"Stop me before I buy a big bag made out of a cow!” I furiously text a friend in New York as I sit on the patio of the lovely La Biela café in Recoleta, just down a gently sloping hill from the fancy crypt where Eva Perón is buried. Minutes before, I was close to forking over a hundred dollars for a giant, furry ersatz Birkin, but since I have spent the last few hours purchasing fistfuls of silver bracelets, a massive serving tray with deer-antler handles, a turquoise-studded leather evening pouch, a lamp made out of hide, and even a diminutive 1920’s satin sofa that opens into a jewelry box, I decide that maybe it’s time to catch my acquisitive breath.
With shopping in the great capitals of Europe these days a challenge at best, and at worst a financial nightmare, Buenos Aires presents an enticing alternative. The tango-besotted city pulsates with energy, and offers—despite the collapse of the peso six years ago—a thriving retail scene.
As I careen from one end of town to the other—fortunately taxis are incredibly reasonable, especially compared with New York or L.A.—I find myself speculating on the town’s storied, and often contradictory, history: Does the spirit of Eva Perón hover over swanky Recoleta?Does Argentina’s revolutionary son, Che Guevara, animate the rough streets of San Telmo?But my reveries last only a minute—these personalities may stare at you from every newsstand and souvenir shop, but it’s the city’s vibrant future that makes visiting it—and shopping here—such a compelling experience.
It’s not surprising that Eva Perón is interred in the very heart of this neighborhood. Evita will always be remembered for, among other things, her elegant wardrobe. Though these graceful avenues are home to Hermès and Louis Vuitton, you’ll also find plenty of equally upscale B.A.-specific boutiques.
On the upper level of accessories store Pérez Sanz, the collection of handbags includes a small clutch covered with interlocking silver disks for $495, and a triangular purse decorated with chrysoprase and silver ($900) so elegant it could double as a tabletop item. Downstairs, rows of drawers hold a vast array of imaginatively designed jewelry—Sanz is also a sculptor and architect—including woven gold and silver delicate enough to pass for passementerie. Up the street, Sanz has another shop, concentrating on small housewares that make exquisite souvenirs. Ring the bell, descend a huge staircase and you’ll find alpaca-silver boxes inlaid with dragonflies ($425) and silver bells topped with cows for $445. I was overcome with temptation by the matés, which are cups meant for sipping tea: squat and round, they are a quintessential Argentine product, for sale everywhere from the lowliest flea market to upscale spots like this.
The satisfying aroma of leather greets you as you enter Arandú, which is dedicated to handicrafts, and at least in my case, the fragrance worked as a magic elixir on my purse strings. I may not be in the market for a jumping saddle, but I manage to stock up on woven bracelets, suede hunting bags, needlepoint belts, and alpaca-silver picture frames. Burnished riding boots are remarkably underpriced at around $350.
Despite—or maybe because of—its chandeliers and dramatic glass ceiling, some visitors will find Patio Bullrich, considered the town’s most prestigious mall, just a tad too sterile; others will be amused to discover a McDonald’s and a Christian Lacroix under the same roof. Say what you will, Porteños (as residents of B.A. are called) are proud of the place, which features, among international brands like Cacharel and Max Mara, a branch of the local shoe chain Sibyl Vane (named for the ill-fated heroine in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray), where a pair of high-heeled silver sandals with zippers up the back are around $104.
At Vasalissa, a celadon and white chocolatería, the extraordinary confections take the form of automobiles, teddies, hats, and what is practically a national symbol—the tango shoe, rendered in white Belgian chocolate.
Work off those candy calories with a sprint through the humongous Buenos Aires Design, which features more than 60 different shops. Situated on a hill next to the famous Recoleta Cemetery, the center showcases the best of contemporary B.A. home design. At Tienda Puro Diseño, I am quite taken with a vintage Admiral TV reimagined as a table, and a cowhide doll lamp (its head is a lightbulb) for $140 that is small enough to fit in my carry-on.
The dubious arts of tie-dye and macramé may survive at the Feria de Recoleta, but look beyond the T-shirts and ponchos at this weekend market and you’ll unearth etched silver-topped boxes and handcrafted jewelry. The charm of the scene goes beyond shopping—on one recent afternoon a flock of half-naked men who looked like satyrs with outsize ears amused a group of picnickers.
I am beside myself with excitement when Sunday finally rolls around and I am able to go to the San Telmo flea market. My first stop, along with what seems to be the entire population of the city, is the outdoor tables at Plaza Dorrego, where I find stalls bursting with vintage seltzer siphons, stacks of Mundo Peronista magazine—each bearing a cover photo of Evita—1930’s peach silk lingerie, flatware that may have once graced the finest sideboards in town, and a spotted-cat coat that I would long to take home if not for the Endangered Species Act.
Beyond the square, up and down Defensa, are a seemingly endless series of antiques centers, with goods ranging from banks of mid-20th-century telephones at Mercado de San Telmo and an Art Deco clock meant for a massive mantel at HB Antigüedades to the downright strange bedfellows at Churrinche, where only four people are allowed in at one time and vintage license plates share space with spindly crystal drinking glasses.
Right off Plaza Dorrego is Gil Antigüedades, an unexpected dreamworld of vintage clothing. Head downstairs for row upon row of exquisite 1940’s beaded rayon frocks, flapper wedding gowns, velvet hats with veils, alligator purses, and 19th-century gloves, all meticulously maintained and displayed. The owner, María Inés Gil, says she has been collecting since she was 15, and you believe her. In her extraordinary boutique she shows me a one-shouldered sequined dress by Paco Jamandreu, confidante and designer for Madame Perón herself. “We had such good design here in the 50’s,” Gil says with a sigh.
The polar opposite of the vintage flounces at Gil can be found at Pablo Ramírez, the namesake boutique of perhaps Argentina’s best-known contemporary fashion designer. The late British fashion maven Isabella Blow purportedly nearly swooned when she encountered his designs. Almost everything in his shop is black or white, and the clothes, though simply cut, impart a definite swagger. An extraordinary crepe dress with a stiff crinoline slip seems ready to break into the national dance; dark denim jeans styled like jodhpurs for men fetch around $140.
The pedestrian-only Calle Florida can feel a bit like Manhattan’s 34th Street, albeit with outdoor cafés and tango demonstrations. Though there is a surfeit of cheap clothes and electronics, the area is not without serious shopping interest.
The beaming face of Carlos Gardel, the unrivaled king of Argentine tango, smiles down from windows all along Suipacha, B.A.’s tango-supply street. (Stick to the end of the street closer to Diagonal Norte; as you walk farther up, the shopping scene devolves into toilet seats and girdles.) Of the many shops specializing in tango clothing and shoes—custom-made or not—Flabella Tango, where around $60 will buy a pair of glittery bright- blue heels, has an excellent reputation. “The best prices in town, the best service!” an American woman being fitted offers, unsolicited, on the day I visit.
If a lot of the stores in the elegant 19th-century Galerías Pacífico seem rather too familiar—Tiffany & Co., Timberland—there are also local favorites like La Martina, which specializes in polo clothes and accessories and has shirts decorated with two players rather than Ralph Lauren’s solitary rider. But the real draw at the Pacífico are the murals under the dome, painted by five Argentine artists in 1945, that depict nothing less than the history of mankind.
Somehow Sharon Stone discovered Plata Nativa and went crazy for the multistrand necklaces combining turquoise, amethyst, quartz, lapis, and other semiprecious stones. Buried in an unprepossessing mall on Calle Florida—you’d never find it just wandering around—this little shop yields a spectacular mix of antiques and newly designed jewelry. But it is the collection of vintage smalls that steals my heart. I am on the verge of buying a cow-shaped incense burner when I see a devotional figure—for a home?a church?—that is clad in a silver dress and holding a rod with a silver fish; I am a goner. Though technically not an antique—one of the owners, Leonardo Alche, thinks it’s about 60 years old—I rapidly fork over several hundred dollars. (Like so many other shopkeepers in this city, he happily takes American currency.)
If there is one neighborhood that epitomizes the retail renaissance of Buenos Aires, it is Palermo Viejo, also known as Palermo Soho. Droves of young designers have opened boutiques here, and more are arriving every day—in part an unwitting result of the post-2002 devaluation of the peso, an economic crisis that made importing designer clothes prohibitively expensive. Below are a few more of my finds, but the fun of shopping in Palermo Soho is wandering around and uncovering your own favorites.
An Argentine friend once told me that the women in town could be divided into two groups: hippie girls and sexy girls. The shoes at Divia are clearly intended for the latter: on a tufted-velvet pouf in the center of a fuchsia jewel box, Porteñas slip into high sandals embellished with jewels and strips of metallic snakeskin that cost a mere $175.
They’re gorgeous, but have nothing on the offerings at Lucila Iotti. A customer purportedly bought shoes here, wore them when she got home to Manhattan, and pretty soon the costume department for the Sex and the City movie—the Holy Grail in media footwear endorsement—reportedly came calling. A single stiletto revolves on a platform in the window; inside are lace-up high-heeled patent brogues in such color combinations as orange and gray, with orange heels.
A 1960’s vibe permeates Mariano Toledo, where a bright-green rug pops on the stark white floor. A pleated mini is accessorized with green floral tights and a shiny buckled bag—all three items seem to have taken a page from Pierre Cardin’s playbook. A long polka-dot dress that owes a debt to the mod designer Ossie Clark goes for about $630.
The little orange house where MU has set up shop was once a private home. Now the bathroom provides space for a clerk and a computer; doors have become worktables. The merchandise, selected by three owners and tapping the talents of more than 100 artisans, is a carefully curated collection of folk art figures, hand-painted scarves, dresses enhanced with appliqué flowers, and even a necklace made with orange felt circles.
There’s a blue Vespa parked just inside the door of Las Oreiro, owned by actor and singer Natalia Oreiro. Inside, the structural columns are covered in polka dots, and a canopy of crystals dangles over the cash register. Up a leopard-print-carpeted ramp, smocked sweaters are around $115, and there’s an evening bag made of ribbons with crystal handles, a rarity in this leather-obsessed town. Is it raining?Seco has clear plastic coats edged in red and white checks, matching checked plastic bucket hats, and other wet-weather gear you’ve never seen before.
Walk down a short corridor and ring the bell to enter Nadine Zlotogora, where a rich-hippie aesthetic rules. The frothy confections—tiered black dotted-Swiss dresses and speckled cotton knit blazers—avoid saccharine territory by being paired with the shop’s line of high-top sneakers. Then stop by Mercer, a humongous full-service denim store, if only to gawk at the interior decoration: floor-to-ceiling library bookcases filled with jeans; wicker fans turning lazily high overhead; floors covered with hundreds of patterned Oriental rugs.
Locals shuddered and shouted when rumors circulated in 1999 that this historic theater might be torn down. The building has been declared a landmark, but now the balcony, domed ceiling, cherubs, marble columns, and elaborate sconces embellish a first-class bookstore, Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid. You can get started on a good novel in one of the white and gold-leaf boxes or sip your coffee where the screen once hung.
If you’d prefer to catch up on your reading in your own lair, the sophisticated home accessories at Airedelsur may appeal. Though the showroom is sequestered on the ninth floor, it is in fact open to retail customers. Prices are in dollars, and its wares are a very good value, considering the quality and design level. Huge trays made of Argentine silver abound; a trio of stacking tables covered in goat leather is set in frames that look like wood but are in fact iron; and then there’s that fox throw that would warm up the most austere ivory divan.
Lynn Yaeger is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
1618 Arenales, Ninth Floor; 54-11/5811-3640
1924 Ayacucho; 54-11/4800-1575
Buenos Aires Design
2501 Avda. Pueyrredón; 54-11/5777-6000
1031 Defensa; 54-11/4362-7612
1489 Armenia; 54-11/4831-9090
Feria de Recoleta
Plaza Francia and Plaza Alvear, weekends; no phone
263 Suipacha; 54-11/4322-6036
737 Florida; 54-11/5555-5100
412 Humberto I; 54-11/4361-5019
1016/18 Defensa; 54-11/4361-3325
Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid
1860 Avda. Santa Fe; 54-11/4813-6052
2212 Malabia; 54-11/4833-0206
1450 Armenia; 54-11/4137-7777
737 Florida; 54-11/4804-1908
Mercado de San Telmo
950 Bolivar; no phone
4677 El Salvador; 54-11/4831-4891
4791 Gorriti; 54-11-915/6552-4791
4780 Honduras; 54-11/4834-6161
4638 El Salvador; 54-11/4831-4203
587 Peru; 54-11/4342-7154
Avda. del Libertador; 54-11/4814-7400
1477 Posadas; 54-11/4812-1417; home 1317 Posadas; 54-11/4815-9190
Galería del Sol, 860 Florida, #41; 54-11/4312-1398
San Telmo flea market
Plaza Dorrego, Sunday only; feriadesantelmo.com
1646 Armenia; 54-11/4833-1166
Tienda Puro Diseño
2501 Avda. Pueyrredón; 54-11/5777-6104
1940 Avda. Callao; 54-11/4806-4158