Buenos Aires vs. Beijing: Which is the Better City?

One is the capital of Argentina, the other the capital of China, and, amazingly, I've visited both in the last three years. Those trips were thanks to study abroad opportunities through the University of Michigan — something I 10/10 recommend you do if you are still in college and attend an institution that offers such opportunities.

But anyway, we're here to chat about the cities, not about me (okay me too, a little bit). I was attracted to these destinations for different reasons. Buenos Aires was one of three options when I was looking to finish out my Spanish language requirement at U of M, the other two being Granada, Spain, and San José, Costa Rica. Argentina's capital, referred to as the "Paris of the Americas," won out in the end, and I spent six weeks there in May and June 2014.

Then came an opportunity to extend a psychology course with a three-week stint in Beijing in May 2015, and you can bet I was all over that. There were other options here, too, but my major was psychology and I had never pictured myself traveling to Asia, so I was like what the hell, why not?

They were both amazing and educational and new-friend-making trips, and now I'm sitting down in 2017 to let you know which city made more of a lasting impression on me. So, please buckle up and grab your peanuts, because here we go:

Beijing, China

 

  • Established: 1046 BC
  • Metro Population: 24.9 million
  • Capital of 3rd largest country in the world by land area (behind Russia and Canada)

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Fast Facts & Figures —

  • Established: Feb. 2, 1536
  • Metro Population: ~13.1 million
  • Capital of 8th largest country in the world by land area (largest Spanish-speaking country)

*Above info (and some below) comes from none other than the Wikipedias

 View from a section of the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

View from a section of the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Summary —

Beijing, formerly referred to as Peking, became the capital of modern China in 1949. This gargantuan city sprawls out over 6,336 square miles, mapped out (informally, I think?) into rings of ever-increasing size, as the image below shows.

The proverbial heart of Beijing is the Forbidden City, an imperial palace that served as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years between 1420 and 1912. Temples of all kinds can be found throughout the city, as can other well-known sites, like Tiananmen Square and, of course, sections of the Great Wall of China.

As a city that's been around for more than 3,000 years, history abounds in Beijing, but touches of modernity are everywhere, as well.

Buenos Aires, which translates to "fair winds" or "good airs," sits along the eastern coast of Argentina on the Río de la Plata. Across the river, you'll find Uruguay, and the quaint little town of Colonia del Sacramento (read about that here).

Officially known as the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital contains 48 barrios ("neighborhoods"); 9 de Julio Avenue, the widest avenue in the world at 140 meters across; and a bustling arts, film, and music scene.

It is known for being a multicultural hub, home to immigrants from all over the world, and is regarded as a premiere destination in South and Latin America.

 (Image:  Wikimedia Commons )
 (Image:  Quora )

(Image: Quora)

My Experience —

While in Beijing, I stayed on the campus of Beijing Normal University, which sits just outside the orange ring in the map image above. I was there with other U of M students to put together psychological research projects, but we had plenty of time for excursions around the area, planned through the program and otherwise.

We hit up the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu fairly early on, taking a bus outside of the central part of the city to get to that section of the wall on the first Saturday. I still have a little difficulty believing I was there at the longest man-made structure on earth — but I've got the pictures to prove it. And I can still remember one part where the steps were so steep that looking back down behind me might have thrown off my balance.

Temples and palaces galore was the name of the game while we were in the Chinese capital, with stops at the aforementioned Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, but also at the Summer Palace, which holds Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake; the Yonghe, or Lama, Temple, a monastery of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism (don't ask me what that means); and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, which I think can be counted as a temple of sorts.

I remember being slightly concerned that I wouldn't care for real Chinese food (as opposed to American Chinese food), but I had a lot of good meals in Beijing. Baozi and xiaolongbao — steamed and juicy buns, respectively — were a fan favorite, typically filled with one kind of meat or another, or vegetables. Spicy-ish chicken and beef dishes went over rather nicely, as well. And I'm proud to say I got a handle on using chopsticks after minimal practice (it's still fun to use them occasionally).

Last note: try the funky-looking fruit on the street stands at your own risk :)

During the six weeks I spent in Buenos Aires, I became familiar with a handful of its more northeastern barrios, including Belgrano, Palermo, Recoleta, Retiro, and Puerto Madero. I stayed with a family in Belgrano just off the barrio's main drag, Avenida Cabildo, and took the subway 11 stops every morning to get to class near Retiro (walking across 9 de Julio in the process).

This being my first time abroad — hadn't even stepped foot in Canada yet, even though I live in Michigan — I remember walking to class each morning (after exiting the subway) and just being perpetually in awe of the city rising up around me.

Even though the city proper of Buenos Aires is nowhere near one of the largest in the world by population, you would think otherwise standing on the 9 de Julio, looking up and down the multiple lanes of traffic and spying the national historic monument known as the Obelisco (think Washington Monument), which has become an icon of the Argentinian capital.

Nightlife in Buenos Aires was on point, and, being the silly Americans we were, of course we found an American-themed bar which became our weekend hub before hitting the club. We'd arrive at Sugar Bar on Costa Rica in Palermo at about midnight, stay a couple hours and then head for one of the nearby clubs. I think 5 AM might have been the latest I stayed out, though Argentinians can go 'til 7 or 8.

We did some fun outdoor activities while we were there, too, such as kayaking on the Río Tigre a little ways north of the city and taking in a rugby match at Club Atlético de San Isidro (also slightly north). Back in the city, it's easy to get lost, stumble into a park or shop, run into somebody who speaks English but will help you practice your Spanish, visit the impressive El Ateneo bookstore on Avenida Santa Fe, or sit down for some Kentucky-style pizza, which was oddly popular.

 I give you  La Casa Rosada , the executive mansion and office of the president of Argentina

I give you La Casa Rosada, the executive mansion and office of the president of Argentina

Highlights/Pros —

  • Beijing is a boon for history and architecture buffs, with the aforementioned temples, palaces, and (great) walls providing plenty to see
  • The city offers a wide range of cuisine and you can find plenty of family-style restaurants for all kinds of appetites #SharingIsCaring
  • Into singing like an idiot with your friends? The people take their karaoke bars quite seriously
  • Olympic Green in the Chaoyang District, which served as the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics, gives you a chance to check out Beijing National Stadium, or "Bird's Nest," and the National Aquatics Center, which now holds a water park
  • Buenos Aires is very advantageous for native English speakers, as most people you run into, especially young people, know the language
  • South American nightlife might be second-to-none (plus, tango anyone?)
  • Neighborhoods like La Boca highlight the city's connections to Europe, featuring colorful houses, marketplaces, tango clubs, and Italian taverns
  • Argentinians are passionate about their fútbol, especially footballer Lionel Messi, who plays for the national team; sporting events and recreational activities, generally, are not lacking in the city

 

 Inside Bird's Nest at Olympic Green in Beijing's Chaoyang District

Inside Bird's Nest at Olympic Green in Beijing's Chaoyang District

Lowlights/Cons —

  • Ever hear that Beijing is kinda, sorta perpetually blanketed in a layer of smog? Well, that's kinda true — not to the point where I wore an oxygen mask or anything, but still
  • Less native English speakers = more charades (note: I do not hold the English language in higher regard than any other; it is simply my native tongue)
  • Cold beverages are not exactly a thing
  • Motorists tend to make their own lanes on the roadways, so watch your step
  • The wait staff at almost every food establishment you enter will become visibly irritated if you try to ask for a free cup of water (though it's probably very American of me to expect free cups of water wherever I go)
  • As a foreigner, you have to be constantly on the lookout for scammers — people trying to pay you back with fake money and the like

The Verdict

I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to visit both of these cities. They are places far different from each other with quirks and eccentricities (my fave things) that uniquely define them.

When it comes down to it, though — and in considering which city I could see myself possibly living or spending generous amounts of time in — I've got to pick Buenos Aires. Honestly, I had a tougher time thinking of cons for the Argentinian capital (perhaps that shows) and that certainly helped tip the scale in its favor.

That's not to take away from Beijing however. I had a marvelous time visiting there, and I would certainly go back in the future if the opportunity arose once more.

-LTH