This article has been updated on January 15, 2021.
For many visitors, Buenos Aires is an incredible city with undeniable charm, real essence and a proper character. However, the Argentinian capital is a large metropolis of 15 million people and a city of such size comes with many faces, some of which might not be to everyone’s liking. Regardless of the amazing architecture and functional infrastructure, things are rarely perfect in every aspect of existence in such huge cities, especially when we’re talking about the capital of the country that went through two defaults in the last two decades.
A Guide to Buenos Aires: Part 1 of 2
However, rather than a socio-economical study, this is a travel piece. So although we’ll touch on the subject of how life in Buenos Aires is for the locals, the majority of the material below will be dedicated to providing travel and tourism-related information. In order to reduce the length of the article, I’ve divided this Buenos Aires guide into two posts. In this post, we’ll explore the city’s general vibes and atmosphere, in order to give you a hint, whether you should plan to explore Buenos Aires thoroughly or you should only consider checking out some of its highlights.
We’ll also briefly venture into the city’s history because it plays a huge part in the process of shaping the city’s character. So while this part will be a little abstract and descriptive, the second part will be information-heavy. It will therefore take a much more practical form of “Things to do in Buenos Aires“, where we’ll explore popular places to see, do or experience in this incredible city. You can also count on the usual practical tips, such as how to move around the city, Google Maps links, safety, where to stay, where to go out and so on. In case you were interested, find it here.
Vibes, atmosphere and attitude
The character of the city and its people
Generally speaking, Buenos Aires is truly a very beautiful city. After all, there’s a reason why it has earned a nickname “The Paris of South America”. The city boasts of amazing neoclassical, neo-renaissance, art nouveau and art deco architecture, many beautiful parks superb stylish cafés, many many theatres, museums and so on. However, I have to say that it’s not that 100% perfect, clean kind of beauty. Buenos Aires has more like a character kind of beauty, that’s inclusive of its imperfections. Metaphorically speaking, the city comes with its own “Marilyn’s birthmark” or/and “Peter Falk’s eye“, if you know what I mean.
And then there are the friendly locals with their ‘lust for life and positive attitude towards good things, you’ll quickly become aware of. Porteños, as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are called in Argentina are often seen as being very open and friendly. The general passion in Buenos Aires could be sometimes overwhelming for an outsider. You know how Italians can enjoy life? Take that and add tango to it, that’s Argentinians, IMHO 😉 Saying all that, I have to mention that all this is all very lovable for people who like southern nations and their way of life.
Who might not like Buenos Aires?
Following my conversations with few people, I’ve however realised that Buenos Aires, the city I could personally only describe in superlatives, is not for everyone. I admit that if you are a bit claustrophobic, the city centre might not be a place for you to visit much but then again, it would apply to any large city. I have however learned that there are other aspects, some people might find uncomfortable about Buenos Aires.
Those are however more or less cultural aspects, rather than any physical features of the city. From what I’ve observed, to certain people, Argentinians could appear to be “too friendly”. The fact is that Argentinians could sometimes appear to be right in your face. They ask questions some people might consider too personal to talk about right away. I’ve personally loved it but I can see how the often advanced sarcasm and spicy humour accompanied with the often interactive physical expression of feelings, such as shoulder tapping and so on could feel uncomfortable to some people.
Occidental cultural stereotypes: South vs North
I’d say that if you are – I’m gonna have to be careful here with my definitions – if you like things to be more formal, or if you are let’s say a more quiet and perhaps a little reserved individual, perhaps also if you are a mild OCD kind of person, who like to keep your distance and/or have things in perfect order, you might find the city a little messy, to put it mildly.
But at the end of the day, it comes down to the personal preference and the general difference, lifestyles and attitudes between the southern and northern nations, if you excuse such wide generalisation I’ve just implied. But as we know, generalisations of whole nations or races or even religions never brought us too many good things, nor it the most scientific method to distinguish the differences between various cultures.
Thankfully, things are not so black and white, otherwise in this case it would come down to pasta, wine, dry tomatoes and tango versus engineering, precision, economy and discipline 🙂 We’re all individuals and meeting a shy and/or an uptight Argentinian or a very warm, funny and huggy <insert your cultural stereotype of ‘the cold and distanced’ nation here> is not as rare as the stereotypes let us believe, right? Btw, I’ve always wondered where would the Swiss Italians fit, within this context :)))
To be honest, I’ve personally haven’t noticed those cultural elements much and those that I’ve noticed, I liked. For example, my interactions with locals were – let’s say – a bit spicier and tastier in Buenos Aires if compared to those, I was experiencing in Prague, where was based at the time but it wasn’t something major I would think about. Anyway, let’s just step away from these cultural generalisations. All I wanted to say that although I’ve fallen in love with Buenos Aires, I understand that there are people who would not share my passion for this city equally. Let’s talk about the local culture a bit more instead 🙂
What do you know about Argentina?
Think about what do you know about Argentina. Surely, you would be able to mention several cultural icons as well as some known historical figures from politics and sports. I mean who doesn’t know about the already mentioned tango? Or the best BBQ in the world? Who hasn’t enjoyed Argentinian wine? Who hasn’t heard of Evita, Che Guevarra, Boca Juniors, Pope Francis or Maradona? This list can go on for much longer, it would still be just a fraction of Argentina’s history and presence. After all, it’s a big country with a rich and vibrant history.
I only wanted to illustrate how many things an ordinary person knows about Argentina just like that, out of their head only. I mean that there are quite a few things people from all around the globe know about Argentina, especially if you compare that general knowledge to what people know about many other countries in the region or even in the whole world for that matter. Or do you hold an equal amount of knowledge about for example Bolivia, Ecuador, North Dakota, South Carolina, Wales, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Thailand or Indonesia?
A very brief of history of Buenos Aires
The city was first established under a name not many of us would remember as easy as Buenos Aires. Originally it was called Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre (City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds), which is admirably a rather complicated name given to the settlement in 1536 by a Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Mendoza.
From its earliest days, Buenos Aires was a strategic trading location. This has led to several blockades and invasions by Britain and France, the usual suspects at the time but it didn’t stop its immense economical growth of the city. In the second half of the 19th century, the city increased its economic power with industrialisation and mining, which made Buenos Aires one of the leading destinations for immigrants from all over the world.
In fact, in the last 150 years, Argentina welcomed millions of immigrants from the whole world, more than any other country except the USA. The majority of immigrants have arrived from Europe, mostly from Spain and Italy creating a major influence that is still very present.
Furthermore, there are also notable numbers of Jewish, Polish, Russian, French, German and Austrian immigrants (all above 100k). Then there were also many Portuguese, Czechs, Dutch, British, Irish, Swiss, Croats, Lebanese, Syrian, South Africans, Australians – you name it…
Cosmopolitan influences and “Argentine Paradox”
This influx has naturally made the city very cosmopolitan. In South America, you hardly meet any local blonde or red-haired people, not unless you are in Buenos Aires. This incredible cosmopolitan element was also transcribed into architecture, fashion and culture and pretty much everything in the city as well as the whole country.
With the economical growth at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Argentina recorded the seventh-highest income per capita in the world in 1908. Things were to take a sharp turn for the Great Depression, followed by more recent troubles, resulting in the staggering total number of nine defaults of the country since its independence from the Spanish crown in 1816, a phenomenon that was given the name “Argentine paradox“.
Unfortunately, this paradox is all but over and the country has been currently facing yet another economic crisis in 2020/21, which keeps making the lives of the local residents harder every day, especially if we add the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic into consideration into the mix): The local politics scene keeps swinging between two nearly extreme opposite ends of (over)protectionism and (radical) neoliberalism, neither of which appears to find the right answers for this complex phenomenon that keeps affecting the lives of millions.
In case you were interested to dig deeper into Argentinian history, check out the history section of Quaint Planet’s Travellers’ Guide to Argentina for the whole country here. To read more about the history of the city only, here‘s David J. Keeling piece for Encyclopedia Britannica.
Sort of epilogue: Life in Buenos Aires
So in spite of the “lust for life” and generally positive attitude of Porteños, life in the Argentinian capital is not entirely easy for them. While the prices are not much shorter than the Western European standards, the average earnings for the locals are an equivalent of €500, at least according to the Salary Explorer website. Many locals however earn the minimum salary, which is worth roughly €127, while a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre could be rented from about €200, whereas a three-bedroom place averaged about €400.
Of course, you can get cheaper rates if you move to less prominent areas of the city but I’m sure that you’re getting the bigger picture here. Most of my friends and people I’ve met there were doing 2-3 jobs to be able to pay the bills. The value of the peso has been on a roller-coaster, especially in the last two decades. In 2000, the exchange rate was at around 50:50 against the US dollar, but in 2020, we’re talking nearly 86 Pesos to a Dollar.
While this makes is to be quite a good situation for a traveller, the locals see the prices of basic food items, such as eggs, milk or bread go up every week. I have personally observed the scale of the situation when I was exchanging money in the bank in Buenos Aires. I was the only person selling dollars in a long cue of people buying the US currency with large stacks of Peso notes in order to protect their savings.
When I’ve asked my friend Pablo how does he feel about it and how can he be so positive, he replied: “I know. It’s horrible and it’s hitting many people really hard. But shall I worry all the time? How would that help me? And more particularly”, he carried on as he raised a glass of Malbec “what can I do about it tonight?” And that is an attitude I personally admire because it is important to enjoy small things in life, even if life keeps giving you lemons, ….I’m sure you know the bit about making lemonade of them 😉
Is there a lot to see/and experience in Buenos Aires?
The short answer is yes, there is a lot. Actually, there’s more than a lot. I feel safe to say that there’s something for everyone in this incredible city. I mean, we’re talking about the city with the most book shops (as well as shrinks) per capita in the whole world. We’re also talking about a city that is home to 300 theatres, tens of museums, many parks and last but not least, and last but not least, we’re talking about the capital of the country where tango was born.
So whether you want to see a world-class tango show, or you just fancy trying the best steak in your life with a glass of gorgeous Malbec, or perhaps you want to get ‘bohemianised’ in the Palermo or San Telmo neighbourhoods, or maybe you also want to admire the work of numerous world-class artists from all eras in one of the city’s galleries, …
…or if you’re a football fan and want to check out a game of football of Boca Juniors or River La Plata football teams, or you’re keen on seeing the opera in the prestigious Teatro Colón, visiting the former workplace of Pope Francis, or pretty much anything else, I’m positive that your interests, passion or hobby can get satisfied in Buenos Aires.
What to expect in the second part of this guide?
As I’ve mentioned above, while this was meant to be a rather atmosphere-descriptive post, the second part is all about facts and concrete information. If you want to find out about safety, transport, AKA how to move around the city, as well as popular neighbourhoods of the city and places where to go out, museums, landmarks to see or things to experience in Buenos Aires, please check out our Things to do Buenos Aires extensive guide here.
Featured image of Caminito is by ArtTower taken from Pixabay