Renowned as the city of tango, Buenos Aires is culturally explosive. The best things to do in Buenos Aires take advantage of the city’s deep history and cultural exuberance. From fútbol and parrilla to plazas and museums, start here.
Plaza de Mayo
This famous historic plaza gives an instant impression of the city. Plaza de Mayo has been the center of Buenos Aires since the city was first founded by Juan de Garay in 1580, although it has been transformed and renamed numerous times over the centuries. The current plaza is the amalgamation of two former squares, Plaza de la Victoria and Plaza del Fuerte, which were separated by a market building. It has been the scene of notorious protests and demonstrations as well as jubilant celebrations.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest performance venues in the world, Teatro Colón is a source of pride to Argentines. Originally situated on the northeast corner of Plaza de Mayo, the city government decided to build a new theater with the same name at the current location in 1914. The multiple lanes of traffic just outside have no impact on the phenomenal acoustics, of which Luciano Pavarotti was an admirer.
Occupying a city block, Teatro Colón was designed by Francesco Tamburini. Due to Tamburini’s death, the murder of his apprentice, Vittorio Meano (who also designed the Palacio del Congreso), financial problems, and political battles, the construction lasted for decades. The original lavish interior remains, with scarlet and gold the predominant colors. Busts of famous composers are on display, while the concert hall itself is crafted from marble, gold, and ivory, among other materials, all lit by a massive light fixture holding 700 bulbs.
El Zanjón de Granados
El Zanjón de Granados is unlike any other attraction in Buenos Aires. The building that houses this archaeological site was once buried a few meters deep in rubble until it was bought in 1986 to be converted into a cultural center. The renovation process uncovered astounding artifacts and a network of tunnels that burrowed under the surrounding neighborhood and encased the Tercero del Sur (originally named the Zanjón de Granados), a stream that ran from Plaza Constitución to the Río de la Plata.
Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur
Covering over 350 hectares, this ecological reserve contains over 250 species of birds and a huge range of local and imported trees. During the 1970s, the military dictatorship undertook a campaign of public works, which included the construction of many expressways. The debris accrued from the demolition of hundreds of city blocks was deposited in the Río de la Plata with the intention of extending the city into the river.
For various reasons, including the outbreak of the Malvinas war and the general risk of flooding, the project was abandoned. In the years that followed, nature took over, resulting in an area populated with woods, lakes, and many wild animals. It is a favorite place for residents, who use the area for walking, jogging, and bird-watching.
Cementerio de la Recoleta
Standing on the edge of Recoleta’s sprawling parks and plazas, this cemetery houses the tombs of Argentina’s wealthy elite. There are no simple gravestones in this small village of the dead; instead, its residents display their prestige with ornate mausoleums. There’s a high cost associated with maintaining these extravagant tombs, resulting in many dilapidated vaults. The broken doors and dusty coffins within can be unsettling, but this is somewhat lightened by the cats that live here, sunning themselves on the mausoleums’ roofs.
The resting places of many former presidents can be found here, alongside renowned writers, Nobel Prize winners, and important military figures. Most visitors, however, head straight for the tomb of Eva Perón. Like the rest of Buenos Aires, the Cementerio de la Recoleta has tree-lined avenues with smaller streets and passages leading off them—it’s easy to get lost here.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes has been in its current location, a former drainage pumping station, since 1933. Home to over 12,000 pieces of art, it is the largest public collection in Latin America, noted especially for its 19th-century European art as well as the most valuable collection of Argentine pieces in the world.
Two dozen exhibition halls are spread out across the ground floor and include the work of diverse European artists such as Rodin, El Greco, Rembrandt, Manet, and Van Gogh alongside local greats such as Berni, de la Carcóva, and Pueyrredón. The influence of colonial culture on Argentina can be seen in many of the pieces, including large portraits of former dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas and stirring images of gauchos. The set of paintings by Cándido López depicting battles in meticulous detail should not be missed.
The second floor is home to a stunning collection of 20th-century Argentine art in 10 exhibition halls. A particular highlight is Ernesto de la Carcóva’s emotive Sin Pan y Sin Trabajo (Without Bread and Without Work), a perspective of the world’s plight at the end of the 19th century. A collection of over 150,000 publications can be found in the second-floor library that overlooks a sculpture garden.
One of the city’s most photographed sights, Caminito is a quaint, single-block backstreet that winds between brightly painted buildings—an open-air museum of sorts. It began as a stream; after the water dried up, the route was used for rail lines, some of which still exist just past the north end of the street. As part of a locally run project involving Argentine artist Benito Quinquela Martín, the street and its surrounding buildings were eventually transformed into the Caminito. The pastel colors that Quinquela Martín used in the renovation of the buildings became popular across the neighborhood and now extend beyond the Caminito area.
The street is lined with painters who sell their work, most of which feature tango or scenes of Buenos Aires. Don’t take unsolicited photos of the artists’ colorful displays; the same goes for the tango dancers, who ask for a small “donation” to have their photo taken, often inviting visitors to dress up and join the photo.
Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires
MALBA is perhaps the most popular and famous museum in the city. Opened in 2001, the building was designed to complement the works it contains, of which there are over 200 examples from across the 20th century. Unlike the national fine arts museum a few hundred meters up the road, MALBA does not receive donations of art and so has a more limited permanent collection.
Of particular note are the pieces by Antonio Berni, one of Argentina’s most revered artists from the last century. His development can be followed from his early days painting murals of the Nuevo Realismo movement—including the famed Manifestación (Manifestation) and Desocupados (Unemployed)—through a period of political paintings, terminating in the collages of Juanito Laguna. Other Argentine artists, including Xul Solar, can be found alongside continental greats such as Chilean Roberto Matta and Mexicans Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
A favored gathering place for porteños, Buenos Aires’s ornate bars and cafés are so important to local culture that in 1998 the government granted special status to those holding historical or architectural importance. In addition to receiving subsidies for conservation, these designated establishments, known as bares notables (bars of note), are also protected from the ever-hovering hand of property development. Over the years, thousands of bars and cafés have been granted this prestigious status, but it’s currently held by around 70.
Stepping through the glassed wooden doors of one of these bares is like passing through a time warp. Waiters glide across marble floors in bow ties and suits while huge coffee contraptions spout steam from behind elegant, beautifully stocked bars. Many sell food and produce, harking back to their early days as general stores. Sit and read for hours or grab a seat next to a sliding window and take in the movement on the street outside.
Argentine beef is widely regarded as some of the best in the world, with cows having the luxury of vast grasslands out in the pampas to graze on. Eating in a parrilla (steak house, which goes by the same name as the grill itself) is an essential experience to any trip to Buenos Aires.
Every local has their favorite parrilla, and the neighborhood joints often have longer queues than the fancy ones in the longer queues than the fancy ones in the city center; this has as much to do with cost and authenticity as it does quality. If you spot any no-frills neighborhood spot with a queue forming, it’s guaranteed to be delicious. There are very few that are overly formal, and these can generally be recognized by their significantly higher prices. Dining at a parrilla can roll on for hours, with sobremesa (chatting after eating) often lasting longer than the meal itself. All parrillas serve vegetarian dishes (mainly pastas and salads).
Tango belongs to Buenos Aires. There are several ways to enjoy tango: milongas (tango dance events), shows, and classes. It’s also common, especially in neighborhoods such as Almagro, for tango musicians to drop into small bars to perform short sets. Additionally, the annual Tango Buenos Aires Festival y Mundial is devoted to tango in all its forms.
Milongas occur in bars, cultural centers, sports clubs, or even on the street. While milongas are steeped in etiquette and tradition, visitors are always welcome, and there is never an obligation to dance. The regular dancers don’t really show up until after midnight, so it’s best to arrive later in the night.
For visitors, shows are perhaps the preferred form of experiencing tango. Often held in venues known as tanguerías, they generally consist of flamboyant, choreographed dancing on a stage accompanied by a live orchestra.
There are a huge variety of tango classes, starting from principiantes (beginners), or Tango 1 through to acanzados (experts), or Tango 5. Classes are always available in groups, where it is common to dance with strangers, but private classes can be arranged.
Argentina’s domestic fútbol (soccer) league is passionate and chaotic. Stadiums in Argentina draw thousands of fans each week. The love for the sport is strongest in Buenos Aires, where the stadiums are colorful and noisy, offering a spectacle that’s unlike anything else.
Getting tickets for most matches requires turning up at the stadium an hour or two before kickoff, but there are exceptions. Boca Juniors doesn’t sell tickets to the general public—tickets are for club members only. River Plate tickets nearly always sell out, so you’ll need to purchase them online far in advance. Derby games for any team also invariably sell out, so plan to buy tickets a few days in advance. All clubs publish ticket information on their websites (in Spanish) in the days leading up to the match.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Buenos Aires.