Travel: Seven reasons why Buenos Aires should be your new go-to destination
A new low-cost route from London Gatwick means it's now easier – and cheaper – to reach South America. Sarah Marshall explores Argentina's exuberant capital, famous for tango, steak and a certain football player
OFTEN referred to as the Paris of South America, Buenos Aires has always enjoyed close links with Europe; waves of Italian immigrants populated the port city in the 19th and 20th centuries and much of its resplendent architecture echoes trends from this side of the Atlantic.
Now connections are even closer, with the launch of the continent's first direct low-cost flight service from Norwegian, linking the Argentinian capital with London.
Blighted by dictatorships, spiralling inflation and angry protests, the city bears a colourful past. But nothing has ever managed to dampen its spirit, expressed through impassioned tango clinches, riotous football crowds and the poetic fantasies of literary greats, like Jorge Borges.
As if any excuse is needed, here are seven even more wonderful reasons to visit Latin America's most enchanting city.
1. The buildings are beyond beautiful
Much of Buenos Aires's romance is cemented in its belle epoque architecture, intended to emulate the fashionable grandeur of Paris. One of the finest examples is Teatro Colon in the city's downtown, inaugurated in 1908. Muses from Greek mythology dance around a skylight in the eye-popping entrance, and the Golden Hall, modelled on Versailles, glints with 22ct gold leaf. Ornate occasionally spills into ostentatious, but nonetheless, it's a glamorous window on the past.
Guided 50-minute tours take place every day except Saturdays (ARS $300/£11; teatrocolon.org.ar). Or experience acoustics ranked among the best in the world by attending an opera or classical music concert – check their Facebook page for news of free events (March to December).
Tip: Although far from the action, seats in 'the hen house' (the Gods) have the best acoustics. Expect to pay from ARS $50/£2 for a ticket.
2. Evita made her mark here
The First Lady Of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952, Eva Peron – or Evita – captured the hearts of working class socialists and is still a symbol of the country's class divide. A museum, Museo Evita (web.museoevita.org.ar; ARS $120/£4), in Palermo, charts her life history and stylish wardrobe, and her final resting place is part of the most visited 'attraction' in the city.
Wild legends lurk in the shadows of Recoleta Cemetery, a labyrinth of grand graves popular with street photographers and story hunters. Tucked discreetly between marble mausoleums housing wealthier bodies, Peron was ironically laid here alongside her worst enemies – a decision made during the 1976 military dictatorship. Her sombre, simple epitaph is easy to miss, but follow the crowds and you can't go wrong.
3. It's the birthplace of tango
While not so popular with younger portenos (people from the port, a nickname given to locals), tango is still synonymous with Buenos Aires. Although expensive and filled with foreigners, a dinner and show is the best way to see the pros in action. One of the most dramatic is at Esquina Carlos Gardel (esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar; ARS $2290.40/£81.50 for dinner and a show) in CABA, opposite an art deco shopping centre, which was once the city market.
The food is surprisingly decent, but it's the performances that really count; svelte, agile dancers flick their legs like jackknives and, gaze fixed, slide into an electrifying embrace.
But, given it's humble origins, some of the best displays can still be seen on the city's streets. Every day, from around lunchtime until 6pm, tango dancers can be found in San Telmo's Plaza Dorrego. Come during the week when there are fewer people – and bring change for tips.
4. Carnivores will be in their element
Along with dulce de leche (the addictive, gooey caramel spread which goes well with pretty much everything), steak is undoubtedly Buenos Aires' culinary delight, and competition is fierce for the best parilla (grill). Don Julio (parrilladonjulio.com), in Palermo Viejo, is undoubtedly a classic, enjoying a resurgence of interest last year when it was ranked 13th of the 50 Best restaurants in Latin America. It also boasts Argentina's biggest wine cellar, with 13,000 bottles on the shelf. (Expect to pay around ARS $1600/£57 for food and wine).
A few streets away, competitor La Cabrera (lacabrera.com.ar) also serves quality, marbled, tender meats. The rib eye (ARS $561/£20) is recommended (minimum cut 400g), but go easy on ordering sides, as meats are accompanied by a myriad of mini sauces, purees and nibbles. Arrive before the restaurant opens (from 6.30pm until 8pm; last entrance 7.15pm) for a 40% discount.
5. Outsiders have always been welcome
There are 48 neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, but La Boca, where Italian immigrants settled from 1830, considers itself a republic. It's home to the raucous Boca Juniors stadium 'Bombonera', where Maradona rose to fame, and colorful tourist magnet Caminito, a street of brightly-painted tenement houses now selling 'Diez' football shirts (the position played by 'the hand of God' and current star Messi), Gaucho-inspired souvenirs and chunky steaks.
Originally decorated by artist Benito Martin, who wanted 'to bring art to the streets', the row of buildings was named after a famous tango song. Yes, it's tacky and busy – visit after midday to avoid the cruise-ship crowds – but its scruffy charm is irresistible.
Most modern day portenos have Italian roots, celebrated in restaurants and cafes around the city. One of the most visually impressive is Napoles in San Telmo, a cavernous antique store, bar and restaurant. The food is nothing special, but Instagram opportunities are countless. Pay around ARS $250/£9 for mains (facebook.com/napolesristorante).
6. Portenos revel in their romantic past
Once owned by rich families, San Telmo's narrow 'sausage' houses fell into the hands of poorer immigrants when an outbreak of yellow fever caused the wealthy set to move north. It was in these tiled courtyards that tango was born, a close and sensual dance banned in public places until the mid-19th century.
One of the best remaining examples of these houses is El Patio del Tiempo in Pasaje de la Defensa, where bric-a-brac stores fill the ground floor, and bohemian cafes and wine bars drift along the upper level.
Every Sunday, a craft market extends 1.4km from Plaza de Mayo along Defensa to Plaza Dorrego (10am-4pm), with local artists peddling avant-garde jewellery, trendy leather purses and towers of mate gourds. Head into the covered wrought iron Mercado de San Telmo for a fresh empanada; El Hornero sell their oven-baked pies for ARS $30/£1 each.
7. There's a seriously cool crowd in town
A sprawling residential area seized upon by artists and creatives, Palermo is the place to truly live like a modern day porteno. The best bars, independent boutiques and restaurants cluster around Palermo Soho, which has also become an open-air art gallery for accomplished street art. (Download a broader map of Buenos Aires graffiti at streetartfactory.eu/en)
This is also the city's greenest area, with tree-lined parks, decorative rose gardens and a swan-filled lake perfect for pedalos. The Palermo Through The Senses bike tour (ARS $125/£4.50) covers the key sights. Book at any of the local tourism kiosks in the park, which also offer free water and phone charging stations.
:: Norwegian (norwegian.com/uk; 0330 828 0854) operates four weekly flights year-round direct from London Gatwick to Buenos Aires.
:: Fares start from £275 one-way and £589 return in economy, and £640 one-way and £1,360 return in Premium.