Chacarita Is Buenos Aires’s Quirkiest Neighborhood. Get There Soon.

To become a city’s coolest new neighborhood, there are certain prerequisites: a crop of cafes that toe the line between cozy and snobbish, chefs combining the innovative with the Instagrammable, and shops so sincere that they are doomed to close when rents rise, which they inevitably will.

But then it must also have quirks. Chacarita, long seen as a low-slung, low-profile neighborhood in north-central Buenos Aires, has plenty.

There’s the cafe that doubles as a museum of photography and triples as a jazz club. Two cavernous, mysteriously indistinguishable pizza halls, both opened in 1947, stand side by side near a subway stop and serve thick-crusted slices draped with mozzarella and onions. And then, in Chacarita’s southwest flank, a cemetery has elegant monuments to the 20th century tango legend Carlos Gardel and the pioneering aviator Jorge Newbery amid vast fields of simply marked, working-class graves. It plays a pretty good second fiddle to Recoleta Cemetery, one of the top 10 tourist attractions in Argentina and housing the pantheon of the country’s revered former first lady, Eva Perón.

Just a 10-stop subway trip from the Obelisk downtown — the fare recently raised to 125 pesos is still under 15 U.S. cents even at the official market’s rate of 878 Argentine pesos to the dollar — totally walkable Chacarita is one heck of a great place to shop, eat and simply wander for a few days, which I did earlier this year, both on my own and with my (then) 19-year-old nephew, Leo, who was studying, or more accurately, “studying,” in Argentina.

The author found Chacarita totally walkable and a great place to shop, eat and simply stroll for a few days.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

Irresistible shops

Chacarita, which means “small farm,” is so-named because its land once served as a kitchen garden and recreational site for Jesuit school students. It eventually became a transportation hub and working-class neighborhood, roughly 100 square blocks. I was utterly charmed by Chacarita’s cobblestone streets, lined with colonial-style single-family homes with interjections of Art Deco and Brutalism. They were the very opposite of late-game Monopoly board monotony, with heavy wooden doors featuring old-fashioned mail slots labeled “CARTAS” and wrought-iron window guards framing the snouts of pet dogs and cats variously curious and agitated by infrequent passers-by.

Though many commercial streets still have a working-class vibe, Jorge Newbery Avenue does not. The street, named for the aviator, is the hipster center of gravity, with shops, cafes, vermouth bars and one vegan restaurant, Donnet, serving a tasting menu for about 19,000 pesos per person that revolves almost entirely around mushrooms.

La Botica del Pastelero is delightfully mammoth bakers’ supply shop, selling artsy marble cutting boards, creative cookie cutters and lots of utensils.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

Several Newbery shops are irresistible. What I thought was a bakery because the name means the Pastry Chef’s Boutique, La Botica del Pastelero turned out to be a delightfully mammoth bakers’ supply shop, selling artsy marble-cutting boards, creative cookie cutters and lots of utensils.

While La Botica is a baker’s dream, Facón is a tourist’s. The shop’s owner, Martín Bustamante, has set out to show that Argentina is much more than Buenos Aires (and the vineyards of Mendoza and the penguins of Patagonia), offering items that are sourced from local masters as well as some high-design items. For 60,000 pesos, I took home a soulful yet playful scarlet-red wooden horse with a wispy mane created by Juan Gelosi, an artist from north-central Tucumán province.

Facón is a tourist’s dream shop, offering textiles, artwork and other items that are sourced from local masters as well as some high-design items.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

(Others will want to stop by Falena, a buzz-to-enter bookstore and wine bar hidden behind brick walls and an ancient-looking wooden door. Alas, it was closed for vacation when I was in town.)

Slightly more hidden spots dot the side streets. I wandered through the open doors of a large warehouse space run by LABA, an arts and culture center. Inside I found young people splayed out Vitruvian-man-style, rolling around inside large wheels. It was a class of what in Spanish is known as “German wheel,” but we know (to the extent we know) as wheel gymnastics.

Falena is a buzz-to-enter bookstore and wine bar hidden behind brick walls and an ancient-looking wooden door.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

On one corner, I caught a glimpse through ground-level windows of a basement stuffed floor-to-ceiling with racks of used clothing. Had I discovered a sort of speakeasy vintage shop?

No. After I rudely peered in the window to catch someone’s attention, I was told it was a business that rented out costumes for film productions. Down another block, I saw a poster for a business called Fina Estampa which, when I looked it up on Instagram, turned out to be an engraving workshop that gave classes and housed a tiny shop, which was opened only on Tuesdays. Good luck, it was Tuesday! And a print of a gin and tonic in a glass — that also appears to be a tiny swimming pool — now adorns my wall at home.

Santa Maria’s fugazzetta slice, draped with mozzarella and just slightly burned onions, is 1,600 pesos and well worth it.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

Burned onions and dulce de leche

The old school side of Chacarita is worth a wandering, for its more down-to-earth vibe and cheaper eats. Santa Maria’s fugazzetta slice, draped with mozzarella and just slightly burned onions, is 1,600 pesos and well worth it; a churro filled with dulce de leche from Fábrica de Churros Olleros — around 60 years old and looking its age — is only 350. But I particularly enjoyed my steak and fries lunch, costing 3,400 pesos, at Colonia 10 de Julio, the sort of place where the floor looks grimy even after it’s just been mopped.

One of the many quirks in Chacarita: A cafe that doubles as a museum of photography and triples as a jazz club.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

I only went to one place twice, the cafe photography-museum jazz club called both Bar Palacio and the Museo Fotográfico Simik. On an afternoon visit, I peered at the cabinets full of ancient cameras, and then ordered a coffee and a traditional sweet potato-and-cheese dessert from a table that served as the base of a Durst M605 photographic enlarger, a hulking machine of the sort formerly seen only in the eerie red light of 20th-century darkrooms. The next day, I came back with Leo and some friends to hear jazz amid Kodak Instamatics older than me, and daguerreotype machines older than any person alive today.

My dinners in Chacarita were hit and miss: the first night, Leo and I were rejected from a just-opened artisanal pizzeria shop called Culpina. The owner was pulling delicious-looking small pies from a stone oven, but only for family and friends. So we crowded into the last remaining sidewalk table of Sifón, a spot named after reusable seltzer siphons that to a New Yorker looks like something from the Tenement Museum but are still in wide use throughout Buenos Aires to add your own spritz to wine-based drinks like tinto de verano. That was the best part of our meal, which consisted of rather mediocre polenta and arancini.

Our best dinner was at Lardito, a legitimately ballyhooed spot with an around-the-world-in-small-plates vibe. At communal tables festooned with lavender and white wildflowers, Leo and I ate beef tataki (thin slices of lightly seared sirloin with oyster vinaigrette and topped with an egg yolk and cauliflower foam) and ceviche for 45,000 pesos. The price did not include wine, which diners choose in the restaurant’s mini wine shop — perfect for those who are better at selecting cool labels than obscure grapes.

The author and his nephew found their best meal at Lardito.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

Battling against developers

But there were plenty of signs the neighborhood might already be on the road to post-hipster glass-and-steel condos — literal signs. Dozens of “NO AL NUEVO CÓDIGO URBANÍSTICO” (“No to the new zoning code”) — posters hang on residences in protest of a 2018 zoning code overhaul that facilitated the building of apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods, among other things.

My final morning, I met María Sol Azcona and Laura Nowydwor, two women with the organization, Amparo Ambiental Chacarita, which, loosely translated, means “Protect Chacarita’s Environment.” We met in a fancy cafe, which they were quick to point out was overpriced and dotted with foreigners.

Listening to them detail their battle against real estate developers was both hopeful — they helped introduce new legislation last year that would scale back the 2018 code — and depressing. The pair showed me how easy it was to use the city’s 3-D online app to seek out what blocks of the neighborhood were ripe and legal for building.

A 2018 zoning code overhaul facilitated the building of apartment buildings in residential neighborhoods.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

Ms. Nowydwor, who studied geography at the University of Buenos Aires, has mapped out 300 construction projects in the neighborhood, including 15 houses that have been demolished. Real estate developers have joined tourists in wandering residential streets.

“You see them walking around, ringing doorbells,” said Ms. Nowydwor, “telling the residents ‘We’ll pay you three million dollars’ for a 150-square-meter property,” the equivalent of about 1,600 square feet. “Then they build 40 apartments and sell them for $200,000 each.” (Properties in Buenos Aires are often sold for cash in American dollars.)

Luckily, they did not throw me and other visitors under the bus.

“The problem isn’t tourism in and of itself,” Ms. Azcona said. “It’s that a big part of the city is being thought of and planned for the sake of businesses. And tourism is a kind of business.”

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2024.

Back to top button