Passion and invention dance cheek to cheek in the Paris of South America.
If you want to cause a stir at Frank’s Bar, a speakeasy in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood of Buenos Aires, order a Sazerac. Announcing your good taste to the room, the suspendered bartender will concoct his variation on the classic cocktail, a one-of-a-kind creation delivered with flair. Which, it turns out, also aptly describes Argentina’s capital, a city of grand boulevards and continental architecture on the Atlantic that feels like a cross between Paris and New York. It’s home to 3 million porteños or “people of the port,” descendants of European immigrants who have proudly originated a culture all their own.
Their innovations are everywhere. There’s malbec, a varietal that was nearly wiped out by a grapevine pest in Europe soon after a French farmer brought it to Argentina in 1853. The country’s winemakers have since made it famous worldwide. There’s the “new Argentine” restaurant movement in which chefs interpret traditional regional dishes as haute cuisine. And there are the novel works at the city’s Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, such as the cartoonish Exclusión, a Pablo Suárez sculpture of a wide-eyed man clinging to the outside of a train.
Across town lies La Boca, one of the city’s 48 neighborhoods, settled in the mid-1800s by so many working-class Genoese that in 1882 the district tried to secede. (It failed.) The area is decorated with brightly colored corrugated metal, a look created by longshoremen using leftover paint from the docks. It’s where you’ll find one of the world’s top soccer clubs, Boca Juniors, whose fans sport blue and yellow—colors borrowed in 1907 from the flag of a Swedish freighter.
The neighborhood is also the birthplace of the tango, a dance still performed in the street and in coffee shops. People crowd the tables for the dinner show at Café de los Angelitos in the Balvanera neighborhood, where a dancer in heels and a very long train executes lightning-quick kicks and twists.
Over in the Montserrat district at the Pink House, the president’s mansion, visitors meet another national icon, the gaucho, in a painting by Ricardo Carpani. Everything about these cowboys of the plains holds mythic significance, down to their ritual of sharing gourds of yerba maté tea. As for the building’s color, “To keep out humidity, colonists painted houses with whitewash and cattle fat, which had blood in it,” explains guide Roberto Pappa. “Today we don’t use fat, but the color is tradition.” As is singing at the balcony from which first lady Eva Perón addressed the throngs and Madonna sang “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” in Evita.
Those who do wish to weep head to Perón’s tomb in Recoleta Cemetery, a maze of vaults bearing surnames of immigrants from all over Europe. On weekends, locals gather in the nearby park for live music. It might be a scene from anywhere—if it weren’t for the shared yerba maté gourds. No matter what they do, the Buenos Aires porteños give it a special twist all their own.
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Photography by Y. Levy/Alamy (cups); Bernardo Galmarini/Alamy (pink house)
This article was first published in March 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.