Buenos Aires is South America's great foodie playground, saturated in sophistication and pulsating constantly to the beat of the tango
A European-style capital underpinned with a huge helping of Latin pizzazz, Buenos Aires is South America’s most cosmopolitan and sophisticated city and a world-class urban playground.
Founded by the Spanish, invaded by the English, colonised by the Italians and virtually destroyed by its own politicos, BA has bounced back from every attempt to keep it down. Like its tango stars, it presents a perfectly-made-up face to visitors but also lets its scars be seen. These echoes of the city’s dark underbelly only add to its fascination and drama.
You only need to step into the main square to see the greatest emblem of the city’s 20th-century history. These are the madres whose children and grandchildren were 'disappeared' during the dark pre-democracy days. They still come out every Thursday, but are commemorated week-long by their bonnet emblem, emblazoned on the paving stones. The blood on the edifice of the cathedral across the way has deliberately not been washed off, because BA is proud of its right to protest - even against the church.
The city’s fabulous offerings (gourmet food, world-class entertainment, to-die-for leather goods) used to make it unaffordable for visiting Brits, but devaluation has finally made it a bargain - for as long as it lasts. The economy is slowly creeping back, so the time to go is now.
Start the day with coffee at Cafe Tortoni on the Avenida Mayo and wallow in its faded fin de siècle splendour, ignoring the beady eyes of the sour-faced waiters in their penguin attire. And end it at a milonga (dance hall); this is where locals gather for the pure love of tango, men choosing their partners for their skill rather than looks. Tread on a toe and you’ll be dropped before the set is out! Many milongas offer lessons before the public session to attract tourists unversed in the moves of the world’s most sensuous dance.
The Plaza de Mayo in Microcentro (the heart of town) houses the Casa Rosada, the pink palace from whose balcony Evita begged Argentina not to cry for her. Also here is the Catedral Metropolitana, where blood hurled at the religious authorities has been left as a proud symbol of protest.
Recoleta, where the toffs live, is most famous for its cemetery. Evita’s grave is surprisingly modest compared to the acres of Art Deco black marble mausoleums with shopfront windows displaying portraits and possessions of their inhabitants. These, together with the well-heeled fashionistas strolling its lanes, make the place look and feel strangely like a sleeping Bond Street!
La Boca, the working-class district famous for its primary-coloured tin-sided buildings, is now a bit of a tourist trap - and dangerous in parts. But it's worth going to see young tango dancers strut their stuff beside a gramophone in the streets.
Puerto Madero, the reclaimed docklands, is a lively dining and drinking area that's well worth a visit, especially at night.
Another neighbourhood worth seeing is San Telmo, birthplace of the tango and filled with wonderful old buildings.
The Museo de la Ciudad, with exhibits on Porteño life, and the fabulous Farmacia de la Estrella, a homeopathic dispensary with wonderful 19th-century woodwork and painted ceilings, are both at Alsinas 412.
The Museo de Motivos Argentinos Jose Hernandez, on Avenida del Libertador, displays silver spurs and saddle furniture, vicuña ponchos and other gaucho artefacts.
The Archivo y Museo Historico del Banco de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (Sarmiento 362) attempts to make sense of the city’s chaotic rollercoaster economy over the past century.
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Avenida del Libertador) houses the country’s major art treasures, with works by Rodin, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh et al, plus Argentine painters of the past two centuries.
The Museo de Arte Moderno, featuring more cutting-edge national works, is housed in an attractive tobacco warehouse conversion at San Juan 350.
OUT OF TOWN
One day should be set aside for a trip into the Tigre Delta. Here, 3,000 people live full-time on islands, getting in every necessity, from teachers to ice cream, by boat. Take the suburban Tren de la Costa to combine this outing with a weekend shopping and dining experience on the platforms along the line.
Sumptuous steakhouse in La Recoleta, which grows its own steaks and serves the world’s best T-bones; a great place to taste Argentina’s finest wines.
Rodriguez Pena 1967; 4814 0001.
Cabana Las Lilas
Lively docklands haunt offering great food, drinks and atmosphere.
Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo; 4313 1336.
This is where U2 came when they were looking for a post-gig authentic dining experience. It's a La Boca hole in the wall, serving great steaks and budin de pan (Argentine bread pudding).
Cafferena 64; 4363 9912.
WHERE TO STAY
BA’s answer to the Savoy, with a spectacular conservatory for breakfast and free broadband internet for guests.
Modern luxe and fabulously spacious rooms plus a great outdoor pool.
Intimate and characterful hostelry, located in downtown Buenos Aires near the main shopping area.
The main tourist shopping drag is Florida, but also check out upmarket malls like the Patio Bullrich and Galerias Pacifico. The Feria de San Telmo weekend antique market on the Plaza Dorrego is worth a browse; it’s surrounded by antique and bric-à-brac emporia.
The daily street craft market outside the Recoleta cemetery is worth browsing for handmade jewellery and souvenirs. And Puerto de la Frutas, by the terminal for boats to the Tigre Delta, has interesting shops where you can buy inexpensive locally-made souvenirs such as sea-grass baskets.
Sr Tango (Viyetes 1653; 4303 0231) is the most extravagant of the tourist tango experiences, featuring live horses and revolving stages. Or meet locals at a milonga.