Buenos Aires runs on nostalgia and cosmopolitan ambition. For every group of trendsetters laughing over cocktails, there’s a cluster of old-timers gathered around a radio, a tear rolling down someone’s cheek as Carlos Gardel sings of the glowing street lamps of his beloved city.
A talented generation of designers, fútbolistas (soccer players), musicians and restaurateurs have reinvigorated the beleaguered capital, transforming it into one of the most talked-about travel destinations on the planet.
The hype, after all, is warranted – the steak really is the best in the world, dance halls fill with tango students every night of the week, the soccer matches are intense and passionate, the wine is affordable and delicious.
But Buenos Aires’ magnetism, as any porteño (Buenos Aires local) will tell you, extends well beyond such clichés. Architecturally speaking, the city is a fascinating microcosm of styles from colonial to belle époque to modernist. The Parisian-style cafe circuit, backed by an intriguing literary history, is paradise for bookish types and coffee lovers, and the edgy local fashion scene seduces design-minded travellers.
Soon you’ll begin to understand the bittersweet charm – the poignant collision of old-fashioned sensibility and contemporary revolution – that simultaneously thrills visitors and makes old men shed a tear or two. Don’t miss these Buenos Aires experiences.
1. Honour the dearly departed at the Recoleta Cemetery
Pay your respects to the city’s late and great at the spectacular Cementerio de la Recoleta, a necropolis ornate enough to rival Père Lachaise in Paris or the above-ground cities of the dead in New Orleans. The intriguing site is a maze of narrow passageways lined with crumbling marble statuary and decorative mausoleums in architectural styles from art nouveau to neo-Gothic. Follow a stray cat through the alleys to discover cherubs in stone relief, stained-glass windows edged with cobwebs, marble angels and bittersweet poetry etched into granite.
2. Catch fútbol fever at La Bombonera stadium
In Buenos Aires, fútbol is not just a game. The national pastime inspires near-religious passion in porteños, clearing the city streets and sending spectators into fits of ecstasy and anguish as they huddle around TV screens or brave the explosive stadium crowds. Witnessing a match at La Bombonera, the famed stadium of Club Atlético Boca Juniors, is an unforgettable experience.
3. Wander the streets of quaint San Telmo
The barrio of San Telmo exudes faded grandeur and bohemian spirit. The neighbourhood's elegant belle-époque architecture and crumbling villas are throwbacks to the district’s 19th-century heyday. Before yellow fever and cholera sent the beau monde fleeing for higher ground, aristocratic Spanish families traversed the cobblestone streets in horse-drawn carriages. After the epidemic, San Telmo’s poor immigrants turned abandoned mansions into makeshift homes and the neighbourhood quickly fell into disrepair. The pretty barrio has exuded an unpretentious, working-class charm ever since, with antique dealers, tango clubs and restaurants drawing a steady stream of tourists and locals in recent years.
4. Sip cappuccino at one of the city’s classic cafes
Good news for Francophiles, bookworms and travellers who refuse to talk until they’ve had their morning caffeine jolt: Buenos Aires isn’t called the 'Paris of the South' for nothing. In addition to the grand boulevards and art nouveau architecture that invite comparisons with the French capital, Buenos Aires’ lively cafe culture emulates Parisian appeal.
5. Shop til you drop at the city’s open-air fairs
The sun is shining, the silver is gleaming and pesos are burning a hole in your pocket – there’s nothing like an artisan fair on a Sunday morning. On weekends, Buenos Aires’ outdoor markets surge with treasure-hunters snapping up everything from antique teapots and Mapuche-inspired silver jewellery to cashmere sweaters and handmade leather boots. Forget economic tensions – this is a shopaholic’s playground.
6. Taste-test wines from Argentina’s best bodegas
Wine connoisseurs raise their glasses to Argentina, one of the world’s premium producers. The industry centres around the Mendoza province, where a sunny, dry climate creates ideal growing conditions; popular grapes include Malbec, which produces a medium-bodied red, and the indigenous Torrontés, the basis for an aromatic white varietal.
7. Pay tribute to Las Madres in Plaza de Mayo
Founded in 1580, Plaza de Mayo is a stage on which many of the dramatic events in Argentina’s modern history have played out. The central plaza saw massive trade union demonstrations and Eva Perón shouting from Casa Rosada’s lower balcony in 1945, military bombings in 1955, and the police shooting of five protesters during the 2001 economic crisis. The pigeon-populated square hosts demonstrations and rallies most days of the week, but the peaceful Thursday vigil of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) is the most powerful and touching.
8. Contemplate fine art and industry at La Boca’s Fundación Proa
You’ll do a triple take when you first glimpse the sleek Fundación Proa rising, stately and silver, above the filthy river and broken-down buildings of La Boca. The city’s most distinguished art gallery is in fine form after an extensive renovation. Now Proa is a standout, not only for its clout in the international art scene – a Marcel Duchamp exhibit heralded the reopening – but also for its unlikely location in a recycled building on La Boca’s gritty riverfront, miles away from the gallery districts of Recoleta and Palermo.
9. Join the hoedown at a country-style peña
Don’t cry into your cerveza (beer) if you don’t have enough time to spend the day at a country estancia (ranch) – you can soak up some gaucho culture without leaving the city limits. Peñas are folkloric music clubs where regional musicians perform on stage and a jovial crowd chows down on country-style cuisine. After the set, the real festivities commence as the audience passes around harmonicas and charangos (five-stringed guitars) for a community jam session.
10. Retreat to a leafy urban oasis in one of the city's parks
Even the most cosmopolitan traveller needs an occasional escape from the traffic-choked streets of downtown Buenos Aires. Throw together a picnic lunch – a half dozen empanadas (savoury-filled pastries) and a mini bottle of Malbec should do the trick – and retire to one of the city’s green spaces for a lazy afternoon. You’ll feel wonderfully indulgent drinking wine on the grass while fitness-conscious porteños scamper past in shiny workout garb.