an insider’s guide to buenos aires

As I close a chapter in Buenos Aires and start a new one in Mexico City, I decided to document my recommendations/observations to serve as both as a travel guide for anyone looking to visit the “Paris of South America,” as well as a journal of some of my experiences there.

Where to stay:

I suggest staying in either the Recoleta or Palermo neighborhood, depending on what you are looking for and how much you want to spend. Recoleta is one of the wealthiest areas in Capital Federal and it is the reason the city has the moniker mentioned above. The architecture is stunning in that European, awe-inspiring kind of way (just look beyond the graffiti markings). The streets are noticeably (almost) free of trash and towers of dog excrement that one finds in other areas, and you cannot help but fall in love with the charming corner cafes. If you don’t want to break the bank, check out a mid-sized hotel called Grand Hotel Buenos Aires. They offer decent prices and it is walking distance to the Recoleta Cemetary, Cultural Center, Design Mall, cool bars and restaurants galore.

If you fancy more of a party/bohemian area of town, check out Palermo. I worked in Palermo can testify to its variety of dining, shopping and nightlife. The hotels are all small and boutique (some better than others). Travelers beware; the neighborhood can get really loud from Wednesday through Saturday nights so be sure to request an internal room that does not face the street. I stayed at the Vitrum hotel often when I travelled for work (fitted with its own Sushi Club restaurant), but there are plenty of others with equivalent charm.

Restaurants:

Your first stop in Buenos Aires will inevitably be a Parilla (aka: an Argentine steakhouse, pronounced “par-ee-sha”). I recommend going to Cabana Las Lilas in Puerto Madero. It is admittedly touristy but the food, ambiance and service are one-of-a-kind (note that quality service is not easy to find in this city) and you get an extraordinary amount of food for your money, especially if the US Dollar is your currency. I also like La Cabrera in Palermo and La Brigada in San Telmo for more of a traditional, old-school vibe.

Other restaurants worth your while:

Osaka – expensive but amazing Japanese-Peruvian fusion food, service and environment. It’s neighbor with a similar style in Palermo called Olaya boasts food and drink of equal taste and quality, for half the price.

Italian food is another Argentine specialty thanks to post WWII immigration and some places to check out are Sotte Voce, or for pizza I love Morelia (there is one in Palermo and another in Las Canitas neighborhood, which is another fun area at night for bars and restaurants).

I loved a restaurant in San Telmo called Aldo’s Vinoteca, although the area is a little rough around the edges at night. It has a jazz-club kind of ambiance with a variety of wine that will blow you away, especially when compared to US prices. Staying in the San Telmo zone, head over there on a Sunday afternoon for brunch/lunch and treat yourself to a delightful little café called Hierbabuena. Its food is largely vegetarian, but I promise it will be a welcome break from the vast quantity of meat you are sure to be eating in the city. The atmosphere is quaint and will make you want to settle in for the day…although a stroll though the San Telmo market afterwards, perhaps stopping for ice cream at the famous Freddo or Persicco, is not a bad plan.

Another experience worth your while is a closed-door restaurant (Google it if you have never heard of the concept). I tried Casa Saltshaker and Cocina Sunae, which both prepared amazing food but turned out to be totally different in nature. Sunae feels more like a traditional restaurant, and Saltshaker is more of a unique community ambiance where you can get to know strangers in an intimate dinner table setting. Check out my restaurant page for more on closed-door dining in Mendoza.

Finally, before you travel be sure to read the blog called Pick Up the Fork and you will find all kinds of restaurants to suit your taste buds.

Nightlife:

Palermo and Las Canitas are both fun areas at night, full of bars and restaurants. You really can’t go wrong. In Palermo, Plaza Armenia and Plaza Serrano are full of action, and also fun to wander at lunchtime to eat and shop. Franks is an upscale speakeasy that requires a password for entry, but easily the best cocktails I tried in the city.

I like Basa Basement Bar for dinner and bar in the Retiro neighborhood, and the Pony Line bar in the Four Seasons hotel in Recoleta is also the place to rub elbows with Portenos looking to see and be seen.

For drinks I also highly recommend Floreria Atlantica – a bar you access through a flower shop, literally entering through a refrigerator door. It’s an open secret in Buenos Aires and has an fun energy. You can reserve a table to eat dinner too, which I recommend if you go in a group.

I am not big on the nightclub scene (called “boliches” in Argentina), but there are plenty of them! I only went to two in my eight months living there– Shampoo (best on Saturdays) and Rose Bar (best on Thursdays). Shampoo is a smaller, underground club, while Rose Bar has a massive room with big screens and chandeliers, as well a large outdoor area/bar. The benefit of Rose Bar is you can go around 9pm on Thursday for drinks (extremely early for Buenos Aires standards), and it turns into a full club by 11pm-midnight. Other boliches do not get crowded until 2am, so be sure to nap!

Other things to see and do:

BA Walking tours are great; I recommend the one in the Recoleta Cemetery but I have heard others are great too depending on the times you are interested in going.

If you are looking for a bit of culture, try to see an opera or ballet at Teatro Colon (or just go for a tour because it is beautiful!).

You can take a ferry across the river to Colonia in Uruguay if it’s a nice day and you want a short escape from the hustle-bustle and a chance to get US Dollars from an ATM. I never went myself, but I was told it can be fun to stroll around and have lunch.

Back in the city, the Japanese gardens are a must on a spring/summer day and you can walk from there to the Rosedal (rose gardens). I recommend a nice ice cream en route, and you will pass a Volta on the opposite side of Avenida Libertador. If you are lucky, you might catch one of the free concerts the city puts on to keep morale up amongst the hyper-inflation and often prohibitive prices for entertainment.

Finally, you cannot leave Argentina without taking a tango lesson or going to see a tango show. I took a lesson at La Viruta, which was a totally unique experience located in Palermo. Oddly, the studio is situated below an Armenian school and restaurant, but at least you can stop on your way out to refuel with some out-of-this-world food. Fun fact: Buenos Aires has one of the largest Armenia populations in the world, outside of Armenia itself.

Other general info/tips:

  • Bring plenty of cash. There is a “blue” market for USD and you can get a much better exchange rate than you do paying with a credit card or taking cash from and ATM if you find the right buyer. Florida street is generally considered the hub for changing money at the blue rate, although I do not recommend going alone, especially if you do not speak Spanish. It’s important to know that many places are cash only or offer discounts when paying in cash.
  • Buenos Aires is a ridiculously late city; dinner on a weekend is anywhere from 10pm-midnight, and as mentioned, clubs don’t really start moving until 2am. You will not find much open before 10am either (although you will not care if you are keeping the late-nght hours).
  • Locals are very friendly to Americans, yet aside from the in hospitality industry, you may find that there are few fluent English-speakers.
  • Women – carry cross-body purses and wear them in front. Do not wear any flashy jewelry, (petty crime is prevalent, unfortunately), otherwise the city is safe in the right area and times, like any other. Do not flash your cell phone on the street or while riding public transportation either, because thieves have been known to pluck it right out of your hand and take off running.
  • Taxis from Radio Taxi Premium are generally considered the most secure. You can hail them on the street, but not recommended if you do not speak the language and do not know the route to where you are going.

In sum, Buenos Aires is spectacular place to visit and even live, given the right salary or currency. While the politics are touchy, the people are warm and inviting. I was constantly in awe of the beauty that surrounded me and the city will always hold a very special place in my heart.

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