In the first episode of Talking Travel - Women Radio Station’s new weekly show for travel news from around the world, fascinating guests and answers to your burning travel questions - we’re shining the spotlight on Buenos Aires.
Until recently Buenos Aires was starved of direct, affordable flights from the UK but - happily, listeners - change is on the horizon.
From Valentine’s Day, budget airline Norwegian Airlines will be showing its love for Argentina’s charismatic capital with the launch of the longest-ever nonstop route from Gatwick to Buenos Aires.
And the good news is that regardless of whether you’re down to your last dollar or have oodles of cash to splash, there’s plenty to do in the Paris of the South - as BA is affectionately known.
So let’s start with those who are suffering from that January skint feeling….
BA ON A BUDGET
By far and away, Buenos Aires’ number one tourist attraction is Recoleta Cemetery which is open from 8am-6pm. This city of the dead is where generations of Argentina’s great and good – including Evita – were buried.
Even better? It’s absolutely free to see Evita’s final resting place. And don’t worry about missing Eva Duarte’s mausoleum – simply follow the crowds or join a complimentary tour that’s offered in English at 11am every Tuesday and Thursday.
San Telmo market
The barrio - which means neighbourhood - of San Telmo is famous for its narrow cobbled streets and crumbling villas – and the Feria de San Telmo (from 10am) – an unmissable Sunday market selling some of BA’s best arts, crafts and souvenirs including bombilla, the metal straw used to drink Argentina’s beloved Mate (a bitter herb drink). Even if shopping isn’t your bag, the San Telmo street market is worth visiting for the atmosphere alone: expect to see colourful street performances plus vendors loudly peddling freshly squeezed orange juice and empanadas (super South American pies).
La Casa Rosada
The Presidential palace – whose pretty pink hue demonstrates what happens when pigs blood is mixed with white paint – is home to the balcony where Argentina’s most famous son, Diego Maradona (a footballing god who made an enormous amount noise both on and off the pitch) greeted crowds from the balcony after winning the 1986 World Cup for Argentina. The pink palace is also where Evita – the country’s beloved First Lady – used to address her legion of fans often called the descamisados (shirtless ones) owing to their impoverished status.
You can tour the building for free on a Saturday or Sunday upon presentation of your passport.
When the hustle and bustle of BA gets too much – as it will – escape to the Reserva Ecologica. Compromising 360 hectares of wetlands, the Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur – to give it it’s full name – is a popular place for hikers, picnickers, bird watchers (expect to see 300 species), bikers, nature lovers – river turtles, iguanas and nutria are all present and correct – alike. For the best views of the Rio Plata’s muddy waters, head to the eastern shoreline of the reserve.
Working class La Boca is loaded with charm and colourful corrugated metal buildings (the ones that you see on the cover of every guidebook). It doesn’t cost a penny to stroll El Caminito – the barrio’s most famous street and browse the crafts and watch the tango dancers strut their stuff.
Feria de Mataderos
BA’s best kept secret, the Feria de Mataderos is held every Sunday in the working class barrio of Materados. Admittedly Materados is a bit of a schlep to reach (you’ll need to take bus 126, 155 or 180 from downtown for around 90 minutes) but it’s worth it to watch gauchos (Argentine cowboys) and folk singers entertain the crowds. The highlight however is the La sortija show: gauchos gallop at their fastest along a corridor of sand before rising up out of their saddle– leaving just their feet in the stirrups – in an attempt to spear a small ring, all the while cheered on by rowdy locals.
One essential is to experience a milonga (traditional tango dance night.) Argentina is synonymous with sultry tango – a passionate dance that has seduced the world – and nowhere more so than Buenos Aires, where the spirit of tango oozes on every street corner. Confiteria Ideal (the grand dame of BA’s tango scene) and La Cathedral (quite possibly Baires’ coolest tango club) are mentioned in every guide book and for good reason.
However if you’re on a budget, look to La Glorieta – a free outdoor milonga which takes place every Saturday and Sunday evening at the Barrancas de Belgrano bandstand.
BLOW THE BUDGET
Now if you’re feeling flush, you’re in luck for while BA can be a bargain destination, it’s also a great place to blow the budget.
And if you start feeling a little guilty, consider this: life is short, you work hard and you deserve it…
Co-working in Argentina is on the rise but, as remote offices go, The Clubhouse stands head and shoulders above the competition.
By day this Palermo Soho destination for all things cool serves as a much needed work sanctuary for the creative industries, in a metropolis plagued by poor WiFi.
By night it’s a lively scene straight out of a magazine: model-esque staff serve top notch cocktails around the prettiest of pools, while other ‘after work’ events include art exhibits, tastings, talks by opinion leaders, theme parties, fashion shows and private dinners.
Floreria Atlantico – a secret, basement speakeasy – is arguably the best bar in BA right now. And that’s saying something in a city with no end of trendy places to go…. Upon entering the rather charming flower shop, look for the industrial freezer door and then descend the stairs to this decadent drinking den – the brainchild of renowned Argentine mixologist Renato ‘Tato’ Giovannoni.
Thanks to its modernist lighting and decent drinks mixed by cool staff, this long and narrow bar is great place to meet both hip locals and expats. Not hip? It doesn’t matter. The whole point of travelling is that you don’t have to be yourself.
Hotel Classico – the second project from Argentine born, Los Angeles based restaurateur and television personality, Adolfo Suaya – is without a doubt the hottest address in town, something its occupancy rates bear testimony to. This place is permanently full.
Guests can look forward to luxurious leather headboards, marble bed frames, walk-in rainfall showers, organic toiletries, chandeliers and classic images of the Paris of the South. Further draws include a seventh floor sun-deck, mezzanine level bar and basement cabaret club due to open next year.
Elena, Four Seasons Buenos Aires
For a sophisticated dinner, try Elena at the Four Seasons Hotel – the BA bolt hole of choice for stars ranging from Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall to U2 and Madonna. I’m not usually one for staying to the confines of a hotel but Elena – a stunning two storey courtyard restaurant – is worth making an exception for.
Rich interior furnishings – including a marble butcher’s table manned by an expert chef and locally-sourced antiques – seamlessly blend South American and European cultures in true Buenos Aires fashion, with hand-crafted finishes by local artisans adding a unique character. It’s the perfect place to throw yourself into a feast of local cuisine: think a selection of meats loved by locals, from precision-cut dry aged steaks to Argentinian kobe beef expertly prepared on the rotisserie.
You can’t leave Argentina without watching a live football match. To say that the Argentines adore football is arguably the understatement of the century. Football isn’t just a game in this country – it’s a religion.
And if you’re visiting Buenos Aires in particular, there’s absolutely no getting away from it (there are around two dozen professional teams in Argentina’s charismatic capital alone).
The country’s favourite team is Buenos Aires based Boca Juniors who play at the legendary La Bombonera stadium in working class La Boca.
Boca was also the first club of one Diego Armando Maradona – the street kid with a gift from God who succeeded in escaping the Argentine shanty town of Villa Fiorito, where he shared a room with seven siblings, to become the only footballer to set world-record for contract fees twice.
But bagging tickets to a Boca game isn’t cheap: you’ll have to part with a crazy amount of pesos through a ticket agency.
My final suggestion, would be check out a puertas cerrada - aka closed-door restaurant. This underground dining concept has swept BA and basically sees talented chefs serve private dinners in their own homes.
Dining with what are, in essence, complete strangers may not be everyone’s cup of Mate (Argentina’s beloved herb tea) but – for me at least – this was a big part of the attraction. I loved breaking bread (both bitterly and metaphorically) with fellow foodies who, after a glass of Malbec, soon felt like old friends at a private dinner party. I felt a sense of community, together with a frisson of excitement throughout the evening – although the fact that most puertas cerradas are illegal may have had something to do with it.
If you’re listening/reading this and wondering how the (ever resourceful) Argentines are able to get away with running closed door restaurants that violate the law, all I can say is: this is Argentina. Laws there are rarely enforced.
If you’re going to a closed door restaurant, just don’t forget to bring cash (it’s a cash only world in Argentina) and book ahead: most closed-door restaurants are only open in the evenings from Wednesday to Saturday and, the buzz surrounding them is so big, that they tend to fill up fast
So there you have it! The low-down on BA…
Certainly the city can frustrate with its weekly power cuts and corruption, all of which means Buenos Aires can’t be described as an effortless destination.
But 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.
It’s one of those places that makes you feel better, just by being there.