Twelve months on since centre-right candidate Mauricio Macri was elected President ending a dozen years of leftist rule, Argentina’s charismatic capital is booming. And now – when the weather is balmy, not blistering and the jacaranda trees are in bloom – is the best time to go writes Kaye Holland
To say that Buenos Aires has been through a lot in recent years is like saying Victoria’s Secret angels are hot: a major understatement.
The Paris of the South has survived a series of corrupt governments, coup d’etats, dictatorships, military rule and more – yet managed to maintain its joie de vivre.
And rightly so for, despite all its troubles, there is so much to enjoy in Baires (as the city is affectionately referred to) whose stately European facade belies its Latin soul.
Make no mistake: the fantastic food scene (Argentina’s steakhouses are legendary but you’ll also, thanks to Italian immigration in the past, find excellent pizza and pasta all washed down with copious amounts of Malbec), passion for futbol (football is a religion), tango (arguably Argentina’s greatest contribution to the world) and proud Portenos (BA residents) will warm even the most jaded traveller’s heart.
Adventures abound all over Buenos Aires, but as a first port of call Plaza de Mayo in downtown is as good a place as any to start. On the east side of this excitable square (protests and demonstrations are as much a daily event as dinner), lies La Casa Rosada (www.casarosada.gob.ar) whose pretty pink facade illustrates what happens when pigs blood is mixed with white paint….
The Presidential palace is home to the balcony where Argentina’s most famous son, Diego Maradona (a footballing god who made an enormous amount of noise both on and off the pitch) greeted crowds from the balcony after winning the 1986 World Cup for Argentina. The pink palace is also where Evita – the country’s beloved First Lady – used to address her legion of fans often called the descamisados (shirtless ones) owing to their impoverished status.
The life of the charismatic, if controversial, second wife of Juan Domingo Perón was cut short (Evita died, aged 33, of cancer in 1952), but her presence continues to be felt – something the 100ft tall iron portrait of Evita, which looks down on the 14 lane Avenue 9 de Julio, bears testimony to.
You can read all about the former actress turned revered political figure in Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita. And the perfect place to get stuck into this mesmerising novel while enjoying a Cortado coffee (essentially a shot of espresso, with an equal amount of steamed milk) and medialuna (small croissant) is Cafe Tortoni (www.cafetortoni.com.ar/en) – a historic cafe which, with its wooden walls, crystal chandeliers and elegant stained glass windows, is a million miles away from the Costas and Caffe Neros that plague the British high street.
Then make for Recoleta – an upmarket neighbourhood whose biggest draw is the eponymous cemetery (Junin 1760; 8am-6pm) where generations of Argentina’s great and good, including Evita, were buried. And don’t worry about missing Eva Duarte’s mausoleum – simply follow the crowds and you can’t fail to find Evita’s final resting place. Free tours are offered in English at 11am every Tuesday and Thursday.
From Recoleta, potter north and you’ll reach Palermo – a boon for Buenos Aires’ middle class contingent, packed as it is with perfectly manicured parks (TNT loves Parque Tres de Febrero), buzzy bars and parillas (steakhouses) and bijoux boutiques.
The antithesis of Palermo is San Telmo, famous for its narrow cobbled streets and crumbling villas – and a favourite barrio (neighbourhood) of bohemians and artists alike. If you’re in town on a Sunday, be sure to seek out the Feria de San Telmo (from 10am) – an unmissable market selling some of BA’s best arts, crafts and souvenirs including bombilla, the metal straw used to drink Argentina’s beloved Mate (a bitter herb drink). Even if shopping isn’t your bag, the San Telmo street market is worth visiting for the atmosphere alone: expect to see colourful street performances plus vendors loudly peddling freshly squeezed orange juice and empanadas (super South American pies).
Another excellent market – and one of BA”s best kept secrets – is the Feria de Mataderos (www.feriademataderos.ar), held every Sunday in the working class barrio of Materados. Admittedly Materados is a bit of a schlep to reach (you’ll need to take bus 126, 155 or 180 from downtown for around 90 minutes) but it’s worth it to watch gauchos (Argentine cowboys) and folk singers entertain the crowds, while chowing down on hearty dishes such as humitas (corn cakes). However the standout of La Feria de Mataderos is without a doubt the La sortija show: gauchos gallop at their fastest along a corridor of sand before rising up out of their saddle – leaving just their feet in the stirrups – in an attempt to spear a small ring, all the while cheered on by rowdy locals.
Back in BA proper, football fans will want to make a beeline for blue collar La Boca, home to the legendary La Bombonera stadium (www.museoboquense.com). This is where Boca Juniors – Argentina’s favourite football club – play in their famous la azul y oro (blue and gold) strip.
Bagging tickets to a Boca game isn’t easy as around 40 per cent of Argentines consider themselves “Bosteros”, but if you get the chance to go to a game, grab it. The swarm of yellow and blue shirts surging toward the fence (yes there’s a stadium fence that separates fans from the pitch) screaming for Boca to score, is something that has to be seen to be believed.
One essential is to experience a milonga (traditional tango dance night). Argentina is synonymous with sultry tango – a passionate dance that has seduced the world – and nowhere more so than Buenos Aires, where the spirit of tango oozes on every street corner. A few milongas to try include Confiteria Ideal (the grand dame of BA’s tango scene), La Cathedral (quite possibly Baires’ coolest tango club) and La Glorieta – a free outdoor milonga which takes place every Saturday and Sunday evening at the Barrancas de Belgrano bandstand.
Two left feet? TNT recommends signing up for a dance class with Diego Alvaro Zoraida Fontclara (www.facebook.com/DiegoAlvaroZoraidaFontclara) – a name and a tango talent to remember. After a couple of classes with Diego, we’re confident that even the Ed Balls of the dance floor will have mastered the caminar (tango walk).
And if not, well – there’s always next time, because a single trip to BA will never be enough. Visit once and you’ll find yourself returning again and again and again – be it for the tango, alfajores (divine dulce de leche cookie sandwiches), brilliant bookshops (the Argentine capital has more bookshops per person than any other city), boliches (clubs) in which to party until dawn, can’t miss cafes and the fiery Argentines themselves.
Or as American writer, Truman Capote, once termed it: “Brazil was beastly but Buenos Aires the best. Not Tiffany’s, but almost.”