Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a wonderful combination of sleek skyscrapers and past grandeur, a collision of the ultrachic and tumbledown. Still, there has always been an undercurrent of melancholy (as it is affectionately known by emigrants who call Buenos Aires home), which may help explain residents' devotion to that bittersweet expression of popular culture in Argentina, the tango. Still performed—albeit much less frequently now—in the streets and cafes, the tango has a romantic and nostalgic nature that is emblematic of Buenos Aires itself.
Sights—Inspect the art-nouveau and art-deco architecture along Avenida de Mayo; see the "glorious dead" in the Cementerio de la Recoleta and the gorgeously chic at bars and cafes in the same neighborhood; see the tango dancers at Plaza Dorrego and the San Telmo Street Fair on Sunday; tour the old port district of La Boca and the colorful houses along its Caminito street.
Museums—Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes; Museo Municipal de Arte Hispano-Americano Isaac Fernandez Blanco; Museo Historico Nacional; Museo de la Pasion Boquense (Boca football); one of two tango museums: Museo Casa Carlos Gardel or Museo Mundial del Tango.
Memorable Meals— beef at a parrilla (steak house); delicious wood-oven-baked pizza.
Walks—Calle Defensa from the Plaza de Mayo to Parque Lezama in San Telmo; stroll through the Rosedal rose gardens, particularly September-February; follow the trails in the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve; Plaza Francia in Recoleta to browse the authentic handicrafts.
After it was permanently settled in 1580, Buenos Aires had 230 years—its colonial period—of erratic growth. After Argentina broke from Spain's rule in 1810, Buenos Aires evolved rapidly as a commercial hub and seat of political power, becoming the federal capital in 1880. Europeans recognized the potential of the port city: The British poured money into the area, and the Spanish and Italians arrived in droves, along with French, eastern European and German settlers.
When immigration from the Old World was all but halted after 1930, those of Spanish-South American mestizo origins migrated from the interior and filled many jobs. From this influx arose conflicts with the existing urban population and the problem of crowded city slums and shantytowns.
It was from these throngs of poor people that populist President Juan Peron, along with his wife Eva (Evita), found their greatest support. They often stirred huge crowds of Argentines in speeches from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, which overlooks the Plaza de Mayo. Peron's presidency (1946-55) was followed by decades of truculent military rule, with only brief periods of respite.
The Plaza de Mayo is still the site of demonstrations, although the famous annual marches calling for a full accounting of events in the socalled "Dirty War" of 1970-83, when the country was run by a military junta and more than 30,000 dissidents "disappeared," now occur only on 24 March. On Thursday afternoons, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo still march in their distinctive head scarves embroidered with the names of the missing, demanding information about their children and grandchildren who were taken by police and military death squads.
For most of the 1980s, economic problems, including hyperinflation, limited the city's progress, but Carlos Menem's 1990s presidency tamed inflation and brought some stability. Redevelopment took place, including in the Puerto Madero waterfront. The downside of Menem's legacy was an overvalued peso and systemic corruption that brought financial collapse. Marches and demonstrations by the unemployed and the middle class, who lost their dollar-denominated savings to devaluation, have diminished but still occur on occasion.
The election of the late Nestor Kirchner in 2003, along with subsequent judicial and foreign-policy reforms, went a long way toward turning things around. Although elected by a slim margin, Kirchner was popular, and the economy rebounded, albeit temporarily. In October 2007, Kirchner died of heart complications. However, in late 2010, his widow, Cristina, was handily elected as his successor. Thanks to a heavy-handed policy of almost autocratic decision-making, Cristina Kirchner immediately alienated many important constituents. Forced to back down on several key economic issues in the face of open hostility and threats of violence, the country—and Buenos Aires in particular— continues to face an uncertain economic future.
Upon arrival in Buenos Aires, many visitors make a beeline for Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo neighborhood of colonial and tango fame, whether or not the Sunday flea market is in progress. Many put the Recoleta Cemetery high on their list of things to see: You can pay your respects to Evita if you look for the tomb marked Familia Duarte.
As you take in the city's displays of civic grandeur, absolutely do not miss the Teatro Colon: try to watch a performance, or at least take a guided tour of its labyrinthine interior. The view of the building from anywhere on the Avenida Villamonte is stunning.
Those drawn to the water should stroll around the Puerto Madero area, which harbors a yacht club, expensive restaurants, two museum ships, several hotels, offices, movie theaters and a university campus. Or, for a less upper-crust look at the water, head to the old port neighborhood of La Boca, Buenos Aires' colorful version of Little Italy.
Those who happen to be in Buenos Aires on a Sunday should take a car service or bus to the Mataderos Fair to watch folk dancing and the gaucho displays. There's plenty to eat: Try some empanadas or the hearty meat-and-corn stew.
Museum enthusiasts won't want to miss the National History Museum, although it steers clear of controversial events since the 1970s.
Museum admission prices are a bargain, generally ranging from "a small donation requested" to several pesos in most cases.
The city of Buenos Aires occupies 79 sq mi of flat terrain, bordered on the east by the Rio de la Plata. The central city streets are laid out on a grid pattern, with few diagonals. Greater Buenos Aires sprawls in all directions across the humid pampas and contains roughly half the country's population.
The city is made up of 48 distinct barrios, or neighborhoods, and those nearest the Rio de la Plata hold the most interest for tourists. The downtown area, also known as the Microcentro, is the banking, business and government district. Plaza de Mayo, together with the neighborhoods of Monserrat and San Telmo toward the south, make up the city's historical heart. To the north and northwest are the middle and upper-class residential districts of Retiro, Barrio Norte, Recoleta, Palermo (the city's largest) and Belgrano. The southernmost barrio most tourists will visit (usually in daylight, when it is safest) is La Boca, a colorful working-class neighborhood with strong Italian roots.
You'll find abundant shopping opportunities in Buenos Aires. Be prepared for some genuine sticker shock on many retail items, but leather goods are among the best deals, perhaps as little as one-third the price you would pay at home. Typical Argentine gaucho handicrafts can be found easily, often in specialty stores called talabarterias. Such items tend to be leather belts and hats, which are often trimmed with silver.
WHAT TO WEAR
Buenos Aires is far more clothes-conscious than any other city in Latin America, which is saying a great deal. The city is a dressy place, so businesspeople should wear suits year-round. But with the younger crowd, shorts, jeans and sneakers are surprisingly common. Typical attire for adults in Buenos Aires would best be described as sophisticated, just shy of formal.
Practically nobody wears a hat in Buenos Aires, so sunglasses and lots of sunscreen will be a help. Although there aren't any strict dress codes for visiting churches, showing too much skin is considered disrespectful.
In late July and August, you'll need a warm coat with a scarf and gloves. The rest of the winter, that new leather jacket you purchased there will do just fine.
A lightweight raincoat and folding umbrella are also handy year-round.
Buenos Aires, with its strong European tradition, offers a symphony of cuisines, many melded in unexpected ways. Italo-Argentine pizzas, for example, have more ingredients and greater variety than the Italian originals.
The country has a way with meat, and parrillas (steak houses) in particular are good places to see how the locals get their protein. Make sure you go with a healthy appetite—the variety of grilled meats is remarkable. Popular cuts of steak include bife de lomo and bife de chorizo (not to be confused with the sausage of the same name).
Argentine wines are regarded highly, especially red wines. Red Malbec and white Torrontes are unique to the country.
Argentines dine very late in the evening. Until 9:30 or 10 pm, most places are empty. Parrillas are best visited after 10 pm, when the grill is warmed up and the dining area is jumping.
There's little hurry once you're seated; you won't be rushed along. Most restaurants don't close until the last customer leaves, and 2 am is not too late to order coffee or cognac.
In Argentina, the Spanish word carne doesn't mean "meat," but specifically "beef." If you say you don't eat carne, a server might suggest chicken or pork (sometimes called carnes blancas, or white meats). If you are a vegetarian, say "soy vegetariano/a."
Buenos Aires boasts one of the world's largest concentrations of psychiatrists and psychologists in the so-called "Villa Freud". It is also the site of nearly 18,000 cosmetic surgery procedures every year.
Alto Palermo's Museo Evita is the first Argentine museum honoring a woman.
Dating from 1913, the Subte was South America's first underground rail system, and many original wooden cars still run on Line A, from Plaza de Mayo.
Jose de San Martin is clearly the country's main hero, with statues, streets and plazas named after him. He is also referred to as simply El Libertador. His tomb in Buenos Aires' Metropolitan Cathedral is treated as a shrine.
Although it can get really cold in the winter months (June-August), it has only snowed twice in Buenos Aires in the past 100-plus years, in 1918 and 2007.
Because of the heavy Italian influence on their culture, Argentines speak Spanish with an Italian accent. They are also the only Spanish speakers who pronounce words with "ll" as "shhh." For example, llamas would be pronounced shamas.
DO'S AND DON'TS
Do take a gift if you are invited to an Argentine's home for dinner, and do dress nicely—shorts are never appropriate (unless you are a college student). In clothes-conscious Buenos Aires, they're not a good idea on the street, either. Sandals are definitely out.
Don't expect Argentines to arrive punctually for social engagements. They'll probably be as much as 30 minutes behind schedule.
Don't talk about international political matters. It's not a good topic in the best of circumstances, and many Argentines still resent the U.S. government's lukewarm support for their country after the 2001 economic collapse.
Do pamper yourself in a peluqueria (beauty salon). Their services are cheap and fabulous. Don't order wine from any other country when in Argentina (unless in a fine French restaurant). Argentine wine may not be the world's finest, but you will be told—unceasingly—that it is.
Do feel free to sit and people-watch in cafes after you've finished your coffee. This is a time-honored custom in Buenos Aires, and servers expect it.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Only a passport and proof of onward passage are required of citizens of Canada, the U.K., Australia and the U.S. for visits of up to three months. Reconfirm travel document requirements before departure.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic), Jewish.
Time Zone: 3 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-3 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Currency: The Argentine peso is the standard currency, divided into centavos. Prices are written with a $ sign in front of them, but this is for pesos. Anything listed in U.S. dollars should have "US$" in the price, although this does not automatically mean dollars are accepted.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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