Like every great capital Buenos Aires comes with its own mythology. “The Paris of Latin America” may inspire dreams of long languorous nights spent drinking Malbec wine in artfully dodgy taverns, discussing literature and life in melodious porteño Spanish as couples dance tango between tables to the tunes of live music. But, as anyone who’s ever visited Paris will tell you, it’s hard for a large modern city to live up to its romanticized mythology.
For anyone living in or visiting Buenos Aires these days an inescapable fact is that, between massive inflation and the falling value of the peso, Buenos Aires has become the city with most expensive basic necessities in the world and the second most expensive city in Latin America. Foreign visitors used to rely on their access to US dollars to make up for the price hikes – the dólar azul (“blue dollar”) black market exchange rate, which sprung up after governmental currency restrictions, could get you incredibly generous unofficial exchange rates. However, these restrictions were lifted at the end of 2015 and now the black market exchange rates are only marginally better than the official ones.
All this means that your day-to-day reality in Buenos Aires might involve less debauchery and more peso-pinching – before you know it the highlight of your day will be finding a place in your neighbourhood that sells oven-fresh medialunas for 3 pesos a pop! (On the corner of Avenida San Juan/Piedras, in case you’re wondering.)
It can take some getting used to, but luckily three things still come plentiful and cheap: wine, dulce de leche and culture. And really, what more do you need?
What follows is a list of free stuff you can do in Buenos Aires, tried and tested by yours truly during my time living in Buenos Aires as a broke student.
It also pays to keep your eyes peeled for one-off events – even the fancy-pants places like the Teatro Colón sometime offer freebies or heavily discounted tickets if you’re willing to sit behind a column right under the ceiling. If you want to stay up to date it’s time to brush up your Spanish and bookmark the website Gratis en Buenos Aires (listings of free cultural events around town), the Facebook page Espectaculos Gratis en Buenos Aires (ditto) and the official Buenos Aires website Disfrutemos BA for updates on events and festivals around town, many of which are free to attend.
CENTRO CULTURAL KIRCHNER (CCK)
Centro Cultural Kirchner was a bit of a controversial project of the previous Kirchner government, which at great expense converted the grandiose building behind the Casa Rosada – erstwhile central post office and later Peron HQ – into a state-of-the-art exhibit and performance space. The building is impressive in itself, coupling classical grandeur with some ultra-modern perks, such as La Ballena Azul (“The Blue Whale”), a concert hall that seems to float in the centre of the building right below the Gran Lámpara (‘The Great Lamp’), which looks like a giant blue chandelier, but accommodates exhibition spaces as well.
With a grand total of 9 floors, 5 auditoriums, a concert hall, two rooftop terraces and dozens of rooms for art exhibits, poetry readings and performances, the CCK offers an incredible cultural programme, as well as regular yoga and Tai Chi classes and tango milongas. All for free, courtesy of the Ministry for Culture.
To get the free tickets you have to reserve your spot in advance on the website and pick them up one hour before the show. Keep in mind that the CCK is a very popular with locals and visitors alike and the best events can get booked up quite far in advance! If you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants you can also just drop by in the hour before the event when they start giving out the tickets that were not booked up online.
The city also has 36 smaller cultural centres around different barrios, which all offer a free cultural programme. While it can be a bit hit and miss it’s worth checking out your local centre to see what’s going on (Click here for a map of all the Centros Culturales around town).
I never really understood people’s obsession with street art until I moved to Buenos Aires. Here street art is encouraged by the city government and artists can paint anywhere as long as they have the permission of the wall’s owner. The result is a city where every stroll becomes a street art safari, with incredible works of art popping up at the most unlikely of places. My favourite part of town in this regard is Barracas, a quiet residential neighbourhood completely covered in street art of all kinds. Also worth checking out are Colegiales, Villa Urquiza and the usual suspects of Palermo and San Telmo.
That having been said, my all-time favourite example of street art in Buenos Aires, pictured below, resides in a completely nondescript part of town above a parking lot, so keep your eyes peeled wherever you go! (And I’m not telling you where this one is – find it is half the fun!)
For a large gallery of the amazing street art I stumbled across during my time in Buenos Aires click here.
TANGO AT LA GLORIETA DE BELGRANO
There is no shortage of places where you can see tango being danced in Buenos Aires, but if you’re a foreigner on a short visit you’ll more likely than not end up overpaying for a performance that’s about as authentic as a gondola ride in Venice. While I like seeing a dramatic tango performance complete with a red dress and a lot of dramatic leg-swirling as much as the next girl there’s no beating a local milonga with leafy surroundings and two decades of history under its belt.
This is the case with La Glorieta, a marble pavilion in a park in Belgrano, where couples gather to dance every Saturday and Sunday evening from 7pm onwards. Even if you have no interest in dancing this is a rare slice of porteño culture that remains untouched by time, the dancefloor shared by young professional dancers looking for some informal practice, beginners trying not to fumble their steps and old couples who have clearly been dancing tango together for longer than I have been alive.
Check Hoy Milonga for more tango events around town.
FREE ENTRY TO MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES
In late October many museums and exhibition spaces open their doors for La Noche de Los Museos (Night of the Museums) with free entry, live music and large crowds of visitors. At other times of the year a budget-friendly museum-binge only takes a bit more planning, since a number of museums and galleries offer free entry once a week.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts)
Av. del Libertador 1473, Recoleta
Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires (MAMBA)
Av. San Juan 350, San Telmo
Free on Tuesdays
Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA)
Avenida Figueroa Alcorta 3415, Palermo
Free for students and seniors every Wednesday, and half-price for everyone else.
Museo Histórico Nacional (National Historical Museum)
Defensa 1600, San Telmo
BOOKSTORES AND LIBRARIES
Buenos Aires has more bookstores per resident than any other city in the world. The crown jewel is el Ateneo Grand Splendid, an old theatre that has been converted into a bookshop, with reading areas in the theatre boxes and a cafe on stage. The books on sale are mostly in Spanish, but the staff’s easy-going and doesn’t mind people spending hours there reading their own books in the luxurious environment – the theatre boxes are often filled with students from the nearby university district revising their notes.
My favourite of the libraries is the Biblioteca Nacional de Maestros which is in the university district and has the sort of gorgeous reading room that actually makes you look forward to studying (within reason).
The Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina is the largest library in Argentina, housed in a remarkably ugly house of the concrete brutalist type. Some solace can be had from the fact that Jorge Louis Borges, the famous writer and once-upon-a-time director of the library, had gone blind by the time this monstrosity was being built. Still, no amount of misguided modernist architecture can take away the beauty of endless rows of books as far as I’m concerned, and there are often exhibitions and events going on.
As a foreigner you’ll need a passport to enter all libraries.
HIT THE PARKS
While the city’s grid layout and messy traffic can sometimes make walking in Buenos Aires seem like every urbanist’s nightmare there is a number of parks around town where you can go to recharge or even take part in some free yoga or salsa classes organized by the city (Check the website to see where & when).
The Bosques de Palermo (Forests of Palermo) is a popular hangout spot, though it can get quite crowded on the weekend and the beauty of its rose garden depends on the time of year.
Nearby is the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays with many themed gardens and a couple of greenhouses, all with a charmingly dilapidated vibe.
For a proper break head over to the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, a large swathe of green land that was declared a national park in 1986. Still, it’s not exactly a thick European forest, so go early in the morning or late in the afternoon if you don’t want to get sunstroke.
FREE TOURS AND WALKS
The tourist board offers a number of different tours and activities in Spanish and English, from walking and urban trekking tours, cycling tours, rowing excursions and even football and pope-themed bus tours. All are free, some with optional extra costs (e.g. entry fee to a stadium). All tours must be booked online in advance (more info here).
I never managed to go on any of these tours because I was always either too busy at Uni, too knackered or the tours were booked up, so this is more of a theoretical suggestion on my part – if anyone has experience with that please let us know in the comments below! More suggestions for free stuff to do in Buenos Aires are of course very welcome as well. 🙂