Buenos Aires is often referred to as “the Paris of South America,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s like Paris and Vienna, Rome and Barcelona, Havana and San Juan, Miami and Los Angeles, Rio and London … and yet unlike any of them or any other city in the world. Buenos Aires stands alone, a sprawling metropolis of more than 12 million, located well below the Equator (closer to Antarctica, in fact) at the upper-east quadrant of Argentina.
Anyone who has seen the stage or movie version of “Evita” has some small idea of the recent colorful history of the city. Buenos Aires (which, roughly translated, means “fresh air”) was founded originally in 1536, but the Spaniards sent to colonize the mouth of the Rio de la Plata were forced away by the indigenous population. A second, more successful attempt was made in 1580, and it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the city and then the country emancipated themselves from the Spanish crown.
One might think that planning by the French, buildings by the Spanish and statuary by the Italians would lend a schizophrenic air to this sprawling capital, but it doesn’t. The populace is an open, cosmopolitan melting pot of European and South American cultures (about half of Buenos Aires’ citizenry are of Italian descent).
“Portenos” — as Buenos Aires residents are called, in honor of the port city they call home — are a proud lot, as well they should be. More than anywhere else in this large country, Buenos Aires felt the effects of years of 2,000-plus percent inflation, and when the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, the portenos took the opportunity to make lemonade out of the lemons they were dealt. In the tourism sector alone, the plucky folk single-handedly rose above; displaced hotel and restaurant workers, facing unemployment, formed collectives to purchase and run their places of business. The devaluation of the Argentine peso made a visit to the city appealing, and tourism thrived.
Oddly enough, this very resourcefulness created a sort of double-edged sword. While most of the city’s goods and services remain a tremendous bargain for visitors from Europe or North America, the prices of hotel rooms and tourist-oriented restaurants have soared as visitors flock to the now very affordable city. Still, compared to other world-class cities — New York, Rome, London, Paris — a stay in Buenos Aires is a deal. The only problem is that once you visit, you’ll want to return … again and again.
Ultimately, it isn’t the architecture you’ll be drawn back to, the acres and acres of the city set aside for woods and parks, the fabulous meals of traditional grilled meats, or the hearty Argentine wine. What will entice you is the Latin sizzle, the soul of the portenos, and the genuine warmth and humor of the people you’ll meet. It will be the automatic camaraderie you feel at a sidewalk cafe (even if you don’t speak Spanish), the thrill you get from watching a couple performing a tango on a San Telmo street corner, the smile of a child wearing a Boca Juniors T-shirt. Maybe you’ll be privileged to be offered a sip of yerba tea from a stranger’s mate (pronounced “mah-tay”) cup, a social tradition in Argentina. Maybe a shopkeeper will point you in the direction of a fabulous tavern. And maybe you’ll be taught the tango in an after-hours social club.
Whatever it is, we promise: You’ll be hooked.
Buenos Aires Attractions
The Tango: No one should leave Buenos Aires without taking in a tango show. The Argentines have perfected this dance to its most seductive and romantic. Small, intimate tango bars can be found throughout the San Telmo and La Boca districts, but the larger shows frequented by tourists at places such as La Ventana, Senor Tango or El Viejo Almacen are also wonderful spectacles. If you are smitten and want to learn the dance, spots such as DNI Tango and Confiteria Ideal offer lessons, guaranteed to be a fun experience. Viator also offers a number of tango lessons.
Plaza de Mayo: The city’s historic center includes the Metropolitan Cathedral, dating to the 18th century, and a host of stately buildings including the Casa Rosada, the pink palace where Eva Peron addressed adoring crowds from the balcony. The May Pyramid, guarded by tall palm trees in the center of the square, commemorates the 1810 revolution.
Recoleta: The city’s swankest neighborhood is lined with handsome apartment buildings as well as fine shops, art galleries and restaurants. It grew up around the Recoleta Cemetery, where the ancestors of the city’s aristocracy are buried. Begun in 1822, this amazing cemetery is a virtual crypt city of tall and elaborate tombs and mausoleums covering four square blocks, and is one of the city’s most visited attractions. The monument most people seek out is the simple dark marble crypt belonging to Eva Peron, the wife of the late dictator Juan Peron and the heroine of the city’s working class because she was one of their own before her rise to power. Ironically, she rests surrounded by the very families who once despised her lower-class origins.
Museums: It would take days to visit all of the museums of Buenos Aires. At the top of the list are the Museum of Fine Arts, featuring both Argentine and European artists including Degas, Rodin and Van Gogh, and MALBA, a stunning modern building showing 20th-century Latin American art. The National Museum of Decorative Arts, housed in a French-inspired villa, offers European paintings, tapestries and furniture, Chinese art and miniatures from the Russian empire. The National History Museum is housed in an expansive Italian-style former family mansion.
La Boca: Many of the city’s first Italian immigrants settled this neighborhood, building corrugated iron houses along its cobbled streets. The tango is said to have been born here. Now it is home to many artists, who have painted the metal houses in bright reds, yellows, blues and greens. Lively Caminito, a multi-hued pedestrian walkway, is a marketplace for artists and craftspeople and a block where you are likely to see couples doing the tango to the tune of a guitar or the traditional accordion known as the bandoneon.
Colon Theater: One of the most opulent opera houses in the world, the Colon has hosted everyone from Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti since its inauguration in 1908. Guided tours are available to see the seven-tier theater with its grand central chandelier.
Parks and Gardens: Thousands of species of plants from throughout South America can be found at the Botanical Garden in Palermo. It adjoins the Buenos Aires Zoo, known for its white tigers. Also adjacent is the Tres de Febrero Park, 1,000 strollable acres with rose and Japanese gardens, lakes and meandering streams.
Soccer: Buenos Aires goes gaga over soccer, and attending a match is a gala experience, with street parties in full swing on the day of the game. The Boca Juniors, the city’s most popular club, play at their stadium in La Boca.
Buenos Aires Restaurants
Argentina is well known for its cattle ranches, and carnivores will glory in the fresh, top-quality steaks available in restaurants around the city. (You’ll quickly learn the word parrilla, or grill.) There are some meat-free options as well, but vegetarians should take care to ask whether dishes are prepared with meat stock. With the city’s large Italian population, cuisine from the Boot is also quite popular here. Portenos dine late; many restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 p.m., and most locals eat between 9 and 11 p.m.
Cabana las Lilas, the best of the city’s parrillas, is where steak lovers will discover why Argentina is famous for its beef. Thick steaks come sizzling from the charcoal grill. Prices are on the high side.
Cafe Tortoni, a favorite with the city’s artists and writers since 1858, is the place for a light lunch amid Old World ambience and prime people watching. An Art Nouveau beauty, it has a stained-glass skylight, original artwork, caricatures, portraits and photos of great poets lining the walls.
Broccolino, a casual family-run trattoria, takes its name from New York City’s Brooklyn, and boasts Brooklyn memorabilia and a mural of Manhattan’s skyline. Pizzas, pastas and calamari are among the favorite dishes.
La Bourgogne, located in the Alvear Palace Hotel, is generally considered the best restaurant in the city, and one of the best in all of South America. French and Continental dishes are served in an elegant formal dining room decorated in pastel hues. Reservations are highly recommended, as are jackets and ties for men.
Bice, a sibling of the well-known restaurant in Milan, has pleasing, understated decor and is a longtime favorite for Northern Italian dishes including risottos and interesting pasta combinations.
There aren’t too many good Asian restaurants in Buenos Aires, but travelers needing a fix can try the Southeast Asian fare at Cocina Sunae. The menu changes frequently and might include options such as sauteed shrimp with spicy tamarind sauce or Vietnamese pork belly braised in coconut juice.
Shopping in Buenos Aires
Argentina is known for its leather goods. Look for wallets, shoes, belts, jackets and coats. Silver and woolen sweaters are also good buys. Unique souvenirs are the hollowed gourds and other handcrafted cups used for drinking mate, a favorite local herbal beverage. Shops specializing in indigenous tribal arts and crafts include Pueblo Indio in San Telmo and Arte Etnico Argentino in Palermo Viejo. And don’t overlook Argentine wines, gaining increasing notice among aficionados.
On weekends, don’t miss the colorful crafts and souvenir market that takes place in the Recoleta district around the Plaza Intendente Alvear, just below the cemetery, an event livened by many street performers. Afterward, you can stroll past the many designer boutiques on elegant Av. Alvear, or pay a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Calle Florida is a stroller’s paradise — 12 blocks of nonstop shopping temptations. Be sure to stop into the Galerias Pacifico, an arcade of more than 150 shops with a magnificent domed ceiling and frescoes painted by local artists.
Alvear Avenue in Recoleta is the place for those in search of designer boutiques. The VAT tax of 21 percent can be refunded on purchases of 70 pesos or more (per invoice) when you leave the country.
The weekly Sunday antiques market, held in Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, brings out more than 250 vendors with a wide range of wares along with musicians, singers and dancers.
–written by Jana Jones