Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires, a gem of a city in the Western Hemisphere’s Down Under, captivated us with its gorgeous architecture, bustling streets, cafe culture, and sophistication. While the city is enormous, we thought that five days was enough to see most of the major attractions and get a feel for what the city has to offer. Red wine and meat lovers will revel in the endless selection of restaurants serving top-notch fare at ridiculously low prices due to the weak Argentinian peso.
I did this trip during a two week vacation in between jobs. My fiance couldn’t go, my travel buddy couldn’t either. I mentioned to my Mom that I was thinking of going to Buenos Aires and she answered with “I’ll go”. I took her up on it!
Day 1: Recoleta, Av. 9 de Julio, money changing
We arrived in the early morning after a non-stop overnight flight from JFK on Aerolineas Argentinas, a state-owned airline that has horrible customer reviews on Tripadvisor. I expected a hellish flight but it ended up being really comfortable because there were so many empty seats. I had three to myself. The food wasn’t great, but the stewardesses kept the wine coming.
After a long taxi ride from the airport, we checked in early to the Hotel Club Frances, a great hotel in the city’s wealth Recoleta district. If you were plopped down blindfolded here, you’d guess you were in Paris or Rome. Or the Upper East Side. The well-kept streets held a good share of trees that were yellowing from the shorter days the Southern Hemisphere’s fall season. We were in a residential so the number of cafes and restaurants was pretty limited, but we made do.
The streets of Recoleta are lined with stately Beaux Artes apartment buildings that recall an era of grandeur gone by. While there is still great wealth here, a string of economic crises has knocked the country off a clean path towards prosperity. The Argentinan peso is under downward pressure again. I don’t know if the wealthy people there keep their money in dollars or what, but they seem to have weathered the storm ok.
One observation I have made from traveling around the world is that the wealthier the neighborhood you’re in, the more leashed dogs you see. There were fancy dogs everywhere here, being walked by women in yoga pants and Patagonia fleeces.
Money: One of our first orders of business was to get Argentinian pesos. There is a significant difference between the official exchange rate set by the government and the unofficial, black market rate, or “dolar blue” rate. If you get your cash out of ATM, bank, or buy something with a credit card, you only get 8 pesos to the dollar, whereas if you exchange your cash on the black market (October 2014), you get 14.7 pesos for each dollar. While we were there, in May 2014, the black market rate was 11 to the dollar. Still pretty good.
Not having a single peso to our name, the hotel receptionist gave us directions to a money-changing place nearby, at 1560 Posadas street. We found the address, but there was no sign or anything to indicate that we were in the right spot. A guy at a jewelry store nearby told us to knock on the door to his right. Behind this nondescript door was a small room with about 10 people waiting in line. After our number was called, we went into a back room where two young woman behind a counter were doling out pesos (or dollars) amid the noisy whir of money counting machines. With pesos in hand, we were now ready for business.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the neighborhood and used the broad Avenue de 9 Julio to get our bearings. We took in our first taste of Argentinean food at a corner cafe called Cafe Plaza, on the Avenue 9 de Julio, before visiting the Teatro Colon, the city’s oldest opera house.
Afterwards, we walked over to the Retiro disrict and visited the old Estacion Retiro train station, a beautiful Beaux Arts structure.
We then enjoyed the scene at the Plaza de San Martin, which is next to a park covered with old trees and nice statues. While a bit touristy, the nearby pedestrian-only Florida street was bustling with shoppers and money changers. We were tired from the long flight and had an early 8pm dinner–well, early for Argentinian standards–at nearby Fervor Restaurante & Parrilla.
Day 2: Recoleta Cemetery, Palermo
We took advantage our location in the Recoleta by visiting the Recoleta Cemetery, the site of Eva Peron’s crypt and the final resting place for the city’s rich and powerful families. We had a bit of difficulty finding her tomb among the hundreds of others, but eventually found it with the help of my Lonely Planet guidebook. Afterwards, we went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which houses a great collection of European paintings.
The Palermo neighborhood, an area that I can best describe as Buenos Aires’ Brooklyn, was where we spent the afternoon. The buildings aren’t as tall as downtown and the area had more of a residential feel to it.
Palermo is a huge neighborhood and we only saw one section of it, so I’m not going to act like I know a lot about the area. But the area we chose to visit, Palermo Viejo, was really cool and had a funky Bohemian vibe.
The heart of the neighborhood is the Plaza Serrano, a small square surrounded by restaurants, cafes, and retail shops selling things like art and crafts, and clothing. Vendors at a flea market in the plaza sold crafts and handmade clothing to tourists and residents alike.
On the way back to Recoleta, we stopped at the iconic Café Tortoni, a 100 year old café on the grand Avenida de Mayo.
That night, our receptionist recommended a few Tango shows in the San Telmo area of Buenos Aires, and we picked La Ventana. Yes, it was a little touristy but I thought it was really good and my Mom loved it, so all in all I’m glad we went. The gaucho act following the traditional tango numbers was good as well.
Day 3: Microcentro, San Telmo, La Boca
On Sunday morning, we revisited the Avenida de Mayo area on our way to the famous Plaza de Mayo, site of protests during the financial crisis in the early 2000s. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the art nouveau and neoclassical buildings as we walked downthe avenue.
The oldest subway stations on the Buenos Aires metro, or Subte, are on this street. I went down into one of the stations to get a look and snapped a few pics of the design.
At the end of this avenue is the huge public square of Plaza de Mayo with the pink Casa Rosada, the name for the Presidential Palace. On weekends, the government of Argentina lets the general public enter the palace for free to tour the first floor. I think we went through a metal detector but other than that there were no other controls. I can’t imagine that happening in the U.S.
San Telmo, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, holds a half mile-long craft fair each Sunday along the cobblestoned, pedestrian-only street of Defensa. This fair is a paradise for those looking for antiques, hand-made clothing and other souvenirs.
The streets were crowded but not overly so, and the restaurants and cafes overlooking the street had their windows open crisp fall air. After an hour or two of shopping, and seeing a dog that looked a lot like Ollie, we walked one street over to a quieter area and had lunch at Restaurante Los Pereyra on the corner of Mexico and Balcarce streets.
After lunch my mom danced the tango with a street performer and I snapped some good pics of her in the act.
As there was still a lot of daylight left, we jumped in a cab and headed to a La Boca, a waterfront neighborhood southeast of San Telmo.
The multicolored houses near the water’s edge on Caminitos street are one of the city’s most photographed landmarks. Along this street we saw some tango routines and walked around down by the water’s edge to get a view of the bay.
On the way back, we satisfied our hunger for pizza by chowing down on some pizza and beers at Pizzeria La Rey on Avenida Corrientes.
Day 4: MALBA, Strolling around our neighborhood
We started out the day at the world-renowned modern art museum, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA). I’m not that into modern art, but the building itself is a work of art, as is the case with many of today’s newer museums. We walked along another one of the city’s major avenues, the Avenue del Libertador before I peeled off to see the El Ateneo bookstore, cited as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. I certainly can’t think of another that was as gorgeous as this one, other than maybe Porto’s Lello bookstore.
That night we used Yelp to find another steak place, this time more of a mom-and-pop no frills steakhouse, Parilla Pena. This was hands down the best meal we had in BA.
Day 5: Puerto Madero
On our final day, we walked around the Puerto Madero area, a formerly neglected port area along the Rio de la Plata that has undergone redevelopment in the past twenty years or so and has attracted young professionals and luxury retail shops. We had to catch a cab to the airport in the early evening so did not have all the time in the world, but we got a sense for this area. We had lunch at a café called Sam Bucherie and after packing we grabbed a quick dinner at a Recoleta diner called Daily Coffee, which served surprisingly good burgers.
It’s too bad the flight to Buenos Aires is about 10 hours from NYC, or else I’d be going down there once or twice a year. I loved the cafes, the unique South American sophistication, the wine, the beer, the steak, the empanadas–I could go on. It’s the most European city in the Americas, I think. I wish I had more time to see another part of the country. One day I’ll go back.
- Do not use an ATM or credit cards if you can help it. Bring another US Dollars down with you and exchange them as soon as you get into the city.
- Try to get your hotel to arrange an airport pickup for you so you can avoid paying with cash on the way to the city
- Allow yourself plenty of time for transit to the airport; it takes forever to get there
- It helps to be able to read and speak a little Spanish; it’ll make your time a little easier ordering off the menu and speaking to older residents.
The café culture in Buenos Aires rivals that of Vienna or Paris, in my opinion. Just about every street corner has a café where you can grab a newspaper and whittle the morning away while enjoying a coffee or espresso. Some of the establishments we visited were:
- Café Tortoni, a tourist site unto itself, this beautiful cafe is so popular with tourists and locals alike that there is a short wait even to get inside the door during the evening.
- La Biela: located on a corner near Recoleta Cemetry, this is definition of old-school, with white jacketed waiters, none under the age of 50, scurrying around this classy café with trays in hand.
- Confeteria St. Moritz: huge cafe/diner out of the 1930s
I think my favorite part of the trip were the steaks and baked empanadas I devoured as we toured our way through the city. For lovers of bold red wines like Malbec and those who like to stuff themselves with the best steak in the world are missing out. The weak peso makes this city a great bargain too.
- San Telmo, Restaurante Los Pereyra: a great spot right off the San Telmo market that serves tasty Italian food
- Palermo, La Baita: A good place in Palermo Viejo that impressed us with quality of their Italian food
- Recoleta (southern part), Parilla Pena, a meat lovers paradise that serves up $10 steaks you can barely finish; use this opportunity to get the best wine on the menu without killing your budget
- Microcentro, Pizzeria La Rey: looks like a big pizza place you’d see in Times Square, but serves amazing pizza in a fun atmosphere
- Microcentro, El Palacio de la Pizza: oldschool pizza joint that also serves dessert
- Puerto Madero, Sam Bucherie: great little deli filled with young and sophisitcated Argentinians on their lunch breaks in the Puerto Madero area
- Recoleta, Fervor Restaurante & Parrilla: a beautiful restaurant on the fancier side, serving ridiculously good steak for 1/3 of the price in the US
- Recoleta/Palermo, Domani Ristoranti and Bar: if you’re looking for a good place to eat nearby MALBA, this is it.
The Hotel Club Frances, occupying the former residence of the French ambassador, was one of the highlights of our trip. It’s in a safe location in a wealthy part of the city and within walking distance from the tourist draws of Retiro and the Avenido de 9 Julio de Mayo. Upon arrival, we were made to feel welcome and allowed to check in a full 4 hours early. The rooms were nice and spacious, and included Wi-Fi. The ladies at the front desk were so helpful, providing great restaurant recommendations, booking the tango show for us as well as a bunch of taxis. I usually do all this kinda stuff on my own so that was nice just to sit back and listen to their advice. The excellent breakfast was served in an glass-ceilinged atrium by a nice waiter who seemed to enjoy what he was doing.