What to See in Recoleta and Barrio Norte

A carved statue of a woman in front of a mausoleum.

Arguably, Recoleta cemetery is even more exclusive than the neighborhood. Photo © Kevin Jones, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Recoleta, where the line between vigorous excess and opulent eternity is thin, is one of Buenos Aires’s most touristed barrios. In everyday usage, it’s the area in and around its namesake cemetery, but the sprawling barrio is bounded by Montevideo, Avenida Córdoba, Avenida Coronel Díaz, Avenida General Las Heras, and the Belgrano railway. Recoleta also encompasses much of Barrio Norte, a residential area of vague boundaries that extends westward from Retiro and north into Palermo.

Map of Recoleto, Argentina and Barrio Norte

Recoleto and Barrio Norte

Once a bucolic outlier of the capital, Recoleta urbanized rapidly when upper-class porteños fled low-lying San Telmo after the 1870s yellow fever outbreaks. Flanking the cemetery are the Jesuit-built baroque Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Pilar (1732) and one of the city’s top cultural centers, all surrounded by green spaces, including Plaza Intendente Alvear and Plaza Francia.

In a former skating rink, the Palais de Glais houses the Palacio Nacionales de las Artes (Posadas 1725, tel. 011/4804-1163, noon–8 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. weekends, admission cost depends on the program), a museum with a steady calendar of artistic and historical exhibits, plus cultural and commercial events.

Four blocks north and a block west of the cemetery, architect Clorindo Testa’s Biblioteca Nacional (Agüero 2502, tel. 011/4806-4729, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. weekdays, noon–7 p.m. weekends) is a concrete monolith on the grounds of the former presidential palace; the last head of state to actually live there was Juan Domingo Perón, along with his wife Evita (whose ghost, legend says, roams the hallways). The website has a regularly updated events calendar.

Writer Ricardo Rojas (1882–1957), who showed greater respect for South America’s indigenous civilizations than any other Argentine literary figure, lived at the Casa Museo Ricardo Rojas (Charcas 2837, tel. 011/4824-4039, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. weekdays), and his house’s architecture communicates that respect. Admission includes guided tours conducted by motivated, congenial personnel.

Centro Cultural Ciudad de Buenos Aires

In the 1980s, architects Clorindo Testa, Jacques Bedel, and Luis Benedit turned the 18th-century Franciscan convent alongside the Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Pilar into a cultural center with multiple exhibition halls and an auditorium that’s one of the most important sites for late summer’s Festival Buenos Aires Tango. They added the Plaza del Pilar, a stylish arcade housing the upscale Buenos Aires Design shopping mall and a gaggle of sidewalk restaurants and cafés.

Interestingly enough, immediately after independence, General Manuel Belgrano established an art school on the site. Thereafter, though, it served as a beggars prison until Torcuato de Alvear cleaned it up in the 1880s; Italian architect Juan Buschiazzo turned the chapel into an auditorium and transformed adjacent walls and terraces into an Italianate style. Until its 1980s remodel, it served as a retirement home.

The Centro Cultural Ciudad de Buenos Aires (Junín 1930, tel. 011/4803-1040) is open 2–9 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.–9 p.m. weekends and holidays. Admission is free except for the Museo Participativo and for some film programs.

Museo Xul Solar

Despite his blindness, Jorge Luis Borges left vivid descriptions of paintings by Alejandro Schulz Solari, better known as Xul Solar. Obsessed with architecture and the occult, Xul Solar (1897–1963) produced vivid abstract oils and watercolors. This museum displays an assortment of his work, mostly smallish watercolors, in utilitarian surroundings with plasterboard walls and dim light that contrast with the painter’s intense colors. It also shows personal effects, such as postcards directed to famous writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Museo Xul Solar (Laprida 1212, tel. 011/4821-5378) is open noon–7:30 p.m. Tuesday–Friday and noon–7 p.m. Saturday; it’s closed in January. Admission is US$2.50. Guided tours take place at 4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Cementerio de la Recoleta

For the living and dead alike, Recoleta is Buenos Aires’s prestige address. Its roster of cadavers represents wealth and power as surely as the residents of its Francophile mansions and luxury apartment towers hoard their assets in overseas bank accounts. Arguably, the cemetery is even more exclusive than the neighborhood—enough cash can buy an impressive residence, but not a surname such as Alvear, Anchorena, Mitre, Pueyrredón, or Sarmiento.

Seen from the air, the cemetery seems exactly what it is—an orderly necropolis of narrow alleyways lined by ornate mausoleums and crypts that mimic the architecture of BA’s belle epoque. Crisscrossed by diagonals but with little greenery, it’s a densely depopulated area that receives hordes of Argentine and foreign tourists.

Nearly everyone visits the crypt of Eva Perón, who overcame her humble origins with a relentless ambition that brought her to the pinnacle of political power with her husband, General and President Juan Perón, before her death from cancer in 1952. Even Juan Perón, who lived until 1974 but spent most of his post-Evita years in exile, failed to qualify for Recoleta; he now reposes at his former country house at San Vicente.

There were other ways into Recoleta, though. One improbable resident is boxer Luis Angel Firpo (1894–1960), the “wild bull of the Pampas,” who nearly defeated Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight championship in 1923. Firpo, though, had pull—thanks to sponsor Félix Bunge, a powerful landowner whose family owns some of the cemetery’s most ornate constructions.

Endless economic crises have had an impact on one of the world’s grandest graveyards, as once-moneyed families can no longer afford the maintenance of their mausoleums, but municipal authorities are making a concerted effort to restore them.

The Cementerio de la Recoleta (Junín 1790, tel. 011/4803-1594, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, free admission) is the site for many guided on-demand tours through travel agencies; the municipal tourist office sponsors occasional free weekend tours.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Argentina’s traditional fine arts museum mixes works by European artists such as El Greco, Goya, Klee, Picasso, Renoir, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh with their Argentine counterparts, including Antonio Berni, Cándido López, Raquel Forner, Benito Quinquela Martín, Prilidiano Pueyrredón, and Lino Spilimbergo.

In total it houses about 11,000 oils, watercolors, sketches, engravings, tapestries, and sculptures. Among the most intriguing are López’s detailed oils, which relate the history of the Paraguayan war (1864–1870)—even though the artist lost his right arm to a grenade.

Oddly enough, architect Julio Dormald designed the 1870s building as a pump house and filter plant for the city waterworks; renowned architect Alejandro Bustillo adapted it to its current purpose in the early 1930s.

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Avenida del Libertador 1473, tel. 011/4803-0802, free) is open 12:30– 8:30 p.m. Tuesday–Friday; weekend hours start at 9:30 a.m. Guided tours take place Tuesday– Friday at 4 and 6 p.m., and weekends at 5 and 6 p.m.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

Maps of Argentina

Looking for more printable maps of Argentina?
All Argentina Maps →

Leave a Reply