When I first got to Buenos Aires, I was immediately struck by the huge size of the place. Take the local bus in from the airport and you’ll see what I mean. Barrio after barrio after barrio and dense with people everywhere!
My boyfriend, Jaime, and I had arrived in the city with the idea of staying a few months before starting our backpacking trip back to Colombia. Like always, we had put about 10 minutes of planning into the whole thing and as such when we got to the city we were a little lost.
Unlike many big cities, Buenos Aires has no central “travelers” area. There are hostels spread throughout the city and “must see” sites literally spread throughout nearly every barrio of the city. Choosing where to stay becomes super important, especially when you take into account the city’s crazy traffic and the hour or more that it can take to cross the city.
We ended up in El Centro at the first budget hostel we spotted. On first thought you would think that “El Centro” must be THE place to stay. Not really… The area has a few hostels and some great clubs along with the famous Casa Rosada, Florida Street, and Tortoni Cafe. That being said, the area is actually very much a business district and at night it can get a little sketchy in areas. Florida Street is particularly risky in the early mornings after the clubs close.
We quickly learned that the best areas in town for backpackers seem to be Palermo (in the north) or San Telmo (in the south). These neighborhoods are filled with great clubs, restaurants, budget hostels, plenty of sites to see, and a youthful vibe. They are also both pretty safe and have a good mix of travelers and locals. Picking the right neighborhood for your trip is vital though and one of the most important decisions you can make if you want to have a good trip. The trip between the two is over an hour, on a good day, so you better like the neighborhood you pick.
We ended up in both neighborhoods for a while and definitely learned the pros and cons of both San Telmo and Palermo. Here is what we saw:
This neighborhood in the south has a real, local Argentinian feel. Tango is danced on the street, steak houses and Italian food are everywhere, and locals can be seen stumbling out of bars nearly everyday as the sun starts to rise. It is a neighborhood with a rough exterior (political graffiti, worn down buildings) but a real soul.
Things here are cheaper than in other areas of the city due mainly to the fact that it’s a locals’ neighborhood and not yet overrun with tourists. That being said, it is filled with some great hostels, hotels, and our favorite – the San Telmo Lofts. It’s also walking distance to a half dozen Buenos Aires sites: the obelisk, Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada, the famous Cafe Tortoni, Avenida Florida, and the Colon Theater. San Telmo also has one of the best street fairs in the city on Sundays which is famous for its antiques.
This barrio is actually huge and often broken down into distinct regions such as Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. As the names might give away, Palermo is a fashionable neighborhood. The area is filled with boutique hotels, incredible dance clubs with some of the world’s best DJs, restaurants that rival those in most European cities, and a youthful but high-end vibe. Don’t worry though; there are plenty of affordable hostels in Palermo as well.
While San Telmo is known for its flea market antique fair, Palermo is known for its world famous designers. It has plenty to offer other than shopping though. Palermo is where you go in the city to see the famous parks of Buenos Aires. Locals swarm here on the weekend to rollerblade, bike, and to just relax or picnic in the grass. Palermo also has the city’s Botanical Gardens, the Buenos Aires Zoo, and the polo fields.
The neighborhood has some the city’s best nightlife but not many small, casual bars. The outdoor cafes and restaurants though are fabulous and you will wonder if anyone eats at home. In general, it is one of the most safe barrios of Buenos Aires and many expats who have permanently retired to the city choose Palermo as home.
Both neighborhoods are great and both are worth seeing. San Telmo is kind of like the hippy district and Palermo is the glamorous side of town. They don’t fit in these boxes perfectly though. San Telmo is a good pick if you’re only in the city a few days and want to be close to all the sites. Palermo is a great place if you are planning on staying longer and want to check out great nightlife.
No matter where you end up, enjoy the city! We sure did!