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Buenos Aires Survival Guide

0808_aptF.jpgAlthough Buenos Aires is a big city, it has a small-city feel and is relatively easy to navigate. All the same, if you’ve never been here before it might as well be Bombay or Budapest, so here are a few tips that will make your trip easier.

Rent an Apartment
There are scores of amazing furnished apartments available for short-term rent (daily, weekly, monthly) in the most attractive neighborhoods of the city (Recoleta, San Telmo, Palermo, Belgrano). You’ll save serious bucks and have a place to call your own. Here are three reputable rental agencies:

Learn the Language
As with any part of the world, if you can communicate with locals you’re likely to get a more authentic travel experience. Argentines are highly educated, but surprisingly, not many people outside the service industry speak English, so it’s best to brush up on your high-school Spanish before you arrive. And take note that the Argentines speak a funky form of Spanish, Castellano, which involves a lot of j-sounds and arm gestures, but you’ll get used to it.

0808_restaurant.jpgRestaurant Rules
Meals are almost always accompanied with bottled water. You’ll be asked if you want “con gas” (carbonated) or “sin gas” (uncarbonated). (Go with the bubbles, it’s remarkably refreshing.) Bottled water costs 3-4 pesos in restaurants. If you don’t want to pay for bottled water, ask for agua de la canilla, otherwise known as tap water. To keep that water cold, you’ll need to ask for ice, which is not served unless requested. You’ll then be presented with a silver bucket full of huge ice chunks and tongs. Go to work.

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Love the Cow
If you are in Buenos Aires, you have to eat meat. That’s just the way it is. So unless you want to be chastised by locals and foreigners alike, be prepared to eat lots of cooked cow flesh during your stay. It’s not like this is a bad thing: Argentine beef is the best in the world — it’s even been known to scare some vegetarians straight. If you absolutely can’t or won’t eat meat, don’t worry. You have options. Pasta is Argentina’s second staple dish, and you can usually find it on menus at most restaurants. A handful of vegetarian restaurants have turned up in recent years in Palermo. Moreover, there are tons of ethnic restaurants (sushi is especially popular) that offer breaks from the all-beef diet.

Timing is Everything
It’s almost considered rude to arrive to any social engagement on time, so show up at least 15 minutes late. Seriously. Note that movies in Buenos Aires do start on time, but plays, concerts, and other events almost always start late. Most restaurants open their doors for dinner around 8 p.m., but if you show up at this time you’ll just end up sitting next to other tourists who didn’t get the memo either. Dinner reservations are a good idea, and 9:30 p.m. is the ideal dining time. (Most restaurants stop taking reservation after this time).

0808_winecafeF.jpgDinner is always a long affair in Buenos Aires, so linger over your meal. Order another bottle of Malbec. Sip a café. Have a smoke. Try the homemade limoncello. You’ve got plenty of time; nightclubs and tango halls don’t get jumping until well after midnight. Most, but not all, restaurants in BA now have No Smoking sections. Ask for a table in the Sector No Fumador. Or better yet, call ahead and reserve one.

Política y Fútbol
If you can express yourself even half-eloquently on any topic related to politics and soccer, you’ll make instant friends in Buenos Aires. Porteños have an unbelievable gift for gab, so just try to keep up with them as they dissect the collapse of morality in the public sector and the missed penalty kick in last night’s game — all in the same sentence.

Dress to Impress
Fashion is taken seriously in Buenos Aires, so do your best to impress. You don’t want to attract too much attention to yourself as a foreigner, so leave your baggy shorts at home. Jeans are fine anywhere at night, provided they are paired with some snazzy shoes and a smart shirt or blouse.

0808_bus.jpgCash and Coins
If you hand a taxi driver a 100-peso bill for a 9-peso fare, he’s going to be tempted to pass off that fake fifty he’s had in his wallet since 2002. To avoid being swindled with phony currency, always carry small peso bills and check the texture and color tone of the bills you get in return. Fakes are usually easy to spot.

Restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations are usually the best places to find change if you’re in a bind. No matter where you are in Buenos Aires, making change for big bills is always a drama, so just do the best you can to carry small bills. The same goes for coins: if you are taking a bus, you must pay in coins (the fare is usually 80 centavos); no bills are accepted.

Take Radio Taxis
Black and yellow taxis are everywhere in Buenos Aires — an easy and cheap way to get around town. But make sure to take one that says “Radio Taxi,” which is a licensed car affiliated with a certified company. The “radio” means they have constant walkie-talkie contact with a dispatcher. If you are looking for even more security, hire a remise, a private, usually more spacious car. You can negotiate a rate with the driver beforehand.

Book Early
If you are planning to travel outside Buenos Aires to, say, Iguazú Falls, Mendoza, or Patagonia, make your reservations as soon as possible. There are a limited number of planes and buses that travel back and forth from the capital, and because Argentina is such a hot tourist spot these days, they fill up fast. Trust me, book early.

Brian Byrnes

Since 2001, Brian Byrnes has made his home in Buenos Aires, where he’s contributed to the last three editions of Fodor’s Argentina.

Photos courtesy of Tourism Portal, Sub-Secretary of Tourism of Buenos Aires City Government.

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