Residents of Buenos Aires, Argentina's sprawling capital on the southern shore of the mighty Rio de la Plata, boast that their city is the Paris of South America. And there is a decidedly French slant to much of this port's countenance, from the regal neoclassicism of Palacio Errázuriz, now the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, to the astounding Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau mausoleums that line Cementerio de la Recoleta, where first lady Eva Perón lies entombed. But that's where the resemblance ends. The surface sophistication that turn-of-the-century architects borrowed from the City of Light is jolted by a frenetic energy that reminds some visitors of midtown Manhattan and warmed by a layer of sultriness perfectly suited to a land where the tango is not only the national dance but also the name of the president's official plane. Taking advantage of it all is a flood of international visitors who land at Ezeiza airport and fan out to reap the benefits of a favorable exchange rate of about three pesos to the dollar.
"We never used to see foreign tourists here. Now you hear people speaking just about every language at any corner bar," marvels architect Monica Melhem, who recently returned to her hometown from New York after a five-year stint running the SoHo design emporium M at Mercer. Among recent B.A. fans are Annie Leibovitz, who shot part of her new Louis Vuitton travel-luggage campaign nearby, and Francis Ford Coppola, whose forthcoming film, Tetro, starring Vincent Gallo and Carmen Maura, is set in the Palermo barrio. "B.A. has always been cool, though it was a well-kept secret," asserts Nacho Figueras, the international polo star and face of Ralph Lauren's Black Label line, who lives part-time in Centauros, about 40 minutes outside the city. "But after the devaluation of the peso" (an economy-crushing event that took place in 2001) "it also became a cheap place for tourists." Statistics prove that visitors high-profile and not definitely have found the tango halls, thick steaks, and saucy nightlife well worth writing home about. The shopping deals are attractive too when compared to other major urban destinations, even in posh gallerias like Patio Bullrich, B.A.'s answer to Trump Tower. Critics, however, counter that the city doesn't have the same quantity of must-see sites or important museums as Paris, London, or New York. But even they would have to agree that B.A. remains a fascinating urban spectacle; its most famous writer, Jorge Luis Borges, once described it as "eternal as air and water."
Founded in 1536 as Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre, abandoned five years later due to Indian attacks, and reestablished in 1580, Buenos Aires is easily enjoyed on foot. Leisurely strolls are the best way to take in modern apartment buildings whose balconies are veritable hanging gardens and flamboyant urban palaces built in the Gilded Age and now given over to embassies. Split in two by Avenida 9 de Julio—its astounding 16 lanes of traffic make it the widest thoroughfare in the world—the central portion of town is a compact assortment of barrios ranging from gentrifying (Puerto Madero and its busy docks and sleek new art museum) to exquisite (Palermo Chico is a paradise of mansions and perfectly clipped hedges). The only thing marring many of the streetscapes is the welter of illuminated billboards plastered across the façades of high-rises and perched on rooftops. The local government, however, recently announced 40,000 of these glowing, blinking eyesores will be coming down in a citywide initiative to control visual pollution.
Buenos Aires's old-world character reflects not only fin-de-siècle tastes of industrialists and cattle kings but also melting-pot demographics. A tidal wave of immigrants arrived from Italy, Spain, and other parts of Europe at the end of the 19th century, shortly after the British came to run the country's railroads and established manicured suburbs of Tudor-style estates as well as a still-unabated mania for polo. The metropolis swelled to 1,575,000 people by 1914, making it the largest city in South America. But unlike many immigrants to the United States, B.A.'s new residents never really assimilated, and successive generations looked longingly across the Atlantic for their sense of identity—bragging of French ancestry, speaking Spanish hybridized with rolling Italian inflections, and shopping at the only Harrods outside England. (An investment group plans to relaunch the massive luxury store, which opened in 1912 on Calle Florida and closed a decade ago.)
The collective sense that Buenos Aires was part of Europe abruptly unraveled in 2001, when the country defaulted on about $95 billion in foreign debt. Argentines awoke one steamy summer day in January 2002 to find their currency, artificially pegged to the dollar for a decade, suddenly devalued by almost a third. Within days the peso plunged nearly 70 percent. Banks imposed a freeze to prevent mass withdrawals, and street violence erupted, complete with arson and tear gas. Imported goods of all kinds—English tea, French foie gras, Asian electronics—suddenly became prohibitively expensive. So for the first time in their history, luxury-loving porteños (people of the port, as locals are known) looked into their own backyard for material pleasures. The silver lining in this devastating economic blow was a wide-eyed rediscovery of all things local. Argentine wines became all the reverse-chic rage, and women who once dressed in Paris couture began patronizing B.A.'s own fashion designers.
"It was the best thing to happen to us," asserts Cecilia Nigro, publicity director of the august 1932 Alvear Palace Hotel. "In a way, we became richer when we couldn't look outward." In full agreement is Marcelo Lucini, creator of the home- and fashion-accessories line Airedelsur, which is sold in the U.S. at Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus. Given the exchange rate during the time of peso-dollar parity, Lucini explains, "It was cheaper to go skiing in Aspen or to the beach in Miami than to do it at home. We didn't know our own country." Today he travels Argentina in search of craftsmen to work native horn and cactus wood into trays and consoles snapped up by such fans as Carolina Herrera and Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan.
Nowhere does creativity percolate more publicly than the tree-lined streets of Palermo Viejo, the largest and most diverse of the city's barrios. Once a working-class enclave of immigrants from Poland, Armenia, and Syria, and a favorite of bohemians and intellectuals—Borges grew up here—this large, still somewhat scruffy section has become a hip epicenter, its streets filled after dark with well-dressed beauties in vertiginous high heels and their suave escorts. The area is subdivided into lively Palermo SoHo (inspired by its New York counterpart), which is known for innovative shops, bars, small hotels, and trendy eateries, and relatively quiet Palermo Hollywood (named for the film and TV production companies that have set up shop here). "All the restaurants I love are here, especially Osaka for sushi," reports supermodel Daniela Urzi, the Argentine whose image graces Nivea ads. Vest-pocket boutiques owned by homegrown talents like fashion designer Cora Groppo and shoe maestra Lucila Iotti planted their mercantile flags in this now-white-hot barrio first, but international chains such as Kiehl's, Lacoste, and Puma have since moved in.
San Telmo is also seeing signs of renewal. This grungy neighborhood tucked alongside the financial district and the docks of Puerto Madero is best known for the Sunday flea market at Plaza Dorrego, where aging tango dancers in ripped fishnets and stained fedoras strut their stuff for the tourists as bargain-hunters scan the booths. "I was really surprised by the quality of the antiques," says Jackie Bolin, an owner of the cutting-edge Dallas fashion boutique V.O.D., who spent ten days here last January and stocked up on everything from vintage costume jewelry to antique photographs. "It was like the Paris flea market." Also in San Telmo is the darkly glamorous Moreno Hotel, whose landmarked Art Deco building was erected in 1920 as the headquarters of a publishing firm. The shops of fashion designers Pablo Ramírez (avant-garde and lots of black and white) and Balthazar (menswear à la Paul Smith) are draws too, as is the Francophile fare at Brasserie Petanque and the gastropub scene at Los Loros.
Linked to Plaza de Mayo by a magical Santiago Calatrava footbridge, Puerto Madero is getting a spate of office buildings and apartment towers. Flush with the success of the Faena Hotel + Universe—where flashy engraved mirrors and red velvet upholstery meet raw brick and glass-walled baths, all courtesy of Philippe Starck—fashion mogul and property developer Alan Faena is planning an ambitious arts district and a mixed-use development designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster. Dubbed the Aleph, after a short story by Borges, the Foster project is expected to have a five-star hotel, condos, restaurants, shops, and a cultural center. And in October the doors finally opened at the long-delayed Museo Fortabat, a transparent barrel-vaulted Rafael Viñoly structure built atop a dock to exhibit the Warhol-to-Solar art collection of the richest woman in Argentina, cement magnate Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat.
Starchitect productions like Museo Fortabat and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA—a thrillingly Brutalist structure where venture capitalist Eduardo F. Costantini's 20th-century Latin American art reigns with a glamorous split-level restaurant that is Nacho Figueras's favorite local lunch spot—are sure signs that Argentina is feeling more confident since the dark days of 2002.
Still, all is not rosy. Rising inflation continues to bedevil the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband, Néstor, as president last year. Earlier this year months of strikes by farmers protesting the president's proposed export-tax increases led to regional food shortages and civil unrest, and foreign investment is still anemic. Many porteños believe the city is operating at only 10 percent of its economic and cultural potential. With its renewed sense of pride, however, the capital of Argentina has become something it never really was before—authentic. "Once we were the Paris of South America," Cecilia Nigro of the Alvear Palace Hotel says. "Now we're Buenos Aires."
ESSENTIAL BUENOS AIRES
The country code is 54.
Dig into dulce de leche. Scooped straight from the jar or sandwiched in an alfajor, the country's favorite cookie, this caramel is adored by Argentines.
Step lively. Tango venues abound, from captivating supper-club shows to traditional populist milongas, or dance halls, like historic Confitería Ideal (Suipacha 380, 11-5265-8069; ).
Remember Eva Perón. Retrace the first lady's footsteps from the balcony of the Casa Rosada to her mausoleum in Cementerio de la Recoleta (Junín 1790, 11-4804-7040; ). Then head to Museo Evita (Lafinur 2988, 11-4807-0306; ).
Get some horse sense. Polo dominates Buenos Aires twice a year: March–May and September–December. For information about matches Campo Argentino de Polo (11-4576-5600) or the Asociación Argentina de Polo (11-4331-4646; ).
Adjust your schedule. If you make dinner reservations for 8 p.m. you'll be eating alone: Night-owl Argentines tend to sit down after 10. Some stores and restaurants close for siesta, generally between 2 and 4, and remember that in this hemisphere, winter is June–September and summer is December–March.
WHAT TO SEE
Fería de San Telmo: On Sundays, Plaza Dorrego and the surrounding streets are a paradise of collectibles peddlers and antiques vendors.
Fondo Nacional de las Artes, Rufino de Elizalde 2831, 11-4808-0553 (by appt.): The city's first modernist house, built in 1929 for publisher and intellectual Victoria Ocampo.
Fundación Proa, Av. Pedro de Mendoza 1929, 11-4303-0909; : Cutting-edge contemporary art in a converted warehouse.
Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), Av. Figueroa Alcorta 3415, 11-4808-6500; : A peerless collection of 20th-century Latin American art in a stunning modern structure.
Museo Fortabat, Olga Cossettini 50, 11-4310-6600: Architect Rafael Viñoly's gallery for concrete heiress Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat's Warhols, Gauguins, Solars, and more.
Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, Av. del Libertador 1902, 11-4802-6606; : Antiques, tapestries, and an Art Deco sitting room with paintings by José María Sert.
Museo Xul Solar, Laprida 1212, 11-4824-3302; : A quirky shrine to the surrealist painter.
Teatro Colón, Libertad 621, 11-4378-7344; : This imposing opera house, opened in 1908, is one of the world's best.
WHERE TO STAY
Alvear Palace Hotel, Av. Alvear 1891, 11-4804-7777; : A 1932 grande dame that's home to the country's only Relais Gourmand restaurant, chic La Bourgogne.
Bo Bo, Guatemala 4882, 11-4774-0505; : This sevenroom hotel and restaurant lives up to its bourgeois-bohemian moniker.
Faena Hotel + Universe, Martha Salotti 445, 11-4010-9148; : Philippe Starck's scarlet-and-mirror interiors are deployed throughout a former granary.
Four Seasons Hotel, Posadas 1086-88, 11-4321-1200; : Deluxe digs at a deluxe price.
Home Hotel, Honduras 5860, 11-4778-1008; : Cool inn with a Scandinavian vibe.
Moreno Hotel, Moreno 376, 11-6091-2000; : A 1929 Art Deco outpost with a new theater and tango lounge.
Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt, Av. Alvear 1661, 11-5171-1234; : The Duhau family's mansion is the sublime centerpiece of a glamorous hotel.
WHERE TO EAT
647 Dinner Club, Tacuarí 647, 11-4331-3026; : Guillermo Testón's praised cuisine includes a tarte Tatin of grapes, blue cheese, and Malbec caramel.
Casa Cruz, Uriarte 1658, 11-4833-1112; : A magnet for young things; the latest favorite dish is rabbit with black-oliveand- bacon sauce.
Cluny, El Salvador 4618, 11-4831-7176: A cozy space offering hearty Argentine and French classics.
La Biela, Av. Quintana 600, 11-4804-0449: This Paris-style sidewalk café has been an institution since 1850 and is conveniently opposite the heavily trafficked and extremely haunting Cementerio de la Recoleta.
La Brigada, Estados Unidos 465, 11-4361-5557; : The best parrilla (grilled beef) around, and decorated with autographed soccer balls.
Little Rose, Armenia 1672, 11-4833-9496: Delectable sushi by Gonzalo Alvarez in a black-on-black interior.
Mott, El Salvador 4685, 11-4833-4306: Seasonal food in a whitewashed industrial space.
Osaka, Soler 5608, 11-4775-6964: Asian-Peruvian fusion spot with a devoted following among the fête set.
Standard, Fitz Roy 2203; 11-4779-2774: Classic porteño fare given a toothsome up-to-date spin.
Sucre, Sucre 676, 11-4782-9082; : Anchored by a Donald Judd–like cement bunker (it's the wine cellar), this cavernous favorite is where celebrated chef Fernando Trocca reigns in the open kitchen.
WHERE TO SHOP
Airedelsur, Galería Promenade, Av. Alvear 1883, 11-4803-6100; : Stylish housewares by Marcelo Lucini with an emphasis on horn, leather, and alpaca, a silver-look alloy.
Arandú, Paraguay 1259 and other locations, 11-4816-3689; : Gentry essentials (sheepskin jackets, fur-lined saddles, sleek boots) authentic polo gear.
Balthazar, Gorriti 5131, 11-4834-6235, and Defensa 1008, 11-4300-6926; : Handsome menswear with playful detailing by Argentina's answer to Paul Smith.
Fernando Farace, Defensa 1170, 11-4300-6693: Well-edited antiques and accessories are purveyed in this architect-owned shop.
Galéria Teresa Anchorena, Costa Rica 4818, 11-4831-9828: An aristocratic former secretary of culture, Anchorena sells midcentury furniture and modern Argentine art.
Humawaca, El Salvador 4692, 11-4832-2662, and Posadas 1380, 11-4811-5995; : Contemporary leather goods (satchels, backpacks, etc.) by architect Ingrid Gutman and her inventive team.
La Dolfina, Av. Alvear 1315 and other locations, 11-4815-2698; : Suavely macho clothing and accessories from hunky polo superstar Adolfo Cambiaso.
La Pasionaria, Godoy Cruz 1541, 11-4773-0563; : Antiques and oddities.
Tramando, Rodríguez Peña 1973, 11-4816-9422; : Designer Martín Churba offers funky handbags and resin jewelry by Perfectos Dragones as well as his own edgy women's wear and chunky woven objects.