Imagine a fusion of the best aspects of top US cities: LA’s climate. New York’s restaurants. Chicago’s architecture. Miami’s attitude.
That’s Buenos Aires. Hands down, the ideal place to get a taste of the good life, South American style. Buenos Aires has a thriving café culture, grand boulevards, beautiful parks and an array of museums. And the kind spirit of the porteños (“people of the port”) make for a very welcoming city as well.
We spent two glorious weeks in Argentina’s capital city, which made up for the harrowing 22-hour bus ride from Bariloche. We found Casa Pequeño, a short-term stay studio apartment through Maxim Rentals. Located in the trendy Palermo neighborhood, an area known for its central location, walkability and safety. We started off nearly every morning with a cappuccino and a “medialuna” (similar to a croissant) at one of the many charming outdoor cafés along Oro Street. We’d watch as dog walkers passed by, delivery people made their rounds and professionals hurried off to work.
To get our bearings, we began our wanders downtown in Buenos Aires’ oldest public square.
Plaza de Mayo has been the site of many important events, from celebrations to protests – hence, the graffiti. Casa Rosada (“Pink House”) is the presidential palace dominating the square and offers free tours for visitors. From the balcony here, Eva Perón (Evita), former First Lady of Argentina, gave her final speech before her death in 1952. A champion of women’s and workers’ rights, her presence continues to be felt throughout the city.
Nearby, Calle Florida, a bustling pedestrian street, is the place to see-and-be-seen. Lined with casual eateries and retail shops, it’s jam-packed at all hours of the day. Street performers, typically subpar tango dancers, entertain the crowds for tips. After getting our fill, we ducked over to more tranquil side streets. On Montevideo, we stumbled on Etzio Heladeria for an afternoon treat of the most delicious, and surprisingly, inexpensive, ice cream.
Strolling down Avenida de Mayo reminded us of the Champs-Elysées, the grand boulevard in Paris. We passed by Café Tortoni, a famous French-style café with its iconic Art Deco storefront. The sound of Spanish-speaking patrons reminded us we were indeed, in South America, not France. Eventually, we ended up at Buona Guiunta for some delicious and authentic empanadas.
And that’s how our week went. Each day, we’d venture further afield and get to know other distinct neighborhoods.
Recoleta is one of Buenos Aires’ most elegant and refined neighborhoods. We headed out to the popular weekend fair in Plaza Francia. Street markets are everywhere in the city. Vendor stalls typically spill out onto the sidewalks, selling everything from handmade art to mate cups and straws. After perusing the wares, we joined the locals on the expansive lawn and spent an hour or so relaxing in the sun and people-watching. Across from us, the impressive Museo de las Bellas Artes stood stoically on Avenue del Libertador – a visit for another day. It was simply too beautiful to be inside.
We stopped in Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, a former monastery and the second oldest church in Buenos Aires, before arriving at Recoleta Cemetery. The final resting place of Argentina’s wealthy and powerful is one of the world’s most extraordinary cemeteries. Over 6,000 elaborate mausoleums, from Gothic chapels to Greek temples, line the “streets” of this mini graveyard city. Many feature sculptures of mothers with babies who had both died during childbirth – a reminder of the benefits of modern medicine. Tombs typically feature a gated door. Some have steps that lead down to a crypt inside – perhaps for additional family members. Other tombs were totally destroyed. Rain and other elements had shattered stained glass ceilings or collapsed the roofs. Seeds sprouted, plants grew and the graves simply surrendered to nature.
Before leaving, we asked the groundskeeper about Evita’s tomb. We found it hidden in the center of an unassuming aisle, wedged between other tombs. A simple grave with the sculpture of an eternal flame on top. An understated marker for such a remarkable woman.
While Recoleta reflects upper class life, San Telmo offers a more working class feel.
A gritty, bohemian neighborhood, Buenos Aires’ oldest barrio features colonial buildings, cobblestone streets and leafy plazas. If you can block out the onslaught of tourists, it offers a glimpse into the city’s historic past with its old-world cafés, tango parlors and antique shops. Crowds are especially prevalent on Sunday when the“Feira de San Telmo,” a large, outdoor flea market takes place.
After encountering our fair share of dusty antiques and jewelry-making hippies in Plaza Dorrego, we ducked into Mercado de San Telmo, a beautiful old building housing various eateries. Pulling up a bar stool at Café del Mercado, we shared a delicious, homemade lasagna. Afterwards, we visited the nearby Parish of the Immaculate Conception and Santa Domingo Church, then dutifully got a photo with the famous Mafalda Statue. Mafalda is a beloved cartoon character and icon of Argentina’s popular culture. In her honor, a sculpture of her sitting on a park bench can be found on a quiet backstreet in San Telmo. The addition of her two friends, Manolito and Susanita, came after our visit.
Another neighborhood worth exploring is La Boca with its colorful homes and predominantly Italian heritage.
Like San Telmo and other parts of Buenos Aires, we heard that La Boca can be unsafe. From Palermo, we took a local bus to the area. We stopped in a sandwich shop to pick up lunch and continued our walk through the neighborhood. Suddenly, it became eerily quiet. Out of nowhere, a man approached us from behind. Given his suspicious tone, we assumed he was trying to sell us drugs. We tried to ignore him when he brazenly lunged for our camera bag. Instinctively, we dodged out of his way. He yelled in Spanish and we heard the words “dinero” (money) and “camera.” It was then that we realized he was trying to mug us – in broad daylight. He made a second attempt for our camera bag, but we yelled, startling him. A car drove down the road, and separated us. Frustrated, he finally decided to retreat.
Slightly traumatized, we continued on to our destination just a couple of blocks away. La Bombonera, home of the legendary Boca Juniors, is one of the city’s major tourist attractions. We relayed our experience to the police guards standing outside. Unfazed, they shrugged their shoulders, telling us it was a poor neighborhood and sadly, prone to petty crime. In hindsight, the incident was fairly harmless – nothing like what we’d experience a few weeks later in Rio de Janeiro.
Putting the incident behind us, we enjoyed the stadium tour of Argentina’s leading football (soccer) team. Our guide led us to different areas: the players’ dressing room and the post-match media room where the coach and team talk to reporters. The highlight, of course, was stepping onto the grassy field. We closed our eyes, envisioning the roar of the crowds watching some of the country’s most famous players.
Afterwards, we spent the afternoon in the Caminito (“little path”), an outdoor street museum of brightly colored houses reminiscent of typical immigrant dwellings.
During the turn-of-the-century, residents used leftover paint from fishing boats to paint their homes. The cheery neighborhood still stands today – now, with life-sized mannequins that have been added. They hang out of windows “waving” to greet passerbys. Yes, the scene in Caminito is a bit kitschy, but also a fun way to while away an afternoon. Steering clear of the restaurant hawkers, we caught some outdoor entertainment as well. Gauchos participated in a crazy high-kick, foot-stomping showdown, while a young couple performed a sultry tango dance.
Inspired by impromptu Argentine tango all over town, we decided to give it a try ourselves. La Viruta is a tango dancing school that holds a “milonga,” (dance party) almost every night of the week. Like Cuban salsa and Spanish flamenco, Argentine tango began as a musical genre, followed by an accompanying partner dance. Even though the instructor taught in both Spanish and English, we were pretty hopeless. Ah well… less tango dancing meant more time for eating.
The food scene in Buenos Aires is pretty special. It stands out from elsewhere in Argentina with its international influence.
Sure, you can still find plenty of empanadas, tamales, enchiladas and picadas, the Argentine equivalent of a charcuterie plate. And the plethora of “parrillas” (steakhouses) means there’s no shortage of steak – though sadly, it’s almost always cooked well-done. But there’s also a huge variety of pizza, pasta and other dishes inspired by Italy, Germany and France, as well as ethnic fare.
One of our favorite restaurants was El Preferido de Palermo, a family-run eatery located in trendy Palermo Soho. The retro ambience makes it feel as if things haven’t changed since it opened in 1952. The iconic green and orange table tops pop graphically against perfectly art directed shelves of provisions, as if on the set of a movie. Part grocer, part restaurant, it’s a popular, go-to place for locals and tourists alike. We enjoyed a few meals here including a memorable meatball platter and some of the best bread pudding we’ve ever tasted.
Eating out is a wonderful pastime in Buenos Aires. Large groups of families and friends gathering around a table are a common sight. Along with Palermo Soho, Plaza Julio Cortazar (more commonly known as Plaza Serrano) is a trendy spot with oodles of chic boutiques and outdoor restaurants. Ice cream shops seem to be on every street corner.
With all our eating out, one thing we didn’t really understand (in addition to the overdone steaks) is the cubierto (“cover charge.”) This is essentially a service fee to cover cutlery, place mats and a bread basket (whether you eat the bread or not.) Yet, it doesn’t take the place of tipping which, while not mandatory, servers typically expect. To confuse matters, the cubierto often varies between 10-20% and not all restaurants include the charge. Fortunately, the value of the US dollar to the Argentine peso has been consistently strong (as of 2020, $1 USD = $66 ARS.)
Like any capital city, Buenos Aires offers a wealth of things to do. We could’ve easily spent six months there.
Other neighborhoods we enjoyed were the unpretentious Villa Crespo and Las Cañitas, home to Buenos Aires’ polo field. We took in art at various museums including the sculptures at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, paintings at the National Museum of Fine Arts, and mixed media in a special exhibit by Argentine contemporary artist, Marta Minujin, at the Museum of Latin American Art. We explored the craft shops of Buenos Aires Design Mall, enjoyed a picnic in Palermo Woods Park, and relaxed in the city’s Botanical and Japanese Gardens. And of course, joined locals for many outdoor happy hours, simply taking in the scene and watching life pass by.
While something is going on nearly every hour of the day in Buenos Aires, the exception is at Christmas. The little town of Bethlehem has nothing on the “silent night” that occurs here for the holidays. Around mid-day on Christmas Eve, the whole city shuts down to go home and be with family. Fortunately, we made it to a local grocer just before closing to pick up some homemade ravioli and a bottle of Alma Mora Malbec 2008 to enjoy a quiet evening in.
Just as we were starting to get a little homesick, the clock struck midnight. Outside, we heard the sound of fireworks. We stepped out on to our balcony and sure enough, a grand display of fireworks appeared overhead. Across the street, other people slowly emerged on to their balconies and rooftops as well. People waved to one another and exclaimed, “Feliz Navidad!”
And just like that, we didn’t feel so alone. In that moment, among the kind spirit of the porteños in Palermo, it felt like we were home for the holidays.