Buenos Aires runs as hot as a dance hall at midnight, fueled by a heady mix of nostalgia and cosmopolitan ambition.
For every top-flight art museum, there's a backstreet painted with flamboyant street art, and for every group of cocktail-sipping trendsetters, there’s a cluster of old-timers gathered around a radio, tapping a toe to the tunes of Carlos Gardel.
Famed for food, fun and fleet-footed dancers, Argentina's capital has evolved into one of the most talked-about travel destinations on the planet. What makes Buenos Aires so much fun? It's partly the energy and lust for life, best experienced in the city's tango-tastic milongas (dance halls). But it's also the city's full hand of fine food, fine wine and fine arts.
The city has tons to see and do – and much of it is free, leaving you with more money to spend on lavish steak dinners washed down with glasses of robust Mendoza red. Don’t miss these top Buenos Aires experiences.
1. Pay your respects at Cementerio de la Recoleta
You'll meet centuries worth of great porteños at the spectacular Cementerio de la Recoleta, a necropolis ornate enough to rival Père Lachaise in Paris or the moss-cloaked cities of the dead in New Orleans. This intriguing cemetery is a maze of narrow passageways lined with crumbling marble statuary and ornate mausoleums in architectural styles ranging from art nouveau to neo-Gothic.
Get lost in the alleyways to discover cherubs in stone relief, stained-glass windows edged with cobwebs, marble angels and bittersweet poetry etched into granite.
2. Get football fever at La Bombonera stadium
In Buenos Aires, fútbol is not just a game – it's a way of life. The nation's favorite 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.
Seeing a game at La Bombonera, the famed stadium of Club Atlético Boca Juniors, is one of the world's top spectator sports experiences, especially if you manage to catch the superclasico match against rival team River Plate.
Planning tip: Tickets are hard to come by – it's best to use a travel agent.
3. Explore San Telmo barrio
The barrio of San Telmo exudes faded grandeur and bohemian spirit. The neighborhood'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 these atmospheric cobblestone streets in horse-drawn carriages.
After the epidemic, San Telmo’s poor immigrants turned the abandoned mansions into makeshift conventillos (tenement housing).
Tango music developed, in part, amid the melancholy of homesickness and the merging of musical traditions in the neighborhood's plazas and patios. Today, the pretty barrio still exudes an unpretentious vibe, with antique dealers, tango clubs and restaurants drawing a steady stream of tourists and locals.
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4. Tango at a milonga
Nothing captures the spirit of Buenos Aires like the sensual and melancholy tango, and no visit to the city is complete without at least watching the tango, or even better, trying it out for yourself.
Planning tip: Tango nights are held most nights of the week at dozens of venues across the city and dance classes are often held before milongas, so it's easy to join in the action – or just watch from the sidelines over a glass of wine.
5. Drink Argentine wines
You’ve probably heard that Argentine wines are world-class, but the proof is in the tasting. The nation's most famous vino is malbec – a dark, robust, plum-flavored wine that has stamped the region of Mendoza on every oenophile’s map. But the bodegas (wine cellars) of Argentina are well stocked with other local varietals that are well worth a sip or three, including fresh torrontés (a dry white), fruity bonarda (a berry-rich red), and earthy pinot noirs.
Start the search for your favorite Argentinian wine at a Buenos Aires vinoteca (wine boutique) such as Palermo's Lo de Joaquín Alberdi, San Telmo's Vinotango or Aldo's Vinoteca – a restaurant and wine store with some 600 different labels in stock to drink there or get to go.
Planning tip: Many puertas cerradas (closed-door restaurants) offer fine wines with their meals. Casa Coupage, run by an Argentine sommelier, is especially wine-oriented.
6. Order steaks big enough to share
Believe the hype. Argentine beef is some of the best in the world, and you can feast on this Argentinian treat at hundreds of parrillas (steakhouses), where a meal begins with the slosh of wine pouring into a glass and ends with a full stomach and a satisfied grin.
Parrillas run the gamut from neighborhood joints to well-loved, vintage steakhouses and upscale restaurants, so there's a steak suitable for every budget. There are even closed-door restaurants offering meaty asado (barbecue) experiences.
7. Check out Buenos Aires' street art scene
From the city's leafy northern suburbs to the abandoned warehouses of its gritty, southernmost border, Buenos Aires is a massive canvas for talented street artists. Urban artists from all over the world come here to paint in collaboration with Argentina's own graffiti superstars.
Some pockets of the city are home to a huge concentration of murals, easily explored on guided tours with Graffitimundo. Keep your eyes open as you walk around La Boca, Palermo, Colegiales and San Telmo. You might even see the city's next masterpiece being created.
8. Sit back and savor Argentine cafe culture
There's good news for travelers who refuse to see the sights until they’ve had their morning jolt of caffeine – Buenos Aires isn’t called the “Paris of the South” for nothing. In addition to the city's grand boulevards and art nouveau architecture, Buenos Aires has a lively cafe culture with a definite Parisian flavor.
9. Walk in nature at Reserva Ecológica
In the shadow of Puerto Madero's shiny skyscrapers, a sprawling nature reserve has emerged from an area of abandoned, marshy wasteland. The ruggedly beautiful Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur is home to hundreds of birds, colorful butterflies, turtles and iguanas.
Take a walk or cycle along the paths that loop up past the coastline of the Río de la Plata, watching kids and dogs splash in the water and sailboats on the horizon – it's hard to believe you're just a short walk from the city center.
10. Shop at Buenos Aires' markets
On weekends, Buenos Aires’ outdoor markets surge with treasure hunters snapping up everything from antique teapots and Mapuche-inspired silver jewelry to cashmere sweaters and handmade leather boots.
At busy Sunday markets such as Feria Plaza Belgrano and Feria Artesanal Plaza Francia, you'll find piles of gourds and a glimmering treasure trove of Argentine silver. Try Feria de San Telmo for crafts and antiques and Mercado de San Telmo for local foodstuffs.
11. Learn about the history of Plaza de Mayo
Founded in 1580, Plaza de Mayo is the stage on which some of the most dramatic events in Argentina’s modern history have played out. The central plaza saw massive trade union demonstrations and Eva Perón shouting from the balcony of the Casa Rosada in 1945, military bombings in 1955, and police shootings of protesters during the 2001 economic crisis.
Things are calmer today, but the pigeon-populated square hosts demonstrations and rallies most days of the week. The peaceful Thursday vigil of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) – devoted to the cause of the people "disappeared" by Argentina's former military regime – is the most powerful and touching.
12. Admire art at Fundación Proa
You’ll do a double take when you first glimpse the building housing the Fundación Proa. This striking, ice-white gallery is a bold counterpoint to the colorful, cobbled streets of La Boca. The city’s most distinguished art space is a standout, not only for its clout in the international art scene but also for its unlikely location in a recycled building on La Boca’s riverfront, miles away from the gallery districts of Recoleta and Palermo.
13. Tune into Buenos Aires' folk music scene
Don’t cry into your cerveza (beer) if you don’t have enough time to visit a country estancia (ranch). You can soak up some gaucho culture without leaving the city limits at Buenos Aires' peñas, local music clubs where regional musicians perform traditional songs while the crowd chows down on country-style cuisine.
After the set, the real festivities commence as harmonicas and charangos (five-stringed guitars) are passed around for a community jam session.
14. Get outdoors in the green city parks
For all the energy of traffic-clogged downtown Buenos Aires, after a few days, you may find yourself hankering for somewhere clean and green. That's easily fixed. Just throw together a picnic lunch – a half dozen empanadas and a mini bottle of Malbec should do the trick – and retire to one of the city’s lovely parks for a lazy afternoon.
15. Cheers to the capital from a rooftop bar
Drinking above street level is part of the fun in Buenos Aires. The modern age has pushed the city skywards, and rooftop bars crown the loftiest hotel towers and office skyscrapers, as well as many older, lower buildings.
From the rooftop cafe at Fundación Proa to the sleek cocktail lounge atop the Alvear Palace and the Sky Bar above Hotel Pulitzer, Buenos Aires is a great stop for drinkers who insist on a cocktail with a view.