There was a line when we arrived at La Cocina. The yellow walls were covered with Beatles posters and the date 1977, the year the Buenos Aires empanada restaurant opened. I pointed to the chalkboard menu and suggested the picachu, an onion-and-cheese-filled pastry with red pepper flakes, to my friend Rolando.
It was his first trip to South America and my first visit back to the Argentine capital since the pandemic began. I smiled as we grabbed the last free sidewalk table, grateful that my favorite empanada shop had survived. Our orders arrived on silver metal plates, and each baked pastry was shaped or folded differently to indicate the particular filling. The picachu was round, unlike the usual half-moon shape, and just as delicious as I remembered.
My infatuation with Buenos Aires began on a backpacking trip in 2015 and lured me back in 2018. The vibrant fusion of European and Latin cultures makes the city unique and irresistible. A mass migration of Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to a vast multicultural heritage, stark political divides and famous language idiosyncrasies. (The city’s residents, known as porteños, speak Rioplatense Spanish, a Latin American variant where y and ll are pronounced “sh.”)
The streets are lined with grand European palaces, cozy cafes and endless parks. The staples of life are steak, wine and ice cream. Dinner usually doesn’t start before 9 p.m., and afterward people tango until sunrise. When the country opened for tourism again in November, I rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for the winter. Aside from escaping the cold, I wanted to explore my favorite city post-lockdown to see how it had changed while playing tour guide for Rolando.
The most significant change was inflation, which has plagued the country for decades. In 2021, the rate reached 50.9%, one of the highest in the world, and is expected to increase to 54.8% this year. The unofficial rate for U.S. dollars, known as the blue dollar rate, is about double the bank rate – a boon for tourists who can travel at a nearly 50% discount, but it is difficult for those without access to U.S. dollars.
Rolando and I took full advantage of the exchange rate with a culinary tour of the city’s finest restaurants. I snagged an early 7 p.m. dinner reservation – the other options were 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. – on the patio at Don Julio. The Palermo steakhouse was named one of the best restaurants in Latin America by theworlds50best.com in 2021 and focuses on sustainable beef and organic vegetables. The chilled Patagonian Malbec recommended by the sommelier paired well with my delectable tenderloin steak. The arugula and fig salad and mashed potatoes with Jersey butter were the perfect side dishes for our two-hour meal.
Another culinary treat was afternoon high tea at L’Orangerie at the Alvear Palace Hotel. Waiters served us tiered, teal-rimmed platters of miniature sandwiches, pastries and scones accompanied by a selection from the dessert trolley (I chose the strawberry-topped cheesecake) and a glass of Salentein prosecco.
I saw it as my duty to ensure that Rolando tried everything, including choripan (sausage served on bread), alfajores (cookie sandwiches filled with dulce de leche) and ice cream, which is an art form in Argentina. At the family-owned chain Lucciano’s, staff members clad in black aprons used spatulas to whisk two flavors into a towering peak on a cucurucho, a waffle cone.
Between meals, we explored on foot, starting with a tour of one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, Palacio Barolo. Inspired by Dante’s poem “The Divine Comedy,” the 328-foot-tall, 22-story building is divided into hell, purgatory and heaven. The glass cupola lighthouse offered a picturesque view of Plaza del Congreso and the Argentine parliament building below.
We spent a cloudy morning at Recoleta Cemetery, a four-block grid of elaborately decorated mausoleums built in various architectural styles. The most-visited tomb belongs to former actress and first lady Eva “Evita” Perón. Other area highlights included the 65-foot metal flower sculpture Floralis Genérica; the National Museum of Fine Arts’ collection of European and Argentine masters; and the National Museum of Decorative Arts, a French-style mansion finished in 1917 and former residence of an aristocratic family with a jaw-dropping art collection.
The European feel of the city is by design thanks to French landscape architect Carlos Thays, who created, remodeled or expanded 69 outdoor public spaces. He even remodeled the city’s largest park, Parque Tres de Febrero. The park encompasses the former grounds of 19th century dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas’s private retreat and is named for Feb. 3, 1852, the date he fell from power.
The site now includes a rose garden, planetarium, two lakes filled with ducks and paddle boats and a paved track frequented by runners and Rollerbladers. Thays is also the eponym for the nearby Carlos Thays Botanical Garden, a gated green space where chirping birds drown out traffic. On weekdays, the city’s parks are filled with group exercise classes. Locals lounge in the shade on weekends drinking mate, a loose-leaf tea served with hot (not boiling) water sipped through a filtered metal straw from a gourd cup.
One of the best walks is the Sunday San Telmo Fair, an outdoor art and antique market that starts near Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires’ oldest public square. The plaza is home to Casa Rosada, the president’s rose-colored office, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, where Pope Francis, as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, conducted Mass before moving to the Vatican. Rolando and I walked 10 blocks down Defensa Street between two rows of stalls selling goods such as mate cups and antique glass seltzer bottles. Most people were wearing masks outdoors. We joined the line at the corner of Chile Street for a photo with the statue of Mafalda, a famed Argentine comic book character of a little girl with a bob haircut. She adorns many of the items for sale.
After reaching Plaza Dorrego, we took a short taxi ride to El Caminito, a cobbled street lined with colorful houses and souvenir shops in the La Boca neighborhood, home of the Boca Juniors, the country’s famous soccer team. Every restaurant had a pair of tango dancers to entertain patio diners, which was our only tango experience. The pandemic had shuttered my former tango school, and fears of the omicron variant kept us away from indoor milongas, group dances. Even without tango, I still loved the city.
For a bit of nature, we took the Tren de la Costa to Tigre, the gateway to the Paraná Delta located about 18 miles north of the city. We walked along the water’s edge to the Tigre Art Museum, a 1912 social club turned art museum. Then we hopped on a boat tour of the delta’s latte-colored waterways. A few dilapidated homes were scattered between a rainbow of freshly painted vacation rentals with names such as Midnight Sun and the Palm Tree. Children waved from nearby docks.
To explore the lesser-visited neighborhoods of Villa Urquiza, Saavedra and Coghlan, we joined a two-hour walking tour with Buenos Aires Street Art. A two-story peacock, a pair of blue-hued dancers and a colorful lizard holding a mate cup were some of the elaborately detailed murals we discovered. The quiet residential streets were a welcome change from the noisy entertainment and tourist hubs of Palermo and Recoleta.
After the tour, I asked Rolando about his impression of Buenos Aires. His response mirrored my own: The diversity of the neighborhoods was refreshing. From the sleek skyscrapers of the revitalized portside of Puerto Madero to Palermo’s trendy wine bars, every part of town had an authentic charm, just like the people.
As I watched Rolando’s airport taxi drive away, I was grateful that I had two months left on my visa to spend strolling the parks, drinking wine and falling more in love with Buenos Aires. Like tango, the city always holds you in a close embrace that’s almost impossible to break.
If You Go
What to eat
This Palermo steakhouse serves up some of the best steaks in town. Its wine list is extensive, so ask the sommelier for suggestions. Open daily from noon to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Reservations recommended. Entrees from about $30.
Av. Pueyrredón 1508
This unassuming hole-in-the-wall restaurant opened in 1977 and is one of the best spots in the city for empanadas. The yellow interior has limited seating – a few bar stools and a lone table that seats eight, along with three tables on the sidewalk. Try the picachu, an onion-and-cheese-filled pastry. Open daily from noon to 4 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m. Empanadas from about $1.40.
Av. Alvear 1891
Located in the swanky Alvear Palace Hotel in Recoleta, this restaurant serves afternoon tea featuring a selection of miniature sandwiches, pastries and scones. Reservations required. The tea service is available at 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday for about $40 per person. .
This family-owned ice cream chain started in Mar del Plata in 2011 and opened its first Buenos Aires shop in 2015. Check website for locations and hours.
What to do
Buenos Aires Street Art
Buenos Aires Street Art has organized more than 200 murals in Buenos Aires. It offers weekly tours through the residential neighborhoods of Villa Urquiza, Coghlan and Saavedra to share the story behind its projects and other street art in the area. Walking tours Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 3 p.m. Tours about $20 per person.. Private tours also available.
Carlos Thays Botanical Garden
Santa Fe Avenue 3951
This botanical garden is a peaceful escape from the city. Built by French landscape architect Carlos Thays, the green space includes more than 1,500 plant species, Roman-style statues and a glass-domed greenhouse. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free entry.
National Museum of Decorative Arts
Av. del Libertador 1902
Located in a French-style mansion completed in 1917, the museum is the former residence of Chilean aristocrat Matías Errázuriz and his wife, Josefina. The family’s original furniture and art are on display, including works by El Greco, Manet and Rodin. The museum also hosts rotating art exhibits in the basement and downstairs rooms. Advance online reservations are required. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 7 p.m. Free entry.
National Museum of Fine Arts
Av. del Libertador 1473
This world-class art museum moved twice before settling in its current Recoleta location. Its collection includes European masters (Rodin and van Gogh) and Argentinian artists (Augusto Ballerini and Benito Quinquela Martín). Advance online reservations required. Open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free entry.
Av. de Mayo 1370
This 22-story structure is one of the city’s most beautiful buildings and was once the tallest building in Latin America. Visitors can climb to the top of the glass cupola lighthouse and peer down on the picturesque view of Plaza del Congreso and the Argentine parliament building. Tours are offered hourly Thursday through Saturday from 4 to 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. Tours from about $23 to $28 per person.
Built in the former vegetable garden of the monastery next door, this stunning cemetery covers a four-block grid with elaborately decorated mausoleums. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free entry.
San Telmo Fair
This lively outdoor Sunday art and antique market stretches from the south end of Plaza de Mayo along Defensa Street to Plaza Dorrego and the surrounding area. The street is closed to traffic during this time. Most of the antique vendors are near Plaza Dorrego, where the event started in 1970. Open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free entry.
Tigre Art Museum
Paseo Victorica 972, Tigre
This stunning social building was transformed into an art museum that opened in 2006, focusing on Argentinean artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. The neoclassical building itself is worth visiting. (The Carrara marble staircase is extremely photogenic.) Wednesday through Sunday, the gardens are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the museum is open from 1 to 6 p.m. Garden entry free. Museum entry about $2.40 per person and free for children younger than 12.
Tren de la Costa
This scenic 11-station train hugs the Rio de la Plata coastline through the neighborhoods of Vicente López, San Isidro and San Fernando before ending at Tigre, a popular day trip and vacation spot on the Paraná Delta. One-way fares start at 14 cents and vary based on destination.
Please note: Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.