The Retiro neighbourhood has long been a gateway to the Argentine capital, once the arrival point for millions of European migrants and today home to the biggest rail terminal in Buenos Aires.
Its history harks back to colonial times, when a bullring entertained crowds and General José de San Martín—the Liberator—trained his troops here for revolutionary war with Spain. More recently, it has had a gritty, transient air, but that too is lifting. New cafés, boutiques and galleries are springing up in the old station district, transforming it into an emerging cultural quarter.
A great start is with café con leche at The Shelter. Set opposite the concrete arches of a Neo-Renaissance church, this café is refuge to unrepentant addicts of caffeine and flaking pastries. Try the medialunas, a buttery croissant and morning staple.
Get a feel for Retiro at Plaza San Martín. Tipa trees, whose candelabra branches reach to fantastic heights, grow here and shade a plaza that is ringed by belle-époque mansions like Palacio San Martín, which was built in 1909 for the ultra wealthy Anchorena family. The Edificio Kavanagh, once Latin America’s tallest edifice, is a modernist masterpiece.
The plaza is named for General José de San Martín, who freed Argentina from colonial rule in the 1810s. A heroic statue of the Liberator adorns the plaza. Elsewhere, a sweeping balcony has views of the domed railway terminal. Eight lanes of roaring traffic separate plaza from terminal, but run the gauntlet. Ongoing renovation is recapturing its original splendour.
The Sede Hotel de Inmigrantes, located on the waterside close to where gritty Retiro juts uncomfortably against the glossy Puerto Madero docklands, was built in 1911 as the entry point for immigrants arriving from Europe. Today, its repurposed dorms and washrooms host important art exhibitions.
El Establo, an agreeably timeworn steakhouse, celebrates Argentina’s modern-day blood sport, the barbecue. Locals start with hot chorizo before savouring rare cuts that are cooked over charcoals. Skip dessert for the nearby Harrods building– it’s long abandoned, but was the only foreign branch of Harrods ever to open.
Retiro has wonderful small museums. Adjacent to the train station, artist Carlos Regazzoni collects scrap metal from railyards to craft animals, airplanes and more at his sculpture park.
Calle Arroyo is a lovely sweep of Beaux-Arts mansions and deco facades, and a focus for regeneration. Among its new stores, Terrible Enfant is an innovative shoe designer. Nicolás Zaffora is a former monk turned tailor, whose Spartan studio receives clients. Drac Arte showcases Argentina’s masters and is at the centre of Retiro’s blossoming art district.
The Palacio Noel, a Neo-Baroque mansion, springs to life around dusk. Light and shadow fall across its walled gardens, which are full of fountains and niches. The Palacio houses a museum dedicated to colonial art, and its courtyards and cloisters are stuffed with rare artifacts and esoterica. At sundown, its halls play host to chamber music.
Retiro’s Italian heritage finds expression at Chiuso, an eatery facing Plaza San Martín. Its aged interior of polished wood and marble serves memorable pastas and seafood.
When the last commuter trains exit the terminal building, they leave a more relaxed Retiro, whose growing handful of nightspots includes Florería Atlántico, an underground bar whose cocktails reference Argentina’s immigrant cultures. BASA draws sophisticates. Gallery Nights sees Retiro’s art galleries open late with champagne and live music.
Insider’s Tip: At the Sede Hotel de Inmigrantes, an escalator climbs to a brand-new vantage point. It has views across marshland to the River Plate, the world’s widest river.