A sometimes chaotic mix of cafés, grand nineteenth-century public edifices, high-rise office blocks and tearing traffic, Buenos Aires’ city centre exudes both energy and elegance. Its heart is the spacious, palm-dotted Plaza de Mayo, a good place to begin a tour of the area, perhaps more for its historical and political connections than for its somewhat mismatched collection of buildings, which includes the famous Casa Rosada, or government house. An amble westwards from the plaza will take you along Avenida de Mayo, the city’s major boulevard, with an impressive selection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. At its western end, Avenida de Mayo opens onto the Plaza del Congreso, presided over by the Congreso Nacional building, the seat of the senate.
From Plaza del Congreso, the route north along Avenida Callao will take you to Avenida Corrientes. Now a busy shopping street, Corrientes was famous in the past as the hub of the city’s left-leaning café society. Though there’s less plotting going on here today, it’s still the place to get some culture, lined as it is with bookstores, music shops, cinemas, theatres and cafés. A short detour north from Corrientes will take you to Plaza Lavalle, a long grassy square most notable for the opera house along its western edge, the regal Teatro Colón.
East from Plaza Lavalle, you’ll hit the jarring and enormous Avenida 9 de Julio – the city’s multi-lane central nerve. Presiding at its heart is the stark white Obelisco, a 67m stake through the intersection between 9 de Julio and Corrientes. Crossing east over the avenue, you head into a densely packed and busy block known as the microcentro, whose two main streets are pedestrianized Lavalle and Florida, where you’ll be swept along by a stream of human traffic past elegant galerías (arcades) and stores of every kind. Buenos Aires’ small financial district – called, in homage to London, “La City” – makes up the southeast corner of the microcentro, while its northeast contains the quieter “El Bajo”, home to some good bars and restaurants.Read More
Avenida de Mayo
Avenida de Mayo
Heading west from Plaza de Mayo takes you along one of the capital’s grandest thoroughfares, Avenida de Mayo, a wide, tree-lined boulevard flanked with ornamental street lamps and offering a stunning ten-block vista between Plaza de Mayo and Plaza del Congreso. Part of an 1880s project to remodel the city along the lines of Haussmann’s Paris, Avenida de Mayo is notable for its architectural melange; many of its buildings are topped with decorative domes and ornamented with elaborate balustrades and sinuous caryatids. Unimpressed with the city’s European pretensions, Borges called it one of the saddest areas in Buenos Aires, yet even he couldn’t resist the charm of its confiterías and traditional restaurants, a handful of which remain open.
Running parallel to Avenida de Mayo, four blocks north of Plaza Congreso, Avenida Corrientes is another of the city’s principal arteries, sweeping down to the lower grounds of El Bajo. Unlike other thoroughfares, it’s not the architecture along here that is of note – rather, it’s the atmosphere generated by its mix of cafés, bookstores, cinemas, theatres and pizzerias. For years, cafés such as La Paz, on the corner of Corrientes and Montevideo, and the austere La Giralda two blocks west, have been the favoured meeting places of left-wing intellectuals and bohemians – and good places to spot the Porteño talent for whiling away hours over a single tiny coffee.
Corrientes’ bookstores, many of which stay open till the wee hours, have always been as much places to hang out in as to buy from – in marked contrast to almost every other type of shop in the city, where you’ll be accosted by sales assistants as soon as you cross the threshold. The most basic places are simply one long room open to the street with piles of books slung on tables and huge handwritten price labels. There are more upmarket places, too, such as the very swish Gandhi at no. 1743 and the leftish, alternative Liberarte at no. 1555. Almost as comprehensive as the bookstores are the street’s numerous pavement kiosks, proffering a mind-boggling range of newspapers, magazines and books on subjects from psychology to sex to tango.
In 2010 Argentina observed its bicentennial: two hundred years ago, on May 25, 1810, locals gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to demand the withdrawal of the viceroy and to form the Primera Junta – the first move in throwing off the yoke of Spanish rule and creating an independent nation.
The centennial in 1910 was cause for great celebration: in its first hundred years Argentina had gone from being a fairly small colonial backwater to one of the world’s richest countries, still in the throes of an unprecedented immigration and building boom, and bursting with confidence that it was destined to be a great country, perhaps even challenging US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Several foreign nations gifted monuments, many of which are still standing in Buenos Aires, including the Torre Monumental (Britain) and the Monumento de los Españoles (Spain).
Now, one hundred years further on, Argentina has failed to live up to its original heady promise, but its citizens nonetheless passionately celebrated their two hundredth birthday. In Buenos Aires, lasting legacies of the party include a new Casa del Bicentenario, at Riobamba 983 (t011/4129-2400, wwww.bicentenario.gov.ar), which holds exhibitions on different aspects of Argentine identity; while the main post office, the Correo Central, at Sarmiento 189, near the beginning of Avenida Corrientes, was at the time of writing being restored and transformed into a cultural centre. It is to be the seat of the national symphony orchestra, and host more exhibitions.