By Avigail Oren
This summer, The Metropole is departing from its Metropolis of the Month format and will instead feature travelogues from globetrotting urbanists. We’ve asked some great contributors to share photos, reflections, and lists of their favorite things to do in the cities they’re visiting. But before we bid Buenos Aires adios, we actually have two travelogues from the city. Next week we have a post from Anton Rosenthal, who has collected perspectives on the city from 19th and 20th century travelers , but first I want to share some recollections of my three encounters with Buenos Aires and a list of recommendations for those making a visit.
My siblings and I each got to take a big international trip the summer after we turned 16, and my turn, in 2003, was to Buenos Aires. That year I became fascinated by Latin American literature and magical realism after reading Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, ironically in my Sophomore English class. I had been taking Spanish for a few years and my parents, watching my enjoyment of learning the language, wanted to give me an opportunity to practice. Argentina’s economy was still spiraling after its crash in 2001 and the favorable exchange rate gave us an opportunity for a slightly more luxurious vacation than we might otherwise be able to afford.
We stayed in a nice hotel in Palermo, within walking distance of the Jardín Japonés and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano (MALBA). I recall visiting both, and being particularly enchanted by MALBA’s permanent collection. I bought several postcard-sized prints in the museum shop and they were prominently displayed in my bedroom for years afterwards.
My most vivid memory from that trip, however, was the day we spent in La Boca—the working class neighborhood whose colorful row houses are most vividly associated in the public imagination with the city. We walked around, and saw outdoor tango performances, and who knows what else. It had been several hours of exploring, and I was tired. That’s when “the incident” occurred, the one thing for which my father will never forgive me.
We were walking past La Bombonera, the stadium of the Boca Juniors football club, and a game was about to begin. A life-long soccer fan, my father’s face lit up. The gears began turning in his mind, as he imagined himself in the stands cheering for Boca and enjoying what would likely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In equal measure the gears began turning in my mind, but I imagined being simultaneously bored and scared by the pressing crowd of screaming men surrounding us. So I put my foot down, literally stomping my foot and crying and refusing to go. I won, and my father angrily hailed us a cab back to the hotel.
During that week Buenos Aires made a strong impression; I remembered it as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with delicious and cheap food. Four years later, I decided to spend a semester abroad there during my junior year of college. By 2007, the economy had not measurably improved and it was still the best bang for your educational bucks.
My experience of the city as a twenty-year-old college student was mixed. I had hugely formative experiences–I took a modern dance class at a community center, which kicked off a three year love affair with, if not talent for, dance; I attended services at Jewish congregations throughout the city and realized that religious practice was important to me; I attended concerts and festivals and films and by the end could actually understand the Spanish–but I also found myself exhausted by porteño culture. My clothes were too casual by the standards of the formal, fashionable women of Buenos Aires, and as I ate and drank my way through a city obsessed with thinness I had fellow passengers on buses and trains admonish me for standing (because I was “clearly” pregnant). In an email I wrote to friends back at home, I shared an anecdote capturing the best and worst of the city and my experience abroad:
Standing on a crowded bus yesterday, a woman yelled at me for not making someone give me a seat, since I was so obviously pregnant. Although it was the 4th time now that this has occurred, it was still humiliating. It was worse this time though, because despite 4 months of constant language immersion, I could not formulate even the most perfunctory response. Eventually I just managed to say “No, no lo necesito” and got off the bus (luckily, it was my stop).
I got off the bus at the Palermo Wine Tour. For 40 pesos, we got a souvenir wine glass, and all of the businesses on Calle Honduras had representatives from various bodegas (vineyards) offering unlimited samples. We were celebrating my friend’s 21st birthday, so we got pretty sloshed. It was a good time.
I found myself back on Calle Honduras in 2015, when I dragged my husband and in-laws to Buenos Aires so they could experience the city themselves. Seeing the city through their fresh eyes, it felt bigger than when I left in December 2007. Quickly, though, I found myself gravitating towards what I had always loved about Buenos Aires: lingering over long meals without being harassed by waiters, watching films in immaculately clean theaters, visiting craft fairs on Saturday afternoons, buying candy and snacks from the kioskos, and drinking lots of cheap, delicious Malbec.
Visiting Buenos Aires? Check out:
This is my number one recommendation to anyone traveling to Buenos Aires. The permanent collection of Latin American art is one of my favorites of any museum in the world–and I’ve been to a lot of museums! Make sure to see the Wifredo Lam and Xul Solar paintings. Before going, also check what films they are showing.
Both times I’ve been to Notorious, I’ve seen solid performances. It’s not the Blue Note, but I’m hard pressed to think of a more enjoyable way to spend an hour or two nursing a few cocktails.
If you like opulence and pink marble and chandeliers and stories about how a nation deals with its Napoleon complex, the tour of this opera house won’t disappoint.
Most neighborhoods in Buenos Aires have an arts/crafts/antiques fair each weekend, but my favorite has always been the one in the neighborhood of Palermo (though multiple times I found jewelry I loved at the feria in Belgrano, and the one in Recoleta, outside the cemetery, isn’t bad either). These fairs are the best place to find distinctly Argentine gifts.
This bookstore in Recoleta is in a converted theater, and there’s a cafe where the stage used to be. Browse the books and have a coffee before heading to eat at….
If you leave Buenos Aires without trying Cumaná, you screwed up. The empanadas are above average but the restaurant is really known for their cazuelas, or little casseroles. Just know that at lunchtime there can be lines, so don’t go starving–or make sure to arrive before noon or after 2-3 PM.
No one specific restaurant or market is remarkable, but I never ceased to get a kick out of hearing old Chinese men speaking in flawless Castellano.