Bookstores and cemeteries and lots and lots of steak.
When you visit Buenos Aires, you hear a lot about it being the Paris of South America. This is a fitting sobriquet—back in the 1860s when the city was being built up, one of the city planners gave literal instructions to make Argentina’s new capital as much like the French capital as possible. And you can certainly you can see the comparison today in the architecture, the wine, the impossibly glamorous locals. But nowadays, the city is so much more than just a knock-off. Sophisticated and sultry, Buenos Aires is every bit a Latin American city but with a heavily international vibe. Italian and Spanish influences combine with Latin American traditions to create a city that is unlike anywhere else in the world. Eat your heart out, Paris.
Buenos Aires neighborhoods are so defined, so individualized, that they can really be considered small towns in themselves. Colorful La Boca will make Instagrammers (and soccer fans) weep for joy. Bougie Recoleta will put you up close with Argentina’s elite. You’ll find history in El Centro, and peace and quiet (and a lovely nature reserve) in Puerto Madero. San Telmo is the place to go for markets and shops that hold the perfect handcrafted souvenir. And sprawling Palermo is filled with all things trendy, including many of the city’s best bars, restaurants, and shop lining its hip streets. Regardless of where you base yourself, make it your mission to spend some time in each neighborhood. That way you can get a feel for just how diverse this city can be.
The best way to acquaint yourself with any neighborhood in Buenos Aires is with a guided tour, and BA Tourism offers various daily tours (both in English and Spanish) with trusted guides for nearly every neighborhood in the city. Many are free, and all are affordable. They also have specialty biking and running tours, as well as several focusing on topics varying from street art to Pope Francis.
Buenos Aires has some excellent museums, but if you’re going to hit up one tourist attraction in the city, make it Recoleta Cemetery, located in the elite enclave of Recoleta. The city’s oldest cemetery (it was founded in 1822), its thirteen-and-a-half acres are nothing short of majestic. Enter through the enormous portico and marvel at this small city of monuments and mausoleums. Pick a “street” and wander through the 6,400+ tombs, all elaborately carved dedications to some of the city’s wealthiest former residents. The most famous tomb is that of Eva Duarte de Peron, who finally made Recoleta her final resting place 17 years after her actual death. The cemetery is truly more beautiful than spooky, but there’s still quite a haunted and serene quality about the place that begs to be experienced.
The one guarantee of any trip to Buenos Aires is that you are going to have the opportunity to eat a lot of steak, and it is going to be the best steak you have ever consumed in your entire life. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. There are different explanations for why exactly the beef is so good in Argentina. Some say it’s due to the free-grazing cattle feeding on the nutrient-rich grass found in Las Pampas, the country’s main agricultural hub (there’s also very little antibiotics or growth hormones fed to said cattle). Others will insist it’s all in how it’s cut (based on the texture of the meat rather than where on the cow it’s found) or how it’s cooked (the classic asado method is to cook it slowly over briquettes in indirect heat).
Regardless of the reasons why, you will find many a parillo in Buenos Aires, both upscale and casual, that will give you your beef fix. Everyone has an opinion about which restaurant serves the best meat, and you should try out as many as your stomach can handle. Don Julio gets consistently top marks for its insanely succulent grilled steaks in a low-key, communal atmosphere, while those looking to treat themselves should head to Elena at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Refined and experimental, Buenos Aires is one of the best cities for performing arts in the world, largely due to the fact that it holds nearly 300 different theaters, from huge classical concert spaces to smaller alternative venues. The most famous is Teatro Colon in the city center, one of the world’s most magnificent opera houses. The opulent stage has seen an impressive array of opera singers perform since it opened in 1908, and today it’s home to both opera, classical music, and ballet performances. Even if seeing a show isn’t your thing, take a guided tour of the theater to experience the gorgeous stage and fabulous acoustics for yourself.
Buenos Aires is also known as the bookstore capital of the world, with an unbelievable 380 shops across the city (that’s 25 for every 100,000 residents, making it the city with the most bookstores per capita in the world). Of course, most of these are Spanish-language bookstores, so English-speakers might not be as willing to support a local bookstore as they otherwise would be. But a really cool edition of a book in Spanish makes a great souvenir, and many of the bookstores in Buenos Aires are tourist attractions in their own right. The most famous is El Ateno Grand Splendid, a 1919 theater that was converted into a bookstore but still maintains its gorgeous ceiling frescos, carved balcony seats, and red curtains (behind those curtains you’ll now find the café and reading area). The English-language section here is quite minimal (you will find some Fodor’s books circa 2009, represent), but the real draw is getting to experience the unique atmosphere.
The Art Scene
2018 is going to be a bedrock year for the art scene in Buenos Aires. In addition to the yearly art festivals of ArteBA and BA Fashion Week that continually bring hordes of art and design lovers to the city each spring and summer, the famed Art Basel team has branched out from Miami to name Buenos Aires its first “Art Basel City”. September 2018 will see specially curated public art programs across three neighborhoods meant to capture and promote the city’s rich cultural heritage. But even without Art Basel, museums like Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the MALBA regularly showcase a stunning array of European and Latin American artists. Street art has also become a huge draw, with massive murals in neighborhoods like La Boca and Villa Urquiza exhibiting tales of the city’s past and present. Street art tours take you to some of the best spots and give an eye-opening look into the stories being told through these murals.
It seems the craft beer craze has finally reached the shores of South America, with bars promoting their homebrews popping up everywhere in Buenos Aires, especially in hip enclaves like Palermo and San Telmo. You’ll find a lack of the IPAs prominent in the U.S. craft beer scene, but anyone who enjoys a good pilsner or amber ale will love the easy and straightforward beers that porteños (Buenos Aires locals) are brewing up. You won’t find any full breweries with accompanying tours (the actual brewing happens elsewhere, sometimes even as far as Patagonia), just impressive and inventive beer menus in hip, sleek spaces. BlueDog, Buena Birra Social Club, On Tap, and BierLife (an elementary-school-turned-bar) are some of the city’s best.