During Buenos Aires’ heyday, fabulous wealth flowed into the city from Argentina’s agricultural heartland, turning the country into one of the world’s richest by the early 20th century. The evidence of that era is still apparent in the grand architectural showpieces scattered around this sprawling city of three million.
But since the late 1940s, Argentina has experienced dictatorship, military rule, corruption and a succession of crippling economic crises. Artless graffiti scars nearly every building and much of the transit system, though efficient, hasn’t been updated since the 1960s.
Still, it remains a marvelous destination. Meet a few Portenos, as city residents are called, and take advantage of the legendary nightlife and restaurant scene, and you’ll get a buzz from the culture that invented the tango.
La Casa Rosada: No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a swing past the blushing balconies of La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, where Eva Peron and her president husband Juan once addressed adoring crowds. The building faces Plaza de Mayo, the heart of the city that provides a good jumping off point for exploring the downtown. An organisation of mothers of the 30,000 Argentines who disappeared during the dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s still gathers there, as they have every Thursday afternoon for decades.
Recoleta cemetery: Continuing the requisite Evita pilgrimage, head up the hill to the posh Recoleta neighbourhood and its namesake cemetery, where the city’s elite have been laid to rest for generations. The necropolis resembles a city in miniature more than a burial ground, with intricate gothic temples to the dead lined up like rowhouses along a network of stone-paved alleys. Evita’s black granite gravesite is rather dull by comparison, and generally crowded, but parts of the cemetery offer plenty of opportunities for reflective solitude.
San Telmo: Afterward, stroll around the surrounding area, where the wealthy built palatial homes as they fled a yellow fever epidemic in the low-lying San Telmo neighbourhood near the Plata River.
Foodie destination: It wasn’t long ago that the dining scene mostly consisted of steak, empanadas, Italian and more steak. But a flurry of restaurant openings has transformed the city into a worldly food destination. The burger invasion arrived a few years back, but chefs have begun to draw on other cultures to spice up the mix. The Korean-Argentinian restaurant Kyopo in Flores serves a sweet and spicy kimchi burger as well as savoury rice bowls. In Villa Crespo, I Latina serves seafood-focused tasting menu of Colombian fare in a renovated townhouse.
Pope’s city: The Pope Francis story has become big business in his native city. A number of tours have popped up to show off the sites he used to frequent when he was known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Stops include where he grew up in Flores, his former schools and the Metropolitan Cathedral where he presided.
Art: San Telmo, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, today is an artsy enclave known for a Sunday afternoon market at Plaza Dorrego with hundreds of stalls selling antiques, leather goods, vintage gear and handmade accessories. The rest of the week, sidewalk cafes fan out from the plaza during the day, and late at night (some bars don’t even open until midnight) a bohemian crowd mingles with tourists. One called Doppelganger serves more than 100 mixes at its dimly lit mahogany bar.
Steak station: Besides late nights, Buenos Aires is also known for its beef. Don Julio and La Cabrera in the Palermo neighbourhood represent fine options at the top end of the steak-joint spectrum, particularly if you pair the meal with a bold grape beverage. In the riverside Puerto Madera area, La Cabana sources its beef from its own ranch and offers views of the spire that angles up from a pedestrian bridge by architect Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Oculus transportation hub at One World Trade in New York.
Tango: Find a way to experience one of Argentina’s signature attractions: the tango. You’re bound to stumble across dancers performing for tips on the streets, and there are numerous tango shows catering to tourists, including in Cafe Tortoni downtown and El Viejo Almacen in San Telmo. But it’s best to hit up a milonga, which is essentially a tango gathering. Usually lessons are offered before a milonga begins. I found one in Villa Crespo at a downmarket sports club called Villa Malcolm. A two-hour group lesson in the pink and blue room cost only 60 pesos (Dh14) on a Monday night.
Transit system: The vast transit system can be baffling, but rides cost only 7.5 pesos, and its six lines mostly lead downtown. It’s convenient for sightseeing but less so for hopping between the outer neighbourhoods. Taxis fill the gap and are incredibly cheap by US standards, but traffic can be stressful. Buses, called colectivos, are 6.5 pesos and a particularly good option if you’re trying to get somewhere along one of the wide avenues that have dedicated bus lanes.