Despite a financial crisis that pushed half the middle class beneath the poverty line, over the last six years Argentina has rebounded to become one of the world’s most glamorous and seductive travel destinations. The once-expensive South American capital, with its Parisian-style boulevards, rich literary and cultural traditions and taste for luxury, has stepped up from welcoming the bohemian backpacker to offering a deluxe experience fit for the fussiest VIP. Meanwhile, the porteños—the name the city’s natives go by, meaning “those who live near the port”—are delighting in the influx of foreigners to a city that has always been South America’s most outward-looking and cosmopolitan.
“Porteños—especially the high society porteños—know how to do luxury,” says Christine Wiseman, who runs BA Local, a service that provides tailored itineraries and personalized tours that take in everything from artist’s studios to huge soccer matches. “They have a European influence—you walk around the city and you see the luxury in the architecture.”
From the old neighborhoods of Recoleta and San Telmo with their 19th-century mansions to the ultra-modern towers of Puerto Madero, the city is experiencing a boom in renovation and construction. Argentina’s 2002 currency crash, in which its dollar-pegged peso was devalued to around 35 cents, suddenly made building much cheaper. Pair this with a tourism boom—half a million tourists visited Buenos Aires in the first three months of 2008, up 16.3 percent from last year—and the city has seen a number of ambitious projects reach fruition.
One such is the Faena Hotel + Universe, part of the enormous Faena Arts district in the revived docklands of Puerto Madero. Crossing from the crumbling mansions of the San Telmo neighborhood to the shiny world of Puerto Madero is like walking from the 19th century to the 21st in three blocks, or stepping from the developing world straight into the first. Filled with upscale restaurants and pricey apartments that take in sweeping views across the Rio de la Plata and over the city’s rooftops, the district is a far cry from the noise and bustle of downtown. The Faena project will soon see a derelict wheat mill converted into a huge arts center, with more hotel rooms and high-end apartments to follow.
For now, the Faena Hotel + Universe is the stopover of choice for international showbiz types that include Coldplay, Kylie Minogue and Francis Ford Coppola. Its Philippe Starck-designed interiors boast his singular mix of rich colors and textures, with an eclectic blend of contemporary design and antique pieces. The restaurant is particularly striking—an intimate, Matthew Barney-esque all-white space, where diners enjoy some of the city’s best food under the red-eyed gaze of unicorns mounted on the walls like hunted deer. El Bistro’s chef, Marian Cid de la Paz, protégé of renowned Spanish chef Ferrán Adría whips up the city’s most extraordinary tasting menu for around $80.
Back in the old city, the streets are filled with the worn out remains of Argentina’s golden age, when, from around 1860 to the early 20th century, the country’s wealthy built French-style mansions and traveled the globe. Now many classic cafes are being restored, and buildings are emerging from renovations as boutique hotels and hip bars. The Park Hyatt’s Palacio Duhau boasts one of the city’s finest facelifts. The Duhau family moved out in 1997, and the old marble palace with its walled garden and classic Belle Epoque façade is now the top hotel in Recoleta, the city’s fanciest neighborhood, with its chic, understated suites welcoming the rich and famous, from Crown Princess Maxima of Holland to Ricky Martin and the Olsen twins.
Like their distant Spanish cousins, porteños are a nocturnal breed. An early evening siesta or extended late-afternoon tea refreshes them for an evening of dining and dancing that rarely begins before 10 p.m. The city’s most elegant tea room is without doubt L’Orangerie, in Recoleta’s Hotel Alvear, where ladies in furs sip from English china in the city’s most traditional hotel.
Later on, the party moves to Palermo, which is to Recoleta what Soho is to Fifth Avenue. Here’s where the city’s hippest designers have set up shop, and the cobbled streets are filled with chic new restaurants. One of the best is Casa Cruz. The huge brass doors open into a sleek, celebrity-studded bar, beyond which is the dining room, with a wine rack holding an entire wall of the country’s best wines, served with adventurous modern Argentine cuisine.
If it’s a steak you’re after—and here in Buenos Aires they’re extremely proud of their Creole-style barbecue—La Cabrera serves some of the city’s best cuts in a crowded, bustling room that combines the essence of a traditional steakhouse with top-notch service. The long line of eager carnivores sip champagne on the sidewalk as they anticipate the enormous steaks and perfectly grilled sweetbreads that come with a dizzying array of accompaniments that jostle for space on the table—from roasted garlic to spicy chickpeas.
When it comes to clubbing, says Wiseman, “the key is to get on the list.” Huge crowds line up outside Crowbar, sister to the Miami nightclub, as well as Pacha, which has its sister in Ibiza. Argentines love to party, and these clubs attract the world’s headline DJs. If you’re after a less frenetic way to spend the evening, there is always a lively scene at the downtown Gran Bar Danzón, with its excellent cocktails and bar snacks and its upscale clientele, while Le Bar’s dugout seating and eye-catching art displays open up to a delightful terrace, perfect for summer sipping. Nobody is in bed before sunrise, and the all-day brunch at Scandinavian-style Olsen, in Palermo, is where the party-weary regroup on Sundays, over scrambled eggs and gravlax served with a soothing mimosa.
Finally, if you’re tempted to delve into the world of Buenos Aires but feel the need to add some structure to your sojourn, consider a customized itinerary from Borello Travel & Tours. With insider contacts and on-the-ground experience, they can create trips based around culture, art and wine, tango and more.