You don’t have to know the difference between a cornice and a cantilever to see that Buenos Aires is an architectural wonderland. In this melting-pot South American capital, no one style prevails – thanks to a mix of influences from the Old World, art-nouveau apartment buildings rise up beside Italian Renaissance-style palaces.
The experimentation began when Argentina declared independence from Spain in 1816. Proud porteños rejected Spanish culture, which explains the city’s relative dearth of colonial architecture except for a few examples like the Cabildo on Plaza de Mayo. Defiant architects adapted aesthetics from elsewhere in Europe – Italy, France and ancient Greece – to build the city’s most magnificent structures. Teatro Colón was influenced by German, French and Italian Renaissance styles, while Mario Palanti borrowed both thematic and structural inspiration from his native Italy to build Palacio Barolo.
The result of this haphazard design scheme is a thoroughly cosmopolitan, indigenous, nationalist architecture. The grandest stretch of jaw-dropping buildings, built between 1880 and 1930, runs along Av de Mayo. Start at Palacio del Congreso – don’t miss the fabulous, decaying El Molino on the corner – and meander towards Plaza de Mayo.
Must-see antique structures
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Hundreds of thousands of glazed terracotta tiles adorn the exterior of this awe-inspiring building. Opened in 1894, the fairytale-like Palacio de Las Aguas Corrientes (Palace of Running Water) was home to 12 giant tanks that distributed water to the city. Now the building has a small museum exhibiting antique faucets and urinals.
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In 1919, Italian cotton tycoon Luis Barolo commissioned architect Mario Palanti to build a tribute to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The stunning neo-Gothic Palacio Barolo rises 100m and 22 floors – symbolizing the masterpiece’s 100 songs, composed of 22 verses each – and the floors of the ground level (‘Hell’) are inlaid with flame-like designs. The next 14 floors, now office space, represent ‘Purgatory,’ while the uppermost floors and tower, offering spectacular views over the city, are ‘Paradise.’
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A feisty Irishwoman funded the construction of this handsome 120m art-deco apartment building, which was the tallest skyscraper in Latin America at the time of its construction in 1935. A local rumour claims that the heiress, vengeful towards another aristocratic family for scorning her daughter, built the structure that high to block light from entering the basilica where her rivals attended Mass every Sunday.
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The bustling barrios of Abasto and Once, while a little dodgy at night, are part of the ‘real’ Buenos Aires that’s largely unaffected by the tourist trade. Walk west from Congreso along Av Corrientes, or take a quick taxi or Subte ride, to reach this cultural melting pot and commercial district crammed with colorful fabric shops and family-run Jewish and Peruvian eateries. The neighborhood’s centerpiece is the historic Mercado de Abasto, previously a massive fresh produce market and now a beautifully restored structure that houses the shopping mall called simply El Abasto.
Coolest contemporary design
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Puerto Madero is femme-friendly: all the streets in the neighbourhood are named after famous ladies, and the striking Puente de la Mujer (Bridge of the Woman) is the barrio’s signature monument. Unveiled in 2001, the stunningly contemporary gleaming-white structure was designed by acclaimed Spanish architect Santiago Calatreva and represents – what else? – a couple dancing the tango
Image by Javier Kohen
This gargantuan solar-powered flower sculpture is the inspired creation of architect Eduardo Catalano, who designed and funded the project in 2002. Check out the stunning Floralis Genérica at dawn, when its enormous metallic petals open to the sun, or at dusk, when the flower delicately closes for the night.
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Don’t despair if you’re not staying at the otherworldly Philippe Starck–designed Faena Hotel + Universe (complete with ‘personal experience managers,’ a gentlemen’s club–style bar, a cabaret theater and a luxe pool bar). You can still spend a stack of pesos at El Bistro. Design geeks and foodies alike are entranced by this blindingly white space punctuated with blood-red accents and whimsical plaster unicorns. The flamboyant decor nearly distracts dinner guests from the exquisite degustación (tasting) menus.
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How could you not be curious about a man who created his own language and claimed to live in his own private time zone? This museum exhibits the unusual artwork and inventions of the avant-garde painter, musician, writer and mathematician Alejandro Xul Solar (1887–1963). A friend of Borges, he dabbled in fields as diverse as astrology and philosophy.