I was surprised to find that the US dollar does not go very far in Buenos Aires (this is during travel in May 2014. And of course, that depends on which exchange rate you are able to get, but I’ll cover that later separately). But the city does offer plenty of free things to do (or very cheap, at least). Here are some of the best free things to do in Buenos Aires, kind of in order of awesomeness, but also not:
1. Visit Recoleta Cemetery
I already wrote a full length post about this, but it’s absolutely necessary to include it on this list also (and at the #1 spot)! Simply put, this cemetery is world-famous for a reason, and you must go see why for yourself. Enough said!
Around the cemetery is also an interesting little area with cobblestone streets, a plaza, church, the design center, and restaurants.
2. Attend Feria de San Pedro Telmo
The San Telmo Sunday Market is the place to be on Sundays. It stretches (seemingly endlessly) dozens of blocks down a narrow charming cobblestone road. All of Buenos Aires’ best local artisan craftsmen come here to sell their creations. If you are looking for souvenirs, this is the place to come! You’ll find everything… from typical stuff like clothes and jewelry, to cultural items like mate gourds and leather goods, to truly unique creations like purses made out of old record players. I don’t think I’ve been to any other market with such unique craft pieces.
I would say that this is not a place to observe local life, because it seems like that everyone who comes here is a visitor. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth a stroll (though it’s more like bumping and shoving) through the market. This is a very busy and lively market. You’ll also pass dozens of antique stores and parrillas if you get hungry, and you may even catch some tango dancing performances!
When: Every Sunday, from about 10 am – 5 pm
Metro: Green Line – Catedral exit
Verdict: Yes, must visit if you’re here on a Sunday.
3. Explore Monserrat, the historic quarter
The Monserrat area is where the city started in the late 16th century. It contains the most important public buildings of Buenos Aires. Today, it seems to stand in a faded glory from its glamorous old days. Graffiti can be seen on almost every building and many do not seem to receive much upkeep. But even still, the old buildings here all absolutely gorgeous.
Some highlights to watch out for are:
Plaza de Mayo is the main square, named after the May 25th, 1810 Revolution Day. The Casa Rosada (The Presidential Palace) sits at the head of the plaza. This impressive HUGE salmon colored house is impossible to miss. You can catch a changing of the guard ceremony in front of the palace, every hour on the hour. And free tours are given every weekend, every hour from 10 am to 6 pm.
I especially love the other buildings surrounding the this plaza, like the gigantic Argentina National Bank building.
From Plaza de Mayo, walk down Avenida de Mayo to reach the The Congress Building. There’s a little plaza in front of it with one of Rodin’s The Thinker statues. Along the way, you’ll pass the famous Palacio Barolo (now a national historical monument), designed by Italian architect Mario Palanti. I wasn’t able to get a picture, but trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. It’s glorious.
Metro: Green Line – Catedral exit, Blue Line – Plaza de Mayo exit, Purple Line – Bolivar exit
Verdict: The Monserrat area is one of the most architecturally beautiful areas. Walk around and see it!
4. Walk down Calle Florida
Or from Plaza de Mayo, you can choose to turn down Calle Florida to enter the Pedestrian Streets (enter from the intersection of Avenida de Mayo and Calle Peru). This almost kilometer-long street has a variety of shops, from high-end to hawker-style stores, as well as the typical touristy souvenir stores. I didn’t find this too interesting, but I always like to walk down a city’s pedestrian streets.
Verdict: Meh. I didn’t live around here, but if I did, I could probably see it as an evening hang-out sort of place.
5. Experience luxury at Puerto Madero and the Nature Reserve
Puerto Madero is the ultra-luxe waterfront barrio of Buenos Aires, located adjacent to the Monserrat/San Telmo areas and right on the old harbor. Once upon a time, this port was the main port of BA, but the port was relocated in the early 1900’s to accommodate for larger cargo ships. And what happened to Puerto Madero? It sat abandoned for decades until the 1990’s, when the area underwent a complete re-development.
On one side of the river, old red brick warehouses are lined up as far as the eye can see. These were renovated to become trendy restaurants. And on the other side, tall skyscrapers dominate the skyline, while expensive posh restaurants and bars line the waterfront. All along the river, the clean, un-broken wide sidewalk is a favorite for rollerbladers. Connecting the two sides is the impressive cantilever-cable bridge Puente de la Mujer. Two ships that sit on the water are floating museums.
A little further from the harbor is the massive 800+ acre nature reserve. This area is fun with a lot of sidewalk vendors grilling up meat. I’d say this is the place to come for some true Argentinian street food! Many people also enjoy bike riding around the reserve.
The Puerto Madero area may lack culture, but it’s worth your time to visit. It is one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the world.
Walk here from Monserrat. Just go in the direction of the modern skyscrapers.
Verdict: Pretty cool to see. If on a budget, can skip dining here as all the restaurants are pricey, or go have some street food by the nature reserve!
6. Admire the Floralis Generica
This is one impressive super sculpture! Don’t let the picture fool you, this sculpture is MASSIVE. My guess is at least 4 stories tall (23 meter high, in actuality, if you care). This sculpture was built to have its petals open and close everyday in accordance with the rising and setting sun. It’s a symbol of hope that is reborn every day. Though now, the mechanism has been disabled and it remains open permanently. Nevertheless, this steely flower is spectacular to see.
Where: In Recoleta, off of Avenida Figueroa Alcorta, across the street from the Recoleta Cemetery.
Verdict: Yes! You’re visiting the cemetery anyway.. why not stop by here?
7. Get away at Bosques de Palermo & Japanese Gardens
Ready to escape the city for a while? Great! The Bosques de Palermo is a HUGE park (I’d say kinda like Buenos Aires’ central park) that’s the perfect place for a walk or picnic. It seems like just miles of green space, with some artificial lakes thrown in. This park is seriously too big to walk all at once. There’s often some sort of activity here on weekends. Just stay away at night because of (ahem) adult activities going on. This advice can be given for all parks in Buenos Aires.
On the very southern corner of the park is the Japanese Gardens. A mere AR$32 pesos (US$3-4) will get you into this tranquil paradise, where ducks and large koi swim in the green lake and little pagodas and bridges hide around every turn. Even though you can still see the skyscrapers on the outskirts, you’ll feel worlds away from the city.
Where: In Palermo, off of Avenida del Libertador.
Verdict: Visit if you have a day to spare and can’t think of anything else to do.
8. And of course… Eat empanadas
Food is not cheap in Buenos Aires. However, the empanadas are. You can get them for around US$1 each, and shops will generally have a dozen different filling options (I like the classic carne, and D likes española). So eat up! Argentina may just have the best empanadas out of the Latin American cultures!
There you have it, my best recommendations for if you’re visiting Buenos Aires on a budget. But even if you’re not, there’s no reason to skip any of these things. I think each, in their own way, provide a different cultural experience, and together, provide a well-rounded tour of Buenos Aires.
Note: I do not have La Boca on this list. Yes, it’s popular and it’s free, but that area is not real. It’s an exploitation of one of the poorest, and most dangerous neighborhoods in BA. We didn’t visit, and I don’t feel like I missed out.