The “Café Notables” of Buenos Aires: A Guide

One of the most enjoyable things about Buenos Aires is the ability to visit restaurants and cafes that retain a sense of history and transport you into the first half of the 20th century. Buenos Aires is renowned for its café culture and there is arguably no greater example of this than in its list of bars and cafes that have been recognized by the municipal government for their unique cultural heritage – the so-called “Café Notables” and “Bares Notables”.

In this post, I will provide an introduction to the numerous cafe/bar notables located throughout the city to help you get a sense of how best to experience them during your visit to Buenos Aires.

What are Café Notables?

Café notables are historic cafes/bars, specially designated by the city due to their historic and cultural significance. These cafes may have been a gathering point for various cultural or political figures; may retain a unique architectural design; or may have contributed to relevant cultural or historical events.[1] Whatever the reason, you should feel that any cafe/bar notable that you are entering is special in some sense – even if it isn’t obvious at first glance.

Mar Azul

Why visit a Café Notable?

If you enjoy feeling like you’re walking into the past, a café notable would likely be worth visiting. Many are well preserved and retain strong historical ties. Some possess quite remarkable interiors and a number have hosted important cultural and political figures and/or served as the site where a major cultural work may have been largely produced. Nearly all of them possess a uniquely Argentinian charm that can bring you just a little bit closer to the feeling of what it might have been like for someone visiting in the first half of the 20th century.

While I personally think that the food offered in bar/cafe notables is not the best (and the coffee can be quite weak), many remain great places to read a book, work on your laptop or share a drink with friends. Most that I’ve visited retain an abundance of charm and personality and give you the sense that you’re visiting some place special.

Bar Dorrego

Personally, I enjoy cafe notables for a number of reasons. In those that I love most, I am visited by the sense that I’m connecting with the past and bringing it into my present experience. This feeling is most strongly invoked in those cafes and bars that retain their old-fashioned energy – in the way the service is conducted and/or in the interior design.

Beyond this, however, I enjoy connecting with the local population. Buenos Aires cafes are places where life unfolds: to spend hours in one is to play-act the role of a Porteño (what the locals of Buenos Aires are called). In this sense I tend to prefer those that are not strictly for tourists and which are not so over-priced that they become less inclusive to all segments of society (by age and class). Additionally, I am attracted to many because they provide a real sense of what the Germans call gemütlichkeit (insufficiently translated as coziness). As I tend to like spending time reading and working in cafes, I also value those that provide me with the comfort and space to effectively sink myself into a book or my thoughts.

I would note, however, that just because a café/bar hasn’t received a notable designation doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. Buenos Aires maintains a number of exceedingly charming old bars and cafes that aren’t officially recognized for whatever reason. I find many of these quite enjoyable and feel that they often afford even greater opportunities to make them your own special place. Such locations might also be far better spots for connecting with the local culture since cafe notables are often more expensive and overly populated with tourists.

Esquina Homero Manzi

Which cafes are considered Café Notables?

According to a May 2019 list released by the municipal government, 86 bars/cafes are currently recognized as notable. I’ve listed all of these (as well as a further 7 that previously had been designated) in a Google Map to help you get a spatial sense of where these cafes are located. This can give you an idea of which you might visit according to where you’re staying, living or visiting.

As you can see, the majority are located closer to the center, with a large cluster found between the area demarcated by Avenida Callao to the west (Congreso), Calle San Martin (Plaza de Mayo) to the east, Avenida de Mayo to the south and Avenida Cordoba to the north.

Which Café Notables should you visit?

Unless you’re planning on staying in Buenos Aires for an extended period, it’s going to be nearly impossible for you to visit all 86 of the café notables. To help you, this section will highlight a few that I find particularly worthwhile for various reasons. 

As a note, I wouldn’t necessarily expect my preferences to match yours. I tend to like more authentic places with fewer tourists, more locals, and less artificial charm (that is, where the effort to make it look old-fashioned hasn’t come across as forced and contrived) – though there are a few heavier with tourists that I still rather enjoy. I generally feel attracted to places that give off what the Germans call gemütlichkeit (coziness). I also tend to like to read or work in cafes, so there are some that I particularly like because they provide a suitable environment for concentrating and do not make you feel rushed to leave.

La Academia

As a general guide, I’ve color-coded the map as follows:

  • Green: Those I consider to be worth visiting
  • Yellow: Those that I like, but that aren’t among my favorites. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate going out of your way to visit.
  • Red: Bars/Cafes that are closed or under renovation (as of 7 August 2019)
  • Black: Those that I’ve visited, but which I didn’t consider to be anything particularly special. I wouldn’t bother unless you want to make a point of visiting as many as possible or unless you find yourself very close and looking for a drink.
  • Purple: Those that I haven’t visited (note: these could be closed)

Of the 56 that I’ve visited, you will find a brief description for most of those colored green or yellow by clicking on the associated icon. Some of these may also have photos that I took.

La Poesia (San Telmo), El Federal (San Telmo), Café Margot (Boedo), Bar de Cao (San Cristobal), Celta Bar (San Nicolas)

I decided to group these these together given the fact that all 5 are under the same ownership. As a result, there is some similarity across all of them, with the exact same menu found in each. While there is also similarity in ambience, there are some differences that can be observed. My personal ranking would be

  1. La Poesia
  2. El Federal
  3. Café Margot
  4. Bar de Cao
  5. Celta Bar

I’m particularly partial to La Poesia, El Federal and Café Margot. Given their location in San Telmo, La Poesia and El Federal will have their fair share of tourists – particularly during the evenings and on weekends. However, I don’t think it overly detracts from the atmosphere and you can still find a fair amount of locals there – particularly during the day. Each of these is a great place to have a drink in the evenings or to read a book or do some work at any time. The staffs there are exceedingly professional and several will speak English quite well to assist with your order should you not know much Spanish. The prices are reasonable and although the food and coffee isn’t anything to write home about, the charm more than makes up for it.

At La Poesia and Margot you can find plaques on some tables denoting the preferred seat of some famous person who used to frequent the establishment, adding to the sense of historical importance that they’ve preserved. The design is tactful – it feels historic but hasn’t been overdone in its effort to preserve and highlight this. The lighting in the evenings is soft, adding to the coziness, while efforts are made to keep the music soft to avoid detracting from the ambience. Most of these can, however, get quite lively during the evenings and on weekends so they can also be a great place to start your evening. For El Federal and La Poesia, if you’re visiting in the evening between Thursday and Sunday you will also likely be joined by street performers at some point who will sing a few tango songs (donations optional).

If you want some food to accompany your wine or beer, I’d recommend having one of their picadas and potentially their Tortilla Española (if you eat meat).

Café de los Angelitos (Balvanera)

A regular hang-out of the legendary Tango singer Carlos Gardel, the Cafe de los Angelitos takes its name from the tough street thugs known to populate the neighborhood back in his day. As one of these cafe notables that specializes in providing tourist-oriented tango shows in the evenings (for a fee), it maintains a large interior and sense of opulence in its decorations. I think it’s most notable comparison in terms of decor might be Cafe de Las Violetas. However, unlike the latter, Las Violetas attracts very few tourists during the day, making it a far more welcoming environment to work, relax and appreciate local culture. I’d suggest coming for morning coffee or afternoon tea.

Café Tortoni (Montserrat)

As the oldest cafe still in operation, it would be remiss of me not to mention Cafe Tortoni. In general, I have mixed feelings about this place. On the one hand, the interior is stunning and really transports you into the past. However, it’s almost strictly for tourists and doesn’t have the energy of being a living cafe where you can connect with local culture. Instead, it’s rather like a “cafe museum” at this point, overrun with tourists collecting instagram photos.

If you’d like to go, I strongly recommend being strategic in when you do so. There are often lines for entrance, particularly during hours of the day when the cafe provides free tango shows (check online). Personally, I don’t think it’s worth queuing up for, so I’d recommend coming either on the earlier side (before 11am) or in the evening (after 8pm) if you’d like to avoid the crowd. As you will almost certainly be nearby at some point during your visit, you could start or end your day of sightseeing there as part of a visit to the Plaza de Mayo area. Since the cafe doesn’t receive sunlight, visits during day- or nighttime won’t differ in terms of ambience.

Bar Brighton (San Nicolas)

Personally, I feel that Bar Brighton doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In terms of interior grandeur, this might be the most beautiful in the city, with the bar’s very elegantly carved wood stealing the show.

I tend to enjoy this place more in the evening for drinks, when the piano player gives it a further sense of elegance and the local (predominantly older male) clientele can be found accompanying him in providing vocals to Frank Sinatra songs (Spanish lyrics). While it is on the pricier side, drinks generally are accompanied by a very hearty set of complementary hors d’oeuvres.

Bar Brighton

Bar Roma (Balvanera)

I must preface this by warning you that Bar Roma might be the kind of place that only I could really love. Nevertheless, I found it to be oozing with charm and authenticity. During my visit, I was the only person there outside of a tomcat asleep on the bar, the owner and the main chef – both of whom seemed to be 90 years old. (The former would spit on the floor from time to time). The cat as well seemed to be using the men’s room since it smelled heavily of cat piss (but at least he was using the appropriate gender-assigned restroom).

Still, despite (or rather because of) this, it felt like I had been transported back in time. This is quite a peaceful place as well to have a coffee (not great) and do some work (they have internet somehow) or read/study. It’s right in the heart of an Orthodox Jewish community as well, so you can also enjoy people-watching through the window as wigged women and bearded men run errands and pick up their children from schul.

I absolutely adore it. I can’t promise that you will.

Bar El Progreso (Barracas)

If you’re visiting, it’s not particularly likely that you’ll find yourself in Buenos Aires’ Barracas district. However, this makes it a great place to get away from other tourists and submerse yourself in a more local environment.

Bar El Progreso (together with La Flor de Barracas) provides such an experience, delivering an old-fashioned and authentic environment in which to people-watch, read or work (though I had some difficulty connecting to their WiFi). Located only a short cab ride from La Boca, this could be a potentially worthwhile detour from any visit down to see El Caminito (particularly given how many tourists you’ll likely encounter while there).

Café Paulin (San Nicolas)

Located right next to Bar Brighton, Cafe Paulin is characterized by its round bar and mirrored walls which give it a very intimate feel. Renowned for its sandwiches, the menu can be a bit overwhelming to navigate. Regardless of your choice, however, you should expect very large portions and a feeling that you’ve stepped back in time to the 1950s. Bring your appetite.

Cafe Paulin

Petit Colon (San Nicolas)

Taking its name from its proximity to the Teatro Colon, the Petit Colon also comes through in delivering on the grandeur of its namesake. While it can get quite crowded in the evenings (particularly in catering to theatergoers), you can surprisingly find it quite peaceful in the mornings or in the afternoon following lunch. 

Petit Colon

If you looking for…

Architecture/Old-fashioned vibes

  • Cafe Tortoni (Montserrat)
  • Bar Brighton (San Nicolas)
  • Cafe de los Angelitos (Balvanera)
  • Petit Colon (San Nicolas)
  • Cafe Las Violetas (Amalgro)
  • Bar El Federal (San Telmo)
  • Bar Dorrego (San Telmo)
  • La Poesia (San Telmo)
  • Bar El Progreso (Barracas)
  • Bar Sur (San Telmo)
  • Cafe Paulin (San Nicolas)
  • El Gato Negro (San Nicolas)
  • Cafe Margot (Bodeo)
  • Bar Roma (Balvanera)
  • Rotiseria Miramar (San Cristobal)
  • Claridge Hotel (San Nicolas)
  • La Flor de Barracas (Barracas)
  • Le Caravelle (San Nicolas)
  • Bar Bidou (San Nicolas)
  • Bar de Cao (San Cristobal)
  • Confiteria Victoria (Montserrat)
  • Florida Garden (Retiro)
  • Esquina Homero Manzi (Bodeo)

Local culture/authenticity:

  • La Flor de Barracas (Barracas)
  • Mar Azul (San Nicolas)
  • Bar El Progreso (Barracas)
  • Cafe Margot (Bodeo)
  • Cafe Paulin (San Nicolas)
  • Bar Roma (Balvanera)
  • Le Caravelle (San Nicolas)
  • La Embajada (Montserrat)
  • Los Galgos (San Nicolas)
  • Bar Colonial (Montserrat)
  • Bar Brighton (San Nicolas)
  • Bar Britanico (San Telmo)
  • Bar Bidou (San Nicolas)
  • La Buena Medida (La Boca)
  • Confiteria Victoria (Montserrat)
  • Rotiseria Miramar (San Cristobal)
  • Petit Colon (San Nicolas

A good place for evening drinks

  • Bar El Federal (San Telmo)
  • La Poesia (San Telmo)
  • Celta Bar (San Nicolas)
  • Bar La Academia (Balvanera)
  • El Banderin (Amalgro)
  • Bar Brighton (San Nicolas)
  • Los 36 Billares (Montserrat)
  • Bar Seddon (San Telmo)
  • Los Galgos (San Nicolas)
  • Petit Colon (San Nicolas)

A good place to read/work:

  • La Poesia (San Telmo)
  • Bar de Cao (San Cristobal)
  • Cafe Margot (Bodeo)
  • Cafe Montserrat (Montserrat)
  • Bar el Federal (San Telmo)
  • La Flor de Barracas (Barracas)
  • Savoy Hotel (San Nicolas)
  • Bar Dorrego (San Telmo)
  • Petit Colon (San Nicolas)

Further reading: