Although one of the official barrios of Buenos Aires, Balvanera is more commonly referred to as three separate sub-barrios: Abasto, Congreso and Once. Balvanera is a heavily populated neighborhood that blends commerce and residential living. It is bordered by San Nicolas and Monserrat to the east, San Cristobal to the south, Almagro to the west, and Recoleta to the north.
An introduction to Balvanera
The story of Balvanera begins in 1799 when Damian Perez, a Franciscan monk, was donated land on which he commissioned a chapel dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Balvanera that gave the barrio its official name and for many years catered for the spiritual needs of its residents. In 1835, the barrio was credited with having 3635 residents who lived in small estates and was not considered part of Buenos Aires until the 1860s.
The late 19th century saw a rise in Balvanera’s significance as politicians such as Adolfo Alsina, Leandro Alem and Hipolito Yrigoyen became associated with the area. During the 1910s and 1920s, the region from Avenida Corrientes and towards the southwest of the barrio saw an influx of Arab, Armenian and Jewish communities. Today this section of Balvanera is known as Once and recognized for its working class nature, industry and cheap shopping outlets.
Following the inauguration of the Argentine National Congress (Congreso) in 1906, the southeastern area of Balvanera came to be referred to as Congreso. The northwestern section of the barrio is known locally as Abasto after the Mercado Central del Abasto (know Abasto Shopping Centre) which operated from 1893 to 1984. Curiously, whilst San Telmo is credited as being Buenos Aires’ home of tango, the culture runs equally as deep in Abasto and it was here that legendary singer Carlos Gardel lived much of his life.
Today, Balvanera offers a fusion of working class areas (some noticeably a little rough around the edges), bohemian lifestyle and entertainment. Whilst it may not have the glamorous appeal of Palermo and San Telmo, it is worth checking out to experience the changing personalities of its three distinctive areas.
Things to see, do or both
The easiest way to explore Balvanera would be to visit Abasto, Congreso and Once on separate occasions. This area of Buenos Aires is not screaming with obvious tourist attractions but delve into its heart and your time here will be well spent.
The one must-see sight is Congreso, the legislative faction of the Argentine government. Situated at the opposite end of Avenida de Mayo from Casa Rosado, on a good day its 80-meter-tall dome can be seen from afar. Its columned Greco-Roman façade presents a majestic entrance to the 72-seat Senate. In front is Plaza del Congreso, a green public space housing a collection of monuments.
From Congreso you can head west along Avenida Rivadavia to Plaza Miserere, a focal point of Once. Named after the nickname of resident Antonio Gonzalez Varela, situated in the plaza is a statue and mausoleum of former president Bernardino Rivadavia and facing the square is La Perla bar, a former haunt of Jorge Luis Borges and the birthplace of Argentina’s Rock Nacional music movement. By day, Plaza Miserere together with Avenida Pueyrredon is the setting for a mix of illegal street vendors and cheap outlet stores. If you are in need of some new clothes and not concerned with longevity then Once is the place to go.
Heading directly north and across Avenida Corrientes, Balvanera becomes the area referred to as Abasto, dominated by the imposing Abasto Shopping mall. If you need a break from being a tourist, head inside the mall to find a collection of chain stores, a food hall and cinema. Formerly a fruit and vegetable market, the mall underwent a huge facelift in 1998. Around the corner from Abasto Shopping on Dr. Thomas Manuel de Anchorena street you’ll find the epicenter of Abasto’s tango heritage including shops and a monument to Carlos Gardel. Two blocks north is Pasaje Zelaya a colorful street with houses adorned with Gardel murals and the lyrics of his songs. From here, head one block east to another colorful street, Paseo del Fileteado, and Casa Carlos Gardel, a museum dedicated to the world’s finest tango singer.
There is plenty to see within the confines of Balvanera much of which is often undiscovered by locals let alone tourists. Whilst in the Abasto and Once areas you won’t fall short of finding nourishment either. Thanks to its large immigrant population, the streets are blessed with independent cafes and restaurants serving everything from Peruvian to Arabic and West African fare.
Nightlife and restaurants
Esquina Carlos Gardel (Carlos Gardel 3200). During the heyday of the Mercado Central del Abasto, traders and bohemians would meet at the Chanta Cuatro restaurant where Carlos Gardel himself frequented and performed. In keeping with the tango theme, Esquina Carlos Gardel puts on nightly tango dinner and show performances. The food is nothing to write home about; however, the 90-minutes shows and elegant setting are something to savor.
Complejo Tango (Belgrano 2608). Packed with tourists it may be, but if you want the full tango class-dinner-show experience then this place is unbeatable. Smaller than most tango show venues, Complejo Tango is situated in a converted mansion and you can be sat within touching distance of the dancers or look down from the balcony. The show is superb, food commendable and be sure to arrive early to get your free lesson!
Teatro Ciego (Zelaya 3006). Abasto is full of cultural activities and in the heart of the Carlos Gardel zone is Teatro Ciego, or Blind Theatre. Upon entering, you’ll be given a blindfold thus forcing you to perceive reality from a different perspective and without the use of light. Events range from comedy productions to music concerts.
Konex (Sarmiento 3131). For a guaranteed night of fun, head to this converted cooking oil factory in the Abasto back streets. Attracting an eclectic mix of hippies, bohemians, travelers and office workers dropping in on their way home, Konex main focus is on live music. Monday is the biggest night with the performance of La Bomba de Tiempo (The Time Bomb), a 17-piece acoustic and improvisational drumming group mixing rhythms from around the world. Grab yourself a 1-liter beer and it won’t be long before you are amongst the masses on the dance floor.
Why it’s hot / Why it’s not
Should you be in search of a value-for-money location for your Buenos Aires holiday or long-term stay, then consider Balvanera. In addition to offering a plethora of hotels, hostels and residential accommodation, the barrio has excellent transport links thus within easy reach of the city’s coveted attractions and nightlife hotspots of Palermo and San Telmo.
Parts of the barrio, especially around Plaza Miserere and the lower section of Abasto may appear dirty and run down by day but chances are slim that you will ever have to venture to these areas at night.
The Abasto area played an important role during the 1806 British invasion of Argentina. Although occupying the country for almost fifty days, the British force diminished and after a two-day battle Santiago de Liniers forced the surrender of William Carr Beresford at Plaza Miserere. Beresford was kept prisoner for six months but succeeded in escaping in 1807. What might have happened to Argentina had he been successful remains a mystery.