Buenos Aires area guide
By Matt Chesterton
Don’t plan too far in advance or too assiduously. The shopworn phrase ‘you never know what might be around the next corner’ might have been invented for the Argentinian capital.
You won’t have time to explore all of the 2,154 streets, avenues and motorways, whose straight lines partition Buenos Aires into thousands of rectangular blocks; but since most of the landmarks of interest to the visitor are obligingly sited on the city’s eastern side, in barrios such as San Telmo, Recoleta and Palermo, you can narrow down your target list.
As well as expecting the unexpected, you should prepare for the predictable: whimsical opening and closing times; a public transport system ill-equipped for the 21st century; dog walkers who have never heard of the gutter, let alone a poop-scoop; police officers who are more likely to bum a cigarette off you than to give you accurate directions; and driving so bad and so dangerous as to be almost parodic.
Thankfully, BA’s charms far outnumber its frustrations. Some of the magic is down to form. The seemingly endless calles are perfumed with that unique amalgam of blossom and barbecue smoke; the glorious array of churches, palaces and public buildings that seems to run the gamut of every architectural style known to humankind (and some known only to porteños); the kooky little cobblestoned pasajes and alleyways with their Dickensian shops and crooked houses.
The city is largely laid out on the standard Spanish colonial-style grid pattern of wide avenidas and narrower calles in regular blocks, called cuadras or manzanas, with a regular numbering system that makes navigation relatively easy.
Maps are rarely oriented north, instead flipping the city to show the river to the south. In fact, Avenida 9 de Julio, the city’s main thoroughfare, runs north-south.
Traffic is one-way: to orient yourself remember that on Avenidas Santa Fe and Corrientes traffic heads towards downtown, and away from it on Avenida Cordóba. The names of the north-south streets change at Avenida Rivadavia.
If you want a quick overall view of the city, take a colectivo (public bus); or if you’re in a hurry, one of the guided air-con buses serving the hotels (ask your hotel concierge for details). Taxis are also affordable, and it’s enjoyable to roll down the window and watch the city pass by.
The Subte (subway) is ideal for central areas, but Buenos Aires only truly lays bare its soul to those prepared to go overground and on foot. In recognition of this, the local government (Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires) has launched a free ‘guided walks’ service. For further details, go to the ‘Recorridos’ section on their website (www.bue.gov.ar).
Buenos Aires by barrio
Not all porteños use the city government’s barrio denominations, although you’ll see them on many maps. For instance, Once is not technically speaking a barrio, but everyone uses the term for the commercial zone around Once de Septiembre train station. Hardly anyone uses the barrio names Balvanera or San Nicolás, preferring to highlight major buildings in those zones, such as the Abasto shopping mall and Congreso.
The Centre’s focal point is Plaza de Mayo: the city’s original main square and site of many important public buildings. Elegant Avenida de Mayo runs from the plaza across gaping Avenida 9 de Julio to the Plaza del Congreso, in the barrio of Congreso. Next door is Tribunales, the legal quarter, and to the north the railway terminal of Retiro. The Microcentro is the capital’s downtown, a pullulating commercial and financial hub.
South of the centre
The South of the Centre includes Monserrat, the historic district south of the Plaza de Mayo. San Telmo follows, drawing visitors to its antiques, tango and bustling Plaza Dorrego. Lying on the Riachuelo (the little river that empties into the River Plate) is La Boca, a working-class barrio that’s famous for its football team and colourful street, Caminito. Run-down Constitución contains the railway terminal for the south.
North of the Centre
Beyond Retiro, is Recoleta, where the rich live and the famous are buried. Its cemetery, plazas, shops and museums make it a tourist magnet. Barrio Norte is a neighbouring residential district. Further north is Palermo. It has three distinct sub-areas around the huge Parque Tres de Febrero: expansive Palermo proper, a middle-class residential area with gardens, the zoo and well-kept plazas; opulent, tranquil Palermo Chico; and trendy Palermo Viejo (unofficially divided into sub-barrios Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood), full of hip restaurants and boutiques.
West of the Centre
Just to the West of the Centre are Once and Abasto, rich in immigration, history, tango and commerce. Other western barrios for visitors willing to wander are Caballito, Villa Crespo and, slightly north, Chacarita.
Along the river
Along the River is the Costanera Norte, north of the city airport, a popular place for weekend promenades. Next to the southern bank of the river is Puerto Madero (BA’s yuppie dockland complex) and Costanera Sur, skirting the coastal eco-reserve.
Heading Further Afield to the north is Belgrano, with its plazas, museums and shops; nearby is Nuñez. Further still, beyond the limits of the capital, are the wealthier suburbs of Zona Norte: Olivos, Martínez and San Isidro. On the city’s western edge are Liniers and Mataderos, both associated with cowboys, cattle-dealing and meatpacking.
But so much of what makes BA great is down to content, by which we mean the three million people who live, work and play in the federal capital. The extraordinary pleasure that porteños derive from sharing the beauty of their hometown with foreigners is something that most visitors will remember long after the canonical landmarks are forgotten. So don’t just walk, talk.