Buenos Aires, Argentina

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DISCOVER THE BEST OF Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is a city reborn. Not long after declaring the largest foreign debt default in history, the city is reinventing itself as Latin America’s trendiest and most exciting capital. That sucking, whooshing sound you hear is the rush of tourists heading to the Argentine metropolis. As many will explain, Buenos Aires is a cosmopolitan city, and that cosmopolitanism plays out in ways both delicious and downright confusing. It’s a city where high-heeled fashionistas and broken down garbage drivers inhabit the same fifty-year-old streets, where incessant arrays of protesters in front of the Casa Rosada mix with innumerable German expats in new bars carved out of old, luxurious townhouses, and where trendy boutiques in Palermo Soho get busy only after the bakery next door has sold its daily fresh bread. As it has transitioned from one of the most expensive cities in Latin America to one of the cheapest, it’s become a magnet for bohemians and backpackers without losing that feel that makes it one of the world’s most exciting cities.

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Get to know Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Buenos Aires proper is divided into a whopping 48 neighborhoods, known as barrios. Some, such as San Telmo (pop. 26,000), are relatively tiny, while others, like Palermo (pop. 252,000), are truly epic in scale. Fear not, weary-legged travelers: most visitors don’t stop in every barrio, although it’s certainly possible, if slightly crazy. Most travelers stick to the easily accessible easternmost group of districts along the Río de la Plata, which offers the majority of sights, restaurants, and hotels. For coverage in this so-called zona turística, we will start with what is often seen as the heart of the modern city, San Nicolás, often referred to as Microcentro, and work outward in a counterclockwise spiral, hitting Monserrat, San Telmo, and La Boca to the south before turning northward for Puerto Madero, Retiro, Recoleta, Palermo, and Belgrano. The city beyond is compiled under the single banner of Outer Barrios.

What to See in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires has the usual collection of traditional sights beckoning to backpackers looking for Kodak moments to bring home—grand opera houses, beautiful palaces, tree-lined avenues, and the like. What sets Buenos Aires’ landmarks apart, though, is their consistent ability to surprise with never-ending, uniquely Argentine quirkiness. A strangely pink presidential mansion? Check. A gigantic metal flower? They’ve got one. A humongous animatronic Jesus, complete with hourly resurrections? What, you’ve never seen one before? Mixed in are the vestiges of a distant Spanish colonial past and the city’s attempts to assert its own identity in response, through streets with brightly colored homes to cemeteries larger than towns.

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Argentine Cuisine

There are two essential things to keep in mind with Argentine cuisine. The first is that Argentina is one of the world’s leading agricultural producers, and this plays heavily into the kinds of options prevalent on menus. That means there’s a lot of beef on the table, and a lot of wheat-based pasta and bread. The second major theme in Argentina—and especially Buenos Aires—cuisine is its cosmopolitanism. Argentina is a country of immigrants, and its people have close ties to Spain and Italy. As a result, these cultural influences manifest themselves in Argentina in inventive and tasty ways. Food is an enormous and essential part of Argentine culture, and eating is the country’s most important social ritual. Not to mention that Argentine food is just plain awesome.

Steak

Much is said about Argentine beef, and much should be said: it borders on the divine. It’s no wonder that Argentines consume the greatest quantity of meat per capita (about 68kg per year) of any nation in the world. The secret, according to the foodies and farmers across the country, is happy cows. The vast majority of Argentina’s over 50 million head of cattle graze in the long pastures of la Pampa, a region with just enough rainfall for grasslands galore and just about nothing else. Between that and a full-fledged beef culture, Argentina is also the third largest exporter in the world of beef, behind Brazil and Australia. Here are a few of the main goodies:

Bife de chorizo: This is the steak of steak. The go-to guy. The nightly standard of parrillas (grills) the city ’round, it’s a kind of sirloin or strip steak, akin to NY Strip or a top loin. It’s generally served thick, fatty, and cooked such that it’s juicy but not hugely rare.

Lomo: Another of the most prized Argentine cuts, lomo is tenderloin: long, thin cuts of absurdly, um, tender meat. Pork tenderloin is called lomo de cerdo, but the beef is just lomo—which is short, we’ve been told, for “joy of the heavens.” Really. (Not really. But really.) Also comes in sandwich form—french bread, lettuce, and joy.

Ojo de bife: Ribeye—also sometimes known as bife ancho, though the two are subtly different—is like a cross between bife de chorizo and lomo: it’s a big ol’ chunk of meat, but it’s also extra tender, and it has extra serving of flavor. Good with wine, and great with chimichurri, a delicious sauce.

Vacio: This is generally similar to flank steak or hanger steak elsewhere. It’s very common in restaurants, somewhat tougher than other cuts, and generally contains a lot of fat and tissue. All of which means it’s mind-destroyingly delicious.

Entraña: Generally one of the cheaper meats on the menu, entraña is a skirt steak: thin, juicy, and tough. Though it usually comes surrounded by something of a thick membrane or fatty layer, that’s how you know it’s tasty—and it’s easily trimmed off.

Other Argentine Specialties

Contrary to popular opinion, Argentina does, in fact, cook food that isn’t steak. And you’d better believe it’s equally life-changing. For instance: milanesas. A milanesa, to be sure, is still beef—though it can be chicken or veal—but this time, it’s dipped into beaten eggs, seasoned, and then breaded and fried. Often, milanesas are served con papas (french fries), lemon, or, in true gaucho form, a caballo (with an egg on top). They tend to be cheap and unbearably delicious. Sandwiches de miga are small sandwiches made from light, delicate white bread, very thinly sliced meats, and either cheese, lettuce, or tomato. They’re generally served as appetizers or snacks, but can also be consumed in large quantities as a (decadent) light meal.

Most important of all, at least for your tastebuds, is the empanada. The name for these delightful and varied stuffed pastries comes from the verb empanar (to wrap). What is wrapped varies, but the traditional empanada is filled with ground beef, onions, green olives, and boiled egg, all spiced with cumin and paprika. The pastry fold is often patterned with an elaborate twisting structure, called a repulgue, and the whole thing is either baked or fried. Empanadas vary widely, and can be filled with ham and cheese, chicken, fish, sweet corn, spinach, fruit, or any other fun thing you can think of.

Ice Cream and Related Goodness

Further building on the Italian heritage, Argentine helado follows the path of gelato: thick, creamy, and often home-made, it’s everywhere in BA, especially during the hot summer months. Argentines as a whole take their ice cream seriously, such that even chain ice cream is pretty damn good. Even better, though, is dulce de leche, a national obsession to rival steak and Maradona. Dulce de leche is a sweet, caramel-like paste, and it goes on everything: from cake to ice cream to toast to fruit, it’s the sugary goodness par excellence. Flan, the Spanish caramel custard, is also big in Argentine restaurants and even in grocery store packets-to-go.

The Argentine panadería is a central hub of grocery shopping. Based on enormous wheat production and an Italian heritage of tasty fresh bread, bread stores in Buenos Aires are popular and authentic. Bakeries also churn out sweet pastries called facturas like there’s no tomorrow, and Argentines can’t get enough of them. When sweet, they’re often layered with dulce de leche or doused with powdered sugar; when buttery, they’re often in half-moon shape (called medialunas) and resemble croissants. Argentines also have a strange fascination with the Mexican-based pan dulce, a sweet bread that’s often colored, artificial-looking, and highly sugary.

Argentine Drinks

Wine

In a country obsessed with beef, impressive wine is essential. The first wine, like the first cows, was brought during Spanish colonization, this time by Juan Cedrón to Santiago del Estero in 1557. Since then, wine culture has exploded: Argentines drink nearly 45 liters a year per capita, ranking it among the top ten wine-consuming countries in the world. Argentina is also the largest wine producer in the world. About 90% of the wine it produces is consumed domestically, leaving the country open to charges of favoring quantity over quality—a charge that is held up by the custom of mixing cheap wine with soda water.

Beer

When it comes to the everyday beer of Argentina, there’s really only one brand: Cerveza Quilmes, more popularly known as Quilmes. Founded by a German immigrant in Buenos Aires in 1888, the brewery now has over 75% market share in the Argentine beer industry. It’s something of a national icon in the country: it has been the beer of choice for nearly a century, it sponsors the national fútbol team, and its colors are—like Argentina’s—blue and white. Beer is generally sold in one-liter bottles, and is cheap and plentiful, even in restaurants—though imported beer, generally Heineken, can be significantly more expensive.

Yerba Mate

It’s not like tea—though yes, it is tea—and it’s not really like coffee, either. Yerba mate (herb cup) is everybody’s drink: more than any fútbol star or any political party, this demographic phenom is the single most universally-loved item in Argentina. One study has shown that over 90% of Argentines—regardless of race, region, or socioeconomic class—drink mate on a regular basis. All of which is the more remarkable, given that wine producers in Mendoza and vendors on the Calle Florida hardly speak the same language.

A species of holly, the crushed and toasted twigs and leaves of Ilex paraguariensis are mixed with hot (but not boiling) water to create an infusion with the caffeine content of coffee and a grassy, albeit delicious, taste. Said to have curative properties, the bitter-flavored tea—often associated with that other loved icon, the gaucho—is a cultural phenomenon in Argentina. In a country where political protest is a daily occurrence and where the preparation and consumption of food reaches levels of ritual bordering on the religious, it’s strange and almost incredible to see the unifying power of such a simple drink as mate, though there are some regional differences in custom. In the North, mate is more likely to be sweetened with azúcar (sugar), making it more palatable for novices, while in the big city most purists refuse to dilute the bitter, leafy taste. Uruguayans take mate to the streets in thermoses and portable gourds; in Paraguay, the beverage is sometimes served cold; mate cocido (tea bags) are sometimes sold instead of loose-leaf yerba. And while drinking rituals also tend to change across regions, the general steps of mate consumption—like the drink itself—tend to transcend regional differences.

Architecture

For much of the 19th century, architecture was still influenced by the Spanish colonial style. At the close of the century, a distinct Neo-Baroque style, heavily influenced by French and Italian architecture, found its way into the city’s skyline. Many of Buenos Aires’ most striking buildings come from this period. Vittorio Meano, an Italian architect, designed several of them, including the Teatro Colón, BA’s famous opera house, the Palace of Justice, and the Argentine National Congress. The Neo-Baroque style can also be found in churches throughout the city, such as the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral and the Cabildo.

Twentieth-century architecture in Buenos Aires went through two phases. The first was an Art Nouveau period, a style marked by highly stylized, nonlinear, organic design. More European architects, such as Italians Francisco Gianotti, Mario Palanti, and Virginio Colombo, dominated this phase. Modernist architecture, inspired by brutalism (read: concrete, and lots of it), emerged in the second half of the century, with controversial “landmarks” such as the Biblioteca National de la República Argentina, designed by Argentine Clorindo Testa.

Perhaps as a response to the mounds of concrete of the 1960s and 1970s, some of BA’s newest architectural feats focus on revivals of Beaux Arts and Neo-Baroque buildings from the late-19th to early-20th centuries. The Galerías Pacífico, a major shopping mall on Calle Florida, is perhaps the best example of this movement. The contemporary era in Buenos Aires has also seen the rise of many skyscrapers, such as Torre Fortabat, designed by Sánchez Elía, and Palermo’s Le Parc Tower, designed by Mario Álvarez. Argentine-born architects have also designed major buildings in other areas of the world, such as César Pelli’s twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Film

As the capital of the country, Buenos Aires has long been the center of Argentine film. European photographers, such as the Belgian Henri Lepage, the French Eugene Py, and the Austrian Max Glücksmann, who arrived in Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, were among the country’s first film pioneers. Lepage was the first to bring actual filmmaking equipment to Argentina, which he used to create what is believed to be the first Argentine movie, La Bandera Argentina, mostly consisting of footage of the Argentine flag billowing in the breeze in the Plaza de Mayo. A German filmmaker, Federico Figner, also has a potential claim to the title, with his own footage of landmarks throughout the city.

Though the Argentine film industry took a major hit during and after the economic crisis, with a lack of funds and viewers who couldn’t even afford a ticket, the industry has rebounded as of late, in part thanks to government subsidization started by Néstor Kirchner. Since then, many films, such as 2002’s El Hijo de la Novia (“Son of the Bride”) have enjoyed success during awards season.

Literature

One of the first great Argentine writers of the 19th century was José Hernández, a poet best known for his epic work, Martín Fierro, a poem set around the gaucho rural culture that defines much of Argentine national identity.

The 20th century proved to be a major era for Argentine literature, the true giant of the time being, without a doubt, Jorge Luis Borges, a native of BA best known for his short stories, essays, and poetry. One of his most famous early contributions was 1935’s A Universal History of Infamy, a showcase for Borges’ scholarly talent and his trademark touch of fanciful humor.

Tango

Buenos Aires is tango. When you think tango, you usually think dance and couples shooting across the dance floor, one with a rose in their mouth. However, it’s really more appropriate to label it, more generally, as a music form. It combines instruments, which, for tango, is usually a sextet, the orquesta típica, which includes two violins, a piano, a double bass, and two bandoneóns, an instrument similar to the accordion. In addition to the music, tango also involves dance, theatrics, and performance. It is a complete sensory experience that has defined the culture of Buenos Aires for over a century.

Tango is complex, with multiple forms and styles, from traditional Tango Argentino to Ballroom tango and the peculiar Finnish tango. The one thing that remains mostly consistent from style to style is the close, distinguishing embrace, which is used whenever the dancers aren’t in a more open stance.

Tango clubs and venues dot the landscape in Buenos Aires. Many are known as milongas, which is simply derived from milonga, a style of music that often accompanies tango dancing. Often, dancers will openly perform on the street, such as along El Caminito in La Boca or at the Feria de San Telmo, and most clubs offer plenty of opportunities for amateurs to practice.

Fútbol

Whether you call it soccer, football, or fútbol, this is the |national pastime in Argentina. In fact, it is effectively the state religion. An Argentine will often not identify themselves by creed, nationality, or region; what really matters is the club you support. Are you a River fan, or perhaps a devotee of the Boca Juniors? Do you bleed Lanús garnet, or cheer for San Lorenzo? “If you support Tigre, I won’t be your friend.” You get the picture. Of course, Argentina isn’t completely fragmented along team lines. During the FIFA World Cup or the Copa América, everyone roots for the Albicelestes—the “white and sky blue” of the National Team. 

What to Wear

It’s always a good idea, as a traveler, not to look it. So while Argentines dress similarly to citizens of other Western, industrial countries, it pays to ditch the Tevas, fanny pack, and shorts. BA thinks of itself as cosmopolitan, and it dresses the part: women wear amazingly high-heeled shoes, and men tend to dress in solid-colored pants and collared shirts. When entering a church or a cemetery, it’s best to wear clean, long-sleeve shirts, pants, and close-toed shoes—and to be respectful about when and how you take pictures.

Things Not to Say

Argentines are very proud of their country. In general, they are well educated and highly liberal. That said, there are certain subjects to avoid in conversation. Don’t bring up las Malvinas (the Falkland Islands), or the war with Great Britain; be careful when discussing politics, particularly with the divisive Perón years; and while many may express their opinions about the church in rather strong terms, try to avoid getting involved in religious discussions. In soccer, avoid rooting for Brazil and England.

Getting Physical

Touch involves relatively complex rules in Argentina. When meeting someone, a handshake is a welcome form of greeting and shows respect; however, for more intimate relationships—more common between women or between a woman and a man, but also sometimes between close male friends or family—an embrace and a kiss on the cheek is expected. Argentines tend to stand somewhat close while speaking, and it’s impolite to back away. They also use a significant number of hand gestures—in some circles, the “OK” or thumbs up signs are vulgarities, while in others, hitting the palm of the left hand with the right first means “that’s stupid” or “I don’t believe you.” In some ways, Argentina can also feel like something of a forward country; women may be whistled at, and piropos (flirtatious comments) should be taken with a smile and a thank you.

Timing is Everything

The pace of life in Argentina—from business to dining—is slower than in Europe, and certainly slower than that of North America. Meetings, both personal and professional, sometimes run far longer than expected, and it’s standard procedure to let them run their course and not rush, even if it means being late for another appointment. Social events, for the most part, follow the same basic rule: you are expected to arrive half an hour to an hour late to any party. To arrive early is not only unusual, it’s impolite. The only exceptions are fútbol matches, the theater, and some lunch appointments.

Courtesies

When invited to an Argentine home, it’s often polite to bring some small gift of flowers, candy, pastries, chocolates, or imported liquor. Don’t make it too expensive, however; Argentines can be quite sensitive to the differences in buying power between themselves and guests. If you are presented with a gift, open it immediately and make sure to express your gratitude. Generally, in small gatherings, wait for a third-party introduction to those you don’t know. When leaving, make sure to say goodbye to each person individually—despite the fact that this may take a very long time.

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