Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a beautiful country with 200 years of history, graceful tango and a vibrant art culture that can be seen on every street corner. The city is completely flat, making it the perfect place to explore by foot. While there are many options of things to do in Buenos Aires, they are not all free or budget-friendly. Luckily, I got the chance to explore the city with locals and discover the worthwhile sites that won’t break your bank.
Take a free walking tour
While my hostel advertised walking tours for 80 pesos and city bus tours for 180 pesos, I found a flyer advertising two city walking tours that were completely free. Buenos Aires Free Tour offers a daily city tour at 11:00 a.m. led by a local guide that teaches you about the history and culture of Buenos Aires. You also get to visit the oldest coffee shop in the city, Cafe Tortoni, which hasn’t changed a bit since it opened in 1858. At 5:00 p.m., the company also offers a free “Aristocratic Tour,” which allows you see sites like the famous Recoleta Cemetery, Plaza San Martin and the beautiful Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar.
So how can a free tour be better than the more expensive ones? These guides are passionate about what they do. Moreover, because they work on tips, they actually need to work for their money so you won’t get a guide that is bored with their job or uninterested in your questions. Virginia, the guide on my tour, was excellent. She knew everything about the city, was overly friendly and had the group laughing the entire time.Check out Buenos Aires’ museums and cultural centers
The city is home to many worthwhile museums and cultural centers that are not only interesting, but can also help give you insight into the area and culture. I really liked the National Historical Museum of the Cabildo and May Revolution. On Fridays, it is free to enter. The Cabildo was the main seat of the May Revolution of 1810, is one of the city’s oldest buildings and contains many historical documents and artifacts. I also recommend visiting one of the many cultural centers in Buenos Aires, especially the one in Recoleta (shown right), adjacent to the cemetery. Here you can explore history and art in a more avant-garde way. Guided tours in English are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00 a.m. Other notable museums include:
- “Enrique Larreta” Spanish Art Museum (Belgrano)- Free on Thursdays
- Museum of the City (Montserrat)- Free on Mondays and Wednesdays
- Museum of the Cinema (San Telmo)- Free on Wednesdays
- National Fine Arts Museum (La Recoleta)- Always free
- Museum of Latin-American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA)- Free on Wednesdays from 12:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Learn about the city’s political history
The people of Buenos Aires, also known as porteños, are very passionate about politics. Along with the many museums in the city, there are also must-visit buildings if you want to really understand Buenos Aires’ past. Start at the National Congress Building, which offers free-guided tours in English on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 4:00 p.m. The building was opened in 1906, and contains many furnishings and pieces of decor from Europe. Then head over to the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, which is where President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner works. There is a museum inside, and free tours are offered on weekends.
Channel your inner activist and take in a protest
Going along with the above statement of politically passionate locals, you can expect about three or four protests per day. Most take place on Avenida de Mayo, which connects the National Congress and Casa Rosada, the two political buildings of the city. Head to Plaza de Mayo, which is located right in front of Casa Rosada. Here you will be almost guaranteed to see some political uproar. Notice the makeshift fence separating Casa Rosada from the plaza (pictured right). While it is technically a temporary fence that is supposed to be taken down after protests are over, Buenos Aires has so many they got tired of removing the barrier and just left it there. The locals of Buenos Aires protested so ferociously that in 2001, they actually caused then-President Fernando de la Rúa to resign from office and exit the building via a helicopter from the roof.
On Thursdays at 3:00 p.m. in Plaza de Mayo, you can see the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo,” or Mother’s of Plaza de Mayo, circling the square’s May Pyramid monument. In the 1970’s, Argentina went through a period of military dictatorship that left the people without a democracy. During this time, over 30,000 people went missing, were sent to torture camps and killed. These women have been asking for answers to where their children are since this time. You can see their symbol painted onto the cement in the plaza, an image of a cotton diaper, which the women would wear around their heads symbolically. While the country now gives its people a say, seeing these women will make you appreciate your rights.
Discover the city’s graffiti art
Buenos Aires has an extremely vibrant graffiti art scene. While there are walking tours for this, such as the graffitimundo graffiti and street art tours, it can be fun to just go on your own and explore as well. Basically any neighborhood you go to will have tons of it. I stayed in the San Telmo neighborhood and spent hours exploring the streets and finding artistic works, many of which have political meanings. Palermo is another great area to explore the best graffiti art Buenos Aires has to offer. I would recommend doing some background research online before hitting the streets. Click here to learn more about popular artists and their stories.
Argentina is the place where tango originated, so you’ll definitely want to experience it for yourself. While you can catch impromptu tango acts while strolling the city, there are places you can go to guarantee a free show or lesson. You can check the schedule at Museo Casa Carlos Gardel, which regularly features free tango shows and lessons. Additionally, if you book a show at Complejo Tango, they offer a free tango lesson at 7:30 p.m. You can also head over to The Window of DGEArt, where free classes are being hosted on Saturdays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. through May 31, 2012. And on Sundays, many of the city’s cultural centers offer free tango shows.
Open-air venues also usually offer the opportunity to experience free tango. On Sundays, the Feira de San Telmo and the Recoleta Fair have live tango performances in the streets. Furthermore, you can see it at the Calle Museo Caminito, an open-air arts museum in La Boca each day.
One trick is instead of paying for a dinner and show with unlimited drinks, head over to a milonga, or a place where tango is danced. For example, the popular La Glorieta offers free entrance to their open-air milonga on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Even when milongas are not free, they are usually very inexpensive and you can see some of the city’s most talented dancers.
Before you think to yourself “wow, another handicraft market,” stop. The markets in Buenos Aires are unlike any I’ve ever experienced in all my travels. The best is the Feria de San Telmo, which happens every Sunday from 10:00 am until 7:00 p.m. You have your usual handmade goods, as well as many rare finds like ancient antiques, statues made of chalk, visors with built-in fans, leather masks, authentic Japanese swords from the 1600’s and much more. The fair is massive. Not only that, but street performers litter the area. You’ll get to see tango dancers, ventriloquists, mimes, opera sings, circus performers, live bands and more. Make sure to also stop at the corner of Mexico and Defense streets for some live music and delicious choripan – a thick, juicy sausage wrapped in a bread bun and topped with whatever you’d like.
There are other worthwhile markets to explore as well. The area right near the cemetery in Recoleta has a weekend market that is enormous with unique handicrafts and delicious local foods. Moreover, the Mercado de San Telmo has been running since 1897 and is open daily. Here you can find fresh meats and fish, art and antiques. Likewise, the Parque Lezama in San Telmo features a beautiful pond, sculptures and fountains as well as a handicraft fair and live shows on Saturdays and Sundays.
Take in the beauty of the many parks and squares
In Buenos Aires, picturesque parks and lively squares litter the city. You can spend days just exploring these beautiful areas. My favorite place to sunbathe and relax was San Martín Square. With beautiful Jacaranda trees, ornate statues and rolling slopes, it is a very beautiful and peaceful place. There is also the Nature Reserve in Costanera Sur, which is perfect for bird watching, hiking, exploring hidden beaches or riding a bike. Palermo Woods is also beautiful, as it is the main green area of the city. Featured are three man-made lakes, a rose garden and outdoor sculptures.
While this may sound morbid, the cemeteries in Buenos Aires are unlike any I’ve ever seen in the world. The most famous cemetery to see on your visit is Recoleta Cemetery. Here you will find some of the most ornate tombs you will ever see. Some include stained glass windows, ornate statues and furniture inside these house-like mausoleums. There are many famous locals buried here like Facundo Quiroga, Juan Manuel de Rosas, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the world-renowned Eva “Evita” Perón.
The less famous, but just as beautiful and even bigger, La Chacarita Cemetery is also worth a visit. It is the largest cemetery in Argentina and a car is needed to drive through the whole thing. It was built due to a need for more cemetery space after a yellow fever outbreak in the late 1800’s.
Street performers and live music
If you love impromptu entertainment, Buenos Aires is the perfect place for you. Simply riding a subway or train will almost guarantee you a free show of some kind. Also, visiting any of the many fairs listed above will give you access to all kinds of street performances. Moreover, You can checkout Museo Casa Carlos Gardel, which regularly puts on free live performances on Wednesdays. If you enjoy chamber music, The Palace Noel puts on free live concerts on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. Additionally, each day from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in La Boca is the Street Museum Caminito. It’s an outdoor art exhibition with performance art, singers, dancers and all kinds of unique acts. At night, walking around Palermo Soho will bring you face to face with various street performers on every corner.
If you’d like an indoor club type of feel, The Roxy in Palermo features free live music shows on Friday nights if you add your name to the list on the website. There’s also Breoghan Brew Pub in San Telmo on Sundays where patrons can watch a very talented jazz quartet. Furthermore, Temple Bar in Recoleta regularly features live blues and jazz bands free of charge.
While not live music, Teatro San Martin hosts a weekly music program at noon on Tuesdays and Fridays of rarely heard recordings that is refreshing, enlightening and also gives you a good excuse to checkout the inside of this famous venue.
Discover the religion of the city
Most, if not all of the churches in Buenos Aires are free to enter. First visit the Metropolitan Cathedral, thought by locals to be the city’s most important church. Take note of the black candlelight symbol on the outside of the building. This represents the remains of Argentina’s liberator, José de San Martín, as the church houses his mausoleum. There is also Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Recoleta (shown right). While not huge, the inside has ornate details and impressive furnishings worth a look. Iglesia Ortodoxa Rusa, located in San Telmo, is another great church to visit. Built in the seventeenth century, it is considered by many locals as one of the most attractive buildings in the city. If you attend service, you can hear the choir sing Orthodox liturgical music.
Get competitive at a horse race
Located on Avenida del Libertador in Palermo, you will find the historical Palermo Argentinean Racetrack. Argentinians love thoroughbred horses so visiting the site is also a cultural experience. Opened in 1876, the racetrack has held competitions for the most elite thoroughbred horses. The venue is grand in design and massive in size, accommodating up to 100,000 guests. While placing bets will obviously cost you, it is free to enter and enjoy the races.