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The Palacio de Aguas Corrientes

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An intricately detailed, 19th century building spanning the width and length of a block in Balvanera, the Palace of Running Water must be the world’s most impressive clean water pumping facility. I can’t imagine it even has a competitor.

Palacio-de-Aguas-Corrientes

At the time of its construction, Buenos Aires was the only city in Latin America with clean running water, and the jaw-dropping palace was intended as a celebration of the city’s surging wealth modernity. Who cares if it’s just a shell for twelve massive water tanks? Why shouldn’t a shell be beautiful?

They went all out. The French Renaissance style building boasts over 300,000 multi-colored bricks and terracotta tiles, and occupies an entire city block. The rich ornamentation includes columns, turrets, mosaics and sculptures of flowers, fruits, and shields which represent the fourteen Argentine provinces. Almost everything was produced in Europe. The tin roof hails from France, the bricks from Belgium and the gorgeous terracotta tiles were elaborated by London’s Royal Daulton ceramics maker.

The offices of Argentina’s water company are today found inside the building, along with a courtyard and the old tanks. You can take a tour of the premises and visit a small Museum of Water, on weekday mornings.

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Riobamba 750
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May 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm Comment (1)

The MALBA – Museum of Latin American Art

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“Well, this sucks”. We had just arrived in Mataderos, hoping to partake in the fun of its Sunday fair, but rain had forced its cancellation. Moping over a pitcher of Quilmes, we mulled over our options. “We’re on the other side of the city, but how about we catch a bus and go to the MALBA?”

Malba

You don’t really realize how big Buenos Aires is until you take a bus from Mataderos to Palermo. That mother took two hours. But it was an entertaining ride and, by the time we arrived at the MALBA, the sun had come out and was gleaming off the magnificent building. Designed by young Argentine architects from Córdoba and financed with private funds, the MALBA opened its doors in 2001.

Even if there hadn’t been any art inside the MALBA, it would have been fun to wander around. But there was plenty of art. The permanent Constantini collection is comprehensive; it seemed like every major Latin American artist of the last couple centuries was represented. I’m no expert in the field, but recognized many of the names: Frida Kahlo, Xul Solar, Fernando Botero, Diego Rivera. The collection was laid out chronologically, and a couple interesting temporary exhibits rounded things out. The size of the museum was perfect; small enough to see comfortably in an hour.

We finished our afternoon on the terrace of the museum’s cafe. By now, there wasn’t a cloud left in the sky, and the canceled Feria de Mataderos and our marathon bus ride seemed like distant memories. Amazing how a good museum can so quickly take your mind off any troubles. MALBA is one of the few must-see museums in Buenos Aires.

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April 30, 2011 at 10:18 pm Comments (3)

The National History Museum & Lezama Park

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The biggest park in San Telmo is Lezama, a giant green hill which fills up on weekends with sun-bathers, mate drinkers and chess players, along with some market stands. The park also is home to the Museo Histórico Nacional.

Pedro De Mendoza

Eager to deepen our understanding of Argentine history, we visited the museum on one of our first days in Buenos Aires. It’s small. We were done in less than 20 minutes and didn’t learn much about Argentina’s history. I was expecting a primer in the country’s story, exhibits about the key points in Argentina’s development, but it was nothing like that.

That’s not to say it was a disappointment. At one peso, the museum is basically free and boasts some extraordinary pieces of art, including giant canvasses of Argentina’s revolutionary army, and portraits of its presidents. The collection of artwork and objects might resonate more with Argentinians already familiar with the stories, than with foreigners.

Parque Lezama itself is awash in history. It’s here that Pedro de Mendoza founded the city, way back in 1536, and the explorer is honored in the park with an impressive monument. Today, Lezama is a typically porteño mix of beauty and destitution. The colorful amphitheater on the park’s northern side serves mainly as a clubhouse/bathroom/shelter for homeless people, and a lovely path lined with statues is kept strictly protected bars.

Sunny weekends are the time to visit Lezama. Bring a blanket, your matecito, and (if you really want to emulate porteños) somebody to make out with, and enjoy one of the coolest chill-out spots in the city.

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April 26, 2011 at 9:52 pm Comments (0)

Latin American Art in the Museo Isaac Fernández Blanco

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Around the corner from the ostentatious Palacio Paz is the much more refined Palacio Noël, home to the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernández Blanco. The palace would be worth seeing in its own right, but together with the museum, it’s one of Buenos Aires’ cultural highlights.

Museo Isaac Fernandez Blanco

Isaac Fernández Blanco was an engineer who, finding himself the beneficiary of a vast inheritance, went on a whirlwind shopping spree of the continent’s colonial-period art. From the outset, Blanco wished his collection to publicly accessible, so he opened up his house in 1921, calling it the Museum of Colonial Art. His daughter was the museum’s first guide.

In 1947, fifteen years after his death, Blanco’s museum was moved into the Palacio Noël. Designed and built in 1920 by architect Martín Noël as a private residence for himself and his brother, the city’s mayor at the time, the neo-colonial palace was a natural fit for Blanco’s collection.

Visiting the museum is an utter joy. You could do nothing more than hang out in the tranquil Andalusian patio, with its fountains, benches and trees, and leave satisfied. But then you’d miss an incredible collection of art from the colonial periods of Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. The museum is small, but with three floors and plentiful information about the exhibits, a comprehensive visit could easily consume a couple hours. Religious paintings from Cuzco, a room packed with colonial-era dolls, ivory figures, intricately-carved wooden furniture, a refurbished kitchen and costumes and clothing are just some of the pieces on display. Everything is tastefully lit and the palatial setting generates the perfect atmosphere.

Regardless of your level of interest in antique Latin American art, you won’t be disappointed in the museum. Entry costs just one peso, and it’s hard to imagine better value for that kind of pocket change.

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April 23, 2011 at 10:02 pm Comments (4)

The National Museum of Fine Arts

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We confidently strode up the stairs of an impressive neoclassical building, convinced that it was the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Passing between the massive gray Doric columns, a guard brusquely informed us that we were actually at the University’s Law School. He shoved us off toward a nearby clump of dark red clay, which had been been molded into the form of a building.

Museu-Nacional-de-Bellas-Art.

In this neighborhood of refined elegance, the museum definitely stands out. It was built in 1870 as a drainage pumping station, and converted for use as a museum in 1933. The building’s age is evident; inside, paint is peeling off the walls and the air is impregnated with the unmistakable atmosphere of slow decay. Exhibits were poorly lit, trash was strewn carelessly about the floor, and the visitors, laughing loudly and using cell phones, weren’t treating the place with any respect. Overall, it was a far cry from what we expected of the country’s premier fine arts museum.

Still, the museum holds an astounding collection, which we spent a couple hours taking in. The first floor features masters from all over the world, including Cezanne, Rembrandt, Guaguin, Van Gogh and Monet. But we most enjoyed the upper floor, which serves as an excellent primer to the history of Argentine art. There was a healthy blend of the classic and modern, featuring artists mostly unknown outside of the continent. We loved Guillermo Kutica’s mattresses made of maps, and were puzzled by the mystical, post-modern works of Xul Solar.

By the end of our visit, any complaints we’d had about the building had faded from memory. It helped that entrance to the museum is completely free, making it difficult to gripe at all. Still, once the city has a little extra cash on-hand, another round of refurbishment for this otherwise excellent museum might be in order.

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April 15, 2011 at 10:23 pm Comment (1)

The Museo Evita

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Just around the corner from Palermo’s Botanical Garden, the Evita Museum welcomes visitors with a big, toothy smile. We had been skeptical, but the quality of both the exhibits and the mansion won us over. The Museo Evita is really cool.

Don't Cry for me Argenina

Perhaps my initial skepticism was due to Andrew Lloyd Webber and company. When I think of Evita, the image that springs to mind is Madonna squealing discordantly to “her people” from the Casa Rosada’s balcony. I unconsciously associate Evita with over-the-top histrionics, and just assumed the museum would be as tasteless as the film.

But of course, María Eva Duarte Peron’s story is fascinating and, as one of history’s most important female political figures, she’s well deserving of a museum. The moment we entered the three-story Italian Renaissance mansion, I knew it would be a good experience. Evita purchased the house in 1948 as a part of her Social Aid Foundation, using it as a temporary home for poor women to “shelter those in need and those who have no home… for as long as necessary until work and a home can be found…”

In July 2002, exactly fifty years after Evita’s death, the museum opened to the public, and was an instant success. The exhibits are lovingly presented, and visitors learn about Eva’s life from her humble beginnings in Junín, through her rise to power, and her unfortunately early death. It’s almost entirely propaganda: you’re not going to find anything inside the museum about the darker sides of Juan and Evita’s rule. You can marvel over her fabulous dresses, but the very serious allegations of the couple’s fascist tendencies are politely left to the side.

But whatever. This is a place to remember and appreciate Evita’s positive deeds. You can get a sober analysis of history from books. And if you do happen to have a book with which you’d like to spend some time, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better place to do so than the museum’s cafe. With a gorgeous patio accessible from the street, you don’t even have to pay entrance to enjoy it.

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April 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm Comment (1)

The Carlos Gardel Museum

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After our great experience at El Querandí, we were all about tango. So the next day we decided to visit the Carlos Gardel Museum in Abasto. We showed up at the perfect time: a free tango class was just getting underway in the foyer of the museum. As we lumbered into the middle of the group, grinning from ear to ear and looking for pretty ladies, shrieks of terror echoed through the hall.

Carlos Gardel

Carlos Gardel is the indisputable king of tango, and his face can be found everywhere in Buenos Aires, from street art and advertising, to posters in restaurants. Gardel was born in Tolouse, France in 1890, but his mother immigrated to Argentina when he was three. As a muchacho, he studied music and worked in a theater, finding success in his twenties as part of a singing duo with José Razzano. In the 1920s, Gardel took a tour around the world, and caused a sensation in cities from New York to Barcelona. Razzano would eventually become his manager.

Gardel was blessed with a rich, deep voice, as well as a gift for songwriting; he wrote the music to most of his tangos. And because he was so handsome, he became a popular actor in Argentine cinema, like a turn-of-the-century Will Smith. His last film was Tango Bar, wrapped just before his untimely death at the age of 45, when he perished in a plane crash in Colombia. The decades since his death have only seen him grow in popularity, though. How beloved does he continue to be? Well, this out-of-focus video of one his most famous songs has over a million views on YouTube.

The Museo Carlos Gardel occupies the house he bought for his mother, in his childhood neighborhood of Abastos, and provides a good overview to the singer’s life with a lot of memorabilia from his career. Not very large, you can get through it in a half hour, and it costs just a peso. We zipped through the exhibits extra-quick, because we were eager to join in the free tango course.

For two hours, we practiced the basics in the museum’s shaded walkway. Amazingly, there were more guys than girls in the class, so Jürgen and I had to share a partner: cheers to the game Chilean girl whose feet we made a bloody, bruised mess of. By the end of the session, we were both able to do the basic steps. Money.

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March 14, 2011 at 11:40 pm Comments (4)

The Museum of Modern Art

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Occupying an old tobacco factory on Avendia San Juan, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires (MAMBA) is an awesome museum with a bright future ahead of it.

Modern Art Museum Buenos Aires

The museum moved to the Piccardo Cigarette Factory in 1986, but has spent the last five years closed for renovations. In late 2010, it partially re-opened to the public, with a couple rooms full of exhibitions. When fully completed, the MAMBA will have over 7000 works and be the largest modern art museum in Latin America. But if you get there early, no bother: even in its reduced state, the MAMBA is worth seeing, especially considering the entry price of $1.

We’re always skeptical of modern art, often finding it pretentious and boring. Upon seeing be-scarved dandies nodding thoughtfully in front of a red square on the wall, I’m known to fly into a violent rage. Thankfully, the works on display in the MAMBA aren’t like that. Though they had just a couple rooms to work with, the museums curators have done a great job of selecting works that are interesting and aesthetically appealing.

The building itself is definitely worth the one-peso entry fee. Inside, a lovely steel staircase dominates the foyer, and the red brick factory truly stands out in the otherwise quaint, historic streets of San Telmo. In the building’s facade, the number 43 is mysteriously repeated over and over again. A little googling revealed that “43” was the name of the cigarette brand produced in the factory.

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February 24, 2011 at 7:33 pm Comment (1)

The Proa – La Boca’s Modern Art Museum

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For such a congested tourism hub, La Boca has a few wonderful places to escape the throngs. The surprisingly fun Wax Museum is one, and the excellent modern art museum Fundación Proa is another.

PROA

The Proa’s facade is that of a stately 19th-century Italian mansion, but the interior has been completely gutted and converted into a museum space, all clean walls and sharp angles. The contrast is startling, but works perfectly for the kind of art showcased by the foundation.

The Proa opened in 1996, and has three floors of temporary exhibitions. There is no permanent collection. The show we happened to see was called Of Bridges and Borders, featuring a number of works from international artists created specifically for the Proa, which focus on the real and imagined borders which separate us. Many of the pieces were fantastic, and we had a great time wandering around the spacious rooms.

On the top floor is a cafe with outdoor seating and a view over La Boca’s river promenade. We sat down with cold cans of Quilmes, and watched the masses below follow each other through the Caminito. The Proa, in comparison, was almost completely empty. Curious, how such a wonderful museum in a touristy zone like the Boca could be so completely overlooked.

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February 16, 2011 at 7:56 pm Comments (2)

Welcome to La Boca

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With its brightly painted houses and open air art, the southern immigrant neighborhood of La Boca is both enchanting and irritating. How much you enjoy yourself depends on when you go, and how allergic you are to kitsch.

Caminito

La Boca was settled by Italian immigrants, mainly from Genoa, and became a tourist draw in the 20th century when local artist Benito Quinquela Martin decided to bring life into his stagnating neighborhood by creating El Caminito: a tiny street which exhibits the best of La Boca: tango, brightly colored buildings and quirky art. Today, El Caminito is one of the most heavily visited places in Buenos Aires.

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We went on a Sunday afternoon, which proved to be a mistake. Thousands of tourists were stepping out from hundreds of buses shielding their eyes against the bright sun, crushing our feet, stumbling into our pictures, smacking us with their fanny packs, and crushing our souls. Their flashing cameras and mindless mirth brings out the worst in La Boca’s locals. Every couple meters someone tried to hustle us into a store, sell us some piece of junk, or wrangle us into a picture.

Museo de Cera

To escape the crowds, we ducked into the Wax Museum. We didn’t expect much, but were pleasantly surprised. Very small and cheap, and the exhibits did a decent job of introducing Argentine history and culture. Besides, one can never see enough wax anaconda dummies.

Republica de la Boca

In 1882, residents of the neighborhood seceded from Argentina and declared the República de la Boca; it was a short-lived rebellion, but the spirit of independence remains. La Boca associates itself heavily with Boca Juniors, the working man’s football team, whose blue & gold color scheme dominates the streets.

BaSAres

The main tourists sights in Boca center on the Vuelta de Rocha, where the Riachuelo river curves briefly inland. It’s an interesting geographical phenomenon, but the lack of movement in the water and the heavy industry all around lead to an often unpleasant smell. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, a walk along the river promenade can either be charming or nauseating.

Panaderia Boca

Once you get away from the Vuelta, La Boca shows its less friendly side. In the barrio’s east, painted houses more authentic than those of the Caminito abound, but crime is frequent. Poverty is widespread and, if you must pass through at night, you’ll want to get a taxi. Four different concerned locals warned Juergen to keep his camera hidden, during the hours we spent there.

La Boca is an interesting place, home to utter destitution and crass touristic exploitation, but also possessing a unique, working-class spirit which makes it one of the must-see areas of BA.

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February 16, 2011 at 12:32 am Comments (13)
The Palacio de Aguas Corrientes
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