Whereas visitors to Buenos Aires fall in love with the city and immediately want to stay, locals would rather be in Spain, Italy, or anywhere else.
Or so goes the song, written in Spanglish by Kevin Johansen, a half-Argentinian, half-American musician. Puerto Madero — named after one of the city’s most shiny, tourist-friendly neighbourhoods — gently ribs our gringo accents and childlike glee at ticking off Buenos Aires experiences: the dulce de leche ice cream, the antique markets, the tango shows.
Porteños, as residents are known, are notoriously complex and contradictory characters, fiercely patriotic and yet simultaneously baffled by how enchanting their city is for visitors. Sure, they know their country is famous for football and steak, but they can’t understand why we get giddily excited about everyday things: the cortado coffees served in chunky glassware, the professional dogwalkers, the first sighting of a gaucho on a day trip to the country.
Yet this doesn’t mean there’s a gaping divide between tourists and locals. If anything, this is the easiest place in the world to slip into daily life, and that’s mostly because it’s not really made for intense sightseeing. After ticking off the Casa Rosada (the pink government house, allegedly painted with cow’s blood) and the unmissable Recoleta Cemetery (like a mini-town in itself), this is a city best explored at leisure.
Don’t worry about setting an alarm. Most shops don’t open until 10am and museums rarely stir before midday. Rise late, skip the hotel breakfast, and sit down in a pavement cafe with a coffee and some medialunas (Argentinian croissants); people-watching is undoubtedly the city’s best activity.
In the afternoon, wander through the city’s highly contrasting neighbourhoods. High-class Recoleta is filled with grand avenues and ornate townhouses from the early 1900s. Palermo Viejo, a low-rise area of cobbled streets, is now the hippest, most stylish part of town. And San Telmo, the oldest part of the city, has a distinctly bohemian feel.
Food glorious food
Buenos Aires’ food scene has developed a clear line down its middle. On one side, there are the time-warp cafes and no-frills parrillas (steakhouses). Most of these places serve up exactly the same dishes: succulent steak (of varying cuts), chips, slightly overcooked pasta, juicy empanadas, grilled provolone cheese and simple mixed salads. Vegetarians should visit, if only for the atmosphere, and later head to Buenos Aires Verde, a specialist in organic, raw and meat-free cuisine.
For steak lovers, Don Julio is a great choice — a classic parrilla for a more discerning Palermo crowd. Or try Don Carlos, right next to La Bombonera stadium (take a taxi at night), for a more idiosyncratic experience.
The capital also has a burgeoning cutting-edge food scene. At its heart are chefs who’ve earned their stripes in Europe’s leading restaurants. Dante Liporace, of the relatively new Tarquino, uses tricks learnt at Catalonia’s three-Michelin-star elBulli to create dishes such as the deconstructed provolone pizza. See also Hernán Gipponi Restaurante, headed by the eponymous chef, whose ‘One Table’ communal dinners show off its tasting menus.
For those who want an informal dinner, try the kitsch and colourful Il Ballo del Mattone. Fusion food is also popular in the city and if you’ve never tried Japanese/Peruvian, Osaka is a must, especially for fish lovers.
Casual-dining restaurants (including simple parrillas) may not take reservations, but booking is recommended at more upmarket places after 9pm.
Don Julio: Guatemala 4691. T: 00 54 11 4831 9564.
Don Carlos: Brandsen 699. T: 00 54 11 4362 2433.
Il Ballo del Mattone: Gorriti 5737. ilballodelmattone.com
Tarquino: Rodríguez Peña. 1967. tarquinorestaurante.com.ar
Hernán Gipponi Restaurante: Soler 5862. fierrohotel.com
Osaka: Soler 5608. osaka.com.pe
Buenos Aires Verde: Gorriti 5657. bsasverde.com
This is a city that loves to party, but don’t expect to come across anyone head in hands on the kerb or being hauled out the door by a bouncer for starting a fight. Nights here are long and raucous, but people know how to pace themselves — which is why the top venues are still heaving at dawn.
And these nocturnal habits are not only for the young. As a restaurant’s clock strikes midnight, you might still spot groups of older diners mulling their dessert options. At the same hour, it’s quite typical to go to an asado (barbecue) and still find children running around. Even school discos don’t finish until the early hours.
Porteños don’t do daily siestas, but visitors might need to indulge in a quick nap to fully adjust their body clock. Bars often don’t warm up until after midnight and nightclubs typically have empty dance floors before 2am (few bars allow dancing, due to strict fire regulations).
La Bomba de Tiempo is a good place for an early-evening dance — it’s a rowdy percussion night in a big warehouse space in Almagro. On a Tuesday, head back to the area for tango: El Boliche De Roberto has a rota of old tango crooners. For dancing, La Catedral offers beginners’ lessons, too.
Most of the city’s nightlife is concentrated around Palermo. Start at Rey de Copas — a stylish new lounge bar — then see where the night takes you. Ten years ago, just a handful of bars dominated the scene. Now there seem to be new cocktail joints opening every week — some with deliberately hidden entrances. Floreria Atlantico involves stepping through a florists-cum-record-store, while at Frank’s Bar, you enter through a phone box.
La Bomba de Tiempo: Sarmiento 3131. labombadetiempo.blogspot.co.uk
El Boliche De Roberto: Bulnes 331.
La Catedral: Sarmiento 4006. lacatedralclub.com
Floreria Atlantico: Arroyo 872. T: 00 54 11 4313 6093.
Frank’s Bar: Arévalo 1445. franks-bar.com
Rey de Copas: Gorriti 5176. T: 00 54 11 2068 5220.
Piles of style
Just after Argentina’s economic crash in 2001, it made sense to arrive in Buenos Aires with empty suitcases and bring home a wardrobe for a fraction of the going rate.
For better or worse, those days have gone. Now, instead of going wild in the high street stores (often pricier than what you’d find home), you’d be wiser to splash out on a couple of high-quality local specialities, such as handmade tango shoes, a quirky leather bag or some chunky silver jewellery. For bags, try Humawaca; for shoes, there’s Comme Il Faut; for jewellery, any market.
Buenos Aires is a fashionable and artistic city, and its designers have been receiving even more global acclaim since BA Fashion Week was launched in 2001.
Palermo has the biggest concentration of boutiques, and its low-rise subdivisions, nicknamed Soho and Hollywood, are labyrinths of stores interspersed with bars, cafes and heladarías (ice cream parlours).
Florida Street — a pedestranised downtown avenue — is brash, expensive and best avoided. The markets, or ferias, are much more fun and are ideal for interesting souvenirs, with San Telmo’s, on a Sunday, the most famous. Plaza Francia, in Recoleta, and Plaza Serrano, in Palermo, also host weekend ferias, where you can expect to find artwork, photos (especially of La Boca’s famous, primary-coloured tin houses), decorative soda siphons, and various signs written in fileteado (the traditional flowery writing often associated with tango).
On the outskirts of Palermo lies a treasure-filled indoor furniture market called Mercado de las Pulgas, a bargain-filled paradise for those who love the rustic-chic trend. For leather, try Murillo Street in Villa Crespo. And if you still can’t find those tango shoes, try browsing the streets of Abasto, and while you’re there visit the Carlos Gardel Museum, dedicated to the dapper tango legend who died young in a 1935 plane crash.
Calma Chicha is great one-stop shop for presents, from cow-hide rugs to submarino glasses for drinking hot chocolate the Argentinian way — immersing a thick baton of chocolate into a glass of warm, frothy milk.
Top 10 local tips
01 You’ll get better deals if you pay in dollars. Bring them with you, but don’t carry large amounts on the streets. And be aware there’s currently a black market exchange rate for dollars. Do your research.
02 Buy a Guia T bus guide from a newspaper kiosk, and ask a local to show you how to use it.
03 Bus number 152 takes in a lot of the key sites, including La Boca and the Casa Rosada.
04 Walk the streets of Villa Crespo if you want a glimpse into Palermo’s past.
05 The Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA) offers half-price entry on Wednesdays. malba.org.ar
06 Don’t spend long in the tourist trap area of La Boca — but do nip up to the rooftop cafe at Fundación Proa. proa.org
07 For spectacular wildlife, take a day trip to the Paraná River Delta at Tigre, or to San Antonio de Areco — a taste of gaucho country.
08 Hire a bike and make the most of the burgeoning network of cycle lanes. labicicletanaranja.com.ar
09 If you’re heading across the River Plate to Uruguay, the Colonia Express ferry is cheaper than the Buquebus one. coloniaexpress.com
10 Enjoy a view over the city at the Hotel Pulitzer’s Sky Bar — it’s open to non-guests. hotelpulitzer.com
On screen: El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret In Their Eyes, 2009) and La Historia Oficial (The Official Story, 1985) — Oscar-winning insights into Argentina’s military dictatorship.
The Take: a 2004 documentary by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein about Argentina’s economic crisis and the workers who took over their abandoned factories. thetake.org
Books: Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges. RRP: £8.99. (Penguin Modern Classics)
Viva South America! by Oliver Balch. RRP: £10.99. (Faber & Faber). This vivid portrayal includes an interesting chapter on Argentina.
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)