“It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.”
— Ernest Hemingway
Picture it: Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford and Gertrude Stein and others, sitting at cast-iron tables on Paris sidewalks, drinking coffees or something stronger, talking art, philosophy and literature. What is it about cafes – at once a place for solitary thought and social gatherings – that inspires writers and students to work? Buenos Aires, a famed city of Latin American literature, commonly referred to as ‘The Paris of South America’, certainly has a vast array of beautiful, European styled cafes rich in atmosphere, style and diversity for the many aspiring writers, poets, playwrights, actors, film makers and students of other disciplines who live in the city. There is something to suit every type of personality. Old and new, here are some of this writer’s favourite places (almost all WIFI enabled) –
Cafes for the Legendary Argentines
You revere Borges, Cortazar and Sabato, as haunted as Alfonsina Storni. You dream of spending your days writing in cafes as Cesar Aira does. You drink wine like you drink coffee like you drink water. These are the cafes that suit you:
La Poesia (Chile 502, San Telmo)
The atmosphere of its literary tradition is apparent from the moment you enter La Poesia, a famed corner cafe in San Telmo. The walls are hung with photographs and writing from the famous authors, poets, intellectuals, tango lyricists and philosophers that have passed through the cafe over the years.
Although one of the better known cafe notables (a long list of cafe/bars deemed culturally significant by the city), La Poesia usually hosts a healthy mix of locals, tourists and ex-patriots. During the day through to dinner time, conversation is at a comfortable hum and never too busy for you to work.
El Federal (Carlos Calvo 599, San Telmo)
El Federal has one of the most unique and beautiful bars; it is a hand carved wooden arched inlaid with stained glass and centerpiece antique clock. If you’re luck, you might find a seat at the bar beneath the arch to pore over your book or laptop while dunking medialunas into your black coffee like a real Porteño. Should you require inspiration, El Federal is also conveniently located two blocks from Walrus Books (Estados Unidos 617), a fantastic English language bookstore in Buenos Aires with an excellent selection in secondhand and new fiction, poetry, philosophy and more.
Bar Británico (Brasil 399, San Telmo)
This beautiful corner cafe opposite the park (Parque Lezama) in San Telmo is perfect for night owls as it is open twenty-four hours (except for Tuesday mornings from midnight until 8am). Checkered floorboards and white-coated waiters, like many of the fine cafe notables, it feels as if you have stepped back through time. Argentine great Ernesto Sabato was reputed to have written here and the bar also served as one of the shooting locations for the film The Motorcycle Diaries (2004).
Cafes for the Lost Generation
You read Proust. You identify with the trials and tribulations of Madame Emma Bovary. You reject societal standards and live by the existentialist dogma of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Satre. You are partial to writing (terrible) poetry. You think you’d feel at home at here:
El Banderin (Guardia Vieja 3601, Almagro)
El Banderin ‘the flag’, is so named because this neighbourhood cafe in Almagro is decorated with hundreds of flags of football clubs from Argentina and elsewhere around the world.
The owner Luis is a grand old fellow; with his fringe of wispy white hairs around a bare crown, he looks somewhat like an Argentine Michael Gambon. What makes this a great place to write is the ambiance. The music is a varied “easy listening” playlist, with Marvin Gaye and Pulp to the Kooks, but played at a very low volume. The conversation is at a comfortable din – judging by the interaction between Luis and the customers, they are mostly regulars. It’s location outside of the usual tourists hubs means it is rarely crowded. Prices are relative low, for Buenos Aires of course.
Croque Madame (Avenida de Libertador 902, Recoleta)
While Croque Madame is a little expensive for a regular study or writing spot (the coffee is only Nespresso…), the beauty of its setting, and the inspiration that it may draw out, is worthwhile. The cafe is located within the grounds of the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, in the old guardhouse or servant’s quarters beside the entrance gate to the courtyard. If weather permits, the garden is a fantastic reading spot; sit in the shade of a large tree gazing out on the cobblestone forecourt, listening to the pleasant trickle of water spouting into the small fountain from the mouths of stone turtles. There, it’s easy to imagine yourself in a villa somewhere in the French countryside.
For further inspiration or a study break, visit the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo (entrance fee is only AR$20 – August 2016), a large French Neoclassical mansion which houses an impressive collection of classic European and antique East Asian artworks. Nearby, just a few minutes walk down Libertador, is the Museo Nacional de Bella Artes, which has a free and excellent collection of classical Argentine paintings and regularly features exhibitions from other parts of Latin America.
Cafes for the Modern Macbook Bloggers
You are a graphic designer, fashion blogger or a tech wizkid. You live your life on the move, fueled by good, strong barista-made coffee. You are beholden to the internet, the 24 hour news cycle and Pokemon Go.
LAB. Tostadores de Cafe (Humboldt 1542, Palermo Hollywood)
LAB is an airy, loft space with tall windowpanes which allow in a lot of natural light. The bar is pleasantly open planned so that you can see the baristas at work. There are long stretches of table that are comfortable for working and a good selection of local handmade pastries for snacking. Upstairs you’ll find a large, shared table if you are really looking to hunker down for a long stretch of work or less traffic.
Felix Felices & Co (Jose Antonio Cabrera 5002, Palermo Soho)
Bright and airy, Felix Felices is a small but comfortable cafe, which in this writer’s opinion, makes the best coffee in the city (or tied with Lab’s coffee). On Fridays, Sheikob’s Bagels, a pop-up bicycle homemade bagel GOD, will provide for your lunchtime needs.
Urban Station (Various locations: http://argentina.enjoyurbanstation.com/en/home-english/)
Not a cafe per se (although you can help yourself to coffee and pastries), Urban Station is a co-working space and an excellent choice for those who require an occasional, professional work space whilst in Buenos Aires. They have fast broadband, printing and copying, messenger and postal services, conference rooms, lockers, stationary, even hire bicycles for when you need to take a break to relax. There are several branches conveniently located throughout Palermo Soho & Hollywood, San Telmo and Microcentro.
Cafes for the Beats and Deadbeats
You read (and identify waaaay too closely with) Henry Miller and his literary offspring; Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs and the rest of the Beats. You drink beer and whiskey and love with a wild and depraved desperation as Bukowski. You mine material from your misery and the collective miseries of humankind. Melancholy is your natural state. Down and out in Buenos Aires? These are some of the cheapest tables in town to pass the time over a torn paperback, a cup of black coffee or a steak sandwich.
Varela Varelita (Avenida Raul Scalabrini Ortiz 2100, Palermo)
Varela Varelita is a no frills, neighbourhood corner cafe where philosophy students and old folks hang out to drink coffee and read all day long. The tables by the large windows are the best; if you can get in early enough to beat the old guys that will sit there all day long reading the paper.
La Academia (Avenida Callao 368, Balvanera)
A cafe and pool hall near the theatre district downtown, La Academia is open 24 hours and a popular haunt for students and night owls. It’s central location near the transport hub around the Obelisk means it is a good location for meetings. It is also enticingly close to the many pizza places on Corrientes, where you can carb-load before you get started on your work or grab a late night cheap slice after, say from somewhere like Guerrin (also open 24 hours).
Cafes for the Hipsters
You read only the translated works of obscure Latin American and Korean fiction produced by independent presses from Portland or Austin, Texas or else Brooklyn, New York. You hate Jonathan Franzen but worship David Foster Wallace. We think you’d be into these spots:
Musetta Caffe (Billinghurst 894, Almagro)
Musetta might have been transported directly from the East Village in New York City to Buenos Aires. It is a warmly lit cafe with beautiful secondhand furniture, comfortable sofas in the shade of a tall bookcase overflowing with books, jazz, soul or R&B played softly, as if on the edge of consciousness. To reward yourself for a long day’s work or study, they also serve a very reasonably priced Negroni.
Malvon (Serrano 789, Villa Crespo)
Malvon is beautifully set inside an old home in Villa Crespo and tastefully decorated with a mixture of antique and eclectic furnishings. It is a popular spot for brunch and its freshly baked breads. However, the post lunch hours at Malvon are more relaxed and a good place to work. If coffee isn’t strong enough for you, these guys can make a pretty mean cocktail; their Negronis or Cynar Juleps are highly recommended.
Cafe Crespin (Vera 699, Villa Crespo)
A bright corner cafe also well known for their in-house baked goods. Not as pretty as Malvon, but the coffee is better at Crespin. Avoid Crespin around brunch on the weekends as it tends to be crowded and noisy and you will often have to wait for a table.
Cafe San Bernando (Avenida Corrientes 5436, Villa Crespo)
Reading and writing does not come to mind when one thinks about Bar San Bernando, an all night dive bar-cafe that is more well known as a late night student’s drinking spot. However, it is a good, quiet, and a cheap spot in Villa Crespo to work during the day time, over an inexpensive black coffee beside the retirees playing dominoes and falling asleep in their chairs. When the sun goes down, wait for all the pretty and fashionable hipster kids (all philosophy and literature students, actors and poets) to fill the place from around ten o’clock onward (almost every night) for cheap beer, pool and ping-pong. The only let down – No WIFI!
Biblioteca Nacional (Agüero 2502, Recoleta)
The final recommendation for a writing and studying spot that isn’t a cafe (although there is a perfectly serviceable cafe in the garden downstairs and a very basic cafeteria on the third floor with great balcony views), the Biblioteca Nacional is an excellent and free facility in Recoleta. It is remarkable for its brutalist architecture (it looks like a spaceship straight out of a Soviet era science fiction film), its views, especially from panoramic pane glass windows from inside the main library on the fifth floor.
Unlike all the previously mentioned cafes, this is a serious, serious working space – the silent atmosphere and the concentration of the university students around you greatly helps with ‘zoning in’ – highly recommended if you want or need to get a lot of work done.
Make sure you bring your passport if you are intending to visit and use the library. Hand your passport to the reception desk and ask for the fifth floor (‘Quinto piso’). You will be given a ticket which you should hold on to; this is to demonstrate to security that you have checked in. If you are bringing a backpack and laptop, you must show these to the security guards at certain checkpoints. On the fifth floor, there will be areas outside of the main library in which you can sit and study. If you prefer to use desks, you will need to pass through another security check into the library itself, where you are not allowed to bring in bags. There are lockers nearby for you to hold your bags – just make sure you have a spare 2 peso coin to use as a deposit.