Lucky you! You’re planning a trip to Buenos Aires! And what a genius idea that is because you’re about to discover a fabulous city. The Paris of the South (Sorry Melbourne, you can’t claim that title), Latin America’s European gem, home of the Tango, where great wine flows freely and football players are gods. The primary language may be Spanish but there are strong French and Italian influences in the culture, cuisine, architecture, lifestyle and even the dialect. Although Argentina is very European there are the descendants of the indigenous Guarani people and also a lot of immigrants from neighbouring Latin American countries, many of whom are Bolivian and Peruvian. There are also visible signs of a German influence as well as the largest Jewish community in Latin America. Throw in the Gaucho culture unique to Argentina, Uruguay and Southern Brazil and you have one fascinating melting pot of a city. Buenos Aires is the perfect gateway to South America and with world class dining, exceptional wine, copious amounts of Belle Epoque architecture, art galleries, museums, parks and plazas as well as a fierce rivalry between local football teams, there’s endless things to see and do.
Here’s a quick run down on the need to know basics of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires may be huge but when it comes to where to stay there’s really just a handful of neighbouring suburbs you should consider. I highly recommend Palermo, Montserrat or Recoleta which is where the vast majority of foreigners stay (for good reasons) however San Telmo, Almagro, Balvanera, Centro/Microcentro or Retiro would all be good options and all of these suburbs are an easy walk, train, subway or taxi ride away from one another so you can stay in one and still enjoy the others.
Palermo is so big it’s divided up into sub-suburbs - Palermo Viejo, Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and Las Cañitas. All of which have plenty of great restaurants and bars to check out. Palermo Soho gets pretty touristy while Palermo Hollywood is full of young professional Porteños. Palermo as a whole is the best place to stay for under 30’s and foodies of all ages and it has a thriving nightlife. You will also find numerous parks and gardens, the Polo Club, the Racing club and the Zoo here.
Montserrat is one the oldest parts of town and is full of attractions such as Plaza de Mayo, Casa Rosada, the cities oldest churches and many iconic cafes and tango haunts, making it a popular spot for visitors to the city. This area has a lot of history and is within an easy walking distance of Colonial San Telmo.
Recoleta is a beautiful, affluent, Parisian chic, safe and culturally rich suburb and a great area to stay for people who enjoy the finer things in life. You’ll find plenty of other tourists and expats here and you’re bound to fall in love with all the Belle Époque architecture and high end shopping. Highlight attractions include the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the famous Recoleta Cemetery.
San Telmo is where you’ll find beautiful old cobblestoned streets and colonial architecture and with its market and street tango shows it is a popular spot with tourists. Barrios(suburbs) like Almagro and Balvanera are less touristy so are great areas to avoid other tourists, practice your Spanish and absorb the lifestyle of your new Porteño neighbours.
Airbnb is your best bet for longer stays and can also be very competitively priced for short stays. There are tonnes of options in all the good areas.
For a mid-range modern and chic hotel option in the heart of foodie mecca Palermo try Dazzler Palermo
For a luxury stay you can’t go past the Palacio Duhau – Park Hyatt Hotel in Recoleta
See and Do
While Buenos Aires does have quite a few notable attractions I would say it is more a city for exploring the streets on foot and taking in the culture. There's copious amounts of politically charged street art, parks and plazas, cafes, restaurants and bars. There are numerous museums and galleries and extensive bookstores with in-house cafes making Buenos Aires a mecca for lovers of the arts. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) in Recoleta is not to be missed, nor is the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires(MALBA). Both have excellent collections of world famous Latin American art. If you want to learn more about the much revered Eva Perón (Evita) then you can't go past the Evita Museum in Palermo. Most visitors to the city make a trip to the working class barrio of La Boca to see the colourful streets around Caminito. The area has a fascinating history, being the arrival point and home to new immigrants throughout history and an area where Tango first evolved. San Telmo also stakes its claim to be the birthplace of Tango and you can enjoy exploring cobblestoned streets, colonial houses, an antique market and a plaza home to various (tourist trap) restaurants and tango performers. Visit Esquina Carlos Gardel in Balvanera for a Tango experience, there's even a Museum dedicated to the beloved Tango singer himself in the house where he once lived. You can't visit Buenos Aires without visiting Plaza del Mayo and the Casa Rosada and you'd be mad not to check out the very impressive Teatro Colón. Sporting attractions include Polo, Horse Racing and of course Football. The rivalry between local football clubs is as fierce as it gets, Argentinians are extremely passionate about their football and it's not unusual for games to end in brawls - especially at derby games between fierce local rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors.
Buenos Aires is a very European and cultural city and the best way to enjoy it is to get amongst the locals and enjoy their lifestyle. This means going out daily, socialising in parks, cafes, bars and bookstores, eating delicious food and having a good time no matter the day or season.
Facturas – or as you probably know them, sweet pastries. Medialunas (small half moon shaped sweet croissant-esque pastries) are ubiquitous and usually taken at breakfast with coffee and a jugo de naranja (orange juice). There are also innumerable amounts of other different facturas to sample for afternoon tea in the many cafes you will pass on your wanderings.
Empanadas – These savoury stuffed pastries are found throughout South America and Argentina’s version runs with the best of them. They can be filled with carne (beef or lamb), pollo (chicken), jamón y queso (ham & cheese) and papas (potato) or espinaca (spinach) for the vegetarians. Usually baked, sometimes fried, always delicious.
Pizza and Pasta – The Italian influence on Argentine culture is evident at every turn but perhaps nowhere more so than in the cuisine. Both pizza and pasta are mainstays of Argentinian cuisine, there’s even a day devoted to the humble ñoquis (gnocchi). And not just annually but monthly! On the 29th of each month it’s ñoquis del 29 and families (traditionally) make gnocchi for dinner. This tradition came across on the boats from Italy and supposedly came about because money would usually be tight at the end of the month and a simple dish of potato and flour was cheap to make and if you put some money under your plate it is said to bring you prosperity.
Dulce de Leche – There’s condensed milk and then there’s dulce de leche. Milk so reduced it turns into a dark gooey caramel delight. This stuff is everywhere in Argentina and often steals the lead role of other desserts. They drizzle it on waffles and serve a big gooey dollop of the stuff on the side of the classic Spanish dessert, the flan. You can buy it by the jar which is pretty much a green light to eat it by the spoonful.
Alfajores – Moorish in origin and more-ish by nature this sweet treat is a simple but perfect blend of two shortbreads glued together with, you guessed it, dulce de leche. Sometimes they take it a step further and coat it in chocolate. Either way it is a divine afternoon tea snack to go with your caffein fix.
Helado – Another trick from the Italian playbook, the Argentines really know how to do ice cream, some would even say they’ve out done the Italians at their own art form. The array of flavours is vast and wonderful and I feel comfortable in saying it’s the best I’ve ever had.
Asado/Parrilla – finally the thing Argentina is most famous for, meat. Meat meat meat. Barbecued meat (asado). There's only one way to cook meat in Argentina and that's on a Parilla grill. Everyone knows Argentinians love their steak but a good parilla will always include embutidos (offal). Morcilla (blood sausage) is very popular and you will also likely encounter chinchulines (cow chitterlings) and mollejas (sweetbread). For the less adventurous there's also plenty of chorizo sausage, bife de chorizo (porterhouse steak), ribs and pollo (chicken).
Vegetarians and Vegans - If you're a vegetarian or vegan and you're worried about finding things you can eat in this meat and dairy driven land, fear not. There is a growing movement of vegetarian and veganism so you certainly won't starve. I would highly recommend you stay in Palermo Hollywood as this is where you'll be able to find several places dedicated to vegetarian and vegan food, including a Vegan Pizzeria aptly named Pizza Vegana (on Angel Justiniano Carranza 1979). This is also the best area for finding health food stores.
Dining out – a few need to know points
Much like their Spanish and Italian ancestors, Argentinians dine quite late. While you can get a table at 7pm you'll be the weird gringo and will probably be the only table. The dinner rush doesn't kick off till at least 9pm. Don't be surprised to see families with young kids going out to eat at 11pm, even on a week night.
Some places charge a cubierto fee, a charge to cover the expense of tables settings or any ‘complimentary’ breads they might put on your table. These aren’t usually much (ARS$20-30) but don’t confuse this with a service charge or tip as it goes to the house rather than the wait staff. 10% of the bill is about right to leave for a tip in addition to any cubierto.
Service tends to be very slow and casual here and there's no such thing as a quick meal. Ask for your cheque in advance if you're in a hurry (or just don't be in a hurry!).
Tap water - It’s perfectly safe to drink but doesn’t taste amazing. Add a lemon wedge and you should be alright. At the very least it’s more than ok for brushing your teeth with. Don’t expect to be served tap water in restaurants, if you ask for water you’ll inevitably be asked “con gas o sin gas?” (sparkling or still). It will come in a bottle and you’ll be charged (but not too much).
Wine - DRINK AAALL THE WINE! You can pick up a decent bottle starting from around ARS$40 (from $3-4 US and Aussie) from the supermarket and enjoy it on a picnic in one of the many plazas. Pay a bit more and you can get yourself some of the best wine in the world. Argentina is famous for its Malbec but also produces many other excellent varieties too including fantastic Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
Beer - Argentine Quilmes and Patagonia and Brazilian Brahma (lagers) are ubiquitous and cheap as chips and quite frankly they go down bloody well in the Buenos Aires summer heat, but if you’re a beer connoisseur then you will thoroughly enjoy trying out the many craft beers available. Artisanal beers are a fairly recent trend in Buenos Aires, try your luck in the many trendy bars in Palermo to sample the best in Argentine hipster brewed ales, blondes, ambers and dark beers.
Struggling artist? Frugal backpacker? You can get a discount on 1 litre beer bottles when you return the empty bottles from last time at many small supermercados. You’ll need the empty bottle and the receipt. Look for places with crates of empty beer bottles stacked out front.
Aperitifs and Digestives - The strong European culture shines on in the form of Campari, Aperol, Fernet (et al) and Limoncello everywhere you turn and there’s nothing wrong with that! (these are also insanely cheap at supermarkets)
Coffee - Usually Porteños take their Café con Leche (with milk/latte) but if, like me, you prefer black then just ask for an espresso or espresso doble.
Yerba Mate - one of the most Argentinian things you can drink besides Malbec, Mate is so much more than just a tea, it's more like a national pastime. Common in not just Argentina but also Paraguay, Uruguay, Southern Brazil and some Andean regions, yerba mate was enjoyed by the indigenous Guarani people long before colonisation. Prepared and served inside a calabash gourd and drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla which has a sieve like end, there is a little bit of an art form to steeping the tea leaves just right. It's really common to see people walking around with not just the gourd and straw but also a flask of hot water so they can make themselves mate whenever the desire arises. One gourd and straw is typically shared between friends who take a sip and pass it on, don't be surprised if someone offers you a sip. Argentinians love relaxing in a park with good mate and good friends.
Terere - A summer play on traditional Mate, Porteños brew it cold and top it up with ice and a splash of orange juice (or maybe other fruits). This is both delicious and refreshing!
Taxis - The best way to get into Buenos Aires from Ezeiza Airport (the main international airport) is by taxi. There are a few reputable taxi companies with a kiosk there and you can negotiate how much it will cost in advance by providing the address of your accommodation so you’ll never need to worry about a taxi driver ‘taking you for a ride’ so to speak. You can pay in advance in cash, in my experience cards weren’t accepted. You can expect to pay between ARS$500 to ARS$700 to get from the airport to Palermo. Taxis for moving around they city are reasonably priced. Be sure to flag an official taxi, Radio Taxis is a common and reputable company.
El Subte - The Subway. Get yourself a Sube card from a Kiosko (convenience stores, not to be confused with the many magazine kiosks on the streets) and then top it up at a Boliteria (ticket booth) which you'll find either in front of or inside the subway station. There are 5 main lines and they make getting around the city easy and insanely cheap. One trip costs ARS$4.50 (roughly $0.45 Australian and even less in USD). Not all subway carriages are air conditioned so they can get stuffy when it’s busy but for those prices who cares! Plus you may just catch a travelling busker to entertain you on your journey.
Trains – The Sube card works on the trains too, and having recently been upgraded, they are excellent. They are new, clean and air-conditioned and you have a good chance of getting a seat. If you need to get somewhere it’d be worth checking if you can get there by train. Oh and they’re even cheaper than the subway! See here for train lines and station information.
Buses - I haven’t been game enough to try and navigate the complicated bus system here but if you are brave you can try as there is a comprehensive bus network and if you can figure them out then they’re sure to be a cheap way to get around. See here for bus line information. You can click where you are and where you need to go and it will give you your options.
Hop on Hop off Bus Tour – Buenos Aires Bus offers the city’s best tourist bus option and while it’s much pricier than taking public transport (ARS$350 for 24 hours) it can be a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time without the hassle of figuring out local public transport networks.
The official currency of Argentina is the Argentine Peso (ARS). Until December 2015 there were strict controls on the exchange of foreign currency in Argentina, creating an underground market for foreign exchange, particularly US Dollars. Alongside the official exchange rate was the unofficial “blue rate” that could be obtained from unlicensed operators. In Buenos Aires most of these “cambio” operators congregate along Calle Florida, just off Plaza Del Mayo. The difference between the two exchange rates was up to 40% so it was a lucrative business for both the operators and for tourists with hard US currency.
However, the new President Mauricio Macri removed the currency restrictions in mid December, resulting in an overnight devaluation of the Peso of around 35% against all major foreign currencies – meaning that instantly Argentina became 35% cheaper for overseas visitors (particularly those without ready access to physical US Dollars).
ATM’s are widespread, mostly operated by local Argentine banks but some global banks such as Citibank and HSBC are present.
Acceptance of major international credit cards is somewhat widespread but ensure you have photo ID as this has to be presented along with the credit card.
There is no sign of the Paywave/Paypass technology that is common-place in AU and NZ these days.