Buenos Aires, South America’s most cosmopolitan and spirited capitol city, is more than just tango-central and the setting for “Evita.” Sure, it embraces the legacy of its most famous dance and beloved First Lady, but with multicultural influences from Europe and beyond, a thriving arts life, and a bit of gaucho (cowboy) thrown in, there’s a lot more to do than dance. To help you plan your trip, we’ve put together our best recs for where to go and what to do to get the most out of a visit to the “Paris of South America.” And yes, we’ll throw in a little tango as well.
A brief history
The story of Buenos Aires centers on its struggle for political and economic independence – first as a colonial port outpost that threw off Spanish control, and later as a multicultural and economic power center that separated from Argentina’s more provincial outer regions.
In the early 19th century, once free from centuries of Spanish colonial rule, Argentina endured years of internal conflict. Buenos Aires, dominated by a wealthy merchant class, asserted its bid to centralize the country’s political control in the city while the provinces advocated for a looser power structure. The matter was settled in 1880 when the city was federalized – in short, separated from its outer provinces, but still the national seat of power. Though Buenos Aires’s mayor enjoyed considerable independence, the position was still appointed by the country’s president.
The late 19th century brought industrialization, economic growth, and massive immigration from Europe – especially from Italy, Spain, and Germany. A significant Jewish population immigrated as well. Workers brought new ideas of labor unionism and socialism, which lay the groundwork for the rise of populist Perónism and its heroes, Juan and Evita Perón.
Over the following decades, Argentina was buffeted by political conflicts, uprisings, and coups centering on the struggle between left-wing revolutionary movements and right-wing paramilitary juntas/dictatorships. Its darkest period is known as the Dirty War (1976-1983) during which over 30,000 people underwent forced abduction and disappearance.
In the 1980s, weary from internal strife, Argentina moved toward democracy and enjoyed a period of cultural revival and economic growth. Buenos Aires, as the busiest port in the area, led in these initiatives and reinforced its role as the dominant commercial and industrial power in the broader South American region. In 1994, still angling for greater independence, Buenos Aires achieved autonomous status and elected its own Chief of Government in 1996. While still part of Argentina, Buenos Aires controls much of its own internal policy-making.
More recently, Argentina has gone through periods of economic turmoil, including the 2018 monetary crisis during which its currency, the Argentinian Peso, was devalued. As such, U.S. dollars are widely accepted throughout the county. And though Argentina continues to experience high inflation and economic contraction, the national government has announced a series of measures including infrastructure spending, social subsidies, wage support, and business loans. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the country, and especially Buenos Aires, has seen an uptick in global tourism.
How to get to/around in Buenos Aires
Most major U.S. airlines fly to Buenos Aires’s Ezeiza International Airport (aka Ministro Pistarini International Airport), with direct flights from Miami or New York. The city center is about 12 miles from the airport, easily reached by a 30-50 minute taxi ride ($25) or 90 minutes on the bus (about $1). While ride shares are available both for airport transfers and getting around the city itself, we suggest using Cabify, as Uber is not legally permitted to operate in the area.
Buenos Aires is a vast city of 40-plus neighborhoods (aka barrios) — and while you could spend a lifetime wandering around the city’s byzantine network of nooks and crannies, we recommend focusing on a few primary barrios to get the most out of your visit. Barrios Recoleta, Palermo, and San Telmo (with nods to Centro and Villa Crespo) would be our top picks. Here, you have many of the most desirable attractions, gastronomical wins, and cultural points of interest at your fingertips.
For getting around, we recommend a combination of walking (the only way to really see Recoleta’s Beaux Arts architecture and Palermo’s wide Paris-like boulevards, restaurants, and shops, for example); and using the extensive and efficient bus (Colectivo) and metro systems (the Subte). Be sure and purchase a refillable Subte fare card for both bus and metro service, available from several city locations. Taxis, which can be found anywhere, are also a reasonable option.
Pro tip: To help with navigation, purchase a “Guia T,” the pocket guidebook of the city’s 100+ bus lines and street maps used by tourists and porteños (locals) alike. Any of the ubiquitous news kiosks around town carry them.
Where to stay
We recommend staying in Recoleta or Palermo. Here, you will find several hotels that fit any budget and offer easy access to some great points of interest, eateries, nightlife, and shopping. And while Buenos Aires gets a reputation for being an expensive stay, we beg to differ. For one thing, the dollar is relatively strong against the Argentinian Peso; and secondly, while VAT (sales tax) is on the high’ish side at 21%, non-Argentinian residents are eligible for a refund on accommodations if they are able to prove with a foreign passport that they live abroad and if they pay with a non-Argentinian credit card or bank transfer. See details here. Cha-ching.
Having said that, if you plan on staying for longer than a week or two, we recommend checking out an Air B&B in Belgrano, just north of Palermo. Belgrano is more residential than other neighborhoods and includes clusters of single family homes, parks, coffee shops, and the millennial families that frequent them. For more detail on where to stay, check out our piece on Buenos Aires hotels.
What to see and do
Like many large, multicultural cities with a rich and layered history, Buenos Aires is too vast to cover in a single getaway. Still, we have a few ideas on how to use your time to best sample some of its many treasures.
If you’re a history buff, head to El Zanjón de Granados in San Telmo for a glimpse of the city’s colonial past. Walk through underground tunnels and admire ancient artifacts from the area’s 16th century Spanish settlements. Next, take a few steps north to Recoleta’s Plaza de Mayo. Perhaps the most historically significant acre of Argentinian ground, Plaza de Mayo is the symbol of Argentine independence and political power. Indeed, just off the Plaza is the Casa Rosada, the exquisite neoclassical presidential palace. Recognize the balcony? Eva Perón (and those who portrayed her) delivered various addresses from here.
For a real treat, take a hop, skip, and tango from the Palace to the Recoleta Cemetery where centuries of Argentine elite are laid to rest. According to CNN, Recoleta is one of the most exotic and beautiful necropolises in the world.
Buenos Aires celebrates the visual arts with a handful of outstanding museums. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Recoleta houses a magnificent collection of Latin American and international art ranging from the medieval era to the 20th century. Feast your eyes on a Van Gogh, Degas, or Picasso for an afternoon. Additionally, you can’t miss the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (aka MALBA), a 15-minute walk to Palermo, for major works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and others.
For a bit of cultural fun, stroll east down Centro’s Avenida Corrientes. Pass boutiques, shops, sidewalk cafés, and beautifully landscaped gardens. Later, do a night at the opera at Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires’ stunning, eclectic-style opera house and reportedly one of the five best in the world for acoustics.
Finally, head to San Telmo for a day of fun exploring its colonial-era buildings, markets, and yeah, some serious tango. You can find all the details about this historic district in this piece on San Telmo .
Where to eat
Argentina is known for some winning cuisine, traditionally centered on meat, red wine, and chocolate. If you’ve got an appetite, head to Palermo for a table at Don Julio Parrilla. Cuts here will be thick and grilled to perfection with sides like grilled peppers, fresh salad greens, tomatoes, and onions. It may sound basic, but that’s the kind of elegant simplicity we’re always up for. Be sure and order your meat “jogoso” (medium-rare) at a minimum unless you really, really like rare beef. Also, don’t forget a Malbec pairing from the very long list of local vintages. Other top parrillas include La Cabrera and, for something a bit splurgy, Cabana Las Lilas.
For something a little lighter, try the Gran Dabbang Café (Palermo) for a South American-South Asian fusion taste explosion. Here, subtle flavor combinations using both native and exotic ingredients take front row. Standouts include the Quail with guava, umeboshi, and huacatay; and the Lamb Curry with coconut chutney and raita.
Casa Saltshaker and Casa Felix are two puerta cerrada (“closed door”) restaurants offering a small group of strangers dinner at a private house. It’s all the rage in Buenos Aires and can be a great way to experience the local culture. The fare is outstanding and typically includes several courses and starts late. Call or reach out via Facebook for details.
For lunch and late-afternoon snacks, try Chori in Palermo for choripan, a traditional Argentinian sausage sandwich, usually served with thick fried potatoes. Café Tortoni (Recoleta) while popular with tourists, has been a locals’ mainstay in Buenos Aires since 1858. Go for a café con leche and medialuna (local croissant) or submarino (Argentinian hot chocolate) and admire the Old-World décor, complete with Tiffany glass ceiling.
Finally, for a speakeasy concept bar with warm ambiance and cool crowd, head to Ocho7Ocho (Villa Crespo). We loved the Lombardi – the mix of Campari, Rosso vermouth, and orange was just the ticket.
Where to shop
As one of South America’s most fashionable destinations, Buenos Aires has plenty of great shopping. You can’t beat Recoleta and Palermo for top European designer collections and one-of-a-kind boutiques featuring both today’s hippest styles and local specialties like sumptuous leather goods. Maydi in Palermo is our current favorite for the latest in what to wear. For something really special, check out Calzados Correa (Recoleta) for absolutely delicious bespoke leather shoes or Casa Lopez for the perfect cross body purse.
For a truly unique Buenos Aires shopping experience head to El Ateneo Grand Splendid Recoleta). Housed in the restored Baroque Teatro Grand Splendid, Ateneo is perhaps the world’s largest and most beautiful bookstore and well worth a visit.
Finally, Patio Bullrich (Recoleta) is Buenos Aires’ premier shopping mall with over 100 well-known shops and brands, as well as a handful of eateries to keep you fueled up for countless hours of retail therapy.