First established by the Spanish in 1536, Buenos Aires has grown as a city and cultural center through the centuries. Known as the "Paris of Latin America," some say BA is easy to love and hard to forget. Another bonus: It's more affordable than many other world-class cities.
The Buenos Aires Tourism Bureau offers free, guided tours of historical and cultural sites, but only sign on if your Spanish is up to snuff, as the tours are in Spanish only. Check out the schedule on the website. You can also find free maps and guides at tourist information kiosks throughout the city.
BA Free Tours offers tours at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday. With their small group sizes, tagging along for the 2.5-hour tour is like taking a stroll with an old English-speaking friend who happens to also be a resident of BA. The 11 a.m. walk focuses on major attractions downtown, while the afternoon tour is all about the aristocratic history of BA, sticking to the Recoleta and Retiro neighborhoods.
On Sundays, be sure to stop by the colonial-era neighborhood of San Telmo for the antique and handicraft fair at Plaza Dorrego. The fair attracts thousands of visitors and features vendor stalls selling books, tango paraphernalia, and much more. Enjoy the festival-like atmosphere provided by mimes, buskers, and tango performers.
Take an evening stroll down Avenida Corrientes, a bustling street emblematic of BA. It's full of cafés, theaters, pizzerias, and bookstores, some of which are open past midnight on the weekends.
Take in the many-hued homes of Calle Lanín. Painter Marino Santa María painted the exterior of his home in the nineties and inspired others to do so too, resulting in dozens of brilliantly colored homes along three blocks of this quaint street.
Erected in 1936 to celebrate the city's 400th anniversary, El Obelisco (the Obelisk) is a city icon and a gathering place for cultural events, political demonstrations, and victory celebrations for local sports teams. You can't go into the 220-foot tower, and its base is fenced off to protect it from vandalism, but it's still worth a gander.
Stop by the city's oldest and most elegant cemetery, the Cementerio de la Recoleta. Nearly 15 acres in size and graced with elaborate marble mausoleums, it's the resting place of former presidents, Nobel Prize winners, and even Eva Perón.
The weekend Feria de Mataderos (Mataderos Fair), situated in front of the Mercado Nacional de Hacienda, is a great place to see country dancing and browse traditional handicrafts and tools and instruments used by gauchos, Argentina's cowboys. The fair is open on Saturdays during summer months (February and March) and Sundays year-round, except in January, when the fair is closed.
If only to marvel at it from the outside, be sure to check out all 394 feet of the Edificio Kavanagh, a national historic monument. This art deco/modernist hybrid apartment building was completed in 1936 and was once the tallest building in all of Latin America.
Surrounded by government buildings, including the Casa Rosada (the Pink House) and the famous balcony from which Eva Perón made her May Day speech in 1952, the Plaza de Mayo is BA's oldest. A nice place to sit and relax, the plaza can also be quite an emotional stop if you're there on a Thursday afternoon, when the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) solemnly march—as they've done since 1977—to commemorate the disappearance of their sons and daughters (los desaparecidos, or the disappeared ones) during Argentina's notorious Dirty War. The plaza also contains the Pirámide de Mayo (the Pyramid of May), an obelisk built in 1811 to mark the first anniversary of Argentina's revolution against Spanish colonial rule.
Stop by the Manzana de las Luces (the Block of Enlightenment), named by a newspaper in the 19th century for its many influential cultural, religious, and educational institutions. The block is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city, including the city's oldest church, the Iglesia de San Ignacio, completed in 1722 but not consecrated until 1734. Free tours of the Jesuit mission and the 18th-century tunnels beneath the block (believed to have been used by smugglers and to transport supplies to defend the city) are offered on Saturdays at 4 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 7 p.m., and on Sundays at 11 a.m. Donations are welcome.
BA's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) is always free, and its permanent collection features works by masters such as Degas, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Rothko, and van Gogh, as well as Argentine and South American artists.
Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, known more commonly by the acronym MALBA, is free to students, teachers, and seniors every Wednesday. Its collection features paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photos from the 20th century to today, with works by such Latin American artists as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Lygia Clark, and Joaquín Torres García, among many others.
If you're in BA in November, check out the city's website to see when its museums, universities, and artistic spaces open their doors for free on La Noche de los Museos (Night of the Museums). One night a year, the city's cultural spaces stay open late (from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.) and host films and performances of jazz, tango, folk, techno, choral, and rock music.
While wandering through the Plaza de Mayo, pause for a moment in front of the 1908 Teatro Colón, considered by some to have the best acoustics in the world. The likes of Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein have conducted here while Maria Callas, José Carreras, and Plácido Domingo have filled the horseshoe-shaped main hall with their voices.
The University of Buenos Aires's School of Law offers free classical music concerts weekly in the late afternoons and evenings. Check out the schedule here.
The Museo Casa Carlos Gardel has renovated Gardel's house and exhibits mementos from the life of the man who brought Argentine tango to the rest of the world in the 1920s. Some of the house's rooms have been restored to provide visitors a feel of what the house was like when he lived there, after emigrating as a boy from France. Entry is free on Wednesdays.
The word milongas can refer to a musical form that preceded and influenced today's tango, as well as the dance halls where tango is performed. Check out this Spanish listing of milongas throughout the city, or check this site in English.
Club Tango lists upcoming tango performances across the city. If your Spanish is a bit weak, that's okay. Use your search tool and look for "gratis," and you'll find some venues up your alley.
Expats say the playgrounds at Plaza Vicente López and Plaza Mitre are two of the nicest in town.
Hop on board the oldest Argentine ship still afloat at the Buque Museo Corbeta Uruguay (the Uruguay Corvette Ship Museum) in the Puerto Madero neighborhood. The Uruguay has circled the globe several times and was used by the Argentine Navy on several of its early 20th-century Antarctic rescue expeditions.
The Museo del Automóvil Club Argentino (the Museum of the Argentine Automobile Club), located in the Palermo neighborhood, exhibits some pretty hot sports cars, including a 1908 Fiat. Free admission.
The Museo Nacional de la Historia del Traje (Fashion History Museum) in the Monserrat neighborhood may interest kids who love a game of dress-up. It houses more than 8,000 items and features an exhibit that traces the history of clothing in Argentina. Its collection also includes regional costumes from all over the world. Free admission.
Take a break from the bustle of BA at the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur. Opened in 1918 and declared a national park in 1986, this 865-acre green space is a quiet place to stroll, bike, or enjoy a picnic lunch while taking in the view of the city's skyline. The reserve is home to some 300 species of birds, including parrots and kingfishers.
Meander through the Bosques de Palermo (Forests of Palermo), an urban oasis close to 200 acres in size, featuring two artificial lakes and 12,000 trees. Stop and smell the roses at the park's El Rosedal rose garden.
The "lung" of Buenos Aires, the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays was designed by French-Argentine landscape designer Carlos Thays. It sprawls 18 acres of green space and features sequoias, magnolias, and French-, Roman-, and Japanese-themed gardens, as well as an antique iron and glass greenhouse brought over from Paris.