A San Franciscan's Guide to Buenos Aires: As timeless as Paris, culture and shoes included
A view of Buenos Aires' San Telmo district. (Courtesy of @buenos_aires_dicas)

A San Franciscan's Guide to Buenos Aires: As timeless as Paris, culture and shoes included


Traveling for a month seems like a long time—until it isn't. With Bogotá, Medellín, and Rio de Janeiro all in the rearview mirror, I felt a little melancholy as I boarded my Aerolineas Argentina flight for Buenos Aires.

But, after traveling alone for the first two-thirds of the trip—which enhanced that feeling of being a stranger in strange land that I enjoy so much—I was meeting up for the last leg with one of my oldest and best friends who lives on California's central coast. A bit of a loner himself, Mark is a traveler with an unerring sense of direction and a fondness and understanding for things like maps, which I always struggle with. We have, over the years, had great and memorable times wandering around London, Paris and New York. Once on a beach in Mexico when I foolishly took a drunken midnight swim in waters that quite suddenly turned rough and sobered me up fast, he and two other pals left on the sand called my name into the darkness against the sound of pounding waves to see if I was ok. Once I got my feet on shore, not only was I forgiven but understood, later mocked, and even later, toasted. These are the kinds of traveling companions you want. So, I knew the sense of melancholy wasn't going to hang around long.

We booked a lovely Airbnb in San Telmo, the old tango district, each with our own private bedroom and bath situated on different floors, and a super comfortable and airy common area with ceiling fans and floor-to-ceiling doors that were helpful in keeping the afternoon heat at bay.

As I was flying in from Rio, we landed at Aeroparque Jorge Newberry, located in the city itself in the Palermo neighborhood. This is an international airport that serves other South American countries. If you fly in from the States you will most likely land at Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), which is a good 45 minutes or so outside the city. After a very simple boxed lunch that included a delicious, and I mean delicious, ham and cheese sandwich with the crusts cut off and a single small and perfect dulce de leche cookie, we made our approach. Below I could make out clusters of buildings, apartments and a carpet of red clay tennis courts. As a tennis fanatic, as well as a big supporter of the Argentine tennis sensation Juan Martin Del Potro, it felt like an auspicious sign.

After disembarking from the very new plane on an old-school style ramp wheeled to the door, I made my way into the airport and to the ATM. After three attempts it worked, and I managed to get 2,000 Argentine pesos ($110 U.S.) broken down into bills of 1,000 each. I had been requesting more than that, a problem at ATMs in Buenos Aires, it seems, where they sometimes run out of cash.

The taxi situation at the airport was the most straightforward of my travels through South America. You line up outside with all the others, and the metered taxis make their way up one by one. No bargaining, no shilling or selling, just the transport. The strapping driver, in another crazy tennis-oriented sign, bore an uncanny resemblance to Rafael Nadal. When we arrived at the Airbnb, the meter was at 190 pesos, but the driver was unable to break a $1,000 bill (change can be a problem in BA). Luckily I had 180 pesos that had been given to me before I left. When I asked my friend who was already there and waiting outside if he had 10 more pesos, the driver smiled that big Nadal smile and waved me off, saying, "No, no, no, that's OK!"

And thus began my Sunday in San Telmo and 10 days of traversing the city and its wide boulevards on foot, by subway and by taxi. Ten days that would see plenty of good food, three extraordinary museum exhibitions, a pre-Christmas evening of local tango observation at a somewhat hidden and out of the way milonga, and the first of what would turn out to be daily sightings of a mixed breed, low-to-the-ground dog with stuck-out ears who walked the streets solo as if he was the mayor.

In the musical Evita, there is a memorable number where Eva Peron asks sarcastically and ironically, "What's new Buenos Aires?" And while you can feel nascent food and cultural movements beneath the surface, the answer all these years later seems to be, not much. Which is exactly the point. Buenos Aires feels as timeless as Paris.


San Telmo is the old tango district. A little more run-down than Recoleta and Palermo, it's home to gorgeous buildings, cobblestone streets, small grocery stores and restaurants. Its appeal was immediately clear. Our Airbnb was situated in an older building, beautifully maintained, with airy courtyards protected by heavy gates facing out onto two streets. It was the quiet kind of building where the residents seemed to have been living for years. The San Telmo Market—think the Ferry Building with permanent spaces for butchers, produce vendors, antiques and so on—is a destination for people-watching as well as shopping. Coffee Town, located here, was our daily destination for a morning cortado (think macchiato). Like many countries in South America, the coffee culture is just beginning to shed its past to show itself. The owners—both former journalists—import and roast their own coffees, and the result is a booming business. On Sundays, the very busy feria (flea market) bustles right outside. San Telmo is adjacent to a number of other desirable neighborhoods, with access to Palermo, Recoletta and Monserrat by foot or by subway. It's also home to La Poesía, where on a Sunday afternoon, an elderly woman given to dramatic hats will walk in accompanied by her cane, sit down at the piano and spin out elegant romantic ballads and tangos on the not-quite-in-tune upright. If the noise outside gets too loud and threatens to drown her out, she is not above going outside and brandishing said cane to make it stop.

Recoleta is a downtown residential neighborhood, think New York's Upper East Side and of great historical and architectural interest. With European-inspired architecture, it is a popular tourist destination as well as home to the just-a-little-mind-bending cemetery of the same name, which now houses the remains of Evita Peron, aka La Santa Peronista. Starting at the end of the 19th century to the early 1920s, the neighborhood saw the construction of a great number of châteaux done in the style of France's Loire Valley. Not coincidentally, when Buenos Aires was besieged by cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s, this is where the wealthy moved to avoid the scourge. (When fleeing death, build a chateau!) Recoleta boasts a number of posh hotels, including the stunning Alvear Palace.

While downtown and residential in character, Palermo is also palpably affluent. At seven square miles, it is the largest neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and is also home to the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA), the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo and the Botanical Gardens, all of which are worth your time (learn more about these below under Things to Do). It's also home to plenty of upscale shopping and hotels, including the Nuss Hotel Buenos Aires Soho, a 22-room boutique stay housed in a former convent.

Eat + Drink

National Dishes

There is no shortage of carne in Buenos Aires, but don't let that be your only guide—empanadas can also be found almost everywhere. I first came to love them here in San Francisco, starting with El Porteño, sold at a number of locations including the Ferry Building, and then at the deliciousness that is El Sur, a food truck turned Potrero Hill café that really raised the bar on the meaty pastry. (Full disclosure, El Sur is a client of mine in my full-time gig as a PR guy.) But here in Buenos Aires, empanadas aren't such a big deal—while they're almost always good, Argentines just enjoy them without expecting some kind of foodie nirvana experience. La Pastalinda de Don Chiquillo, in San Telmo, serves a tasty and dependable version—though you'd do well to go for dinner when their specialty artisanal pastas shine (we had a lovely salmon-stuffed ravioli on Christmas). Though a bit of a hole in the wall, the empanadas at Ña Serapia, in Palermo, are definitely on the money, as are those from La Fachada(multiple locations). But as I say, empanadas are everywhere in Buenos Aires; sample as many as you can!

Another national dish, chori-pan is, in the simplest terms, a fresh-from-the-grill sausage put on some bread and eaten either as is or with a dollop of chimichurri or salsa criolla (hot sauce). San Telmo's Nuestra Parrilla might be tiny, but the chori-pan is mighty.

Cafes + Restaurants

La Poesía is a small, open early morning, throughout the day and late into the evening old-school café in San Telmo. The menu has page after page of choices and can be confusing. You can't go wrong ordering the pavita escabech, a sandwich of marinated chopped turkey with jamon crudo (prosciutto).

Italian food is plentiful in Buenos Aires and can be enjoyed up and down the luxury scale. During one dinner atIl Nonno Bachicha (San Telmo), the main dish we enjoyed was good and filling, but it was the first course that got us excited, a salad called Mayonesa de Ave, which is basically potato salad made with roast chicken. Who knew? The restaurant itself is a kooky throwback to a time we couldn't quite place.

If you're inclined to visit a small bar where you might find yourself spending hour after hour chatting, eating and drinking, Dada Bistro is your kind of place.

Buenos Aires is brimming with restaurants cooking and serving meat in a traditional manner, including Parilla del Plata, which dresses itself up with white tablecloths but is, essentially, very casual. If you order dinner here, you will have enough food to take home for lunch the next day. If you wish to step up that game, you might want to opt for Cabaña Las Lilas or La Brigada.

For food that's a bit less traditional and more forward-looking, the answer is easy: Gran Dabbang, located on the edge of Palermo. Unfussy and casual, this operation fuses Latin and Indian flavors to great effect, in dishes such as peanut- and turmeric-infused venison with huckleberries and beetroot salad (it was almost shockingly tasty). The space itself is small and doesn't take reservations, so you might want to take advantage of the city's late-night eating tradition and go a bit early so you don't have to wait. The ambience here reminded me a bit of those spaces in San Francisco that emerged in the mid-to-late '90s that, faced with the choice, made the conscious decision to focus on the food first, second and third, and worry about the décor later. This was easily the best meal we had during our time in Buenos Aires.

Things to Do

Tango is big.

You will bump into it in public spaces where it will be performed for gathering crowds, or you can take lessons in any number of places. But if your tastes are more attuned to taking in the real experience of locals who make it a practice to spend some time on the floor, stop by the Friday-night milonga run by Diego Alvaro of El Abrazo Tango, which offers lessons in the afternoon and opens up for dancing and drinking from 5 to 8pm.

Shopping is also a draw.

Shoes are a specialty, it seems. Sport 28 in Palermo takes the architecture and styles of shoes associated with different sports from decades past and revises them into contemporary lines of 12 pairs only. Spendy but singular! While they don't have a website and their Facebook page doesn't do their selection justice, Tacones Lejanos offers a striking selection of shoes in different styles, from funky, soft leather boots to more high-style spins. Also, wallets, purses and other leather goods.

In San Telmo, Quorom is a great browse for artist-inflected bags, prints and other items that run the gamut from political to more whimsical and even abstract themes.

The museums are superb.

Fundacion Proa, located in La Boca, concerns itself with contemporary art. Airy and easily navigated, it also has a very good restaurant with a balcony overlooking the nearby port. The Ai Weiwei exhibit, Inoculation(through February 28, 2018), is a contemplative stunner.

The Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo was a surprise to me. I expected a survey of decorative arts associated with Argentina, but what you really get is a look into the aristocratic past of the noted Alvear family. Wander from room to room and you will find yourself transported from decade to decade within centuries.

We returned to Museo de Arte Moderno twice to view the exhibit of the late Argentine artist Sergio Avello (through April 2, 2018). Working as an artist in Buenos Aires from 1984 until his early death in 2010, the show reveals the sometimes cryptic but always intriguing universe he inhabited: the nightlife, the parties and recitals that made up his social fabric. The other must-see exhibit is Tomás Saraceno's How to Catch the Universe in a Spider's Web (until Feb. 2018). Featuring clusters of webs built through the labor of more than 7,000 spiders over the course of six months, it is a microcosmic mirror of the macro-cosmos that is the universe. As you make your way through the cordoned-off and beautifully lit galactic clouds of webs in the darkened room, you will feel as if you're floating through space, with your feet only somewhat firmly on the ground. Fans of SFMOMA might remember that Saraceno's Flying Through Future Cities was exhibited there in 2017.

And of course there is the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano Buenos Aires (MALBA), which offers an often-extraordinary tour through the artists and works of those who have contributed so much to the South American canon. Dedicate an afternoon here and then relax and ruminate in the very well run restaurant with a coffee and your choice of one of their very compelling cakes or pastries.

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