Buenos Aires is one of the highlights when travelling South America and most visitors fall for this elegant city with its European vibe and South American energy. Although we enjoyed visiting the city’s most popular tourist attractions such as the huge Recoleta cemetery and one of the many tango shows, what interested us most during our two months in Buenos Aires were its more unusual activities. Here are our suggestions for exploring an alternative side of Buenos Aires when enjoying Argentina travel.
1) Explore the Barrios
You’ll find the soul of Buenos Aires in its barrios, the diverse neighbourhoods that make up this city of 13 million people. Each area has its own unique atmosphere from the trendy boutiques and cool cafes of Palermo Soho to the cobbled streets and colonial buildings of San Telmo. Walking the streets on foot is a good way to get a feel for the city, and there’s a lot less traffic in the barrios than there is in the busy commercial centre.
Some of our favourite barrios are pretty, tree-lined Palermo Hollywood; gritty, working-class La Boca, away from the touristy, colourful Caminito street; and Abasto, where houses are decorated with portraits and lyrics of tango maestro Carlos Gardel.
2) Ride an Old-Fashioned Subway
The subte (subway) is an easy, inexpensive way to get around Buenos Aires, but most tourists don’t realise that Line A is an interesting attraction itself. It’s the oldest subway line in South America dating back to 1913. They still use the original cars with wooden panels and benches, and a conductor to open and close the manual doors. It’s an atmospheric ride and you can use the trip to explore one of the less-visited barrios along the A Line such as Almagro for its Sunday book fair.
3) Meet Gauchos at the Fería De Mataderos
Surprisingly you don’t need to leave the city to explore Argentina’s gaucho culture. Very few tourists make it to the Fería de Mataderos where colourfully dressed locals perform chacareras (country dances) to the folk music played on stage; and gauchos young and old gallop past the crowds to compete in traditional contests at the most ferocious speeds.
Over 100 market stalls sell leather crafts, metalwork, mate gourds, handicrafts, and jars of dulce de leche. An asado (barbeque) serves up huge chunks of beef and sausages, creating a smoky haze over the rest of the market. You’ll also find ladies dishing up locro, a traditional meat stew, and empanadas with a range of fillings.
It’s worth the one hour bus ride to the far west of the city for this unique insight into gaucho traditions. Fería de Mataderos is held every Sunday (Saturday evenings in the summer) from 11am – 8pm.
4) Try Speed Dating for Language Learners
If you are looking for the opportunity to practice your Spanish head to Spanglish. It’s a language exchange event held in a bar that pairs English and Spanish speakers for a series of 10 minute conversations – half in English and half in Spanish, before moving on to a new partner.
Not only is it good for your Spanish but you get to meet porteños of diverse backgrounds and ages – we chatted with people aged 20 – 70 years. Everyone is really understanding if your Spanish isn’t brilliant, as they are all learners too. It’s a lot of fun and we’d really recommend attending one of the events held four times a week.
5) Take a Break From Steak
Buenos Aires is famous for its high quality, affordable steaks but after a while all that meat gets a bit much. Luckily there are some excellent, healthier alternatives including delicious Armenian mezze at Sarkis restaurant – we loved the flavour-packed dishes including mashed red peppers with walnuts, grilled aubergine in herbs, and feta cheese with olives.
There’s also a growing vegetarian restaurant scene where you can sample pear, goats cheese and rocket bruschetta at Artemisia and inventive dishes like mushroom and sundried tomato ceviche at Kensho. For more details read our picks for the best vegetarian restaurants in Buenos Aires.
6) Attend a Dinner Party
Puerta Cerrada (closed door) restaurants in private homes are popular in Buenos Aires and make a unique eating experience. We attended a dinner party along with 10 others at Casa Saltshaker which is run by American Dan and his Peruvian partner Henri in their Recoleta apartment. Not only was the five course gourmet meal delicious but we also met interesting people from all around the world.
7) Learn About Recent History
Argentina has had a turbulent past, especially in the last 50 years, and you can learn more about it on the Buenos Aires Traces walking tour. We learnt about Peronism at the Evita museum in a trade union building that isn’t open to the public; about the people who were ‘disappeared’ during the military dictatorship in the 1970s at the recently discovered site of one of the detention camps; and about the protests following the collapse of the economy in 2001 at plaques commemorating protesters who were shot by the police. It’s a fascinating tour that will help you to understand Argentina today.
8 ) Watch the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo
Plaza de Mayo is the centre point for all protests in Buenos Aires. There’s one happening on most days but the most moving is watching the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo commemorate their children who vanished 30 years ago during the military dictatorship in the 1970s. The organisation still campaigns for justice, and they meet every Thursday at 3pm at the Plaza.
9) Listen to Modern Tango
Attending one of the many tango shows is a typical tourist activity in Buenos Aires but for a more authentic experience go and see one of the new tango bands that fuse modern influences with tango traditions.
The Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro play every Wednesday night at the Club Atletico Fernandez Fierra in the historic tango barrio of Abasto. The hipster crowd and old warehouse venue feel like a rock gig, and the dreadlocked orchestra play dramatic, impassioned tango infused with rock and jazz.
10) Escape to Tigre
When you need a break from the big city, Tigre is a perfect getaway. It’s a peaceful town an hours train ride north of Buenos Aires and is the starting point for boat trips into the green, tranquil Paraná Delta with its network of interconnecting rivers and streams.