“Las iglesias de Buenos Aires tienen ese no sé qué,” responded my friend after I kept bombarding him with pictures of churches via Whatsapp.
Yes indeed, they do. They have a certain splendor – breathtaking beauty, ornate altars, astonishingly well painted cielo rasos, amazing histories and enough diversity to keep you interested forever.
Ever since the “Golden Age” of Argentina, roughly from 1880 to 1915, Buenos Aires has been recognized as a mecca for culture and architecture in South America (‘The Paris of Latin America’, if you may).
The huge influx of European immigrants, mostly Spanish and Italian, a booming economy, and new sense of pride in a growing nation all stimulated the movement that led to the construction of the marvelous buildings that give our city its identity. If you keep your eyes open around here, you are never too far from discovering a new treasure.
It would be nearly impossible to make a list of all the cool buildings in this city – all the palacios, high-end turn of the century Parisian style apartments, awe-inspiring government buildings and banks, et cetera. So I’ve tried to get started by biting off a chunk that, while daunting, is a little easier to swallow.
The following is a list of ten of the coolest churches in the city. (Disclaimer: I’m not including the Cathedral in this list because that’s first-week-in-Buenos-Aires-mandatory-viewing. Also, ten or fifteen more churches could have easily made this list.)
Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento (Retiro)
This eclectic structure adjacent to Plaza San Martín and based on a 5th century French church is ornate beyond words. It has some of the best marble and woodwork in the city, a heck of a pipe organ, and a pretty cool story to go along with it.
It was commissioned by Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena in 1914, who lived just across the plaza in what is today known as the Palacio San Martin. The Anchorena family enjoyed a beautiful view of the basilica from their own balcony until Corina Kavanagh, a jilted lover of one of the Anchorena brothers, decided to exact her revenge by erecting the Kavanagh building and completely obstruct their view. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento | San Martín 1035
Iglesia de San Miguel Arcángel (San Nicolas)
This church has been around since before Argentina was even a country. And since its inauguration in 1788, it has seen some interesting history as well as a few changes. During the Second English Invasion of Buenos Aires in 1807, the British troops, taking on heavy casualties as they made their way down the street that today we call Mitre, sought refuge in the vestibule of the church, but were unable to pick the lock of the front door! (Evidently, the Hand of God has always been there to help us against the English.) Later, in 1853, the single tower was erected, and in 1918 the ceiling was repainted by the Italian painter Augusto Ferrari in what to my eyes can only be described as “Sistine-Chapelesque.”
Iglesia de San Miguel de Arcángel | Bartolomé Mitre 856
Basilica Santa Rosa de Lima (Balvanera)
Surely you’ve seen this awesome dome cruising down Avenida Belgrano headed towards Puerto Madero. Finished in 1928, Santa Rosa de Lima has a Byzantine-Romantic style unique in Buenos Aires, and is definitely one of the best-maintained churches in the city. Most famous for its giant copper cupola sustained by 18 green marble columns, the work was inspired by the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, Paris. It was inaugurated and blessed by then Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli who went on to become Pope Pius the 12th. Here’s to auspicious beginnings.
Basílica Santa Rosa de Lima | Av. Belgrano 2216
Nuestra Señora de Balvanera/ Santuario San Expedito (Balvanera)
This beautiful church in the middle of a not so beautiful neighborhood is best known for the multitudes that visit on the 19th of every month to light candles in the front courtyard. They do so to petition San Expedito, the Patron Saint of Urgent Causes. The interior of the sanctuary has not been altered since 1852 and has some of the finest and most elegant attention to detail of any of the churches on this list. Particularly attractive are the painted ceilings and inscriptions in Latin that border the entire room. Although colloquially known as Once, the official neighborhood name Balvanera comes from this church.
Nuestra Señora de Balvanera/ Santuario de San Expedito | Bartolomé Mitre 2411
La Parroquia de la Inmaculada Concepción (Belgrano)
Known in Belgrano as ‘La Redonda’, this beauty inaugurated in 1878 is based on the Pantheon in Rome, complete with Corinthian columns built of only the finest Italian materials. This church was so expensive to build that the parish had to sell some of its land, what’s now the Barrancas de Belgrano, to complete construction, and it took 20 years and several different architects to finish it. I’ll let you be the judge whether it was worth the time and the money. Just a block away from the Subte station at Juramento, this one is hard to miss – and in any case, you really shouldn’t.
La Parroquia de la Inmaculada Concepción | Vuelta de Obligado 2042
Basílica del Espíritu Santo/Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Palermo)
So here’s the one that you probably already know! Right in the heart of Palermo, this Romanesque style basilica boasts two beautiful towers and sits right in front of the Plaza Güemes. Originally constructed in 1907, it got a complete face-lift in the year 2000. As you can imagine, this pristine condition shines through in its perfect lines and aesthetically pleasing shapes. You can catch a glimpse of the towers from several different angles, each of which offers an interesting perspective. In addition, its right by the bicisenda that passes down Mansilla Street, so you have no excuse not to visit.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe | Paraguay 3901
Iglesia Santa Felicitas (Barracas)
Believe it or not, this is another story of spurned lovers making their mark on the history of Iglesias Bonaerenses. Felicitas Guerrero de Álzaga was south side high society debutante who was already a widow at the tender age of 24. After getting back into the swing of things, it seems that one of her suitors, Enrique Ocampo, didn’t take kindly to the news that he had been eclipsed by another young Porteño. Using the excuse that he wanted to return some gifts and love letters, he gained access to her living quarters and shot her twice in the stomach. She died the next day and her parents decided to erect this wonderful church in her name, and the church opened its doors on the 4th anniversary of her death in 1876. The façade has a bit of Neogothic feel, but the untouched and weathered brick sides of the building are its most charming aspect. It is also said to contain an intricate network of tunnels underneath the sanctuary.
Iglesia Santa Felicitas | Isabel la Católica 520
Basílica de San Francisco (Monserrat)
Smack dab in the middle of the most historical part of the city lies the esteemed Basilica de San Francisco. It’s history goes way back to 1583 when Juan de Garay, ceded this plot to the Franciscans. Obviously, the original structure of adobe and palm fronds didn’t last long, and in 1731, the construction of the structure that we see now commenced. The building was inaugurated in 1783, with a few touch ups along the way. This imposing structure is perfect to check out on a Sunday stroll through the San Telmo fair just a block away on Defensa Street.
Basílica de San Francisco | Adolfo Alsina 380
Basílica de San Jose de Flores (Flores)
You guys might have heard of Jorge Bergoglio, the Cardinal from the neighborhood of Flores who now lives in the Vatican. Well before becoming Pope, these were his digs. This one really knocks it out of the park. Everything about it is beautiful, inside and out. A mix between eclectic and classical, the church you see today was finished in 1883 when Flores was a fur piece from downtown. It’s not visited as often as it should be because Flores isn’t a very touristy neighborhood, but the truth is that there’s a Subte station of the same name that takes you right to the spot. Do yourself a favor and go take a look at this architectural work of genius.
Basílica San José de Flores | Av. Rivadavia 6950
Basílica de María Auxiliadora y San Carlos (Almagro)
I mentioned this hidden gem in my article last week about the Triple Frontier. One of Almagro’s treasures, the interior is one of my favorites of any church in the city. Before el Papa Francisco was baptized here, the greatest tango legend of all time, Carlos Gardel, honed his chops here in the boys choir. What makes it even cooler is that you’ll never find this church unless you intentionally go out in search of it. A combination of Neoromantic and Byzantine, the outside may seem underwhelming at first, but as soon as you enter the building, you’ll understand why the porteños call it la iglesia mas linda de Buenos Aires. Like San Expedito, its finest attribute is the meticulous attention to detail on the interior painting. There’s a reason why it’s the centerpiece for the emblem of the neighborhood of Almagro.
Basilica de Maria Auxiliadora y San Carlos (Almagro) | Hipólito Yrigoyen 3999
There are plenty of amazing churches that didn’t make this list, but hopefully I’ve provided a good starting point for the fledgling Buenos Aires enthusiast.
Get out there and get some culture!