This wasn’t my first trip to Buenos Aires, but was my first visit in 18 years, so in many ways it was like visiting for the first time. Buenos Aires is affectionately known as the Paris of the South, and due to architectural influences and large European ancestry, I get it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve only been to Paris once (and that was 10 years ago), but for me, many parts of the city reminded me of New York City more than Paris; though, admittedly, Buenos Aires is smaller, a bit cleaner, and the energy of NYC is impossible to replicate. No matter what you feel, the city is vibrant and interesting.
UPDATE: This blog should technically be called 6 Days in Buenos Aires, because I returned for an impromptu trip 5 days after originally leaving (living in Montevideo, a short 40 minute flight or 2.5 hour ferry ride, makes this possible). So I’ve added more incredible restaurants and bars below. Enjoy!
Before I dig into my experience in Buenos Aires, here is some important information for visitors: (1) you can’t buy a SIM card at the airport! (Or if you can, the vendor is so well hidden I was unable to find it.) This may be the only international airport in the world I’ve flown into without at least one kiosk selling SIM cards. But the airport does at least have fast and unlimited WiFi, so you can use that to order a car (see #2!) to get into the city, where you can then find a store that sells SIM cards. (2) Do NOT rely solely on Uber!! (Download and set up Cabify prior to your arrival.) Uber is illegal and while sometimes it works fine, there are drivers who have learned how to scam the company by telling you (often after you’re in the car) that they “can’t” accept payment by credit card through the app (they will give some BS excuse to justify why credit card payment won’t work) that you need to change payment method to cash and pay them directly. And they will refuse to take you if you don’t pay cash. And sometimes they either cancel the trip entirely and charge you whatever they want (you will definitely pay more!) or if you exit the car because you need to pay with the card on file in the app, they will still charge you for the ride (be sure to check ride history and message Uber so you can get a refund if this happens). The majority of people in Buenos Aires use Cabify, which works exactly the same as Uber (you can pay with a card on file in the app or cash), but is legal. And I found the price was often cheaper than Uber. (3) While you can use credit cards for most places in Buenos Aires, you do need cash for some purchases. But DAMN. Withdrawing cash at an ATM is CRAZY EXPENSIVE! The local bank charged around $11USD just on their end!! And this was a fixed ATM fee, not % based on amount you withdraw. If you also have ATM fees from your home bank, you’ll pay far too much just to access your own money. This is by far the most expensive ATM fee I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. No idea the exchange fees are but I’m guessing you’re better off exchanging currency than withdrawing at an ATM.
Buenos Aires: Then & Now
What I remember most clearly from my trip some 18 years ago: I visited over Easter weekend (I think) with Scott and Laura, other Notre Dame students and friends also studying abroad in Santiago; I found a guy in a park to braid my hair (he did an amazing job, but I like to think the level of ridiculousness in my appearance, plus the fact that I left the braids in too long and had to chop my hair once the braids were undone, was appropriate “punishment” for my cultural appropriation that I didn’t realize at the time); it was crazy expensive (we visited before the economic collapse in 2001), so we spent most of our time eating hot dogs (this was before I was vegetarian, obvi), and drinking sparkling water, which I now love but back then had to choke down because it was the cheapest thing to drink (yes, cheaper than non-sparkling mineral water). And the biggest miracle of all: I somehow managed to convince the budget airline in Chile to let me travel to Argentina (and to let me back in the country when I returned) without my passport! Got to the airport in Santiago and realized I left my passport back at my apartment, and didn’t have time to return home to get it. I had two choices: skip the trip (I was a broke student, so giving up a plane ticket was not going to happen) or take the risk that I wouldn’t be able to re-enter the country without my passport. It’s amazing what you could get away with pre-September 11! In other words: my first visit to Buenos Aires included a lot of things that belong on a “what not to do” list!
Thankfully, at this point in my life I’m wiser (no more culturally inappropriate braiding) and have a budget bigger than that of a broke college student, which allowed me to enjoy the gastronomy (though, admittedly, somewhat limited since I don’t eat meat) and wine from such a beautiful country. So I do have some great advice on a few places to visit while in the city. However, because it was not my first trip to the city, I skipped several key places I visited years ago (that are in addition to the list above) that are definitely worth checking out when in the city, including (but not limited to): Recoleta Cemetery, resting place to Eva Peron (Evita), as well as numerous other rich and important Argentinians (some of the family tombs here are the size of small churches, it boggles the mind); San Telmo Market; visit the colorful neighborhood of La Boca; catch a tango show. Now I’ll add to this list of things I did on my recent trip that I also highly recommend during a visit (I provide more details and photos on most of these places below): spend time walking around the city– it is a safe city and between the architecture and parks, there is so much to marvel at that it’s definitely worth spending at least a few hours strolling various neighborhoods (plus, it’s almost completely flat so it makes for easy walking); definitely visit El Ateneo Grand Splendid, one of the most beautiful bookstores in the entire world; when visiting Recoleta Cemetery, head to the nearby Centro Cultural Recoleta (Recoleta Cultural Center), which has clean public bathrooms, free wifi, plenty of space to sit and rest, as well as lots of art and other exhibits you can enjoy (for free), and also visit the local market that extends from the front of the cultural center to Plaza Francia and is full of art, jewelry, clothing, and pretty much any other type of souvenir you can imagine made by local artisans (plus, according to my Airbnb host, this market is actually larger than San Telmo!); and finally, enjoy some great restaurants and wine bars in the Palermo neighborhood (FYI: Recoleta also has a vibrant restaurant and bar scene, but nothing in the city compares to Palermo).
A definite highlight of this trip, much like my trip to Rio, was my Airbnb. Tam and Elina, my hosts (a mom and daughter) are simply amazing! They speak fluent English, so if you don’t speak Spanish, not to worry. Plus, they have the most adorable (and insanely calm and well behaved!) 6 month old puppy who loves to cuddle. The apartment itself is gorgeous and located in a historic building, with great sunrise and sunset views of the Congress and part of the city skyline.
While the location, in a neighborhood called Monserrat, is more of a business district than residential or prime tourist area, within 1-4 miles you can walk or take a cab to almost all of the popular tourist neighborhoods in the city. Due to ease of walking and cheap cost of taking cars to the areas where I spent most of my time, I didn’t mind this location at all! (Plus, to have such a large, private bedroom and bathroom for about $20/night, totally worth it.) You can find this awesome Airbnb here. Also, their terrace (picture below) is where Evita and Juan Perón first met!! For real!
Walking Around Buenos Aires
The first full day of my trip happened to be a federal holiday, so the city was a bit of a ghost town. Thankfully, some places remained open, including El Ateneo-Grand Splendid, a former theatre that has been converted into a bookstore and cafe. Stunning!
And because my Airbnb was only a couple of blocks from the Plaza del Congreso (Congressional Plaza), I got to enjoy this park and views of the Congress during day and night.
I walked from Monserrat up Avenida Callao (Callao is one of the main avenues and full of beautiful, historic buildings) to Avenida Corrientes, another main street with lots of shopping, restaurants, and cafes. Also on this street is Cadore, consistently on someone’s list (including, National Geographic) of best places to eat ice cream (gelato) in the world. And the “dulce de leche” flavor does not disappoint! Insanely good! Highly recommend. From there, continue north on Callao and you’ll reach Sante Fe, possibly the main commercial street in the city (or, at least, in the top). Great for shopping, and it’s also where El Ateneo is located. If you head back to Callao and continue north a bit longer (and eventually head left/west a couple blocks) you’ll be in the heart of Recoleta, right at the Recoleta Cemetery, Centro Cultural, and Plaza Francis.
Wine in the City
My trip started with a wine and cheese evening at Hache Almacén, in Palermo. A decent selection of wines by the glass, and I especially appreciated the patience of the server, as I went through about 5 tastings before finding something I really liked. He was not shy about the size of his tastings either, I probably had nearly a full glass before choosing what I was going to drink. Add to that a heavy pour on the glass of wine I selected, and really nice cheese plate, for only $7. Score! I enjoyed wine tastings other evenings at Winemakers Vinoteca, in Recoleta, which is both a wine store but also offers tastings (and a small food menu- I had cheese plate, yum!) where you can choose to taste 2, 3, or 4 varietals and the house then selects for you (yes, you can give guidance on the general types of wine you prefer). But by far my favorite wine bar in the city is Vico Wine Bar in Palermo. I didn’t try the food here, so can’t speak to that. But the interior is stylish and upscale without feeling stuffy, and they have TONS of varietals of Argentian wines you can sample. When you enter you are given a credit-card type card, and when you select a wine to try (and sizes: tasting pour, half-glass, or full-glass) you insert the card and then press a button for the pour (all prices are noted before you select, so no surprises). What I really loved, even more than the abundant selection of wines to taste/by the glass, was the sommelier! When I described (in Spanish, which still is nowhere near as good as I’d like, so my vocabulary, especially when describing wine, is far more limited than in English) what I like, he directed me to what is by far the best Argentinian wine I’ve had, maybe ever! Certainly the best during this trip (or that I’ve tried while in Uruguay and even Brazil). Incredibly knowledgeable, and that, to me, is worth gold! Finally, if you’re in the mood for a great cocktail bar (that also has decent wine options, at least, by the bottle), check out Verne Club in Palermo- great ambience!
*Update 14 September 2019: forget my initial observations below. Buenos Aires is AMAZING for plant based eaters. The longer I’m here, the more I’m discovering the insane number of restaurants and grocery stores that are either entirely vegan, vegetarian, or offer wonderful plant-based options alongside other foods, in all parts of the city. The food is creative, inventive, and really tasty! And since I have a meat-eating boyfriend who usually goes with me (along with his 15 year old), I can confirm that these restaurants will make anyone happy!
As for food, in many respects, Buenos Aires is very similar to Montevideo: they are both cities, within countries, whose gastronomy is heavily based in meat, but both have a growing consciousness of plant-based food so many options are available. However, in both cities (and completely opposite of what I discovered in Rio!), the strictly vegetarian or vegan restaurants tend to be underwhelming… the food is decent, but nothing to write home about. They are the type of restaurants that will satisfy a plant-based eater, and I’m very appreciative they exist, but few meat-eating guests will leave there thinking: I’d love to go back. Heck, I wasn’t compelled to return to any of the places myself, and I’m within the target audience. But what I did find is that several “normal” restaurants had really fantastic plant-based options! So my advice for plant-based diners traveling in Buenos Aires: skip the veg restaurants and check out veg options at regular restaurants! Some of my favorite meals: Tostado Cafe (numerous across the city, this chain has loads of meat and plant-based sandwiches, salads, fresh juices, coffee, and great wifi- perfect for lunch); Sans Armenia Deli & Drinks in the heart of Palermo- highly recommend (do not let the name “deli” in the title fool you- this restaurant was by far the best meal I had in Buenos Aires! Tons of delish veg options! My gnocchi dish was every bit as amazing as the gnocchi I had during my last trip to Italy, which isn’t at all surprising when you consider that so much of the culture and food in this city is intertwined with its large Italian ancestry and population); and finally, Brandon, also in Palermo, a very close second to Sans Armenia, given its really creative and inventive menu that will please any and all eaters.
Updates: Here are the additional places I visited, and WOW. They were all fantastic, I highly recommend!! Most well known for its bar aspect (but also featuring yummy food and veg options), Floreria Atlantico is on the lower level of a flower shop, and is a speakeasy-type bar that features a massive menu of craft cocktails. It’s also ranked as one of the 25 or 50 (depending on publication) best bars in the world! Gran Bar Danzon served up one of the most creative, inventive, and delish veg sushi dishes I’ve eaten anywhere in the world! (It has plenty of non-sushi dishes too, but if you like sushi… if the veg sushi dish was THAT good, I can’t imagine how incredible the real stuff must be.) This is an incredible restaurant and bar that features a book of wines to choose from (ok, not really a book, but a menu big enough to be a book). Amazing ambiance, and like Floreria Atlantico, live DJs! (And not just on the weekend.) Finally, and saving one of the most memorable for last, Napoles Bar San Telmo. This is an Italian restaurant meets museum meets clothing store. In other words, it has everything! And all of it works so, so well. All of the pasta is made in house, and it no longer surprises me when I eat pasta in this part of the world that is every bit as good as the best pasta you can find in Italy.
Last piece of advice in this blog: if you are itching for a new hairstyle, don’t be afraid to go bold in Buenos Aires. After spending 7 or so months with pink or blonde hair, I decided it was enough; I want my natural color and I’ve had it with paying so much money to keep up fun but dramatically different hair colors. I did my research online (again, Google reviews never fail!) and I ended up at Cuggini Salon, in the very capable hands of Alex. Though I sent an email a week before my arrival to inquire about an appointment, I was told to come in when I was in the city. When I arrived, I only had to wait 20 or so minutes before Alex was available. Of course, this all had me a bit nervous, because in the US the best stylists are always booked up weeks (or more) ahead of time. But, considering my options were Alex or taking the risk to dye my hair myself (and I knew that just wouldn’t work out well, because by the time I went to the salon I had 3 very different colors in my hair, and I definitely lack the capacity to know how to mesh all 3 into a single color at the end), I decided to swallow my nerves and let Alex have at my hair. Alex speaks English and Portuguese, in addition to Spanish; his English is pretty good though a few times it was definitely helpful to clarify what I wanted in Spanish. After completing the color (which came out PERFECT!!), I picked out a picture of the cut I wanted (dying to grow my hair long again, but it’s still terribly broken and suffering much damage from the stylist in Florida who over-processed my roots, so to avoid having a full-on mullet I had to cut my hair short, again) and Alex pretty much nailed it. My nerves were completely unwarranted, as Alex was brilliant. (He barely looks over 45, but the man has been doing hair for 39 years!!) And as someone who has been paying upwards of $125-$150 for just a haircut for years, and easily $250+ for a haircut and color (without tip), to get a cut, color, and tip for $54USD BLEW MY MIND. And there was no trade-off in terms of quality for the lower price. WOW. Highly recommend.
And just like that, my trip to Buenos Aires was over. If you are flying to Buenos Aires and have extra time, you can easily squeeze in a trip to Uruguay too! It’s an easy and cheap boat ride (of approx 2 hours) to Montevideo (or a super fast 30-40 minutes by airplane), or you can also visit Colonia del Sacramento, which is super charming. I’ll finally get around to posting some blogs on Uruguay, with my experiences and recommendations for both.