As the second largest city in South America, you’d expect Buenos Aires to be like most large metropolises…with a population that is constantly rushing off somewhere, giving tourists the cold shoulder in the process. Surprisingly, this cosmopolitan city is nothing like that, and the population maintains a sense of calm contentment, despite the hustle and bustle all around.
I had a chance to visit Buenos Aires as part of the Sharing the Point speaking tour I took with several of my fellow colleagues in late January 2012, and spent a few days in the City exploring the sights and sounds of this Argentinian capital city. My impressions were solidly good in this case, Buenos Aires is a wonderfully relaxed city with a cosmopolitan vibe all of its own.
Buenos Aires has long been described as ‘the most European city in South America.’ While the European influence is obvious in the architecture, that analogy does not perfectly describe it. Buenos Aires also exudes a New World vibe that can likely be attributed to its very large immigrant population. It surprised me to find out, for example, that the entire country of Argentina is 55% Italian in background, a much higher percentage than that of the US. In fact, the Spanish spoken here is highly influenced by Italians, listen closely and you’ll know what I mean.
The country itself has gone through wave after wave of immigration, with Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and more recently, Peruvian, Bolivian, Basque, and Arab immigrants.
Each wave of immigrants brought a new richness to the tapestry of the culture here, turning it into a real multi-national city. At the same time, it exudes all of the pizazz and dynamism of other Latin American destinations. In a unique way it blends these two worlds together into a culture that is distinct and attractive.
Buenos Aires is a very walkable city. Cars have yet to take over in most places, and it is easy and downright pleasant to stroll down streets like Florida Street or Lavalle Street. Ironically considering its pedestrian friendly approach, it also has the unique distinction of being the location of Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world, with at least 18 lanes of traffic that need to be crossed to make it all the way across. Despite all of these lanes, however, even this street is pleasant to walk across, as small parks, groves of trees and monuments are sprinkled down the boulevard. In the middle of the street is also the famous Obelisk of Buenos Aires, an 67.5 meter tall icon of the city.
The soul of Argentina can be found in the dance form that originated in this area, the Tango. While disputed whether or not it originated in Buenos Aires or Montevideo, Uruguay, what is undisputed is that fact that it was a dance form that came out of the lower-class immigrant communities and blended together dance styles from European and African influences.
Buenos Aires takes its tango seriously, and it is easy to find street tango performances in many of the common tourist destinations such as along the riverfront in the Puerto Madero district.
Unfortunately most of these Tango establishments are geared towards the tourist scene, and it is a challenge to find a ‘local’ tango place, though I’m told it’s possible with some extensive searching.
Puerto Madero is an upscale area of restaurants, high end hotels, convention centers, and parks. It is also the location of the famous Puente de la Mujer, or ‘Woman’s Bridge,’ a footbridge across the canal. A long stroll along the canal here is a must do in Buenos Aires. Even the old cranes that were used to offload river barges have been restored and add to the ambiance in this area.
The ritzy part of town, known as the Recolata, is also home to the most famous cemetery in the city, the Recolata Cemetery. All of the most notable of Argentinians past are buried here, including the former first lady of Argentina, Eva Perón. While loved by many of the country’s downtrodden, she definitely made enemies in her time as well. Our taxi driver told us stories of how her policies would decimate lower middle class families such as his, for example.
Likely the most colorful neighborhood in Buenos Aires is known as La Boca. This neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city, was an old Italian working neighborhood with a rather seedy reputation. In fact, the Italian Genoese in the neighborhood even ended up seceding from Argentina for a short period in 1882!
Because of the lack of building materials in the area, many of the oldest structures in La Boca are constructed of recycled materials from sailing ships that docked in the area.
Now, I’ll be honest with you…much of the main part of La Boca has a very touristy feel to it. Coming from San Francisco, the closest equivalent to me would be Fisherman’s Wharf. That may be an advantage to some, but a disadvantage to others like myself that are looking for more of an authentic feel.
The good news is, however, that you only have to go one or two blocks away from the main tourist drag to see the part of the barrio that is still quite authentic and doesn’t suffer from tourist overload. Real Argentinians sit and watch the scene from balconies and dogs roam the streets.
One additional must-see attraction in Buenos Aires is the Floralis Genérica, a solar-powered sculpture of a flower that opens in the morning and closes in the evening. It is located near the Plaza de las Naciones Unidas, in a pleasant sculpture garden popular with the locals.
On the note of Argentinian food, when I say Argentinians take their meat seriously, it is no exaggeration. This is cattle country, and ranching has always been huge business here on account of the fertile Pampas, or plains area of the country.
You can always tell when a restaurant specializes in Argentinian beef as there will typically be a full sized cow standing in the doorway. It’s hard to avoid the meat here, woe be it if you are vegetarian!
On a final note, the city itself is covered by monuments and sculptures, reflective of its strong European heritage. You can find them in all corners of the city. They do have, unfortunately, somewhat of a bigger graffiti problem here than I’ve seen in most cities, and some of the sculptures may be tagged…some ugly, but some also very beautiful, depending on your definition of ‘street art.’
My top five ‘must see’ things in Buenos Aires include the following:
- Visit the La Boca area of town to get a feel for the immigrant experience in the city and to visit one of the birthplaces of Tango.
- Stroll along the canalfront in the Puerto Madero district, crossing the Puente de la Mujer bridge.
- Wander by the Floralis Genérica flower sculpture and visit the leather making stalls in the Plaza de las Naciones Unidas nearby. The leather works in Argentina are well known and of extremely good quality.
- Spend an evening wandering the pedestrian friendly streets of El Centro, most notably Lavalle Street and Florida Street, and make sure you cross Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world at least once.
- If you enjoy meat, but sure to partake in an Argentinian barbecue, a must-do experience for any carnivore. If meat isn’t your thing…a close second place would be Italian pasta, which has a strong tradition here as well.