I recently spent three weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and divided my stay between accommodation in three areas: San Telmo, Recoleta and Palermo. Each neighborhood had its own distinct atmosphere, style and charm, with Recoleta being especially memorable for its upscale, European vibe.
I spent several days wandering through the streets of Recoleta, strolling through its parks, popping into the different cafes and boutiques, and, of course, visiting some of the city’s most important attractions, which are clustered within easy walking distance of another another in the heart of Recoleta. I’m sharing all of my favorite things in this Buenos Aires neighborhood, so read on and let me know in the comments if you have any questions about traveling in Recoleta!
Things to Do in Recoleta
The top attractions in Recoleta are all within comfortable walking distance of one another, so if you’re an efficient traveler with a pair of comfortable shoes, you should be able to see them all in two days of dedicated sightseeing. However, it’s worthwhile to add a third day in Recoleta to your Buenos Aires itinerary, so that you can explore the neighborhood a little more slowly and live like the well-heeled locals of Recoleta.
Free Walking Tour of Recoleta
There are two companies offering free walking tours of Recoleta: Buenos Aires Free Walks and BA Free Tour. The two competitors seem to have worked out a system where the former tours Recoleta in the morning and the latter in the afternoon, so you should be able to find a free walking tour of Recoleta that suits your itinerary.
However, I was not particularly impressed with the tour offered by Buenos Aires Free Walks. When I took the tour there were more than fifty travelers in my group, and although the guide did have a microphone it was difficult to hear him and to ask questions. The organization of the tour seemed a bit haphazard, and a lot of the tour time was spent outside of Recoleta proper. That being said, group sizes are probably more reasonable in the off-season and a walking tour is always a good way to ensure you see the main attractions.
Any time you take a free walking tour, please tip the guide appropriately.
According to Lonely Planet, the Recoleta Cemetery is the #1 top attraction in Buenos Aires. When I was staying in Recoleta I found it difficult to restrain myself from walking through the cemetery at least once a day, just to explore new passageways, read different memorials and take photos from different angles and in different light.
Recoleta Cemetery is famous for being the final resting place of Eva Peron (Evita), but she is not the only Argentine celebrity buried here. There are also former presidents, military leaders, writers and even Nobel Prize winners. With nearly two hundred years of history, the cemetery also has developed its own myths and legends… such as that of the grave digger David Alleno, whose ghost still haunts the cemetery in the early hours of the morning.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Right beside the entrance to the Recoleta cemetery you’ll find Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, a small, white, colonial-style church dating back to 1732. You can enter the church and see the silver-gilded altar for free, but there is a fee to visit the cloisters (I opted out).
Recoleta Cultural Center
And just a few doors down from the Basilica you’ll find the Recoleta Cultural Center. You might mistake it for another church at first, but the large red building is actually a former convent that was repurposed through the centuries before becoming a community arts and culture hub in the 1970s. Although there is a focus on youth and teen programming here, visitors of all ages will want to wander through the courtyards and galleries hosting rotating exhibits of contemporary multi-media art.
The World’s Most Beautiful Bookstore
Only twenty minutes by foot from the Recoleta Cultural Center, El Ateneo Grand Splendid is, without a doubt, one of the can’t-miss attractions in Buenos Aires. In 2019, one hundred years after the building opened, National Geographic named this ‘splendid’ shop “The World’s Most Beautiful Bookstore”, and I have to agree!
Of course, El Ateneo wasn’t always a bookstore. When it opened in 1919 it was a theatre, and later it was converted into a cinema. In the mid-2000s a local publishing and bookselling company took over the space. They created what you can see today: four floors of books displayed among the original theater finishings, along with one of the city’s most popular cafes (located “backstage”). I wasn’t impressed by the selection of English fiction (most seemed to be 10+ years old) but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with their surroundings.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
You don’t have to be a typical art-lover to enjoy spending a few hours inside Buenos Aires’ National Museum of Fine Arts, thanks to its broad collection of art that spans centuries, continents and formats. Yes, there are works by well-known masters like Rembrandt, El Greco, van Gogh and Rodin, but there is also a strong representation from Argentinian artists, indigenous communities and contemporary players. The museum’s website offers English itineraries to help you plan your visit, but I found it most effective to view the temporary exhibits first, then loop back through the permanent galleries in more-or-less numerical order.
This “generic flower” sculpture is one of the most iconic landmarks in all of Buenos Aires. Situated in a park near the Museum of Fine Arts, this aluminum and steel sculpture weighs almost twenty tons and stands more than twenty meters high. The artist, Eduardo Catalano, has said that the mechanical sculpture is designed to represent all types of flowers, and that by closing each evening and re-opening each morning, it also signifies the new hope of each day. I didn’t personally observe the flower opening and closing, but the tourist board reports that it opens at 8:00 am daily and closes at midnight. If you want to see it in action, I’d suggest going in the morning, rather than midnight, for safety’s sake.
The Vatican Embassy
So, the guide on my walking tour made a huge deal of taking us to see the Vatican Embassy in Buenos Aires, because he said that it was one of only a handful in the world, since only “officially Catholic” countries could have Vatican embassies. (Technically it’s a apostolic nunciature, not an embassy, but that’s a slope I don’t have time to slide down today.) However, a quick Google reveals that this might not be as special as he claims, as it looks like the Vatican has diplomatic offices all over the world… including in my home county of Canada. That being said, Buenos Aires’ Vatican Embassy does have a somewhat special status as the current pope, Pope Francis, hails from Buenos Aires.
As you may have read, my phone was stolen in Buenos Aires and I lost most of my food photos. Unfortunately that means that I don’t have photos of most of the food I ate in the following restaurants in Recoleta, so you’ll just have to take my word (or the word of the reviews on Google Maps) as to whether or not they’re worth a visit. Stay safe, readers!
This is my top recommendation for a restaurant serving traditional Argentinian food that can also accommodate both vegetarians and vegans. They have beautiful vegetarian entrees here (I recommend the Sabores de la Huerta, an indulgent, cheesy interpretation of a vegetable pot pie) along with typical meat-based dishes like stews, steaks, tamales and savory pies.
A lot of websites and guidebooks list El Sanjuanino as one of the best affordable dining options in Recoleta, but I think it simply doesn’t compare to La Aguada, especially for vegetarians. The menu here is meat-centric, with most of the tables around me ordering meat-filled empanadas followed by a steak or milanesa (veal cutlet). As a vegetarian, I was limited to pasta, which was disappointing both in flavor and in presentation (the sauce was so watery it barely stuck to the pasta… it was almost more like soup). If you’re an omnivore and you come for cheap meat, it’s worth holding out for an upstairs table as the downstairs is quite stuffy.
If tea is your thing, head over to Tealosophy in Palermo instead of this chain of restaurants with locations across Buenos Aires. However, if healthy, fresh food is your thing, it’s worth stopping by a Tea Connection for breakfast or lunch one day. I had one of their salads with leafy greens, broccoli, zucchini, Parmesan, toasted almonds, tzatziki and something called “avocado cream”, which was like a sad cousin of guacamole but still passable. They also have standard breakfast fare like eggs and bagels, along with lunch dishes including pasta and sandwiches.
One of the better veggie burgers I’ve had on this trip was at Buller, a craft beer brewery and restaurant located right across the street from the Recoleta Cemetery. My burger had a crispy quinoa-and-lentil patty (seriously, just say no to soggy veggie burgers!) and it was topped with a thick slice of cheese and a fried egg. Healthy? Not so much. Delicious? Absolutely, especially with a frosty glass of beer to wash it down. There is great patio seating right in front of the restaurant (watch your possessions) and a rooftop terrace that picks up after work.
I’m throwing this one on the list because I ate here, not really because I recommend it. I have no idea what the name be Frika means, but I know that I was disappointed in their veggie burger (it was soggy) and in their service (the front-of-house staff seemed to be working hard, but a female owner or manager was walking in and out of the food preparation area without practicing proper hygiene). So, don’t eat here?
Las Terrazas de Recoleta
Sort of beside and underneath the Recoleta Cultural Center, Las Terrazas de Recoleta are a collection of shops, cafes and restaurants built “bunker-style” into the hill. The most famous option here is called Camping, which is (bizarrely) a certified B-Corporation focused on improving economic, social and environmental conditions… even though it just looks like all the other bars along the same strip. Shop around the terraces to see which ones have dishes that interest you and which ones have a good price on what you feel like drinking (for me, it was an early evening Aperol Spritz at the bar called Maldini, shown above).
I could write an entire post, or even an entire book, on the ice creams of Buenos Aires. In fact, I was planning to, pre-phone-theft. Of the hundreds of ice cream parlous in Buenos Aires, Rapanui holds a special spot in the heart of local residents. I visited on Christmas Eve, when locals had packed the brand’s Recoleta location and were queuing up to take home liters of their artisanal gelato for Christmas dinner (the joys of spending December in the southern hemisphere!). I recommend the pistachio and dark chocolate flavors.
I think Recoleta is a fantastic home base for any stay in Buenos Aires. It’s got great public transportation connections, it’s close to many of the city’s main attractions, and it’s easy to grab a taxi or Uber over to Palermo if you’re wanting to take in more of the city’s food and nightlife.
Because I stayed in Recoleta for a week, I booked into this one-bedroom Airbnb apartment, which was near the Las Heras metro station and the Recoleta cemetery. Yes, the unit and the building are both showing their original age despite being very well maintained, but I loved staying here as I really felt like I was living an authentic Porteno lifestyle. All of the things to do in Recoleta and the best restaurants in Recoleta are within walking distance of this apartment.
If you’re not into Airbnb, there are some other great hotels in Recoleta, spanning a wide variety of comfort levels and price points:
- If you’re looking for comfort and privacy on a moderate budget, definitely start your Recoleta hotel search at Up Recoleta Hotel, known for its personable staff, modern rooms and thoughtful touches (including a discount at a local cafe across the street). This is where I would stay if I was returning to Recoleta for a short visit.
- The Alvear Palace Hotel is a five-star luxury hotel in Recoleta, on the city’s poshest avenue. If you like spacious surroundings, opulent furnishings and personalized service, book a room here (and then tell me all about it!).
- On the other end of the budget spectrum, Malala Hostel is full of funky dorm rooms built into a refurbished heritage home. Like 80% of the households in Buenos Aires, they even have a cute dog (or two!).
- Always a reliable option, the Melia Recoleta Plaza Hotel is part of the well-known chain of mid-priced Spanish hotels. They have a gorgeous rooftop breakfast terrace, a hot tub and a sauna. From here, it’s less than a five-minute walk to the Recoleta Cemetery.
More Recoleta Travel Tips
- You may hear that Patio Bullrich, a shopping center in Recoleta, is worth a visit. Personally, I was totally underwhelmed by this mall, which is located in a former auction house. Most of the major international brands have left the Argentinian market, leaving this Recoleta shopping center mainly full of local brands selling an odd mish-mash of… unusual… designs. Only worth a wander if you’re nearby (perhaps at the Vatican Embassy) anyways.
- On the other hand, anyone interested in luxury perfumes will want to stop at Fueguia 1883, also on the same street as the Vatican Embassy. This niche perfumier has a large collection of natural, unisex scents, classified by note. Prices are as high as you’d expect for a perfume house with only five locations (Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Zurich, Milan and New York).
- Between the time I finished writing this post and the time that I went to publish it, an Australian tourist was attacked in Recoleta, near the Flora Generalis sculpture. Local news reported that he was placed into a medically-induced coma, and more recent Australian news sources have not provided an update. Like nearly every popular neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Recoleta is adjacent to a poor area, similar to a slum, which is referred to locally as a “villa”. As with any area of Buenos Aires, take basic precautions to stay safe and make sure you have a valid travel insurance policy (mine is with World Nomads).
Traveling to Buenos Aires? Don’t miss out on Recoleta’s next-door neighbour, Palermo, where you’ll find the city’s best restaurants, bars and boutiques.
I also recommend including a day trip to Colonia, Uruguay in your Buenos Aires itinerary. It’s the perfect small-town escape from the Argentinian capital, and it’s only an hour away by fast ferry.