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Buenos Aires

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One of the most distinctive cities in the world. 

Buenos Aires is truly one of the great cities of the world.  A brief business visit a few years ago had whetted my appetite to see more of this city with broad boulevards, but a vacation in 2004 made me a believer.

I have visited many cities that call themselves European.   I have visited many cities that compare themselves to Paris.  My response is generally skeptical:  why not just visit Europe?  Why not visit Paris?  Why not see the real thing?

Buenos Aires is very European, and there are places in Recoleta and Palermo that truly can be compared with Paris.  There is no hype about that at all, but also, this is not an imitation Europe or an imitation Paris.  It is a New World city all its own, with a unique blend of the old and the new, south and north, with strong influences from many sources -- Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain, among others.  What is unique about Buenos Aires is not that it is a version of somewhere else, but that it is its own unique blend.

Guidebooks.  I am partial to a series that includes a literary background:  Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Cities of the Imagination Series) by Jason Wilson.  This is particularly important for Buenos Aires, where the literary triumphs are many.  Apart from that, pick up a current edition of the Lonely Planet, Fodor or other guide.  (As always, it is easier to find the right general guidebook in the US than it is at your destination.)  For those visiting South America in general, South America on a Shoestring comes highly recommended.

Hotels.  The Alvear Palace is one of the world's great historic hotels.  It is in the Recoleta neighborhood, the best place to be for walks.  The Alvear is very expensive, but look for bargains on the web.  I stayed there once on business.  Our favorite for the money is Hotel Marriot Plaza.  This is one of the finest hotels in the city, in an old building, but with modern amenities.  It is well-located across from the Plaza San Martin, and at the end of Calle Florida, a pedestrian shopping mall.  We would go there again.  Hotel Marriot, address: Florida 1005, telephone: (011) 54 11 4318 3000The other hotel, the Park Plaza Kempenski, that we stayed in admittedly was modest (small rooms, window air conditioners), but it had an outstanding location in Recoleta and a very friendly young staff.   Breakfast was good, but the amenities were very modest (fitness center was the right to use a gym down the street).  There are various Kempenski hotels in town, and we only know about this one.  Park Plaza Kempinski Hotel, Parera 183. Telephone: (011) 54 11 6777 0200. 

Booking Hotels.  "Buenos Aires Hotels Today" often has deep discounts on hotel rooms.  From the US, call 800-499-5105.  (I also found them on the web, and that is how we booked the Kempenski at a very low price.)  We found the Marriot through Latintrip.com, from the US call, 1-800-811-8829, but found that the prices they quoted for the Kempenski were higher than those on the web.  (For the Marriot, Latintrip was lower!)  My recommendation is to try both, plus the websites for the chains directly.  (Our US travel agency consistently quoted higher prices.)

Tango.  Probably everyone is partial to the tango show that they saw.  We loved El Querandí, whose website is:  http://www.querandi.com.ar

The dancing was great, but we also loved the setting in an old bar-restaurant, so there was nothing of an institutional flavor to the experience.  When not a tango show, the place is an actual restaurant, so the quality of the food for the dinner show was a plus. This came highly recommended to us by Argentine friends.

Guide.  We hired a guide, who came with a van, to give us a six-hour orientation tour of the city.  She came highly recommended and is a middle-aged Argentine lady who had spent time in the US.  Yes, she was opinionated, but don't you expect that in a guide?  This is her contact information:  Sonia Belostotzky, telephone 5411-4782-0290, email: soniabel@dd.com.ar cell: 15-5328-8560. A day with her is a great way to do the leading sites.

Recoleta.  This is the ritziest part of town, whether you are dead or alive.  You don't have to be an Eva Peron fan to want to visit the cemetery.  In fact, this is "must-see" in town.  For those reluctant to spend their vacation visiting a cemetery, think of this as a sculpture park, because that is what it is.  The mausoleums of the rich are elaborately adorned with outstanding and sometime garrish monuments.  The structures themselves are family-sized temples.  It all is arranged as a city, complete with streets, trees, benches and plazas.  My son said he wouldn't have been surprised to see a satellite dish on top of the mausoleums!

Recoleta also is a lovely part of town, the part that is, in fact, the most like Paris.  There are outdoor cafes, parks and swanky shops.  Even when the weather is hot, men in tweed sports jackets and ties take a stroll, looking like reincarnations of Borges.   The women are dressed stylishly and might even have fur-trimmed clothes on.  The dogs in this neighborhood seem to shop at the same place that supplies the well-coiffed, well-dressed Parisian dogs.

Don't miss the Biela cafe -- both outside and inside are fun -- a place unique for having both literary and auto-racing associations.  Down the street is Fredo's, our favorite place for ice cream in a city famous for ice cream.  The convent is worth a visit.  Next door is an hall with temporary art exhibits.  In the park between the convent and the cafes is an art fair that assembles every weekend, and, to a lesser extent, during the week.

Teatro ColónThis is the other must-see in town.  Try to attend a performance, because the acoustics are said to be superb.  We took one of the tours, which was a very memorable experience.  This is not only the opera house, but one of the most famous opera houses in the world.  Even in times of financial stringency, it manages to put on nine different operas a year (14 when times are better).  There are concerts there, as well.  The architecture is beautiful, and the ornamentation is in keeping with the end of the 19th century style.  The tour takes about an hour.  Be warned that ticket sales seem a bit chaotic.  If you need to wait for the next hourly tour, the Petit Cafe down the street is a fine place to do it, one that evokes post-performance nights with performers and opera-goers.

Palermo.  This is another fine neighborhood.  We saw the mansions of Palermo Chico on our tour, and then visited the MALBA Museum (featuring a private collection with the focus on contemporary art of Latin America) and the Japanese Gardens.  The gardens looked beautiful in our photos, but on a very hot day, there didn't seem to be enough relief from the sun.  There is a Japanese restaurant in the middle.  We have it on good authority that a walk in Palermo is as much fun as a walk in Recoleta.

El Boca.  Everyone walks around this colorful neighborhood, a great backdrop for photos.

San Telmo.  Visit the weekend antique fair, one that includes items that are higher end than most flea markets.

Porto Madero.  This is the redeveloped riverside area that is the home to some of the best restaurants in town.  Save some time to walk along the river. The quality of the restaurants varies.

Las Canitas.  This is a trendy restaurant and bar area, behind the stables of the polo fields.  We are very fond of a bistro there, Novecento.  With the doors wide open, and the large corner windows facing this lively neighborhood, this is one of those places that seems very Mediterranean.  The food and wine were excellent and the prices reasonable.

Excursions.  The favorite day-trip is to Colonia, Uruguay.  This is on the other side of the river, which is about 30 miles wide at that point.  We did not make the trip, but our son did.  It offers a colonial-era town, an escape from the bustle of Buenos Aires.  Arrange a trip through your hotel, or directly with the ferry lines.  Be careful, however, to choose one of the fast ferries.  Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is another day trip, but you will need to fly in and out of the local airport to do it in one day.  I have been there, and it has the feel of a sleepy backwated city, with something of the feel of the old West in the main square.  (Shops do a lively trade in leather of all kinds, including bullwhips.)  Another day trip, one that involves boats and trains, is to visit Tigre -- the mouth of the river.  Again, our son did this and we did not, but he preferred Colonia.  We were told that the gaucho excursions that are close enough to Buenos Aires are too close to be very authentic, but we didn't try one ourselves.