Buenos Aires is swapping its troubles for tourism and about time for this city of fantastic food, football, tango, and loud and proud Latin culture will warm any traveller’s heart writes Kaye Holland
I touched down at Ezeiza International Airport intending to stay in the Paris of the South for seven days. But one week turned into two and before I knew it a month had drifted by... but then that’s Buenos Aires. It’s the kind of place that, despite its fall from being one of the word’s richest cities to one stuck in a permanent financial crisis, seduces visitors into staying a lot longer than planned…
For there are so many things to enjoy in this glamorous yet gritty city from the superfluous steak to tango, infectious football games and the proud, passionate Portenos (BA residents) themselves.
You’ll find the Portenos hanging out in one of Downtown’s historic cafes - the perfect place to sip a Cortado coffee (forget your usual Flat White) and nibble on a medialuna (small croissant) while perusing the papers. Cafe Tortoni is arguably the Rolls Royce of cafes and only a stone’s throw from Plaza de Mayo, aka the heart and soul of BA. On the east side of the always lively square, you’ll find the rosy La Casa Rosada whose pretty pink facade was originally achieved by, erm, mixing pigs’ blood with whitewash.
Casa Rosada is where Argentina’s famous footballing son, Diego Maradona, greeted crowds from the balcony after he helped his country lift the 1986 World Cup. It’s also where that other Argentine icon Evita (who much like Maradona was born in poverty before becoming a hero) addressed her legion of fans. The former First Lady has acquired a status akin to a saint here - something the 100ft tall iron portrait which looks down on the 14 lane Avenue 9 de Julio, bears testimony to.
But my favourite avenue in Downtown Buenos Aires is arguably Corrientes. Here you’ll find ‘by the slice’ pizza places (there’s no better way to take in the local culture than to consume it, right?!) that are a legacy of the city’s Italian diaspora who swapped their boot shaped country for BA at the beginning of the 20th century, when Italy was facing social and economic disturbances.
To the north of Downtown lies Palermo - a little corner of perfectly manicured paradise where men carry tiny dogs and immaculately turned out women sweep from chi chi boutiques to buzzy bars and restaurants. I can’t fit in all my favourite drinking and dining haunts but dinner at Don Julio (an incredibly popular parilla - read steakhouse) should figure on any BA itinerary just don’t even think about heading there before 10pm. For Buenos Aires is all about the night (forget New York, this is the real city that never sleeps) and if you go to bed before 4am, you’re an amateur.
Another Palermo haute spot is The Clubhouse. By day this destination for all things cool serves as a much needed sanctuary in the metropolis, but by night it’s a lively scene straight out of a magazine. Expect to see model-esque staff serving members cocktails around the prettiest of pools.
Rougher round the edges is the barrio (neighbourhood) of San Telmo whose ramshackle streets have long been a favourite with Buenos Aires’ artists owing to their (historically) low rents. The Sunday market on Calle Defensa is legendary and rightly so: this the place to stock on second hand books and buy your bombilla - the metal straw used to drink Argentina’s beloved Mate (a bitter herb drink).
Close by lies La Boca - another scruffy neighbourhood that’s loaded with charm and colourful corrugated metal buildings (the ones that you see on the cover of every guidebook). Working class La Boca is also home to the country’s favourite football team: take a bow Boca Juniors. If you aren't able to see Maradona’s former side in action (tickets are like gold dust), you could sleep in a yellow and blue Maradona suite at the football themed Hotel Boca… But don’t drop the ball (sorry!) too much for, while Buenos Aires is much safer than other Latin American destinations, in barrios like La Boca you do need to exercise caution and common sense. (Don’t believe me? Google ‘daylight robbery in La Boca’).
The antithesis of La Boca is Recoleta - an upmarket neighbourhood that’s often compared to New York's Upper East Side. Here’s where you’ll find the landmark Alvear Palace Hotel, an old-world Belle Époque building that makes you think you’ve stepped back in time to a far more graceful age. Recoleta is also home to the fabulous Four Seasons whose recent refurb has only upped the decadence quota. Stars ranging from Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall to U2 and Madonna have used it as a BA bolt hole.
Even if you can’t afford to stay here (you’d need to boast the budget of a polo player), do go for lunch at Nuestro Secreto (‘our secret’) - a gorgeous rooftop restaurant serving Buenos Aires most stylish asado (barbecue). And don’t miss chance to try the Porteno tango massage at Ciel Spa. Your therapist will knead your body from head to toe using a variety of techniques - including hot stones - to the beat of tango music! If you manage to leave the Four Seasons (given the glories of this property, it’s pretty hard to do so), Recoleta’s biggest draw is the cemetery of same name where Evita was buried, along with generations of Argentina’s elite.
And whichever neighbourhood you find yourself in, tango clubs (milongas) abound. BA is the capital of tango and, as such, the sexy yet melancholy strut attracts a cult like following - young and old alike will dance until dawn and not only at weekends. Even if you’ve got two left feet, venues like La Cathedral and La Viruta are worth visiting for the atmosphere and phenomenal people watching alone.
Presuming you want to join in (well when in Rome…), tango shoes can be picked up cheaply at several shops on Suipacha. Other good value souvenirs include alfajores (cookie sandwiches filled with divine dulche de leche, a milky, caramel sauce) or a football shirt (River Plate, Racing Club, Independiente, Pope Francis’ club San Lorenzo and yes Boca Juniors are all a big deal). Conversely clothes are bewildering expensive - even if you’re wise with currency and have swapped US dollars for the blue rate (approximately 13 pesos to the pound) in a cueva (unofficial exchange office) rather than withdraw cash from an ATM (which will give you the official rate of seven pesos to the pound).
Alternatively transfer money with a company like Azimo or Zoom but be prepared to take your passport to the pick up office and to spend hours stuck in a queue. It doesn't matter what time of day you go, the lines are always long which can prove patience testing...
Certainly the Argentine capital can frustrate with its weekly power cuts and corruption, all of which means Buenos Aires can’t be described as an effortless destination. Arriving isn’t a piece of cake either as currently there’s is only one direct flight from the UK with British Airways, but then often it’s the places that are hardest to get to that are the most rewarding. And the rewards are immense: make no mistake this is one of Latin America’s most exhilarating cities where it’s still possible to bag tickets to a big gig only a few days beforehand and where dinner reservations don’t need to be made a month in advance.
After five weeks in Tango Town, I forced myself to move on to Mendoza - Argentina’s gorgeous wine region - but my heart belongs entirely to Buenos Aires. What can I say: the Paris of the South has cast a spell on me. I’ve left enamoured, starry eyed and wanting more…