Buenos Aires has an ample population of three million, and the capital of Argentina boasts the sort of urban grandeur that such a formidable number would suggest: monumental statues, public art and stately fountains; commanding boulevards (including the 16-lane 9 de Julio Avenue, the widest street in the world); and one of the world's greatest opera houses, Teatro Colón.
So it is revealing that the 48 sections of this sprawling city are not called districts or even neighborhoods, but barrios. When you are visiting Paris, you quickly learn to say arrondissement, the local word for neighborhood, and the term — all those extra letters, two pairs of consonants, the careful stresses — oozes specificity and refinement.
But barrio is a homey, friendly word, and it inspires me to seek out the most neighborly enclaves in a city that is festive looking — it seems to have been joyously dipped in color — and hospitable in equal measure. The word inspires me to live, for a little while, like a true porteño: a local to Buenos Aires.
Nucha is wide and welcoming, with a mix of spare modern elements and the warmth of reclaimed wood. The square showcase — the staff inside the square buzzes around, tending to patrons — contains decadent, sculptural pastry.
Tiny, round butter cookies are half-enrobed in chocolate, the chocolate caught in mid-drizzle. Palermo Soho is packed with adorable places to stop for a little apple tart or alfajor (dulce de leche sandwich cookie) with a coffee or, better yet, with a glass of one of the barrio's ubiquitous lemonades (choose from classic, ginger, passion fruit, or mint), poured from a ceramic pitcher shaped like a penguin.
I see a surprising amount of penguin pitchers in restaurants and in the windows of home shops, perhaps reflecting the fact that Argentina is the jumping-off point to Antarctica. I mention this to a waiter named Alejandro at the loft-like bohemian bar Querido Gonzales, but he points to some other pitchers on the shelves, and lets me in on some irreverent porteño humor. "Some of them are shaped like chickens and a former president of Argentina, too," he tells me, laughing.
Dessert isn't a luxury here; it feels essential to the barrio's thriving social life. When I sit in the sun on a little triangular terrace at Sans, a beloved coffee joint overlooking the Palermo landmark of Plaza Serrano, the triple-chocolate brownie I've chosen from a wooden country table more than lives up to its name.
When I praise it to my server, her eyes widen giddily in enthusiastic agreement. At the nearby and very pink Bartola (at the corner of Costa Rica and Gurruchaga streets, one of Palermo Soho's loveliest intersections), friends and couples linger over jugs of lemonade at aqua and pink tables that spill out into the cobblestone street; inside they sit at whimsical miniature picnic tables.
Happy hour on a Monday here has the quality of a lazy Sunday afternoon anywhere else, but with explosions of color: A few doors down from Bartola on Gurruchaga Street is a creperie with rooftop seating called Crêpas — set in a fuchsia building.
Palermo Soho is as stylish and upscale as its namesakes in other cities (New York, London, and Hong Kong all have their Sohos), but with no attitude. After-work meals of brownies and crepes and lemonade — while sitting outside storefronts painted in candied hues — don't really lead to pretension.
Traveler tip: Taste your way through the city’s vibrant barrios on Holland America Line’s FOOD & WINE® tours.
My dinner experiences are similarly sociable. After dapper Gabriel, the manager of Don Julio, tells me I'm home, he leads me inside to show me shelves full of wine bottles, their labels signed with the names of happy patrons.
The bottles cover the walls and columns and go up past the wagon wheel chandeliers. Then I have an alfresco meal, under a striped canopy, featuring one of the best rib-eye steaks of my life, plus a local Malbec and an heirloom tomato salad flanked by bottles of three different local olive oils from Familia Zuccardi: frantoio, changlot, and aranco. Another hearty dinner — this one at La Hormiga on Armenia Street — brings rustic empanadas and thickly cut discs of seasoned, bubbling grilled cheese.
I find the same effortless style and quality in Palermo Soho's shops. The range of leather bags at Humawaca run from simple to fanciful, many with strategic cutouts, and some are shaped like sea urchins.
Diego, the owner of the leather store Calma Chicha, shows me an array of rugs made from select hides and the classic mid-century butterfly chair reimagined with Argentine leather. And the artisanship continues right onto the street. On Plaza Serrano, with cyclists whizzing by, artist Pablo Peisa is doing what he has been doing for 20 years — painting and selling signs in fileteado porteño. The distinctive ornamental style, which is roughly a century old, is characterized by symmetry, approximation of depth, and naturally, because this is Buenos Aires, bold color. Once I examine Pablo's meticulous, joyous art, of course I start noticing fileteado all over the city.
Craftsmanship and artistic expression is so central to porteño identity, that when I walk the length of Defensa Street in San Telmo, an atmospheric neighborhood five barrios south of Palermo, I find myself stopping every five minutes to browse, buy, and collect stories. The scene is scored to the sounds of buskers — singers, guitarists, and an especially energetic street corner group featuring a jazz sax player and percussion courtesy of a wooden stool that a musician happens to be seated upon.
This is the electricity of San Telmo's famed Sunday street market. I buy a Venetian-style leather mask from a man named Jorge Paganelli, who tells me he took six hours to make it, and a wine holder from Edoardo, who has been fashioning leather for 25 years and brought his son into the family business.
Ruben Rodriguez makes me a leather belt — a man just can't leave BA without a new belt. "It's natural leather — cuero crudo — that has been softened," he explains. A few blocks away, a darkly handsome young craftsman named Mariano sits on the curb turning out belt after belt. I ask about his name, if he's Italian. (Fully two-thirds of Argentines are at least part Italian.) "Mas o menos" — more or less — he says, explaining that he's Italian and Spanish.
Just south of San Telmo is La Boca, yet another intimate barrio, this one drenched in primary colors. Yes, it's a magnet for tourists who come to watch outdoor tango, but it also delivers local texture you can't fake: a hard-fought soccer game among teenagers is being waged against a backdrop of a vivid mural.
Still, because tango is so synonymous with Argentina, I stop in front of La Vieja Rotisería to watch an especially beautiful couple — Eliana Rizzonelli and Nahuel Guerrero — whose assertive yet fluid movements define the genre. Nahuel's muscled forearm is raised in the air, then his hand is at the small of Eliana's bare back; her leg rises from her red velvet dress and is held in place above Nahuel's hip.
Their eyes remain locked in palpable intensity. I'm soon grabbing a seat because I can't take my eyes off them. The performance — dynamic, then briefly frozen in pose — shows off Eliana's curves and Nahuel's stern strength and flawless profile.
After their set, as a hat makes its way around the outdoor tables of La Vieja Rotisería and quickly fills with pesos, the couple explains that their passion is real: Eliana and Nahuel are married. Onstage they are stylized, but offstage, they are animated and casual.
"You seemed so mean up there," I tell Nahuel. Dark and dangerous during the tango, he has an offstage smile that's sweetly and youthfully disarming. Eliana translates my comment and they both laugh heartily. Nahuel is only 27, but his training and physicality enable him to convey absolute macho authority during the dance. His name means "jaguar."
Eliana says that they have a heavy schedule; they do more than perform in La Boca. "We are trained in ballet and modern as well as tango, and we teach dance," she tells me, explaining that they have an appointment to teach across town soon.
Eliana and Nahuel are popular instructors, and anyone can see why. What they have is a style that epitomizes the city and its barrios: bold, colorful, aesthetically precise. They have something — a magic distinct to porteños — that's unteachable.
Taste and tango your way around Argentina and experience other amazing destinations on South American cruises.