Neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires have the ability to rise up from shabby, dusty, unknown corners to hubs of urban splendour in only a few years. Palermo, now considered the centre of Buenos Aires's restaurant and fashion scene, was practically a no-go zone only a few years ago. Now, it seems whatever Palermo touches turns to gold, and next in its reach is the neighbouring blue-collar barrio of Villa Crespo. Among its industrial buildings and car-repair shops, you'll find some of the city's most impressive street art, best leather shops and at least one bar that would be equally at home in the chicer parts of Brooklyn or Berlin.
In the past decade, lax laws, political unrest and a handful of artists sparked Buenos Aires's red-hot street art scene - now considered one of the biggest in the world. What used to be limited to quick graffiti tags has developed into towering works of art to be admired rather than erased. Villa Crespo is the home base for a few core artists, and has some of the more impressive pieces in town. With the artist community's blessing, an enterprising group of aficionados started Graffitimundo - guided tours where you can learn the artist's names and personalities, and the stories behind the scenes painted on the walls (54-911-3683-3219; graffitimundo.com). "This artist only paints what he loves and what he hates," said Kristy, of Graffitimundo, peering up at a portrait of a lap dog on the side of a building. "And he hates little dogs."
Step aside Calgary, this is the real cowtown. It's not surprising that a culture that swears eating meat at every meal is the secret to good health and has much of the best beef in the world also offers good shopping for leather. Save time and go directly to Murillo Street between Malabia and Acevedo, a block stuffed with Argentine leather and cowhide shops selling jackets, shoes, bags, purses and furniture. Most shops have more or less the same goods at the same price, but Las Santas del Sol sells Polo-inspired fashion, very Gaucho Ralph Lauren, and its decor of worn Persian rugs, lamps and forest-green walls makes for a pleasant perusal (Murillo 648, 54-11-4855-3001, lassantasdelsud.com). Across the street is Rezaduro, a modern label, younger than those you'll find on the rest of the block (Murillo 619; 54-11-4855-6309).
There's no shortage of bars in this nocturnal city of 15 million, and Bar 878 still manages to stand out as one of the best. On an unassuming, quiet street in Villa Crespo, an ornate wooden door typical of the neighbourhood leads to a tall room with exposed brick on one side and colourful spirits on the other. It's populated most nights by stylishly dressed hipster types (the breed is universal in its fashion sense) eating from the well-edited menu of Argentine tapas and international fare (bruschetta, grilled meat, empanadas). Keep walking through the next large, heavy door to the back room and sit along the comfy banquette lining the walls. This is where the serious drinking occurs, and you can choose from a staggering list of cocktails, with whisky-based beverages topping the list. That said, the Pisco Sour topped our table's must-have list. Thames 878, 54-11-4773-1098, 878bar.com.ar
You're in Buenos Aires so you really have to tango at least once. Lucky thing is it doesn't have to take two. For singles, one particularly welcoming class for newbies is the Friday-night nuevo-tango lesson at Club Villa Malcolm on the edge of Crespo. The unassuming, unpretentious vibe may be thanks to the club's roots (it was founded almost a century ago by a group of 12-to-14-year-olds who wanted a place to play football). Beginner class starts at 8:30 p.m. on Fridays. Later on, at about 11:30 p.m., there is a milonga, where you can practise your steps, or for the less ambitious, sit back over a glass of malbec and admire the pros Córdoba 5064, 54-11-4772-9796, buenosaires.gob.ar/areas/deportes/clubes/detalle.php?id=17).
The morning after
Cafe Crespin is the kind of place you want to go with a bunch of girlfriends for Sunday-afternoon brunch (Vera 699; 54-11-4855-3771; cafecrespin.com.ar). Throw inhibitions away and order orange-spiced French toast and extra-buttery scrambled eggs with a side of potatoes and bacon, and a round of cafe con leches, marvelling at the reasonable prices. The conversation lightly touches on crazy Argentine politics and plans for the long weekend ("Should we take the ferry to Uruguay or stay in the city?"). The afternoon slips away while you relax in the airy, light-filled room over a mango shake ("The service is so good here!") and contemplate whether you'll ever go home.
Special to The Globe and Mail