What's Doing In; Buenos Aires
By LARRY ROHTER
June 22, 2003
After 18 months that have been among the most traumatic in Argentina's turbulent history, life in Buenos Aires has finally regained an air of normality. There is a new president, Néstor Kirchner, and a new mood of optimism, and their arrival coincides with the onset today of the Southern Hemisphere winter, which traditionally means a surge in activities in the sophisticated, elegant city that once prided itself on being ''the Paris of South America.''
Cultural life in particular has been reviving. Concert halls, theaters and museums showed great resilience during the economic collapse and political uncertainty of 2002, as Argentines clung tightly to their cultural identity while other institutions broke down, and are flourishing now that a recovery has finally begun. The same goes for cafes and tango halls, two traditional centers of urban life in the capital.
Another result of the country's economic crisis has been the transformation of Buenos Aires from perhaps the most expensive city in Latin America to one of its cheapest. For porteños, as residents of the capital are called, the experience has been humbling, too, and so visitors' complaints about a certain air of snobbish superiority, frequent in the past, have all but disappeared.
So have the scenes of violent street disturbances and food riots that filled television screens and newspapers around the world late in 2001, when the crisis erupted. Tempers have gradually been soothed as an economic recovery and political renewal gain strenth. The capital today is one of the cleanest, safest andcalmest cities in the Western Hemisphere, its broad boulevards and imposing buildings in regal French neo-Classical style restored to their former life and grandeur.
The plush Italianate Teatro Colón, at Cerrito 618, (54-11) 4378-7344 or 7305, www.teatrocolon.org.ar, has been one of the world's great concert halls ever since it opened in 1908, and the winter season already under way features an extensive program of both opera and orchestral works. The Buenos Aires Philharmonic performs each Thursday, for example, with invited soloists like the American violinist Joshua Bell (July 10 at 8:30 p.m.), and the pianist Marta Argerich will be making a rare hometown appearance on Sept. 4 at a festival in her honor.
The Mozarteum Argentino, Rodríguez Peña 1882, (54-11) 4811-3348, www.mozarteumargentino.org, is also sponsoring a winter-long cycle of concerts to be held at the Colón, predominantly featuring European artists. Highlights include the Mainz Bach Choir from Germany on Aug. 20 and the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Sept. 12, both at 8:30 p.m. Tickets go on sale at the Colón five days before each concert.
The Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Latin American Art, known as Malba, opened in 2001 and has the largest collection of its kind on the continent, worth seeing anytime. Until Aug. 18, it is also featuring the first one-man show in Buenos Aires since 1986 by the highly regarded Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca. Closed Tuesdays, but open the rest of the week from noon to 8 p.m., Wednesdays till 9; admission $1.33. At Avenida Figueroa Alcorta 3415, (54-11) 4808-6598, www.malba.org.ar.
The Fundación Proa, Avenida Pedro de Mendoza 1929 in the Boca neighborhood, where the tango was born, is sponsoring ''Abstract Argentine Art,'' a wide-ranging exhibition that has just returned from a tour of Europe and will be on view through mid-July, featuring 29 artists. Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; admission $1; (54-11) 4303-0909.
It hardly seems possible that qualifying matches for soccer's 2006 World Cup are already scheduled to begin, but on Sept. 6 or 7, Argentina's national team will face its traditional rival, Chile, at the boisterous Estadio Monumental, home of the Río Plate team. Argentina has won the cup twice, so a high level of play can be expected. The price of tickets has yet to be determined, but the Argentine Soccer Association at (54-11) 4372-7900 will eventually have that information.
Buenos Aires is a city of parks -- framed by museums, restaurants and grandiose monuments -- that are ideal for strolling or picnicking. Parque 3 de Febrero is part of a complex that begins in Palermo and runs northward to the city limits, but the initial section contains not only the city zoo and a planetarium but also some of the most interesting places to stop and relax: an Andalusian patio, a Danish rose garden, and a Japanese pavilion and lake.
Most visitors go to the downtown Calle Florida pedestrian mall for its shopping, notably for its boutiques selling leather goods and furs, but the milelong promenade is also a must for anyone interested in architecture. An itinerary that ends in leafy Plaza San Martín, named in honor of Argentina's national hero, passes banks, department stores and clubs built during the early years of the 20th century, when Argentina was prosperous and the byword in construction was opulence.
A favorite residential area for the elite in the city's early years, San Telmo is a colorful, semi-bohemian area dotted with cafes, antiques shops, cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. The best time to visit is Sunday, when a flea market fills the Plaza Dorrego, heart of the neighborhood, and performers, including tango dancers, take to the streets.
The mystique of Eva Perón persists, more than 50 years after her death. The Peronist faithful still flock to her grave in La Recoleta Cemetery, and as of last year there is a new place of pilgrimage: the Evita Museum, Lafinur 2988, (54-11) 4807-0306, www.evitaperon.org, which tells the story of her life and death and features memorabilia from her careers as actress and political idol. Open 2 to 7:30 p.m. except Monday; admission $1.65.
One of the city's best kept secrets is the grandly named Museo Municipal de Arte Hispanoamericano, in an all-white churchlike neo-Colonial mansion at Suipacha 1322, (54-11) 4327-0272, a neighborhood of art galleries and antiques stores. The principal focus is the colonial art of the Andes, including an impressive collection of silver, but there is also a spacious, quiet courtyard that is an ideal refuge from the bustle of downtown. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 2 to 7 p.m., with tango lessons offered Monday and Thursday at noon for $3.50 a month. Admission is 35 cents.
Where to Stay
It is hard to be closer to the center of things in Buenos Aires than the Hotel Crowne Plaza Panamericano, at Avenida Carlos Pellegrini 551; (54-11) 4348-5000, fax (54-11) 4348-5250; www.crowneplaza.com.ar . Many of the 385 rooms, with wood floors and a pastel color scheme, overlook either the Teatro Colón or the towering obelisk that is the city's most famous landmark, and just a block away is Calle Lavalle and its mall filled with restaurants, theaters and shops offering leather goods, sweaters and shoes at bargain prices. Doubles from $150.
On the other side of downtown, in a somewhat quieter setting at Moreno 809, is the Hotel Inter-Continental Buenos Aires, (54-11) 4340-7100, fax (54-11) 4340-7199, with 315 rooms. The atmosphere recalls the boom years of the 1930's, with plenty of marble floors and dark wood. An added attraction at the moment is a special winter rate of $151 a night for stays of four nights or more.
Budget: Not only is the Hotel Castelar, Avenida de Mayo 1152, (54-11) 4383-5008, fax (54-11) 4383-8388, www.castelarhotel.com.ar , conveniently located on a main thoroughfare midway between the presidential palace and the Congress building, but guests have the right to use the accompanying Turkish baths and spa. The 160 rooms, often small, are simply furnished, but at less than $50 a night, it's hard to complain.
Luxury: When kings and emperors visit Argentina, they invariably end up at the Alvear Palace Hotel, at Avenida Alvear 1891 in the fashionable Recoleta district; (54-11) 4804--7777, fax (54-11) 4804-9246; www.alvearpalace.com . The accent here is on luxury, with butlers on every floor and many of the 214 rooms decorated in classic French style. Prices, of course, reflect the surroundings, with doubles from $348.
The Four Seasons Hotel, at Posadas 1086, is in a neighborhood of mansions at the end of Avenida 9 de Julio, (54-11) 4321-1200, fax (54-11) 4321-1201, www.fourseasons.com/buenosaires , and its exterior is as impressive as any of the buildings around it. Tasteful paintings and furniture give the public spaces inside a subdued elegance, and the 165 modern rooms have all the amenities one would expect in a five-star setting. Doubles begin at $300.
Where to Eat
Porteños are carnivores: if forced to go a while without their parrilla, or grilled meat, they start to get grouchy. All over the city, one finds parrilla restaurants, some indicated by stuffed bulls at the doorway. One standout is La Cabana Las Lilas, on the waterfront in the area of restored warehouses known as Puerto Madero, on Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo 516, (54-11) 4313-1336, fax (54-11) 4315-6045. The meat, from grass-fed cattle raised on the restaurant's own ranch, is extraordinarily tender and comes in a variety of cuts, some of which may be unfamiliar to Americans. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two with a bottle of robust red wine from Mendoza, $60.
The new and stylishly severe Sucre, at Sucre 646, (54-11) 4782-9082, with a view of a park in Belgrano Chico, takes a very different approach, in an effort to remind diners that there is more to Argentine cuisine than beef. A gigot of boneless Patagonian lamb is typical of the restaurant's flair for adapting Mediterranean recipes. Open daily. Lunch or dinner for two with wine, $50.
For more than a century, Castilian, Basque, Catalonian and Galician immigrants have been flocking to Argentina and leaving their mark on eating habits. Of Buenos Aires's multitude of Spanish restaurants, the quiet and cozy José Luis, Avenida Quintana 456 in Recoleta, (54-11) 4807-0606, fax (54-11) 4807-3566, is probably the most highly regarded. There is paella and suckling pig here, of course, but fish and crustaceans dominate the menu, in a charming, informal setting that looks out onto a garden. Meal for two with wine is $50. Closed Sunday.
More than half of Argentina's population is of Italian descent, so it's no surprise that the capital abounds not just in humble pizzerias and family-run trattorias, such as Il Matterello at Calle Martín Rodríguez 517 in La Boca, (54-11) 4307-0529 (closed Sunday night and Monday; meal for two, $30), but also in upscale restaurants with gourmet aspirations. One currently fashionable dining place in that category is Bella Italia, Calle República Árabe Siria 3285 in Palermo, (54-11) 4802-3253, closed for lunch on Saturday and all day Sunday. Besides the usual pasta, there are dishes such as flounder on a bed of tomato and spinach, a more subtle variation on traditional Florentine recipes. Meal for two with wine: $45.
For a really cheap meal, do what porteños do: try a tenedor libre (free fork), one of the many no-frills, all-you-can-eat restaurants that offer lunch or dinner, including parrilla, for as little as $4 a person. A bottle of beer or glass of wine typically cost $1.50 extra. Many feature Chinese or vegetarian dishes that are difficult to find elsewhere. One centrally located tenedor libre, just off Avenida Córdoba near major downtown hotels, is La Gran Victoria, at Suipacha 783; (54-11) 4328-0271.