Amazing Architecture and World-Class Dining In Buenos Aires, Argentina
Have you been thinking about South America for your next major vacation? For most Americans, it’s not a quick or easy journey. Flights to South America are usually long, expensive, or both. But rewards await those willing to go the extra mile (literally). That is especially true for adventurers headed to one of the further corners of the continent: Argentina. And for anyone checking it out for the first time, the perfect place to start exploring is its sprawling capital: Buenos Aires.
After I quit my job in January, I spent a couple of weeks in various parts of Mexico, including Oaxaca, Mérida, and the stunning island of Holbox. I originally intended to head back to Mexico City after that. However, a last-minute change in plans freed up nearly six days for me to go wherever I wanted. For the first time in my life, I had a real opportunity to travel spontaneously.
I pulled up my trusty Google Flights and found a round-trip ticket from Mexico to Buenos Aires and back for $600 leaving that afternoon. That’s not an insignificant amount of cash, for sure. But since I knew I would be moving to Vietnam in March, I figured that it could be years before I’d get another chance to go back to South America. I decided I’d deal with the financial implications at a later date, bought the ticket, and was soon settling in to the nine-hour plane ride ahead of me.
Buenos Aires (which I’ll abbreviate in this post as both BA and BsAs) has two main things that stood out to me: the architecture and the food. Buildings all over the city are ornate and beautiful, and they share little in common with the colonial architecture of Mexico and other Latin American countries I’ve been to.
In terms of food, Argentina is a major producer of wine and beef. While you should try both in the city if you can, the culinary scene in Buenos Aires is much more than that. Waves of immigration to BsAs over the decades have created one of the continent’s most vibrant cultural melting pots, and the city’s food scene is a direct reflection of that.
Part I. Architecture
They say that BsAs is nicknamed “The Paris of South America.” I can’t confirm how accurate that is since I haven’t been to Paris yet! But it did remind me a little bit of Washington, D.C. (which has a similar layout to Paris, coincidentally). All in all, the architecture and urban design of BA had a distinctly European vibe. There’s no better place to start your architectural tour than the heart of the city, otherwise known as…
1. The Casa Rosada and Avenida Roque Sáenz Peña
The Casa Rosada (Pink House) is where the President of Argentina lives. It’s a very cool building to check out, and it’s also about as centrally located as you can get. Most of the areas mentioned below are within walking distance of the Casa Rosada, so why not start your first day of exploring right here?
Directly in front of the Casa Rosada is the picturesque Plaza de Mayo, which is surrounded by other architectural points of interest such as the Palacio Municipal de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires and Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, a church that almost looks like a bank from the outside.
After you’ve checked out the plaza, walk along the Avenida Roque Sáenz Peña, also known as the Diagonal Norte. This massive thoroughfare is probably my favorite street in the city. The two domes atop the Eclectic Bencich Building (located on Roque Sáenz Peña here) are one of the most striking architectural attractions in the entire city.
At one end of the Diagonal Norte are the Casa Rosada and the Plaza de Mayo. At the other is the iconic Obelisco. Its similarity to the Washington Monument is one of the reasons BsAs reminds me of D.C. The Obelisco is located right at the intersection of the Diagonal Norte and Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the city.
2. Puerto Madero
The sites mentioned above could easily take an entire day to explore, especially if you take your time admiring each individual building and city block. Once you’ve seen the center of the city, head on over to the waterfront district of Puerto Madero. The modern-ish skyscrapers across the Río (River) Darsena Sur share almost nothing in common with the rest of the city. Although Puerto Madero is now an upscale neighborhood, its industrial roots as a shipping port are still easy to identify.
The Puerto Madero skyline can be seen from the western bank of the river, which is home to a bunch of restaurants and bars. If you want to explore further, head east and cross one of the many bridges. There’s not much going on over here though; Puerto Madero is probably one of the quietest areas of the city. If you’re short on time, just see the skyscrapers from the western riverbank before heading to…
3. El Caminito (The Little Path)
As you can see, buildings here are painted in bright colors and look like they could be part of a carnival. In addition to the colors, El Caminito is famous for tango. When I visited, I even saw some dancers performing right out on the street. El Caminito is small, but it’s a perfect place to grab a drink or snack. It’s also touristy, but don’t let that deter you from going. Many restaurants and bars have live music, and the area is great for souvenir shopping.
El Caminito isn’t very close to the center of the city. I also heard that some other parts of La Boca aren’t the safest, so it’s best to take an Uber both ways when visiting this colorful little street.
4. Recoleta Cemetery
Do gravestones in a cemetery count as architecture? I’m not sure, but you should definitely check out the Recoleta Cemetery regardless! History nerds will love this massive space where many important people in Argentinian history are buried. Even if finding particular people’s graves isn’t on your to-do list, it’s still easy to appreciate the cemetery’s ornate mausoleums and beautifully designed tombs.
Because the graves are above ground, Recoleta reminded me of the cemeteries I’ve been to in New Orleans. The grounds are practically a labyrinth of walkways, so give yourself time to really explore.
5. El Ateneo Grand Splendid
This theater-turned-bookstore located northwest of the Casa Rosada on Avenida Santa Fe is a sight to behold. Make sure to check it out before you leave BA! Even if you don’t have much of an interest in architecture, El Ateneo will be sure to amaze you.
It’s incredible to see how this theater was converted into a store, with bookshelves lining even the balconies on the upper levels. The stage area has been converted into a cafe, which looked like a great place to sit and read or relax for a while. You can get to El Ateneo Grand Splendid from either the Obelisco or the Plaza de Mayo on foot if you’re willing to walk for about thirty minutes to an hour. If you’re coming from Recoleta Cemetery, it’s only about a twenty minute walk.
6. Plaza del Congreso
The final area I’ll mention on this list is the Plaza del Congreso. This public park is located right in front of the Palacio del Congreso Nacional Argentino (Palace of the Argentine National Congress), which has a unique dome made of bronze. It’s a little out of the way, but still worth a visit if you have the time.
Buildings on the opposite side of the plaza are also worth a quick look. The building behind the Sáenz Peña metro stop (located here and pictured first below) has some really awesome towers on two of its corners, and the Palacio Barolo next door (pictured second below) looks like something out of a fairy tale.
I probably walked an average or four of five miles per day in Buenos Aires because I was always on the lookout for beautiful buildings to admire and photograph. But enough about architecture; let’s talk about the city’s other main highlight: food!
Part II. Food
Buenos Aires has such a vibrant culinary scene that’s surprisingly international. Argentina is probably most famous for its top-quality beef, delicious empanadas, and wine (all of which are discussed below), but the city has more to offer than that. To highlight the culinary diversity, take a look at one of the city’s most highly-rated restaurants…
1. El Baqueano
This was admittedly the most expensive restaurant I visited in the city, but it was also the best by far. El Baqueano specializes in dishes made using unique ingredients from all over Argentina. It’s ranked as one of Latin America’s Top 50 Restaurants 2018, earning spot number 36.
The restaurant has a chic and modern interior, and the waitstaff offered truly outstanding service. They all spoke fluent English and did an excellent job of explaining each dish, including where the ingredients came from. I’d recommend doing the tasting menu with wine pairings. I believe the menu changes over time and depends on what ingredients are available based seasonally, but check out some of the dishes I had below.
The first dish pictured above (which was also pictured in the intro) was probably my favorite: llama carpaccio with three-color quinoa and dollops of chili sauce. The other courses I especially liked were the alligator gyozas (third image above) and the lamb (fifth image above). I was always excited to see what was coming next (there wasn’t a paper menu, so I didn’t know what to expect), and each plate was delicious. The wine selections were also interesting and went well with each dish (from a casual wine-drinker’s point of view).
The total bill came out to about 110 USD for one person, which included wine pairings and tip. It’s definitely a splurge. But if you love fine dining, this is the one place you should treat yourself while visiting BA. Be sure to make a reservation on their website at least a few days in advance.
These small pastries that are often filled with meat or cheese are an absolute must in Buenos Aires. Although empanadas can be found all over Latin America, each country prepares them slightly differently, and the Argentinian variety is delicious!
You can get them almost everywhere. The majority of restaurants will have them on the menu as appetizers, but coffee shops also sell them. Some places, such as this particular stall at the San Telmo Market, sell only empanadas. They are impossible to avoid, and after you try one, you’ll be hooked and ordering them with every meal!
3. Steaks and Wine
Ah, the two Argentinian specialties. The nice thing is that you can get both at the same time at one of the city’s many steakhouses. If you’re like me, you might be tempted to go straight to the city’s singular top-rated steak restaurant. And while that’s one option, I don’t necessarily recommend it. Read on to learn why.
Parrilla Don Julio
Remember how El Baqueano was named number 36 on Latin America’s Top 50 Restaurants 2018? Well, Parilla Don Julio was named number 6. Quick Google searches and conversations with friends who’ve spent time in BA all suggested a consensus: Don Julio was the best place to get steak in the city. And while I did enjoy my meal here, it wasn’t nearly as fun of a dining experience as El Baqueano.
The atmosphere was good, and so was the service. The dining room is decorated with old wine bottles, which is pretty cool. They also serve champagne (for free!) while you wait for your table. So that was all good. But I just wasn’t blown away by the beef medallions I ordered. They were good, but no part of the dinner really surprised or impressed me. Compare that to El Baqeuano, which was both surprising and impressive throughout the entire meal.
Maybe I’m just not enough of a steak connoisseur to know a good cut of beef when I taste it? But honestly, how many people out there can say they are? Maybe I ordered the wrong thing. I don’t know. If you’ve been to Don Julio, leave a comment and let me know how it was for you. Was it the best steak you’ve ever had in your life, or do you think this place was over-hyped?
Gran Parrilla del Plata
Okay, so maybe the city’s top-rated steakhouse is… overrated. Perhaps ironically, I enjoyed the experience at this local, neighborhood steakhouse so much more. There was no big deal or fanfare here; it was just an ordinary restaurant experience.
Here’s why I liked it: the steak was good. It was juicy and tender. As you can see, it was also huge. Be ready for that! Serving sizes for meat in Argentina can be massive, even by American standards. If you’re looking for a down-to-earth, authentic experience, be sure to consider Gran Parrilla del Plata, located here.
4. Mercado San Telmo
This large, centrally-located market is the perfect place to go if the sheer number of food choices just seem overwhelming. There are a bunch of vendors inside who sell everything from empanadas to coffee and even phở, but the choices are a bit more manageable than say, the entire city of Buenos Aires.
The San Telmo Market isn’t exclusively limited to food, either. Its antique stores are especially interesting and worth a quick browse.
5. Other Mentions
As a major international city, Buenos Aires has almost every type of cuisine you could want. The city has a large Asian community, so if you’re craving Chinese or Japanese food, it’s never far. I tried Un Cuenco Chino, which was delicious and very authentic; however, they only had a handwritten menu in Chinese (!) and the staff didn’t really seem to be able to speak Spanish (or English), oddly enough. I guess most (all?) of their business came from Chinese customers.
Gyros are also common, and the ones I had were good. Get them with a Quilmes beer, the most popular brand in Argentina!
As I mentioned above, El Caminito in La Boca is a good place to get a beer, snack, or both. Many of the restaurants here have outdoor seating. I sat down at one and ended up getting a “combo” of bread, salami, cheese, olives, and beer. Not the healthiest lunch, but it was quite satisfying!
One last mention goes to a little dessert cookie called an alfajor. This biscuit covered in a coating of chocolate is delicious but also incredibly rich; when I bought two alfajores at Havanna, a cafe with locations all over BsAs, I had to save one for later because they were just so sweet. Havanna also sells coffee and other food items.
One Last Thing... Spend a Day in Uruguay!
If you’ve read this whole post, then congrats: you’re practically an expert on the architecture and food of Buenos Aires! One last thing I’ll mention is that unless you’re only spending a day or two in the city, you should absolutely take one day to take the ferry from BsAs to the small town of Colonia in Uruguay. Not only will you get to visit another country, but you’ll spend a morning and afternoon in one of the greenest, most relaxing villages I’ve ever been to. I’ve written a post about how to make it happen, which you can read here!
Are you headed to BsAs? Have you been there before? Let me know in the comments below! I for one can’t wait to revisit this world-class city, and I really want to explore other parts of Argentina, too. Thanks for checking out Caffeinated Excursions and have a great day!