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Buenos Aires, also referred to by the locals as BA, is a user-friendly city. For all the traffic, it's quite walkable and, thanks to the grid layout, a cinch to navigate. Before ticking off any of the below, get your bearings in your immediate barrio (neighbourhood) – and any you plan on visiting. Free maps are available from most hotels and the tourist information kiosks around the city. There are dozens of museums, but for a rich experience, it's best to combine a couple of the best ones with less passive cultural experiences. The following is but a selection of must-dos.
Discover the lay of the land in the historic centre
There are many ways into BA, but the architecture is one of the most fascinating aspects. Eclectic in the extreme, the city's central barrios are a hotchpotch of colonial and 19th century, Italianate, French, Rationalist and Modernist structures, laid out on the classic colonial Spanish grid pattern. To get an informed narrative of how the city evolved, join a professional tour with the long-established Eternautas agency.
Insider's tip: If you dislike being guided, download the handy list of highlights – including the waterworks building, Palacio Barolo, Colón theatre, Kavanagh tower and English clocktower – from the official tourism office.
Contact: 00 54 11 5031 9916; eternautas.tur.ar
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm
Nearest subte: Perú
Get to know Gardel
BA has been called 'the land that lost its heroes'. The one exception is tango singer Carlos Gardel. Born in Toulouse, he shot to fame after releasing his first record in 1917, which led him to become a film star and much-loved entertainer. He died in a plane crash in 1935 but you'll see pictures of his cheesy grin all over town. To learn about his life, spend an hour at the excellent Carlos Gardel Casa-Museo/House Museum in Abasto. You can also hear his songs and watch scenes from his movies.
Insider's tip: If you get the tango bug, pop along to the World Tango Museum above Café Tortoni (00 54 11 4345 6967) where you can learn more about the history of the dance.
Contact: 00 54 11 4964 2015, buenosaires.gob.ar
Opening times: Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri, 11am-6pm; Sat-Sun, 10am-7pm
Nearest subte: Carlos Gardel
Tour the modern and contemporary art galleries
BA is an art-loving city and its public galleries are an enjoyable – and affordable – way to explore its recent history and culture. Start with the Museo de Arte Moderno (ARS 30/£1) and neighbouring Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (ARS 70/£1.50), both of which host permanent and changing shows. Palermo's MALBA (ARS 120/£2.50), and Puerto Madero's Colección Fortabat (ARS 80/£1.50) – both important private collections – are also excellent.
Insider's tip: Late afternoons and weekends are often ideal times to go, as there are less likely to be school groups.
Unmask the power of the Perons
To understand modern-day Argentina, you have to know about the Perons – president Juan and the most famous of his three wives, Eva (aka Evita). The Museo Evita, a 20th-century mansion where Evita once lived, now has 13 rooms of photos, paintings and sculptures, newspaper articles and dresses she wore as First Lady.
Insider's Tip: If you want to get some idea of Señor Perón's influence on life in Argentina – and his semi-mythic status – have dinner at kitsch Perón Perón (Carranza 2225, 00 54 11 4777 6194).
Contact: 011 4807 9433; evitaperon.org
Opening times: Tue-Sun, 11am-7pm
Nearest subte: Scalabrini Ortiz
See the city on two wheels
Join the local campaign to turn a capital in thrall to the car into a kinder and more environmentally sane city. There are bike lanes around Palermo as well as the city centre, but unless you're a hardened urban cyclist it's probably best to do a first ride on a Sunday when there is less traffic and thus less pollution too. At weekends, it's fine to go it alone and hire a bike for a day – Che Bikes has three branches, and will also deliver bikes to hotels.
Insider's tip: If you prefer a guided experience, you can join one of the many tours available; La Bicicleta Naranja and BA Bikes have good guides and bikes. This is especially ideal midweek when you might find the traffic offputting.
Contact: 00 54 911 4078 7583, chebikes.com
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 24 hours
Nearest subte: Palermo
Go beyond Palermo
The adjacent barrios of Palermo 'Soho' and Palermo 'Hollywood' have become honeypots, often teeming with local shoppers and sightseers, especially on Sundays. They're lovely, but in some ways removed from the rest of the city. Just on the edges of these areas are Almagro, Villa Urquiza, Caballito and Belgrano. Here you'll find old-world cafés and restaurants, quiet parks and plazas, atmospheric residential streets – and shopper-free serenity.
Insider's tip: Travelling with children or want to know more about Argentina's dinosaurs? Pop into the Natural Sciences Museum (ARS 50/£1) while you're in Caballito.
Support the 'bares notables'
Like all cities, BA is constantly gentrifying. It's hard for the older bars to survive, even when they belong to the exclusive list of 90-odd 'bares notables' compiled by the local government's culture and tourism department. Spend a couple of lunches enjoying traditional turkey sandwiches and an old-school Cynar or Hesperidina digestif. Many date from decades ago, and feature old furnishings, mottled mirrors, vintage ads and clocks that don't work. A full list of them can be found here.
Insider's tip: One notable bar, El Faro in Villa Urquiza (on Avenida de los Constituyentes 4099), hosts tango gigs every Friday, from 9pm. As it is away from the centre, the bar – which opened in 1931 – is a good place to meet locals. The walls are hung with colourful vintage paintings, photographs and dusty old ads.
Let Borges be your guide
Jorge Luis Borges is Argentina's best-known writer. His early poems captured the spirit of 19th-century Buenos Aires and his fables and stories reflect, in complex ways, the changing fortunes and troubled psyches of porteños. Invest in a volume of poems and one of the collections of stories and read them as you tour the 'Sur' or 'southside' of the city, the Bajo – 'Low' district along Alem and Paseo Colón – and Palermo, where Borges lived as a young man.
Insider's tip: Handsome, left-leaning Julio Cortázar is BA's number two heroic scribe. Visit Café Cortázar (Cabrera 3797), which memorialises him, and dip into his wonderful, rambling Rayuela – copies in the café – or buy in translation. The title in English is Hopscotch.
Address: Viamonte, corner San Martín, San Nicolás
Contact: 00 54 11 5555 5359; ccborges.org.ar
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 10am-9pm; Sun, 12pm-9pm
Nearest subte: San Martín
Tigre, Buenos Aires Province
Kayak along this picturesque river delta
The Tigre Delta (17 miles upriver) is a popular weekend retreat for city folk. Handsome rowing clubs stand on the banks of the river in the main town, while hundreds of private houses, small hotels and restaurants are spread over islands. There's a good naval museum (Av Victorica 602; tickets from ARS 20 or 40p) and a quirky museum devoted to yerba mate (ARS 60 or £1), the bitter green tea Argentines drink. Boat trips depart from the Mercado de Frutas (Fruit Market) dock in the centre of Tigre. Kayaks can also be hired from the vicinity to explore the bosky channels – try Delta en Kayak.
Insider's tip: The one-hour train to Tigre departs Retiro station on the 'Mitre' line every 15 minutes. Your Sube card covers the trip. Once in Tigre, you can get a return on one of the inter-island 'colectivo' services to Rio Sarmiento for ARS 150 (£3).
San Miguel del Monte, Buenos Aires Province
Spend the day on a traditional cattle ranch
You should factor in a trip to visit the wide-open plains known as the pampas (sometimes home to the gaucho or skilled horseman). Colonial-style Candelaria del Monte is only 75 miles from the city – reached by taxi or minibus in one and a half hours – and is a characterful, well-run estancia (cattle ranch) where visitors can enjoy a great alfresco asado (barbecue) lunch, ride sturdy criollo horses and go for walks.
Insider's tip: It's not that much more expensive to stay the night, so if you have time, try to fit a sleepover into your schedule. The birdsong and light is magical on a pampas dawn and the stars at night are wonderful.
Contact: 00 54 2271 442 431, candelariadelmonte.com.ar