Incredible food, fresh young designers, and a thriving cultural scene—all
these Buenos Aires has. Yet less tangible things are at the heart of the city's
sizzle—for one, the spirit of its inhabitants. Here a flirtatious glance can be
as passionate as a tango; a heated sports discussion as important as a
world-class soccer match. It's this zest for life that's making Buenos Aires one
of Latin America's hottest destinations.
Of course, the devalued peso is a draw, too. Equally attractive, if you're trying to escape the financial doom and gloom abroad, is the locals' unfazed attitude to the financial crisis—they've weathered so many here that this one is barely news.
A booming tango—and tango tourism—revival means dance floors are alive again. And camera crews are now a common sight on street corners: low production costs and "Old World generic" architecture—hinting at many far-off cities but resembling none—are an appealing backdrop for European commercials.
Food, family, and fútbol (or fashion) are still the holy trinity for most porteños. Philosophical discussions and psychoanalysis—Buenos Aires has more psychoanalysts per capita of any city in the world—remain popular pastimes. And in the face of so much change, porteños (as city residents are called) still approach life with as much dramatic intensity as ever.
Buenos Aires isn't just the most cutting-edge food town in Argentina—it's the most cutting-edge food town in the southern hemisphere. Here three things have come together to create a truly modern cuisine: diverse cultural influences, high culinary aspirations, and a relentless devotion to aesthetics, from plate garnishes to room decor.
And yet, at their core, even the most-modern international restaurants in Buenos Aires are fundamentally porteño, deeply informed by this city's aristocratic appreciation of the pleasure of a good bottle of wine, shared with friends and family, over a long and languid meal. People may eat dinner at 10 pm or 10:30 pm all over Argentina, but only in Buenos Aires are you likely to see a family, toddlers in tow, strolling into their local parrilla (steak house) at midnight.
Three areas—Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood, and Las Cañitas—have emerged as the epicenters of Argentina's modern food movement. In these neighborhoods sushi is all the rage, and you can find Patagonian lamb, trout, and king crab rubbing elbows with Asian curries and northern Argentine locros (stews).
But much of the old guard still stands strong. Most porteños have Italian ancestry, which is evident in the proliferation of pizzerias all over the city, from the simple shops to the trendy pizza-and-champagne joints. But don't miss the chance to try the deeper-dish Argentine-style pizza, the most classic of which is the muzzarella (cheese and tomato pizza) and the immortal combination of jamón (ham), morrón (roasted red pepper), and aceitunas (olives).
Cafés are also a big part of Buenos Aires culture: open long hours, they constantly brim with locals knocking back a quick cafecito (espresso) or taking their time over a café con leche (coffee with milk). And finally, there are the delicious heladerías (ice-cream shops) to finish it all off.
Buenos Aires is experiencing a tourism boom unlike any in its history. The cheap peso has made it one of the most affordable big cities, and dollar- and euro-wielding visitors are arriving in record numbers. How is this good news in terms of where to stay? There are many new hotels and existing ones have been renovated, so you have more choices than ever.
The real buzz these days is about boutique hotels, which have been popping up all over the city, but especially in the hot spots of San Telmo and Palermo. Most of them combine a minimalist vibe to contrast the renovated spaces in which they're housed. Most are outfitted with sleek furniture, wood-paneled walls and floors, quaint outdoor gardens with reclining lounge chairs, bamboo and plants, and the requisite pool or parrilla (barbecue grill). It's a style that has been perfected in Buenos Aires in recent years, and one the city can call all its own.
In San Telmo, hotels are primarily grand old mansions with soaring ceilings and impressive wooden doors. Tango is big in this neighborhood, and some hotels here cater to tango tourists.
Centro and Puerto Madero are teeming with international hotel chains, and most of them are well located. But as is the case in any Sheraton or Hilton or Marriott around the globe, once you close your door, it's easy to forget where you are.
Across town in Palermo, it's a hipper, more urbane feel. These places are so new they haven't had time to develop their own character yet, but just like the city itself, this constant cyclical reinvention is what makes everything so enchanting here.
Porteños love to party. Many don't think twice about dancing until 6 am and heading to work at 8 am. And alcohol doesn't play a vital role in whether people enjoy themselves or not; porteños could have fun at an insurance convention, provided the conversation and music were good and everyone looked marvelous. Indeed, for many, it's better to look good than to feel good.
Nightlife these days is starting earlier. Lately, in an effort to drum up business during the post-work/pre-dinner window, many downtown bars are promoting "after-office" drink specials; it's a happy hour that often lasts until 9 or 10 pm. This recent phenomenon aside, timing in Buenos Aires nightlife is an exercise in patience. Get there too early and the bar will be empty, and you'll be tired when the atmosphere finally builds. When families with kids in strollers don't turn up for dinner until nearly midnight, you know it will take a bit of work to be fashionably late.
Hours are very fluid here, but there are some general guidelines: theater performances start around 9 or 9:30 pm, and the last movie begins after midnight. Bars get busy in the small hours, and clubs, which attract crowds in the 18-35 age range, don't begin to fill up until 3 or 4 am. If in doubt, turn up later than you think is reasonable. That said, the subte closes around 11 pm, so going out means taking a taxi home or staying out until 5 am when trains resume running.Much of Buenos Aires' nightlife is focused on the past rather than the future. The city's true party animals are—and always have been—the old tangueros who have decades of experience with staying out all night. Given that, it may take a while for you to appreciate local customs, fashion imperatives, and the overwhelming importance of first impressions. That said, you also see the excesses of youth as well as plenty of modern, worldly nightspots.
Whether you're looking for a unique handicraft, the latest boutique-vineyard Malbec, or jeans no one's got back home, you're sure to leave Buenos Aires with your bags full. In recent years there has been an explosion of local design so it's easy to find a distinctly porteño imprint on anything from clothing to jewellery to homewares.
If hustle and bustle are your thing, elbow your way to the stalls at the city's outdoor markets on weekends, or through the crowds of office workers that keep Centro buzzing on weekdays. In Recoleta elegant old buildings that house hallowed brand names inspire a statelier pace (or maybe it's the price tags). Things are slower in Palermo and San Telmo, too: strolling their cobbled streets or people-watching in corner cafés are just as popular as buying.
Clothing bargains are harder to find than they once were, but there are still local chains and young designers turning out the latest trends at distinctly post devaluation prices. Quality varies, but it'll be out of fashion next year anyway, so who cares? From the kings and queens of local couture you can expect world-class design with a porteño edge; although their price tags aren't particularly South American, you still get top-quality garments for less than you'd pay at home. A handful of these designers are beginning to export or open stores stateside; here's your chance to shop at the source.
Argentina is cow central, and leather goods—from shoes and jackets to polo saddles—are also excellent value. Buenos Aires' well-established antiques trade is thriving, but modern houseware shops are putting up some fierce competition. Many local wines still aren't exported, so this may be your only chance to try them.
Just because there's a favorable foreign-exchange rate doesn't mean you have to shop like a foreigner. Here's how to navigate the shopping scene with local savvy.