Monserrat is the barrio situated directly south of San Nicolas and forms part of Buenos Aires’ business district. It is a neighborhood steeped in local history and home to some of Argentina’s most significant public buildings.
An introduction to Monserrat
Monserrat is a barrio measuring only 2.2-sq-km and is squeezed between San Nicolas, Puerto Madero, San Telmo and Balvanera. Although only officially recognized as a barrio in 1972, the area in which Monserrat sits is one the oldest in the city and able to trace its roots back to colonial times. In fact, it was here on June 11th 1580 that Spanish conquistador Juan de Garay first arrived with settlers from Asuncion and Santa Fe. The first development in the barrio came with the construction of the Fort of Juan Baltazar of Austria in 1594 that would later become the government house.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Jesuits began to arrive in the area and when donated a plot of land they set about building the Iglesia de San Ignacio de Loyola. Sanctified in 1734, today the church is the oldest in existence in Buenos Aires. As the population began to grow, further religious orders arrived, the most notable of whom was the Catalan Brotherhood of the Virgin of Monserrat and it was its chapel that gave the barrio its name in 1769.
In 1810, Plaza de Mayo, the focal point of Monserrat, was the scene of a week-long revolution that triggered a war of independence against Spanish colonialism. Towards the end of the 1800s the barrio underwent vast remodeling including the building of Paseo Colon and Avenida de Mayo, two important thoroughfares. This period also saw the completion of the Casa Rosada followed by further development in the early 20th century.
Whilst always maintaining its political significance, during the 1950s Monserrat became a favored haunt of bohemians, artists and the tango community due to the cheap rents. Today, with its close proximity to San Telmo, it remains an appealing and culturally rich neighborhood that is constantly in the city limelight.
Things to see, do or both
The best way to enjoy Monserrat would be to start in Plaza de Mayo, whose boundaries are lined with historical sights and architectural masterpieces. The most prominent building is Casa Rosada, the elegant, pink and dominating government house. Internationally famed since Eva Peron addressed the nation, amongst other events, guided tours give an insight into what goes on behind its doors. Whilst here, combine your tour with a visit to Museo del Bicentenario, which exhibits artifacts from Argentina’s 200-year modern history.
At any given day Plaza de Mayo is a hive of activity and you will likely see groups of protestors camped out around the Piramide de Mayo marking the center of the square. From here you are within steps of iconic sights such as Cabildo (City Hall) and Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral. The latter is one of a host of religious houses in the area in addition to Iglesia de San Ignacio de Loyola, Basilica de San Francisco and Santo Domingo Convent.
From Plaza de Mayo, take a stroll along Avenida de Mayo, which is often compared to Madrid’s La Gran Via for its architecture and overhanging trees. Just 1.5km in length, the boulevard crosses Avenida 9 de Julio before finishing at Plaza del Congresso. En route, you can stop off for lunch at Café Tortoni, cross the world’s widest avenue and take a tour of Palacio Barolo, an eclectic palace and office block.
Back on the eastside of the barrio, be sure to check out Manzana de las Luces (Block of Enlightenment), a block of 18th century buildings including Buenos Aires National College, an elite secondary school. Check the agenda for workshops, exhibitions, film screening and theater productions.
Nightlife and restaurants
There is no doubting that you’ll be kept busy in Monserrat and fortunately the barrio possesses a wide selection of traditional cafés, contemporary restaurants and pubs waiting to recharge your batteries with food and drink.
Café Tortoni (Avenida de Mayo 825). Established in 1858, Tortoni is the oldest café in Argentina and don’t be surprised if you have to queue to get in, even at 11am. You’ll be paying over the odds for food and drink but go with a friend and share a sandwich whilst you lap up its grandeur. Today as much a tourist attraction as a café, in its heyday it was a favorite haunt of Argentine elitists and literati. At the back, past the sparkling marble floor, is a room dedicated to jazz and tango shows.
Plaza Asturias (Avenida de Mayo 1199). With endless bottles of wine lining the bar and countless legs of cured ham hanging above them, Plaza Asturias exudes Spanish influence. Enter through the large doors and take a seat at the wooden tables squeezed into this one-floor restaurant then take a pick of arguably the best comida española in the city. Paellas, octopus dishes and various homemade pastas are served up to challenge even the most discerning palates.
FuraiBo (Adolfo Alsina 429). If you found this restaurant in Palermo you probably wouldn’t be surprised, but to find it in the heart of Monserrat is a delightful surprise. Set in one of the city’s oldest houses, FuraiBo is a Japanese restaurant and tea garden resembling a Buddhist temple. Beneath the façade is an exquisite menu of sushi classics and ramen (noodles served in meat or fish-based broth) plus a long list of teas. Adding to the ambience is live ukulele and sitar music during the weekend.
Krakow (Venezuela 474). Owned by two Polish expats, since opening at the end of 2008, Krakow has made a name for itself among both locals and travelers for its European-styled mood, well-priced draught beers and extensive range of vodka. Drop by for an after-office happy hour pint but don’t be surprised if you end up staying until closing. To soak up the drink, Krakow’s menu offers tasty Polish-influenced fare at great prices.
La Trastienda (Balcarce 460). Just four blocks south of Plaza de Mayo, big name concerts do not get more intimate than at La Trastienda. Opened in 1993, the club hosts everything from rock and reggae to tango and folkloric concerts with past performers counting Charly Garcia, Jarvis Cocker, Maceo Parker and The Skatalites. Its capacity of only 700 means you can be within touching distance of music legends.
With its historical significance, range of watering holes and eateries, and a curious political-business-bohemian atmosphere, Monserrat showcases many of the things that make Buenos Aires such a fascinating city.
The only thing really missing is a park or large green area; however, with Parque Lezama lying about ten blocks south in San Telmo and the ecological reserve situated behind Puerto Madero, you are never too far from escaping the bustle of the city center.