Buenos Aires for a Song

The city is a bargain today

Gourmet restaurants, great fashion, Old World cafés, and architecture. These have always been reasons to visit Buenos Aires, the "Paris of South America." But for the past decade, Americans would have spent less money visiting the real Paris than South America's most vibrant and sophisticated city.

Not anymore. The Argentine peso, down nearly 70% against the dollar in the past year, is putting Buenos Aires back on travelers' maps: Flights are full, hotels are packed, and the city's celebrated nightlife is thriving. Thanks to the huge influx of foreign bargain hunters, shopping malls, such as the beautifully restored Galerías Pacífico on Calle Florida, are teeming. "I spent less in a week than I normally would on a Saturday night," says Jason Russell, who was loading up his suitcases with decorative pieces and artwork to furnish a new San Francisco apartment.

One undeniable sign of the revival under way: The city's restaurants are full again. At Cabaña Las Lilas in Puerto Madero, the top steakhouse in a country where preparing steaks, grilled slowly for an hour over dying embers, is an art form, a lavish dinner for two goes for $25 to $35, including a superb bottle of local Malbec wine. Beyond the beef circuit, a number of talented young chefs and restaurateurs who bummed around Europe and the U.S. when their pesos were strong have returned home to set up shop. Many have flocked to Palermo Viejo (also called Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho), a quiet neighborhood converted into eclectic bistros and boutiques.

It's the perfect reflection of the cosmopolitan flare of porteños, as the city's 3 million residents (12 million metropolitan) are known. At Scandinavian-inspired Olsen, it's hard to say which is more inebriating--the superb seafood entrées or the vodka bar. Nearby Bar Central is the place to see the city's beautiful people. Outside Palermo, Sucre, with its gray post-industrial look, offers modern interpretations on traditional cuisine, such as a spit-roasted Patagonian lamb bathed in garlic and herbs. Dinner for two runs $30 to $40.

Beyond late-night dining and shopping, the city boasts plenty of cultural attractions. Wander past the crumbling mansions along the cobblestone streets of San Telmo, the city's historic center, and you enter the nostalgic world of the tango. Indeed, you can see porteños flaunting their dominion of the sensual dance in the barrio's plazas and tango bars. On Sundays, antique dealers take over the street. March is also the start of the opera season at the ostentatious Teatro Colón.

Buenos Aires boasts two new museums worth visiting. The translucent modern edifice that is the Museum of Latin American Art (MALBA) houses an extensive collection of 20th century works. The kitschier Evita Perón Museum celebrates the life--and Dior dresses--of the country's idealized First Lady. Between eating and touring, you'll have enough to keep you busy at least a week.

By Joshua Goodman

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