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All we can say is, thank goodness we didn’t start our travels here.
Back in May 2010, we almost kicked it all off in Buenos Aires, but had we done that we may have just settled right down and never left. There is just simply so much to see and do in the Argentine capital it could keep even the most ravenous culture vultures busy for years.
Read on for our Globetrottergirls guide to Buenos Aires for our top recommendations and tips for this incredible city.
It would be almost impossible not to end up on the Plaza de Mayo at some point in Buenos Aires, indeed this is where many people start. The square is home to the Casa Rosada (meaning ‘pink house’), which is the seat of government but more popular to tourists for the balcony where Eva Perón made her famous speech in 1952. The plaza also becomes the beating heart of political protest gatherings, including both the Mothers and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo who gather every Thursday in a complex tradition relating to their ‘disappeared’ kin during Argentina’s dictatorship. On a lighter note, the Catedral Metropolitana is easy to miss, but has a stunning interior and an all silver altar.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid
The El Ateneo bookstore chain converted a magnificent old theater into what is now its flagship store. As if browsing through books under the ornate ceilings of the El Ateneo Grand Splendid weren’t special enough, you can also take a stack of books into one of the box seats or onto the actual stage, which is a café with tables and couches to relax and read.
Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires, and you can enjoy it in many different ways: private lessons, a night at a milonga (tango bar where locals dance), watching performances on the Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo or at the restaurants at El Caminito, parks have tango nights, like Sunday evenings in Parque Barrancas del Belgrano or you can opt for the big budget, glamorous shows which include steak dinner and wine, or go vegetarian style at La Catedral, a laidback combo of classes and milonga in a converted warehouse with cheap vegetarian food and wine. Unfortunately we ran of time to take part in the famous queer tango in Buenos Aires.
Feria de Mataderos
The Feria de Mataderos is a weekly street fair that takes place in Mataderos, a western suburb. You can see gauchos (cowboys) in a horse riding competition, folk dancing, live music and market stalls sell cowboy handicrafts and farm products. The Feria is nothing like the rest of Buenos Aires and offers you a glimpse of Argentina’s gaucho culture.
The Feria de Antigüedade (Antiques Fair) is the city’s most popular market and is held every Sunday, stretching from Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo’s main square all the way down La Defensa street to the Plaza de Mayo. Not exclusively an antiques market, you can also pick up loads of souvenirs, food and mate, and there are always musicians, street performers and tango dancers around to entertain the crowds.
Recoleta and Chacarita Cemetery
Recoleta Cemetery is on every visitor’s list and not only because it is regularly named one of the top ten most beautiful cemeteries in the world. The famous Evita is buried here, in one of the more underwhelming mausoleums, belonging to the family that rejected her in her youth. The story of her eventual burial here is fascinating, as is the architecture and art within the cemetery, but if you have the time, we recommend heading out to visit Chacarita cemetery, which has equally beautiful mausoleums, just loads and loads more of them on a much bigger property, all without the groups of cruise ships tourists you get at Recoleta.
Buenos Aires has plenty of green spaces, and especially in the spring and summer time, they make for great places for a picnic or just a stroll. We loved the Bosques de Palermo, the green spaces around the Floralis Generica sculpture, and Plaza San Martin. Our favorite green space though was the Botanical Garden, which is free and, much to Dani’s excitement, filled with cats looking for cuddles.
San Telmo is the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, dating back to the 17th century. The neighborhood is filled with grand mansions and colonial buildings, some beautifully restored, others slowly fading. You’ll find plenty of antiques stores and little independents, cafes and restaurants along the sleepy cobblestone streets any day of the week but Sunday, when the whole neighborhood turns into a big street party during the San Telmo Antiques Market.
Plaza Dorrego is the heart of the ‘hood, but people watching is best in the Parque Lezama, a little park in the south of the barrio. On the north side of the park is the first Russian-Orthodox church in all of South America, the Iglesia Ortodoxa Rusa de la Santísima Trinidad.
Instantly recognizable as home to its famous cemetery, this exquisite residential neighborhood is well worth exploring, if only for its Parisian-style architecture. The ornate buildings are constructed with materials all imported from Europe – the marble, the tiles, sweeping chandeliers and street lamps along entire avenues, plus street signs and fountains. The Fine Arts Museum in Recoleta has free admission.
This area was home to a short-lived port which then became a deserted industrial area for years before renovations in the last couple of decades converted Puerto Madero into one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city. This is Buenos Aires’ only attempt at a skyscraper skyline, and the waterfront itself is lined with fine dining restaurants and bars in converted warehouses. Even if you are on a budget, just strolling along the docks with an ice cream in hand, or stopping for a glass of wine at sunset feels great.
Easily the trendiest of all Buenos Aires barrios, Palermo is a sprawling amalgamation of several smaller nabes like Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood, and rumor has it that bordering Chacarita, decidedly grittier, is on the road to being usurped into the Palermo bubble and will be known as Palermo Brooklyn. Palermo is where you will find the Lacoste shops and fine dining experiences, but it is also home to the Plaza Serrano bohemian market surrounded by cheapie bars, a large concentration of street art, creative indie cafes and bars that make hanging out here during the afternoon or late into the night so much fun.
Home to gritty shipyards and the Italian immigrant population who worked there in the late 19th century, La Boca was left in shambles when the shipyard was moved away. A painter in the 1960s began painting the houses, subsequently reviving the area. El Caminito (‘the little way’) is a pedestrianized area with Italian taverns, tango bars and those signature colorful houses. It is a tourist attraction, and maybe too touristy for some, but it is a popular stop, especially on weekends with a popular crafts fair and streets lined with tango dancers and buskers.
We toured the bejesus out of BA, and one of our top picks was with BA Free Tour company who offer two different free walking tours, the City Tour in the morning and the Aristocratic Tour in the afternoon. Both lasting over two hours, these free tours offer invaluable information about history, culture and life in the city. We took the Aristocratic Tour and, like many others, enjoyed it so much that we went on the City Tour as well.
Street art tours
The streets of Buenos Aires are covered in art and we just so happen to be street art junkies. That said, it’s hard to cultivate any sort of knowledge outside of the most famous street artists like Banksy or Shephard Fairey, so we were both ecstatic when we discovered we could go on a street art tour in Buenos Aires for a full-on inside look at the scene in Argentina. Our guide was so passionate about street art, and we learned so much that by the end of tour we could easily recognize the artists of many pieces even outside the Palermo / Chacarita area of the tour.
Despite the traffic and the summer heat, Buenos Aires is actually a fairly bike friendly city. There are several bike tours (including a street art bike tour by the same group above, Graffitimundo) and various companies have tours of the city center, the north or the south, or even all the way to Tigre, a popular little river town outside of Buenos Aires which locals use as an escape. We would recommend booking a bike tour on the weekend, when the population of Buenos Aires practically cuts in half.
Buenos Aires inspires any kind of artist, but as a photographer, the entire city is your playground. If you are interested in photography and improving your skills, jump on the highly recommended Foto Ruta tour, which is like a mix of scavenger hunt and sightseeing tour in the company of fellow photo buffs.
We love taking cooking classes and try to sign up for one whenever possible. We weren’t sure if Argentina, with its meat culture, was the place to do it, and at first most the tours we found were meat-focused. But then we discovered Teresita’s Culinary Tour. You can read more about our experience learning how to make empanadas and sampling (quite a few) Argentine wines here. If you are not into cooking, but into food, you could join the BA Food Tour, which is a walking tour during which you will sample some of the typical Argentine dishes and introduces visitors to some of the city’s hidden local restaurants.
Puertas cerradas, closed-door restaurants, are basically restaurants set up in a person’s private home. You can make a reservation via email, and once your seat is confirmed, you find out the actual address. This kind of restaurant is very popular in Buenos Aires and you can choose between fine dining options like Casa Felix, Asian cuisine at Cocina Sunae or vegetarian food at Jueves a la Mesa. You can find more closed-door restaurants in Buenos Aires here.
For the omnivores out there, Buenos Aires is synonymous with steak, so you’ll likely spend much of your time in a parrilla (steak house). We can’t personally recommend any, but we have asked around and both La Cabrera and Siga La Vaca get rave reviews.
Millions of Italians immigrated to Buenos Aires in waves, and the influence is seen in the people’s light European skin, exaggerated hand gestures and pizza. The streets are littered with pizzerias, and though we love Argentina style pizza, we quickly learned that it is only worth eating at the best spots otherwise the very same ingredients of dough and cheese make for less than mediocre pizza. On the bright side, there are tons of great places and we may or may not have had pizza 15 times in 6 weeks to test this out. We highly recommend (though our arteries may disagree) El Cuartito for the best cheesy pizza, Los Inmortales for a sophisticated Argentine chain and the best empanadas, FILO for thin-crust Italian style pizza and El Guerrin for a quick slice at the stand-up pizza bar.
When in doubt, go for the Napolitana, which is just mozzarella cheese (called muzza in Argentina), thick slices of tomato and topped with olives (as all pizzas are here). Oh, and if you call yourself a true pizza fan and are feeling truly gluttonous, order a dulce de leche pizza a la mode from Bakano, in Palermo.
How in the world the Argentines stay so thin is beyond us (though probably has something to do with all the walking they do during all the metro strikes!). They love their sweets, which are not just regular sweet, but more ‘if I take another bite my tooth will disintegrate in the sugar’ type of sweet. This is due to the main ingredient in almost everything, dulce de leche, which is like a super sweet caramel, but don’t call it that or the locals get in a huff.
- Alfajores – These are genius and must have been invented by children. An Alfajor is essentially two (or sometimes three) cookies with dulce de leche in between, then sometimes dipped in and covered in chocolate. There are hundreds of brands, but we can recommend Cachafaz, Havanna and most fresh ones from bakeries or cafés.
- Medialunas – As you walk around town, you’ll notice almost every local restaurant has a breakfast deal of three medalunas and a café con leche (coffee with milk) for a good deal. Be careful…medialunas are strangely addicting! They are sweet, but not too sweet and it is surprisingly easy to be able to eat three croissants so quickly. We loved the ones at popular café chain Bonafide, at Ditali in the micro-centro and Memo’s, a small local café on the Avenida 9 de Julio.
- Gelato – Ah, another great Italian influence! Gelato is so popular here there are almost as many ice cream shops as pizza places. The one you’ll see the most is Freddo, then Volta and Persicco (we both preferred Volta). In the never ending mystery of the slim Argentina waistline, it is completely and totally socially acceptable (if not expected!) to buy and eat ice cream by the kilo. We scarfed down plenty of flavors like Dark Chocolate and Banana Split, but it should come as no surprise that most places offer at least 10 different dulce de leche flavors.
We discovered these late in our stay, and even though they are best described as ‘heaven in a ball’, we’re happy we only had a week eating these little cheesy bread rolls. They don’t look like much, and the cheese seems subtle, but when you bite down your mouth is flooded with happiness. Just jump in to any Disco supermarket and pick up a few fresh ones at the bakery and see for yourself.
For all the junk food we ate while in BA, we were able to offset it completely thanks to the high number of healthy vegetarian restaurants in the city. We were shocked when we did a quick search for restaurants on Foursquare, only to discover 14 vegetarian restaurants within a mile radius of our apartment alone! From vegetarian buffet-style lunch takeaways to entirely vegan restaurants, there was no shortage for us vegetarians. Some of our favorite veggie restaurants included La Esquina de las Flores, Naturaleza Sabia and Bio, an all-organic restaurant.
Some useful tips for your trip to Buenos Aires
- The subway system is easy to navigate but limited in its reach, however, the buses are outstanding. Check out the ¿Cómo Llego? feature on the Buenos Aires Interactive Map website, where you enter start and end points and it gives you all available options in real time. Our friends at OverYonderlust wrote a step-by-step guide how to navigate ¿Cómo Llego?, even with limited Spanish knowledge.
- Only take Radio Taxis if you want to cab it as they are licensed and trustworthy. The words ‘Radio Taxi’ will be visible on the car, so pay attention, as all taxis are black and yellow. Other taxis are unregulated, unlicensed and often times have rigged meters or no meters at all. Also, when paying, don’t let your original bills out of your sight until the transaction is complete, as these sketchy cabbies are known to switch money for counterfeits right under your nose.
- Don’t change money with the money changers on Calle Florida. It is the famous place to exchange your dollars (because ATMs and even banks do not do exchanges into US dollars), and the arbolitos, or ‘little trees’ promise you a good rate, but mix in counterfeit bills or just plain rip you off. Because they are unregulated, there is no real way to protect you or get your money back.
- If you will be in town for a week or more, why not rent an apartment. Buenos Aires is an expensive city, and while $35 will get you a double room at a mediocre hostel, it will also pay for a decent apartment with total privacy and kitchen access. If your budget can stretch up to $70 a night, you’ll get a fab apartment, with gym and even a swimming pool. Plus, we offset our pizza intake with homemade salads and had healthy breakfasts instead of medialunas and café con leche every day. We booked our apartment through Wimdu.com, a lesser known apartment rental service with better rates on the exact same apartments also listed on more popular vacation rental sites.
Have you been to Buenos Aires and have other useful tips? We would love it if you shared them in the comments!