A combination of extravagant elegance and an authentic lived-in feel pervades the north of Buenos Aires, where the four residential barrios of most interest to visitors – Retiro, Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano – each retain a distinctive character. Nearest to the centre, Retiro and Recoleta – known jointly as Barrio Norte – have chic streets lined with boutiques, art galleries and smart cafés, although the dockside fringes and the highly insalubrious bits near the city’s biggest train station, also called Retiro, are just as down at heel as parts of the southern barrios, if not more so. Recoleta is associated primarily with its magnificent cemetery where, among other national celebrities, Evita is buried. Both barrios also share an extraordinary concentration of French-style palaces, tangible proof of the obsession of the city’s elite at the beginning of the twentieth century with established European cities. Many of these palaces can be visited and some of them house the area’s opulent museum collections, but they are also sights in themselves.
Palermo and Belgrano, further north, are large districts composed of a mixture of tall apartment buildings, tree-lined boulevards, little cobbled streets and grandiose neocolonial houses. Many of Buenos Aires’ best restaurants and shops are here, so you should plan a visit in this direction at least once. It’s worth making a day of it to check out the beautiful parks and gardens, attend a game of polo, or to see another beguiling side of the city in, for example, Palermo Soho, a district of lively cafés-cum-art galleries.Read More
Squeezed between the city centre to the south, Recoleta to the west and mostly inhospitable docklands to the north and east, Retiro gets its name from a hermit’s retiro (retreat) that was hidden among dense woodland here in the sixteenth century, when Buenos Aires was little more than a village. Today it’s surprisingly varied for such a small barrio: commercial art galleries and airline offices outnumber other businesses along the busy streets around the end of Calle Florida near the barrio’s focal point, Plaza San Martín, while west of busy Avenida 9 de Julio lies a smart, quiet residential area.
The rather sleazy northernmost swathe of the barrio is chiefly of interest for the Museo Nacional de Inmigración, a sort of Argentine equivalent of New York’s Ellis Island. Lying at Retiro’s aristocratic heart, meanwhile, Plaza San Martín is one of the city’s most enticing green spaces, flanked by opulent patrician buildings. More outstanding examples of the barrio’s palaces, which reflect how wealthy Porteños of the late nineteenth century yearned for their city to be a New World version of Paris, are clustered around Plaza Carlos Pellegrini, one of the city’s most elegant squares. For most Porteños, the barrio’s name has become synonymous with the once grand but now mostly decrepit train terminal, the Estación Retiro, on Avenida Dr Ramos Mejia, which still retains original Edwardian features, such as porcelain tiles and wrought-iron lamps. Next to it is the city’s major bus terminal, a modern and fairly efficient complex, and beyond that urban wasteland and a shantytown. Retiro is easily reached on foot from the city centre, and is connected to the subte via San Martín and Retiro stations, both on Line C.
North of Palermo, leafy Belgrano is largely residential, apart from the lively shopping streets on either side of its main artery, Avenida Cabildo. Named after General Manuel Belgrano, hero of Argentina’s struggle for independence, it was founded as a separate town in 1855. Over the next decade or two lots of wealthy Porteños built their summer or weekend homes here, and it was incorporated into Buenos Aires during the city’s whirlwind expansion in the 1880s. Many Anglo-Argentines settled in the barrio in those years, and it became popular with the city’s sizeable Jewish community in the 1950s. More recently Taiwanese and Korean immigrants have settled in Barrio Chino, Buenos Aires’ small Chinatown, which stretches along Arribeños between Juramento and Olazába.
Belgrano C is the central part of the barrio, whose nucleus lies at the junction of avenidas Cabildo and Justamento. As well as stores, cafés and galleries, there’s a clutch of minor museums here, with the most impressive being the Museo de Arte Español at Juramento 2291. This well-restored, whitewashed colonial building is home to a priceless collection of Spanish art amassed by an aristocratic Uruguayan exile, Enrique Larreta. From around 1900 to 1916, the dandyish Larreta spent many of his days in Spain; during that time he visited churches and monasteries, buying up artwork for his Belgrano home, most of them from the Renaissance – statues and paintings of saints, but also furniture, porcelain, silverware and tapestries, all of which are displayed in this house, which he bequeathed to the city.
Juramento station, one stop before the end of subte Line D, is a block from the museum, while plenty of buses run along Avenida Cabildo.
Charles Thays: Buenos Aires’ landscape artist
Charles Thays: Buenos Aires’ landscape artist
In the 1880s, French botanist and landscape architect Charles Thays (1849–1934) travelled to South America to study its rich flora, particularly the continent’s hundreds of endemic tree species. He initially settled in Argentina, where his services were in great demand as municipal authorities across the country sought to smarten their cities up. They, like their European and North American counterparts, were spurred by the realization that the country’s fast-growing urban sprawls needed parks and gardens to provide vital breathing spaces and recreational areas.
In 1890, Thays was appointed director of parks and gardens in Buenos Aires, in no small part due to his adeptness at transforming open plazas formerly used for military parades, or plazas secas, into shady plazas verdes, or green squares, such as Plaza San Martín. He also designed the capital’s botanical garden and the zoo – which he planted with dozens of tipas (also known as palo rosa, or rosewood) – as well as Palermo’s Parque 3 de Febrero, Belgrano’s Barrancas, Córdoba’s Parque Sarmiento and Parque San Martín, Tucumán’s Parque 9 de Julio and, most impressive of them all, Mendoza’s Parque General San Martín. Thays received countless private commissions, too, including the garden of Palacio Hume, on Avenida Alvear in Recoleta, and the layout of the exclusive residential estate known as Barrio Parque, in Palermo Chico.
Despite his French origins, he preferred the informal English style of landscaping, and also experimented with combinations of native plants such as jacarandas, tipas and palo borracho (a spiky-trunked relative of the ceibo with handsome pink flowers) with Canary Island palms, planes and lime trees. Oddly enough, given the high regard in which he was held and his contributions to the greening of Buenos Aires, the lone plaza named in his honour, Plaza Carlos Thays, in Palermo, is disappointingly barren, and definitely not the best example of landscaping the city has to offer.
Along the wide avenues and in the many parks of Barrio Norte and Palermo, you’ll often be treated to one of Buenos Aires’ more characteristic sights: the paseaperros, or professional dog walkers. Joggers holding seven or eight prized pedigrees on leashes are surprising enough, but these dilettantes are rightly held in contempt by the beefy specialists who confidently swagger along towed by twenty to thirty dogs – you can’t help wondering how it is they don’t get tangled up or lose one of the pack. These invariably athletic young men (or, occasionally, women) are not paid just to take all manner of aristocratic breeds for a stroll, with the inevitable pit stops along the way, but must brush and groom them and look out for signs of ill health; many dog walkers have veterinary training. They perform these vital duties every weekday – the dogs’ owners usually manage such chores themselves on the weekends.