Although it has a reputation as the Paris of Latin America, Buenos Aires is reasonably priced and a surprisingly good-value destination.
Still, some of the best things to do in the capital of Argentina are better than inexpensive. They’re free! Here are seven of them:
1. Recoleta cemetery
Despite being the resting place of Argentinian dignitaries, housed in memorials of marble grandeur, it’s Evita Peron’s grave – buried under her maiden name of Duarte – that’s turned the cemetery into the No. 1 attraction in Buenos Aires.
The Duarte family mausoleum is near the entrance and easy to find. But the narrow passage in front – just enough for one person to squeeze through – makes it almost impossible to photograph unless you have a wide-angle lens.
On your way there, you can stop to admire the statue of the sleeping boy angel that resonates with every visitor and ask around for the other notorious resident of Recoleta: Rufina Cambaceres, who’s depicted opening her own grave door.
Legend has it that Rufina was buried alive after doctors misdiagnosed her cataleptic state and was heard screaming a few days later after she woke up inside her grave. By the time the gravediggers reached her she was dead – this time for good.
2. San Telmo flea market
On Sundays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., there’s one unmissable event in Buenos Aires – the flea market at Plaza Dorrego in the barrio of San Telmo. Ever since 1970, it’s operated as the principal open-air antique market in the Argentinian capital.
This is where the city’s scions sold the family silver during the depressions of the 1980s and 1990s in bargains that had buyers coming all the way from the auction houses of Europe and North America. Today, a covered market nearby has absorbed the spillover from the bustling square and any deals must be haggled over in the surrounding shops. These compete with street food vendors, organic produce stalls, secondhand book sellers, cellphone kiosks, beer stands and hawkers peddling everything imaginable.
But the main reason most visitors flock to San Telmo is to watch, admire and applaud the tango demonstration dancers: young, old, but always graceful, they keep audiences spellbound.
3. The Casa Rosada
The Casa Rosada, the famed Pink Presidential Palace, is the focus of Buenos Aires’s central Plaza 25 de Mayo. It’s named after the date of the first successful revolution in South America that eventually led to independence.
Most visitors are content to just take photos outside. But come on a Saturday or Sunday, and you can visit the building for free (you must present your passport to be admitted).
You’ll first step into the reception, housing the Gallery of Patriots, with portraits of Latin American political figures from Salvador Allende and Che Guevara to Evita Peron, a resident of the Casa Rosada herself.
To your right you’ll find the small, neat chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary and a patio commemorating the Falklands/Malvinas War. On your left, the attractive Palm Court leads to the Hall of Honor, complete with busts of local luminaries, opening onto a grand veranda. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to visit the presidential suite on the first floor, which isn’t always open to the public.
Anthony Bourdain soaks in the melancholy of Buenos Aires
4. Reserva Ecologica
You may spend days in Buenos Aires without sight of the Rio de la Plata, the city’s raison d’etre. And yet there are 360 hectares of wetlands in town.
Possibly the world’s most valuable protected area, right in the middle of expensive real estate, the Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur is a boon for hikers, bikers and birdwatchers. You can spend a day inside pacing its 22-kilometer circuit. Or even picnic by the Rio de la Plata.
Although the river’s brownish sedimentary waters don’t look tempting, the absence of tides and its shallow depth – you can walk for 300 meters in and still not wet your knees – making it a popular spot for local families.
5. Papal tour
Pope Francis is a big source of pride among portenos (Buenos Aires natives). So it’s little surprise that not just one but two papal tours, both free, are on offer in his hometown.
An intimate one-and-a-half walking tour of his childhood haunts in the barrio of Flores starts at the Basilica of San Jose, where 17-year-old Jorge Bergoglio allegedly had an epiphany during confession. It continues to the modest house where he was born, his kindergarten and primary school, then finishes at another house where he grew up.
A longer, three-hour bus tour takes you farther and starts from the Metropolitan Cathedral where he celebrated mass as archbishop of Buenos Aires. This tour takes in the seminary he attended in Balvanera and the Sanctuary of Mary, Untier of Knots, whose veneration he encouraged. Although the bus journey is more comfortable and you see more, you stop and disembark in only a handful of places.
6. La Boca
Near soccer legend Maradona’s Boca Juniors stadium, La Boca used to be the first port of Buenos Aires. Neglected in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s reinvented itself with extravagant explosions of kitsch.
Nothing is sophisticated or subtle in La Boca: brightly painted walls, caricature figurines, papier-mache shop greeters and gaudy graffiti scream in your face. Still, as a spectacle it’s a treat. La Boca’s streets are a living, breathing performance art gallery for the 21st century. No one should leave Buenos Aires without this visual assault.
7. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Any museum you can visit for free is a vacation bonus, but one with free English tours is rare indeed. These are on offer four days a week – check times and dates before droppingaa in – and the guides are knowledgeable, professional and engaging.
Although the museum houses many works by familiar names (Modigliani, El Greco, Goya, Picasso, Rodin), its forte lies in its wealth of Argentinian art. The museum is open every day until 8:30 p.m.
John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer and photographer. He’s written or co-written 15 books.
This article was originally published in January 2016.