Tread carefully with tango in Buenos Aires

By Philippa Lyon, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Buenos Aires.

Overall rating:4.3 out of 5 (based on 3 votes)
Enjoyable
4.333335
4.3
Useful
4
4.0
Inspirational
4.333335
4.3
Recommended for:
Activity, Cultural, Nightlife, Mid-range

Tango is on the minds and feet of most visitors to Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital – but finding a good show is harder than it should be. Follow these steps, and you won't be disappointed

The tango is a genuine Argentine tradition, dating back to the 19th century. It just happens to exude passion, sex and tragedy – so we cooler Europeans tend to go a bit wobbly in its presence. But seeing a good tango show in Buenos Aires is much harder than you would imagine. There are a great number of them… and most are disappointing.

One of the most dispiriting sights is that of tourists being herded to long tables in a huge show venue, to await poor food, impersonal service and an uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s miserable.  There is no doubt that the dancers are brilliant, but it’s all over-dramatised with sequins and heavy make-up. Its passion – which, let’s face it, should be intimate – is utterly shattered by the environment of conveyer-belt entertainment.

This is not the place to see tango. Avoid these big tourist shows at all costs, please. At San Telmo market on a Sunday, there is live tango everywhere – and it is better, more old-fashioned, less flashy and more hypnotic. San Telmo is to Buenos Aires what Portobello is to London – its oldest neighbourhood, lying to the north of the city. Head to Plaza Dorrego in particular, to browse the market and watch street tango. Also visit La Boca – a barrio famous for its brightly coloured metal houses. Here, too, you will find tango on the vibrant streets. (You will probably be warned that La Boca is dangerous; just be aware of your camera/mobile phone and so forth, travel light and be sensible.)

Then there is Café Tortoni (www.cafetortoni.com.ar) on Avenida de Mayo – a legendary coffee house with tango shows. Tango or no tango, this place is undoubtedly worth a visit. There’s an infectious, old-world European atmosphere here. It is at once luxurious, decadent and relaxed. The only disappointment is that the clientele are in jeans and T-shirts – but watch the flurry of waiters instead, and you’ll come over all EM Forster. The tango is watched in a smaller room to the side of the main café, and the shows are, well, less showy.

There are two other places to go, where the tango will make you feel like you want to feel – slightly voyeuristic, entirely transfixed and hopelessly romantic. The first is El Viejo Almacen (www.viejoalmacen.com), a small and traditional tango house in San Telmo on the corner of Balcarce and Independencia. It was founded in 1969, though the building that houses it was built long before tango was invented. Go just for the show (you can get a much better dinner elsewhere in Buenos Aires – see below) and ask for balcony seats. 

Even smaller than El Viejo is Bar Sur (www.bar-sur.com.ar). It is also in San Telmo, on the corner of Estados Unidos and Balcarce. Again, come just for drinks and the show. In both of these dark locations, you will hear fantastic tango musicians and singers, as well as watch an impressive calibre of dancer. Both Bar Sur and El Viejo charge tourist prices (and face criticism from travellers for doing so) but there is no doubt that they offer a glimpse of spine-tingling tango that you simply don’t see in Esquina Carlos Gardel or El Querandi – the two biggest, glitziest tourist shows in town. 

If your feet know enough to take the floor, all these locations will offer you the chance to dance – either with your other half, or with one of the professional dancers.  

Where to stay

Palermo, the most chic and beautiful of BA's neighbourhoods, now has a number of boutique hotels to choose from. I stayed in Costa Petit Hotel, a tiny but very beautiful place with a small swimming pool. I've also heard excellent reports about Home Hotel and Coppola's Jardin Escondido. For something cheaper, try the Krista Hotel for $90 a night; from a quick glance around, it looked lovely.  Avoid the large chain hotels in the centre of Buenos Aires – you will be disappointed. 

Where to eat

Restaurants abound in Palermo. My favourite was Cluny (El Salvador 4618) – but to be honest, this is a neighbourhood where you can wander and discover. There are lots of beautiful cafés with chairs on the pavement, so you can follow your nose here without going too far wrong.

If you want to have dinner in San Telmo, rather than journeying to another barrio, try La Brigada (Estados Unidos 465) for a fabulous steak. This is a good parrilla (steak house) and it is very popular – so book ahead if you can. If you're vegetarian, perhaps avoid it... but then again, if you're vegetarian, perhaps avoid Argentina.

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More information on Tread carefully with tango in Buenos Aires:

Author:
Philippa Lyon
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
4.333335
Average: 4.3 (3 votes)
Total views:
363
First uploaded:
20 October 2009
Last updated:
3 years 37 weeks 2 days 11 hours 45 min 2 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Activity, Cultural, Nightlife
Budget level:
Mid-range
Free tags / Keywords:
city, dance, tango, shows

Philippa recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Home Hotel
N/A
2. Hotel Krista
£93
N/A
3. Costa Petit Hotel
N/A
4. Jardin Escondido
N/A

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Community comments (7)

Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I really like this guide, I have read another on the site focusing on Tango in Buenos Aires, but I found that one too narrow. It is difficult when writing a themed guide to remember to include other kinds of recommendations, I am glad that you included the restaurant and hotel recommendations too. I also like the fact that you focus on the less touristy shows. When I lived in Spain I never went to a flamenco show cause I was warned that they were all too touristy. It would have been good to have a similar guide for Granada.

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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Thanks for amending this, Philippa. I've polished it a tiny bit and given it a higher mark for usefulness – now that you have added hotel and restaurant information. It would still be useful to have a couple of prices for the tango shows, just so we can get a rough idea of how much the evening might cost. Is there a way of obtaining those in due course?

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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I don't agree totally with Philippa's views on tango shows as I found Gala Tango an excellent show in an intimate setting, even though it is clearly aimed at the tourist market (read my review).

However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this review and it kept me hooked right to the end. I like Philippa's style of writing and look forward to reading more of her reviews in the future.

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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Philippa, I really like the idea behind this (a hands-on insider's guide to authentic tango shows) – and you've sold it well in your playful headline and summary. I haven't given it the highest score, though, because it is a bit thin. It's also short, so there is room for growth along the following lines. Firstly, it would really benefit from one or two hotel recommendations with colourful descriptions – and a more user-friendly feel throughout. Where exactly is San Telmo market (address or rough directions) and please explain more about La Boca. Can we have an address for Cafe Tortoni, as you give for other venues? You say there are "much better" places to have dinner in Buenos Aires. That is almost cruel, unless you tell us where (two or three places, say, with addresses, phone numbers and a description of the atmosphere and cuisine). For the uninitiated, what are Esquira Carlos Gardel and El Querandi? Generally, it would be good to pick out the names of venues and places of interest in bold, and to provide prices. What are the "tourist prices" you mention – and how do they compare to more genuine tango places?

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Thanks Andrew - v useful feedback. I'm a newcomer to the site, so how do you want me to add in more info??
Let me know and I'll update it with added info this week!
Best,
Philippa

Thanks Philippa; you should be able to access your guide again now, so just make the changes you want and resubmit it to the editors, as you did before. I'll look out for it. It would help if you also posted a reply to this comment of mine, alerting us to the fact that you have amended the guide.

I have updated! Hopefully it's a bit better now....