Sometimes we put off some of the most obvious things on our bucket list for an unusually long time. We cannot explain it beyond the excuse that we just haven’t come around to doing them. Over 8 years ago, in a small Mexican restaurant that has since shut down, Argentine tango found me. I say it found me because I was just looking to learn a few dance steps for my upcoming wedding, not pursuing a life-long passion, a dance with which I have had a sweet relationship, and just as relationships go, it has evolved through many ups and downs, highs and lows for nearly a decade. Even so, one thing always remained certain: Someday, we were going to see and experience Buenos Aires, the city that gave us the dance and the music we love.
Expectations are a terrible thing. You should visit places with a positively clear and open mind, and indulge in the type of experience you create for you. No two people will have the same experience in the same city, by the same monument, in the same restaurant or at the resting place of the same famous person. Having said that, preparation is key and traveling like a pro will immensely add to your pleasures. For us, this trip entailed an awful lot of preparation and planning and research, and while we do love the tango, we wanted to get to know Buenos Aires, the Paris of the South, the capital of Argentina, for all that it was during the short time we had with her.
So I extracted from our journals the top 17 ways you can delight in the charm and mystique of Buenos Aires:
1. Enjoy many a delicious cup of CafÃ© Cortado
I gave up my daily routine cup of espresso in 2007. But it is clear that I need to make exceptions. I made them in Paris, in Italy, and even in Seattle. I had to make it Buenos Aires too. Order a CafÃ© Cortado even if not on the menu, and you may need to specify the size. It is a delicious espresso with just a touch of milk and foam, always served with a small sweet, and best when consumed over conversation and people watching. Best one at CafÃ© Martinez.
2. Visit CafÃ© Tortoni for its history and its delicious food
You will wait in line here for at least 30 minutes, no matter when you go, but do it. CafÃ© Tortoni is richly historic, with the original tango composers turning this place into a gathering spot of creativity and study. The statues of Carlos Gardel and his peers are at the back where you can pose with them. The food and coffee here is delicious and extremely reasonable despite its touristy nature, the staff friendly, the ambiance a must-see. We went twice!
3. Get around fast and safely using Radio Taxis
I recommend you altogether avoid the subway and bus system. Taxis in BA are cheap. You can go across the city for $10 USD. However, have the right amount of change, make sure that it is always a clearly marked radio taxi. Do not think twice about turning down an otherwise standard taxi or you will be ripped off, nearly killed with the maniac driving, or both! But seriously, use taxis as a best mode of your transportation, only second to walking.
4. Make a visit or two to Zival’s Music store
Music fan or not, I think a visit to this place is worth your while. You can listen to about 80% of the CDs through their system by scanning it, and the prices are very good. If you like tango music, you can find anything ever recorded here in their large selection. We only bought 12 CDs. I am already regretting not buying more. Staff is friendly and credit cards are fine here.
5. Visit the Theater-turned-bookstore El Ateneo Gran
Beautiful place. Originally a theater, somehow it found a way to be converted into a bookstore. The seats were removed and book aisles were installed, with the cafe set on the original stage. While definitely nice to see, good luck with finding any non-Spanish books here. For me, it was torture to be among books I could not read, so I was forced to enjoy the ambiance!
Traveling changes your mind and expands your horizons! If you like to see the other travel stories here, check the On The Road category.
6. Indulge in the best Tango Shoe Shopping of your life
This is for the dance lover in you. Fact is, you will find very finely hand-made Argentine tango shoes, not surprisingly, at their best prices here in the heart of BA. The best online websites in US or Canada do not compare to the prices I found here for Neo Tango, Comme Il Faut and the gorgeous GRETA FLORA shoes. Even non-dancing shoe stores are abundant in BA and because of the high leather and suede quality, you can easily find great local brands. Here is a comprehensive tango shoe store list to have with you.
7. Try Delicious Bakeries at ridiculously cheap prices
Bakery in BA is amazing. Not only is it delicious and authentic, but it costs on average about 1 Peso (~30 cents) for a single pastry. That means about 3 delicious baked goods for about 1 USD. We tried several bakeries in different areas and it seems to be a standard. I guess inflation leaves a few things alone. I always remember that in Iran, the price of bread never changed even as every other good’s cost became staggering. Who knows! Just be sure to stop at the bakeries.
8. Stroll down the high-quality and well-priced street of Leather goods
Take a taxi to intersection of Scalabrini Ortiz and Murillo Avenue to the home of good Argentine leather shops. There are about 20-25 shops here. I am not a big leather fan for clothes but the prices for jackets are very competitive. If you like leather, this is the place to hit with few tourists and genuinely nice leather.
9. Visit the Sunday Market at San Telmo
The Sunday Market at San Telmo comprises several long streets with vendors and their stalls, musicians, mini-orchestras, and dancers in the streets. The goods range from jewelry, hand-made knits, paintings, music, clothes, and home goods. It is definitely worth a stroll. Beyond the local market, some of the stores open to enjoy the traffic. An old neighborhood and several churches and monuments mark the surroundings of the market. Beautiful way to spend part of Sunday in Buenos Aires.
10. Plan New Year’s Eve well in Advance
We were most definitely surprised to say the least with our New Year’s experience. Even though my friends and local Argentine acquaintances would not believe me, no one had been to BA for New Year’s so we got the first hand experience, and I frankly do not recommend spending the holidays in BA unless you have local friends. All taxis stop running early in the evening and do not start back up, as we learned, until the next day. Most milongas were closed with few starting after 1AM. The restaurants are either closed or reservations are required, and that would not be so bad except the prices are outrageous and more than 4 times the usual price of dinner at the particular restaurant. This does not include a band or music necessarily; only dinner and champagne toast at midnight. Suffice it to say, plan your New Year’s way in advance and avoid BA if you can on this particular occasion.
11. Walk down Avenida de Julio 9
We learned that this avenue’s design was inspired by the Champs-Elysee but is now the largest avenue in all of South America (if not the world), with 6-lanes each way. The wide side walks on each side make for a great stroll, with shops of all varieties. On New Year’s Day, the entire avenue is shut down save for one tiny lane on one side, and the street is packed with the population of BA (those not at the beach) in anticipation of opening ceremonies of the Dakar road race. People were cheering for the drivers, and the sheer number of them was making traffic around the obelisk a nightmare. The stores were all closed and milongas starting later than expected. We did hear a tango orchestra play just as we were arriving early afternoon. Unique experience no doubt.
12. Experience at least one of 70 weekly Milongas
For the tango lovers or for the curious tourist, it is no secret that Argentine tango is madly loved and danced here in BA. The best website scheduling with impressive accuracy is BA Milongas. A milonga is the evening or afternoon “formal” dance event where people meet to dance socially (to switch partners and enjoy a tanda – a set of 3 or 4 songs separated by a curtina – together). My favorite milongas in this trip were at Club Gricel, El Beso, and Confiteria Ideal. You are welcome to attend and watch, order wine or champagne or water, with an empanada or other foods.
13. Take in the beautiful European-influenced Architecture
You will notice the architecture is both European-influenced and modern. This large city has no shortage of Paris-inspired streets with cobbled-stone pavements and ornate windows. Just like Paris, palaces and mansions have survived by transforming into apartments and shops, and most streets harbor a range of buildings from various centuries. My favorite was our home for a week: Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, which used to be Palacio Duhau.
14. Gaze at Rodin’s sculptures housed in Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
I love French sculptors. So when we walked in (free entrance) to the Museum of Fine Arts, and were looking at large sculptures by Auguste Rodin, I was breathless. We were looking at his famous Le Baiser (The Kiss), and according to the website, it is part of the museum’s permanent collection. I saw it first at Rodin Museum of Paris, and clearly they are not the same color or stone. He also has other works: A few busts and other statues well-worth a gaze.
15. Explore Recoleta but be ware of Cemetery’s brooding mood
The most posh and beautiful neighborhood of Buenos Aires, this is where the wealthy live comfortably. With its tree-lined streets, marble and stone buildings, beautiful palaces now turned into hotels, and no shortage of high-end boutiques, it makes for a cozy stroll. The cafes across Recoleta cemetery are set in a great location and can serve nice slow meals, letting you enjoy the sunset and crowds while eating. The Recoleta cemetery itself is a top attraction for tourists and locals alike, but for me, I had a surprisingly difficult reaction to the mausoleums housing hundreds of graves. Evita Peron‘s is the only one I sought before dashing out into busy streets filled with life.
16. Dine on exquisite French cuisine in the heart of Recoleta
There is one name worth remembering for French cuisine, a small alley located at Vicente Lopez 1661. I highly recommend you visit the two French restaurants we thoroughly enjoyed. For a beautiful atmosphere, reasonable prices, and incredible meal and service, visit Sirope Folie.
If you really want to go all out, as we did to more than make up for the New Year’s Eve, dine at the Nectarine, the luxury, exquisite mansion-turned-restaurant, and choose the chef’s tasting menu. You will sit through a nearly 3-hour 8-course feast, prepared to perfection in every bite. Service is impeccable. It is what they call the culinary experience. Delighting in one of life’s pleasures, eating, at the pace it was meant to be consumed.
17. Book a Dinner and Tango show at CafÃ© de Los Angelitos
Dinner and Tango show is a common entertainment in the city, and you will find variety of different offerings. The one at Cafe de Los Angelitos is historic, with a remarkable set of musicians, good dancers (albeit very staged tango), and the most beautiful male singer, Guillermo, who simply enthralled me in a language I do not even speak. Dinner was good, a bit rushed as we were late arriving with the bus – I recommend taking the taxi and forgoing the ‘complimentary’ bus service to enjoy a slower dinner. Our Aussie dinner companions completed the perfect evening.
All in all, I loved Buenos Aires. I loved her despite the loud traffic, the crowds, the fear of pick-pockets and high-alert for safety, the heavy-meat-and-carbs diet, and the difficulty in communication. I loved her sense of style, her spirit of tango, her countless shoe stores, her fabulous musicians and orchestras, her magnificent architecture, her hot summer days in January, and her kind people who refused to believe I do not speak Spanish, and continued to communicate with me in their lovely language.