Well-known as the birthplace of tango, Buenos Aires is also home to world-class opera and theater, and to restaurants that overflow with Mendoza wine and cuts of beef fresh from the Pampas. Add in top-notch architecture and a nightlife scene that really gets going around 3 a.m., and it’s no wonder the seductive and vibrant city is known as the “Paris of Latin America.” Read on for more about Argentina's largest city.
1. Buenos Aires was founded twice. The first time occurred in 1536, when Pedro de Mendoza, along with 1600 of his fellow Spaniards, built a fort overlooking the Rio de La Plata. The group’s chaplain named the location after Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires, or Holy Mary of the Fair Winds, a figure revered by sailors at the time. Relations between the Spaniards and the local Querandi tribe quickly soured, however, and Mendoza was forced to flee. In 1580, Juan de Garay arrived from Spain and established a permanent settlement. He kept the name Mendoza had bestowed while adding a few of his own flourishes: Ciudad de la Santisima Trinidad y Puerto de Santa Maria de Buenos Aires (“City of the Most Holy Trinity and Port of Saint Mary of the Fair Winds”). In the 17th century, residents (thankfully) shortened the name to its current form.
2. For two centuries, the city fell under the rule of the Viceroyalty of Peru. This meant that all trade bound for Spain from Buenos Aires had to travel by land more than 2000 miles to the Peruvian port of Callao before being loaded on ships bound for Panama, then on to the mother country. This didn’t sit well with the merchants of Buenos Aires, who began smuggling exported beef, cattle hides, and wheat with a little help from the British. Unable to stem the flow of illegal trade, Spain finally made Buenos Aires an official port and viceroyalty in 1776.
3. For two months in 1806, the British controlled Buenos Aires. The move was meant to undermine Spain, which had allied with France against Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, and to open up a new port for trade. On June 27, forces under the command of William Carr Beresford took the city. Before they could get too cozy, though, a colonial militia commanded by French nobleman Santiago de Liniers marched south from Montevideo and retook the city.
Santiago de Liniers, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
From the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, Buenos Aires, along with the rest of Argentina, saw a massive wave of immigrants from countries like Italy, Germany, and Spain. As a result, an estimated 85 percent of city residents are of European descent.
5. Today, citizens of Buenos Aires are known as porteños, a name that commonly refers to anyone from a port city, but has taken on added significance given the immigrant roots of Buenos Aires's citizens.
6. Its formal name is Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, or “Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.” In 1880, Argentina named the city a federal district, giving it control over Buenos Aires’s laws and allowing it to appoint political representatives. After nearly 100 years and a tumultuous political era that included the military dictatorship known as the “Dirty War” (which lasted from 1976 to 1983), the Argentine government in 1994 granted the city its independence. That year, for the first time, porteños were able to elect their own intendente, or mayor.
7. There are two theories as to why the Casa Rosada, the presidential headquarters where Juan and Eva Perón addressed the nation, is painted pink. The first is that it represented the coming together of two political parties in the late 19th century, one of which was represented by the color red, the other white. The other more gruesome theory is that it’s actually cow’s blood, which was a common coating for buildings at the time. The blood protected against the damaging effects of heat and humidity.
Construction of the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires’s opulent French style opera house, took nearly 20 years. Delays included financial setbacks, squabbles over the location, and the deaths of two of its architects (one of whom was murdered by his wife’s lover). Today, the Teatro Colón is considered one of the top five opera houses in the world. Its acoustics are so good that Luciano Pavarotti once said the only design flaw is the structure's ability to reveal a singer’s every mistake.
9. That most elegant of dances, the tango, originated in the brothels surrounding Buenos Aires. Drawing from African, European, and native influences, the original moves were meant to dramatize the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp. As such, the dance was considered offensive until dance and music pioneers like Carlos Gardel sanded down its edges and took it overseas to Europe, where it became an instant smash.
10. Book lovers rejoice: Buenos Aires has the most bookstores per person of any city in the world according to a 2015 World Cities Cultural Forum report, with one location for every 4000 citizens. One reason for this is that there’s no sales tax on books. Also, e-readers haven’t yet caught on in the country, and Amazon doesn’t operate in Argentina. The most compelling reason, though, may be the simplest: “Argentineans still prefer to come in and browse for books,” Antonio Dalto, business manager of the Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore, recently told The Guardian.
The Avenia 9 de Julio, which runs north to south through the city center, is the widest avenue in the world. At 12 lanes and 460 feet wide, it’s a wonder to behold—if not so much to drive on.
12. Located in the Palermo district, the Jardín Japonés de Buenos Aires are the largest Japanese gardens outside of Japan.
13. The University of Buenos Aires, the largest college in Argentina and the second largest in Latin America, has produced four Nobel prize winners and numerous presidents. It’s also where Che Guevara studied medicine before becoming a revered revolutionary and T-shirt icon.
14. Built in 1913, the Buenos Aires Underground is the oldest subway system in Latin America. The system’s numerous stations have a history of displaying artwork, and that tradition continues today with stained glass murals, sculptures, vintage advertisements and even musical performances regularly on display. For the Underground’s 100th anniversary, riders on Line A were treated to a full symphony orchestra.
Argentina has, arguably, the number one polo team in the world, and most of its top players use mallets (known in Argentina as “tacos”) made by Hector Zappala, who runs a small factory in Buenos Aires.
16. British railway workers brought the sport of soccer to Buenos Aires in the mid-19th century and helped establish the sport in the city and throughout the country. These days, Buenos Aires is a soccer-obsessed town, home to one of the highest concentrations of professional teams in the world.
17. Buenos Aires has made three unsuccessful bids for the Summer Olympics: in 1956, 1968 and 2004. For the 1956 Olympics, the city lost by only one vote to Melbourne. Despite its bad luck, Buenos Aires did host the first ever Pan American games, in 1951.
18. Before he entered the seminary, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis, was a bouncer at a nightclub in Buenos Aires.
For the past 140 years, the Buenos Aires Herald has operated as the city’s English language newspaper. During the military dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983, it was the only media outlet in the city to regularly report on the disappearances, or “disaparecidos,” orchestrated by the government. Its editor, Robert Cox, along with the paper’s news editor, was forced into exile in 1979 after numerous threats.
20. Set amidst the grand tombs of Recoleta Cemetery, Eva Perón’s grave is an understated monument with a tumultuous backstory. For more than 20 years, the former first lady’s body, a symbol of the country’s Perónist movement, was moved around as power shifted from one regime to another. Following Perón’s death in 1952, her body spent time in a trade union’s headquarters, in the back of a cinema, in a van parked outside the capital building, and in the offices of Military Intelligence. It was moved to Milan, then to Madrid, and eventually back to Buenos Aires where in 1976 Evita was finally laid to rest along with other family members.
21. Buenos Aires is a steak lover’s paradise, with parillas located throughout the city. But don’t expect to be served an American-style, red-on-the-inside T-bone. Argentineans slow cook their meat, and typically serve multiple cuts across the main meal, including appetizers and even dessert. It’s all a testament to the country’s old adage: Serve everything but the moo.
22. Feeling repressed? As of 2012, Buenos Aires had more psychologists per capita than any other city in the world, and many of them practice Freudian psychoanalysis.
23. The first-ever animated feature film, El Apóstol, was made in Buenos Aires. A political satire mocking Argentine president Hipólito Irigoyen, the film was a collaboration between popular cartoonist Quirino Cristiani and producer Frederico Valle, who had worked with the Lumière brothers. It ran 1 hour and 10 minutes long and required more than 58,000 drawings. Sadly, a 1926 fire at Valle’s studio destroyed the only known copy of the film.
24. Europe’s influence upon the city extends to the language. Residents of Buenos Aires speak a Spanish dialect infused with lunfardo, a slang with Italian roots that grew out of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. In fact, according to a recent study, Buenos Aires’s Spanish sounds more like Neapolitan Italian than any other language—including traditional Spanish.
25. Long known as an inclusive city, in 2002 Buenos Aires became the first Latin American city to allow civil unions, which extended to both gay and heterosexual couples. In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage.