We’ve been holding off on writing this post for the past couple months. Buenos Aires was an important hub for us during our many months in Argentina. We were in the city on two separate occasions. During our first stint, we spent nearly a month exploring the metropolis. We divided our time between three different neighborhoods; San Telmo, Palermo, and Belgrano.
Just days after arriving in Buenos Aires, four friends came to visit from the states. We figured an apartment would be the best way to maximize our time together. We found a Bed and Breakfast on Airbnb that was willing to rent us the entire place. The apartment was located in the San Telmo neighborhood, a centrally located area that allowed us easy access to the rest of the city.
Buenos Aires is an active and bustling cultural hub. There is always something going on, whenever you want. We had a great time strolling through the city with the crew by day, and hitting bars, clubs, shows, and restaurants by night. According to the meat eaters, we went to an incredible steak restaurant called El Desnivel. As an observer, I have never seen a knife cut through a piece of meat so smoothly in my life. The meat eaters concurred. Vanessa and I even returned to El Desnivel after many failed attempts to find a cut of meat of equal quality. It was a short but sweet visit with friends we hadn’t seen in quite some time.
Vanessa and I stayed in three different apartments (and two hostels, briefly) during our two visits to the city. After our friends left, we switched to the young, bohemian neighborhood of Palermo. The apartment was new, clean, and spacious. It was close to many bars, restaurants, and parks. Honestly, it was ideal. We could just walk out of the apartment and find most things we wanted or needed. If not, most places were an easy subway ride away.
After a week in Palermo we moved to Belgrano. Belgrano is a bit further from the center of the city and is more of a family neighborhood. It didn’t have as much character as Palermo, but it was nice to switch it up and learn the vibes of another neighborhood. It was also near Chinatown, which provided a welcomed culinary adventure for us. It was quite far, even by subway, to get to most places which made things a little more difficult.
We really enjoyed our time in all three apartments and neighborhoods living among and like the locals. We woke up late, cooked breakfasts and dinners and took it slow. Not rushing through a city is quite a luxury; it gave us the opportunity to really learn and appreciate the culture of Buenos Aires. Most of our days were spent relaxing in the park, strolling through a new neighborhood, or saving our energy for a night out.
After our first visit to Buenos Aires we decided to head to Uruguay for three weeks. We took the Colonia Express ferry from the ferry station in the new neighborhood of Puerto Madero. Upon our return, we contacted the owner of our apartment in Palermo and moved back in for our final week in South America.
A quick explanation of the Blue Market
The official exchange rate while we were in Buenos Aires was 9.3 pesos to the dollar. This exchange rate was quite low given the price of everyday items in Argentina. Before entering Argentina, many travelers had told us about something called the Blue Market. We were intrigued but also skeptical.
We (stupidly) entered Argentina with no American cash and quickly realized that we had made a huge mistake. American cash is gold in Argentina. Because of their unstable economy, many Argentinians sit on thousands of dollars in stable currencies just incase their economy crashes. Because of this, the value and demand of the American dollar (and Euro) is much higher than implied by the official exchange rate.
There is a pedestrian walkway called Florida street in the center of Buenos Aires. While you can find places all over the country that will accept or exchange American dollars for above the official rate, Florida street is where you can find the best rate. This is called the Blue Market. While not technically legal, the Blue market rates are listed in the daily paper. While we were in Buenos Aires, the Blue Market exchange rate was 15.8 pesos to the dollar, almost double to official rate! Luckily we had friends visiting that could bring us cold hard American cash…it sure paid off.
We wandered over to Florida street to exchange our money. Upon arrival we immediately noticed the dozens of people yelling “cambio, cambio, change, change, dollar, euro, real”. They did not try to hide it. We found the least sketchy looking guy. He took us to a lady outside a small newspaper stand in the middle of the pedestrian walkway. The lady told us to enter a small room located within the stand. Inside there was a man behind a glass window. We asked him what his rate was, he told us 15.3…perfect! We slipped our Benjamins underneath the glass window and received a fat pile of pesos. Before our monetary adventure, we had done some research on how to spot fake bills, so we knew what we were doing. I counted the bills as I passed them to Vanessa, who would then shine her cell phone light through the bill to spot the watermark. We did this to each bill (over 40 bills) while the cashier grew quite impatient.
All of the bills were real and we were pumped up. We were rich, everything had just became half price! That night we got a NICE dinner and a bottle of wine. We returned to the same newspaper stand half a dozen times before leaving Argentina (we reupped on American cash in Uruguay).
The moral of this story is, if you are going to Argentina bring all the money that you plan to spend on your trip in cash.
Top things to do in Buenos Aires:
San Telmo Market
Occurs every Sunday morning on Calle Defensa. The market stretches as far as the eye can see. It is filled with unique artwork, antiques, and crafts. There is some street food, grilled meats, and live music hidden in some of the corners as you stroll. Don’t miss it.
An iconic cemetery located in the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta. This is where the beloved Eva Peron is buried among other notable Argentinians. It has been rated as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world.
A grand and iconic coffee house located on Avenida de Mayo. The cafe was built in 1858 and was inspired by a famous Parisian cafe. Tortoni will give you a glimpse into the old days of Buenos Aires. Be warned, it is extremely touristy but is a nice place to grab a midday bottle of wine (the cheapest bottle was under $8)…or coffee.
Also extremely touristy (in the center), but worth a visit. La Boca is a lower class port neighborhood (barrio) with strong European flavor. The neighborhood has a strong Italian influence due to the early Italian settlers from the town of Genoa. Its colorful buildings make the neighborhood unique and pleasing to the eye. La Boca is also home to the famous Boca Junior soccer team and is where their stadium is located.
Parque Tres de Febrero (Bosques de Palermo)
While living in Palermo, we would often take the 15 minute stroll down Avenue Santa Fe to Bosques de Palermo. The park is 989 acres (larger than central park), and has a very diverse and beautiful landscape. There is a perfectly manicured rose garden surrounded by a serene lake filled with paddle boats. We spent a few afternoons on the lawn eating snacks and soaking up the sun.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore
Located in Barrio Norte, El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore is the flagship location of the El Ateneo bookstore chain. The store is located in a converted theatre. The name speaks for itself, the layout and ambiance of the store is grand and splendid. The space is incredibly unique and is definitely worth a quick visit.
Puerto Madero is the most modern area of Buenos Aires. The neighborhood sits along a canal. On both sides of the canal are restaurants, bars, and clubs. It is a popular spot for after work happy hours. The neighborhood itself is very upscale and expensive. It has a mix of residential and office buildings. It is worth a stroll on a nice evening especially if you can catch a happy hour special.
Plaza de Mayo & Casa Rosada
This is the number one tourist spot in town. Plaza de Mayo is the main square of the city and Casa Rosada (Pink House) is the presidential palace. All the subway lines have stops around the plaza.
Avenida 9 de Julio & The Obelisk
Right near Florida Street you can find the obelisk situated right in the middle of Avenida 9 de Julio. The avenue is falsely believed to be the widest avenue in the world. While the rumor is untrue, the avenue is impressive nonetheless. From the obelisk you can see one of the famous Evita murals on the Social Development Ministry building. In this mural she has a stern face as she is facing the wealthier part of the city while on the other side she is smiling at the working class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
This is the bohemian heart of Palermo Soho. The plaza is surrounded by large bars and restaurants (don’t recommend eating in the plaza, the restaurants are overpriced and low quality, but just off the plaza there are plenty of great restaurants). There are tons of young people chilling out and playing music at all times and many artists selling all types of funky art and jewelry. On Saturday and Sunday there is a terrific market filled with all sorts of art, clothing, jewelry, and other fun stuff.
This was one of our favorite museums on the entire trip. It houses tons of really trippy modern art. Its variety is impressive and will keep you curious during your entire visit. Definitely worth a visit. It is located in Palermo.
For some reason people did not have great things to say about Buenos Aires’ Chinatown. While it does not have the same authentic and gritty feel as the Chinatowns in NYC or San Francisco, it has its own charm. It is pretty much comprised of one pedestrian street with a few side streets. We went on a Saturday and the streets were filled with people. There are tons of authentic (or non-authentic) restaurants to choose from and, better yet, half a dozen or more permanent food stands selling all sorts of delicious snacks. They had seafood, meat, and tofu on sticks, egg rolls, and other mobile food options. The chinese grocery stores were really impressive as well. They were well stocked with all the Chinese products and had cheap produce and seafood. The main supermarket even had a little area where you could order prepared food for cheap. We had a field day eating there. Another popular snack in Buenos Aires’ Chinatown are uncut sushi rolls. Every store has a huge refrigerator filled with these sushi tubes. We grabbed a few and joined the others munching on them in the streets.
Top nightlife in Buenos Aires:
Orquesta Tipica Fernandez Fierro at Atletico Fernandez Fierra
Located in the Abasto neighborhood, this new age orchestra is a bit off the beaten path. The group performs on Wednesdays in an old warehouse converted into a gritty performance space/bar. We got there early to get a good table near the stage and have some beers before the performance. The show was full of energy. The performers were enthusiastic and the impressive lighting helped highlight the performance.
Konex Bombas del Tiempo at Konex Cultural Center
If you do one thing in Buenos Aires, do this. Bombas del Tiempo is a cultural phenomenon, an eclectic gathering of music and good vibes. Every monday this twelve piece percussion group puts on an energy fueled show in front of thousands of people. They often times also bring out a guest performer to mix things up a bit. Konex is an outdoor venue (though they have a smaller indoor venue as well) in Abasto. The Monday night show costs 100 pesos to enter. Before the show, the street is filled with young people drinking and talking and a few women selling space cakes. Get there early.
Going to a Milonga is a must in Buenos Aires. A Milonga is a place that locals gather to dance tango. There are many of these gatherings all around town on any given night, each has its own identity. We chose Maldita because it had live music. This Milonga was a little less touristy than some of the others as well. Vanessa and I booked a table in advance (on Facebook, just shoot them a message) with a view of the stage. Upon arrival we ordered a bottle of wine and took our seats. We enjoyed the evening soaking in the atmosphere, mesmerized by the talented locals. We didn’t dare step foot on the dance floor.
With friends in town, we decided to go clubbing one night. While I cannot say that this club is better or worse than others (as I have not been to any other clubs in Buenos Aires) it was impressive. The club was enormous and packed. The DJ put on a good show and we enjoyed ourselves. The crowd was a bit young but we still had a great time. While in Buenos Aires, go clubbing one night…wherever you may end up.
Where to eat in Buenos Aires:
A little touristy but the best steak Vanessa had in Argentina.
Go on a Saturday and enjoy the street food and Chinese grocery stores.
Find empanadas that look good and go for it. As a vegetarian, my favorite type was napolitana (when they do not add ham).
We celebrated Vanessa’s birthday here. It is in the more upscale, Palermo Soho/Hollywood part of town. They have a traditional menu and good wine (obviously). It was a little pricier than usual for us, but you get what you pay for, good ambiance and high quality food. We had a nice evening there.
Al-Zein Middle Eastern Restaurant
Located in the Las Cañitas neighborhood (see below), this middle eastern restaurant satisfied our craving for hummus, falafel, and shwarma. The pitas were cheap and it was nice to sit outside. It was a recommendation from a local that we met on the ferry from Uruguay.
Las Cholas (Las Cañitas neighborhood)
This was our last supper in South America. The restaurant is located in a really nice part of Palermo called Las Cañitas. Las Cañitas possesses one of the largest concentrations of restaurants and bars in the city (a great area to go out in). It has more of a local feel than some of the other busy Palermo sub-neighborhoods. The menu was traditional and the food was served on big pieces of wood. No frills, an exciting atmosphere, and decent prices made for a great night.
Two final thoughts…drink Fernet and Coke (it’s the national drink, even though Fernet Branca is an Italian liquor) and if you want leather goods, check out Calle Murillo.