I spent three months in Buenos Aires from November until early March, during the notoriously hot and humid summer. In this post, I’ll share some tips for both short-term visitors to the city and perhaps also expats coming to live here for a little longer. Buenos Aires is a charming city with a European feel in some sense. It is often called the “Paris of South America”. It’s not surprising that in a city of immigrants there is a wide mix of cultures blending into one. Obviously there is a large Spanish influence, but the Italian influence is very strong from the gelatarias that can be found on almost every corner, the bistros and cafes serving Milanesas and Gnocchi, to the unique dialect itself, which to my ears sounds like the way Italians would speak Spanish, “Claaaro”.
If you speak some Spanish already then you’ll likely be very surprised by the way things are pronounced here (double “L” becomes something like a “sh” sound, and “v” and “b” are often interchanged, plus there is a slang here called lunfardo that can make things interesting).
Of course, no tourist can come to Buenos Aires without sampling (many times if possible) the famous empanadas. There are many different styles from different regions of Argentina such as Salta and Tucuman. My favourite place was La Cocina on Puerreydon (a little pricey but I loved the spicy “Pikachu” here) and Ña Serapia near Parque Las Heras (doesn’t look much but tastes great). There are all sorts of fillings to be had such as: Queso y jamon (ham and cheese), carne picante (spicy meat), humita (something like white sauce, creamed corn), caprese (tomatoes, mozarella, basil), carne dulce (meat with raisin), and many more.
Gelataria is everywhere in Buenos Aires and the locals are justly proud of their ice cream. One of my favourite places was Rapa Nui, which has its origins in Patagonia and sells delicious chocolates as well as ice cream. I recommend the “Sambayon” which is sweet-wine infused ice cream.
You are probably going to be fat by the time you leave Buenos Aires at this rate, but you must also try Alfajores and Dulce de Leche (You will see Dulce De Leche in just about everything in Buenos Aires). For Alfajores, try putting them in the freezer for 5-10mins before eating.
You can try just about every cut of meat in existence and such delicacies as Morcilla – Blood Sausage and Molleja - Sweetbread. The meat in general (from the carnerceria or even supermarket) is pretty cheap for some great hunks of quality meat like rib eye (Ojo de Bife). Be sure to try it with some "Criolla" sauce. My apologies to vegetarians and vegans who might be reading.
Other food that I'd never tried before visiting this city include Membrillo (great with Cremoso cheese) and Mantecol, a kind of nougat made from peanut butter. Of course you have to try maté, which since I don't really like tea (despite being English!) wasn't really to my tastes, but for many Porterños/as is like a warm friend each morning and can even be a social event to share. It even warrants its own ornate mug and straw (bombilla).
Of course the city is known for it's Tango and despite every fibre of my English bones screaming against the idea, I decided to give it a go at least once.
The class I went to was La Viruta in Palermo on a Friday night. Entry was (I think) 150 pesos. The night started as a group huddled around two instructors who demonstrated, very slowly and patiently, a simple eight-step Tango. The instructors would show a few steps (uno, dos, tres), you'd pick a partner at random and practice these steps a few times. Then the next few steps (cuatro, cinco, seis), get another random partner and so on. I was in the beginner's group and almost everyone was a tourist and didn't have a clue, so it wasn't nearly as nerve-wracking as I might have guessed, and even I managed to get to grips with the simple steps. Having said that, once was quite enough for me-I think Carlos Gardel can sleep easy!
If you are planning to live in Buenos Aires, then your experience may vary greatly depending on which neighbourhood you settle in. I lived in Recoleta, not far from the famous cemetery where you can find the grave of Eva Peron and other notables such as Sarmiento. Recoleta is quite an upscale neighbourhood with lots of cafes, bistros and near the cemetery a fairly bustling area of bars and restaurants. I liked Bullion Bar for its decent selection of artisanal beers, but you might want to avoid the blue-lit bar nearby unless you are looking for a pay-per-hour kind of girl :). You can also visit the Biblioteca National (National Library) where Jorge Luis Borges did a stint as the director. The neighbourhood also hosts a number of parks, which provide pleasant respite from the city and outdoor bodyweight exercise areas where you can fight the empanda-induced bulge, such as Parque Las Heras. Bellas Artes, the museum of fine arts, is also in Recoleta and provides an enjoyable afternoon indoors out of the scorching sun or perhaps pouring rain.
Nearby to Recoleta is Palermo. This neighbourhood is probably the most lively of the city, with a plethora of bars, restaurants and nightclubs and attracting a younger demographic generally. To the north however, you have Bosques de Palermo (Palermo Woods), the zoo, the Planetarium and Japanese gardens.
A little further Northwest is Belgrano and Barrio Chino (chinatown). Here you can see the Chinese arch, eat Chinese food, Melona ice lollies and potter around in the various shops and stalls. If you are in the city on Chinese New Year, then this is obviously the place to be.
San Telmo is the oldest neighbourhood and has a lot of character. The streets are cobbled, there are lots of little antique stores and each Sunday there is a feria (market). I saw lots of film crews as I walked through this neighbourhood angling to get the perfect shot of the colonial avenidas.
Puerto Madero is possibly the most exclusive neighbourhood, finding itself on the banks of the Rio de la Plata and home to one of the city's most famous landmarks, the Puente de la Mujer (women's bridge). The old factories have been converted to upscale restaurants and bars by now and the red bricks and gentrification kind of reminded me of the Albert Dock in Liverpool, England. If you have the time, the Eco Reserve nearby is also worth checking out.
La Boca is probably the poster-boy neighbourhood for Buenos Aires, the colourful streets of Camonito are on the front of most tourist guides, and I suspect that even tourists with only a single day are going to visit this Barrio. To be honest, it wasn't my favourite part of the city. Perhaps in its heyday it was charming, but now it feels like a superficial tourist trap-an attempt to bottle some long-faded charm and market it to gullible tourists. The area is actually tiny; everything is overpriced and you will be hounded to buy things. No doubt you will want to go see it anyway, but be careful to not wander too far from the main streets as the surrounding areas are a little dangerous. If you like football you can also visit the stadium for the La Boca team and maybe even catch a game between La Boca and River Plate.
Microcentro has Plaza de Mayo (pronounced "Masho") with the government buildings such as the Casa Rosada (Pink House)-something like the Argentinian equivalent of the US White House, Metropolitan Cathedral, Cabildo and other important governmental and historical buildings. Not so far from the Plaza de Mayo is the famous Obelisco too.
If you have the time then El Tigre, out of Capital Federal by about 1-1.5hrs (depending on if you take the number 60 bus or train), is a good day trip to break out of the city. You can stroll along the banks or row the River Tigre and meander around the markets selling all kinds of household items such as mimbre (wicker), cheese, beers and more.
One gem worth visiting is the El Ateno bookstore. Whilst it doesn't look much from the outside, it is a theatre that has been converted to what has to be the world's prettiest bookstore.
The Spanish in Buenos Aires is quite a shift from that which you may be used to. The "LL" and "Y" are pronounced more like "SH", "SHo lo tengo" (Yo lo tengo), "Plaza de MaSHo" (Plaza de Mayo) and "PoSHo" (Pollo). Buses that are commonly known collectivos become bondis, Avocado is palta, butter is no longer mantequilla but manteca, someone who is a smooth talker is a Chamuyero. People talk about onda a lot, for example "the bar has a buena onda", meaning good vibe. Pipi cucu or cheto can sometimes be heard if something/someone is posh. A North American (best not to risk calling someone from the US an "American" without the qualifier lest you offend) is a "Yanqui". These are just a few of the unique phrases you may encounter around Buenos Aires.
There were a few topics which I thought were slightly danger-zone for potential arguments with the locals. Obviously being a Brit the biggest of these topics is The Falkland islands, or Las Malvinas as they are known here. I found most locals dealt with topic humorously and didn't really encounter any genuine rancour, but it really depends on how strong your opinion is on these matters I suppose, and I purposefully avoided getting into heavy debates about it (life is too short).
Another amusing topic was the number of continents; here I believe the 7-continent model is not taught, with South and North American being one continent, "America". In the UK, US, China, India and most English-speaking countries (as far as I know), people are usually taught 7 continents. I was somewhat amazed when I found myself in a heated argument with half a restaurant about this. I took a diplomatic aproach, along the lines of "there are many different models defined by different criteria of what a continent actually is; it's more convention or tradition as to which is adopted than an absolute thing", however it didn't help me get out of this tiresome argument.
One person I met was also adamant that only Argentia, Urugay, Chile, Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia formed "South America" and that Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Guyana etc were not part of South America but Latin America. She didn't accept that South America was a part of Latin America, the two entities for her were distinct. This was just one person however, so I'm not sure how common this odd viewpoint is.
The party in Buenos Aires famously starts late. It's not uncommon for someone to go out to meet their friends for a meal at 11pm. People generally arrive at a club only at 2-3am (hometime in the UK!) and remain until 7-8am. House party type events also seem very common here.
The locals are very expressive, kissing and hugging upon greeting in the typical latin manner (even the guys). Maybe they are more open and talk about personal, emotional issues with friends more (or at least more quickly when meeting someone new?).
Therapy is more a thing in Buenos Aires than anywhere else I've been before. Everyone seems to have a therapist that they see reegularly, have relatives that are therapists, be a therapist or be training to become one!
You may also be interested to check out the videos by Dustin Luke to gain some more insight into the unique expressions in Buenos Aires. Be sure to checkout his "Cosas Que Dicen Los Argentinos Hecho Por Un Yanqui. A video about things that Argentines say made by an American (US)", which I believe made him into something of a local celebratory. I actually saw him wandering around Belgrano once and noticed some groups turning around to stare at him and whispering.
I read the book Buenos Aires: The Biogaphy of city, which is a great insight into the city's history for those who are curious. By the end you will finally know the people and events after whom all these streets are named!
I was also recommended the film Relatos Salvajes, which has lots of scenes filmed in Buenos Aires and I thought was pretty hilarious. English subtitles are available online if you look hard enough.