Three-lane freeways, skyscrapers and modern cars: an unexpected scenery in a “third-world” country best known for the biggest debt default in history. But this is Buenos Aires, a city of contrasts in Argentina, one of the powerhouses of South America.
There are poor neighbourhoods next to the presidential palace and shanty towns just across the railway from the richest district in the capital. Once the wealthiest city in South America, Buenos Aires is now famous for its beggars, pick pockets and soaring unemployment. But go to the historic districts and you will find yet another face of the city: its European heritage next to sprawling skyscrapers.
A weekend trip to Buenos Aires is perfect if you want to discover the central nucleus of the city. That’s because Buenos Aires was built in the 19th century with walking distances in mind. So if you want to see the historic district and other famous attractions in Buenos Aires then read my review to get an idea for a self-guided walking tour. You will learn about San Telmo, the famous fair, walk down Avenida de Mayo, see the Congress and the popular Casa Rosada.
I spent six weeks in Buenos Aires researching the Falklands conflict for my university major. I was fortunate enough to meet many generals and pilots from the war and they introduced me to the real Buenos Aires which one cannot learn about from guide books.
San Telmo – the old Buenos Aires
San Telmo, is one of the oldest districts in Buenos Aires. Cobble stoned streets and turn of the 19th century buildings dominate San Telmo, right next door to La Boca, one of the most dangerous places in the city. Interestingly, this is also the birthplace of Diego Maradona and many other celebrities. Walking around San Telmo will make you think the wheels of time turned back a few decades until you reach a 10-lane highway. A blunt reminder of the present, the freeway runs two blocks from the main square of the San Telmo, cutting the district in half.
San Telmo used to be the meeting place and residence of the rich and famous. Also, most of the government offices were located here with the aristocrats and industrialist magnates. Unfortunately the yellow fever epidemic in 1871 all but wiped out the population of San Telmo, and most people relocated to Recoleta and Palermo to the north. The rich were soon replaced by Italian immigrant workers and their descendants still dominate the neighbourhood.
The San Telmo Fair
The main square in San Telmo is home to the famous fair every Sunday. The fair runs along the Calle Defensa from Avenida Brasil and Avenida de Mayo. Jugglers, buskers and beggars gather all day long along the antique shops and street vendors to amuse passers-by regardless the weather.
Walking between jugglers and buskers I discovered late 19th and early 20th century architecture in Buenos Aires and saw everything from toys made from copper wires to centuries old paintings.
Dinner in San Telmo
I lived in San Telmo for a little while and my local was the Hipopotamo. I had lunch or dinner here many times alone or with my flatmates. Service is very slow but the big and tasty portions will compensate for the time spent waiting. They serve lunch every day at the Hipopotamo at a discount price. Lunch is always two or three courses of mainly Italian dishes and a drink or desert.
Live shows of Jazz and Tango are always popular in Buenos Aires. Wherever you go, including the Hipopotamo, you will find a live event almost every day. Another famous local is the Bar Britanico, one of the oldest in San Telmo. Here you can listen to live Jazz just as people did hundred years ago.
The Congress and the Casa Rosada
The Casa Rosada dominates Plaza de Mayo. It was here that Madonna sang her famous “Don’t cry for me Argentina” on the balcony. Demonstrators still gather here every day to remember those that fell during the Falklands conflict.Of course, there are also many who come to remember Evita and the heyday of Argentina. The Casa Rosada has its own museum of pictures and items of presidents from 1957.
The Avenida de Mayo connects Plaza de Mayo with Plaza del Congreso. Here you will find some of the most important government buildings in the city. One of them is the Congress, the headquarters of the executive. The Congress and the Casa Rosada are at the opposite ends of the Avenida de Mayo.
The avenue is just under a mile long, opened to the public in 1894. It received protected status and became a world heritage site in 1997. Underneath the road runs Buenos Aires’ and South America’s oldest subway, Line A, operating since 1913.
As a Hungarian I felt like I was back in Budapest. Not only because the architecture was very similar to most of the buildings back home. The streets were also lined by the same type of trees as in Budapest and many of the architects were Hungarian themselves.
The Famouse Cafe Tortoni
By this time I moved from San Telmo to be nearer the city centre. I lived just two streets from Avenida de Mayo, and I spent many afternoons walking around here. I did not want to leave Argentina without trying the famous Argentine beef burgers so I headed to the Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, the burger was awfully dry and almost inedible so I had to send it back! I imagine it comes with old age…
They brought the same bread and salad back with a different burger that was probably recently defrosted, all soggy and still disgusting. I left a little upset – the service was horrible, not to mention the burger and the drink. Another reason not to listen to guide books recommending a visit to an expensive place.
A walk along Avenida de Mayo
After lunch I carried on walking towards the Plaza del Congreso. I walked by some of the most impressing buildings in the city. Without even attempting a full list they were the Hotel Paris, the Hotel Chile, El Cabildo and the Palacio Barolo. The Palacio Barolo used to be the tallest building in Buenos Aires until the construction of the Kavanagh Tower a few blocks away.
The Plaza del Congreso is a place where many homeless people sleep under the trees in little sheds made of cardboard. Some of them also sleep on mattresses by the pavement. They are very peaceful and during the night they collect the trash that they later sell at recycling points. This is how they scrape a living to survive every day. There are also ice cream stalls and candy stands and it all seems like a fairground 24 hours a day, seven days a week – if you can ignore the homeless.
As I got closer to the Congress it became clear that Argentina had seen better times. No wonder that at one point they called it the United States of South America. The Congress building is simply magnificent – I stood there looking at it for at least 15 minutes, taking photos from different angles never to forget it. The building is made of granite carved with perfect precision, crowned by an 80 meter green cupola.
Unfortunately the police built an ugly fence around it because of the riots at the time of the financial crash – and never removed it! I spent many days walking past the Congress because my research took me to the Congress Library and also the National Archives. But more about that later.