There's nowhere quite like the Argentinian capital: if you fancy learning to tango, feasting on the best steak ever or simply snapping up a bargain leather jacket, Buenos Aires is the place to be
There are three things guaranteed to stir the emotions of any Argentinian: football, tango and beef. Take a trip to Buenos Aires and you can’t avoid the Latin passion for all three.
At first, Buenos Aires, on the banks of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate), appears to be just another sprawling capital city. It owes its surprisingly European feel to the fact that it was first built and then populated by mostly European immigrants. Now, it's a sophisticated, vibrant and colourful city, made up of 47 districts, or barrios. Portenos, as the inhabitants are known, are obsessed with style but are wonderfully friendly and welcoming, and will stop, talk and happily practise their English with any tourist asking for directions or while partaking in the national pastime, chatting over coffee.
The city's main thoroughfare is Avenida 9 de Julio - which, with eight lanes of traffic heading east and eight west, is apparently the widest street in the world. It is dominated by the Obelisco, a giant concrete needle, built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the city's founding. In 1939, councillors voted to demolish the monument, but obviously no one listened.
From the Obelisco, many of the city's major sights are within walking distance along streets laid out in a grid formation, which makes it easy to navigate. One of the main sights is the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, the seat of the national government. It is from the balconies of this impressive building that Eva Peron and presidents addressed the masses. However, ask Portenos why the building is pink and they shrug their shoulders. The best explanation I was offered was that it was originally a compromise between two political parties, one whose colour was red and the other whose colour was white.
In front of the Casa Rosada is the Plaza de Mayo with its flowerbeds, water features and tall, parrot-filled palm trees. It is here, for hundreds of years, that the people of Argentina have come to protest or celebrate. Every Thursday, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (mothers of people who disappeared during the 'dirty war' of the late 1970s) still demonstrate - a quiet, dignified protest, symbolised by the headscarves the women wear, which are embroidered with the names of their dead children
Another major site of interest is the Cementerio de la Recoleta, where Evita rests alongside the nation's rich and famous. The entrance gates are impressive enough but once inside you can only marvel at this miniature city for the dead. It can be unnerving, though, as some crypts have lace-covered dusty coffins on show and stray cats stalk the avenues and alleyways between tombs. The Durante family's crypt, in which Evita lies, is the one tomb everyone heads for, so expect queues.
Shopping in Buenos Aires is a delight, and Florida, the main street in the micro centre, is pedestrianised. Close at hand is the Galerias Pacifico shopping mall, with its ultra-modern units and expensive jewellery shops. Leather goods are particularly good quality and unbelievably cheap and there are tailors right across the city who will measure you up and have a hand-made jacket, coat or skirt ready the next day. But a warning to wheelchair users: pavements in the shopping area are only passable with care, and there is little provision for less able-bodied customers.
The true heart of Buenos Aires lies in the old working-class barrio of La Boca, the birthplace of tango and home to Maradona’s football club, Athletico Boca Juniors. There's no escaping the fact that the pedestrianised Caminito, where would-be tango stars perform in the street, is now all about tourists, but the atmosphere is electric and no visit to Buenos Aires would be complete without a stop here. Beware: pickpockets are rife, although there are always tourist police in evidence.
For the best nightly tango shows, head for San Telmo. Gala Tango, at 5 de Julio 434, offers a fantastic and atmospheric show in a unique setting. The building is decorated in French style and the atmosphere is relaxed yet stylish, with dancers give guests lessons before the show starts.
The pampas around Buenos Aires are, of course, perfect for rearing beef. As a result, steak-lovers can indulge in the national dish at parillas, or grills, which can be found right across the city. Whatever the cut, portions are invariably enormous, and many Europeans order one steak and share it between two.
Without doubt, one of the best parrillas is La Chacra (Avenida Cordoba 941, near Florida). There is a huge grill in the window around which sides of beef, lamb, pork and kid are slowly grilled, with the smoke from the log fire expelled through a filter above. The restaurant seats around 120 but it gets busy with a mixture of Portenos and tourists, so booking is recommended. With attentive, friendly waiters, and the bill coming to less than a quarter of what you’d expect to pay in the UK, it really does take some beating.
Out of town
Buenos Aires can get a bit hot and sticky in the summer months, so it's worth considering a trip on the scenic Tren de la Costa (primarily a tourist service) to Tigre, a small market town at the mouth of the delta. Visitors can take boat rides and marvel at the luxury properties and restaurants only accessible by boat. It’s well worth hopping off at San Isidro on route to Tigre: the neo-gothic cathedral there is spectacular and there is also a delightful craft centre adjacent to the little railway station.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Regente Palace Hotel on Suipacha, a modern hotel with friendly staff, a good restaurant, a lively bar and a clientele made up of a mixture of tourists and business people. It has a great location right at the heart of the micro centre, with the shops on Florida, the Obelisco and the newly regenerated Puerto Madero waterfront district all within walking distance.
All in all, Buenos Aires is a fantastic city for those who like a sense of history and can understand true passion. You simply cannot help soaking up the atmosphere, the culture and the warmth of the people, and it leaves you hungry for more.