It took me five months to finally share my travel experience in Argentina and give you some valuable personal experience with the local hosts advice on how to enjoy Buenos Aires and its close-by historic sites.
Last December and January I spent 10 intense days in Argentina, where I’ve seen, eaten, drank and did so many things that other people might not be able to fit in one trip, so in Part I I’ll talk about Buenos Aires must-to-do things, in Part II I’ll talk about Tigre town (Buenos Aires province) and Colonia City (Uruguay), which is one of the easiest, closest weekend destinations for the Buenos Aires residents – the close by sites that one can visit by car, bus and/or boat.
Ironically, visiting Argentina was not part of my immediate travel plans any time soon, although visiting South America has been always on my ‘places to visit’ list, just not last year. But it all changed when I’ve met my Argentinian boyfriend and now fiancée, and visiting Argentina was no longer on my bucket list, but rather became a very close reality.
It, probably, does not really makes sense to tell you that it is one thing to travel and see a foreign country by yourself, and it’s another thing to visit it with a local. Last New Year’s I happened to be lucky enough to not only make my very first trip to the South America, but to do it with my someone, whose family and friends only added the extra delight to my trip with their wonderful welcoming and hosting, as well as by offering the latest updates on Buenos Aires’ cultural and gourmet scene.
So, here I am, nine months later, talking about why I’ve left part of my heart in Argentina and will do it again and again and again.
No matter how proficient and efficient I’m with my research every time I travel – from studying the travel guide books to reading the reviews of the local spots, the exploring of a foreign culture through the eyes of the locals can never be compared to your own research. It is always so much more, so much better. This is one of the reasons so many travelers opt to use the couch-surfing and airbn.com accommodations, which allow a visitor to stay at the place hosted by the local, who often take an active participation in the visitor’s traveling experience by suggesting the best (non-tourist) places to visit and such. (Unfortunately, airbn.com is more common to use anywhere in the world, but USA.)
Traveling to Argentina was the very first experience for me, where I decided to kick-back and let my then boyfriend be my guide. However, my trip to Argentina all started way before. We both researched many books at Barnes and Noble, to pick three for me to read to acquaint myself with not only Buenos Aires’ attractions, but with the whole country – from politics to the Mendoza wines. He picked it and they are:
Arriving in Buenos Aires
Yes, an 11-hour flight never feels like a treat, especially when you fly the American Airlines, but unfortunately it is the only airline that offers direct flights from New York City to Buenos Aires. Hence, my advice for you to sign up for the AA’s travel alerts months in advance if you’re planning on visiting Argentina.
If you are an US citizen, you must pay a "reciprocity fee" to enter Argentina. This is not a visa, since a visa is not required for US business and tourist visitors. It is a fee based upon the fees that Argentinian citizens pay for a visa to the United States. It covers 10 years of your entering into Argentina. And unless you are ready to spend anything from 1-2 hours making an online payment using the Spanish keyboard once landed in Buenos Aires, I’d suggest you do it beforehand. It is now offered online. Click here for more information about it.
Once in the city, you have the options of the public transportation – buses and metro, as well as taxi, which are there plenty of. I found the subway to be okay, but I would not suggest the buses. Taxicabs are relatively inexpensive, especially in the local currency.
Buenos Aires is the city of contrasts, when it comes to the travel accommodations. Anything in the northern part of the city is good, while the south part could be tricky. On one hand, many of the historic places and local eateries, including some of the oldest well-known tango clubs – are in the south part of the city, on the other hand – it’s the poorest part of the city. If traveling alone, I suggest you try to find a local host via airbnb.com. You might find some very sweet deals and you won’t feel alone in the city. Your local host will give you insights on some very local spots you won’t find otherwise in a mainstream travel guide book.
There’s also the new part of the city – or, in other words, the modern center of the city that looks just like any American metro city – the restaurants, hotels, office buildings and residential complexes look like the downtown Miami. It’s not the most exciting part of the city and unless you are looking for a hotel bar and/or lounge that feels like the Kimpton Hotels in New York City, you might as well omit it from your itinerary. Visit Faena Hotel – the hottest spot that offers very many super stylish amenities for the Argentinian yuppies that feels like a luxury hotel in Las Vegas.
We did get to go there – on the New Year’s Eve after we parted way with my friend’s family and family friends. However, to our disappointed – many bars and lounges were closed and only a few places were opened, which looked and felt like any other night clubs in New York city on a New Year’s Eve, charging the NY price as well - $200 per person and more. We chose to join the dancing crowd of the Argentinians on the waterfront for a bit and then decided to see Buenos Aires in the night light by driving around the city. My advice will be – if you’re planning to visit Argentina for special holidays, like New Year’s – research the night clubs/bars in advance and learn their late night policy. To my surprise, many clubs and bars were closed on the New Year’s.
Unless you are a vegetarian, I suggest you do in Buenos Aires, what Argentinians do – take advantage of the Argentinian steak culture, which consists of a very diverse menu. They make meat dishes out of all parts of the cow: from stomach to tongue, and you wouldn’t know the difference unless you knew what you were eating. While for me it was not unusual – in Russia where I grew up, we eat beef tongues as well – you might not stomach the idea of it if you are not used to, but if you are open to it, do try it, it’s delicious.
Every self-respected Argentinian can tell a difference between a good steak and a perfecto steak. Moreover, every Argentinian has his/her favorite butcher shop and/or farmer’s market, where they get their fresh meats. Especially when it comes to staying in the country, where Argentinians like to grill their own meats that is usually accompanied with the greens and potatoes or, to be exact – with the Spanish dish of a potato pie, called Spanish Tortilla. If you don’t like potatoes, you should specify it to the waiter, because they would automatically serve a dish of meat and/or seafood with the potatoes, unless otherwise is listed in the menu. By the way, potatoes in other than your country taste different. Each country’s potatoes have their own taste. I’ve learned it when traveling in Germany. German potatoes are very yellow and taste much more intense than the potatoes in USA. So, don’t knock it before you try.
5 Must-to-see attractions in Buenos Aires
- Famous cemetery Cementerio de la Recoleta, where María Eva Duarte de Perón (aka Evita) was buried (look for her maiden name as she is buried in the grave place with the other family members): many famous Argentinian authors, scientists and artists lay there, as well as the prominent members of the noble families that date back to centuries ago. Get a map at the front of the cemetery to get a better guidance around. Having visited many famous cemeteries around the world, I can attest to you that this is one of the most unforgettable historic cemeteries that you might inquire in your lifetime. The cemetery is conveniently located in the center of the city.
- Recoleta, the ‘French district’ of the city: having lived in Paris and traveled a lot around France, I can attest to you that this district would really feel like you are in one of the Parisian districts of the 13th arrondissements. Many boutiques are located in this district, as well as you will enjoy the architecture and monuments of some famous people around the area. Visit Perugia Express shoe outlet, which offers a great selection of very modern, stylish footwear in Argentinian leather at very modest prices.
- "They say if you come to Buenos Aires and you haven't danced tango, then you haven't been to Buenos Aires!" - Emilene Faria. Visit both local and tourist tango places: visit one of the touristy historic restaurants, like Café del Arts, to see a professional tango show, the format of which is usually a dinner-show kind of performance. Also visit one of the local tango places for the more authentic and raw experience, where locals gather of all ages to practice their tango skills. One of such cafes is Torquato Tasso Centro Cultural. Come early to get a good table next to the dance floor and watch the tango steps, while learning the overall atmosphere of tango, like man-woman interaction, gestures, customs, etc.
- If you don’t have much time in the city, visit Malba Museum of Latin Arts and Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art known locally as the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires or MAMBA museums. Malba offers a large collection of the such artists, like Miguel Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Fernando Botero, and Antonio Berni.
- Magnificant Buenos Aires opera house, The Teatro Colón (Colón Theatre) - the pride of Buenos Aires residents.
5 Must-to-visit neighborhoods in Buenos Aires
- The ‘Soho’ part of Buenos Aires, Palermo: spend an afternoon in this full of the local vibe neighborhood that offers many, many shops, cafes and art galleries. You will find few to none international shops; only Argentinian brands as the country promotes the politics of the local produced goods. One of my absolute favorite shops in Argentina is Tramando and Besha. It’s a very eclectic feel-good neighborhood.
- Monserrat: the hub of the political life of the city. See Plaza de Mayo (which is the place, where they put the Christmas Tree for the holidays).
- The most colorful place I’ve ever seen in my travels is Buenos Aires’ El Caminito (within La Boca district). It’s very touristy, but an absolute delight. It’s so sunny and colorful that even on a rainy day, you’d feel like it’s some Caribbean resort, full of cafes, street tango performers – both dancers and singers – gift shops, artsy shops and close to one of the city largest art museums. Not to mention the exterior and interior designs of the buildings. Just go around each of the streets and take it slowly, gazing up and down the buildings as you will see a lot of the local residents’ activities and lifestyles as well. Note: while the El Camino itself is a relatively safe place, the area around it is not as safe, so take precautions and have a map of the district on hands to guide better and avoid the unsafe streets.
- The southern part of the city, called San Telmo (or the 'tango district') that is known for the epicenter of the tango culture. Just as the American jazz arrived from the poor districts of New York City and New Orleans, the roots of the Argentinian tango culture go to the poorest region of the city. Note: these tango clubs and restaurants are not as visible from the street. Do your research, because you are not going to see any obvious signs of the tango culture existence in the places until you enter one. There you’d experience the most authentic tango culture: from tango music to tango styles and the locals’ approach to it.
- The Buenos Aires central business district (CBD and also referred to as the City Porteña, Downtown and Microcentro): it’s the main commercial centre of the city. This is both the business, corporate, center of the city, full of office buildings and governmental organizations. Notice the exterior designs of the buildings, the details of the canvases, windows and doors. It feels very ‘old’ Argentina. And if you want to do some shopping, go to the pedestrial street Florida. It's full of shops.
5 Must things-to-do in Buenos Aires
- Take a tango lesson at one of the local tango clubs. The teachers have many years of tango dancing experience. Most of them don’t speak English, which was a very interesting experience – learning tango steps in Spanish. (Here's a video from our tango lesson in Buenos Aires.)
- Visit open-air cafes and/or restaurants in the district of Palermo Soho. Good for people-watching and shopping for authentic Argentinian brands that you most likely won’t find it anywhere else.
- Shop at street markets for genuine Argentinian leather handcrafts: belts, watch wrists, jewelry, etc. Argentinian quality leather is one of the best leather in the world. And don’t leave without leather boots, bag, and/or jacket.
- Walk, walk, walk around; get lost in the city’s diverse districts.
- Have a coffee and pastry at one of the historic cafe's in the city, where many famous tango performers and other artists and musicians once gathered, such as Cafe Tortoni. Also visit one of the favorite with the locals cafes for the typical Argentinian pastries (kind of like the Argentinian "Starbucks"), Cafe Martinez. Also Aroma Cafe, which has more of the local sweets, coffees and pastries, which, ironically, was found in UK.
More than 5 Must-to-try foods in Buenos Aires
- Dulce de leche: dulce de leche for Argentines is like peanut butter for Americans. They grow up with it: as children they put it on a piece of bread, as adults…they still do the same. The taste and color remind a bit of a caramel.
- “Havanna” sweets – it’s the most beloved local sweet of the Argentinians.
- Steaks, steaks, steaks – try the meat dishes made out of stomach walls of the cow. Eat as much of the meat dishes as you possibly can. It’s a carnivores culture. Be adventurous, try the unacquainted parts of the cow, lamb, pork. Here is one of my favorite spots for a very good Argentinian steak: El Obrero. But the ultimate steak house in Argentina, where the menu consists of pages and pages of steak dishes is El Mirasol! It's a true Argentinian steak experience.
- Ice-cream – Argentinians really pride themselves in their ice-cream. It’s as good as Italian gelato, only better, because it’s more frozen and refreshing and does not leak. Try the local flavors, like dulce de leche and lemon. Canonccinos is another kind of the local ice-cream that looks like a chocolate open-end popsicle, but is so much more than that and it comes in different fruity and chocolate flavors. You can get it at Persicco, one of the favorite spots among the Argentines.
- I’m a big fan of salmon, and while Buenos Aires is not as seafood-full city, most of their fish and seafood comes from Peru and other close-by South American countries, they do have local salmon and it’s damn good. For a good variety of the fish and seafood, go to El Muelle Restaurant. This restaurant is on the river with a beautiful view. The locals also love Osaka, a japanese restaurant with an Argentinian twist. I loved it. Olsen is another interesting restaurant, it serves Nordic cuisine, but the outside garden dining is very cozy.
- Also, try their empanadas. Very popular with the street food vendors. It comes with various fillings: from meat to potato and vegetables, and they vary from place to a place, but they do know how to make them nice and juicy.
- They also make very delicious Provoleta, a grilled provolone cheese dish.
5 Must-to-have drinks in Buenos Aires
- Caipiroska - one of the most popular cocktails in Buenos Aires among the young people. If you are adventurous and want to experiment with very particular local drinks, try most popular local drink Fernet with Coke or Mate (a particular Argentinian type of herbal tea). Personally, they are too particular for me and I do not like it. If you see people walking around with an interestingly looking cup with a metal straw, they are drinking Mate. A very common scene, especially, in small towns of Argentina.
- Mendoza wines – Mendoza wine region is for Argentinians as Napa and Sonoma Valleys for the Californians. They are very proud of their Malbec, and I must say – after I’ve tasted many kinds of Argentinian Malbec, the conversion to it from my previous preference of Italian, Californian, Australian was easy.
- Coffee – and not just any. Do as Argentinian do, have a macchiato at the end of a meal. Their macchiato is very intense, full, but smooth taste. You will recognize it by a very distinctive look of three layers. Here’s how it should look if it’s prepared correctly – the Argentan way.
- Try their juices that you can buy at any grocery store: their apple, pear and grapefruit juices taste like they just squeezed fresh fruits into the container.
- Grapefruit soda – this is the most refreshing and tasty soda I’ve ever had. The locals drink it by a gallon, it’s that good.
Check out my Buenos Aires videos of the street tango dancers:
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I will be surprised if you don't fall in love with the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, but I would be even more surprised if the Argentinian culture won't make you feel the way I felt when I first visited the country - inspired, fascinated, warm, a-cultured, and...loved.