They say Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America – but to be precise, it’s more like Madrid cut with a generous dollop of Manhattan. The exuberant old architecture of the Spanish capital is present and correct, but the city’s steroidal scale is what clinches the magnificence. Awesome multi-lane avenues run through it, and buildings are often so high they’re cloud-wreathed.
It’s what’s at street level that also seduces – dusty-designer neighbourhoods where steak restaurants don’t look a day over 150; glinting cocktail bars open all hours, and history of course, from Spanish origins onwards. This is a sprawling capital, so it’s worth doing some research on neighbourhoods and hotel locations beforehand. Once you’re immersed, settle in at a leaf-canopied pavement cafe and stay awhile, planning your naughty nocturnal itinerary. For which, read on…
What to do
In many ways it’s the little things – the personal items – on display that captivate most at this shrine to Evita Peron. Argentina’s controversial mid-20th-century First Lady stepped out in the most sensational wasp-waisted gowns, exhibited here; elsewhere they’ve got a box of her favoured Elizabeth Arden perfume, faded with age. Meanwhile, rooms of grainy rolling footage chart her early acting career, rise to world fame, fight for women’s rights and death in 1952 from cancer. Unmissable. Tuesday to Saturday, 11am-7pm.
Like a block of ice-cream, the seat of government cuts a mighty dash on Plaza Mayo, even though it is part-obscured by railings – and was occupied by a sole president between 1910 and 1914. Peron pilgrims come to view the balconies from which Juan and Evita drew adoring masses in the 1940s and 50s. Why rosada? Apocryphally the pink paint was a merging of opposing political colours (Federals red, Unitarians white). Come for the museum, which tells you the national story from colonial times onwards. Wednesday to Sunday and public holidays, 10am-6pm, entry and guided tours free.
At Buenos Aires’ landmark burial site, initiated in 1822 in the Recoleta district, visitors wander almost mute through a mini-city of the dead, along silent avenues of giant tombs and angel-crowned mausoleums of politicians and military names. Some are like Baroque churches, others Greek temples. Eternal Evita is here, too, of course. Her bronze tomb is markedly understated, with a mourning figure usually topped by a fan’s fresh flower.
Buenos Aires is far from short on tourist-friendly drinks, dinner and dancing packages for tango fans. But our advice is to find somewhere more local and compact – case in point, Bar Sur, on a nondescript corner in San Telmo. Evocative of a big-windowed old Paris brasserie from the outside, within it’s a diminutive chequerboard dancefloor surrounded by a smattering of drinkers at tables. The setting is low-lit, timewarped and authentic. As you sip, a couple will emerge to strut and twirl to the sounds of a live accordion. Think Strictly – only sexier.
The train beyond Buenos Aires to this town in the wetlands takes little more than 90 minutes and costs about 50p each way. It’s so worth it – for a day or a longer stay – to get a feel for small-town Argentina and to explore the waterways, served by wooden passenger boats straight out of Venice or Lake Como. Board one for tiny Tres Bocas island, out in the Delta, where giant Floridian-look homes are lapped by the waters of passing vessels. Disembarking, make for El Hornero restaurant – a sultry, slightly Tennessee Williams-feel affair shrouded in vegetation – for hefty steaks and empanadas.
Where to stay
In Palermo Hollywood district – low-rise, grid-avenued, film-set-funky – this base is the neighbourhood place. The obvious highlight is the little Arcadian garden, with its verdant high walls, bijou pool and outside lunches (croquetas, coconut-laced soup, woozy white wine from Salta, up near the Andes). But the rooms – Scandi-fresh, with designer-dizzy wallpaper – complete the story. Doubles from £136, B&B; homebuenosaires.com
What a steal this corporate-boutique hybrid is – for both the looks and the luxe. And what a spot, on a plaza where accordionists play, encircled by crowds, in artfully scruffy, cobbled and galleried San Telmo barrio. Monochrome rooms mimic mid-century modern (Eames-y wire chairs, angled lamps), and courtyard Cafe Anselmo is a decent drinks pitstop. Doubles from £90, B&B; hilton.com.
At this boutique-basic affair, the showers may turn capricious and the decor is at best “cookie-cutter-cool”. But the beds are sleep-in-till-midday comfy and the rate is double-take cheap for the leafy Recoleta district, home to Evita’s tomb and 1950s cafeteria La Biela – sit outside for breakfast under the giant spreading ombu evergreen. Doubles from £117, room only; recoletaluxuryboutiquehotel.com-hotel.com
Expect no frills and you’ll be thrilled you stayed here – this one makes the cut specifically for centrality and affordability. It’s on the dictator-grand Avenido 9 de Julio, and views from higher floors of glinting, multi-lane traffic are magnificent at sunset. Shout-out, too, for the Instagram-ably ornate, vertiginous stairwell. Doubles from £34, room only; hotel-argentino.com.ar
Where to eat
Sit outside in the wicker-chequer Paris-cafe chairs to catch rays, listening to salsa as you watch the Palermo Hollywood scene reel by. The menu bigs-up ceviche variations, including chilled slivers of shrimp and calamari as well as hake, which looks so opaque and cubic it could almost be soft, citrusy ice. Believe us, you’ll be here for hours.
Huge plants sprout from urns, ferns cascade, a fountain tinkles and standing fans turn idly at this romantic courtyard nook in Recoleta. Brunch, lunch or dinner – the ambience is always lively and seductive, aided by ruby-lurid negronis and vino rosada. Just add tapas and chill.
When only giant juicy steaks will do, make a date with Desnivel in San Telmo – it’s a cheap parrilla (grill restaurant), defiantly unfashionable with its red tablecloths, bentwood chairs and black-and-white framed photos of singers on walls. Go for a bottle of Malbec with a red-rare doorstop of Argentinian cow – and seriously consider sharing.
Here’s a “bar notable de Buenos Aires” – as they call the city’s beautifully kept historic watering holes. Opened in 1930 on the corner of Lavalle and Callao, It’s stay-awhile seductive, with its moon-like globe lamps, bistro chairs and dusty wall mirrors below twirling ceiling fans. The menu covers off easy-to-share staples – Spanish omelette, asparagus, chorizo – and handily enough it’s open until 1am. Perfect for a long evening of wine-laced conversation with new best friends at the next table.
Where to drink
The late, illicit mood is understandable – this bar in Palermo was created to feel like a classic speakeasy. Hence the louche, low lighting and leathery button-back seating along with the rattling up of heady cocktails at the long counter – here, order a camply retro banana julep or Manhattan perfect and join the dirty stop-ups in the little outside space.
The grid layout of the up-for-it Las Canitas district encourages aimless nocturnal restaurant-and-bar-hopping. And there’s plenty of it. Bodequita Cuba is on this list for its informality and infectious live salsa sounds whistling you straight to Havana as you have – oh, go on then – another mojito. Take your drinks to the pavement table for balmy air.
Here’s one for the tourist in all of us – easy to reach on foot after viewing the Casa Rosada. It’s an elegant institution founded in 1858 by a French emigre. Albert Einstein, Patti Smith and Katy Perry have swung by in their time – and so should you, for the chattery hubbub, towering Corinthian columns, time-worn terrazzo flooring and decent cheese, ham and tomato toasties. Have a submarino, aka hot milk with melting chocolate.
Buenos Aires goes brutalist at this architectural swank fantasy on a street in well-to-do Villa Crespo. It’s all stern stone surfaces and outbreaks of cool timber. Staff are pally and will point you towards the “Patagonia Route” cocktail selection, which you should follow – it features a fabulously kicky one big on cognac.
Where to shop
Hit the streets of the San Telmo neighbourhood for all things vintage and boho. The Feria de San Telmo is the Sunday market to end all Sunday markets – an all-day street bazaar buried under the weight of retro gear, decent art and, for flagging feet, restorative snacks. Fortified, disappear into the sidestreets to scour further.
Meanwhile, on the pulse micro-district Las Canitas majors in all things hip. Explore a whole planet of brands at El Solar mall, and get a feel for the neighbourhood at little boutique Rapsodia, selling hippy-chic crop tops, homeware and candles.
Commandeering leafy Calle Mayo in the central Monserrat district, this office building is a head-turning fusion of Stalinist Moscow and Mughal Jaipur, with its billowing tiers of balconies and its imposing central tower. The summit searchlight was able to communicate with a twin structure across the Plata river in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
Argentine Pesos. Tourist guidance around the best-value way to exchange currency in Argentina recently changed.
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
You don’t have to – but they’ll love you if you do. Add on 10 per cent as a propina, and next time you visit you’ll get super-friendly service.
How should I get around?
In this vast city, taxis and Uber are indispensable – the former are everywhere, buzzing in yellow and black swarms, and a ride across town will cost you about £8.
What’s the best view of the city?
From the 13th-floor terrace of Sky Bar in Hotel Pulitzer, where the city avenues beyond flicker into light, diamond-like, as you gaze down and salsa pulses.
First-timer? It might sound cheesy, but the Buenos Aires Bus service is a time-saving, neighbourhood-ticking way to familiarise yourself with this widely spread capital. Tickets are valid for 24 hours, they have info on headphones and you can hop on and off as many times as you like.
Trying to fly less?
Occasional cargo ships go from train-accessible Le Havre, France and Rotterdam, Netherlands to Buenos Aires.
Fine with flying?
British Airways has recently relaunched its direct Heathrow Buenos Aires route; or use Kayak, Skyscanner or a similar flight aggregation site for affordable fares transiting via European hubs.