The Best of Buenos Aires
A gem of a place
Hola and welcome to Where on Planet Earth! In case you got here by accident and are not yet a subscriber, here you go:
Note: This piece was originally published on my old blog in February 2020.
I grew up in Venezuela hearing a standard phrase about Argentinians: “Se creen la ultima Pepsicola del desierto”/”They think they are the last Pepsi in the desert”, meaning that they think they are the best, particularly better than all other Latin American countries. (side note: I don’t like soda, and even if I did if I was in the desert and thirsty I think I’d want water, not pepsi, but I digress… )
So my full expectation coming to Buenos Aires was that Argentinians were going to be full of themselves. But I was wrong. One of the things I enjoyed the most in the 6 weeks we spend there was the people, how friendly, and open, and loud they are. I love it. I feel at home, comfortable in every way, at least once a day I was pleasantly surprised by a specific interaction. And keep in mind this is after *a lot* of Venezuelan immigrants have come running to this country for shelter, and when mass migrations like that happen it is common for the local population to be bitter at them, to resent them, specially if the receiving country is in an economic recession, like Argentina is experiencing today. But that is not the case here, I felt super welcomed everywhere I went. I am sure there is some truth to the saying, but none that we could see was ingrained in the culture itself, at least at the end of 2019.
Here are a few things that surprised us about Argentina and Argentinians:
The best food in Argentina is Italian, hands down. Better than Argentinian food itself (which we think is actually better in Mexico!)
It’s common to see people put ice on their wine… shocking, I know… in a country with some of the best wines in the world and they put ice on it?! apparently it’s a custom from way back, when the wine was not that good.
Many Argentinians like their meat well done! Again, shocking to me, they are known as having some of the best meat in the world and most people eat it overcooked, what they called “al punto” (to the point, equivalent to well done). Thankfully, you can also ask for it jugosa (juicy, equivalent to medium).
Argentinians carry “mate” everywhere they go, specially outside Buenos Aires, but also there. They carry their hot water, gourd, and straw (called bombilla) walking down the street, hiking in the mountains, riding the subway, etc. And there are many rules and customs attached to drinking mate.
Many people think Tango was born in the high society, but it was actually the opposite. Tango originated in the impoverished port area of Rio de la Plata (border between Argentina and Uruguay) around the 1880s, and was frequently practiced in brothels before becoming popular and spreading throughout the country
Coffee is bad in most places. We found good coffee in Palermo, but that was about it.
To note: take cash with you! We never take cash anywhere we go as we just take money out of ATMs (our bank has good exchange rates). But in Argentina, at least when we visited (at the end of 2019), the max amount of money you could take out of an ATM each time was pretty minimal and the fee charged to any non-Argentinian card was extremely high (basically we could only take out $60 and had to pay a fee of $10). So, take cash and exchange there.
OK, now to the meat of this.
The city is big and spread out, with distinct and contained neighborhoods. We stayed in two *very* different parts of town and highly recommend you do this too, that way you get to explore two completely different neighborhoods who have lots to offer!
We stayed in San Telmo and Palermo. There is sort of a rivalry between the two. San Telmo, as my good friend Vero would say, is more “rock and roll”, meaning older, rougher, less taken care of, but it has a really special charm. This is where you go to browse endless stores of antiques, see locals dance Tango in the middle of the plaza, and eat good meat in 100-year old parrilla restaurants. Palermo is hipper, cooler, newer, and greener. This is where you go if you want to stroll around beautiful green parks, visit nice museums, and have a nice cocktail in a posh bar. Both are charming in their own way.
Where to stay
What to do in San Telmo
Mercado de San Telmo. Stroll around this pretty market to browse antiques and grab a choripan or empanada while you are at it
Feria de San Telmo. Busy and pretty Sunday market
Pasaje de la Defensa. Tenement house turned pretty market
Parque Lezama. Beautiful park
Milonga in Plaza Dorrego. Fun outdoors Milonga on Sunday night.
Maldita Milonga Show. Tango class, live music, and milonga. What else can you ask for? Must do on Wednesday night.
What to do near San Telmo
La Boca. Lively, artsy, and *very* colorful neighborhood, a must
Plaza de Mayo. The center of the government and a beautiful plaza
La Bomba del Tiempo in Centro Cultural Konnex. Every Monday night dance to the beat of drums on this amazing percussion show
Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur. We unfortunately didn’t make it to this park, but it is super close to San Telmo and right next to the water. Seems like a good place for a run
What to eat
Cafe San Juan (the one on Chile Street ). Excellent international cuisine in a cool atmosphere (leaning towards Italian)
Il matterello (the one on Martin Rodriguez Street). Really good Italian, make sure you go to the original location
Un, dos, crepes. Sweet and savory crepes in the market
La choripaneria. Typical chorizo sandwich in the market
Desnivel. Best meat place we went to in San Telmo
Hierbabuena. For when you are done with meat, cute place and healthy food, and mostly vegetarian
Caseros. Nice place and tasty dishes
Que Churro. Excellent dulce de leche filled churros
Staying in San Telmo for at least a couple nights is worth it. Apartments in this part of town are old and charming, with very high ceilings and big balconies.
The San Telmo market and the Plaza Dorrego are the natural centers of activity, there are lots of stores, restaurants, and bars around this area, so find a place to stay around there. The neighborhood comes alive on Sundays with the Feria de San Telmo, so if you can choose, make sure you are there that day.
San Telmo is the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires and was once the richest in the city. High society families lived in big and beautiful mansions until a yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s sent them to the suburbs in search for higher ground away from the mosquito infected waters. Those mansions then became tenement houses as they were divided up and rented to immigrants. Today most remain the same way, divided up into apartments, but some others, like the Pasaje de la Defensa, have also been converted into pretty markets and are well worth checking out.
Before getting to Buenos Aires we were really curious about Tango but didn’t really want to go to a touristy show. Well, turns out San Telmo is a great place to experience tango as a local. Milongas, basically gatherings for locals to dance Tango, happen all around town but not usually outdoors. But on Sunday night there is one in Plaza Dorrego and it is wonderful. It starts around 9pm and goes until around midnight, and includes an excellent show by professional dancers. Another super worthy Milonga is the Maldita Milonga live show on Wednesday nights, which also includes a short Tango class starting at 9pm (if you are interested), great live music, and a dance show by professionals (be sure to make reservations or get there by 9pm).
One area of slight disappointment in San Telmo was coffee and food. We tried very hard to find a good coffee place, and couldn’t. Palermo has all of them. The food is also not up to par with Palermo’s many top notch options, but there are a couple of restaurants worth the trip even if you are not staying there: Cafe San Juan on Chile Street, and Il Matterello in Martin Rodriguez.
Although not in San Telmo don’t miss going to La Boca neighborhood while you are there since it is close by. La Boca is a *very* colorful and lively place, full of music and people, specially on Sundays. Walk el Caminito, go to Fundacion Proa for some art and views, and visit Usina del Arte for live music in a beautiful location.
Plaza de Mayo, the oldest in the city, is where lots of government buildings are at, and also many bright Jacarandas. It is big and pretty and worth the stroll
I could live here, without a doubt. Beautiful big trees dot most streets in Palermo, cute restaurants and cafes sit under their shade, street art is all over the place, and beautiful crafts are sold in street markets. What is not to love?
Where to Stay
Palermo is a big neighborhood, split into many sub-neighborhoods. The trendiest part is called Palermo Soho, where most of the stores, restaurants, and cafes are at. We stayed right next to the Parks, near the Botanical Garden and right next to Cafe Evita, and really liked the atmosphere and the ability to go for a quick morning jog in the beautiful parks
What to do in Palermo
All the parks :). I think my favorite was the Jardin Botanico Carlos Thays, but Parque 3 de Febrero is also a must as it is really a lot of parks in one, with a pretty lake, a Rosedal (with so many roses!), a Japanese Garden, and an Ecoparque (with peacocks and patagonian maras just walking around). 3 de Febrero is perfect for a morning run
Plaza Serrano. The center of activity, very busy plaza specially on weekends, with craft markets and clothing boutiques and pop ups all around
Museum of Latin America Art (MALBA). Beautiful and (at least when we went) interactive museum
The Brothers Club. Superb jazz on a nightly basis
Museo Fotografico Simik. Also for jazz, but in a restaurant/museum filled with old photographic equipment, it’s cool!
Street Art. Admire it, it’s everywhere! For something more formal go on a tour, there are several options. If you want to get off the beaten path and see some non-touristy neighborhoods with cool street art from artists from around the world, check out BA Street Art
Microteatro. Short theater shows (in Spanish). Very informal, fun, and funny, and the bar in it (Bar 15) also has a great atmosphere and good cocktails (you can go to the bar and not go to a show)
What to do near Palermo
Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA. A bit out of the way but a must see museum about the last civil-military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983). The museum is located in the same place where the biggest clandestine center of detention, torture and extermination was during the dictatorship
Ateneo Grand Splendid. Gorgeous theater turned bookstore, must visit!
Recoleta Cemetery and Neighborhood. Impressive and interesting cemetery. It’s worth doing this with a tour since there are quite a bit of interesting people buried here and the stories are worth hearing about. There is a free one by the cemetery itself, although crowded. We went on a walking tour of many parts of the city (which included the cemetery). Even if you decide not to go to the cemetery, go walk around the Recoleta neighborhood and admire how green it is!
What to eat
Félix Felicis & Co. Best coffee we had in Argentina
Birkin. Good coffee and yummy breakfasts
Proper. One of the best meals we had, super cool and trendy spot too. Innovative small plates to share, their wood-oven is central to every dish. Perfect for a date night (gets busy and doesn’t take reservations so get there early)
Sarkis. Superb Armenian/Lebanese food, home cooking, big but very popular place so arrive early. Don’t miss the baklava
Gran Dabbang. Excellent and original asian fusion
Cafe Museo Evita. The museum is absolutely not worth it, but the cafe is pretty and outdoors
El Cuartito. Argentinian pizza, served in this spot since 1934! thick, crunchy, and cheesy
Rapanui. Yummy ice cream in a pretty garden
Parrilla Tour. Interesting meat-focused tour with very knowledgeable guides. Sort of basic but if you don’t know much about Argentina we recommend you do this, and very early on in your trip. If you don’t do it, you should still try the choripan at Parrilla la Cañita (special because the sausage is made with beef, not pork), the empanadas at Pizzeria La Guitarrita, and the provoleta (melted cheese with species) & meats at Las Cholas
Palermo is the neighborhood you want to linger in, sit on a patio and drink an aperol spritz, browse through pretty crafts in the market, admire big trees everywhere.
A perfect day in Palermo starts with a morning run (or walk) in Parque 3 de Febrero, followed by breakfast on the sidewalk in Birkin or early lunch at Cafe Museo Evita. Go on a stroll on the Botanical Garden and then check out the MALBA museum and the Ateneo Grand Splendid. Afterwards walk to Plaza Serrano to do some shopping and admire street art along the way, don’t forget to grab an ice cream at Rapanui.
Come night Palermo is the place to be. There are so many good restaurants and things to do. A perfect evening starts with early dinner at Proper or Sarkis, both amazing and worth the wait. Followed by cocktails and comedy at Microteatro (literally a block away from Sarkis). Finish the night listening to smooth jazz at The Brothers Club or in one of the clubs nearby.
Don’t miss checking out the Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA, this gut-wrenching and very well-organized museum is a must to understanding the recent history of the civil-military dictatorship in Argentina.
Enjoy Buenos Aires!! It’s a gem of a city.