Sorrel Moseley-Williams samples the architectural, cultural and epicurean experiences in Buenos Aires and beyond.
Buenos Aires is a microcosm of wider Latin America – elegant architecture harks back to a colonial past, while vivid bursts of colour, music and tango in the streets remind you that you’re far from Europe.
BA – an English moniker for the capital – is one of the region’s most vibrant cities. Its also a transit hub, positioned as a gateway to the rest of the continent.
Getting to BA is straightforward if lengthy, at close to 14 hours. Direct flights from Gatwick with Norwegian launched in February 2018, while British Airways’ daily direct flight from Heathrow is long-standing. The cruise ship terminal regularly receives transatlantic visitors from Fred Olsen and Celebrity Cruises, among others, that dock on the west bank of the River Plate, a 10-minute drive from downtown and the upmarket Recoleta neighbourhood, where the famous cemetery is located.
Cheaper flights have made the city more accessible, while a weak Argentine peso is making it more affordable. In August, the pound was up 53 per cent against the peso year-on-year, meaning visitors get more bang for their buck.
Meanwhile, the city’s attractions are a constant. BA commands huge kudos for its cultural, sporting, foodie and arts scenes. The capital has been selected for the debut Art Basel Cities Week from September 6-12 and is set to host the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in October, as well as Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2019. The annual SúperClásico match between football legends Boca Juniors and River Plate is a given, as is the Argentine Open polo tournament in spring.
Aesthetes will love the mélange of art deco, brutalist and Belle Époque buildings. Strolling up Avenida de Mayo from Plaza de Mayo to Congreso showcases a cluster of design hits including Palacio Barolo, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The city boasts a strong cultural scene, and many attractions are free to enter. Gratis museums include Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts): head there for a collection starring El Greco, Manet and Dalí. For a look at Latin American artists such as Mexico’s Frida Kahlo and local masters Antonio Berni and Xul Solar, the MALBA is fantastic – and the entrance fee is a snip at AR$150 (£4).
Besides Art Basel Cities Week, Argentina’s capital also hosts arteBA every May, the continent’s largest annual contemporary arts fair. Collectors should note that legislation regarding art exports was considerably relaxed this year, creating new opportunities for galleries such as Del Infinito, Rolf Art and Galeria Mar Dulce to raise the profiles of local artists and photographers. And that weak peso means you can snag a bargain.
Other BA bucket-list musts include a night at the opera at Teatro Colón (performances for the remainder of the year include Puccini’s La bohème and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite) and losing your inhibitions at a tango class – naturally aimed at beginners with two left feet – at La Viruta milonga (dance hall). Since the gay marriage and equal rights law was passed in 2010, gay milongas such as Tango Queer have also formed part of the genre’s circuit. Once that fancy footwork has been mastered, reward yourself with a dinner-and-dance show at Café de los Angelitos. At La Recoleta cemetery, wander the labyrinthine rows containing thousands of lavish mausoleums. Free to enter, the cemetery is the resting place of Argentina’s most famous figures.
Recoleta itself is worth taking a walk around, home to buildings with elegant Parisian-style façades. Two doors down from the cemetery is Centro Cultural Recoleta, where a breathtaking aquatic acrobatic show – Fuerza Bruta – is performed. Booking ahead is recommended. Also within walking distance is Floralis Genérica, an enormous aluminium and steel flower that reacts to light, and the brutalist-style National Library.
Wandering north alongside Parque Tres de Febrero towards the city’s largest neighbourhood, Palermo, reveals a miniature version of the capital. Here, mechanics’ workshops rub shoulders with trendy bars, pubs, street-food joints and fine-dining restaurants. Check out how the other half lives in Barrio Parque and, in the spring, grab a cheap ticket to one of the polo matches at the Palermo grounds. Soho’s cobbled streets offer up a plethora of boutiques and cosy cafés – Felix Felicis & Co is a highlight.
Further south is the colourful La Boca neighbourhood. Step down Calle Caminito to take photos of the brightly painted buildings, watch local artists and, if you’re lucky, catch a street performance of the tango. La Boca is also home to La Bombonera, Boca Juniors’ home turf.
No visit to Buenos Aires would be complete without gorging at a parrilla (steakhouse). Argentine bife de chorizo (New York strip) steak and a portion of chips slathered in spicy chimichurri sauce has turned more than one vegetarian over to the medium-rare dark side. Don Julio rules the parrilla roost after ranking in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, but you can’t go wrong scoring some beef at La Carnicería (hipster), Le Grill (business lunch), Cabaña Las Lilas (swanky) or La Brigada (authentic yet pricey).
These are among the ‘must sees’ for visitors to Buenos Aires before they take off to explore the rest of this diverse region. Having lived in the city for 12 years, I’m adamant about two things: first, it’s the perfect city to wander around and get lost in, because it’s flat, it’s charming and the weather is usually dry; and second, if you have any kind of ‘in’ with a porteño (resident of BA), let them know you’re coming so they can show their characteristic warm hospitality at an asado – a shared meal where everyone contributes. It usually starts in the afternoon and invariably lasts long into the evening; friendships are cemented over several bottles of Malbec or Cabernet Franc, and you’ll get to enjoy an authentic taste of the city.