Text Robyn Alexander Photographs Chris Roper We touched down in Buenos Aires on the day of the national census, which was slightly surreal because nothing (literally, apart from hotels, nothing) was open. As we sped along the empty highway from the airport, we noticed people who’d been accounted for having picnics and playing soccer in the adjacent parks. Everyone, it seemed, was relaxed and happy. Then we passed the national soccer training camp, where the enormous Argentinian flag was flying at half-mast. We soon discovered that earlier that day Argentinian ex-president Néstor Kirchner had died, aged just 60. A political powerhouse, he was also the husband of the country’s current premier, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and is widely credited with pulling Argentina through its financial crisis of the early 2000s. The country plunged into mourning, and the next day we mingled with tens of thousands of Argentinians as they came to pay their respects to their beloved former president as he lay in state in the famous Casa Rosada. It was moving, historic, exciting and remarkable – much like this vibrant city itself. SEE You can’t go to Buenos Aires and skip the three great landmarks: the Casa Rosada (where Evita Perón used to address crowds from the balcony), the wide, tree-lined Avenida de Mayo and the Plaza de Mayo, where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still congregate each Thursday at 3.30pm, silently ‘asking’ about the whereabouts of their children who disappeared during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. Start at the Casa Rosada and amble through the plaza, then up the avenue. Also worth strolling is the Caminito, a historic street on the edge of the working-class area of La Boca, where you’ll find brightly coloured houses and tango dancers. Finish at the nearby Fundación Proa, where you’re sure to find a fascinating exhibition: highlights for 2011 include a Louise Bourgeois retrospective. For a different take on the city, walk along the promenade that runs the length of the regenerated docklands area, Puerto Madero. Vibey and modern, the area features high-rise residential buildings, exercise parks and plenty of restaurants, and there are views of some spectacular downtown buildings across the canals. The nearby Puente de la Mujer pedestrian bridge, designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava, is spectacular, as is the Colección de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, the private art collection of Argentina’s richest woman. It includes a breathtaking JMW Turner and an Andy Warhol portrait of Lacroze de Fortabat herself. While the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) is a must-visit for art lovers – and Frida Kahlo fans, since her beautiful ‘Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot’ (1942) is among the Latin American gems in the permanent collection – we thought the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes was even better. None of the guides or materials was available in English, but who needs words when you have Rodin? If there’s one art experience you must have in Buenos Aires, it’s a walking tour with a guide from Graffitimundo. Street art here is a far cry from the usual tags and scrawls. The artists are viewed – and indeed see themselves – as contributing something beautiful to their city. The three-hour tour includes stops at street-art galleries where you can buy work by some of the artists (Hollywood in Cambodia and Turbo Galeria). One of your evenings should be spent seeing a tango show. Yes, we know they are ‘for tourists’, but you didn’t come all the way to the home of the tango to ignore it out of some misplaced sense of travel snobbery. We recommend Rojo Tango at the Faena Hotel and Universe (see ‘Stay’). EAT & DRINK Argentina is famous for its steak. Try something not usually on the menu in SA, such as skirt steak, at an old-fashioned parrilla (grill or barbecue) restaurant like La Brigada in San Telmo (Estados Unidos 465). Surprisingly, people seldom mention Buenos Aires’ superb ice cream. Dulce de leche ice cream was invented here, and there are annual competitions among the stores and chains (such as Freddo) for the best new flavour. Persicco and Un’Altra Volta are also highly recommended. Take a lunch break at Mott or Bar 6. Expect sleek spaces and fresh contemporary fare. If you’re staying at the Faena you may want to eat at the fine-dining restaurant, El Bistro, which is as remarkable for its white-and-red decor scheme – unicorn heads adorn the walls – as it is for its cuisine, overseen by a former pupil of Ferran Adrià. But we chose the marginally more easy-going option, El Mercado, which had memorably delicious ravioli stuffed with osso buco. It’s a moody, romantic space with an amazing wine list. Make sure you have a drink at one of Buenos Aires’ traditional bars, which the city has recently begun legislatively protecting. Try a Quilmes beer at Bar El Federal. Olsen (Gorriti 5870, at Carranza), a hip bar and restaurant in Palermo Hollywood, is a good choice for cocktails. Currently attracting Buenos Aires’ most stylish diners is Tô, where Japanese and French cuisines – yes, you read that right – are shaken and stirred together. It’s a beautiful space with delicious cocktails, light-as-air tempura and outstanding tuna temaki. SHOP Shop for antiques in San Telmo, especially at the famous Sunday morning market on the Plaza Dorrego. If it’s raining, take shelter in the smart Galerías Pacifico mall in the city centre; otherwise, head to Palermo, which is brilliant for clothing, accessories and design. For women’s fashion, Vicki Otero and Chocolate are definite stops. Men’s clothing is best at Felix, which is like Paul Smith (but sexier), and Bensimon is good for smart-casual basics. Be sure to visit 28 Sport for old-school men’s leather sneakers. Accessories are a key focus – there is such great leather here that women should aim to take home at least one fabulous handbag and handcrafted pair of heels. Try Humawaca for innovative bags and Carla Danelli for a more trendy take on totes. For shoes, Josefina Ferroni and Mishka Shoes are essential spots. For fun design items and great gifts (like Che Guevara fridge magnets) go to Tienda Palacio. Nobrand’s innovative take on Argentinian icons – graphically rendered and printed on T-shirts and accessories – and its refined versions of traditional designs are inspired. Idarg, its cool, clever book about Argentine identity, will help make this complex culture clearer to you. STAY Buenos Aires neighbourhoods are very different from one another, so it’s worth staying in a few areas to get a feel for this diverse city. In historic San Telmo, with its cobbled streets and quaint shops, we stayed at Hotel Babel. A nine-room boutique hotel in an elegantly renovated building that was originally an aristocratic family’s mansion in the 19th century, it combines proximity to all the major attractions with stylish design and a team of young, enthusiastic and super-helpful staff. The Faena Hotel and Universe, in slick, contemporary Puerto Madero, is one of the most wonderful hotels we’ve ever stayed in. It is a century-old grain-storage building that was renovated by well-known hotelier Alan Faena, who called on the services of design legend Philippe Starck to create its distinctive look. It is awe-inspiring to arrive and walk into the 80-metre central corridor with floor-to-ceiling etched glass windows and gold velvet curtains. There’s no reception desk; instead you are greeted at the front door by one of the Faena’s ‘experience managers’, who function as front desk, concierge and personal assistant rolled into one: whatever you need, they are happy to help. In the rooms, Starck has updated and twisted classic Buenos Aires Belle Époque style, and red, white and silver feature strongly. Materials are luxe (lapacho wood, marble, red velvet and etched mirror), beds are both enormous and extremely comfortable, and the views of the city and Puerto Madero parkland are wonderful. The chic pool area and Library Lounge bar are well known for hosting the most glamorous parties. (There’s a grand piano in the Library bar, which hotel guests are welcome to play – apparently Coldplay’s Chris Martin composed a song on it.) Finally, you can have private yoga or tango lessons at the luxurious spa. All in all, this is an inspiring and memorable place to stay. In hip-and-happening Palermo Hollywood is Hotel Home, the brainchild of Argentine PR director Patricia O’Shea and her husband, UK record producer Tom Rixton. (No surprise that we’ve never stayed anywhere with a better soundtrack.) Intimate in scale (it has just 20 rooms) yet light and airy, with a charming garden and pool deck, Home is the kind of place that’s easy to describe but difficult to get right. It’s chic yet easy-going – again, with outstanding service. The hotel even provides guests with its own printed guide to the newest and best of Buenos Aires. The decor combines cement, wood and glass with clever flourishes of colour in the form of vintage French wallpapers and wool rugs. Mid-Century Modern classic chairs in the reception lounge, bar and garden add retro touches. The on-site spa is good (try the Walking on Clouds treatment to combat jet lag) and the bar and breakfast are replete with special touches. Getting There South African Airways flies direct from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, while Malaysia Airlines flies direct from Cape Town to Buenos Aires on Wednesdays and Sundays. flysaa.com, malaysiaairlines.com. Getting Around The easiest way to get everywhere in Buenos Aires is by taxi – there are lots of them and they’re relatively inexpensive. Be sure to take only radio taxis (ideally, get your hotel or a restaurant to call one for you). If you have a smattering of Spanish, try the Subte or underground train network, which is efficient, fast and cheap. Money Matters There’s a dearth of change and smaller notes. Taxi drivers will refuse to give change for 100 pesos, so hoard those small notes or ask your hotel for change. It’s not possible to leave a tip on a credit card in hotels or restaurants, so you’ll need change for this too. Ask your concierge to give you a tutorial in spotting fake A$50 and A$100 notes, which are common. It’s also useful to memorise the last two digits of the serial numbers on genuine notes before handing them over, so unscrupulous taxi drivers can’t switch them for fakes that they then claim was what you gave them in the first place. It sounds crazy but this happened to us a few times! Use a (Useful) Map Especially in Palermo, look out for the free maps by Mapas de Buenos Aires. There’s one for eating and drinking, one for shopping for clothing and so on. mapasbsas.com. This article was originally published in the May 2011 issue of House and Leisure.