Dynamic, beautiful, lively and packed with cultural attractions, Buenos Aires never fails to get under your skin. It is a potent combination of European grandeur and Latin passion – a city that stimulates the senses and appeals to hedonists and culture-seekers alike. It’s a rough-hewn mix of Paris’ architecture, Rome’s traffic, Madrid’s joie de vivre, all spiked with Latin -American flavor, and an unparalleled passion for nightlife. Buenos Aires simply cannot be easily understood or pigeonholed and is all the better for it.
For centuries, native Americans ranged throughout what became Argentina. On the pampas lived the hunter-gatherer Querandi – of all of Argentina, the northwest was the most developed. Several indigenous groups, notably the Diaguita, practiced irrigated agriculture in the valleys of the eastern Andean foothills. Inhabitants were influenced by the great Inca empire, which expanded south from Peru from the early 1480s. It seemed as if the native Americans would control this great land forever.
However, in the 16th century came the first Spanish conquistadors. Buenos Aires was initially settled in 1536 by Pedro de Mendoza, however, food shortages and attacks by indigenous groups forced the colonists to abandon their settlement in 1537. Meanwhile, other members of his group sailed up-river to found Asuncion, which is now the capital of Paraguay. Then in 1580 a second expedition returned, successfully managing to establish a permanent settlement in what is today Buenos Aires.
But for complex reasons, the Spanish Crown was less than enamored with their new colony. Spain imposed harsh restrictions on trade for nearly 200 years, ensuring that Buenos Aires remained a provincial backwater. Yet the port was ideal for trade, and so frustrated merchants turned to smuggling, ensuring that wealth passed through the city despite the Crown’s objections.
By the 18th century, Buenos Aires was transforming into a prosperous city. Relaxing its restrictions, Spain made Buenos Aires the capital of the new viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver) – which included Paraguay and Uruguay – in 1776. During this period, the Spanish slave trade brought a significant African population to Buenos Aires, to labor in agriculture, livestock and domestic work.
In the early 19th-century, Spanish rule over its colonies was weakening. Buenos Aires declared its independence on May 25th, 1980. Independence movements throughout South America soon united to expel Spain from the continent by the 1820s. But despite achieving independence, there was much internal discord within Argentina’s regions over the future of the country. For almost 20 years bloody conflicts between the two factions left Argentina nearly exhausted.
In the first half of the 19th-century Argentina saw much political turmoil. Juan Manuel de Rosas came to power in 1829 – championing the Federalist cause, he helped to centralize political power in the capital. His reign lasted until 1852 when a rival Justo Jose de Urquiza forced him from power. His inaugural task was to draw up a constitution, which was formalized by a convention in Santa Fe in 1853.
The second half of the 19th-century would see stability and prosperity return to Buenos Aires. After Domingo Faustino Sarmiento became president, Buenos Aires’ economy boomed and immigrants poured in from across Europe. The new residents helped to fuel the expansion of the city’s port area and developed Argentina’s famous dance – the tango – in the brothels and night clubs of the port. By the turn of the 20th century, this nation was really finding its feet and brimming with self-confidence. Massive infrastructure improvements – including Argentina’s first rail network – helped outlying regions to benefit from the capital’s rising prosperity.
Today, of course, Tango is one of the potent and emblematic symbols of Argentine culture. The dance boasts a long and complex history, which was born out of the large scale European immigration to Buenos Aires in the 1880s. Seeking company in the city’s burgeoning bordellos and bars, a vibrant display of machismo and prowess evolved into a flamboyant dance that was brimming with passion. Small musical ensembles were soon brought in to accompany early tangos – it came to represent the new urban experience for the immigrants, a fitting emblem of a rapidly changing society.
Sadly, this period of prosperity and social development was not to last. The onset of the Worldwide Great Depression lead to massive economic pain in Argentina and lead to a military takeover of the country. However, the now legendary politician Juan Peron emerged in 1940 to become Argentina’s most revered and equally despised public figure. With the help of his second wife, Eva Duarte (Evita), he ran for and won the presidency in 1946. Although he ruled by decree rather than consent, Peron did much to improve the livelihoods of the poorest members of Argentine society, which naturally put him at odds with the conservatives and wealthy landowners. Ultimately, economic hardship and inflation undermined Peron’s second term – the death of Evita in 1952 dealt a massive blow to both the country and the president’s popularity. In 1955 a military coup sent him into exile in Spain. Thirty years of catastrophic military rule would follow.
Argentinians returned to democracy in the 1980s heralding a new era for the citizens of Buenos Aires, although they have had to contend with economic depressions and uncertainty since the election of Raul Alfonsin in 1983. Nevertheless, portenos (Buenos Aires residents) remain optimistic about their future, defined by their infectious warmth and gregarious social nature. This quickness to engage and joie de vivre is at least as important to visitors as the old-world cafes, colonial architecture, lively markets, and diverse neighborhoods. Just step foot inside Buenos Aires for a moment, and you’ll come to realize why so many people have fallen in love with this captivating city.
Gastronomy & Wine
Going to a parrilla (steak restaurant) is probably on every Buenos Aires visitor’s to-do-list – and with good reason! For there can be few experiences more memorizing and exciting for a foodie than their first trip to a noisy Argentine steak house. You walk into the bustling traditional parrilla, breeze past the sizzling grill and inhale deeply – the smell of Argentine meat cooking on an asado (bbq) is intoxicating. Yet the experience can be a little overwhelming; you’ve never had to choose between more than two or three cuts of steak in your life. A typical menu in Buenos Aires will feature at least 10 choices, including Bife de Costilla (T-bone), Bife de lomo (Tenderloin), and Cuadril (Rump steak). Our advice is to order the parrillada (mixed grill), which contains a bit of everything. If often includes chorizo (beef or pork sausage), costillas (ribs) and carne de vaca (beef).
However, there is more to Buenos Aires than the admittedly attractive proposition of endless steak, perfectly cooked. Thanks to Argentina’s Italian heritage, the national cuisine has been heavily influenced by Italian culinary techniques – today Buenos Aires is second only to Rome as a Mecca for great Italian food. But the real beauty of Buenos Aires is the fact that its diverse restaurant industry, ranging from the chic to rustic, allows the visitors to sample Argentina’s wide range of regional dishes in one weekend. These include the spicy dishes of the Andean northwest, the exquisite salt marsh lamb of Patagonia, the game meats of the Lake District and the bountiful seafood of the coast. All of this and more can be found in Buenos Aires’ generally excellent restaurants. In addition, the city hosts many excellent food markets, our favorite being the Mercado de San Telmo and Ferria de San Telmo.
Those with a sweet tooth will also leave Argentina very satisfied. Two of the country’s most delectable treats are dulce de leche (a creamy milk caramel) and alfajores (round, cookie-type sandwich covered in chocolate). Moreover, as a result of Argentina’s Italian heritage, Argentine helado is comparable to the best ice-cream in Naples.
Meanwhile, there isn’t an oenophile in the world who ever leaves Argentina unhappy. The wines are world-class – most famous is Malbec, a full-bodied, velvety red variety that is planted across Argentina, but reaches its apogee in Mendoza, a region found west of Buenos Aires. However, it’s important to remember that Argentine winemakers are growing other varieties to perfection, including Chardonnay, Bonarda, Torrontes and Cabernet Sauvignon. Up-and-coming regions include Salta, La Rioja, and Patagonia. Of course, every good restaurant and wine bar in Mendoza will have a good wine list; the most upmarket destinations have wines that will make even the most hardened of critics salivate with glee.
This impressive seven-story building is one of Buenos Aires’ most prominent landmarks. It’s the city’s main performing arts venue and a world-class forum for opera, ballet, and classical music. The building itself is magnificent, occupying an entire city block, the theater can seat 2500 spectators.
Another one of Buenos Aires’ architectural highlight, the green-domed Palacio del Congreso was modeled on the Capital Building in Washington DC. The interior is splendidly ornate, particularly in the Senate Chamber and the Chamber of Deputies.
Bursting with charm and personality, San Telmo is one of the city’s most attractive and vibrant barrios (districts). Its narrow cobbled streets and low-story colonial houses naturally attract many visitors; this is where some of the first homes were built in the early years of the colony and these elaborate mansions later became home for European immigrants. Talk a walk around; history is rife in this barrio.
Buenos Aires’ natural history museum is arguably the finest in South America. Large parts of the museum are dedicated to Argentina’s revolution in 1810, however, there is also some fascinating exhibits that take the visitor through Argentina’s pre-colonial history.