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.
But don't be deceived by appearances -- Buenos Aires may have the look and feel of European city, but scratch the surface and you'll soon realize that Buenos Aires is a South American city with very real South American challenges. The main ones are massive unemployment and a huge influx of migrant workers from neighboring countries, the majority of which live in slums either side of the main highways in area called Villa 31. Though not as (in)famous as Rio's favelas, these shantytowns lack running water, electricity, basic sanitation and schooling and the authorities are trying to figure out how to incorporate them into the city.
The country also wrestles with high inflation and unemployment. More than anywhere else in the country, Buenos Aires felt the effects of years of more than 2,000 percent inflation and that is still felt today. When the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, the "Portenos" -- as the city's residents call themselves, in a reference to the city's origins as a port -- took to the streets demanding someone be held accountable. Others formed collectives to purchase and run their places of business. The flip side, of course, was that the devaluation of the Argentine peso made a visit to the city very affordable, and tourism thrived.
Even today, most of the city's goods and services remain a tremendous bargain for visitors from Europe or North America. (Subway rides total 30 cents, and a steak main course costs around $15.) Hoteliers have gotten wise to this attractiveness, and accommodation prices have increased. However, the opening of more properties, particularly of the boutique variety, and the rise of Airbnb 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.
The port is on the same stretch of river as the regenerated Puerto Madero docklands area. There you will find all the cafes, ATMs, 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.
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.
Buenos Aires has more than its share of pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Avoid wearing jewelry, brandishing your phone or expensive watches, and don't drape your bag over the back of a chair or place your phone on the table 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.
On Foot: 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 1930s. The road spans an entire city block and contains the city's famous Obelisk at Plaza de la Republica.
By Subway: For visitors on a budget who plan to explore on their own, the subway ("Subte") 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.
By Bus: 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 round trip taking just more than three hours.
By Bike: One of the best ways to see this sprawling but almost completely flat city is by bike. Buenos Aires has an excellent network of dedicated cycle lanes covering more than 130 km. You can hop on one for free (for an hour) with the government-sponsored EcoBici scheme, which has 32 bike stations dotted throughout the city, or hire one from a number of companies including Urban Biking and La Bicicleta Naranja, or book a city bike tour. The latter is offered by the aforementioned hire shops, as well as Biking Buenos Aires, which offers excellent private guided tours for one or more people of varying lengths and which take in all the major sites.
By Taxi: 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.
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 1 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.
But, there's no getting away from it, the capital is not great for vegetarians. If you like steak, however, you'll be in heaven. Steakhouses abound, and apart from a few exceptions, are very reasonably priced compared to what you would pay in the U.S. or the U.K. The Italian influence is strongly felt in terms of cuisine and you'll find a lot of trattorias, again at reasonable prices.
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)
El Mirasol is one of the oldest and best known steak house chains in Buenos Aires, with four dotted around the city, including in Puerto Madero, which is in a great spot overlooking the river. If you like traditional white cloth-covered tables, red napkins and smartly dressed waiters as well, of course, as outstanding cuts of meat, then this is a good bet. (Av. Alicia Moreau de Justo 202)
Sotto Voce is an upmarket Italian restaurant serving classic Italian fare in a lovely setting, set back from the main shorefront road. If you want a break from steak, then this is a good option. (Av. Alicia M de Justo 176)
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)
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 knickknacks relating to local characters. Afterward, the adjacent Library Lounge bar is the place to be seen. (Martha Salotti, 4010 9200)
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 Justo 138, 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 sauteed in wine are among the favorite dishes. (Esmeralda 776, 4322 9848)
Dada Bistrot is the place to mingle with the locals. The decor 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 on-site 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)
Fervor makes a pleasant change from all the meat options, in that there is also an extensive seafood menu, much of it grilled on the parilla to sublime affect. It's not cheap, but the setting and the quality of the cuisine is worth it for a splurge. (Posadas, 1519)
Cabernet might be set in the heart of the trendy Palermo area, but a meal in the garden of this upmarket restaurant will transport you straight to Tuscany -- with a few surprises like lamb couscous -- and, of course, a grill with various steak cuts. The wine list, however, is thoroughly Argentinean. (1757 Jorge Luis Borges, 4831 3071)
Pain Et Vin is a really lovely wine bar which offers wine tasting (750 ARS per person) and a limited but supremely tasty menu based on Israeli chef Ohad's absolute passion for bread, which is all naturally fermented, handmade and baked in a wood-fired oven, and perfectly complements the wine. Menu items include prosciutto, quinoa salad, prawns and meatballs as well as a rather incongruous mac 'n' cheese! The wines are all Argentinian and sourced from small, independent vineyards. (Gorritti 5132)
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)
La Brigada is a BA institution, founded in 1992, and offering some of best and widest choice of cuts and wine selection in the city. Packed, noisy and fun, its centerpiece is the parilla (grill) where you can watch your steak sizzle before it's served. (Estados Unidos, 463)
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 specialties. 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.)
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.