At Home in Buenos Aires
Falling in love with Argentina’s
A few years ago, an unexpected message arrived in my inbox from a contemporary painter in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Her name was Karina, and after coming across my website of travel sketches and illustrations, she was writing simply to say hello and connect with a fellow artist. I was living in the U.S. at the time, so Karina’s message instantly whisked me away to another world and age. I closed my eyes and envisioned narrow, cobblestoned streets; I pictured a couple dancing the tango, their arms and legs entwined; and I could almost hear the evocative strains of a bandoneon echoing through the night — the iconic accordion-type instrument played in tango orchestras.
Just as these images appeared as if in a dream, so was Buenos Aires a dream destination for me at the time — a place I hoped to visit in the future — and I shared this with Karina in my reply.
“Let’s keep in touch!” she wrote back. “Who knows where art can take us?”
As it turned out, art would take me in a surprising direction indeed over the next year. Not long after Karina’s message, I traveled to Norway to stay in an artists’ house, where I fell in love with a Uruguayan architect named José — and just a few months later, I moved to his hometown of Montevideo, Uruguay. Another great surprise was learning how close Buenos Aires was to my new city — situated on the opposite shore of the Rio de la Plata, the expansive river forming a natural border between Uruguay and Argentina.
Suddenly, one of my dream destinations lay only a ferry ride away.
The heart and soul of San Telmo
When I arrived in Buenos Aires on a bright September morning, the Southern Hemisphere winter was on the cusp of giving way to spring. Towering jacaranda trees were just beginning to bloom, before scattering their signature purple blossoms across the sidewalks. And in the city’s oldest neighborhood of San Telmo, I discovered the Buenos Aires I had always imagined: a world of colonial façades and cobblestones.
In its earliest days, San Telmo was the city’s first industrial area, bustling with brickmakers and dockworkers. This activity and growth continued into the middle of the 19th century, when affluent families constructed the elegant, colonial-style mansions that have come to comprise so much of San Telmo’s renown — and its charm.
Today, as Buenos Aires continues to expand — at last count, the city is home to nearly three million people, with a surrounding metro population of approximately 15 million — many of San Telmo’s mansions still house historic restaurants and cafes, and their architecture and ambience have also seemingly gone unchanged: They all feature tall wooden doors, high ceilings, and black-and-white tiled floors that whisper of bygone generations.
This visceral sense of the past endeared me to San Telmo from the start. My rental apartment was just blocks away from one of the neighborhood’s central squares, Plaza Dorrego — also one of the oldest public spaces in Buenos Aires — and it was to here that I gravitated nearly every day.
I spent my afternoons studying Spanish in Havanna Café, where my cortado was always served on a small silver tray with a decadent chocolate-covered alfajor biscuit on the side. In the evenings, I rewarded my study sessions with a glass of red wine at the century-old Plaza Dorrego Bar. Its original wooden counter and rows of spice drawers from its days as a corner grocery store, or almacen, never failed to take me back in time.
Plaza Dorrego is also the backdrop for one of the cornerstone fixtures of San Telmo: a weekly market known as Feria de San Telmo. Every Sunday morning since the 1970s, Defensa Street has been transformed into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare of booksellers, food vendors, antiques stalls, musicians and tango dancers. It was in these moments, as I soaked up the market’s lively atmosphere or savored my wine to the tune of a classic tango song, that I had my first glimpses into the heart and soul of San Telmo — and I began to feel at home in Buenos Aires.
A cafe culture to remember
As content as I was to spend my time in the nostalgic haunts of San Telmo, I also knew there was a whole world of other neighborhoods in Buenos Aires to get to know. And as it just so happened, I had the help of a local resident: My new friend and Argentine artist, Karina.
On my first weekend in Buenos Aires, Karina met me in San Telmo with a smile on her face and her short golden-brown hair catching the morning sunlight. She had a whirlwind walking tour in mind for us, which began along the waterfront of Puerto Madero: a formerly neglected port that has recently been revived into an airy and contemporary neighborhood.
Our next stop was the Avenida de Mayo, one of the principal streets in Buenos Aires that is lined with beautiful belle epoque buildings and the unmistakably pink Casa Rosada — the office and executive mansion of the president of Argentina.
And it was as Karina and I were making our way up this wide, Parisian-style avenue that I noticed a long queue of people waiting on the sidewalk. Above them, a decorative, dark green awning read “Cafe Tortoni, established in 1858.” Furthermore, the doorway was surrounded by a bevy of golden plaques, which the cafe had been awarded over the years for being a site of cultural interest. Unknowingly, I had just stumbled across the city’s oldest coffeehouse.
This discovery marked the beginning of my next love affair with Buenos Aires, this time with its extraordinary cafe culture. It wasn’t until my second visit to the city that I was able to step inside Cafe Tortoni’s hallowed interior, but it was well worth the wait. From gleaming chandeliers and columns to the sweeping stained-glass window in its ceiling, I had never sipped a cortado in such an elegant setting, nor felt quite so sophisticated.
Then, on my third visit to Buenos Aires, I sought out what might arguably be considered the pièce de résistance of the city’s cafes: El Ateneo Grand Splendid — a bookstore and cafe housed in a 100-year-old theater. In 2008, British newspaper The Guardian even named it the second most beautiful bookshop in the world. Theater seats have been replaced by bookshelves and the crimson-curtained stage now hosts a cafe instead of legendary tango artists — but as I had also learned during my time in Buenos Aires, their legacy still very much lives on.
The passion and presence of tango
"Without the streets or dusks of Buenos Aires, a tango cannot be written.”
So wrote famed Argentine author and poet Jorge Luis Borges, and while my time in Uruguay had taught me that the tango was developed in Montevideo as much as in Buenos Aires, I held little doubt over which of the two cities is more strongly associated with the style of ballroom dancing today.
Everywhere I went in Buenos Aires, I found the tango — commemorated in murals; played in cafes and restaurants; and at the Sunday market in San Telmo, where music vendors set up entire stalls of tango CDs. So, too, did I come across frequent advertisements for tango shows, but I was eager for a tango experience that felt less staged and more sincere — and for that, I turned to milongas.
Milongas are the myriad dancehalls and venues where locals gather to dance the tango across Buenos Aires. Some milongas offer classes before the true dancing begins, while others feature live tango orchestras. Each time I returned to the city, I made sure to visit a website called Hoy Milonga. Not only does it list the milongas taking place each night of the week, but it gives details about their classes and performances as well.
I will always remember a night at the Maldita Milonga, which is held three nights a week in San Telmo. Just before midnight, a 10-piece tango orchestra called El Afronte began to play, with a trio of bandoneon players taking center stage. I closed my eyes and reveled in the rise and fall of every song; perhaps only in tango is the music as passionate as the dance itself.
A new home away from home
On the final morning of my most recent trip to Buenos Aires, I hurried out of my hotel in San Telmo and began hustling down the street, late as I was to meet Karina. Before I headed back to Montevideo, we’d made plans to have lunch and do some sketching in Puerto Madero, the very neighborhood she’d introduced me to all those months before. The autumn sun was shining, and I hardly needed to glance at a map as I neared the river.
For years, I’d been imagining Buenos Aires from afar; now, I not only had favorite rituals to return to in the city, but friendships to reconnect with every time I crossed the Rio de la Plata.
That morning, I was filled with gratitude and wonder — at how a place that had once been a dream for me now felt as familiar as home.