BUENOS AIRES -- Even the most urbane citizens of Buenos Aires sometimes tire of the sheer scale and velocity of their grand capital. These days, when they seek an escape from the crowded boulevards, the fortress-sized museums and malls, and the steak-and-tango-frenzy of life in the big city, they head for Hollywood. Palermo Hollywood, that is, where trend-conscious locals go for retail and culinary relief.
Palermo Hollywood (dubbed so by newly arrived film and television companies) and the adjacent district of Palermo Soho (named for its burgeoning fashion and design scene) are in the Palermo Viejo quarter just a 15-minute ride from the city center, but they seem miles away. While soaring skyscrapers dominate downtown, here two and three-story buildings the color of ripe fruit -- cherry, raspberry, grape -- line the streets.
Huge old trees shade patterned sidewalks, and peaceful parks mark every few blocks. Everyone seems to be young, creative, ambitious, and good looking. And behind the quaint facades, wrought iron fences, and wooden doors, are surprisingly modern shops, bars, and restaurants.
Until about six years ago, the neighborhood -- roughly bounded by Santa Fe, Dorrego, Crdoba, and Juan B. Justo avenues -- was a sleepy, blue-collar barrio. With an ever-increasing influx of young artists and designers, it has evolved into a stylish, arty enclave where innovative design blends with retro, Bohemian, and kitsch.
Over breakfast at Bar 6 -- one of the area's first ''living room" bars, where goateed creative types, sharp-suited media folk, and slackers lounge at all hours -- Solange Abitboul, a graphic designer, explained how the transformation was sparked. A handful of entrepreneurs launched businesses here a few years ago when the area was still unfashionable. They took hold and drew hundreds of artists, craftspeople, designers, restaurateurs, and retailers to the area. The momentum spurred more and more new businesses despite an overall weak economy.
Hollywood's success inspired Abitboul to develop ''Saberadondeir" (''Know Where to Go"), a series of Buenos Aires neighborhood maps, the first of which was of Palermo Viejo/Hollywood. ''One day I was walking down the street, and I saw an interesting clothing shop but it was closed," said Abitboul. ''When I went to look for it the next day, I couldn't find it. I was very frustrated. So I decided to make a street map." Abitboul also thought others might be keen to learn about this up-and-coming district.
After five years, she has several versions of the map (restaurants, shops, attractions), and the number of places of interest has swelled from 20 to 500. ''But the maps are not for foreign tourists only," she said. ''They are for local tourists too. . . . The idea is to make it fun for people to come here and really notice what's around them."
What visitors will find is an enthrallingly diverse mix of historical and cultural influences. Like much of Buenos Aires, the area was built by Italians just over 100 years ago, but today it is home to descendants of immigrants from all over the world. This melting pot is reflected in the exciting variety of cuisines, shops, and architectural details found in the neighborhood.
Sabater Hermanos, a cheerful, heaven-scented soap shop, is run by third-generation soapmakers Martin and Sebastian Sabater. They gladly show customers how they craft soap with machines patented by their father. They are so enthusiastic, it's a treat to learn how sodium hydroxide is mixed with various fats, natural scents, and water, then cooked and formed into solid cylinders. It seems appropriate that Martin trained as a pastry chef. His soaps look like edible confections -- mint green, apricot, and coconut white.
Ricardo Paz traveled the world buying furniture, art, and collectibles, but it was here in his native Argentina that he stumbled upon a group of traditional artisans that inspired him to open Arte Etnico Argentino. Now the work of this group from Santiago del Estero fills his Hollywood shop. A small selection of beautiful wool and vicuna weavings and furniture hand-crafted with indigenous wood are on display. More items may be seen in a nearby workshop, by appointment.
Do not be deterred by the name of the local ice cream parlor, Bris. Yes, the owners know the Hebrew word bris means circumcision, but in Norwegian it means breeze. The only religious ceremony taking place in this colorful orange, blue, and chrome shop is the worship of homemade ice cream.
Unusual flavors like dulce de leche, made from a scalded milk spread that is to Argentina what peanut butter is to America, and a changing selection of ice creams made with fresh tropical fruits has made Bris a local institution.
A few blocks away, the ''sacred" cooking at El Manto, an Armenian restaurant, relies on family recipes that are generations old. Owner Juan Martin Vigarelli runs the front of the house furnished with high-backed medieval thrones and low-riding leather poufs. His mother, Margarita Abdajian, and Rosa Ganimian cook. Those who know Middle Eastern cuisine will recognize many elements: dips made from roasted red peppers and eggplant; liberal use of garlic, olive oil, and sweet spices; and flat breads, grilled meats, and cooling yogurt.
With the rate of exchange favoring the dollar, now is a great time to visit. A fabulous meal, including drinks and tip, will rarely exceed $30. And wherever you stop, the fiercely proud residents are welcoming, helpful, and eager to show off the best this rising neighborhood has to offer.
Maggie Rosen is a freelance writer based in London.
How to get there
Lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and Buenos Aires available at press time started at $1233 on American Airlines, connecting through New York.
Where to stay
011 54 11 4831 2102
A 15-room designer B&B in a 19th-century mansion with a lovely garden, library and English speaking staff. Rooms $60-110, including breakfast and taxes.
Where to eat
011 54 11 4833-6807
A grungy-chic, unpretentious bar serving international fusion cuisine. $3-$18
Fitz Roy 1715
54 11 4771 9926
Drinks and snacks. Comfy animal print chairs and avant-garde cocktails, try the basil daiquiri. $3-$8.
54 11 4832-6158
Superb tempura and a a deck set in a Japanese garden. $5-$18.
Costa Rica 4592
54 11 4833 6776
Cool, architect-designed ice cream parlor and general hangout. A generous cone is about $1.50.
Where to shop
Deva's Tienda Natural
54 11 4831 2467
Guru meets eco-chic: books, music, and all manner of accoutrements for everything from aromatherapy to yoga.
La Finca Mendoza
Costa Rica 4315
54 11 4832 3004
Gourmet specialties from Argentina's largest wine region.
54 11 4831 3004
Lovely artisanal soaps in traditional standard and quirky shapes.
Arte Etnico Argentino
El Salvador 4600
54 11 4832 0516
Ricardo Paz commissions pieces by artisans from Santiago del Estero in Northern Argentina -- plush wall-hangings, carpeting, and one-of-a-kind wood furniture.