Essential guide to Buenos Aires

Belinda Jackson shares tips on fossicking, feasting and lapping up the good life in Argentina's cosmopolitan capital.

STAY

Budget

Maggie's B&B is easy on design but up there for location and, of course, there's a dance studio on-site, from $US40/double (Santiago del Estero 145, Congreso, 4381 9153, www.tangofocus.com). Livian Guest House is a 1920s classic French-style home with a handful of rooms including a two-room suite with kitchenette. Impeccably located, from $US60/double (shared bath). (Palestina 1184, Palermo, 4862 8841, www.livianguesthouse.com.ar). The 36-room Art Hotel has regular exhibitions in its 100-year-old townhouse. Services include a private tango teacher, rooms from $US75 (Azcuenaga 1268, Recoleta, 4821 4744, www.arthotel.com.ar).

Mid-range

248 Finisterra is a 10-room boutique hotel of impeccable modern design pedigree in an area lined with great bars and restaurants, close to the polo grounds and MALBA museum, from $US115/double (Baez 248, Las Canitas, 4773 0901, www.248finisterra.com). Mansion Dandi Royal is an old-world, 30-room, five-star hotel with a tango academy and three ballrooms. From $US130 a night or tango packages $US330pp/double includes three nights, tango lessons and a milonga. (Piedras 922/936, San Telmo, 4361 3537, www.mansiondandiroyal.com). "Bourgeois bohemian" Bo Bo Hotel in the chic precinct of Palermo Soho has 11 rooms and a cocktail bar, from $US150/double (Guatemala 4882, Palermo, 4774 0505, www.bobohotel.com).

Luxe

Turn-of-the-century beauty Sofitel Buenos Aires is right in the thick of the city; its cool palm-filled, black-and-white tiled foyer setting the tone. From $261/double (Arroyo 841, Retiro, 4131 0000, www.sofitel.com). The Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt is a converted palace that puts contemporary design in a classic setting, from $US325 (Alvear 1661, Recoleta, 5171 1234, 131 234 in Australia, www.parkhyatt.com). If you want to steer clear of the chains, head in the direction of Legado Mitico with its lush, moody interiors celebrating Argentinian greats, from $US240 (Gurruchaga 1848, Palermo Soho, 4833 1300, www.legadomitico.com).

Lash out

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For cutting-edge design, check out the Philippe Starck-designed Faena Hotel + Universe, consistently voted one of the world's best, from $US380/double, (Martha Salotti 445, Puerto Madero, 4010 9000, 02 9377 8444 in Australia, www.faenahotelanduniverse.com). The Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires is lush and exclusive, rock stars book its separate French-style mansion, from $US375 a room (Posadas 1086-88, Recoleta, 4321 1200, 1800 142 163 in Australia, www.fourseasons .com). Alvear Palace Hotel is along a strip in Recoleta, last home of Christina Onassis, from $US380 (4808 2100, Av Alvear 1891, Recoleta, www.alvearpalace.com).

SHOP+PLAY

To market

San Telmo antiques fair, every Sunday at the Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, is the city's premier market. Find souvenirs, designer kitsch, old tango records and lots of handmade jewellery, as well as street theatre and pickpockets. For upmarket handicrafts, visit the Recoleta market every weekend at Plaza Francia, on the lawns in front of La Recoleta cemetery, from 11am. To stock up on whips and taste gaucho (cowboy) culture, head to the Feria de Mataderos, a Sunday market, from 10am in the suburb of Mataderos. Closed in January, it runs Saturdays from 6pm-1am February and March. www.feriademataderos.com.ar.

Go shop

Tango gear hunters head to Av Suipacha, in particular to Tango Brujo, for divine dancing shoes, chic training gear and music as well as expert advice (Esmeralda 754, Centro, 4325 8264) while the Retiro end of Av Esmeralda is great for well-priced cashmere everything. For high-end buys, visit the impossibly sleek Humawaca, home of designer Ingrid Gutman (El Salvador 4692, Palermo Viejo, 4584 5008). Budget shoppers looking for leather jackets, bags and shoes shop around Florida Street, in downtown BA. For boutique fashion, head to Palermo Hollywood and Soho.

Live music

Rojo Tango Show at the Faena Hotel is widely regarded as one of the best shows in the city, so reservations are essential (Martha Salotti 445, Puerto Madero, 5787 1536, www.rojotango.com). Tango fans mob the town in late February-early March for the annual tango festival with free shows, and then again in August, coinciding with the world tango championships (www.tangobuenosaires.gov.ar). Tangoed out? The BA Philharmonic Orchestra performs at Teatro Colon every Thursday; there are free chamber music concerts at 11am one Sunday each month. (Cerrito 618, Tribunales, 4378 7344, www.teatrocolon.org.ar).

Nightclubs

You've blitzed your tango lessons, now shine on the dance floor at one of the city's best milongas (dance evenings), Confiteria La Ideal. There are lessons and, yes, you can just watch (Suipacha 384, Centro, 5265 8078). Try El Beso (Riobamba 416, Tribunales, 4953 2784) for an old-school milonga. If shaking it to a sobbing accordion isn't your cuppa espresso, head out late to Club 69 and dance until about 6am (Vega 5510, Palermo, 4779 9396). BA's pubs and clubs, called boliches, pump out music until the wee hours, so don't even think about going out before midnight.

SEE+DO

Icons

La Recoleta cemetery is an elegant city in its own right, full of beautiful mausoleums and Carrera marble statues, including the grave of Eva Peron (Evita), buried under her family's name, Duarte. Open daily 7am-6pm with free English tours (Junin 1790, Recoleta, 4114 5791). Built in 1908 and recently reopened after a 3½-year refurbishment, Teatro Colon is one of the world's greatest opera houses, open for performances and tours. The Puente de la Mujer is a bridge that links the revamped waterfront districts of Puerto Madero and Madero Este, its shape inspired by a couple mid-tango.

Culture

The Museum of Latin American Arts (MALBA) houses art and film of the 20th and 21st centuries in a dynamic gallery with a great cafe, $18 adults, $6 on Wednesdays (Av Fuegeroa Alcorta 3415, Palermo, 4808 6500, www.malba.org.ar). The more subdued Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes pays homage to European masters Van Gogh, Degas and Rodin (free, Avenida del Libertador 1473, Centro, 5288 9900, www.mnba.org.ar). If you're in town in November, beg your concierge for tickets to the country's premier polo event, the Argentine Open, which is held at the Campo Argentino de Polo in Palermo.

Foot work

It's a city designed for promenading — from the gardens of Parque Palermo to the ultimate tourist stamping ground, the gaudy streets of La Boca. Amble between La Boca's houses of corrugated iron, each painted in eye-blinding shades of green, pink, yellow or blue, to watch artists at work and tango dancers at play; stop for a snack, a meal at El Obrero or a glass of wine and cruise the open-air art gallery street of El Caminito. There's a handicrafts market here each weekend, though it gets crowded to the point of claustrophobia. A quick word: watch your pockets and don't stray or you'll find yourself in shanty towns.

Follow the leader

Fans of the beautiful game should make a beeline to La Bombonera, home of Maradona's Boca Juniors. The hinchas' (fans) action in the stands is notoriously vigorous but there's a section squared off for tourists. The official Boca Experience, which includes match tickets, hotel transfers and a museum tour, costs from $US150 up to $US400 if the Boca Juniors are facing River Plate! (Next Travel & Business, 4809 2400, www.bocaexperience.com). Take a blind date with Argentinian wine in an elegant Palermo Soho house owned by two native sommeliers. The masterclass features such local wines as Torrontes, served with a three-course meal (Nemonic Concepts, (02) 9526 8519 (Australia), www.nemonic.com.au), or get out of town to the colonial, aristocratic district of San Isidro, for a boat cruise on the River Plate, where portenos escape the summer heat.

EAT+DRINK

Cafe culture

BA's cafe scene is legendary and the touristy grandmaster is Gran Cafe Tortoni. The city's oldest cafe, the scene is heavy velvet curtains, small round marble tables and waiters in pinstriped aprons, waistcoats and bow ties (Av de Mayo 825, Downtown, 4342 4328). Pause in thumping San Telmo at Bar Plaza Dorrego for a heart-starting cortado — a shot of espresso coffee — or chopp, a small glass of beer (Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, 4361 0141). La Biela is a people-watcher's paradise, even by BA standards. Watch busking tango dancers and the city's fit and fabulous parade past (Pres. Manuel Quintana 600, Recoleta, 4804 0449).

Snack attack

Late in the day, El Preferido de Palermo is a sleepy cafe. Order the boquerones (anchovies) a glass of tart wine and soak up the cool, retro interiors (Jorge Luis Borges 2108, Palermo, 4774 6585). You say you're not into ice-cream but that's because you haven't eaten Argentinian ice-cream (helados). The double-black chocolate is divine. The pear and fig is divine. Oh, it's all divine. Well-regarded heladeria chains include Freddo and Volta but finding your own gem is part of the fun. The BA institution of old-school classic afternoon tea is taken to great heights at Alvear Palace Hotel's L'Orangerie.

Top tables

Argentinian cuisine means beef and shiraz at midnight. Rivals for best steak include the swanky Casa Cruz (Uriarte 1658, Palermo Viejo, 4833 1112) and Cabana Las Lilas, a BA staple often quoted as the best upmarket joint in town (Alicia Moreau de Justo 516, Puerto Madero, 4313 1336). For no-frills meat off the tourist trail, taxi into the parilla El Obrero in a dodgy part of town (Augustin Caffarena 64, La Boca, 4362 9912) or head to CampoBravo on Av Baez, Las Canitas' happening restaurant strip (Baez 292, Las Canitas, 4514 5820).

By the glass

Wine tasting is compulsory when in Argentina, so hop into Gran Bar Danzon whose industrial designer fitout belies a well-considered and adventurous wine list, much available by the glass (Libertad 1161, Retiro, 4811 1108). Then make for Milion for a cocktail in the aristocratic gardens of this gorgeously restored French mansion, complete with Gone with the Wind-style banisters (Parana 1048, Barrio Norte, 4815 9925). One of the hottest haunts in town is the terrace at Congo, where the beautiful people drink. (Honduras 5329, Palermo Viejo, 4833 5857).

Hot tip

A get-on-get-off tourist bus with guide departs every ½ hour from 9am-5.30pm from the corner of Florida and Avenida Roque Saenz Pena. You can buy tickets on the bus. Also, remember that BA's high season starts September 1, so prepare to see hotel prices leap after that date.

Getting there

Qantas flies Sydney-Buenos Aires direct, 13 13 13, www.qantas.com; LAN Chile flies to Buenos Aires via Auckland, 1800 221 572, lan.com; Aerolineas Argentinas flies Sydney-Buenos Aires seven times a week, (02) 9234 9000, www.aerolineas.com.au.

Visas & currency

Australians don't need a visa to enter Argentina but must pay a $US100 fee on arrival, payable in dollars, Argentinean pesos, credit card or travellers' cheques. The local currency is the Argentine peso, $1 = 3.45 pesos; $1 = US87 cents.

Calling Buenos Aires

The Argentinean country code is +54 and 11 for Buenos Aires. So to call Buenos Aires from abroad, add +5411 to the numbers listed above.

More information

Buenos Aires Tourism, www.bue.gov.ar.

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