Exploring the past in Buenos Aires

Argentina's largest city is a living monument to courage, success, hardship, determination, artistic expression and unrelenting passion.

Delve into Buenos Aires and you'll find the past magnificently entangled with the present. Historic neighbourhoods have adapted to the bustle of contemporary life, elegant palaces have transformed into luxurious hotels, and high-ceilinged cafés from the 1920s present customers with modern-day coffee choices. Every building, plaza and park tells a story and together they speak volumes about Buenos Aires' exciting history.

Wander the quaint cobblestone streets of the old quarter in San Isidro, where you'll see several majestic mansions inhabited by old aristocratic families.

A quick history of Buenos Aires

Nomadic people lived along the Rio de la Plata for thousands of years before the Spaniard Pedro de Mendoza created the settlement of Buenos Aires in 1536. It was not particularly successful at first, but through the determination of local people the town eventually began to flourish. In 1776, Spain made Buenos Aires the capital of the region. After repelling British invasions with little help from Spain, the people of Buenos Aires declared independence in 1810. By the 1860s Buenos Aires was a thriving port town that soon attracted immigrants from Europe, growing to become a major city of many cultures.

When the First World War began, Argentina was one of the 10 wealthiest countries in the world. However as the world economy stalled, the nation's fortunes turned. Its economy lingered in recession for decades and poverty was rife amid a period of sustained political upheaval. In 2006 Argentina repaid its staggering $9.5 billion international debt and confidence began to grow, along with the influx of tourists to Buenos Aires. They were attracted by the favourable exchange rate, the unique culture of Buenos Aires, the fascinating history and the steady revival of intact architecture from the city's wealthy past.

Walk among the tombstones

Hanging out in a graveyard might not sound like your typical excursion in a foreign city, but a visit to the Recoleta Cemetery is a must if you want to get a feel for Buenos Aires' history, architecture and culture. It's like a miniature city. There are more than 6,400 graves decorated with elaborate marble mausoleums and statues. Some resemble gothic chapels, others are like tiny houses from a fairytale and there are fine examples of art deco and baroque styling. A map will help you find the most notable graves. Affectionately known as Evita, the actress-turned-First Lady Eva Perón is buried here, as are past presidents of Argentina and Napoleon's granddaughter.

Discover Buenos Aires culture while you walk

Wandering through San Telmo, Argentina's oldest neighbourhood, is like stepping into another time. You'll want to capture its faded beauty with video and stills as you stroll along the cobblestone streets, taking in the historic churches and colonial buildings. Explore the many cafes, tango parlours and antique shops in this well-preserved part of town, or indulge in a little people-watching. Have lunch in the shady Plaza Dorrego and watch it transform at dusk, as tango dancers take to the streets. The plaza is also worth visiting on Sundays to catch the famous San Telmo market, where you'll find all manner of antique treasures and souvenirs to take home.

'Must see' Buenos Aires historical sites

The nearby neighbourhood of Monserrat is home to some of the most important public buildings and historical sites in Buenos Aires. Here you'll find the city legislature, Casa Rosada (a pink palace), the imposing Ministry of Defence building and more. The eclectic Palacio Barolo, now an office building, is on Avenida de Mayo, which runs from the three-hectare park beside the Congressional Palace to the open green space of Plaza de Mayo. Be sure to visit the historic 'Illuminated Block' a short distance from Plaza de Mayo. Declared a National Monument in 1942 and restored in 1983, it is still home to important academic and religious institutions of the 17th and 18th century.

There are many more must-see buildings beyond Monserrat. On San Martin Street in the Retiro neighbourhood, the beautiful Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento is a favourite wedding venue for the rich and famous of Buenos Aires. In Recoleta, the Museum of Decorative Arts was originally a private palace. Today it is home to 12 exhibition halls and more than 4,000 works of art. A 15-minute walk away, in the Plaza de las Naciones Unidas (United Nations Park), you'll discover Floralis Genérica, an elegant 20-metre-high stainless steel sculpture of a single flower. Responding to the sun, the giant shiny petals, which are lit from the centre, open each day at 8:00am and close at sunset.

Get out on the water

Just outside of the city, on the edge of the Rio de la Plata, you'll find a natural paradise steeped in history. Taking a boat tour is perhaps the most relaxing way to learn about the lifestyle of the islenos, the people who live on the Parana Delta islands. As you cruise the network of streams, rivers and waterways, you'll see first-hand how the locals have transformed this formerly swampy area into a lush, watery suburb, the kind you'll never want to leave. It's now home to grassy paths, luxurious yachts and wonderful examples of Buenos Aires modern architecture.

Keep an eye out for the residence of former Argentine president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who lived here for nearly 30 years. Check out the grand English architecture in the town of the Tigre and the quaint cobblestone streets of the old quarter in San Isidro, where you'll see several majestic mansions inhabited by old aristocratic families.