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Buenos Aires Overview
Buenos Aires is often referred to as "The Paris of South America," but it's so much more than that. The city features characteristics of great global cities like Paris, Vienna, Rome, Barcelona, Havana, San Juan, Miami and others. But Buenos Aires stands alone, a sprawling metropolis of more than 12 million people, located well below the equator (closer to Antarctica, in fact) in the upper-eastern quadrant of Argentina.
Anyone who has seen the stage or movie version of "Evita" has witnessed the colorful history of the city. Buenos Aires (which, roughly translated, means "fresh air") was founded originally in 1536, but the Spaniards sent to colonize the mouth of the Rio de la Plata were forced away by the indigenous population. A second, more successful attempt was made in 1580, and it wasn't until the early 1800s that the city and then the country emancipated itself from the Spanish crown, becoming the Republic of Argentina.
You might think that planning by the French, buildings by the Spanish and statuary by the Italians would lend a schizophrenic air to this sprawling capital. But the fact that the populace is a melting pot of European and South American cultures (half of Buenos Aires' citizens are of Italian descent) makes the city more open and cosmopolitan, celebrating differences and welcoming tourists from around the world.
"Portenos" -- as the city's residents are called, in honor of the port city they call home -- are a proud lot. More than anywhere else in the country, Buenos Aires felt the effects of years of more than 2,000 percent inflation, and when the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, the portenos worked to make lemonade out of lemons. Displaced hotel and restaurant workers, facing unemployment, formed collectives to purchase and run their places of business. The devaluation of the Argentine peso made a visit to the city appealing, and tourism thrived.
Most of the city's goods and services remain a tremendous bargain for visitors from Europe or North America. (Subway rides total 70 cents, and a steak main course costs around $10). Hoteliers have gotten wise to this attractiveness, and accommodation prices have increased. However, the opening of more properties, particularly of the boutique variety, means there is plenty of competition, and good rates can be found.
Compared to stays in other world-class cities, a trip to Buenos Aires is a bargain, and once you visit, you'll likely want to return.
The city features numerous draws: architecture, acres and acres of woods and parks, fabulous meals of traditional grilled meats and hearty Argentine wines. Visitors also enjoy the Latin sizzle, the soul of the portenos and the genuine warmth and humor of the people. Bask in the camaraderie you feel at a cafe (even if you don't speak Spanish), the thrill you get from watching a couple performing a tango on a San Telmo street corner, the smile of a child wearing a Boca Juniors T-shirt. Maybe you'll be privileged to be offered a sip of yerba tea from a stranger's mate (pronounced mah-tay) cup, a social tradition in Argentina. Perhaps a shopkeeper will point you in the direction of a fabulous tavern. And maybe you'll dance the tango in an after-hours social club.
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Other South America Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Argentina is known for its leather goods. Look for wallets, shoes, belts, jackets and coats. Silver items and woolen sweaters are also good buys. Hollowed gourds and other handcrafted cups used for drinking mate, a favorite local herbal beverage, make unique souvenirs.
Try clothing styles influenced by the cowboys or gauchos. Good shops for indigenous tribal arts and crafts include Pueblo Indio in San Telmo and Arte Etnico Argentino in Palermo Viejo, which specializes in home decor.
Argentine wines are a must-have, particularly those made with its famous Malbec grape variety from the Mendoza region.
The official language is Spanish, but English is widely understood in hotels and shops.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The peso is Argentina's currency. Check www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for current exchange rates. Bank hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but ATM machines are plentiful. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Where You're Docked
You arrive on the vast River Plate estuary, with Uruguay on the opposite side. The pier is about a half mile from the city center. Cabs are reasonably priced and the best way to get there, but make sure the meter is switched on. You can walk to the Puerto Madero docklands area or Plaza San Martin, both of which are about a mile away.
The port is on the same stretch of river as the regenerated Puerto Madero docklands area. There you will find all the cafes, ATM's, etc., that the main port lacks. Although a little bland compared to the rest of the city, this spruced up area of 19th-century warehouses and new dockside buildings is worth a few hours. It is home to the Fortabat Art Collection, housed in a spectacular modernist building complete with retractable roof.
Though it is a sprawling city covering some 80 square miles, the historic, cultural and business hub of Buenos Aires is within a compact and easily walkable area. The central district is known as the "Micro Center" and extends south from the elegant Plaza San Martin, the area where many hotels are located, to the Plaza de Mayo, the historic center of government, a distance of about 12 blocks. Connecting the two is Calle Florida, a pedestrian-only street that serves as an international magnet for shoppers. West of Plaza de Mayo is Avenida 9 de Julio, one of the world's widest boulevards, which gives the scale of this city's ambition in the 1930's. The road spans an entire city block and contains the city's famous Obelisk at Plaza de la Republica.
For visitors on a budget who plan to explore on their own, the subway system is simple to follow and is the quickest way to get around and avoid downtown traffic. Latin America's oldest underground railway warrants a ride just to see some of the beautiful tiled murals that decorate stations. A fare only costs a few cents. There are six lines and 80 stations, the nearest to the port being Retiro on Av. San Martin.
Buses also crisscross the city. Bus fare boxes return change, so exact fare is not required, but you must have coins, as the driver does not change bills.
If you have limited time, consider the Buenos Aires Bus, the surest way to reach all of the city's special neighborhoods, as well as the Recoleta Cemetery. The hop-on, hop-off tour visits 24 stops, with the roundtrip taking just more than three hours.
Buenos Aires is a walkable city, but distances between attractions can be large, so at some point you might want to hail a taxi. Cabs are plentiful and cheap, but carry a map and a card with your hotel address to point to your location.
Watch Out For
A tottering economy means Buenos Aires has more than its share of pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Avoid wearing jewelry or expensive watches, and don't drape your bag over the back of a chair when dining outdoors, as thieves can be very sneaky.
If you take reasonable care, the main tourist sections are quite safe. Older neighborhoods, such as La Boca and San Telmo, while fine by day, are best avoided on your own at night.
And don't forget: Buenos Aires contains a permanent memorial to the soldiers who died in the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) during the war with Britain in 1982. If you are British, it is still a touchy subject and one that is best not broached with Argentines.
Plaza de Mayo: The city's stately historic center includes the Metropolitan Cathedral, dating to the 18th century, and a host of majestic buildings including the Casa Rosada, the pink palace where Eva Peron addressed adoring crowds from the balcony. The May Pyramid, guarded by tall palm trees in the center of the square, commemorates the 1810 revolution. The square is the setting of modern-day protests, including an encampment of Falklands War veterans calling for pension rights and by the Mothers of the Disappeared, whose children were abducted, tortured and killed by the military regime in the 1970's and 1980's.
Recoleta Cemetery: The hub of the Recoleta neighborhood -- one of the city's swankiest addresses -- is the Recoleta Cemetery, where the ancestors of the city's aristocracy are buried. Begun in 1822, this amazing cemetery is a virtual crypt city of tall and elaborate tombs and mausoleums covering four square blocks. It's one of the city's most visited attractions. The monument most people seek out is the simple dark marble crypt belonging to Eva Peron, the wife of late President Juan Peron and the heroine of the city's working class because she was one of their own before her rise to power. She now rests surrounded by the very families who once despised her lower-class origins. The cemetery's Gothic and art nouveau monuments have more elaborate and fascinating tombs, some with tragic stories attached, and it's worth several hours' exploration with a guide.
On weekends, don't miss the colorful crafts and souvenir market that takes place around the Plaza Intendente Alvear, just below the cemetery, an event livened by street performers.
La Boca: Many of the city's first Italian immigrants settled this neighborhood, building corrugated iron houses along its cobbled streets. It is also said that the tango was born there. Now it's home to artists, who have painted the metal houses in bright reds, yellows, blues and greens, an echo of the former inhabitants, whose poverty led them to use paint remnants for decoration. Lively Caminito, a multi-hued pedestrian walkway, is a marketplace for artists and craftsmen and a block where you are likely to see couples doing the tango to the tune of a guitar or the traditional accordion known as the bandoneon.
Museums: It would take days to visit all of the museums of Buenos Aires. At the top of the list are the Museum of Fine Arts (Av. Del Libertador 1473) -- featuring both Argentine and European artists including Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Van Gogh -- and MALBA (Avenida Pres. Figueroa Alcorta 3415), a stunning modern building housing a private collection of contemporary Latin American art that includes work by Frida Kahlo.
The National Museum of Decorative Arts (Avenida del Libertador 1902), housed in a French-inspired villa, offers European paintings, tapestries and furniture, Chinese art, and miniatures from the Russian empire. Similarly, The National History Museum (Defensa 1600) is housed in an expansive Italian-style former family mansion. On a smaller scale, the intimate Museo Evita (Lafinur 2988) is located in another former mansion turned into a shelter for homeless women and children by Peron herself.
Shopping: The pedestrian-only Calle Florida is a stroller's paradise, with 12 blocks of nonstop shopping temptations. Be sure to visit the Galerias Pacifico, an 1891 arcade of some 180 shops with a magnificent domed ceiling and frescoes painted by local artists. Avenida Alvear in Recoleta is the place for those in search of designer boutiques, but if you want the real up-and-coming designers, head for Palermo, especially Plaza Serrano and Plaza Armenia, to find clothes, furniture and all sorts of interior decor. Shoppers can grab handbags and other leather goods, along with silver, jewelry and other specialities. The shops around Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo district are dominated by antique sellers, and the square, one of the oldest in the city, is the venue for a Sunday antiques market. (Note: The VAT tax of 21 percent can mostly be refunded on purchases of $70 or more per invoice when you leave the country.)
Been There, Done That
Colon Theatre: One of the most opulent opera houses in the world, the Colon has hosted everyone from Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti since its inauguration in 1908. Guided tours of the seven-tier theater with its grand central chandelier are available. (Cerrito 628. Tours daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., departing every 15 minutes, with the exception of Sunday performances.)
Parks and Gardens: More than 8,000 species of plants from throughout South America can be found at the botanical garden in Palermo. It adjoins the Buenos Aires Zoo, known for its white tigers. Also, the adjacent Tres de Febrero Park features 1,000 strollable acres with rose and Japanese gardens, lakes and meandering streams. The park is a great people-watching spot on Sundays.
Soccer: Buenos Aires goes gaga over soccer, and attending a match is a gala experience, with street parties in full swing on the day of the game. You fall into two camps if you live in Buenos Aires: you either support the Boca Juniors, the country's most popular club, or River Plate. Boca gave the world Diego Maradona, whose famous lookalike earns a decent living being photographed with tourists in the surrounding area. Both teams attract fanatical supporters and games are an unforgettable spectacle, but be sure to buy a ticket in the seated platea baja area, not the popular (standing) zone. Boca Juniors also has its own museum at the La Bombonera stadium. Tours to the museum and tickets for matches at both clubs can be bought via tour operators. League fixtures take place between August and May. (River Plate Stadium: Avenida Pres. Figueroa Alcorta 7597. (0)11 4789 1200. La Bombonera: Brandsen 805, near San Telmo.)
Tango: No one should leave Buenos Aires without taking in a tango show. The Argentines have perfected this dance to its most seductive and romantic. Small, intimate tango bars can be found throughout the San Telmo and La Boca districts, but the larger shows frequented by tourists at places such as La Ventana, Casa Blanca, the Las Vegas-style Senor Tango or El Viejo Amacen, are also wonderful spectacles. The ultra-hip Faena Hotel in Puerto Madero offers a smoldering show. If you are smitten and want to learn the dance, spots such as Le Catedral in Almagro and Complejo Tango offer lessons, guaranteed to be a fun experience.
Buenos Aires' dining options will surprise and delight you, especially if you expected only steaks and other standard South American fare. The city's large population of Italian descendants -- well over one million -- has heavily influenced the cuisine, and some of the best Italian cooking outside the home country can be found there.
The cosmopolitan nature of the city means that there really is something for everyone -- and at prices that most can afford.
Sorrento del Puerto is a sleek and modern setting for Italian food, with large windows on two floors to capture the view. The pasta is excellent, the seafood even better. (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 430, 4319 8730.)
Cabana las Lilas, one of the best of the city's parrillas (barbecue houses), is where steak-lovers will discover why Argentina is famous for its beef. Thick steaks come sizzling from the charcoal grill. This is an equally fine choice for dinner, although it can be expensive. (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 516, 4313 1336.)
Spettus Puerto Madero is one of several convivial cafes offering all-you-can-eat buffets, including steak. (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 876, 4334 4126.)
El Mercardo at the Faena Hotel serves traditional Argentinian cuisine. Designer Philippe Starck has really gone to town in this restaurant, which features all exposed brick walls and antique glass cases stuffed with knick-knacks relating to local characters. Afterward, the adjacent Library Lounge bar is the place to be seen. (Martha Salotti, 4010 9200.)
Bice, a sibling of the well-known restaurant in Milan, has pleasing, understated decor and is a long time favorite for Northern Italian dishes including risottos and interesting pasta combinations. (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 192, 4315 6216.)
Katrine is an upscale eatery named after its Norwegian chef/owner. The venue serves a few Scandinavian dishes along with a fine continental menu. The outdoor terrace overlooking the water is ideal for a warm evening. (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo138, 4315 6222.)
Center Cafe Tortoni, a favorite with the city's artists and writers since 1880, is the place for a light lunch amid Old World ambience and prime people watching. An art-nouveau beauty, it features a stained-glass skylight and original artwork, caricatures, portraits and photos of great poets lining the walls. (Av. de Mayo 829, 4342 4328.)
Catalinas serves Mediterranean and international dishes in three elegant dining rooms, each painted by a well-known Argentinean artist. The three-course prix fixe menu, including Argentinean wine, is of excellent value. The eatery is especially noted for its grilled lamb chops. (Reconquista 850, 4313 0182.)
La Estancia is another of the city's classic parrillas, specializing in beef grilled on a spit. They'll slice up as much tender beef as you can eat. (Lavalle 941, 4326 0330.)
Broccolino, a casual family-run trattoria, takes its name from New York's Brooklyn, and boasts Brooklyn memorabilia and a mural of Manhattan's skyline. Pizzas, pastas and calamari sautéed in wine are among the favorite dishes. (Esmeralda 776, 4322 9848.)
Dada Bistrot is the place to mingle with the locals. The décor of this snug bistro hasn't changed much in decades, but the kitchen produces hearty local dishes, including great steaks and pasta and wonderful desserts. (San Martin 941, 4314 4787)
Cafe Victoria offers a three-course lunch served on a shaded patio surrounded by flowers. Afternoon tea with scones is served at 4 p.m. The location is perfect if you are visiting the nearby Recoleta Cemetery. (Roberto M. Ortiz 1865, 4804 0016.)
La Bourgogne is generally considered the best restaurant in the city, and one of the best in all of South America. French and continental dishes are served in an elegant formal dining room decorated in pastel hues. Reservations are required, as are jackets and ties for men. (Alvear Palace Hotel, 4805 3857.)
Lola is a chic contemporary choice, bright and cheerful with caricatures of local personalities on the walls. A French-trained chef presides here in one of the city's best-known eateries. (Roberto M. Ortiz 1805, 4804 5959.)
Chez Nous is the restaurant onsite at the Algodon Mansion, a Belle Epoque boutique hotel. The decor is as cutting edge as the cuisine, which fuses European and Argentine influence. The wine and some ingredients are from the hotel's sister property in Mendoza. (Montevideo 1647, 3535 1365.)
Cabernet might be set in the heart of the trendy Palermo area, but a meal in the garden of this relaxed venue will transport you straight to Tuscany. The wine list, however, is thoroughly Argentinean. (1757 Jorge Luis Borges, 4831 3071.)
Aldo's, located in an Art Deco building a few meters from Plaza de Mayo, is a modern brasserie with 500 bottles of wine on display sold at retail prices. The food draws on Italian influences, with the fresh pasta being especially notable. (372 Moreno, 5291 2380.)
Many hotels offer rates at less than $100 per night, well below published rates. Even the most luxurious hotels are priced well below similar lodgings in most major cities.
Closest to the ships:
Built in 2000, Hilton Buenos Aires is an ultra-modern 400-room hotel of glass, steel and marble with an outdoor pool and patio and great views over the former docks. (Avenida Macacha Guemes 351, Dique 3, Puerto Madero, 4891 0000.)
Park Tower is a lesser known, but equally convenient splurge-worthy hotel. We loved our decadently decorated room and the sprawling outdoor pool, all close to just about everything. The adjoining Sheraton shares facilities on a linked walkway. (Avenida Leandro N. Alem 1193, 4318 9100.)
Alvear Palace Hotel is Buenos Aires' most famous hotel. It's a Belle Epoque beauty with modern conveniences, including a well-appointed health club with indoor pool, sauna and gym. The hotel is the longtime choice of visiting celebrities and royalty. (Alvear 1891, Recoleta, 4808 2100.)
Faena Hotel & Universe is a Philippe Starck conversion of a 1902 grain store where superlative luxury meets ultra-cool design. The dark red decor and drapes in the public areas make this a sensual experience. (445 Martha Salotti, 4010 9000.)
Four Seasons is a luxurious lair in the city's swankiest district. A 12-story tower and a turn-of-the-century mansion with seven special suites are separated by a French garden and outdoor swimming pool. (Posadas 1086-88, Recoleta, 4321 1200.)
Sofitel, which opened in 2002, is one of the city's most interesting luxury hotels, with two art deco buildings joined by a glass-roofed atrium entry. Rooms are lavish, and visitors enjoy an indoor pool and a fitness center. (Arroyo 841-49, Microcenter, 4131 0000.)
Style on a Budget:
Rooney's Boutique Hotel is the former home of Argentine writer and poet Leopoldo Lugones. You'll find 14 unique rooms -- some of which can be joined to accommodate families -- as well as Wi-Fi and a continental breakfast for a reasonable price. Free tango lessons add to the hotel's charm, and its location -- near several historical landmarks, including Casa Rosada and the Palacio del Congreso -- is ideal. (Sarmiento 1775, 5252 5060.)
Hotel Castelar, a city landmark, was once home to the renowned writer Federico Garcia Lorca. It is located on the city's grandest boulevard and boasts an excellent spa in the basement with hour-long massages for less than $15. Rates include a buffet breakfast. (Avenida de Mayor 1152, Microcenter, 4383 5000.)
Aspen Towers, a contemporary hotel with an attractive atrium lobby, offers whirlpool baths in each room's marble bathroom and a rooftop pool. Rates include a buffet breakfast. (Paraguay 857, Microcenter, 5166 1900.)
Functional and Modern:
Melia Confort Hotel offers a convenient location near Plaza San Martin and generous-sized rooms. Rates include a buffet breakfast. (Reconquista 945, Microcenter, 0808 234 1953.)
Hotel NH Crillon has an ideal location next to Plaza San Martin and comfortable, recently decorated rooms. Rates include a buffet breakfast. (Avenida Santa Fe 796, Microcenter, 4310 2000.)
Malabia House is a cozy bed and breakfast inn with interior gardens in a trendy young section of town. (Malabia 1555, Palermo Viejo, 4833 2410.)
Staying in Touch
Major hotels in Buenos Aires have in-room Internet connections, and this cosmopolitan city features dozens of cyber cafes. Two of the most convenient are located on Calle Florida, the traffic-free main shopping street: P@rk Lane Cyber, at number 719, and Net C@fe, at 537.
Best for Culture Buffs: Enjoy a steak dinner and Argentinean wine while you thrill to the romance of a tango show performed by professionals. You can also opt for a later tour, offering after-dinner drinks and the show.
Best for Country Living: Spend a day on a ranch outside the city, enjoying a barbecue lunch and a folkloric show featuring the fabulous horseback skills of the gauchos, Argentina's colorful cowboys.
Best for Sightseeing: A half-day excursion takes you on the rivers and canals of the Parana Delta on a 30-kilometer trip that includes stops at historic districts of the city on the way to the town of Tigre.
For More Information
On the Web: Buenos Aires Tourism or Argentina Ministry of Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: South America
IndependentTraveler.com: Central and South America Travel Guide
--Updated by Gary Noakes, Cruise Critic contributor