Buenos Aires is officially divided into 48 neighborhoods, but the city's inhabitants will tell you there are many more hidden enclaves to discover. We tapped writer and resident Matt Chesterton for the inside track on five favorites
Glamorous in parts, gritty in others, Retiro is Buenos Aires in microcosm. Magnificent Beaux-Arts palaces overlook Plaza San Martín, a steeply inclined green space shaded by jacarandas, but walk to the bottom of the bluff and you’ll soon be running the gauntlet of choripán (grilled sausage sandwich) and fake branded sportswear stalls that surround the neighborhood’s railway station. Upscale Arroyo Street leads away from the chaos; it’s home to more than 20 art galleries and antiques stores.
Look out for the Kavanagh Building, a modernist masterpiece whose strictly straight lines soar above Plaza San Martín. Less original but just as eye-catching is the Torre Monumental, a Big Ben lookalike nicknamed “the English tower.”
Try empanadas, Patagonian lamb and even rhea carpaccio at El Federal, which specializes in creative variations on traditional Argentine dishes. Juana M is a contemporary parrilla (steakhouse) that serves a mean (and massive) ojo de bife (ribeye).
The Isaac Fernández Blanco Spanish American Art Museum is one of the city’s unhyped gems. Enjoy the important collection of Spanish colonial silverware and paintings, then take a breather on a bench in the lovely gardens.
Occupying a stunning, meticulously refurbished Art Deco tower from 1929, the Sofitel Buenos Aires is a luxury hotel with style and pedigree.
A century ago Argentina was among the world’s richest countries, and no neighborhood evokes the splendor of that golden age like Recoleta. Flanked by Parisian-style apartment buildings and neoclassical mansions (now mostly reborn as luxury hotels or embassies), streets such as Avenida Alvear and Posadas have stubbornly refused to let their glamour fade. The logical place to finish a stroll is Plaza Francia, an attractive green space that hosts a lively handicrafts market on weekends.
Depending on your religious and aesthetic preferences, Recoleta Cemetery is either sacred and moving or kitschy and over-the-top. Either way, don’t miss this world famous graveyard, with its neat rows of ornate tombs whose inscriptions read like a who’s who of Argentine history. It’s a short walk from here to the National Fine Arts Museum. While not a state-of-the-art cultural facility, it houses the world’s biggest and best collection of Argentine art.
Named for the first Scottish bull to land on these shores, Tarquino is a handsome space in which to sample top-notch modern Argentine cuisine. Aberdeen Angus makes the menu at Oviedo, too, but it’s outshone by some terrific fish dishes and risottos. Gran Bar Danzón is a wine bar that has stood the test of time, while Milión remains the city’s most beautiful bar.
For coffee that’s twice as expensive as it is anywhere else, and people watching that’s three times as good, grab a table on the terrace at La Biela, Recoleta’s most celebrated café.
Befitting its status as the city’s old money quarter, Recoleta is home to most of the city’s traditional luxury hotels. For palatial grandeur look no further than the Four Seasons. For a more intimate, boutique vibe consider Melia Recoleta Plaza or CasaSur Art Hotel.
Palermo is the city’s largest and most diverse neighborhood. All facets of urban life are here: kids feeding the koi in the largest Japanese garden outside Japan, cyclists and joggers circling the otherworldly Planetarium, punters cheering on their picks at the Hipódromo racetrack, art buffs viewing modern Latin American masterpieces at the MALBA art museum, to name just a few highlights. For convenience the barrio is divided into several subdistricts, of which Palermo Viejo is by far the most fashionable; to clarify (or confuse) matters further, Palermo Viejo is often divided again into Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood, which are the area’s southern and northern halves, respectively. The neighborhood’s hub is Plazoleta Cortazar, often known as Plaza Serrano, a square surrounded by bars and cafés.
Consumption, not sightseeing, is the name of the game in Palermo Viejo. Once a quiet middle-class neighborhood, it’s now an ultra-hip shopping and dining enclave and home to the city’s creative and media industries. Somehow it has maintained its charm, and to meander around its plane tree–lined cobblestone streets is one of the city’s great joys.
Where to start? La Cabrera and Don Julio are among the city’s best steakhouses; make a reservation or be prepared to wait. For sleek design and modern Argentine cuisine, try Tegui, Unik or Hernán Gipponi. For candlelit cocktails and an ultra-cool but friendly vibe, hit Rey de Copas. Frank’s is an insanely popular pseudo-speakeasy (make a reservation), while Carnal has a leafy roof terrace for mojitos by moonlight.
The big chains are absent from Palermo Viejo, but just about everything else is here, from short-stay love motels to one-of-a-kind luxury pads such as the Clubhouse. A high proportion of the city’s best boutique properties are concentrated in the neighborhood, with Nuss Buenos Aires Soho and Fierro Hotel among the standout options.
Once posh, then neglected, now gentrifying again, San Telmo is not only one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods but also one of its most dynamic. Here the streets are darker, narrower and dirtier than in the more affluent districts to the north, but much like the tango, their melancholy soulfulness can be irresistible. For antiques stores, bohemian cafés and cheap and cheerful steakhouses, look no further than Defensa Street. The city’s most famous Sunday market takes place on and around Plaza Dorrego, which has an atmosphere that is more carnival than commercial. A little farther south, grand Avenida Caseros is home to a clutch of smart restaurants, and it’s a short walk from there to Parque Lezama, the neighborhood’s only real swath of green.
Antiques hunters will want to lose themselves for a few hours in the specialist stores lining Defensa Street. For a fascinating insight into San Telmo’s long urban history, take a tour of the archaeological complex El Zanjón.
At La Brigada the steaks are so tender the waiters carve them with a spoon. Bored of beef? At foodie fave El Baqueano, you might find caiman kebabs and llama carpaccio on the tasting menu. Doppelgänger is a chic cocktail bar, La Puerta Roja a good spot to try local craft beers.
Traditionally San Telmo was the place to flop for a night or two in a cut-rate dorm, but it’s gradually sprouting a few more upmarket options. Another Art Deco landmark retooled as a boutique hotel, the Moreno offers lovely views of the cupola-crowded local skyline from its upper floors.
This once derelict dockland was given a new lease of life in the mid-1990s, thanks to a multimillion-dollar government regeneration program. Identical converted red brick warehouses line the west side of the docks, their ground floors occupied by upscale restaurants, the upper floors by offices. Over the water, the east side of Puerto Madero remains a work in progress; with its gleaming modern skyscrapers and constant construction din, it looks and sounds more like Abu Dhabi than Buenos Aires.
The esplanades on both sides of the docks are pedestrianized, so this is an ideal place for a dusk stroll. Cross Santiago Calatrava’s graceful suspension footbridge, Puente de la Mujer (“Woman’s Bridge”) and walk toward the chocolate-brown waters of the River Plate, which lap the reclaimed spit of land that is the city’s ecological reserve. The Faena Arts Center hosts attention-grabbing temporary exhibitions.
Home to a distressing number of overpriced and overhyped tourist traps, Puerto Madero does have one or two gems. Chila showcases the modern Argentine cuisine of celebrity chef Soledad Nardelli. Happening is not as cool as it sounds, but it is an excellent steakhouse.
At 175 meters, Torre Renoir 2, on the east side of the docks, is at time of writing the tallest building in Argentina.
The east side of Puerto Madero is home to some of the city’s most luxurious and exciting hotels, most notably the Faena Hotel + Universe, designed by Philippe Starck. Less quirky but still stylish, Hotel Madero offers great views and a strong roster of amenities.