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Why Buenos Aires Is Every Book Lover’s Dream

By Diana Spechler

04.12.19

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Intimate Falena, a bookshop in the Palermo neighborhood, is filled with comfy furniture that invites you to sit and read for a while.

Courtesy of Falena

Intimate Falena, a bookshop in the Palermo neighborhood, is filled with comfy furniture that invites you to sit and read for a while.

With its hundreds of literature-focused shops, cafés, and events, this city is filled with places to enjoy a good book, surrounded by like-minded bibliophiles.

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One of the joys of wandering around Buenos Aires is ducking into the many bookshops that line its busy streets. The Argentinian capital has more bookstores per person than any other city in the world, according to the World Cities Culture Forum. You could spend an entire day on Avenida Corrientes visiting the hundred or so librerías there that hawk new and used books. Even independent shops are thriving, thanks in part to the national fixed book-price law, which stipulates that any given book must cost the same, no matter where it’s sold.

It’s no wonder Buenos Aires is a reader’s paradise. The city has a historically voracious appetite for good writing—after all, it gave us Jorge Luis Borges, educated Julio Cortázar, and buried Alejandra Pizarnik (Argentina’s Sylvia Plath) when she ended her short life there. Today, a number of local bookstores double as cultural centers and host author readings, writing workshops, and live music. This lit-loving metropolis is also home to an architectural masterpiece of a library (the largest in the country), a hostel named after Kafka, and cafés crammed with locals devouring paperbacks and scrawling poetry in journals.

Housed in an old theater, El Ateneo Grand Splendid is the largest bookstore in the country and one of the most famous in the world.

Every April, the city hosts a huge international book fair (this year, from April 25 to May 13). Writers, editors, and bibliophiles from around the world come together to drink malbec, eat media lunas, and nerd out on literature. Whether you travel to the tip of South America for the fair or for any other reason, here’s how to fill up on the literary nourishment that Buenos Aires has to offer:

Walk the footsteps of famous writers

Instead of dealing with a list of must-stops and a map, let this literary walking tour company do the work for you. First, choose a theme: Borges, Cortázar, or Jewish authors. Then, a local academic or literature professor will lead you around the city. Depending on the tour (each costs $75), you may visit the neighborhood Borges grew up in; read and analyze a short story with the group; or stroll through the Agronomía district, the setting for Cortázar’s masterpiece Rayuela (Pantheon Books, 1963), known as Hopscotch in English.

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Lose yourself in a librería

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Widely known as the world’s most beautiful bookstore, El Ateneo Grand Splendid on Avenida Corrientes used to be a theater. The landmark building, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, retained its balconies, the fresco painted on its domed ceiling, and even its velvet curtain, providing a dramatic backdrop for the 180,000 books, 30,000 records, and 20,000 movies for sale here. Sometimes the stage is used for live music: folkloric, jazz, and pop groups have performed here in the past few years.

If El Ateneo is the crown jewel of bookstores in Buenos Aires, Falena, in the Palermo neighborhood, is a freshwater pearl. It’s far smaller, barely visible from the street, but even more beautiful in its own way. While El Ateneo is packed with tourists and popular books, Falena is a hidden oasis with clean lines, natural light, and a small but tasteful collection. There’s soft modern furniture and a rooftop with tables for lounging, sipping wine or café cortado from the onsite coffee shop, and flipping through art books.

When it was opened in 1982, Café la Poesía became a gathering place for Buenos Aires’s literati.

If you don’t speak Spanish, traveling through the literary world of Buenos Aires (and Latin America in general) might seem daunting. Make a stop at Walrus Books, an English-language bookstore that is absolutely packed with used hardcovers and paperbacks; it even offers creative writing classes in English. Fittingly, it’s located on a street called Estados Unidos, Spanish for United States.

Libros del Pasaje, a cozy store with overstuffed wooden shelves and little nooks perfect for curling up in with a good read, also has a nice English-language section. But it’s worth checking out for more than the books: In the back, there’s an adorable restaurant with an eclectic menu as long as a novel. Order a Fernet (Argentines often mix this Italian spirit with Coke) and a tabbouleh salad with grilled haloumi cheese and fresh herbs.

Settle in at a literary café

Because Buenos Aires is full of readers and writers—both locals and tourists—who are interested in the city’s literary history, it follows that several cafés cater to bookish types. When writer Rubén Derlis opened the hip Café la Poesía in the bohemian San Telmo neighborhood in 1982, it became a gathering place for poets, thinkers, and activists; you’ll see the writers who frequented the café, such as Horacio Ferrer, Enrique Cadícamo, and Federico García Lorca, commemorated in framed photographs and on plaques. The walls of Café Cortázar are crammed with photos of Julio Cortázar alongside some of his well-known quotes. And at La Biela in the Recoleta neighborhood, you can pose for a picture with statues of Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares; they’re seated for eternity at the table by the entryway.

With its breezy atmosphere, Jardin del Invierno is a perfect place to settle in with a good book.

A short walk from La Biela, Jardin del Invierno in the Loi Suites Hotel, while not a literary café, attracts plenty of book lovers. Many people like to visit this gorgeous, tranquil space with its white patio furniture and lush plants for afternoon tea and a long reading session while the city takes its siesta.

Add your voice

If you want to practice your Spanish, or simply revel in a cool, artsy atmosphere, check out an event with Mappa, the city’s open mic poetry organization. “The poetry takes many forms,” says Mappa manager Sofía Arriola. “Some people read their own work, others read the work of other authors. The idea is that in three or four minutes, a person can get up on stage and perform without being judged.” If you’re feeling brave, sign up when you arrive, and you’ll likely get to read. Twenty poets perform at each monthly show, and there’s live music halfway through.

“Visit” whenever you want

Mappa is also a reminder that Buenos Aires’s literary scene isn’t just a memory of bygone eras; some of the most exciting Latin American authors working today are porteños, or at least Argentines that have lived or were born in Buenos Aires. For example, Patricio Pron, born a few hours outside of the capital, recently won the Alfaguara Prize, one of the most prestigious Spanish-language literary awards, for his latest novel. You can check out Buenos Aires–born Claudia Piñeiro’s mystery novels, some of which have been adapted for screen, and for which she has won numerous awards, including one of Germany’s most prestigious literary prizes. And Samanta Schweblin, also from this city, who was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, wrote the novel Fever Dream (Penguin Random House, 2014), which was an international hit. Even if Buenos Aires isn’t in your travel plans this year, it’s easy to create a reading list that transports you to its streets.

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>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Buenos Aires

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