Sometimes I arrive in a large city with low expectations, but this wasn’t the case with Buenos Aires. Whenever I talked to someone–anyone–about Buenos Aires, they would gush and give me a long list of recommendations.
Of course, I had to be different. When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I kinda, maybe, sorta disliked it. It was jarring how much it reminded me of NYC in the summer: it was humid, and air conditioners were dripping everywhere. Sidewalks were crowded, and a Starbucks was on every corner.
As I walked around San Telmo, one of the city’s historic neighborhoods, during my first couple of days in Buenos Aires, minor things stood out to me, like smokers and platform shoes everywhere. I was alarmed by how people wore their backpacks on their chests and tightly clutched their handbags. This reminded me of an Argentinean movie I watched in a high school Spanish class, where a plot twist hinged on one of the main characters receiving a snatched bag in Buenos Aires. (Should I even be bringing this up when I don’t recall anything else about the movie? I don’t even remember its name.) I became hyper-vigilant as I walked through the city. My unease may have been unfounded, but it didn’t help me feel any fonder for the city.
Throughout my 12 nights in Buenos Aires, a couple of things never clicked for me, like the porteño schedule. Dinner at 9 PM is early, and bars remain empty until 2 AM. Yeah, this wasn’t gonna work. I value my sleep, and I don’t like missing out on daylight. (Against all my instincts, I’m slowly becoming more of a morning person. I was a night owl in college–“lazy” is the description I’m looking for here–but being a working, somewhat functioning adult forced me to give up a lot of my nocturnal tendencies.)
Even though I’m more of a morning person now, I thought I would indulge in some of the nightlife in Buenos Aires. Throughout South America, I met so many travelers who had stayed at Milhouse, a party hostel in Buenos Aires. They shared ridiculous stories, so I thought I would stay there a couple of nights to check out the scene. Once I made it to Buenos Aires, though, I couldn’t get myself to make a booking. If I couldn’t even summon the energy to reserve a stay at Milhouse, there was no way I would have made it out of the hostel alive. The idea of partying–even for just a night or two–exhausted me.
“What a waste,” you might think. “How could you go to Buenos Aires and not enjoy the nightlife?” Believe me, I was FOMO-ing hard, but I still couldn’t get jazzed enough to go out (indecisive backpacking at its worst). It was bad timing for travel fatigue.
I know I just talked about a bunch of things in Buenos Aires that I didn’t mesh with, but there’s a bright side: I’m happy to report that I warmed up to the city. It took time for me to feel more comfortable, but I was sad to leave by the end of my stay.
SAN NICOLÁS, MONSERRAT, AND SAN TELMO
One of my first activities was a guided tour of Teatro Colon (300 ARS/~$6.50), which was in the San Nicolás neighborhood.
My guide claimed that the theater had the best acoustics for opera in the world and the third best for orchestral music. The dome of the theater contained space for singers and musicians.
I went on a few tours with Buenos Aires Free Walks. One tour (free; guides work for tips) wove through San Nicolás and Monserrat, where we stopped by government buildings such as Congreso and Casa Rosada.
I took another tour (also free; tip the guides) through the neighborhoods of Recoleta and Retiro. If we’re making comparisons to NYC, Recoleta might be the equivalent of the Upper East Side. One of the major attractions in the neighborhood is the cemetery, where many of Argentina’s rich and famous are interred. The tour ended at the cemetery, and I walked through it by myself, with the goal of finding Eva Perón’s grave. After futilely weaving through the maze of tombs for half an hour, I realized it might not have been the brightest idea to tour the cemetery without a map. Since it was summer, it was blazingly hot and sunny, so I tried to find shade among the graves and tombstones. (I was unsuccessful.)
By pure happenstance, I finally found a group of tourists clustered around Perón’s grave.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a theater converted into a bookstore, is another popular attraction in Recoleta.
Floralis Genérica is a sculpture in Recoleta that’s featured in many Buenos Aires postcards and travel brochures.
I visited Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and MALBA, a couple of art museums. TBH, I don’t remember much from Bellas Artes. MALBA was more memorable for me (art by Kahlo, Rivera, and Botero; an exhibit featuring poetry by marginalized writers). I think propaganda art is fascinating, so I spent the most time at a propaganda exhibit at MALBA.
Since I spent a longer period in Buenos Aires, I got to do some “normal” activities, like going to a movie theater. As a figure skating fan, I was excited to see I, Tonya (Yo Soy Tonya). Based on interviews I’ve seen of Harding, I thought Robbie’s portrayal was spot on. The movie struck a balance of garnering empathy for Harding while making it clear that she and others in her life were unreliable narrators. I found a kindred spirit in another movie watcher who seemed to have an even lower tolerance for violence and suspense than I did (if you’re a normal person who has seen I, Tonya, you heard me right: I thought there were a few violent and suspenseful moments); I heard her gasp during a few tense scenes. The theater was about half full, which was more than I was expecting for a figure skating movie in Argentina.
A lot of visitors identify Palermo as their favorite neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and it’s easy to see why: shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, and clubs abound. “Palermo” is a catchall that covers a large area, so some maps identify subsections (e.g., Palermo Soho, Palermo Chico). Based on my uninformed observations, pedestrians in Palermo tended to be younger and more hipster (hipster-er?)/arty than the people walking around Recoleta.
Street art is everywhere in Palermo, so I went on a graffiti tour with Buenos Aires Free Walks (400 ARS/~$9). Our guide Mariano told us that porteños who traveled to the US brought graffiti back with them to Buenos Aires.
Mariano noted that Palermo used to be a working class neighborhood until the 1990s, when it started becoming gentrified. To attract buyers, realtors coined the name Palermo “Soho,” yet another comparison to NYC.
Since Palermo wasn’t a historically protected area like San Telmo, residents were welcome to paint their properties however they wanted. As a result, a lot of business owners commissioned art to catch the eye of passersby.
A few final thoughts about Buenos Aires:
- I stayed in several accommodations in Buenos Aires: a hostel in San Telmo, an apartment in Recoleta, and an Airbnb and hostel in Palermo. I preferred Recoleta and Palermo to San Telmo. While San Telmo was a good base for sights in the city center, it seemed “colder” to me. If I had to compare it to NYC (I’ve been referring to NYC through this whole post, so why stop now?), the vibe was more like the Financial District–historical sites, a good number of people in suits briskly walking to their destinations, and scattered groups of tourists. The main difference was that the buildings in San Telmo were shorter than those in the Financial District. In contrast, Recoleta and Palermo were more residential, which helped me feel more settled.
- I missed out on tango and soccer (er, football? Or, uh, fútbol?), a couple of big aspects of porteño life. I love dancing, but I prefer to bust out my own dorky moves rather than learning choreographed steps. (You can’t tame this dancing fiend! Let me astound people with my lack of coordination in peace!) I watch ice dance, but this interest hasn’t translated to ballroom dancing. Similarly, attending a soccer game wasn’t a must for me; I like watching sports games live, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to buy a ticket. Since tango and soccer weren’t priorities for me, I skipped a trip to La Boca, a neighborhood known for both of these things. I heard La Boca was super touristy, and locals and travelers reported that it wasn’t the safest area at night. I’m sure I would have been OK if I visited, but I just didn’t feel the need to go.
- I do wish I had gone to La Bomba del Tiempo, a percussion show a bunch of people recommended. One of my tour guides discouraged me from walking there and advised taking a bus or taxi to and from the show instead. I ended up chickening out of going. I would have jumped at the opportunity to go in a group, but I couldn’t pass the hurdle of going by myself. I shouldn’t have batted an eye at going to an event solo after being on the road for more than nine months, but sometimes I Just Can’t. If an event has more of a party atmosphere (e.g., meeting at a crowded, lively bar), I usually have to pump myself up to show up solo. It’s irrational: I know nobody will notice or care if I show up to a location alone–and if they do judge, it’s not like I’ll ever see them again–but I still get hung up on it sometimes.
- I finally found Chapstick in Buenos Aires. Praise be. Seriously, this was a triumph. I was probably looking in the wrong places at drug stores (my subpar Spanish didn’t help), but I couldn’t find lip balm anywhere in South America. At a pharmacy in Cusco, I asked for “something for dry lips, like Chapstick” (“algo para labios secos, como Chapstick” was what I said, in case anyone wants to correct me) and got a pricey balm that turned my lips white and left them drier. So, muchas gracias, Buenos Aires for your readily available stock of Chapstick. My lips are forever grateful.