A complex and exhilarating capital, Buenos Aires is a city continually reinventing itself and one that refuses to be pigeon holed. It is one of the great Latin American metropolises yet possesses a European finesse. Old world charm is cut with flash modernity and opulent Belle Époque buildings are juxtaposed with strikingly modern design. It's a city of hot-headed passion embodied by the national dance - the tango. And the city never sleeps. Never.
Buenos Aires is an urbanite's playground. Its eclectic barrios, or neighbourhoods, all have their own unique identity and the grand leafy boulevards and fin de siècle buildings have earned it the distinction of being the Paris of the South. The city is populated by proud Porteños, so called thanks to the city's port that has played such a crucial part in Buenos Aires' history and development. One-third of the Argentinian population call the city home and they will argue that their city is the nation's epicentre and the stage on which so many national celebrations and tragedies have been played out. Indeed, it's a city where past events are still alive and raw today.
Ask a historian what is the key thing to have shaped Buenos Aires' identity and he will answer 'the port'. So central is Buenos Aires' port to its growth and its identity that to this day its citizens are known as Porteños. Founded by the Spanish in 1536 on the banks of the optimistically named Río de la Plata, poor planning and attacks from indigenous tribes resulted in the Conquistadores' retreat. In 1580 Buenos Aires was rebuilt but remained a colonial backwater suffering under harsh trading restrictions levied on its port by the Spanish. As residents turned to smuggling, the city began to prosper and so its port began to take centre stage in driving the city forward.
In 1776 the city was made the capital of the newly created Vice Royalty of Río de la Plata and thus started its political upward trajectory. Once independence from Spanish rule spread across the Latin American continent and after years of civil war, Buenos Aires was finally declared capital of Argentina in 1860. The economy boomed; the rich got richer and European immigrants, attracted by the promise of work, flooded in through the city's port. By 1910, the city was a prosperous metropolis rivalling its European counterparts and one the world's richest countries. However, by the mid-20th Century the period of development came to a halt and the city and country descended into a period of crisis; political, economic and social.
Buenos Aires' Barrios
Buenos Aires is divided into barrios, or neighbourhoods. Each one is startlingly different, has its own identity and something unique to offer the visitor.
The working-class barrio of La Boca (meaning mouth in Spanish), sits on the mouth of the River Riachuelo. It was the first port of call and then home for the wave of immigrants that arrived into Buenos Aires over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Amongst these were Italians from Genoa who brought with them the tradition of painting their houses in bright colours, a style that lives on. Today the area is known for its brightly coloured Caminito, a cobblestoned "little walkway" where a collection of vibrantly painted jumbled structures houses artists' studios. The barrio also lends its name to one of Buenos Aires most famous infants; the world-class Bocas Juniors football team. The derby between Bocas and their sworn enemies River Plate is known as the Superclasíco and is one of sport's most impassioned experiences.
Hugging the southern section of the Rio de la Plata and east of the city centre, Puerto Madero's life as a port was short lived and for most of the 20th Century was an abandoned industrial graveyard. Today this riverfront barrio has been transformed into the well-heeled Porteño's playground with vast red-bricked warehouses now upscale apartments and glittering high rise offices with trendy restaurants overlooking canals where yachts bob at their moorings. Strolling along the riverfront promenade, observant visitors will note a recurring theme: the streets are all named after important Argentine women. Further homage is paid to the fairer sex with the area's architectural highlight Puente de la Mujer, the Woman's Bridge. Crossing the river you come to Reserva Ecológica, a welcome green space in an urban jungle.
A small, square shaped barrio, San Telmo is Buenos Aires' oldest neighbourhood and exudes an air of faded grandeur. This is a barrio proud of its bohemian reputation and one that charms all who stroll along its cobbled streets lined with crumbling stucco fronted buildings. On the busiest streets you might find an impromptu asado while old men sit playing chess sipping a cortado watching the city pass by. Today San Telmo is where the old world collides with new world edge; hip hotels jostle for position next to family-run restaurants, buildings are graffiti artists' canvas while a sprinkling of art galleries hint at the neighbourhoods recent gentrification. On Sunday the barrio's narrow streets fill with visitors and Porteños eager to discover a treasure at the antiques market that spreads across the Calle Defensa between Avenidas San Juan and Independencia. La Boca may be the cradle of tango but San Telmo is tango's impassioned stage; once the Sunday traders have packed up their wares, Plaza Dorrego fills with tango dancers entertaining the weekend crowds. The barrio is also home to many renowned tango bars including the most famous El Viejo Almacén.
Palermo is the blanket name given to a large section of northern Buenos Aires, a region that artfully blends tradition with contemporary appeal. It is also the birthplace of one of Argentina's greatest authors, Jorge Luis Borges.
The area can be sub-divided into the smaller barrios of Palermo Chico, Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Viejo each with its own distinct identity and appeal. Closest to Recoleta, Palermo Chico, with is wide streets lined with plane trees, has an air of peaceful seclusion and quiet wealth. Grand mansions set in walled gardens line the northern side while smart 1940s apartment blocks populate the south.
Palermo Soho, like its namesake in New York, is trendy, fashionable and youthful. Its cobble-stoned streets are lined with hip boutiques, culinary hotspots and lively bars. Similarly its neighbour, Palermo Hollywood after Los Angeles, is bursting with even more restaurants and comes alive at night with its many cooler than cool bars. Together, the two sub-barrios make up Palermo Viejo and are characterised by their pretty narrow streets lined with neo-colonial buildings with ornate balconies overflowing with jasmine and bougainvillea.
La City, Microcentro or Downtown is not an official barrio but an area where you find buildings of historical interest and architectural merit. At its heart is the Plaza de Mayo, an impressively large central plaza with a sprinkling of tall palm trees. On the western edge is the Casa Rosada, the pink governmental palace from where Argentinian presidents, Evita and even Maradona have addressed adoring crowds. Stretching east from Casa Rosada runs the tree-lined boulevard Avenida de Mayo ending at Plaza del Congreso, where the commanding Congreso keeps watch over the city. The boulevard is lined with many buildings adorned with decadent Beaux Arts flourishes of gargoyles, cupolas and scrollwork. Running the length of the city, the colossal Avenida 9 de Julio transports the visitor from the scruffy Sur to the smart northern section of the city. At the cross-section with Avenida Corrientes, a street alive with bookshops, cafés and theatres, stands the El Obelisco, a monument that has come to symbolise Buenos Aires.
When Buenos Aires is referred to as 'the Paris of the South America', it is Recoleta that immediately springs to mind. With its elaborate French architecture, parks and plazas, Recoleta was a barrio built for Buenos Aires' elite and one meant to impress. An area loosely located north of Avenida de Córdoba and up to Avenida Coronel Diaz on the west, it is renowned for its Belle Époque architecture, grand hotels, chic shopping and smart restaurants. Boasting world-class museums, universities and the final resting place to so many of Argentina's greatest figures make Recoleta a delightful spot to base your stay in the city.
Bordering the city centre to the south, Recoleta to the west, and docklands to the north and east, Retiro is one of Buneos Aires' prettiest barrios. As with Recoleta, it was built during Buenos Aires' Golden Age and still breathes an air of exclusivity. Beaux-Arts buildings rub shoulders with Hausmann inspired buildings, and ornate flourishes decorate building façades. At its heart is Plaza San Martin where clouds of lilac blossom hang on the Jacaranda trees in spring. Leading south from the square is Calle Florida, a pedestrian thoroughfare brimming with boutiques and restaurants, while a short stroll north from the plaza leads to Palacio San Martín, an opulent Beaux-Arts building.