There’s no denying that Argentinian steaks are fantastic. Apologies to all those veggies out there but nothing beats a great big slab of juicy meat and you’ll certainly be spoilt for choice in Buenos Aires. There are parrillas on practically every street corner and I’m sure there are plenty of hidden gems, but here are a couple of our favourites…
If you’re looking for something a bit special, with a great atmosphere, then you can’t go wrong at La Cabrera. It’s not as cheap as many parrillas in town but it’s certainly popular and many will say it’s the best steak house in the city. You can book, but only early evening – we managed to reserve a table for 9.15pm (practically lunchtime by BA standards) with a little eyelash fluttering but if you want to dine later than this you’ll have to join the queue outside. The upside is that you get free sparkling wine whilst you wait so it’s not all bad. Still, when we arrived, the restaurant was already busy and there was plenty of atmosphere.
You can order steaks in a range of sizes from small (200g) to large (600g) – a medium (400g) is about the right size if you’re hungry and they don’t mind if you share. This is one of the few restaurants where we found that they cooked the meat the way we asked, a lot of places tend to overcook the meat. But the best thing about it is the huge selection of side dishes/condiments you get – tapenade, roasted onions, mashed potato, sundried tomatoes, salad, miniature corn, garlic mushrooms – and all for free! Plus a lollipop too when you leave– what more could you want?!
It’s certainly one of the more touristy places in town and one of the more expensive too but if you are looking for something out of the ordinary this is definitely the place to come.
If, on the other hand, you want a more local, authentic parrilla experience, then we found a great little place up near Las Canitas. There is no sign on the front, the glass is tinted so you can’t see in and if you didn’t know it was there you’d probably miss it. But inside is a great little restaurant, completely unpretentious but serving some of the best steak we tasted whilst in BA (and we tasted a lot!). It’s pretty cheap (50 pesos for bife de chorizo), the staff are friendly and the ladies get a free miniature bottle of sparkling wine to take home with them. An absolutely charming place and packed every night with locals. I won’t reveal its exact location here as the whole point is that it’s a bit of an insider secret but if you’re heading to BA and you want to know where it is just email me and I’ll point you in the right direction.
If you’re only in BA for a few days then try and make one of those a Sunday. Then you’ve got two excellent markets to choose from (you could even try squeezing both into one day) – San Telmo and Feria de Mataderos.
San Telmo is supposedly an antiques market, and whilst these stalls still dominate Plaza Dorrego, these days the market has spread down Defensa right back towards Plaza Mayor. Here they sell pretty much anything from knock off La Boca shirts to llama jumpers imported from Bolivia, to hand- knitted Barbie outfits (I kid you not). If you’re looking for souvenirs, this is a great option, but even if you’re not, it’s brilliant for a Sunday afternoon stroll. There’s live music playing in the street, lots of cafes and bars where you can stop for a drink or a bite to eat, and later in the evening, live tango in the square. You can easily while away a good few hours just moseying around and people come here as much for the atmosphere as for the antiques.
Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit different, then head to Feria de Mataderos. It’s a fair way out of town but there are plenty of buses that stop there (check www.feriademataderos.com.ar for details), just ask the driver when to get off. Although many of the stalls here are selling handicrafts similar to what you will find in San Telmo, what different here is the food and entertainment on offer.
There are asados galore serving steak, chorizo and even armadillo sandwiches. You can also sample regional specialities here such as locro (beef stew), humitas (a mash of corn, sautéed onions and spices) and tamales (like humitas but with minced meat inside). Be warned though, the queues are lengthy so be prepared to wait, although some of the stalls have a ticketing system so you can collect your number and have a wander for 15 minutes before returning to the queue.
Again, there’s live music here, but this time on a central stage. As the band play folk music, people line the streets to take part in traditional Argentine dances. It’s a bit like country dancing but more sedate, or something you’d see in Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes they also use scarves and many people are dressed in traditional costumes. Some are having a bit of a laugh but others take it very seriously and obviously come every week to show off their talents to the crowds. Anyone can join in but we don’t know the steps so we leave it to the experts.
Around the corner, and you can witness a bunch of gauchos strutting their stuff. It’s a bit hard to see what they are doing exactly but they gallop off down the road and then seem to be trying to hit some sort of target. I’m sure if you are Argentinian you might understand it a bit better, but it’s still nice to see them practicing a traditional art.
If you’re interested in buying clothes or jewellery, then the best market to head for is in Palermo. During the week, Plaza Serrano is quiet and surrounded by bars and clubs, but at the weekend, the place transforms into a bustling market and the bars convert into pop-up shops. All of a sudden there are hundreds of people wandering the streets and filling out the many cafes surrounding the plaza. You won’t get any tango or gauchos here but it’s still a great way to spend an afternoon (the market is on Saturdays and Sundays) and it’s a lot more trendy than either San Telmo or Mataderos.
You can’t come to Buenos Aires without seeing some tango, it’s just criminal. But there are many different ways and places to experience it so here’s a few ideas.
The best places to catch some tango for free (except for a donation to the hat) are either at San Telmo, where they dance in Plaza Dorrego on Sunday evenings or in La Boca, where most of the restaurants have tango dances at weekends (maybe in the week too, but we went on a Saturday). Although you won’t experience the same spectacle as going to a show, and you might have to excuse their outfits (when it’s only a few degrees above freezing they tend to wrap up in jumpers, gloves, scarves – and who can blame them?!) it’s certainly authentic and some of the dancers are pretty good.
There are countless professional tango shows on offer, and some of them are quite frankly extortionate. They are catering for the tourists, and many include a show, but from what I’ve heard many of them are more Las Vegas than Buenos Aires. A good halfway house, if you want to see something a bit more flashy than a street performance but don’t want to spend a fortune and want something more traditional is the Bien de Tango show at Centro Cultural Borges. The standard price is 80 pesos (just over a tenner) but we got half price tickets on Groupon. It’s a small theatre, they have a live band (well, a piano, violin, double bass and accordion), two singers, and five couples dancing. The standard is very good, particularly when the couples are dancing solos (they also do group dances) and I think it’s a great little show for a very reasonable price.
The last option, and the best if you want to have a go yourself, is to go to a milonga (dance hall). We didn’t go ourselves but there are plenty of places all over town where you can get to see real people dancing the famous Argentine tango.
Best spots for a beer
There are dozens and dozens of bars to choose from in Palermo, where we were staying, from cute little record stores to Irish pubs to fancy cocktail joints, you’re sure to find something to suit you. One of our favourites was Cronico, right on Plaza Serrano, an unpretentious bar with a bit of a rock theme going on – they play classic concert clips on the various flat screen TVs dotted about the place. It’s reasonably cheap and also a good place to watch the footie (La Copa was on whilst we were in BA), plus you get free peanuts when you order beer. All in all, a great little spot and worth checking out if you are in the area.
Another great area of town to stop for a drink is Puerto Madero. Best on a sunny weekend afternoon, when you can watch the rollerbladers whizzing by, it feels a lot like London’s South Bank. There are plenty of cafes and bars lining the water’s edge, although it gets busy and the service can be a little lacking. Still, it’s a very pleasant place to enjoy a few cervezas and soak up the atmosphere.
…and a few things that annoyed us!
If you look up, then BA is a lovely city with some great architecture, and many have said it is reminiscent of Paris in the 60s. However, you don’t get to enjoy the views as you are constantly looking at the pavement, making sure you don’t step in the dog poop which is EVERYWHERE. We saw people letting their pooches take a dump right in the middle of the pavement and then just walk off. Somehow, we managed to not step in any for the whole two months we were there but there were some close calls. Sort it out BA, it’s disgusting.
Ok, so coins are short in Argentina, but they take their obsession with having the right change to a whole other level in Buenos Aires. Give them the right change and they’ll almost kiss you, squealing in delight; try and break even a note with a value of around £10 and face the wrath of the shopkeeper as they take a sharp intake of breath and stare at you like you’re the devil.
The other wholly inexplicable ‘quirk’ is the payment system in shops. So you go into a pharmacy/bakery/coffee shop. You tell the guy at the counter what you want, he hands it over and then you give him your money, right? Wrong. You tell the guy what you want, he gets it off the shelf, gives you a receipt, you take the receipt to another counter, pay the person at the till, he signs/stamps the receipt, you take it back to the first guy and he gives you your stuff. Efficient, huh?
Still, despite these minor irritations, we still had a great time in Buenos Aires, and it’s all part of the charm really (except maybe the dog poo).