The beating heart of Argentina and the starting point of many Argentina tours (and Antarctic cruises), Buenos Aires is considered South America’s most European capital. It would be wrong to visit and not indulge in the city’s tango and steak (stay with me, vegetarians). But much of BA’s charm is found in strolling its streets and parks, or relaxing in its cafes. You’re not going to want to rush anyway, while on an Argentina vacation, so take your time admiring the diverse architecture, and enjoying this country’s healthy artistic appetite.
With that said, Buenos Aires is a huge city with a wide variety of neighbourhoods, or barrios to explore. Each has its own distinctive look, flavour, and attitude, but there are certain barrios you absolutely should not miss. Yes, you’ll find plenty of other tourists, but you’ll be surrounded by a local culture so rich that for just a moment, you might forget you’re one of them.
The business district of Buenos Aires may not sound romantic, but it does include a couple of fascinating sights that’ll put the rest of your trip into perspective. The most famous building here is the Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace, which stares across the Plaza de Mayo at the Cabildo museum. A visit to all three is a great way to put your Argentina vacation in perspective. Take a moment to step inside the looming Metropolitan Cathedral too. Centro is also home to Argentina’s most famous landmark, the Obelisk, located on the corner of Avenue Corrientes and Avenue 9 de Julio, the world’s widest street. Just one block to the west, you’ll find the famous Teatro Colon, considered one of the five best concert venues in the world. You can comfortably see most of Centro’s sights in a leisurely day. Many locals suggest skipping nearby Puerta Madero, unless you came all the way to Argentina to look at luxury apartment buildings and eat at TGI Fridays. Still, a night-time walk along the Rio Darsena Sur can lend the area an almost romantic quality. It’s also a great time to see the picturesque engineering marvel that is Puente De La Mujer, the rotating footbridge that crosses the canal.
Many locals and expats will also tell you to skip working class La Boca, but it’s still worth a look for two main reasons. One is Caminito, the (once deserted) street of brightly painted houses now used to advertise a thousand Argentina tours. This has been a haven for artists since Benito Quinquela Martin completed its colourful makeover in 1960, and it remains so today. It can also be something of a tourist trap, so enjoy the atmosphere and free open-air tango shows, snap a few photos, then leave to get better value for your peso elsewhere. Football fans have another reason to visit La Boca. World famous La Bombonera is the spiritual home of soccer in Argentina, and a clash between the local Boca Juniors and River Plate is the stuff of football legend. Unfortunate side note? This is one area where you should stick with the tourist crowds. It’s still quite poor, and things have been known to get a little rough away from the main attractions. Avoid it after dark too. There are far safer, more interesting places to spend your BA nights, such as…
On a Sunday in Buenos Aires, San Telmo is the place to be. Calle Defensa turns into the city’s largest street market/party (it’s a fine line) that more than justifies spending at least half the day here. San Telmo’s decidedly mixed history, frequently changing hands between rich and poor, has built up one of BA’s most intriguing patchworks. It’s a bit touristy but also sophisticated, and while undeniably beautiful, it still presents a rough, Bohemian edge. It’s also one of the best barrios to find great food and tango. That means amazing steak and wine (vegetarians, I will get there, I promise), alongside various international cuisines. It’s a great spot to sample Argentinean street food too! Tuck into an empanada, or smother a choripan (pork and beef chorizo in bread) in chimichurri and set your taste buds dancing. Just don’t kiss anyone for an hour or two afterward unless you plan on repelling vampires.
Vast, cultured, and always hopping Palermo is one of the most popular districts with Portenos (Buenos Aires locals), even though many lament its gentrification. Parks, cafes, bars, theatres, nightclubs…not to mention Jorge Newbery Airfield are all found within its boundaries. Simply put, Palermo is huge, and if you want to experience Buenos Aires like a local, you’re going to spend a good amount of time here enjoying trendy shops, cafes, and restaurants, along with some of BA’s best attractions. Stroll through the Botanic Gardens, along with Argentina’s best Japanese Gardens. Let the Museum of Decorative Arts delight your taste for pretty things with its astonishing range of objects and furnishings. Immerse yourself in regional culture at the Museum of Latin American Art, or wander into the many small, local galleries to see what BA’s best and brightest artists are up to right now. If you want to learn about Argentina’s most famous great lady (undistracted by song), stop by the Evita Museum, right near the Botanical Gardens. Return to Palermo if you’re looking for a place to party after dark. Just remember, no self-respecting Argentinean sits down for dinner before 10pm, or hits the bars before midnight…or the clubs before 2am.
If you fancy a day at the posh end of town (and you should, the architecture is exquisite), you’ll want to spend it roaming Recoleta. The big draw here is the Recoleta Cemetery. It’s less morbid than it sounds, particularly when you consider the beauty and historic significance of some of its mausoleums. Eva Peron is indeed here (follow the tourists), but if Buenos Aires is the Paris of the South, Recoleta is its Pere Lachaise, where many of the country’s most noteworthy presidents, actors, artists, journalists, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, and intellectuals have been laid to rest. In short, there’s a lot of Argentinean culture and history within these gates. Stop by the National Museum of Fine Arts for more local culture, or bask in the shadow of one of BA’s most famous artworks, Floralis Generica, a gigantic metallic flower that opens and closes with the sun’s movements. Book lovers also shouldn’t miss El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Built in a former theatre, this opulent bookstore is considered one of the most beautiful anywhere in the world.
Consejos Finales (Final tips!)
A few days in Buenos Aires is a must on any Argentina vacation. But keeping a few local tips in mind can make all the difference between a good trip and a great one.
- Don’t rush. There’s lots to see and do in neighbourhoods loaded with atmosphere, but shops and attractions open later than you might be used to. It’s perfectly normal to go home/to your hotel for a nap in the early evening before going for dinner at 10. Younger visitors to Buenos Aires have earned a reputation for reporting bleary-eyed for a morning walking tour after a full night clubbing!
- Vegetarians, take heart. BA might not be your ideal foodie town, but you certainly won’t starve. Palermo and San Telmo both offer a variety of good vegetarian restaurants. You might want to skip the ready-made supermarket options though. Your taste buds will thank you. Finally, don’t hesitate to say, “Soy vegetariano/a.” It makes your point much more clear than simply saying you don’t eat carne (which in Argentina is a euphemism for beef).
- If you’ve been looking into Argentina tours for a while, you might have heard about the so-called blue rate on local currency. This is outdated information, so don’t stress over it. The “official rate” was abolished in December of 2015, bringing the operating exchange rate to almost the same level as the blue rate. That means you’re getting an exchange for your dollar that’s as fair as anywhere else in the world. Blue rate exchanges still operate, but they’ve always technically been illegal, and since there’s no longer any financial benefit to using them, they’re best avoided.
- Buenos Aires is one of the safest big cities in South America. But while violent crime against tourists is rare, a little caution will ensure your valuables don’t go missing. Walk with bags strapped across your body, not just hanging from your shoulder, and keep them at your feet or on your lap when you’re seated on the metro, or in a café or restaurant. Don’t stop if someone spills or sprays something on you. It’s a distraction tactic, while their accomplice relieves you of your valuables. In terms of ‘bad neighbourhoods,’ tourists have little to worry about, though La Boca and the massive parks of Palermo should both be avoided after dark. Petty theft can be a problem in San Telmo, but a little vigilance and good sense will help keep you out of trouble.
- The water in Buenos Aires is safe to drink straight from the tap, and emergency treatment at public hospitals is available to tourists for free.