The quiet din of well-dressed diners sipping malbec and nibbling on succulent Argentine beef is interrupted by the haunting strains of a keyboard. A spotlight suddenly shines, focusing on a white-jacketed piano player, then expands to illuminate his fellow musicians, who join in with accordion, upright bass, violin and drums. The melody is magnetic. Slowly couples dressed fifties-style drift onto the stage and begin moving to the music. So begins another night of tango, the sultry dance born 200 years ago on the streets of Buenos Aires and still very much alive in this colorful South American metropolis.
The allure of that singularly Latin dance was one reason my boyfriend and I made the lengthy trip to Buenos Aires. We also were drawn by its cosmopolitan character, the strength of the U.S. dollar in South America and the below-equator location, making it an ideal winter escape.
Once we’d arrived, our first encounter with the dance was the spectacular Rojo Tango show at Faena Hotel + Universe, a stylish retreat in the city’s renovated Puerto Madero district, which straddles the Río de la Plata. The Faena, designed by Alan Faena and Philippe Starck, attracts hip, well-heeled travelers, but tourists of all stripes fill the audience at Rojo Tango, which traces the roots of the sensual dance from its brothel beginnings to the modern stylings of nuevo tango.
Though entranced by the performance, I was also slightly terrified. My dancing skills are a two on a scale of 10, and we were scheduled for a private tango lesson the next morning at the Faena. My worries were misplaced, though. After 45 minutes, I had the basic steps down, and when my instructor took my hand and guided me across the dance floor to conclude our session, I discovered my inner Ginger — Rogers, that is. (Plus, tango is a dance led almost entirely by the male, so it’s nearly impossible for a woman with a skilled partner to make a complete fool of herself.) With our tango legs tentatively in place, we were ready to see it in action, so we set off for San Telmo, one of the oldest barrios in Buenos Aires.
There, history comes alive on the cobblestone streets, as vendors hawk their wares and street performers draw crowds. The area is chock-full of tango parlors, with all-day and all-night dancing. Dancers dressed to the nines also perform in Plaza Dorrego, the main square, much to the pleasure of tango-hungry tourists. We visited on a Sunday when the Feria de San Telmo, a weekly street fair and flea market replete with crafts, jewelry and antiques, was under way.
The San Telmo Market (961 Defensa) is also a captivating treat. Opened in 1897, this vaulted-ceiling farmers’-market-style hall is filled with locals who navigate amid throngs of tourists to shop at the stalls of butchers, produce grocers and even vintage clothiers. It is a must-do on any Buenos Aires itinerary. Afterward, we sipped midafternoon café con leche at Café Tortoni (Av. de Mayo 825), the oldest cafe in the city. A onetime hangout for literary and art luminaries — Jorge Luis Borges, Federico García Lorca and Benito Quinquela Martín are among its alumni — it is now the site of La Academia Nacional del Tango (the National Academy of Tango), where visitors can explore the roots of the dance, take classes and watch professionals perform.
Many of the city’s late-night milongas, or tango dance halls, are in San Telmo. Clubs that offer a full meal and a show and even sometimes pre-dinner tango lessons include El Querandí (Peru 302), Esquina Carlos Gardel (Carlos Gardel 3200) and El Viejo Almacén (Balcarce 799 and Independencia). More adventurous dancers can find hidden, less touristy gems, where tango aficionados of all ages never leave the dance floor, through El Tangauta (eltangauta.com), a monthly tango publication.
Beyond tango, Buenos Aires is a haven for shoppers and lovers of good food and wine. The perfect place to enjoy all three is the Palermo neighborhood, most notably Palermo Viejo, a bigger, greener, more charming version of Greenwich Village. Once a run-down warehouse district, this neighborhood is now home to numerous outdoor cafes and some of the city’s hottest boutiques, restaurants and bars. It is impossible to leave Palermo without arms laden with packages. I picked up leather riding boots from Fosca (Gurruchaga 1726) and several pairs of jeans from Rapsodia (El Salvador 4757).
For a walk through history—literally—in Buenos Aires there’s no better place than La Recoleta Cemetery, where the iconic Eva Perón and many other well-known Argentines are buried. La Recoleta is a city of the dead, filled with expansive avenues and elaborate marble mausoleums replete with statues. We spent hours traversing the picturesque walkways and were kept company by a friendly band of feral cats that live in the cemetery.
Back among the living, we rested our feet and refreshed our spirits at La Biela (Av. Quintana 596), the largest cafe in Recoleta and an ideal place to sit outdoors, sip wine and enjoy the hustle-bustle of a city that still retains all the charms that have earned it the moniker “the Paris of South America.”
Where to stay
Thanks to its cultural and commercial attractions and a still-weak peso, Buenos Aires has a thriving tourism market, drawing visitors from around the globe. Here is a sampling of accommodation options for travelers.
Alvear Palace Hotel
This palatial Recoleta retreat has been an elegant escape for kings, heads of state and celebrities since 1932. It now features a new spa.
Faena Hotel + Universe
Housed in a historic former grain building in the posh Puerto Madero district, Faena boasts an outdoor infinity pool, various restaurants, and a gym and spa. Private tango classes are available.
Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires
This luxe Recoleta property includes a spa (try the Porteño Massage, set to tango music to get you in the mood) and a heated outdoor saline pool. On Saturdays, the elegant Le Dôme Bar features a tango show.
InterContinental Buenos Aires
Located in the financial district, the hotel is within walking distance of San Telmo.