At 78 square miles, Buenos Aires is a big, sprawling city that offers more cultural, leisure and historical pursuits than can be experienced in just one visit. Even the nearly three million porteños who call the city home could make a lifetime’s work out of exploring its ever-evolving restaurant scene, glorious parks and gardens, cosmopolitan shops and world-class galleries, museums, and theaters.
Naturally, narrowing it all down can feel a bit daunting. Whether you’re bound for Buenos Aires for the first time or returning on a repeat visit, here are five can’t-miss highlights of this sizzling South American city.
Whiling away an afternoon in a graveyard sounds like grim business, but once you arrive at Recoleta Cemetery, you’ll see why it’s an essential stop. The cemetery is home to more than 6,400 opulent mausoleums, which serve as the final resting places for wealthy, powerful locals. The mini monuments resemble everything from ancient Greek temples to miniature churches. Eva Perón, Argentina’s famous first lady; boxer Luis Ángel Firpo; and former president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento are just a few of the cemetery’s notable eternal occupants.
There are plenty of elegant, leafy neighborhoods to enjoy in Buenos Aires — Recoleta, Palermo, Belgrano — but a walk through the working-class barrio of La Boca will shed light on its history as a hub for immigration and industry. Largely established by European immigrants and laborers who worked in shipyards along the Riachuelo (a commonly used name for the Matanza River), La Boca remains a blue-collar neighborhood today and is perhaps best known for being home to the Boca Juniors soccer club and its stadium, La Bombonera.
If the timing is right, you can catch a match at the stadium. But be watchful; games between the Boca Juniors and its city rivals, River Plate, are said to be among the sporting world’s most heated match-ups.
While in La Boca, take a stroll down the more touristy Caminito, the colorful street that inspired a 1926 tango tune by the same name. Nearby cafés offer prime spots for watching passersby and dance demonstrations.
Plaza de Mayo
Located in the Montserrat barrio on the eastern edge of Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo is a political hub and home to Argentina’s presidential palace, known as Casa Rosada (“pink house” in English). The palace’s plaza-facing rear façade and balconies were made famous by President Juan Perón and First Lady Eva Perón during the public addresses they made from the house in the mid- to late-1940s.
The plaza is also home to the Pirámide de Mayo, an iconic white obelisk built in the plaza’s center to commemorate the first anniversary of Argentina’s independence from Spain. Some examples of Buenos Aires’ beautiful architecture are near Plaza de Mayo, including City Hall and the National Bank of Argentina, so be sure to have your camera ready.
Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral
At the northwestern edge of Plaza de Mayo looms the Metropolitan Cathedral, a breathtaking spectacle regardless of your philosophy on faith. It’s the city’s main Catholic church and, most notably for many tourists, the home church of Pope Francis. If you want to explore the cathedral beyond its 12 beautiful exterior Hellenic columns, head inside to see its soaring sanctuaries, arcaded aisles and Italian frescoes.
The building houses the giant marble mausoleum of General José de San Martín — a hero of Argentina’s war for independence against Spain — as well as the tombs of generals Juan Gregorio de las Heras and Tomás Guido. A pair of armed military guards keeps constant watch over the generals’ tombs. Catching the changing of the guards, a short yet impressive event, is a special treat.
Neighboring La Boca to the northwest, San Telmo is one of Buenos Aires’s oldest and most lively barrios, where a certain joie de vivre wafts from quaint cafés into the cobblestone streets. On any given day, San Telmo is a popular spot for antiques shopping, eating and drinking, but the Feria de San Telmo is arguably its biggest draw. The street fair — open from around 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. each Sunday depending on the weather — floods San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego and its surrounding streets with hundreds of vendors hawking everything from antiques and trinkets to art and asado (barbecue). And, of course, a tango’s always happening just nearby.