A big sprawling European city in the heart of South America, Buenos Aires is a mixed bag of grit and glamour, old and new. Built on immigration, it’s a place where the people still strongly identify with the homeland of their forefathers while feeling a deep love and fierce pride for the city they call home. Tour guides may send you out to tick off a list of sights to see but really, Buenos Aires is a city you get to know, not by star attractions and famous monuments, but by exploring its neighbourhoods. Get to know Buenos Aires through her cuisine and watch the world go by in any of the multitude of cafes and bars. The streets are filled with art and stories of political struggles just waiting to be discovered. Take your time wandering through the streets admiring the buildings, observing the people and sampling the local offerings and you will quickly get to know and love Buenos Aires. This list does include a few must see sights that are historically relevant but it’s mostly all about exploring this great city on foot and taking it all in.
1. Visit Plaza de Mayo
If you’re looking for the place to begin exploring Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo is it. There is a whole lot of history in this square in Montserrat and it is home to some of Buenos Aires’ loveliest buildings, most notably the Casa Rosada (Pink House). This government house, of a bright peachy pink hue, is the heart of Buenos Aires political life. If walls could talk the Casa Rosada would sure have some good stories to share. Home to the famous balcony where Evita addressed her beloved people, the Casa Rosada is an iconic building and a must see. Unfortunately, you can no longer take a guided tour through the building but it is still beautiful to admire from the outside. In the centre of the plaza is a monument to the 25 May 1810 which commemorates the revolution and consequent independence from Spain. Other impressive buildings around this square include the Banco Nacional de Argentina, the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, the Museo Histórico Nacional del Cabildo y la Revolución de Mayo and the Palacio Gobierno de la Ciudad Autonómica de Buenos Aires. The Cathedral is particularly impressive both inside and out. The Argentines are a passionate people with a long history of fighting for their rights so you can almost certainly expect to see some kind of picketing or protesting going on in the square.
2. Explore Montserrat and San Telmo
Two of the oldest suburbs in the city, they both warrant a jolly good explore on foot and luckily they are within walking distance of one another. From Plaza de Mayo make your way along Avenida de Mayo towards Plaza del Congreso and the very impressive congress building. Stop at Café Tortoni along the way for a morning coffee and some churros. This iconic and historic café is featured in every tourist guide out there and to be quite honest the coffee is nothing to write home about, but it is still a pretty cool little spot with a lot of history so it’s worth stopping by. Once you’ve had a look around Plaza de Congreso you should wander back through Montserrat to take in the sights. While it has always been a political hub it became a bohemian haunt in the 50’s when the artists and tangueros came for the cheap rent. This certainly gave the area a bit of character and soul. There are numerous old cafes and bars as well some of the oldest churches in town, notably the Iglesia de San Ignacio at Bolívar 225 and Santo Domingo Convent at Belgrano 422. Get onto Defensa and go south a few blocks till you reach Avenida Independencia; you’re now in San Telmo. You’ll know because you’ll start seeing old colonial houses and cobble stoned streets. San Telmo was once an affluent area but the well to do abandoned it during an epidemic of cholera when, those who could afford to, moved north. Like Montserrat, the bohemians eventually moved in and it has maintained its bohemian charm and is one of the city’s heart centres of tango. With tango comes tourism and today it is a pretty touristy area however it is still very charming. San Telmo flea market boasts many antique and knick knack shops as well as fresh produce and apparel. Plaza Dorrego is the main square in San Telmo with outdoor seating shared by all the surrounding restaurants, and tango dancers regularly perform here so it makes for a nice spot to enjoy some lunch and a show. Every Sunday there is a large antiques fair (Feria de San Telmo) run in the plaza and, like any self respecting Buenos Aires suburb, there is plenty of street art in the area.
3. Drink Mate in the Botanic Gardens
Drinking Mate (pronounced ma-teh) is a national pastime and you haven’t really had an authentic Argentine experience until you’ve tried it. It’s not something you order at a café (you can get mate cocido in tea bags but it is not the same thing), but you’ll see people everywhere you go walking around with their Mate gourds and a flask of hot water. You’ll also see lots of people selling the Mate gourds that come with a special straw with a sieve-like end that acts as a strainer (a bombilla). You simply steep the mate tea leaves in the gourd and drink through the straw. So if you want do as the locals do, get yourself a gourd & straw, a flask to fill with hot water and a packet of yerba mate and get yourself down to the park. Palermo boasts the city’s best parks, including the botanical gardens so that’s your best bet. The most important thing about Mate is that you share it with friends or family. Take a sip and pass it on.
4. Recoleta Cemetery, Plaza Mitre and the Floralis Genérica
Straight from the pages of any given tour guide, Recoleta Cemetery is certainly one of the most well known attractions in Buenos Aires, largely because it is the final resting place of many famous and prominent Argentines, including but certainly not limited to Eva Duarte Peron (Evita). There are few cities where I would consider adding cemeteries to the itinerary but this one is truly impressive with its many ornate mausoleums. It’s not hard to find Evita’s tomb, just follow the crowd. Next door is an exquisite colonial church, the Nuestra Señora del Pilar, both are definitely worth a visit. Mere minutes from Recoleta Cemetery is the Floralis Genérica, a large sculpture of a flower made of aluminium and steel with petals that open up in the morning and close again at night. This sculpture was gifted to the city by architect Eduardo Catalano in 2002. Whichever you visit first you'll pass through the Plaza de Mitre to get from one to the other; this leafy plaza is dedicated to ex-president Bartolome Mitre.
5. Visit La Boca
A trip to the suburb of La Boca to see the Caminito area is not really something that a Porteño (a Buenos Aires local) would do on their weekend, unless perhaps it’s to show friends from out of town. It must be said that Caminito is extremely touristy nowadays, however I still think visitors to Buenos Aires should make the trip. Images of colourful Caminito are some of the most commonly used for travel brochures and marketing for Buenos Aires however La Boca is a pretty poor neighbourhood. It is said to be dangerous if you stray too far from the main tourist streets but I think you just have to use a bit of common sense. Don’t go there wearing a River Plate shirt for starters. There are a few main cobble stoned streets of brightly painted corrugated iron houses, mostly now filled with souvenir shops and restaurants. True to its bohemian past there are art and craft markets and several tango performers in full costume charging for photo opportunities. What makes the area so interesting is its history. It has a very bohemian past and has always been home to new migrants who have come looking for a better life, many of whom came from Genoa starting from back in the 1830’s, giving the area a distinctly Italian vibe. There are many restaurants geared towards tourists which are all perfectly ok options but are (over)priced accordingly. I would personally recommend wandering a little further along Dr. del Valle Ibertucea towards the Estadio Alberto J Amando (The Boca Juniors home ground). There you’ll find a few little hole in the wall eateries serving cheap street food. Try a Choripan, a classic Argentine snack of a chorizo sausage in a half baguette, typically served with chimmichurri which is a sauce made of diced garlic, parsley, oregano, olive oil and vinegar. If you happen to go to La Boca when there’s a game on at the stadium, then you will find street food vendors serving barbecued meat sandwiches right on the corner of the street. They are there for the benefit of locals going to the game rather than tourists, which is exactly why you should choose them for your lunch or snack if you chance upon one. You can have a sit down restaurant meal in Recoleta or Palermo; you’re in La Boca, so why not have some street food with the people who actually live there?
6. Buenos Aires Night Market
The Buenos Aires Market is a roving food truck market that leans towards healthy food but doesn’t deny its attendees dessert or alcohol. It runs one weekend out of each month (from about 7pm each night until very late) and moves from one prominent Buenos Aires location to another. We loved it so much we went two nights in a row! There were loads of great food truck options ranging from grilled meats to kebabs to bánh mi to Colombian arepas and so much more. There were also many great bar options offering cocktails and craft beers.
Follow the Facebook page so you can see when and where the next one will be, fingers crossed it coincides with your time in Buenos Aires. Highly recommended!
7. Buy a book then read it over coffee at El Ateneo Grand Splendid
This city has a thing with book stores and you can not go past El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Like any good bookstore in Buenos Aires it boasts a large café with free WIFI so you can relax with your shiny new books and enjoy a cup of joe. (You should probably have a pastry while you’re at it, you know, in the spirit of doing as the locals do.) But the real highlight of this particular bookstore is that it was once a magnificent theatre. It has to be seen to be believed and has been voted one of the best bookstores in the world and it’s not hard to see why. The café is where the stage once was and you can also cosy up in reading nooks that were once box seats. DO NOT MISS THIS PLACE! Find it on Avenida Santa Fe 1860, between Riobamba and Callao.
*Disclaimer, if you speak Spanish and love books then this place is a dream come true, however, if English is all you have you may struggle to find much other than romance novels for some strange reason.
8. Go out for Parrilla
Unless you are a vegetarian, this is a rite of passage for any visitor to Buenos Aires. Barbecue, or asado as it is called here, is quite simply part of the social fabric of Argentina. What makes Argentine asado special is two things. Firstly, the parrilla, pronounced pa-ree-sha, is a large coal or wood burning grill oven, flamed by all the fat and juices of all the meat sizzling atop the grill, giving the meat that extra smokey goodness. Secondly, you might be thinking steak is the be-all and end -all in Argentina when in fact the star of their barbecues is often offal such as liver, blood sausage and sweet breads. There are are endless restaurants to choose from and most of them offer a mixed grill option. You can also just order whatever cut of meat you fancy individually, including various steak cuts, ribs, legs, shoulders, rumps, lamb, tripe, plain old chicken breast and a whole lot more. Bring a dictionary to avoid any scary surprises if you are not keen on offal. There will be plenty of great red wine options to pair and it is advisable that you arrive HUNGRY! Search www.guiaoleo.com.ar for the best rated parrilla restaurants in your area. Not all parrilla restaurants were created equal so do yourself a favour and research for a good one.
9. Visit the Evita Museum
Argentina’s most famous first lady and one of the most iconic women in Latin American history, Eva Duarte Perón was loathed by some but loved by more, with her supporters posthumously dubbing her Santa Evita. Evita lost her life to cancer at the tragically young age of 32, but she left behind quite a legacy. The Museo Evita, dedicated to the life of Eva Perón is based in Palermo in a house that once belonged to her foundation and was used as a transit home for needy women and children arriving in Buenos Aires in search of economic opportunities. Her story is a fascinating one and the museum, while not enormous, is excellent. After you have enjoyed it you can take a leisurely lunch in the lovely courtyard restaurant at the back. It was one of my favourite attractions in Buenos Aires, but then I am and have always been on Team Evita!
Find the museum on 2988 Lanifur, Palermo. I paid ARS$75 in February 2016, Argentina’s inflation means that prices change frequently which is why it can be hard to determine prices online.
10. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Buenos Aires’ very own fine arts museum, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes will not disappoint. It boasts an excellent and extensive collection of both international and Latin American art. Monet, Manet, Goya, Van Gogh, they’re all there but some of the most interesting pieces are those of Latin American artists such as Argentine Antonio Berni and so many more. As a bonus it is free to enter and enjoy. I also visited the Museum of Latin American Art (MALBA in Spanish acronyms) and while it too was excellent, it was much smaller and cost ARS$90 so while both are worthwhile, if you only have time for one I would highly recommend the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It is in Recoleta very near to the Floralis Genérica, as well as the Recoleta Cemetery so it fits in perfectly with a day of exploring Recoleta. Find it at 1473 Avenida Del Libertador, you really can’t miss it, literally and figuratively!
11. Take a tour of the Teatro Colón
Buenos Aires is bursting at the seams with charming architecture but the Teatro Colón wins the race and is in fact one of the most important buildings in opera worldwide. It’s AMAZING! You can enjoy its grandeur from the outside but if you want to see the opulent interior you can either try to attend a show or, if your timing in town (or budget) doesn’t quite work for that, you can take a guided tour instead. It opened on 25 May 1908 but has since been refurbished and is considered, acoustically, to be one of the best concert venues in the world. Easy to find on the city’s main avenue, Avenida 9 de Julio, it would be a shame to visit Buenos Aires and not check it out. Tours run between 9-5 all week, starting every 15 minutes however you may need to check ahead for English speaking tour times. For non residents it costs AR$180.
12. Eat aaaall the pastries
Pastries, known as facturas in Argentina, are ubiquitous and in the name of cultural experience you have licence to gorge yourself on them. The most typical is the medialuna, meaning half moon. This miniature croissant is sweet and delicious and can either be made with grasa (lard) or manteca (butter), the latter is sweeter and more common. Almost every café you encounter will have a breakfast offer that includes 2-3 medialunas with an orange juice and a coffee for a set price (usually not very much). In addition to medialunas, there are too many other pastries and cake options to list but many include fruit, custard and dulce de leche so you should definitely try working your way through a few.
13. Dine at Perón Perón Restobar
I spent a month in Buenos Aires and in that time dined out on many, many occasions. This was by far the best! In fact, instead of trying somewhere new I went back for more. Perón Perón Restobar is a restaurant in Palermo Hollywood themed on Juan and Evita Perón, and the Perónist movement in general. If the theme is Perónism, then the menu and décor is a celebration of all things working class. The reason why I think it is such a fantastic experience and a must do for visitors is that the menu features hearty soul food right from the tables of the Argentine people. Furthermore, they delivered the best service and put the most love into the food compared to anywhere else I have dined in this town. The menu features a lot of slow cooked meats (and offal, this is working class after all), seafood and comfort foods like mash and polenta; simple food cooked with buckets of love and oodles of flavour. They have a great little wine list and they even have a house brewed blonde ale named after the beloved Evita. The highlight of this place is the Marcha Perón. Every hour or so they blast out the song that any good Perónist knows and suddenly the whole restaurant is singing and banging their fists on the table. You see, this place is mostly frequented by locals and you won’t see many other tourists (although they will give you an English menu if you need). It’s such a unique experience and the closest thing you’ll get to experiencing authentic home cooking in an intoxicating environment (not just due to the Malbec). GO THERE! It’s on 2225 Carranza, Palermo Hollywood. Bookings are recommended – call 47776194. Two people can expect to spend anywhere between AR$500-$1000 and if it’s on the higher end you’ll wish you’d worn looser pants. The portions are very generous, the food it pretty hearty and the dessert menu beckons a serious look.
14. Check out Esquina Carlos Gardel and visit the Carlos Gardel Museum
Carlos Gardel is one of the most important names in the history of Tango. He was a singer and performer and was loved not just in Argentina but all around the world. A museum in his honour is based in the house where he once lived in Balvanera where there is an enclave of tango bars known as Milongas. The museum is very interesting although much of the English translations make very little sense. Just around the corner is the Esquina Carlos Gardel, a street in his name where you’ll find statues honouring him and some of his peers as well as a few restaurants and souvenir shops. You’ll find Museo Casa Carlos Gardel on 735 Jean Jaures and the Esquina Carlos Gardel is just a few short blocks away. This is a good area to enjoy a Tango show - check out http://www.esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar/tango-show-reservation.php for a few options.
15. Explore Palermo
Where to begin… Palermo is an enormous suburb, so big it is divided up into sub-suburbs such as Palermo Viejo, Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and Las Cañitas. While it is massively residential it is also one the best locations for tourists to stay as it has so much to offer! It is home to the polo grounds, the racing club, international embassies and numerous parks and green spaces. It has some of the best shopping in the city (around Soho as well as the Palermo Alto shopping centre) and in addition to scores of boutique hotels it boasts an extensive selection of dining options and nightlife. It is vey gritty and run down in parts and gentrified in others. It is generally very middle to upper middle class and is a great area to get a feel for life in Buenos Aires. While Centro, Montserrat and San Telmo are littered with tourist trap restaurants (many of which are really bad I’m sorry to say!), I'm convinced that Palermo is where the best gastronomic experiences are to be had. It is definitely the place to go to enjoy the true dining culture of Buenos Aires and the young Porteños. Here you will find more variety and innovation and a move away from the traditional steak, pizza, pasta, milanesa menu that you find elsewhere in the city (although you’ll certainly still find plentiful examples of that in Palermo too). If you’re after something healthy and light, "Comida Natural" is what you need to look out for. Vegetarians will be delighted to know that there is a growing movement of vegetarian and veganism in this meat and dairy fuelled nation and I found Palermo to have the most visible signs of this movement. Palermo is also one of the best parts of town for interesting street art, bookstore-cafés and design and homeware stores. Despite it being a little out of the way of the key tourist spots, the cheap and relatively efficient public transport means I highly recommend Palermo as a great spot to stay in order to get a true Buenos Aires experience.
If you have any other examples of top things to do in Buenos Aires, we’d love to hear about them so feel free to drop us a line or leave a comment below.
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