I knew about the tango halls, steak, and malbec; and then there was Evita. I had heard it was gay-friendly, and we were going to find out just how much: my partner and I booked the Axel Hotel Buenos Aires, a ’heterofriendly’ hotel (full disclosure: this hotel won a 2010 TripOut Travel Award from Logo). The atrium in the middle of the building, capped with a glass-bottom pool with men in speedos writhing in slow motion, suggested prurient clientele. However, the vibe was respectful and pleasant with a mixed crowd–and the pool was so much fun to swim in at night. The Axel is in Montserrat, near San Telmo, a neighborhood with a very NYC FiDi vibe–old architecture, hidden clubs and shops, and bakeries in service long before Andrew Lloyd Webber put BA on the American map.
About the night–dinner starts at 10, and nightclubs in Palermo are open well into the morning. There are plenty of shops and food adventures to be had during the day, if you can wake up early enough to take advantage of them. After wandering through much of San Telmo, La Recoleta, Palermo, and then back through to Puerto Madero and La Boca, here are nine can’t-miss experiences in the heart of BA:
1. Café Tortoni
The city’s oldest cafe was founded in 1858, originally catering to artists and politicians before becoming the most sincerely enjoyable tourist destination. Order the classic jamon y queso to experience the slightly sweet medialuna croissants the country is famous for–a perfect foil for the ham and cheese. Try the equally ubiquitous café con leche and finish with some churros and an extra order of dulce de leche to pop your porteño cherry.
2. La Recoleta Cemetery, Recoleta
It could be 90 degrees and sunny, and you’d still feel a gothic chill down your back wandering through one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Fourteen acres of sublime and decrepit above-ground mausoleums weave microcosmic streets with stone angels and saints as witnesses to some of the famous people buried here, including Eva Perón. It’s free to wander through it, and once you’ve had your fill of oxidized copper tears and cobwebs, head over to the Buenos Aires design center for a bite to eat or some lazy shopping.
3. Faena Hotel, Puerto Madero
You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy one of BA’s swankiest hotels. Design guru Philipe Starck has created a sexy Wonderland, as evidenced by the topiaries and red drapes seen while walking through the courtyard to the lobby. El Bistro, the most gastronomically outrageous restaurant on the property features a smallish room with mounted unicorn heads guarding each table–an indication of the fabulous molecular culinary feats to be had (get the tasting menu).
Too much? Grab a cocktail in The Library Lounge and wait for it to fill up: A metal cover-band called Los Bañeros performed Kiss, Bon Jovi & Aerosmith classics on top of the bar to a packed room on a recent Tuesday night.
4. Gran Parilla del Plata, San Telmo
We ate at this former corner butcher shop multiple times, as it was within walking distance of the Axel. An oasis of excellent late-night dining in the barrio due to simple, well prepared dishes. We ate skirt steak, veal, chorizo: all consistently good and cooked to order.
Locals appreciate salad as much as beef: the chicory version with peeled shards of parmesan & vinaigrette make a simple but delicious counterpart to all the beef. If you like cheese, the grilled provolone with red pepper and bacon (at right) is also superlative: crispy outside and warm, melted goodness inside. Even the desserts are remarkable: The lemon torte valentina is in my top 10 favorite desserts of all time.
5. Gil Antigüedads, San Telmo
Antiques are big in BA, and apparently not yet exploited on One Kings Lane or Fab. One can wander up and down Defensa on Sunday for the San Telmo feria or flea market, where you can find antiques, couples tango-ing on the street, and handmade goods and crafts. If you do this, plan to end up at Plaza Dorrego, the center of the flea market and a great place to pick up a souvenir.
Gil Antigüedads is a half block from Plaza Dorrego. Only open for a few hours in the afternoon most days, it’s well worth the wait: everything from dishware to furniture to vintage gaucho scarves, and a basement level filled with period clothes. Old fedoras, vintage wedding dresses, military jackets–an extensive costume archive for a budding Patricia Field to raid for new ideas.
6. Calma Chicha, Palermo
For shoppers that aren’t into vintage goods, visit Calma Chicha. Located in the Palermo barrio (a la NY’s SoHo), this emporium has goods made from hairy cowhide: rugs, wallets, chairs, purses. There are other home goods as well, and the staff is friendly and willing to figure out how to get larger goods shipped to international destinations.
TIP: Be prepared to charge it: ATMs are scarce in BA, and usually have long lines.
7. Hype, Palermo
Full disclosure, we didn’t go here. But if you’re looking for a bangin’ club to let loose at, this one has sweated out the most positive reviews from our friends. There are other clubs further out from the city center, but you can’t beat this locale.
8. Casa Rosada
If you’re in the city, you might as well view the balcony that made Eva Perón (and Madonna) famous. BA’s pink-hued version of the White House is worth navigating through gawking tourists: The Italianate architecture, scale and positioning of the building demands respect. The pink color is rumored to come from cow’s blood. You may not be able to sing to the citizens from the same balcony as Ms. Perón, but guided tours are free on weekends and holidays.
9. Teatro Colón, Centro
We didn’t make it here, either, and it’s a shame: the inside of this opera house looks breathtaking. Don’t make the same mistake we did; hear the BA Philharmonic or experience a ballet. You’re going to want to balance all that partying with some culture.