Like the mythical phoenix, Buenos Aires rises from the ashes time and again.
Founded by Spanish explorers, Argentina’s capital rose to be one of the world’s richest cities by the early 20th century, only for incendiary cycles of boom and bust and democracy and dictatorship to singe its spreading wings.
This city’s great financial meltdowns, its political upheavals and coups and counter-coups are legendary, and these attractions are some of the best ways to see that history.
Basílica de Santo Domingo
Look up at the left belfry of this basilica to see the imprint of cannonballs fired by British invaders in the 1800s. Resistance by local militias gave succor to General José de San Martín, the Liberator, who soon waged revolution against Spain.
Palacio de Aguas Corrientes
Of all the great edifices raised during this city’s 1880 to 1930 Golden Age, the waterworks building stands out for its eclecticism. It covers an entire city block and its exuberant design has everything from Gothic to tropical elements. Inside, a small museum displays toilet furniture going back over a century.
This literary café opened in 1928 at a time when intellectualism and café culture flourished in Buenos Aires. It was favored by existentialist writer Ernesto Sabato, who set his greatest novel here, and today it’s agreeably forlorn. Its ceiling fans whine. Its unimpressed waiters shuffle and sigh.
Eva Perón’s Tomb
Evita urged the poor towards revolution in the 1940s before her tragic death at 33 years old. A plaque on her marbled tomb at the Recoleta Cemetery reads: “I will return and I will be millions!”
Teatro San Martín
Social-democratic values made inroads in 1960s Argentina and find expression at state-funded Teatro San Martín, a modernist splendor that stands stark amidst the gaudiness of the Avenida Corrientes theatre district. It hosts wonderful performances by the state ballet company.
Pass an afternoon wandering San Telmo, once the city’s colonial heart and the cradle of tango. It has crumbling cobbled streets, Spanish churches and old market squares. A highlight is El Zanjón, a subterranean museum which conserves the ruins of an early Spanish settlement. Musical shows at El Querandí trace tango’s history.
La Cantina Pierino
Celebrated composer Astor Piazzolla reinvented tango in the 1970s when he infused the genre with jazz and classical influences. This Italian eatery in the Abasto neighborhood, run by a family of Italian immigrants since 1909, was his favorite haunt.
Plaza de Mayo
The Casada Rosada, the presidential palace, dominates the central plaza. Evita spoke from its balcony when wooing the masses. President Fernando de la Rúa fled its rooftop by helicopter in 2001 as Argentina imploded under a mountain of foreign debt and police fired on protestors.
Elsewhere in the Plaza, Pope Francis, once Archbishop of Buenos Aires, riled against corruption from the pulpit of the city’s columned cathedral. Murals of white headscarves paint the square and symbolize the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, mothers of the victims of Argentina’s 1970s Dirty War.
Convento de San Ramón Nonato
The Plaza can be dizzying, but this Spanish convent offers nearby sanctuary. It’s a reminder that colonialism fed off the saints as much as the sword, and has a hidden courtyard with dining amidst mature palm trees and araucarias.
Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos Ex-ESMA
The estimated 30,000 victims of the 1976-83 dictatorship—known as los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”)—are remembered at this important human-rights museum, which occupies a former naval college used by the military as a clandestine torture center. Its address of past horrors is helping Argentina to emerge from its darkest hour.