A culture-crammed city of eclectic neighborhoods, leafy plazas and world-class eats, Buenos Aires is a treat for families ready to explore the barrios on foot, dine long past bedtime and venture beyond the city limits. We asked writer, resident and dad, Matt Chesterton, to share his favorite spots for eating, shopping and playing in the Argentinian capital.
Where to Eat
Eating out in Buenos Aires is a family-friendly experience by default. The average neighborhood joint is boisterous and brightly lit, with a thick menu that runs the gamut from grass-fed beef to fresh pasta, with a brief stop along the way for vegetables. Few porteños (as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are known) sit down to eat before 9 PM, so if you don’t want to queue, show up around 8.30.
Get your grilled-steak fix at a parrilla or steakhouse. At La Cabrera, great slabs of sirloin come with an array of tapas-style accompaniments. Don Julio has a well-chosen selection of Malbecs, and at La Brigada the waiters “cut” the tenderloin with a dessert spoon. For regional cuisine, try Cumaná, where locro (a hearty bean and pork stew) and empanadas are baked in a clay oven, and kids are equipped and encouraged to doodle on the disposable table covers. Pizza – a thick pie that looks down from a height on its Chicago counterpart – is another local obsession, well executed at places like El Cuartito, Güerrin, and Las Cuartetas.
Buenos Aires only has one kind of food cart (basic), selling one kind of product (meat and sausage sandwiches, slathered in spicy chimichurri). The greatest concentration of these is along the Costanera Sur promenade, which skirts the edge of the city’s ecological reserve. For a dining experience at the other end of the cost and formality spectrum, book yourself in for afternoon tea or Sunday brunch at the Alvear Palace Hotel. For your morning cup of joe, head to Café Tortoni, which is housed in a stunning Art Nouveau space.
Book a babysitter if you can, because Buenos Aires also brims with hip cocktail bars and award-winning fine-dining restaurants, a high proportion of which are in the trendy Palermo Viejo neighborhood. Top choices for a romantic night out include Casa Cruz, Crizia (try the oyster bar), and Tegui. For less upscale surrounds but bolder, more experimental menus (carpaccio of chinchilla, anyone?) try El Baqueano, Tarquino, or Aramburu. Closed-door supper clubs are all the rage, with I Latina (LatAm fusion), Cocina Sunae (Southeast Asian), and Casa Saltshaker (whatever chef/owner Dan Perlman is in the mood for) among the restaurants coyly declining to advertise their street addresses. For late-night cocktails, check out Florería Atlántico (co-owned by Tato Giovannoni, probably Argentina’s greatest living barman), Doppelgänger, and pseudo-speakeasy Victoria Brown.
Where to Play
Like any city, Buenos Aires has plenty of sights and attractions that will interest kids and plenty of others that will elicit a yawn or worse. A good downtown tour starts at the Obelisk, which rises above 14-lane Avenue de Julio, and meanders east towards the river, stopping at Plaza de Mayo, the city’s historic center, along the way. Then you can take a stroll through the snazzy Puerto Madero docklands district, stopping for a dulce de leche gelato and then stepping aboard Buque Museo Fragata Presidente Sarmiento, a 19th-century frigate turned floating museum.
Palermo is as green and laid-back as the city center is gray and frenetic. Here, expansive parks are dotted with kid-friendly attractions like the sublimely weird-looking Planetarium (the shows are excellent) and the immaculate Japanese Garden, where monstrous koi carp lurk beneath bright lacquered bridges. A great way to escape the city limits is to hop on the Tren de la Costa (Coastal Train), a tourist service that connects the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires with the town of Tigre, the main gateway to the Paraná delta. You can ride the roller coasters at Parque de la Costa, then take a boat back to the city – a spectacular way to appreciate the skyline at sunset – with Sturla Viajes.
If you’re here during the school vacations (Christmas through February, and a large chunk of July), keep an eye open for free shows and family activities, many of which are organized by the city government and advertised on its website. Major cultural institutions like MALBA and Teatro Colón also run special programs for the holidays.
Where to Shop
What it lacks in big international brands, Buenos Aires more than makes for with independent fashion boutiques, quirky design stores, and picturesque markets. To find the greatest concentration of the above, head for Palermo Soho (particularly the blocks around Plaza Serrano) and San Telmo. Every Sunday the latter hosts a famous market in Plaza Dorrego whose mix of antiques stalls, tango demonstrations, and pavement cafés makes it perfect for a family outing. While in San Telmo be sure to drop by Walrus Books, which stocks the city’s best selection of used English paperbacks, including ones for children. But if you only have time to visit one bookstore, make it Ateneo Grand Splendid, where the shelves curve around the gilded tiers of a handsome old theater.
Even the malls look great around here. Housed in a 1930s Art Deco masterpiece of undulating reinforced concrete, Abasto Shopping offers a decent multiplex, a large amusements area, and the popular Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum), where kids get to role play various careers, from TV executive to gas station attendant. The city’s most upscale mall is Patio Bullrich, in Recoleta.
If you’re in the market for an Evita or Che Guevara poster, a Diego Maradona mug, or a cheap leather bag, take a stroll down pedestrianized Florida Street, which links historic Plaza de Mayo with leafy Plaza San Martín. But there are happier grounds for souvenir hunters. Try Sabater Hermanos, a hip-without-trying-to-be artisanal soap-making business run by three siblings. Kids also enjoy Arandú with its wide selection of high-end gaucho paraphernalia, and Elementos Argentinos, which sells everything from naturally dyed handwoven rugs to cute llama finger puppets. You can commission your own bespoke scent at “perfume laboratory” Fueguia, buy a suede cellphone case at Humawaca, try on some impossibly strappy tango shoes at Comme il Faut, and stock up on polo gear at La Dolfina.
And What to Know...
Argentina’s economy is dependably unstable. At time of writing, problems include high inflation and currency exchange controls that make it extremely difficult for Argentines to obtain US dollars. This is good news for tourists carrying greenbacks, who should try to negotiate cash discounts at every opportunity. You should also ask hotel staff to recommend a good place to exchange foreign currency for Argentine pesos, which will almost certainly not be a bank. Your credit card will only get you so far, and daily withdrawal limits at ATMs are less than generous.
Many locals will tell you that Buenos Aires is dangerous but statistics show it to be one of the safest cities in Latin America. Take commonsense precautions. Don’t flash expensive jewelry or gadgets (iPhones aren’t sold officially here, which only makes them more desirable) and try to avoid hailing taxis off the street at night. Neighborhoods like La Boca should be navigated with care, and preferably not alone.
For local and international news in English, pick up the Buenos Aires Herald at a newsstand. Looking for up-to-date restaurant and bar reviews? Allie Lazar (Pick up the Fork) and Dan Perlman (SaltShaker) have you covered.