I have to be honest up front. I didn’t love Buenos Aires. There was nothing wrong and I didn’t have any bad experiences, but the city just didn’t speak to me and it did not earn a spot on a short list of favorites. That said, it is a great base and gateway for seeing the Argentine countryside and Uruguay — both of which I loved. So it is worth spending a few days (2-3 days) in the eclectic capital.
There are dozens of cities that compare themselves to Paris, and Buenos Aires calls themselves the Paris of South America. And you can see the comparison with the wide avenues, 19th century buildings and the obelisk, but that is really where the comparison ends and, the feel of the city is very different.
Warning / Traveler’s Tip: Bring hard currency and just convert it at the airport before you start your trip. In fact, over estimate your expenses and consider the fees of the airport currency exchange just a part of the trip. Trust me, I have now been to 74 countries and this is the first time I have ever given this advice. Argentine ATMs are hard to find, and once you find one, they rarely work, and they all have limits on how much you can withdraw per transaction (most are between $1000ARS and $2000ARS – or between $60 and $120 US). And they also have a daily limit as well (about $200US). Few places take credit cards, and even if they advertise they take credit cards, they often don’t accept foreign credit cards. Cash goes fast when you use it for all meals, entrance fees and even national park fees. This means money is a constant worry and very stressful. We met several other travelers at an ATM as one of us would walk up and ask “any luck?”
The international airport in Buenos Aires (Ministro Pistarini International Airport, known as Ezeiza International Airport – EZE) is very easy to navigate. I landed and was through immigration and customs waiting for the bus in under 50 minutes. You have several options to get into Buenos Aires from the airport. You can take the Tienda Leon bus for $190ARS ($12US) into the city center. It departs regularly and is easy to use. You can find the counter immediately on your left after you leave customs. However, Ubers are also very plentiful and cheap in Buenos Aires and are an excellent option.
I love free walking tours. They are usually more engaging than standard tours, the guides are passionate and you get to see the city up close instead of on a bus. Buenos Aires has several options for free walking tours through freetour.com or http://www.buenosairesfreewalks.com/. Both have tours of the city center and the upscale neighborhoods of the “palaces” built during Buenos Aires’ hey day.
****La Recoleta Cemetery where Evita and other rich and famous Argentinian’s are laid to rest. This is a unique cemetery and definitely one of my favorite stops in the city. The cemetery closes at 5 pm but opens early. You could make it a quick 15 minute stop or spend over an hour here exploring the paths and different tombs.
****Cathedral Metropolitana is in the main square near Casa Rosada (the Pink House) and is worth the stop to see the former parish of Pope Francis and the changing of the guard in front of Argentina hero Saint Martin’s tomb.
****You have to see a Tango show while here. We saw a show at the Almacen which had good food and wasn’t too long, but I am sure most of the shows catered to tourists are pretty similar. (Note: we booked through our hotel and needed to pay in cash.) Other recommendations for Tango were El Boliche De Roberto and La Viruta.
***Feria de Recoleta (Hippie Market) on the weekends (11 am – 8 pm) right outside La Recoleta Cemetery is a fun place to shop for souvenirs and local crafts.
***The colorful neighborhood of La Boca gets rave reviews and it may have been the torrential rain storm clouding my judgement but I was not overly impressed. You should still go, but make sure you take a taxi or Uber there, don’t walk. This also has some fun street art, local artists and Tango dancing when the weather is nice.
***Likewise, the San Telmo market is world famous and I arranged our dates to make sure we would be there on Sunday to visit this famed market and see the Tango dancers on the street… The weather did not corporate for us, but even with the rain and wind, we ended up hanging out here for an hour or so.
****El Ateneo Grand Splendio is a bookstore in an old converted theater. It is four stories, complete with a café on the stage and the box seats converted into reading nooks. They even have some English titles and are open 9 am until midnight. Of note, our group has several avid readers and photographers. If you are not interested in books or architecture then you can probably skip this stop.
****Casa Rosada (The Pink House) gives free tours in English at 2:30 on Saturdays and Sundays. If there on a weekend, make sure to register online in advance (required). It is interesting to visit this working government “white house” and learn a bit about Argentina’s past and present. Tours in Spanish are every 15 minutes on Saturdays. Also, remember to bring your passport with you when you visit.
***Buenos Aires is a city of Immigrants and I wanted to hit the Immigration Museum, but the hours in Lonely Planet were outdated. According to the sign outside the museum (November 2016) and the guard at the gate, it is open 11-7 May-Sept and 12-8 Mar-Oct. But this meant I got to go to the Evita Museum which I really wanted to do. It is a small, well done museum with some English. If you are a fan of local heroes or don’t know much about Evita, I recommend you go. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 am – 7 pm. Of note, I had a hard time finding out information about the beautiful building the museum is housed in. It was built in 1923 and was bought by the Maria Eva Duarte de Peron Social Aid Foundation in 1948 as part of Evita’s work to help poor women and it was used as lodging.
***Any short list of sights in Buenos Aires includes the Teatro Colon. I was even given this as a top recommendation by friends from from Buenos Aires. I was lulled by the recommendations and bought advanced tickets for an English tour. Before the Sydney Opera House, this was the largest theater in the world. And don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful, but we were not impressed and didn’t think it was worth the price or having to be somewhere mid-afternoon at an exact time. If I go again, it will be with tickets to see a show. However, if you decided to still go, it is very convenient to a wonderful place for lunch, Pizzeria Guerin which I discuss more below.
Argentina is famous for its beef and you will find Parrillas (steak houses) everywhere. I fell in love with the lamb more than the beef. But regardless, meat tends to be over cooked and is medium to well done as a rule. If you like more red in your beef, ask for Jugoso (medium rare). However you like your meat cooked; don’t miss out on the Chimichurri, a wonderful mix of olive oil, garlic and parsley. I could (and did) eat it by itself! One of my favorite Parrillas I tried while in Buenos Aires was Rodi and is just a few blocks from the La Recoleta cemetery (one block up and two blocks to the right). A recommendation in San Telmo that we didn’t have an opportunity to try was El Desnivel. I hear the “butterfly” steak is great.
Speaking of food – Argentina has its own proud traditions when it comes to pizza. Buenos Aires is a city of immigrants and the Italians came hungry and modified the traditional Italian pizza pie to make it thicker and doughier. And so we felt it was our obligation to try several variations of Argentine pizza. A must stop is Pizzeria Guerin which is a short three block walk from the Obelisk. The place was packed but worth the crowds. In fact we loved it so much that we went twice in two days. We also tried their competitor, Las Cuartetas. It was also very good but we were unanimous in our decision that Guerin was better. We heard Pizzeria Pirilo is also a worthy competitor but didn’t have time to go.
Domestic Travel: I read bad things about Argentine domestic airlines and I was worried about packing our schedule so tight. We took six flights on Aerolineas Argentinas and other than a few standard and minor delays (1-2 hours) we did not experience any problems. Just make sure you check your ticket closely so you know which Buenos Aires airport you are flying in and out of and make sure you have enough time at the airport because it can get crazy! We used the Argentinean airline pass which is cuts the cost of multi-stop tickets for foreigners.
Hotels: Buenos Aires was our base for 2 ½ weeks of travel so we stayed in several hotels while there.
***Two Hotel: This hotel was nothing to write home about but perfectly comfortable and nice. It was not as centrally located as some of those below and the front desk while very friendly appeared to be very overworked and stressed.
***562 Nogaro: This was at a great location centrally located near Case Rosada. Some of the rooms had balconies and rooms had high ceilings. The breakfast here included some fruit and eggs.
***Regal Pacific: This hotel is very western in every way (good and bad). But it was a short walk from the port and the Buquebus terminal and was even an easy walk at night with luggage. They have a large and diverse breakfast and spacious and comfortable rooms. But the hotel was impersonal, the staff was not particularly nice and there were extra charges for services like Wi-Fi.
***Tango de Mayo. I thought this hotel had great personality and decoration. I liked it more than my companions but I fell in love with it online and forgave it quite a few sins while we were there. It had a good breakfast and large rooms with a great shower. But on the other hand, there was a lot of street noise, it had spotty internet and one bed had some bad springs.
Traveler’s Tips: Not only is the wine very good, it is only slightly more expensive than soda or water (less than $1). Ubers and taxis are both plentiful and cheap. We preferred Ubers as it helped with our cash problem and they are more likely to take five passengers (taxis would not take more than 3-4 passengers at once). Most restaurants have a nominal cover charge (cubierto). While most hotels provide breakfast, expect mostly bread and maybe a little fruit.
Stay tuned for future blogs on side trips to Uruguay, Patagonia, Iguazu Falls, and Salta. Don’t let Buenos Aires be your only destination in Argentina. Get out of the city and explore some of the other amazing areas of this large and diverse country!
Books/movie recommendations: Read (or watch) anything about their national heroes – Evita, Che, Pope Francis, and Saint Martin.