Enduring romance, eternal renaissance
Queen of the Plate, Paris of the South, Tangopolis: the nicknames reveal why Buenos Aires doesn't disappoint. A beguiling conflation of European historic outpost and contemporary Latin American sprawl, BA – as expats call it – was once the capital of one of the world's wealthiest nations. Its French and Italianate buildings, graceful plazas and cultural life are the envy of most Old World cities. Thirteen million people live in Greater BA, its suburbs fanning out into the surrounding pampas.
But sights, nightlife, gastronomy and the arts are concentrated in a few central neighbourhoods. Palermo has jacaranda-perfumed parks, trendy bars and independent boutiques. Recoleta houses old money, grand hotels and a grandiose necropolis. Puerto Madero is slickly urban, but has a nature reserve. San Telmo is old Buenos Aires, ideal for a steak dinner and a tango show. Artsy Avenida Corrientes 'never sleeps'. But, actually, all of Buenos Aires is insomniacal – it's so busy reimagining itself, as are its residents, the porteños. For romance, reinvention and raw hedonism, few places come close.
Hot right now . . .
Chris Moss, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and see tango this season.
Informal, lively Proper (Araoz 1676; 00 5411 4831 0027), run by two young chefs, does cocina con leña – or wood-fired cuisine. But it doesn't limit itself to steaks and chicken; enjoy crunchy halloumi cheese, fish with grilled beetroot or Sicilian sausage with fennel pickle. It's open from 8pm-12pm, Mon-Sat, and reservations are essential.
Visit the superb MALBA (Av. Figueroa Alcorta 3415; 00 54 11 4808 6500) exhibition Inner World/Mundo Propio: Modern Argentine Photography 1927-1962. It showcases 250 works by 25 artists – including major names such as Horacio Coppola and Grete Stern – who helped turn Argentine photography into a powerful art form. The works show Buenos Aires and Argentina looking at themselves during the troubled period that bridged the belle époque of tango and beef-export billions with the chaos and decline that ensued following the rise of Juan Perón. Until June 9, 2019. Closed Tuesdays. AR$170 (£3).
Vico Wine Bar (Gurruchaga 1149; 00 54 11 4773 2311) is one of the city's few really stylish temples to Bacchus. You don't get a menu, but walk around, browse the labels and serve yourself – 140 varieties are available in three sizes (35ml, 75ml or 150ml) from Italian-made wine dispensers. Sommeliers are on hand.
Live tango is getting something of a revival – from large orchestras full of young virtuosos to grungy experiments in 'hardcore' tango. La Academia Tango Club (Beruti 4643; 00 54 11 5259 8719) has opened a swanky venue in Palermo, open Wed-Sat from 8.30pm.
48 hours in . . . Buenos Aires
Begin your visit in the downtown and the historic centre to get a sense of BA's history. Walk west-to-east from Plaza Congreso to Plaza de Mayo along the Avenida de Mayo – which has wide pavements and is sometimes compared to Madrid's Gran Vía – to picture the glory days of early 20th century.
En route, check out the signed 1907 bronze casting of Rodin's Thinker, the Dante's Inferno-inspired Palacio Barolo, and two vintage noteworthy cafés, recognised by the local government as 'bares notables': the 36 Billares (No. 1271; 00 54 11 4122 1500) and Café Tortoni (No. 825; 00 54 11 4342 4328), both ideal for a pick-me-up café cortado (espresso with an equal amount of warm milk) and a medialuna (sweet croissant).
The Plaza de Mayo is the civic heart of Argentina, site of celebrations, protests, speeches, skirmishes and coups d’etat. The Casa Rosada (Balcarce 50) – pink-washed presidential palace – on its western side has a museum and does guided tours.
Note: if you're tired or your mobility is limited you can jump on the subte (BA's metro system): line A. It opened in 1913 and is the oldest underground railway in South America.
At the end of your stroll, turn right up Avenida San Juan, to walk – or take a cab – to Miramar (Avenida San Juan, 1999). It’s an atmospheric old-school bar-restaurant known for its Spanish specialities, such as Galician-style octopus and chorizo-laced Spanish tortillas.
BA is an art-loving city and its public galleries are an enjoyable – and affordable – way to explore its recent history and culture. Nearby are the Museo de Arte Moderno and neighbouring Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, both of which host permanent and changing shows and cost pennies to enter.
Chill out afterwards on the Parque Lezama, just around the corner. This is almost certainly where the city was first founded in 1536 – note the monument to conquistador Pedro de Mendoza. The park is also home to the country's main history museum (National Historical Museum; Defensa 1600), which occupies a handsome mansion that mixes Spanish colonial and 19th-century Italian styles. If you're not museumed out, give it an hour.
As for dinner, a great light option in San Telmois Bar El Federal(Carlos Calvo 599), another of the city's listed bars. Opened in 1864, it's full of ancient signage, gorgeous wood fixtures and a bar topped by a Tiffany arch. Have a platter of cold cuts and olives, with a popular old-school vermouth Cynar or locally made Hesperidina digestif.
Opposite Parque Lezama, is the Torquato Tasso club – always worth keeping an eye on for tango or folk concerts (Defensa 1575; 00 54 11 4307 6506).
Start off in the barrio of Palermo. This is the largest neighbourhood in the city, with many leafy plazas, a very smart embassy district and an older-looking area called Palermo Viejo (divided by fad fiends into 'Soho' and 'Hollywood' in the late 1990s) that's one of the city's main hedonistic hubs.
Amble around the Plazoleta Julio Cortázar for a couple of hours. There are hundreds of uber-smart fashion, footwear, lingerie, handicraft and other stores; if you don't want to get tired out, limit yourself to calles Armenia, Gorriti and Gurruchaga and the cross streets of Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. There are plenty of coffee shops; Full City (Thames 1535) does good espressos, cortados and lattes.
To understand modern-day Argentina, you have to get a hook on the Peróns – president Juan and the most famous of his three wives, Eva (aka Evita). The Museo Evita (Lafinur 2988; 00 54 11 4807 0306), which opens 11am Tue-Sun, has 13 rooms of photos, paintings and sculptures, newspaper articles and dresses she wore as First Lady.
Enjoy lunch at El Club de la Milanesa (Gurrruchaga 1806) – a small-ish local chain dedicated to Argentina's favourite dish: breaded Angus beef or chicken, with fries or salad.
Catch a taxi or the subte to the Recoleta cemetery (Junín 1760). This famous necropolis was opened on the site of a much older cemetery in 1822 and is the final resting place of presidents, military generals, beef magnates, artists and socialites; Evita, who so disdained the upper classes, was buried alongside them with the rest of her family – the Duartes' mausoleum is not far from the porticoed entrance.
Maps of the labyrinthine layout are available at the entrance, but it's stirring just to stroll around the miniature city of the dead, admiring the angels, cherubs, architectural follies and Graeco-Roman fancies carved from marble and granite. Free tours in English take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11am.
Seeing as your day has been influenced by Mrs Perón, spend the evening letting her husband lead the way. In fact, if you want to get an idea of Señor Juan Perón's influence on life in Argentina – and his semi-mythical status – have dinner at kitsch Perón Perón (Carranza 2225; 00 54 11 4777 6194) where his favourite bean stew is on the menu and the walls are full of graffiti and garish iconography. Midway during meals regimental marches are played – expect rousing chants against current president Mauricio Macri.
Where to stay . . .
Stepping through the gilded glitzy doors of Palacio Duhau – Park Hyatt Buenos Aires is akin to stepping into an F Scott Fitzgerald novel, with crystal chandeliers and marble floors that dazzle without a hint of stuffiness. Both the new wing and original mansion are kept fresh and modern; masterpieces of understated elegance.
Doubles from $640 (£525). Avenida Alvear 1661; 00 54 11 5171 1234
From outside, Be Jardín Escondido looks like one of the smarter historic houses, with oxblood walls and Italianate features. Inside is a celebration of Argentine antique textiles, red floor tiles, hide rugs, indigenous carnival masks, and a patio full of plants and a small pond. Original art adorns the walls and niches, and the furniture is all solid and classic, but not staid or stodgy. It's the former home-cum-production headquarters of the family of American film director Francis Ford Coppola.
Doubles from $295 (£213). Gorriti 4746; 00 54 11 4834 6166
The best thing about this hotel is the (small) garden deep in the rear – it's a great place to come to when Buenos Aires gets too hot on summer afternoons. The roof terrace is also quite nice for an early-evening beer. L'Hôtel Palermo is also in a great spot for anyone keen to explore the bars and restaurants of young, cool BA – yet fairly quiet once you're inside the property.
Doubles from $104 (£75). Thames 1562; 00 54 11 4831 7198
What to bring home . . .
Anti-oxidant-rich yerba maté green tea is hipper than ever; get a cool contemporary gourd and bombilla (straw) fromMateria Urbana (Defensa 702; 00 54 11 4361 5265) in San Telmo.
Argentina's skilled silversmiths make beautiful bone, leather and horn-handled knives, ideal for your summer barbecue. If you're here a while, do a day-trip to San Antonio de Areco – the de facto 'gaucho capital' – to see smiths at work. The two local outlets of Arandú are also trusted.
When to go . . .
Buenos Aires is best during the shoulder seasons of summer. In spring (Nov-Dec), cherry trees are in blossom and the temperature hovers around the early to mid-20s. The big gaucho festival, in nearby San Antonio de Areco, falls around Nov 10-11. Late summer and early autumn (March and April) are also splendid, with similar temperatures and a hint of romance as leaves begin to fall on the cobbled streets of Almagro and Villa Crespo.
January and February are sweltering and best avoided. Argentines take their holidays then, so BA feels dead and other Argentine destinations are fully booked. Winter is cool and often damp, but the biggest tango festival falls in August – a major draw for music and dance fans.
Know before you go . . .
Local laws and etiquette
• Take dollars. No one changes pounds. Try to avoid ATMs – you'll get fleeced for £7 or more even withdrawing a small amount, and that's before you see the exchange rates and your own bank's charges.
• Get a Sube card. Similar to London's Oyster card, this pass costs ARS 50 (£1) and is available at underground (subte) stations, in tourist information centres and at many 'kioskos' (shops selling confectionary and tobacco) across the city. Cards can be charged with credit at subte stations, national lottery outlets, and at kioskos with automated terminals. Load the card with ARS 200 (£4) and you'll get more than 20 journeys on bus, subte or local train. You can also use it in provincial cities.
• Tipping of 10-12 per cent is common, and usually well deserved. Service in bars and cafés is prompt and friendly; being a waiter in Buenos Aires is a proud vocation. Coffee is served with sparkling water and, usually, biscuits.
• If you don't have a pick-up at the airport, the Manuel Tienda Leon bus goes to centrally located Puerto Madero for ARS 480 return (£10). Taxis are fairly reasonable; you can get to a hotel in Palermo from here for £5-£7. If you go shopping, look out for Global Blue stickers and claim the 21 per cent VAT at the airport before you leave; there's no VAT due on purchases over ARS 70 (£1.40).
• Public WCs are in short supply, but you'll find loos in shopping malls, fast food outlets, theatres, cafés and bars.
• Cars can turn at red lights: beware blinkered drivers. Some of the avenues are very wide – notably 9 de Julio in the centre – so keep up your pace while crossing. It's Wacky Races when the lights turn green.
• Congestion can cause gridlock, with heavy traffic compounded by anarchic planning of roadworks, street parties and festivals and protest marches; when planning important trips and airport transfers, allow extra time and ask your hotel about possible delays.
Currency: Peso argentino, ARS
Telephone code: + 54 (11)
Time difference: GMT –3
Flight time: 13-14 hours
Essential contacts:British Embassy. Dr Luis Agote 2412, Recoleta; +54 11 4808-2200
Police: Dial 101 and English-speaking tourist police 0800 999 5000/0800 999 2838; or 911 Ambulance dial 107 or 911
Tourist office: Main tourist information centre: Plaza del Correo Hub, corner L.N Alem and Sarmiento 9am-8pm; more at turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar
Chris spent the Nineties living in Buenos Aires, where he worked as a literature teacher and arts writer at the Buenos Aires Herald. He's now based in the UK, but he makes regular visits to BA to reconnect with his more carnivorous, tango-dancing, less buttoned-up porteño alter-ego.
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