Pope Francis and the newly crowned Queen Maxima of the Netherlands wouldn’t, on the face of it, appear to have much in common, except an inordinate amount of time in the spotlight of late – and the fact that both were born in Buenos Aires. The “Paris of South America” has long been admired for native sons and daughters as elegant and fascinating as their bona fide French counterparts. In truth, though, Buenos Aires is actually more akin to a Latin version of New York. Crisscrossed by avenues as broad as Broadway, anchored by a theatre district as neon-lit as Times Square and home to a hybrid Italian/Spanish/Jewish immigrant culture much like Manhattan’s, it is the continent’s unrivalled cosmopolitan capital.
Wedged between the Río de la Plata and Argentina’s fabled Pampas, Buenos Aires is home to the country’s economic, political and cultural elite. A century ago, when Argentina was one of the world’s wealthiest nations, its agriculture, commodities and trading barons created a capital that competed with New York itself as a magnet for European immigration. Decades of economic crises and political missteps have taken their toll on its regional importance, particularly in comparison to neighbouring Brazil. And as the current government leads the nation into another round of austerity, the city is tinged with intrigue and uncertainty. Allegations of illicit millions hidden by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in her family’s home province of Santa Cruz compete with reports of locals so desperate for dollars that they’re flocking to neighbouring Uruguay to drain its banks of their greenback reserves.
Despite this, Buenos Aires retains much of its gregarious nature. “We are a country of survivors,” declares Ximena Caminos over a lunch of empanadas and beef asado at the Faena Hotel, named after her personal and professional partner, the fashion designer turned property mogul Alan Faena. And Caminos ought to know. A decade ago, during Argentina’s last economic boom, Faena converted a series of abandoned mills into a $200m hotel/housing/arts complex. Now home to some of the city’s priciest apartments, Faena’s development is the heart of the Puerto Madero area, whose spotless streets, glass and steel office towers and waterfront restaurants are connected to the rest of Buenos Aires by Santiago Calatrava’s Puente de la Mujer bridge. Partially designed by Norman Foster, the complex has proven so successful that Faena is replicating the model in Miami.
Although this may represent the kind of globally branded “starchitecture” now prominent worldwide, Buenos Aires’s most cutting-edge newcomers are thoroughly home-grown. Take Fueguia 1833, the perfumery operated from an HQ-cum-laboratory in Palermo, the barrio of Spanish-style plazas and low-rise mansions that is the preferred haunt of bohemians, designers and artists. Launched in 2010 by former brand consultant Julian Bedel, Fueguia 1833 is inspired by Patagonia’s native herbs and botanicals. The entire range of mostly unisex scents can be explored at a jewel-like flagship store in the heart of the Recoleta district.
New money – particularly from the US and Brazil – is pouring into Palermo and Puerto Madero, snapping up vast new-build condos in the former, and luxury European-style flats in the latter. While Palermo has long rivalled Recoleta as Buenos Aires’s wealthiest barrio, Recoleta’s smaller size and belle époque architecture have helped it remain the city’s centre of chic. At its nexus is Avenida Alvear – a seven-block-long boulevard anchored by the 190-year-old La Recoleta Cemetery (Eva Perón’s final resting place) and Avenida 9 de Julio, the world’s widest avenue. The former avenue’s namesake hotel, Alvear Palace, opened in 1932 as the city’s answer to London’s Ritz or New York’s Plaza. Like its global counterparts, it still lures deep-pocketed foreigners – in town to shop for quality textiles, or passing through en route to wineries in Mendoza, fly-fishing trips in Patagonia or adventurous exploits around Iguazu Falls.
The Alvear has retained its cultural and civic prominence, but newer hotels have elegantly ushered Recoleta into the 21st century. The Four Seasons, for instance, is fresh from a £25m makeover that includes a new late-night cocktail lounge, Pony Line. And the nearby Park Hyatt has 23 of its 165 guestrooms tucked into the neoclassical Palacio Duhau, which fronts the hotel’s terraced gardens and art-lined corridors. Both the formal Duhau Restaurante & Vinoteca and the more relaxed Gioia Restaurante offer seating amid the greenery, where businessmen and pencil-skirted socialites indulge in sotto voce chatter.
There is a similarly styled crowd at the Algodon Mansion, which opened in 2012 with 10 massive suites set in a restored private villa. The Algodon is Buenos Aires’s only Relais & Châteaux member and plays the part expertly, with parquet floors coolly contrasting with angular European furniture. The look is far more rustic – local lapacho-wood floors and doors and leather-lined walls – at Hub Porteño, which opened last year in a discreet town house just off Avenida Alvear. The hotel’s restaurant, Tarquino, is packed, thanks to its chef, El Bulli alumnus Dante Liporace, who deploys Adrià-inspired foams and froths on Tarquino’s meat-heavy menu.
Tarquino is one of a handful of restaurants giving a much-needed boost to the city’s staid Spanish-Italian culinary traditions. Just down the road is the French-Argentine architect Marcelo Joulia’s groovily decorated restaurant, Unik. Its chef, Mauro Colagreco, was the first Argentine to be awarded two Michelin stars, for Mirazur, his restaurant in Menton, Provence. Unik’s menu is heartier, with offerings such as Patagonian lamb with quinoa. Having now opened two restaurants in Shanghai, Colagreco is emerging as a truly global culinary talent.
Of course, Buenos Aires is a haven for carnivores and pasta-lovers. However, for more unexpected gastronomic experiences, it’s well worth investigating the city’s ascendant pop-up dining scene. The Clubhouse in Palermo, for instance, holds twice-monthly dinners showcasing the talents of Porteño chefs, including members of the influential young culinary group Gastronomía Argentina Joven (GAJO).
Palermo has also emerged as the centre of some of the city’s best, and mostly independent, boutiques. Textile producer Garza Lobos, for example, creates expertly cut women’s coats from finely spun Patagonian wools and cashmere, while the nearby concept store Pehache is a traditionally designed town house selling clothing and exquisite items for home and garden that are sourced throughout South America.
Buenos Aires’s theatre district, along Avenida Corrientes, rivals Broadway or the West End for quality, variety – and sheer quantity of neon lights. But with most productions performed in Spanish, an opera or ballet at the Teatro Colón would probably be a more universally appealing proposition. Set just beyond Avenida 9 de Julio’s iconic Obelisco, the theatre is itself a work of art – a mixed neoclassical confection completed in 1908 and recently given a $100m makeover. Along with major Argentine talents, the theatre has lately hosted maestros such as Gustavo Dudamel and Zubin Mehta.
Buenos Aires admittedly lacks major public visual-arts institutions to rival other world capitals, but a trio of private art museums is helping to fill the void. Works by Chagall, Dalí, Klimt and Turner form the core of the Rafael Viñoly-designed Museo Fortabat in Puerto Madero district, while the nearby Faena Arts Center presents exhibitions by cutting-edge global artists such as Cuban installation collective Los Carpinteros and contemporary German abstract painter Franz Ackermann. As for Latin American art, the 12-year-old Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba) – midway between Recoleta and the vast urban greenery of barrio Parque Palermo – was developed by property magnate Eduardo Costantini. His impressive collection includes works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Wifredo Lam and Antonio Berni. Aggressively angular, Malba’s box-like concrete structure looks like the work of a prestigious name. But local firm AFT Arquitectos won the design competition while the company was still virtually unknown – an apt example of Argentine ingenuity at its world-class best.