OK. I admit, it took me a while to process my feelings, thoughts, observations as well as my notes about this city. It’s because to me was a whole new level of ‘wow’ and FYI, before coming to Buenos Aires, I thought I knew about proper wows a lot already 😉
Basically, Buenos Aires has a real essence and a massive character, rather than just the looks. It also has Marilyn’s beauty mark as well as bit of a lazy eye of <insert a name of a charismatic lazy eye person> to illustrate the overwhelming character of the city.
I am fully aware of being biased as a person who is in love with the place 😍 And that’s before even mentioning the added spices and herbs BA comes with as well as all sorts of tasty/spicy attitude or the love for life people here live by. The passion here is just overwhelming.
You know how Italians can enjoy life? Think that and add tango to it, that’s IMHO Argentinians 😉 But things are not so black and white – otherwise it would come down to dry tomatoes v tango between Italy and Argentina 🙂
OK, let’s just step away from this subjective “It’s Friday and I’m in love” stuff. Think what you know about Argentina compared to any other country in the region or even in the whole world for that matter. Surely, you would be able to mention several cultural icons as well as some known historical figures from politics and sports. I mean who doesn’t know about the already mentioned tango? Or the best BBQ in the world? Who hasn’t enjoyed Argentinian wine? Who haven’t heard of Evita, Che Guevarra, Boca Juniors or Maradona? They all come with some sort of superlatives, aren’t they?
While this list can go on for much longer, it would still be just a fraction of Argentina’s history and presence. After all, it’s a big country with rich and vibrant history. I only wanted to illustrate how many things a normal person knows about Argentina, even without even reading about it as well as that those generally known facts and figures from Argentina all symbolize something that is rather full on.
A bit of history
The city was first established under the name not many of us would remember as easy as Buenos Aires. Originally it was Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre (City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds), a rather complicated name given to the settlement in 1536 by a Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza.
From its earliest days, Buenos Aires was a strategic trading location. This has led to several blockades and invasion by Britain or France, the usual suspects at the time. In the second half of the 19th century, the city increased its economic power with industrialization and mining. It made Buenos Aires one of the leading destinations for immigrants.
In fact, in the last 150 years, Argentina welcomed millions of immigrants from the whole world, more than any other country except the USA. The majority of immigrants have arrived from Europe, mostly from Spain and Italy creating a major influence that is still very present.
Furthermore, there are also notable numbers of Jewish, Polish, Russian, French, German and Austrian immigrants (all above 100k). Then there were also many Portuguese, Czechs, Dutch, British, Irish, Swiss, Croats, Lebanese, Syrian, South Africans, Australians – you name it.
This influx has made the city more cosmopolitan that I would have expected. In South America, you hardly meet any local blond or red haired people, unless you are in Buenos Aires. Architecture, fashion and culture-wise, the city is stunning – no wonder people call it – The Paris of South America.
Some of the million things to see
OK. There are too many to list them all here. I’ll mention only a fraction of what the numerous guide books offer. Like many other tourists, I have stayed in a quarter called Palermo. It’s a hyped up barrio full of venues that attract alternative as well as yuppie crowds. Palermo is considered to be the safest part of town and the rather intense police presence conforms that.
Palermo reminded me a lot of Berlin, another favourite city of mine. Apart from tons of stylish restaurants, bars and cafés, it comes with many colours and amazing atmosphere. I loved walking and turning random corners where it will take me. My local friends told me that such activity in other quarters tourists often visit, like for example San Telmo or La Boca is not advised due to the safety precautions.
La Boca, a home to the famous football club Boca Juniors is another tourist destination – but we’re only talking about a fraction of this otherwise poverty-stricken neigbourhood that is proud of its working class status. Those few colourful blocks around the touristy Caminito are filled with Maradona‘s impersonators, tango dancers, souvenir shops, statues of the pope and so on.
To be honest, it’s as touristy as it can get and few hours, including a coffee break, a purchase of postcards as well as visit of the museum of a local artist Benito Quinquela Martín was more than sufficient time to spend there for me.
Another major tourist spot is Cementerio de la Recoleta. I have to say that I like visiting cemeteries, there’s something calm and deep about them. I’ve therefore visited many but this one tops them all. No wonder BBC and CNN hailed it as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world as well. The actual site contains nearly 5000 vaults in its 5,5 hectares.
Cementerio de la Recoleta basically is many mausoleums that are decorated with statues, in a wide variety of architectural styles such as Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic. The entire cemetery is laid out in sections like city blocks, with wide tree-lined main walkways branching into sidewalks an some benches.
There are mainly the (former) members of the privileged upper classes such as presidents of Argentina or a granddaughter of Napoleon buried here. Cementerio Recoleta is however also the place of the final rest for some poets, artists, writers as well as Nobel Prize winners. Perhaps the most famous person buried here is María Eva Duarte de Perón, whom you might know as Evita.
The neighbourhood of San Telmo, quickly became my favourite part of town. It’s just a bit more real than all the major tourist destinations. There are just fewer touristy things and more places for the locals. Basically you can eat your steak in Plaza Dorrego (see the feature picture) and watch the tango dancers together with the locals. As they were greeting each-other – in my romantic imagination – I believed that some of the tango-watching locals used to dance here 20 years ago themselves.
Unlike in Palermo, the stylish restaurants and pubs of San Telmo are filled fewer yuppies and it’s also a bit cheaper. Just being there feels like being in a super-cool movie. Unfortunately, being a more local place also means not as heavy police presence, which apparently makes San Telmo less safe than it looks but still apparently better than Boca. I personally haven’t witnessed any unpleasant situations but these are the words of my local friends living there: “I wouldn’t walk few blocks this way” and I have obliged.
I’m going to stop here because when it comes to attractions of Buenos Aires a whole book wouldn’t be enough. There are many, I mean many architectural landmarks, parks, museums, art galleries and so on, mostly located in the centre. I feel safe to say that there’s something for everyone. I mean that even two weeks of a proper exploration weren’t enough to see everything I found interesting reading about, or and seeing it randomly first then reading about it.
Some practical info
Buenos Aires has a very efficient and easy-to-use public transport. You will need to get yourself a local equivalent of an Oyster card called SUBE, which you can purchase, together with rather cheap top ups in every metro station. FYI, it works in more cities of Argentina, like Bariloche as well. Try avoiding rush hours ‘cos it can get rather claustrophobic, I mean London’s Bank-like claustrophobic. Wear your backpack upfront like the locals.
Use ATM to get Argentinian Pesos or exchange the money in official Cambio places – the street touts in the centre are dodgy. Safety-wise, as I said, I haven’t witnessed anything unpleasant – just use the normal precaution. Avoid dark alleys, don’t flash your iPhones around, don’t be a dick and so on. After all, in this city you are not as obvious foreigner as in any other place in Americas. To be honest, I’ve taken the 90minute ride on a night bus from La Boca to Palermo and I was as safe as in (the pre-Tory cuts) London.
Argentina hasn’t enjoyed a lot of economical stability lately and the inflation rates when I was there were stunning. Buenos Aires is normally rather expensive place to be but it really depends on the current economic situation of the country. For example for me it was one of the cheapest places (like €1,40 happy hours for pint of IPA, then it went up to €2 after 10pm) I’ve visited on the continent but many tell me that it could just as well be the most expensive.
Next possible destinations
- ⁷If you have a spare two days, I’d certainly recommend visiting one of the most popular destinations in South America Iguazú Falls
- Another option is taking only a couple of hours worth ferry ride from Buenos Aires will take you over the river to Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento from where it’s another two hours bus ride to the country’s capital Montevideo
- In case you were into nature, take a plane to Ushuaia, El Calafate or Bariloche to visit the ever amazing Patagonia