Overview

Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a wonderful combination of sleek skyscrapers and past grandeur, a collision of the ultrachic and tumbledown. Still, there has always been an undercurrent of melancholy in B.A. (as it is affectionately known by expats who call Buenos Aires home), which may help explain residents' devotion to that bittersweet expression of popular culture in Argentina, the tango. Still performed—albeit much less frequently now—in the streets and cafes, the tango has a romantic and nostalgic nature that is emblematic of Buenos Aires itself.

Travel to Buenos Aires is popular, especially with stops in the neighborhoods of San Telmo, Palermo—and each of its colorful smaller divisions—and the array of plazas that help make up Buenos Aires tours.

Geography

The city of Buenos Aires occupies 79 sq mi/127 sq km of flat terrain, bordered on the east by the Rio de la Plata. The central city streets are laid out on a grid pattern, with few diagonals, but outlying neighborhoods are more irregular. Greater Buenos Aires sprawls in all directions across the humid pampas and contains roughly half the country's population.

The city is made up of 48 distinct barrios, or neighborhoods, and those nearest the Rio de la Plata hold the most interest for tourists. The downtown area, also known as the Microcentro, is the banking, business and government district. Plaza de Mayo, together with the neighborhoods of Monserrat and San Telmo toward the south, make up the city's historical heart. To the north and northwest are the middle- and upper-class residential districts of Retiro, Barrio Norte, Recoleta, Palermo (the city's largest) and Belgrano. The southernmost barrio most tourists will visit (usually in daylight, when it is safest) is La Boca, a colorful working-class neighborhood with strong Italian roots.

History

After it was permanently settled in 1580, Buenos Aires had 230 years—its colonial period—of erratic growth. After Argentina broke from Spain's rule in 1810, Buenos Aires evolved rapidly as a commercial hub and seat of political power, becoming the federal capital in 1880. Europeans recognized the potential of the port city: The British poured money into the area, and the Spanish and Italians arrived in droves, along with French, eastern European, Japanese and German settlers.

When immigration from the Old World was all but halted after 1930, those of Spanish-South American mestizo origins migrated from the interior and filled many jobs. From this influx arose conflicts with the existing urban population and the problem of crowded city slums and shantytowns.

It was from these throngs of poor people that populist President Juan Peron, along with his wife Eva (Evita), found their greatest support. They often stirred huge crowds of Argentines in speeches from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, which overlooks the Plaza de Mayo. Peron's presidency (1946-55) was followed by decades of truculent military rule, with only brief periods of respite.

The Plaza de Mayo is still the site of demonstrations, although the famous annual marches calling for a full accounting of events in the so-called "Dirty War" of 1970-83, when the country was run by a military junta and more than 30,000 dissidents "disappeared," now occur only on 24 March. On Thursday afternoons, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo still march in their distinctive head scarves embroidered with the names of the missing, demanding information about their children and grandchildren who were taken by police and military death squads.

For most of the 1980s, economic problems, including hyperinflation, limited the city's progress, but Carlos Menem's 1990s presidency tamed inflation and brought some stability. Redevelopment took place, including in the Puerto Madero waterfront. The downside of Menem's legacy was an overvalued peso and systemic corruption that brought financial collapse. Marches and demonstrations by the unemployed and the middle class, who lost their dollar-denominated savings to devaluation, have diminished but still occur on occasion.

The election of the late Nestor Kirchner in 2003, along with subsequent judicial and foreign-policy reforms, went a long way toward turning things around. Although elected by a slim margin, Kirchner was popular, and the economy rebounded, albeit temporarily. In October 2007, Kirchner died of heart complications. However, in late 2010, his widow, Cristina, was handily elected as his successor. Thanks to a heavy-handed policy of almost autocratic decision-making, Cristina Kirchner immediately alienated many important constituents. Forced to back down on several key economic issues in the face of open hostility and threats of violence, the country—and Buenos Aires in particular—continues to face an uncertain economic future.

Sightseeing

Upon arrival in Buenos Aires, many visitors make a beeline for Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo neighborhood of colonial and tango fame, whether or not the Sunday flea market is in progress. Many put the Recoleta Cemetery high on their list of things to see: You can pay your respects to Evita if you look for the tomb marked Familia Duarte.

As you take in the city's displays of civic grandeur, absolutely do not miss the Teatro Colon: try to watch a performance, or at least take a guided tour of its labyrinthine interior. The view of the building from anywhere on the Avenida Villamonte is stunning.

Make time to see the delightful greenery in the Parque Tres de Febrero (in Palermo Chico), which houses many Japanese gardens, a rose garden, art museums, a lake with paddleboats, a horse track and more.

Those drawn to the water should stroll around the Puerto Madero area, which harbors a yacht club, expensive restaurants, two museum ships, several hotels, offices, movie theaters and a university campus. Or, for a less upper-crust look at the water, head to the old port neighborhood of La Boca, Buenos Aires' colorful version of Little Italy.

Those who happen to be in Buenos Aires on a Sunday should take a car service or bus to the Mataderos Fair to watch folk dancing and the gaucho displays. There's plenty to eat: Try some empanadas or the hearty meat-and-corn stew.

Museum enthusiasts won't want to miss the National History Museum, although it steers clear of controversial events since the 1970s, or the Isaac Fernandez Blanco Museum of Spanish-American Art, a replica of a Peruvian colonial mansion complete with gardens. Alto Palermo's Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) is definitely worth a visit.

For those wanting to take in some classical art, Recoleta's National Fine Arts Museum is the destination of choice. Palermo's Eduardo Sivori Museum exhibits more contemporary works. The country's cultural heritage is explored at the Jose Hernandez Museum of Popular Argentine Motifs. La Boca's Museo de la Pasion Boquense traces the history of Boca Juniors, soccer player Diego Maradona's club, and there are two tango museums—the Museo Casa Carlos Gardel and the Museo Mundial del Tango—for fanatics of this famous Argentine dance.

Museum admission prices are a bargain, generally ranging from "a small donation requested" to several pesos in most cases.

Nightlife

Going out at night—until the small hours of the next day—is a cherished porteno custom. In the beginning, there were (and still are) tango music and dance halls, then nightclubs and discos. Now, British pubs, high-end cocktail lounges, angular dance clubs and theme cafes are the rage.

Nightspots are everywhere, but there are pockets of particular interest along the Costanera Norte riverside drive and in Puerto Madero, the Microcentro, Palermo and Belgrano. Palermo Viejo, along with its immediate neighbors Palermo Chico, Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho, has a particularly good assortment of places to hang out—you can easily hop from one bar to another without having to walk very far.

Nights in Buenos Aires begin late and often end in the wee hours of the morning. Many people dine late, have a drink or coffee and then hit the clubs shortly after midnight (although 2 am is when the dance clubs really get going). Clubs don't close before 5 am (when the subway starts running again) and most close well after dawn, so you can pick up breakfast before heading home.

The gay and lesbian club scene in Buenos Aires is the most developed and open anywhere south of Miami.

Dining

Buenos Aires, with its strong European tradition, offers a symphony of cuisines, many melded in unexpected ways. Italo-Argentine pizzas, for example, have more ingredients and greater variety than the Italian originals. A growing number of restaurants specialize in "new cuisine," or fashionable fusion creations by big-name chefs. Others serve up dishes from the chefs' countries of origin. Asian—particularly Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian—restaurants have answered the demand for exotic food.

The country has a way with meat, and parrillas (steak houses) in particular are good places to see how the locals get their protein. Make sure you go with a healthy appetite—the variety of grilled meats is remarkable. Popular cuts of steak include bife de lomo and bife de chorizo (not to be confused with the sausage of the same name).

Since the 1990s, a large group of young chefs and restaurateurs has been challenging the meat hegemony. In barrios such as Las Canitas and Palermo Viejo, Vietnamese, Mexican, Japanese and sushi, Greek and Catalan restaurants have opened. In addition, pizzerias such as Filo are upgrading the standards. It is easy to avoid steak and salad, if that's what you want to do, and the ethnic cuisines are fairly vegetarian-friendly.

Argentine wines are regarded highly, especially red wines produced in the Mendoza subregions of Cuyo and Lujan, near the Andes. White and sparkling wines have improved and are also winning international awards. Bodega Norton varieties in particular are highly regarded. Red Malbec and white Torrontes are unique to the country.

The city's leading restaurant districts are in and around the Microcentro area (including Retiro), trendy Puerto Madero, chic Recoleta, Palermo Viejo and Las Canitas (northern Palermo).

Breakfast is usually served 7-10 am, and lunch is eaten noon-3 pm. Argentines dine very late in the evening. Until 9:30 or 10 pm, most places are empty. Parrillas are best visited after 10 pm, when the grill is warmed up and the dining area is jumping. There's little hurry once you're seated; you won't be rushed along. Most restaurants don't close until the last customer leaves, and 2 am is not too late to order coffee or cognac.

In Argentina, the Spanish word carne doesn't mean "meat," but specifically "beef." If you say you don't eat carne, a server might suggest chicken or pork (sometimes called carnes blancas, or white meats). If you are a vegetarian, say "soy vegetariano/a."

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 60 P; $$ = 60 P-85 P; $$$ = 85 P-150 P; $$$$ = more than 150 P.

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