Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile, are two of the most popular metropolitan attractions for those visiting South America. However, not everyone has the time or the money to see both in one trip. So, how do you choose? In this post, I’ll be breaking down the reasons to visit each capital as well as the type of tourists who would most enjoy each city’s activities.
I lived in Santiago for two years from 2014-2016 and frequently visit. Nonetheless, I hope to make this comparison as objective as possible to answer the question: Buenos Aires or Santiago?
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
Visit for the food
I don’t mean to disparage the food in Santiago, but wow, Porteño cuisine is excellent. Buenos Aires is known to have some of the best parrillas in the world, where visitors can indulge in excellent grass-fed beef. Between the variety of steakhouse experiences available, and even the delicious snack foods (such as empanadas), this capital takes the cake as far as a culinary destination. Make sure to check out Don Julio in Palermo Soho or Parrilla Peña in Recoleta for some classic examples of Argentinian steak. If you’re hoping to discover more hidden food gems of Buenos Aires, check out The Parrilla food tour.
Visit for the architecture
You don’t get a nickname like “the Paris of the South” for no reason. In Santiago, it’s often difficult to appreciate different architectural periods as fewer buildings have been preserved. However, Buenos Aires doesn’t have this problem. Walking around the city, it’s easy to notice European influences and varying styles of architecture: you can find everything from art deco to French-Bourbon buildings within walking distance.
For some of the most beautiful displays of Porteño architecture, I recommend starting your tour at Avenida de Mayo. This avenue holds Plaza del Congreso on one end and Plaza de Mayo on the other, where you’ll find the famous Casa Rosada, the residence and office of Argentina’s president. Other Buenos Aires architectural sights include Avenida 9 de Julio (the widest avenue in the world), the Obelisco, Teatro Colón, Palacio Barolo, and Palacio de Aguas Corrientes (my personal favorite).
Visit for the historical
Buenos Aires is a perfect place to start if on a mission to learn more about the history and politics of South America. From invasions by the British, dictatorships, and even bombings, this capital city has held steady through it all. On this note, one of the most famous Porteño residents would have to be Eva Perón, an actress, first lady, and social activist. If interested in learning more about this polarizing figure, drop by the Evita museum. You can also visit her mausoleum at one of the most visited spots in the city, Recoleta cemetery. To hear a little more behind the history of the architecture I mentioned previously, I recommend taking a walking tour with Buenos Aires free walks.
Visit for the tango
Although Chile has its national dance, cueca, it’s not fair to compare any dance to the tango. When visiting Buenos Aires, one of the attractions you absolutely cannot miss is a live tango show. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s a pretty touristy thing to do, but I promise you won’t regret it. These tango performances can range from $100 dinner shows to street tango (where you watch and leave a tip), so even the economical traveler can enjoy! While tango in Buenos Aires was first considered a scandalous underground dance, it quickly became an international sensation and is now thought of as a pillar of Argentinian culture.
Visit for the wine
Buenos Aires or Santiago? Well, Santiago is undoubtedly a hit when it comes to wine lovers. There are four famous wine regions, just a short drive outside of the city. These include Maipo Valley, Casablanca Valley, Aconcagua Valley, and Colchagua Valley. So, why exactly is Chilean wine such a big deal? First of all, the semi-arid climate surrounding the Santiago region makes it a grape-growing paradise. Furthermore, the country has many ties to French wine varieties, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère. In fact, Chile dominates in the global production of Carmenère. While it’s easy to do a Malbec tasting in Buenos Aires, it’s not as easy to reach the most famous Argentinian vineyards, as these are typically in the Mendoza region (along the border with Chile).
Read more: 4 Awesome Vineyards That Are Close to Santiago
Visit for the views
If you’ve ever seen photos of Santiago, you’ll most likely have noticed that the Andes mountains surround parts of the city. I often compare this to Los Angeles; nonetheless, you won’t realize how much the Andes tower over the city until you visit. This makes for some stunning rooftop views throughout Santiago. I would argue that, although Buenos Aires has prettier architecture, Santiago may have better views. If you’re interested in finding some of my favorite perspectives of the Chilean capital, check out The Best Skyline Views of Santiago, Chile.
Visit for the modern
In comparison to all of the historical architecture in Buenos Aires, Santiago houses mainly modern architecture. Now, this isn’t Chile’s fault for not preserving more of the older parts of the city. In truth, it’s related to the fact that Chile is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world. While nowadays Chile has advanced building methods to avoid catastrophe, these didn’t exist in the past. Santiago’s need to stay ahead in the field of architecture has led to some pretty neat creations. One particular favorite of mine is the Costanera Center, which contains a mall, two hotels, and business offices, and has also been named the tallest building in Latin America.
In regards to other aspects of the city that I would consider to be more modern than in Buenos Aires, I’d highlight the newer and more advanced public transportation (Transantiago) in Santiago. If you’d like a prime example of this, check out Line 6 of the Santiago Metro.
Visit for nature
If you’re the type of person who enjoys adventure travel, hiking, and trekking, Santiago is the place for you. Within the city limits, you’ll find Cerro San Cristóbal to be one of the busiest outdoor spots. However, if you start moving away from the touristy areas of the city, you can find trekking spots for more serious adventurers. These include Manquehuito (low difficulty), Manquehue (high), Pochoco (average), and Parque Natural Aguas de Ramón (multiple paths).
If you happen to be visiting in the winter, head to the Andes for skiing or snowboarding, I recommend a visit to Valle Nevado or El Colorado, each located approximately 1.5 hours from Santiago Centro.
So, Buenos Aires or Santiago?
In the end, choosing between these cities is challenging and will come down to personal preference. If you’re dreaming of a modern city surrounded by mountains, you’ll love Santiago. If you prefer a European feel, you might prefer the Porteño experience. Whatever you choose, I hope that I have helped to make your decision easier! If you’d like to learn more about Argentina, read this detailed guide of facts about Argentina. For Chile, check out these 15 interesting facts about Chile.
Check out some of my favorite travel guidebooks below!
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Tuesday 8th of September 2020
Been to both cities but prefer Santiago. Feels far more cleaner, safer and organized than BA.
BA is the past and Santiago the future.
Monday 18th of February 2019
I loved Santiago and we are about to visit Buenos Aires next month - curios about finding my preference between these two :)
Friday 20th of July 2018
Thanks for this, it's good to see a comparison. I have lived in Buenos Aires and visited Santiago enough to know Buenos Aires wins hands down. Although I know it's personal opinion ;-) and not thanks to the food (being vegetarian their famous beef or bbq aren't everyone's ideal dinner). The different barrios, markets, museums, style, polo matches, and the magical people you meet make it an incredible place to visit or spend time in.
Friday 29th of June 2018
I love this comparison, I’m originally from Chile and I love Santiago, never been to Buenos Aires but very keen to do so. At the end we are comparing apples with oranges, and this blog is correct, Chile has a lot of history but unfortunaterly due to the earthquakes there is not much left, but the modern city is rising now after years of the horrific military government. I encourage people to visit both cities, is only a couple of hours of flying distance. Santiago is probably safer and very modern, but I always heard that BA is a nice destination too, just be more careful. Btw I live in Brisbane, Australia.
Tuesday 13th of February 2018
There's an extra feature. Buenos Aires was always the big brother: bigger, richer, more cosmopolitan. In comparison, Santiago was a small city locked behind the mountains. But that is the past. If you take a look at the two of them today and their prospect for the future, Santiago has the lead, without a doubt. Buenos Aires has nice old architecture, but it's stuck in the past, dangerous, dirty and full of homeless people. Santiago's infrastructure is growing fast, with new highways, metro lines, and skyscrapers. The NY Times once said that the city develops at "dog years". Every day there's a new restaurant, a new venue or a recently recovered neighboorhood. So, if you want to take some nice pictures, go to Buenos Aires. If you're willing to look under the surface and experience a real energetic city, go to Santiago.