It is a curious contrast between Buenos Aires and Mendoza. Mendoza with its one million inhabitants feels much smaller than what it is. Buenos Aires, on the contrary, with not more than 3 million people, still feel enormous. It feels just as big, or bigger than Paris or London. But perhaps it is all based on deceptive numbers (just like much used to be under the Kirchner government). If one looks closer the metro area actually counts 13.5 million people. And that is just an estimation. Statistics is not a forte in Argentina.
Anyway, Buenos Aires is a huge city and a fascinating city. My first reaction when I came initially to Buenos Aires was that it felt quite European. A bit like a mix between Paris (for size) and Milan (for architecture and organisation). And that’s probably quite true. In fact, Italians were probably the biggest nationality to emigrate to Argentina. But this emigration mainly took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Argentina was the world’s 7th biggest economy, ahead of France, Italy and Germany.
The city is a fantastic mixture of old and new, of rich and poor, of internationalism and provincialism.
With this text, I want to give you a quick introduction to Buenos Aires. It is not at all an in-depth guide, you will find that much better in guidebooks or online.
Let’s start with what is probably BA’s two most famous sites.
Avenida 9 de Julio
The Avenida 9 de Julio is supposedly the world’s widest avenue. I am not sure if it is true, but it probably is. You don’t even try crossing all the lanes in one go. It is named after the date of the Argentine independence in 1816, then including both Uruguay and parts of Bolivia.
On the avenue you have the next world-famous site: the Teatro Colón, which is actually primarily an opera house, ranked the third-best in the world, built between 1889 and 1908. The first performance was Aida.
On the avenue, you also have several other interesting points. At the very bottom, the French embassy, grandiose, in the middle a big obelisk and at the top the forbidding building housing the Ministry of Communications, in the middle of the street actually, with an artwork depicting Evita Perón on the facade.
Don’t miss all the curious trees along the avenue, as well as in the rest of the city. Buenos Aires is also famous for its trees.
East of 9 de Julio (the avenida or calle is often dropped in addresses) you have the part of town called Recoleta. This is a busy shopping district. The more east and north you move the more elegant it becomes. There are many impressive building, embassies, hotels, and plenty of restaurants.
A few things to note:
The Cemeterio de la Recoleta with the tomb of Evita Perón, as well as many other graves that look more like mausoleums than anything else. A curious and interesting place to visit. Continuing beyond el cemeterio you come first to a park area popular for taking a stroll and then to the national art museum and the monument to Evita.
On (Avenida) Santa Fe, one of the business roads, on number 1860, there is an amazing bookshop in what was once a theatre, El Ateneo Grand Splendid. They also have a café, on what was the stage.
Even further away from 9 de Julio, you come to Palermo, a part of Buenos Aires where you live if you are on the wealthy side of life. There are nice parks, the botanic garden, even more beautiful embassies and the famous rose garden.
Retiro is (mainly) on the other side of 9 de Julio. The park Plaza San Martin is home to a curious clock tower, similar to Big Ben in London, a gift from the British community; today ironically just across the street from the war monument commemorating the Falklands / Malvinas war.
This is also a busy shopping district, famous, yes, but, well, shopping is shopping, and with more big office buildings than on the Recoleta side.
Continuing through Retiro down towards the river you come to…
It has nothing to do with wood (madera) but is named after the person who was put in charge of building a new harbour for Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, Eduardo Madero. With time it became a grubby and neglected harbour area, like so often. But since the end of the 20th century, a huge redevelopment effort has transformed the old harbour into a shining new part of Buenos Aires with offices, apartment buildings, hotels and shops.
On the land side (Avenida Ing. Huergo) many old warehouses have been converted into restaurants and cafés, often with a nice view over the water on the riverside, or not really the riverside since it is closed docks. Some beautiful old ships usually lie in the dock; also note the spectacular bridge by Santiago Calatrava, the Woman’s Bridge, Puente de la Mujer.
Plaza de Mayo
Continuing south and returning into the city you come to Plaza de Mayo, if anything is, this is the central square of Buenos Aires, at least politically and administratively. On one end you have the president’s Casa Rosada and at the other end the Cathedral Metropolitana (not very impressive from the outside), as well as the curious old building housing the historic museum, and many other “official” buildings around the square.
On the square, you have a group of permanent protesters who want the disappearances that happened during a violent distant era to be investigated the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza). The square is often the scene for demonstrations that can sometimes become a bit violent.
Continuing south we come to San Telmo. This is a quite charming district with not so many modern buildings and high-rises. It is famous for its antiques and bric-a-brac shops. You find many in the area around Plaza Dorrego. You can also find plenty of restaurants here. Some other parts of San Telmo (not necessarily very far away) are rather more “rustic” though.
Continuing a bit further south you come to the very famous area of La Boca, but we advised not to walk all the way here, and not just because of the distance. This is an old and rather rough part of the old harbour district that has become well-known for its colourful houses built with cheap corrugated steel. Why so colourful? Maybe because they were given left-over paint from the boats that were painted in the harbour.
It is a compulsory stop for most visitors to Buenos Aires, so don’t expect to find a “genuine” BA atmosphere. In a very small area between C. Gregorio Araoz de Lamadrid and the docks (Plazoleta de los Suspiros), there are literally hundreds of restaurants, trinket shops, street tango dancers and anything else that can attract tourists.
La Boca is of course also famous for its football team that sports the Swedish blue and yellow colours. Why? We’ll you’ll have to find out.
When in La Boca: don’t go too far away from where all the tourists are; the area around it is very rough and poor, and do keep a sharp eye on all your belongings.
A few other curiosities
Many people have dogs but cannot take them for a walk during daytime when they are working. So the parks in Buenos Aires are filled with “dog minders”, people who take care of your dog during daytime and often go walking with many dogs, maybe up to a dozen, at the time. There is a rule defining how many dogs each minder can take, but I am not sure it is much followed.
The Plaza del Congreso houses the impressive parliament, Congreso de la Nación.
There are many tango shows in Buenos Aires, and it is certainly worth visiting one. Tango is a unique contribution from Argentina (and Uruguay; and Finland) to the world’s music and dance culture. What used to be something only played in bordellos has now become high culture. You can find everything from big-theatre shows to small clubs mainly for locals. Carlos Gardel is the most famous exponent.
This has been just a short overview of the main districts of Buenos Aires. You can spend days and weeks exploring and discovering this fascinating city.
A note on security
Buenos Aires is a big city with huge contrasts between rich and poor, maybe more than in many other places. This has the same effects as anywhere else. Pickpockets are a problem as is bag-snatching, camera thefts etc. Be very, very careful with your belongings. Also, avoid carrying obvious or ostentatious jewellery.
You should also be a bit extra-careful if you venture out to more “unsavoury” parts of the city (there are many), poorer or less frequented by tourists.
Getting to and from the airport
Buenos Aires has two airports, a domestic one which is very close to the city centre a bit outside Palermo (Aeroparque Jorge Newbery).
The international airport, called Ezeiza, is quite a bit outside the city. It takes about 45 minutes with a car, or (much) more if traffic is bad. You can take a taxi or a private transfer to/from the airport. This will probably be around US$ 40-50 (or similar in ARS). There are also minibus services as well as city buses.
Feeling tempted to go visit Buenos Aires? Then you should come on a wine tour to Argentina and Chile with BKWine, and maybe extend it with a day or two extra in BA.
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