6 Authentic Venues for Tango in Buenos Aires
Look no further than these milongas to experience the passion of the dance in the city that celebrates it best.
Amid the glitter and limelight of Tango Buenos Aires, the festival dedicated to Argentina’s best-known cultural export held August 16–30, it’s hard to recall that tango emerged from the grimy underworld of South America’s southernmost capital.
It developed in the city’s bars and brothels, practised by immigrants from southern Europe who in the 50 years from 1860 turned a compact city of 90,000 into a teeming metropolis of more than 1 million.
Without a common language, the newcomers invented their own—Lunfardo, an impenetrable dialect infused with the oaths and supplications of a hundred mother tongues. Squatting 10 to a room in tenements and shanties—unsettled, uncertain and consumed by nostalgia—the immigrants poured their frustration into music and song.
The tango later passed from bordello to bourgeoisie, but glimmers of its darker roots can still be seen at the city’s milongas, or open-floor neighbourhood dance nights. Beginners and aficionados hone their steps as singers recount tragic tales of hardship and struggle, of love won and lost, of prostitutes and drugs and of silent death that strikes on a dark night.
The decaying elegance of once-grand marble stairways and mahogany panelling and the twice-weekly matinees make this centrally located milonga popular with beginners. Suipacha 380/4, 54 11/5265 8069
Tradition reigns at this authentic milonga in run-down San Cristóbal: invitations to dance—always by men—are made with a cabeceo, or quick nod. To refuse the invitation, the woman simply averts her eyes. La Rioja 1180, 54 11/4957 7157
The young and lithe are drawn to Palermo’s hottest milonga by its eclectic mix of tango, swing, rock and samba. Don’t be put off by the venue’s Spartan décor. In true neighbourhood style, it doubles as the gym of an Armenian social club. Armenia 1366, 54 11/4774 6357
A tumble of oil paintings and sculpture cascades from the ceiling of this former granary, now one of the city’s hippest milongas. Located amid disused warehouses in the Abasto district, its shabbiness is part of the act. Sarmiento 4006, 54 15/5325 1630
A place to watch, not dance, intimate Bar Sur is tucked down a cobbled backstreet in atmospheric San Telmo. A dozen tables surround a tiny dance floor, where a live tango orchestra steams through the classics. Estados Unidos 299, 54 11/4362 6086
With a cabaret-style dance troop and lavish stage production, this dazzling, tourist-oriented show traces tango’s evolution from the 19th century to the late beloved maestro Ástor Piazzolla. Vieytes 1655, 54 11/4303 0231
Buenos Aires–based Colin Barraclough’s articles and photographs regularly appear in magazines such as Travel + Leisure.