couple dancing tango argentina outside

A couple dances tango, a tradition throughout Argentina.

Photograph by EyesWideOpen, Getty Images

By Meg Weaver

First established by the Spanish in 1536, Buenos Aires has grown as a city and cultural center through the centuries. From smugglers' den to bustling port, Argentina's sprawling capital now boasts a population of over 15 million and is a cultured metropolis, full of art, literature, tango, and luscious lomo (tenderloin). Overcoming a dictatorial regime in the 1970s, 1976's "Dirty War," and 2002's currency crash, Argentina endures, and its hip capital is alive with new boutiques, galleries, and cafés all the while preserving its past. The "Paris of Latin America," some say BA is easy to love and hard to forget. With the peso still devalued against the weak U.S. dollar, it's more affordable than many other world-class cities.

Art and Culture

BA's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) is always free, and its permanent collection features works by masters such as Degas, Gauguin, Klee, Kandinsky, and Van Gogh as well as Argentinian and South American artists.

Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Museum of Latin American Art), known more commonly by its acronym MALBA, is free every Wednesday. Take advantage of this free day to view some of the museum's 200 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photos from the 20th century to today, featuring such Latin American artists as Kahlo, Rivera, Clark, and Torres-García, among many others.

If you're in BA in November, check out the city's website to see when BA's museums, universities, and artistic spaces open their doors for free on La Noche de los Museos (Night of the Museums). One night a year the city's cultural spaces stay open late (from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.) and host films and performances of jazz, tango, folk, techno, choral, and rock music. In 2007, 102 such institutions participated and 414,000 people attended the city-wide museum block party. Expat Irish blogger, "Paddy in BA," says it's not as highbrow as it sounds as La Noche de los Museos ends with a smashing party down near Puerto Madero that runs into the wee hours.

Attractions

Buenos Aires's official tourism site offers downloadable maps and step-by-step instructions for 18 self-guided tours that traverse the city and introduce visitors to the city's history, sites and sounds. Barracas, La Boca, Corrientes, Nueva Pompeya, and Palermo Hollywood are just some of the neighborhoods covered by these do-it-yourself tours. The site also features three biographical tours of "outstanding characters of porteño (what BA residents call themselves) history" including Eva Perón (Evita), Jorge Luis Borges, and tango great Carlos Gardel. Download these maps and take them along for a free, self-guided romp through BA.

The BA Tourism Bureau also offers free, guided tours through the city that focus on its history, architecture, and commerce, but only hop on board if your Spanish is up to snuff as the tours are in Spanish only. Check out the tours' schedule on the site. Tours run just about every weekend, in the afternoons. One such tour visits the city's notable British pubs and ends with a free show.

BA Free Tours also offers tours at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. With their small group size, tagging along for the 2.5-hour tour is like taking a stroll with an old English-speaking friend who happens also to be a resident of BA. Such tours are good places to start in a city as big as Buenos Aires.

On Sundays, be sure to stop by the colonial-era neighborhood of San Telmo for the antique and handicraft fair of Feria de Plaza Dorrego. The fair attracts 10,000 visitors and features 270 vendor stalls selling books, tango paraphernalia, and much more. Enjoy the festival-like atmosphere provided by mimes, buskers, and tango performers.

Take an evening stroll down Avenida Corrientes (Corrientes Avenue), a bustling street, emblematic of BA. It's full of cafés, theaters, pizzerias, and bookstores, some of which are open past midnight on the weekends.

BA's Barrio Chino (Chinatown), established in the 1980s, is also worth a visit to see one of the few Buddhist temples in the city and watch fishmongers at work.

Take in the many-hued homes of Calle Lanín (Lanin Street). Painter Marino Santa María painted the exterior of his home in the nineties and inspired others to do so too, resulting in 35 brilliantly colored homes along three blocks of this quaint street.

Enjoy the neighborhood of Caminito, essentially an open-sky museum featuring works by Roberto Capurro, Juan Leone, and Julio Vergottini. Visit on Saturdays and Sundays to browse the crafts fair and watch the street performers.

Erected in 1936 to celebrate the city's 400th anniversary, El Obelisco (the Obelisk) is a city icon and a gathering place for cultural events, political demonstrations, and victory celebrations for local sports teams. You can't go up into the 220-foot tower and its base is fenced off to protect it from vandalism but it's still worth a gander.

Stop by the city's oldest and most elegant cemetery, the Cementerio de la Recoleta (Recoleta Cemetery). Nearly 15 acres in size and graced with elaborate marble mausoleums, the remains of former presidents, Nobel Prize winners, and even Eva Perón rest here.

The weekend Feria de Mataderos (Fair of the Mataderos), situated in front of the Mercado Nacional de Hacienda, is a great place to browse traditional handicrafts and tools and instruments used by Argentina's cowboys, the gauchos. The fair is open on Saturdays during summer months (February and March) and Sundays year round, except in January when the fair is closed. A typical Sunday at the fair attracts about 5,000 people.

If only to marvel at it from the outside, be sure to check out the Edificio Kavanagh (the Kavanagh Building), all 394 feet of it. This art deco/modernist hybrid apartment building was completed in 1936 and was once the tallest building in all of Latin America; it's a national historic monument.

Surrounded by government buildings, including the Casa Rosada (the Pink House) and the famous balcony from which Eva Perón made her famous speech on May Day 1952, the Plaza de Mayo (May Square) is BA's oldest. A nice place to sit and relax, visiting the Plaza de Mayo can also be quite emotional if you stop by on Thursdays between 3:30 and 4 p.m. when the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) solemnly march as they have for the past 30 years to commemorate the disappearance of their sons and daughters (los desaparecidos, the disappeared ones) during Argentina's notorious Dirty War. The Plaza also contains the Pirámide de Mayo (the Pyramid of May), a nine-meter obelisk built in 1811 to mark the first anniversary of Argentina's revolution against Spanish colonial rule.

Stop by the Manzana de las Luces (the Block of the Lights, a name given to the area by a newspaper in 1822, referring to the many influential cultural, religious, and educational buildings and institutions built there), site of some of the oldest constructions in the city and its oldest church, the Iglesia de San Ignacio (the Church of Saint Ignatius), completed in 1722. Free tours are offered on Mondays at 1 p.m. of the Jesuit mission, the 18th-century tunnels beneath the block (used by smugglers and to transport supplies to defend the city), and its market.

Kids

Longhorn Dave, a Texan living in BA with his wife and two kids, recommends the playgrounds in Plaza Vicente López and Plaza Mitre for a romp in the park. They're two of the nicest in the city, he asserts. While most of the city's plazas have playgrounds, some are in need of repair. As your child digs in the sand and swings on the swings, chat with some porteño parents and relax.

Go under BA to see the fossil remains of the armadillo's 200,000-year-old ancestor, the glyptodont. You needn't go to the museum to see these giant-shelled creatures, as their remains were unearthed as the metro was constructed. Head to Juramento station on Line D or Tronador station along the B line for the best view.

Speaking of subway tourism, Longhorn Dave recommends Linea A (Line A) where turn-of-the-last-century wooden cars are still in use. Kids under four are free and the rest of us pay just $0.25 to go for a ride. Best go during non-peak times.

Hop on board the oldest Argentine ship still afloat at the Buque Museo Corbeta Uruguay (the Uruguay Corvette Ship Museum) in the Puerto Madero neighborhood. The Uruguay has circled the globe several times and was used by the Argentine Navy on several of its early 20th-century Antarctic rescue expeditions.

Some museums offering free admission of special interest to kids include:

The Museo del Automóvil Club Argentino (the Museum of the Argentine Automobile Club), located in the Palermo neighborhood, exhibits some pretty hot sports cars and Argentina's first car from 1907.

The Museo Nacional de la Historia del Traje (the National Museum of the History of Clothing) in the Monserrat neighborhood may interest kids who love a game of dress up. It houses over 8,000 items and features an exhibit that traces the history of clothing in Argentina from the arrival of the Spanish to 1900. Its temporary exhibits have a regional focus: Past exhibits featured clothing from Greece, the Silk Road, and China and Japan.

Outdoors

Take a break from the bustle of BA at the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur (Ecological Reserve). Opened in 1918 and restored in the 1990s, this 865-acre park is a quiet place to stroll, bike, or enjoy a picnic lunch while taking in the beautiful view of the city's skyline.

Meander through the Bosques de Palermo (Forests of Palermo), an urban oasis close to 200 acres in size, featuring two artificial lakes and 12,000 trees. Stop and smell the roses at the park's El Rosedal rose garden.

The "lung" of Buenos Aires, the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays (the Carlos Thays Botanical Garden) covers over 17 acres of green space and is home to more than 6,000 plant species. It contains sequoias, magnolias, and French-, Roman-, and Japanese-themed gardens. Free guided tours in English take place Fridays at 1 p.m. Tours in Spanish are offered more frequently: Fridays at 10:30 a.m. and Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Music & Dance

While wandering through the Plaza de Mayo, pause for a moment in front of the 1908 Teatro Colón (Colon Theater), considered by some to have the best acoustics in the world. The likes of Stravinsky, Copland, and Bernstein have conducted here while Callas, Carreras, and Domingo have filled the horseshoe-shaped main hall with their voices. It's being renovated and closed until 2010.

The University of Buenos Aires's School of Law offers free classical music concerts weekly in the late afternoons and evenings. Check out the schedule here.

The Museo Casa Carlos Gardel (the Carlos Gardel Museum) has renovated Gardel's house and exhibits mementos from the life of the man who brought Argentine tango to the rest of the world in the 1920s. Some of the house's rooms have been restored to provide visitors a feel of what the house was like when he lived there, after emigrating as a boy from France. Entry is free on Wednesdays.

The word milongas can refer to a musical form that preceded and influenced today's tango as well as the dance halls where tango is performed. B.A. Tango is a guide to all of the tango performances going on in the city. It's published three times a year, available only in print. Look out for a copy when in BA. Or, check out these bilingual online listing of milongas throughout the city.

Club Tango lists upcoming tango performances across the city. If your Spanish is a bit weak, that's okay. Use your search tool and look for "gratis," and you'll find some venues up your alley.

For More Information

Argentina's Government Tourist Office has a lot of practical information on its website such as weather, travel times, and activities by region and type.

The Buenos Aires Herald is a good snapshot of local and world news in English and is available online.

Time Out Buenos Aires provides good coverage of things to do and see and places to say in BA.

Craigslist has a BA edition. If you're heading down south for an extended stay, consider renting an apartment for a week or longer. Many postings are in both English and Spanish.

Buenos Aires in Traveler's Places of a Lifetime features photo galleries, attractions, restaurants, walking tours, and more.

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