Tasting Buenos Aires
I’m not usually one for guided tours, but with precious little time and so much to see in this enormous, fascinating city, I signed up for three with TravelLocal. My first guide, Patricia, had that gift of making history come alive: as we strolled down Avenida Corrientes (the “Broadway of BA”), she described how waves of Europeans immigrants have influenced the culture of Argentina, and its cuisine. On the way, we stopped at Pizzeria Güerrin, opened by a Genoese family in 1932 and buzzing at lunchtime with workers standing at tables wolfing down slices of pizza dripping with mozzarella (no thin crusts here – Argentinian pizzas are rated by how much bubbly white cheese the crusty base can withstand). For dessert we moved onto Heladeria Cadore, originally founded in northern Italy in the 19th century. The family moved to BA and opened the ice-cream parlour in 1957. New flavours are added all the time but the dulce de leche and lime are perennial classics.
Cafe-bar El Banderín
Buenos Aires doesn’t just have a brilliant cafe culture – it has 82 cafes of historical interest, known as bares notables, that are protected national monuments. All ooze a faded, old-world glamour that’s hard to find nowadays in Europe itself and are great for lingering over a cortado or cold beer. When Patricia discovered that I was a football fan, she pointed me to El Banderín, the walls of which are covered with football memorabilia from all over the world – something which started in the 1960s when a regular returned from holiday in Austria with a club banner for the footie-mad owner. I spent ages here, pouring over the pendants, scarves and old photos – it was a history lesson in Argentinian football.
• Guardia Vieja 3601, on Facebook
Cycling is a great way to see BA, which has many widely dispersed sights. I went on a day tour (half-days also available) that took in Palermo, San Telmo, La Recoleta Cemetery (resting place of Eva Perón), La Boca and the Costanera Sur ecological reserve, stopping frequently to hear Brazilian guide Marcelo entertain and inform us with tales from Argentina’s brutal and sometimes bonkers history, no more so than at our last stop, Plaza de Mayo, so often the country’s centre stage. In 1955, in an attempt to overthrow President Juan Perón, the Argentine air force bombed the square during one of his rallies, killing 364 people. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children were “disappeared” during military rule, began protesting here in 1977 and still meet every Thursday to protest against social injustice. The last major protests were in 2001, when the Argentinian economy collapsed and the country had five different Presidents in just over a week. It felt a much happier place on the day we visited, with the city’s Pride festival in full swing.
With an abundance of abandoned buildings and blank walls, and little interference from the local authorities, Buenos Aires has in recent years become one of the world’s street art capitals. Big, bold murals are everywhere – from a psychedelic portrait of football hero Carlos Tevez running the length of an apartment block to humorous and politically charged works all over the city. It’s easy to track them down but to gain a greater understanding of the phenomenon – for, with organised projects now attracting street artists from all over the world, that’s what it has become – I took a tour of the La Boca and Barracas neighbourhoods with Sorcha, an Irish writer living in BA who works for Graffitimundo, a non-profit organisation that supports local street artists. Hearing about the cultural history behind the murals was fascinating but I’d have liked a bit more street art – it’s amazing and seems to be everywhere – and a little less discourse.
A word of warning: if you do this tour independently, be careful. Though Buenos Aires feels very safe by Latin American standards, much of La Boca is not.
Buenos Aires may be geographically remote but, as many Porteños (BA native) I met were keen to point out, it is South America’s biggest hitter when it comes to the arts. Right now, for example, there is an Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Proa Foundation in La Boca (until 25 Feb), while the superb México Moderno Vanguardia y Revolución exhibition, including works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, is on at Malba (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, until 19 Feb). It was opened in 2001 with the noble and ambitious aim of housing modern art from across Latin America – and has an eclectic permanent collection. And the stunning, airy glass building is an attraction in itself.
• Avenida Presidente Figueroa Alcorta 3415, malba.org.ar
It may sound a bit pretentious – a secret restaurant in an antique shop in trendy “Palermo Soho” that serves sushi and hosts live Gypsy jazz – but Cenas Pasionarias gets the cool, romantic speakeasy vibe spot on. The magazine-shoot setting helps: by day, it’s an antique shop (run by the restaurant owner’s father) in a cavernous former railway depot, full of mannequins, retro posters and sculptures. The store’s beautiful furniture and hundreds of lamps come in handy when it morphs into a restaurant at night. The jazz and cocktails were excellent, and though I didn’t go to Argentina to eat sushi and ceviche, both were deliciously fresh and well done here – and made a nice change from all the steak and malbec I was necking elsewhere. It’s not cheap but feels very special.
• Godoy Cruz 1669, on Facebook. Check for opening times
Take the bus
By Sorcha O’Higgins, freelance writer and guide at graffitimundo
One of the most underrated ways to explore Buenos Aires is by colectivo, or public bus. These are well-connected and run all night. My favourite is the number 39, which has aircon and comfy seats. It passes through Palermo and by my two favourite squares, Plazas Medrano and Güemes. If you’re lucky, you might board a typically Porteño bus, with gaudy lights, tacky decorations and Aspen radio station on full blast, Buenos Aires’ travelling rave. Download the Como Llego app to plan your route, pick up a Sube travel card from any subway station and get commuting. In an expensive city, the bus is a bargain at 8 pesos (about 30p) a trip.
Note: each bus line is operated by a different company, so the same number bus can often run on different routes, so make sure you’re taking the right line.
By Patricia Wissar, tour guide with Say Hueque
Buenos Aires’ many trees offer a soothing array of colours year-round. Most famously, tens of thousands of jacarandas turn the city bright purple in November; but there are also pink and yellow lapachos, which bloom in September-October, and ceibos (the national tree of Argentina), which are red in November-December. Parque Centenario is a circular, 10-hectare green lung in the centre of BA. Designed by landscape architect Carlos Thays, it was completed in time for the 1910 centennial of the May revolution. It’s the home the Bernardino Rivadavia Museum of Natural Sciences, with a display of some of Argentina’s oldest inhabitants: dinosaurs. It also puts on a wide agenda of cultural events, and at weekends there’s an outdoor flea market that’s particularly good for vinyl lovers.
By Marcelo Marçal, guide at Urban Biking
This cultural centre and restaurant, named after the late Renaissance Italian poet, hosts the most important names in Argentinian tango and chacarera folk music. The place is incredibly cosy, and you can choose to sit at restaurant table, close to the artists or in the bar at the back and still have a great view of the stage. The restaurant serves traditional Argentinian food: empanadas, milanesas, bife de chorizo (sirloin steak) and, of course, great wine. It’s the perfect choice for live music and dining. It’s on Calle Defensa, home of the popular Sunday street market, but on the “B side” of the famous San Telmo neighbourhood, a few blocks away from the touristy part.
• Buy tickets in advance, Calle Defensa 1575, torquatotasso.com.ar
Way to go
The trip was provided by TravelLocal, which tailor-makes trips to Argentina. A five-day Buenos Aires itinerary, including the three tours taken by the writer, costs £520pp, including accommodation at L’Hôtel Palermo, close to much of the city’s nightlife.
Low-cost carrier Norwegian launches direct flights from Gatwick to Buenos Aires week, from around £560 return. BA also flies direct, from Heathrow from £770 return. Air Europa flies from Gatwick via Madrid from around £600 return.
When to go
Spring (when blooming jacaranda turn the city purple) and autumn are the best times to visit – for great weather and lots going on. The Buenos Aires Tango Festival, the world’s largest, is in August; the jazz festival in November; ArteBA, Latin America’s biggest contemporary art fair, runs from 24-27 May.