The gateway to the beautiful Argentinean countryside, Buenos Aires is a hip, cosmopolitan destination that also happens to be easy on the American pocket.
The city has been designed in a grand European style, making it airy and open with an unusually large amount of acreage devoted to parks. Large avenues filled with freewheeling drivers provide a relatively quick way across the city. This freedom of movement, of course, is certainly symbolic of the capital’s reputation for all-night partying. But for daytime wandering, the sheer size of the city means some advance planning as you navigate neighborhoods then catch a taxi or hop on the Metro (aka subte) to get to your destination. While it’s difficult to get lost, you may well get turned around due to the way maps depict the city – the river is east of downtown yet it will appear to be south on most maps.
The diverse neighborhoods tend to be straightforward though they are many and spread out in every direction. The main downtown area is called Microcentro, the financial and government hub. Interesting sites in Microcentro include the Casa Rosada (Presidential Palace) and the Cathedral, both centered around the Plaza de Mayo. Nearby, the pedestrian street Florida stretches from behind the Cathedral all the way past the Galerias Pacifico Mall to the lovely Plaza San Martin. The street is full of shops and the usual buskers associated with touristy areas. Just to the north, at the intersection of Avenida Corrientes and Avenida 9 de Julio is the city’s iconic Obelisco. Do be careful if you attempt to cross 9 de Julio as the street is extremely wide and you had better hurry across once you have the light.
For a city in such close proximity to water, it can seem nearly impossible to actually get near it due to the urban sprawl. One spot that is readily accessible, Puerto Madero, is the revitalized port area just down the hill from Microcentro. Here there is a long canal and the recognizable Santiago Calavatra designed Puente de la Mujer bridge. The recently renovated red brick buildings lining the west side of the canal house restaurants and cafes including steak mecca Cabana Las Lilas and the broadcasting center-restaurant Radioset. Outdoor seating is plentiful at these places, providing views of yachts and the moored Corbeta Uruguay and Fragata Presidente Sarmiento, ships now turned into museums. If you cross the bridges heading east, you will find an upscale neighborhood sandwiched between the canal and the large Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, a large nature preserve which runs all the way to the river and features a beautiful promenade.
South of Microcentro is the San Telmo district famous for its Sunday antiques market, which sprawls over the Plaza Dorrego and offers everything from jewelry and watches to dishes and furniture to stamps and postcards to fur coats and alligator bags. The nearby streets are overrun with boutiques and antique shops, and street tango dancers perform for the tourists. The stately Nuestra Senora de Belén church overlooks it all. The Modern Art Museum is nearby at Avenida San Juan 350.
North of the downtown is the well-to-do area of Recoleta. The major attraction is the amazing Cementerio de la Recoleta (Recoleta Cemetery). While famous as the resting place of Eva “Evita” Peron and her husband President Juan Peron, the many spectacular graves and monuments make it a fascinating place to wander through. Next to the cemetery entrance is the Basilica Menor de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, which was opened in 1732. The surrounding neighborhood is the city’s most upscale area, full of cafes and boutiques. Stroll around and admire the architecture. An interesting place to stopover is Buenos Aires Design (Av. Pueyrredón 2501), a two story shopping center devoted to design stores, with a special focus on South American designers. The terrace cafes have a great view out over Recoleta Cemetery and the nearby museums.
In the midst of the green belt running north from Recoleta to Palermo is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. This smallish museum is dedicated to the art of the 19th and 20th centuries, featuring Argentinean artists and a small cadre of internationally known artists. Don’t expect multiple works but a diverse group of artists, from El Greco to Picasso to Pollock are represented. Nearby is the Facultad de Derecho (Law School) and a park that is home to the Floralis Generica, Eduardo Catalano’s giant steel and aluminum flower that opens in the morning and closes at night.
The chic area of Palermo is what most of the buzz is about, though it is actually multiple areas, which can be the cause of some confusion. Palermo Chico is a ritzy area that is home to Malba (the Museum of Latin American art) and the upscale Paseo Alcorta shopping center. Opened in 2001, Malba is housed in a cantilevered building with a two-story atrium. The collection of 20th Century Latin American art includes such luminaries as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Roberto Matta and Fernando Botero.
West of Palermo Chico is Palermo proper, full of parks, the most beautiful of which is Parque Tres de Febrero with its series of lakes, Japanese Garden and Galileo Planetarium. Nearby is the Zoo and the Botanical Garden. Close to the Botanical Garden is a small museum devoted to Evita, located in a former women’s shelter at Lafinur 2988.
Past bustling Plaza Italia is Palermo Viejo, which is subdivided into Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood, though parts are also referred to in general as Palermo Viejo. (For purposes of addresses here, we use Palermo Viejo to cover the entire area for simplicity’s sake.) Palermo Viejo has gone from a sleepy, somewhat rundown area populated by Eastern European immigrants to the center of fashion and all that is hip in the new Buenos Aires. In particular, Palermo Hollywood (generally the area south of Plaza Palermo Viejo) is a hub of chic design. Wander along Calle Armenia, El Salvador and Honduras and pop in to any of the numerous boutiques, bars and restaurants.
The area around Plaza Cortazar is sometimes referred to as Palermo Soho and it is yet another center of bars, restaurants and shops. At Cabrera 4737, Club del Vino has a small wine museum, restaurant and wine shop. They have concerts and tango performance on some evenings so have your hotel call ahead (4833 0050).
Buenos Aires is a bustling city that thankfully has rebounded nicely from the country’s recent financial troubles. With the currency devaluation, the city has become very affordable to foreigners and as a result a lot of money has gone into tourist infrastructure, restaurants and boutiques. So brush up on your basic Spanish and book your flight. The town’s buzz is bound to rub off on you.
What Buenos Aires Is
Argentina is affordable and fun. With the peso at about 8 to $1, nearly everything from food to transportation is inexpensive.
Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods. Microcentro, the downtown, is the least interesting area and can be dispatched with quickly. Palermo Viejo and Recoleta are upscale residential areas teeming with restaurants, cafes and boutiques. San Telmo is all about the Sunday antiques market.
Buenos Aires is a city with a European sensibility – the residents, known as porteños, are stylish and cultured with diverse European backgrounds. That also means dressing up for dinner and eating later than in the U.S.
Buenos Aires is a nightlife city. While that does not mean there isn’t plenty to do during the day, make sure you are ready for late night adventures. Dinner starts after 9pm and the city is filled with interesting nightlife options from tango to clubs.
Argentina is home to the tango. You will likely see a tango demonstration in touristy areas such as Recoleta or San Telmo on Sunday. But if you want to truly experience tango, see a show at one of the city’s clubs or go to a milonga, a place or event that includes a class followed by dancing (you can just watch, too). Of course, there are tacky tourist traps that offer dinner and show packages. Forget the dinner experience and ask your hotel to set you up with tickets to just a show or stop by a club to get tickets directly. You’ll likely just have a drink minimum and there may be a snacks menu to peruse, but there’s no reason to buy a combo deal if you just want to see a show. To find info on shows and prices, visit this site.
What Buenos Aires Is Not
Buenos Aires is not poor or dangerous, two common clichés of South American cities. There are remnants of the good times and reminders of the recent economic struggles, especially in some of the decaying buildings downtown. But the city is bustling and cosmopolitan, and the residents have warmed to the idea of foreigners partying in their town.
Buenos Aires is not a small city. The city spreads in many directions and taking a taxi will be part of your routine in the city as the subte does not cover many places you will want to visit such as Palermo Viejo.
Buenos Aires is not vegetarian friendly. Argentineans eat more meat than even Americans.
Americans need to pay a reciprocity fee of $160 online before arriving in Argentina. See visa section below.
The Metro is reliable but far from comprehensive and a bit run down. As the city is very large and spread out, expect to take taxis to many destinations. You can flag them down in the street, pick them up at a taxi rank or have a restaurant call one for you.
Small change is essential so break large bills whenever you can. Taxi drivers will grumble if you hand them anything more than a AR$10 note.
Government buildings can have a heavy police presence and periodic demonstrations do happen. Generally you don’t have to worry about your safety but it’s best to steer clear if you see a demonstration.
Keep some cash as you will need to pay a departure fee when leaving the country. For International flights it is $18, payable in USD or Pesos. Look for the windows when you arrive at the terminal. If you are flying domestically, the departure fee is $8.
The website What’s Up Buenos Aires is a great resource for finding out what’s happening in the city.
Weather: Being in the Southern Hemisphere, Buenos Aires has the opposite seasons of the U.S. A great time to go is in their Spring (October and November) or Fall (April – June). Summer (January to March) can be very hot and Winter (July and August) can be cool and rainy, though temperatures stay above freezing and the city has only recorded one snowstorm in its entire history. September is a shoulder month but temperatures often get into the 70s.
Currency: The Argentine Peso. The currency exchange rate is roughly 3:1 to the dollar, which will yield you good bargains throughout Argentina. ATMS are ubiquitous but beware that shops and taxi drivers will generally insist on small bills, which the ATMS don’t usually distribute. Hoard small bills and change when you get it since change seems to be in short supply.
Language: Spanish. English is generally spoken in restaurants, hotels and better shops.
Tipping: 10% in restaurants, preferably in cash if you are paying by credit card. For taxis, just round up the fare.
Transportation: The subte (website) is the oldest subway in South America and has five lines but does not cover the entire city. Onthe other hand, it is fantastically cheap at about 30 cents per ride. The easiest way to get around the city is by taxi – they are cheap and ubiquitous. If you are leaving a restaurant or a bar, ask them to call one for you.
Getting There: You will arrive at Ezeiza International Airport on any transcontinental flight (the smaller downtown Jorge Newberry airport is for short haul flights). A taxi will run you about $25 and you can grab a service just outside the customs area. Be aware that hawkers will be all over you. The services are licensed, however, and take credit cards. A regular taxi stand is also outside past the entrance.
Visas: Citizens of the United States and Canada traveling to Argentina for the first time have to pay a reciprocity fee in advance – $160 for Americans and $75 single-entry or $150 multiple-entry for Canadians. However, if you’re American, your “visa” is good for 10 years, although you can only stay in the country for 90 days at a time (Canadian visas are good for 5 years). The fee can only be paid by credit card online in advance – after you pay, print out the receipt, which you will hand along with your passport at customs. You must do this ahead of time, as you cannot pay the fee at the border and you won’t be able to enter Argentina without your receipt.
Eat & Drink
Argentina is justly famous for its grass-fed cattle and big, bold wines and Buenos Aires’ restaurants are the perfect showcases for these products. Patagonian lamb is also worth trying. Dinner is on the European timeframe, generally 9pm or later, and reservations for many restaurants are highly recommended. Restaurants tend to charge a cover of a few dollars per person for bread and water. Note that porteños dress up to go out so shorts and t-shirts are not recommended.
Sucre (Sucre 676, (54 11) 4782-9082, website) in the Belgrano neighborhood serves modern Argentinean food in a hip industrial setting. The cool bar is famous for its libations and the food is excellent, especially anything off the grill. There is an extensive local wine list and the service is very attentive. Open for lunch 12pm – 4pm and dinner 8pm to 2am daily. Dinner for 2 with wine will run about $100.
Cabaña Las Lilas in Puerto Madero (Ave Alicia Moreau de Justo 516, (54 11) 4313-1336, website) serves some of the best steak around thanks to its own herd of cattle. Grab an outdoor seat overlooking the canal and enjoy a monster cut of beef. The cover charge includes a delicious assortment of breads, cheeses, olives and vegetables – a nice, if unexpected, option for vegetarians. If you like your steak rare, order it “muy jugoso”. Dinner for 2 will run upwards of $100.
Not far from Cabana Las Lilas is Radioset (Ave Alicia Moreau de Justo 1130, (54 11) 4342-7146), a restaurant with DJs broadcasting from glassed in booths in the restaurant. The record shop in the front of the store is a great place to pick up cds from South American acts.
Olsen (Gorriti 5870, (54 11) 4776-7677) is a slice of Scandinavia in Palermo Viejo. The food is fusion-y and the bar attracts a scene but the chef knows what he is doing. Dinner for 2 is about $80.
Bar 6 (Armenia 1676, Palermo Viejo, (54 11) 4833-6807, website), is a happening tapas bar open daily from 8am. Things heat up with a DJ at night.
Cocktail bars have also come into their own. Mundo Bizarro (Serrano 1222) is a cool, low-key spot in Palermo while Le Bar (Tucuman 422) is a sleek new bar in a bi-level space in Microcentro with a tapas menu and good cocktails. Open Monday to Saturday until 2am. Million in Recoleta (Paraná 1048, (54 11) 4815-9925, website) is an old mansion and garden that houses a bar and restaurant, as well as art and music events.
Pizza (and Italian food in general) is a big thing in the city. One of the best is Pizzeria Guerrin at Avenida Corrientes 1368. They do stand-up service upfront and table service in the rear.
Tango is a major draw for visitors and there are some places you can see tango without committing to dinner. El Querandi (Perú 302, (54 11) 5199-1770, website), open since 1920, is considered one of the best. It has shows starting at 10pm for about $55. Price includes a bottle of beer, wine or champagne and a cold meat and cheese platter. Dinner and a show is about $80. A more intimate option is Café Tortoni (Ave de Mayo 825, website), which has been around 150 years and has the character to show for it. The back room has jazz and tango shows nightly but beware the quarters are very tight. Another option is a larger scale performance of a tango company such as Tango Emocion when a tour brings it to the city.
Argentina has several wine regions but the best known is Mendoza, which is a short flight away from Jorge Newberry Airport in downtown. The excellent wine shop chain Tonel Privado (website, Spanish only, click on “sucursales” to see locations) has an outstanding selection of Argentinean wine. There are eleven locations around town, including centrally located ones in the Galerias Pacifico Mall (Calle Florida 753), in Recoleta (Patio Bullrich, Av. del Liberatador 750) and at the Paseo Alcorta in Palermo (Salguero 3172). In addition to being well located, the shops tend to be open until 8pm or later.
Where to Stay
Hotels are opening at such a rapid pace in the city, it is hard to keep up with them all. Standards and service are equivalent to good hotels in Europe and rates will often include breakfast.
Editor’s Pick: The chic Bobo Hotel (Guatemala 4882, (54 11) 4774-0505, Palermo Viejo, website) has only seven rooms, each outfitted in a different style. Rooms are $150 or $165 ($165 or $180 in high season), breakfast included. 21% tax is additional. The hotel has a restaurant, bar and free wi-fi.
Another Palermo Viejo charmer is Malabia House, (Malabia 1555, (54 11) 4833-3345, website), is a boutique hotel located in a convent built in 1896. The 15 rooms are cozy, starting at $140 for Clasica rooms with private bath outside the room. There is a 3 night minimum for Clasica rooms and the Balcony Suite ($182), which also has a bath outside the room. Moderna rooms have in suite bathrooms and are $206 for 1 night or $190 for 3 nights. Rates include breakfast. 21% tax is not included in spite of what the website says. For July and August 2008, there is a 15% discount in celebration of the hotel’s anniversary.
ArtHotel (Azcuénaga 1268, (54 11) 4821-4744, website) is a smallish upscale hotel in Recoleta. Rates can be as low as $95 for a smallish single and average $145 for a queen ($160 for a king). Tax and breakfast are included.
Downtown, the Hotel 562 Nogaro is well located downtown close to the Plaza de Mayo at Ave. Julio A. Roca 562 (website). The 135 rooms are a good size and all have been recently renovated. Wi-fi is available. Rates start at $150 in low season and $170 in high season, tax and breakfast included.
Cementerio de la Recoleta (website) is the final resting place of politicians and artists as well as the grave of Eva Peron (aka Evita). Enter on Calle Junin. Open 7am to 6pm daily. Entrance is free though you may want to buy a map from the vendor at the gate.
Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba) houses 20th century art from Latin American artists in a modern building.
Ave. Figueroa Alcorta 3415
Hours: Open Thursday to Monday from 12pm to 8pm, Wednesday 12pm – 9pm, closed Tuesdays. Last entrance 30 minutes before closing. Admission: Adults $5, seniors half price, students and kids free. The museum has a nice café open daily from 9am – 9pm.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Av. del Libertador 1473
Hours: Open Tuesday to Friday 12:30 to 8:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 9:30am to 8:30pm.
The San Telmo Market takes place every Sunday in Plaza Dorrego. Bargains abound and the quality and variety of items is superior.
Calle Florida is a pedestrian street in Microcentro that stretches from Avenida de Mayo all the way to Plaza San Martin. Along the way are numerous shops and street vendors. The Galerias Pacifico Shopping Center (website) anchors the corner of Florida and Avenida Cordoba.Another shopping center option on Florida is Galeria Guemes, a soaring gallery full of shops and restaurants in a building built in 1914 that has been carefully restored to its original grandeur.
Palermo has two main shopping centers. Paseo Alcorta (Salguero 3172, website) is a large shopping mall in Palermo Chico open daily from 10am to 10pm. In addition to international and local clothing chains, the Tonel Privado wine store has a branch on the top floor. In Palermo proper is the Alto Palermo Shopping Center at Av. Santa Fe 3253, website, also open daily from 10am to 10pm.
Buenos Aires Design (Av. Pueyrredón 2501, Recoleta, website) features design shops in a two-story shopping center. Open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 9pm and Sunday from 12pm to 9pm. The Terrazas café area is open from 10am to 2am for a meal or a drink.
What to Bring Back
Argentina’s wines are world-class and you will find great selections at any of the Tonel Privado stores around the city.
Leather goods are of great quality – from wallets and shoes to bags and leather coats and jackets.
The drama of the tango is quintessentially Argentinean so pickup some CDs to remember your trip by.