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How to Pretend You’re in Buenos Aires at Home

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Sure, you can’t currently travel to Buenos Aires—but some of the city’s top cultural touchstones can still be celebrated from a distance.

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Sure, you can’t currently travel to Buenos Aires—but some of the city’s top cultural touchstones can still be celebrated from a distance.

Use this itinerary to recreate the best parts of a day in Argentina’s capital from your own home during quarantine.

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I first visited Buenos Aires as a junior in college during a semester abroad. During my six months in the city, I came to love its wide avenues, cobblestoned plazas, and art noveau architecture, plus its cozy cafés and abundant nightclubs, which look empty and unassuming in the day but become packed with stylish porteños (Buenos Aires residents) at night—and remain packed into the wee hours. 

Since then, I’ve returned twice to Argentina’s capital. Now, however, it will likely be a while before I visit again. (Argentina recently banned commercial flights to, from, or within the country until September 1.) Still, that doesn’t mean the city’s cultural touchstones can’t be celebrated from a distance. Here’s an itinerary for how to recreate the perfect day in Buenos Aires right at home.

A cortado—one shot of espresso with a dash of steamed milk—derives its name from the Spanish verb “cortar,” meaning “to cut.”

10 a.m. Tomar un café to ease into the day

Buen día! In Buenos Aires, mornings get off to a slow start. Rise late: Most shops don’t open until at least 10 a.m. (some don’t even stir before mid-day). Now, head out for some coffee at the neighborhood café—or in this case, your kitchen. 

Thanks to the large waves of European immigrants who arrived in Argentina during the 19th century (many of whom hailed from Italy), the country has a prominent coffee culture built around Italian standards—more specifically around espresso. This means that in Argentina, ordering un café will get you exactly what you’d get at a coffee bar in Italy: one shot of espresso served in a tiny cup (also called a café chico). However, if you want to act like a true porteño—even during quarantine—start your morning with a cortado, the most commonly ordered coffee in Buenos Aires. The drink’s name derives from the Spanish verb cortar (“to cut”); it’s essentially a macchiato, or a shot of espresso with a dash of steamed milk. (You can easily prepare your own cortado at home using a standard espresso machine or a stovetop coffeemaker.) 

For breakfast, which is often a light affair in Argentina, pair whatever coffee you’re drinking with a medialuna, an airy, crescent-shaped pastry similar to a croissant. Nuchas, an Argentine-style food truck in New York City, sells 16-, 32-, and 48-packs of frozen, handcrafted medialunas available for delivery across the United States. Once they arrive, all you have to do is place the frozen medialunas in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake them for 15 to 20 minutes (until they’re golden). 

Or, if you’ve been learning how to cook global dishes during quarantine, you can try your hand at preparing medialunas following the recipe in The Food of Argentina (Smith Street Books, 2018), which contains more than 80 recipes for the country’s classic home-style foods.

Buy now: The Food of Argentina, $35, amazon.com

11 a.m. Linger and learn the language—or llamar (call) a friend 

Unlike most global cities where commuters rush from point A to B with to-go coffee cups in hand, porteños prefer to linger over their coffee while flipping through a local newspaper or carrying out enthusiastic conversations with friends. In Buenos Aires, café and restaurant customers don’t come and go in a rush—most stay seated long enough to order at least two drinks. So, take 30 minutes or so to emulate that laid-back atmosphere. Is there someone you’ve been meaning to catch up with but haven’t yet called? Consider initiating a Facetime session and enjoy a long conversation. In more of a solo mood? Delve into a language learning podcast to expand your Spanish vocabulary. You might even learn some words in lunfardo, a popular Buenos Aires slang.

Barrios (neighborhoods) such as Palermo, Villa Crespo, San Telmo, and Colegiales are known for vibrant street art.

12 p.m. Take a street art tour

Buenos Aires is widely known as one of the world’s best cities for street art. Its avenues and alleyways are adorned with massive murals, as well as miniature stencils, made by international and local artists. Throughout the city’s distinctive barrios (neighborhoods), such as Palermo, Villa Crespo, San Telmo, and Colegiales, these urban artworks convey everything from lighthearted scenes to political messages.

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Normally, nonprofit urban arts organization Graffiti Mundo runs daily walking and bicycle tours that focus on how the city’s history connects to its street art movement. While you can’t explore the streets of Buenos Aires IRL right now, you can check out a number of the murals you’d see on a Graffiti Mundo tour through Google Arts & Culture’s virtual exhibits, which are available online for free.

The name “empanada” comes from the Spanish term “empanar,” meaning “to wrap in bread.”

1:30 p.m. Devour an empanada (or a few)

Congratulations—it’s officially afternoon snacking hour! In Argentina, this means it’s time to eat empanadas, those traditional handheld pastry pockets filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables, and then baked or fried. (The name comes from the Spanish word empanar, meaning “to wrap in bread.”) In Argentina, every empanada flavor has a characteristic repulgue (fold) which distinguishes flavors such as carne (beef),  jamón y queso (ham and cheese), queso y cebolla (cheese and onion), humita (corn), and caprese (tomato, cheese, and basil), among others. 

Goldbelly, an online delivery service that ships regional foods from restaurants to households within the United States, sells 12-packs of Argentine-style empanadas from Nuchas. You can order traditional flavors such as Argentine Ground Beef (savory ground beef with potatoes, red peppers, green olives, and red pepper flakes in a classic dough) or experiment with inventive combinations such as Vegan Shiitake Curry (curried shiitake mushrooms, peppers, potatoes, and zucchini in turmeric dough). When it’s time to eat, remember: For porteños, one or two empanadas is generally considered a snack, while more than three makes a meal. 

Buy now: Nuchas Empanadas (12-Pack), $89, goldbelly.com

El Ateneo Grand Splendid is housed in a palatial 1919 theater in the upscale Barrio Norte.

3 p.m. Hit the books

Buenos Aires, which raised Jorge Luis Borges and educated Julio Cortázar, has more bookstores per person than any other city in the world, according to the World Cities Culture Forum. Argentina’s capital is filled with librerías (bookshops) and cafés that celebrate the city’s impressive literary history, the largest and most famous being El Ateneo Grand Splendid, one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops. But Buenos Aires is also home to hundreds of smaller independent bookstores, which you can recreate within your own home.

Head over to your bookshelf and imagine you’re perusing the selection at Falena, a women-owned bookshop in the Chacarita neighborhood with a tasteful collection of titles featuring art, architecture, cuisine, and more. The Buenos Aires bookstore has an onsite café, an outdoor patio and rooftop area, and an indoor lounge area with couches and chairs. Pick up a copy of any book that interests you. Or, to stay on theme, download the Kindle edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones (Editorial Sur, 1944), a collection of short stories written by the Argentine novelist during the mid-20th century. Now, plop down on your sofa and channel Buenos Aires’s bibliophile energy.

Buy now: Ficciones (Kindle Edition), $10, amazon.com

Why Buenos Aires Is Every Book Lover’s Dream

5:00 p.m. Prepare la merienda 

In Argentina, the mini-meal between mid-day lunch and late-night dinner is called la merienda. The late afternoon gathering is similar to afternoon tea, but it’s so important to porteños, it even has its own verb: merendar, meaning “to snack.” Porteños typically enjoy this daily ritual at home, in a public park, or at one of the city’s more than 70 historic bares notables (traditional grand cafés). More important than location is the company: meriendas are most often enjoyed among family or friends.

A standard merienda spread first and foremost includes coffee or yerba maté, a hugely popular herbal tea made from the leaves of the South American rain forest holly tree. In Argentina, yerba maté (commonly called “maté”) is frequently shared in social gatherings. It’s brewed in a traditional gourd and sipped with a metal straw called a bombillaYou can buy packages of Argentine yerba maté, as well as maté gourds and bombillas, through AmigoFoods, an online storefront that delivers Latin American groceries and imported products to the United States. The website also sells the herbal beverage in teabag form, which is known as mate cocido.

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But wait! You can’t properly merendar without enjoying some snacks. Staple merienda items include tostados de jamón y queso (ham and cheese sandwiches) and facturas (sweet pastries) such as medialunas and alfajores, the traditional cookie sandwiches that are practically Argentina’s national dessert (an estimated average of 6.5 million alfajores consumed per day in the country). Alfajores—which are made from corn starch and filled with dulce de leche, a Latin American caramel sauce—can be found in panaderías (bakeries) across Buenos Aires in various styles. (Some are rolled in shredded coconut while others are dusted with powdered sugar or covered in different flavors of chocolate.) 

How to Make Alfajores

Ingredients

For dulce de leche:

  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

For alfajores:

  • 1 2/3 cups cornstarch 
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon brandy, cognac, or rum (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 cup of shredded coconut (optional)

To Make

Dulce de leche:

  1. Stir together milk, sugar, and baking soda in a heavy saucepan.
  2. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered. Stir in vanilla. Continue stirring occasionally until caramelized and thickened (about 90 minutes). Transfer to a bowl to cool. 

Alfajores:

  1. In a large bowl, whisk or sift together cornstarch, flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. With an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar at medium speed until fluffy, then add egg yolks one at a time and mix until combined. Add lemon zest, and if using, the brandy, cognac, or rum. Gently add dry flour mixture at low speed. Mix until no flour is visible, making a crumbly dough. 
  2. Remove dough from bowl and knead for a few seconds with hands. Divide dough in half and shape into two balls. Using a rolling pin, roll each ball into a disc about 1/4-inch thick. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. 
  3. Remove dough from the refrigerator, then cut out cookies using a 2-inch cookie cutter and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
  4. Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake cookies  7–10 minutes or until edges are slightly golden, not browned. Place cookies on a wire rack and cool to room temperature.
  5. Once cooled, spread the undersides of half of the cookies with a teaspoon of dulce de leche. Place remaining cookie halves on top of dulce de leche to complete each “sandwich.” Place powdered sugar into a fine-mesh strainer and sprinkle powdered sugar over cookies, then roll the sides in shredded coconut (optional). Makes 36 cookies.
Argentina’s churrasco (grilled skirt steak) dish originates from traditional asados (barbecues) in the grassy plains of eastern Argentina, where gauchos (cowboys) grill grass-fed beef over charcoal fires.

8:00 p.m. Enjoy your own asado

Porteños rarely meet for dinner before 11 p.m., but during quarantine, we’re starting much earlier. Argentines are known for having a mild obsession with asado, a term for all types of grilled meat—beef, chicken, chorizo—as well as the ritual of having a barbecue (and also the grill itself). 

In Buenos Aires’s parillas (steakhouses), grilled meat is typically accompanied by chimichurria piquant sauce made from herbs, olive oil, and vinegar. To enjoy your own asado, flip through the pages of Argentine chef Francis Mallmann’s cookbook Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way (Artisan Publishers, 2009), and learn how to prepare classic Argentine steak and chimichurri at home. Just be sure to pair whatever you “order” with a glass of the country’s signature malbec; a fruity, full-bodied red wine that holds up to red meat and spicy foods. (You can order a bottle straight to your door through these international wine delivery services.)

Your cooking-and-dining playlist: Enjoy this curated Spotify playlist featuring live performances by Buenos Aires–based percussionist ensemble La Bomba de Tiempo; for more than a decade, it has hosted its throbbing dancehall shows every Monday night at the Ciudad Cultural Konex (with hundreds of porteños and international travelers in attendance). 

Buy now: Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way, $35, bookshop.org

Tango was born during the 1890s in the Argentine capital’s oldest barrio, San Telmo.

9:30 p.m. Take a virtual tango class

Buenos Aires is the world capital of tango; the traditional dance was born during the 1890s in the city’s oldest barrio, San Telmo. In the Argentine capital, the best places to experience tango are traditional milongas (tango clubs), where locals crowd the dance floors after dark, and San Telmo restaurants, where professional dancers perform classic tango at a dinnertime show. 

Even during quarantine, you can give tango a whirl via Airbnb’s Online Experiences, which recently moved in-person classes to Zoom so that people around the world can “travel from home” (classes range from $1 to $40 per person). The platform currently offers a number of tango-oriented experiences: Watch a live tango “living room show” hosted by Latin Grammy–nominated tango singer María Volonté and harmonica player Kevin Carrel Footer, an experience the two musicians describe as “part cocktail party, part history lesson, and part live concert.”

Or learn some traditional tango moves during a virtual class led by local host Luciana, a Buenos Aires native who runs the city’s top-rated tango school. The online lesson focuses on basic tango steps (which are traditionally danced with a partner, though you can join the class solo). During the hour-long class, you’ll also learn the tango etiquette that governs traditional milongas in Buenos Aires. 

Felicitaciones! (Congratulations.) You’ve officially recreated a day in Buenos Aires at home. A real night out in Argentina’s capital wouldn’t begin for at least another few hours, but don’t worry: We don’t expect you to stay up until the early morning pretending to dance at a virtual boliche (Argentine nightclub)—unless you feel particularly compelled to. For now, it’s time to rest your head and dream about your future adventures in Buenos Aires to come.

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