancing the night away at El Yeite Tango Club. (Photo: El Yeite Tango Club/Facebook)
It’s milonga time. El Yeite in the Palermo neighborhood, was founded by a group of younger tango enthusiasts. At other milongas, which combine the charms of a social club and a ballroom dance, there is pure enjoyment in watching elderly abuelas and their companions glide around the dance floor. (You’ll also wonder how in heaven’s name they squeeze their feet into those high-heel shoes.) The scene is more spirited at El Yeite’s Thursday night shindigs, attesting to the renaissance of interest in this sensual dance.
Club Niceto. (Photo: Club 69/Facebook)
Palermo’s Club Niceto stages a legendary Thursday night drag show. Be forewarned: the doors don’t open until 1 a.m., and the action doesn’t heat up until a couple of hours later. It’s a hoot, with stage shows, pole-dancers, and a room filled with sky-high heels and spirits. And while the club’s techno hip-hop electronica music isn’t always worth hearing, it’s definitely a scene worth seeing.
If, like a true porteño, you aren’t ready to call it a night yet, get thee to Café San Bernado. This lively hangout housed in an old worker’s club in Palermo Viejo is where hipsters mingle with retired cabdrivers into the wee hours. You can play a game of ping-pong, shoot a game of pool, or order up a beer and a ham sandwich or some huevos rancheros.
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