Though New York has already claimed the title, Buenos Aires should really be known as the city that never sleeps, especially considering that all of its major neighborhoods host at least one tango event seven nights a week, each usually going until dawn. These events, called milongas, always draw a crowd, no matter what day of the week it happens to be. Often, if you go to enough of these, you will start to see the same faces every night.
Indeed, a fistful of the city’s 2.8 million inhabit a different world from other Porteño locals, living on a different clock in order to dance tango. These night-dwellers — usually joined by a circulating mix of out-of-towners — spend eight or more hours every evening in one of Buenos Aires’ nebulous tango venues, found in the basement of an Armenian cultural center, at the top of a claustrophobic, creaky staircase or just beyond an empty pair of storefront windows.
Of course, tango has made the city famous, and tourists come from every corner of the world to see the dance’s exotic drama in its hometown. However, tango has gradually developed a clear distinction between tango “shows” (listed in most guidebooks) and “milongas” in order to cater to both casual tourists and hardcore milongueros (people serious about tango).
It is worth losing a night’s sleep (and skipping a tango show or two) to explore this fantastic underground scene. Here are a few milongas to get you started on your after-dark adventure:
Warm yourself up by learning a few basic tango moves at one of the city’s largest beginner tango lessons. Located in Almagro, this neo-goth venue hosts evening lessons before the milonga, which sometimes features musical performances from a local band. The lessons are usually packed with international college students and locals who stumble and bumble together as they learn how to walk around the floor. Beginner lessons are hosted Monday to Sunday at 7:30pm and 9pm.
La Maldita Milonga
Bask in the haunting melodies of classic tango at this once-per-week milonga. Situated up the stairs of an old building in the picturesque neighborhood of San Telmo, the event is hosted by El Afronte (translating to “In Your Face”), a local tango band that has an uncanny knack for making old tango tunes sound brand new. Get there early if you want a table; but if they’re taken, don’t worry: attendees aren’t afraid of sharing their space (especially if you ask politely with a bottle of malbec in hand).
Party like a Porteño at one of the more divey tango venues in the city, set in the basement of the Armenian Cultural Center in Palermo. Bilingual beginner and intermediate lessons are held Wednesday to Sunday (times vary) before the dance, which consists of salsa, tango and 1950s cheese-pop. Things start to heat up again after 2am since even more dancers head here once other milongas shut down. Order a ham and egg pizza and bottle of champagne at the beginning of the night; then end with an early breakfast: a plateful of warm, flakey medialunas and a café con leche.
Get all gussied up for an evening at this famous tango venue in Palermo, where 1920s tango singer Carlos Gardel is still considered to be a god. It’s a bit on the snootier side, but you will see some of the best dancing in the city since Salón Canning frequently hosts performances from world-famous tango couples. Head over on Monday, Tuesday or Friday for a quirkier, more alternative milonga called Parakultural.
Tango under the stars at this outdoor milonga in Plaza Barrancas de Belgrano. This event has been hosted every Saturday and Sunday since anyone can remember, and still draws a crowd even through the cold winter months. Throw your stuff in one of the piles around the floor (carefully netted off and watched over by the organizers) and then mingle with the friendly older attendees that are always willing to strike up a conversation with newcomers.
Alison fell in love with tango three years ago and has not stopped dancing since. Last August, she went on a solo journey to the tango mecca of the world — Buenos Aires — where she danced from dusk to dawn for 30 nights in some of the city’s most fabulous tango venues. Today, Alison lives in San Francisco where she spends much of her free time dancing in the city’s vibrant tango scene.