With a mix of European edge, Latino flair, elegant boulevards and gritty backstreets, Argentina’s capital city is worth more than 24-hours of your time if you can spare it, reckons former resident Chris Moss
Where? North-east Argentina
Why? One of Latin America’s most beautiful and beguiling cities
When? Spring (Oct-Nov) and autumn (Mar-Apr) – for the best weather
Home to nearly a third of the population of Argentina, Buenos Aires is a huge city, sprawling across what was once a flat patch of pampas beside the River Plate. It is fast-moving, chaotic, exuberant, gorgeous in some places, grimy in others, superficially Roman Catholic but spiritually secular. Once a melting pot of nations, it’s now, above all, a clamourous nexus of competing people, traffic, adverts, infrastructure, needs and energies.
To the chagrin of their neighbours, Argentines take great pride in styling themselves as Europeans; in food, fashion, manners and customs this is very much the case. In formality terms, think Milan with a hint of Naples.
Poetry by Borges, Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel or, for a contemporary angle, Carlos Gamerro’s The Islands will give you a quick intro to Buenos Aires’ inner soul. For in-flight listening, albums by Mercedes Sosa and Astor Piazzolla (or Carlos Gardel) will immerse you in the two defining local music genres: folclore and tango.
Most international flights land by descending over the immense, chocolate-brown Río de la Plata (River Plate). Look out for the delta to the west, massive Buenos Aires on the coast and also Uruguay; take in the green, lovely pampas as you land – you won’t see a lot of nature once you’re in the city.
Located 22km south-west of the city centre, the Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini, better known as Ezeiza, was expanded and modernised in the 2000s and a new terminal added in July 2011. Passport control is understaffed, so expect slow queues and a wait of up to 40mins. UK nationals don’t require visas; a 90-day stay is granted on arrival. Uniformed officials are generally unfriendly, so it’s certainly best to keep things formal.
Take dollars with you and buy pesos (ARG$) at the Banco de la Nación branch just outside Arrivals, as the rate is generally the best and there’s no commission charged. As you go through the Arrivals gate, prepare for pandemonium – Argentines turn out en masse to greet friends and family members.
If you want a local sim card, wait until you get to your hotel and ask the staff to sort it out for you.
The taxi ride into town – often driven very fast (say “Más despacio por favor” if unhappy) – takes 30-40 mins and costs around ARS$200 (£28). The Airport Bus (ARS$70 [£10]; www.tiendaleon.com.ar) takes about 40mins into the centre. The public bus is cheaper but takes up to two hours, stopping all over the city en route. There is no train service.
If you arrive overland you’ll likely come into Retiro bus terminal. Get a taxi (black with yellow roof) away from the main exit. From Uruguay, you’ll arrive in the ferry port, walkable from downtown or a 5-15min taxi ride to hotels in the centre/Palermo.
The domestic airport, Jorge Newbery, is a 20min taxi to town; agree a price before getting in.
Taxis from the airport are the likeliest rip-off; to avoid touts and overpaying, prearrange a driver through your hotel, especially if you can't speak Spanish.
Where to see, stay and eat in Argentina’s comely capital – plus a few great escapes...
If you’re jetlagged – and you probably will be – keep the walking gentle for the first day. Tick off a few essentials by taking a cab to the Plaza de Mayo and seeing the facades of the Casa Rosada (the pink-walled Government House), the cathedral, the Cabildo (old town hall) and the plaza itself. Just five minutes walk west is the Café Tortoni (Avenida de Mayo 825), lovely to see in any case, or you can sit down for a quick coffee.
If you find walking good for clearing the jetlag, keep going west. You’ll cross the wide Avenida 9 de Julio, with its tall obelisk and, after 30 minutes, arrive at the Plaza Congreso with the Washington-style Congress building at its far end.
Next, catch a yellow-roofed cab to Borges y Honduras (you always give the corner of two streets for directions in Buenos Aires) in Palermo Viejo. From here, amble around some nice streets and find a lunch spot, bookstore, more cafés or some lovely souvenirs at shops such as Papelera Palermo (Honduras 4912) or Calma Chicha (Honduras 4909).
A very good local guiding company is Eternautas (www.eternautas.com).
Recoleta is leafy and has a few smart hotels, including the Alvear Palace, a five-star landmark. Palermo is prettier and livelier than the centre, though there are lovely new hotels (in old buildings) in the centre and San Telmo. If you’re staying a couple of weeks, consider renting an apartment. If you arrive without a booking, try the HI Hostel in Recoleta (+54 11 4812 4419); it’s excellent value, with beds from US$14, rooms from US$56.
The locally produced www.timeout.com/buenos-aires lists a lot of hotels and has a downloadable app.
Top end: On a quiet, smart road, the palatial, historic Sofitel Buenos Aires (Arroyo 841; www.sofitel.com) has an air of the 1920s. It’s close to Plaza San Martín and a ten-minute walk to Recoleta. Doubles from £240.
Mid range: Nuss (El Salvador 4916), a refurbished convent in the heart of Palermo Viejo, is now a 22-room hotel with a bohemian feel. Doubles from US$160.
Budget: Soco (Lavalle 3119) is a former mansion with eight themed rooms, and handy for Avenida Corrientes (the Broadway of Buenos Aires). Doubles from US$85.
Buenos Aires deserves at least three days. The must-sees are the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), the Evita Perón Museum, La Boca football stadium, and the Recoleta and Chacarita cemeteries. Have at least one long, slow meal in a corner parrilla (steakhouse) – La Cabrera (Cabrera 5099 & 5127) and the more traditional El Trapiche (Paraguay 5099), both in Palermo, are excellent, as are La Brigada (Estados Unidos 456) and Parrilla 1880 (Defensa 1665) in San Telmo.
If you’re keen to escape the city, then you should head for something utterly opposite to this congested, mid-rise labyrinth. Many head directly for Iguazú and its magnificent cascades, but check that there has been good rainfall and that the falls are flowing at full tilt before you make the 90-minute flight/20-hour road-trip.
Alternatives include: Patagonia, for a trip to see the Perito Moreno glacier; Salta and Jujuy, for vineyards and Andean culture; or a laid-back stay on an estancia, a few hours’ drive out of Buenos Aires.
Population: 12.8 million
International dialling code: +54
Visas: Not required by UK nationals
Currency: Peso (ARG$), currently around ARG$7 to the UK£
Best viewpoint: Book a tour round the 100m-tall Palacio Barolo, a landmark 1920s office building, to enjoy its story and take in the views (www.palaciobarolotours.com.ar).
Health issues: No specific vaccinations are required. Tap water is safe to drink but you may prefer purified instead. Avoid walking around alone after dark.
Recommended guidebook: Moon Buenos Aires (2011)
Web resources: www.bue.gob.ar – official BA Tourism site; www.argentinaindependent.com; Time Out Buenos Aires app (www.timeout.com/buenos-aires).
iPhone app: gringoinbuenosaires.com/10-iphone-apps-foruse-in-buenos-aires
Climate: Humid and subtropical; hot and sticky in summer, mild to cool winters.