Tread carefully with tango in Buenos Aires

by Philippa Lyon

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.