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If you go to Buenos Aires ...

Scripps Howard News Service

Must credit Tampa Bay Times

Sidebar to BUENOSAIRES

By JENNIFER DECAMP

Tampa Bay Times

How to get there

International flights arrive at Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), which is about a 30-minute cab ride from downtown Buenos Aires. Visas are not required to enter the country, but Americans need a valid passport and must pay an entrance fee of about $130 per person that is valid for 10 years. Arrange cab service to your destination inside the airport after going through customs. We used frequent-flier miles, but a check on travelocity.com shows tickets in October, which is spring there, are about $1,250.

Where to stay

Buenos Aires is divided into neighborhoods or barrios. The Recoleta, Palermo and Microcentro are good choices for accommodations. We rented a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of downtown through vrbo.com, which lists rental units in all the city's neighborhoods. Our apartment cost $70 a night (a steal) with a $200 security deposit and $40 cleaning fee. It had a kitchen, washer and dryer. This allowed us to save money by not having to eat out every meal and to do laundry a couple of times so we could bring fewer clothes. We chose Microcentro for convenience. We had a one-block walk to the nearest subway station and easy access to attractions like the Teatro Colon, and it was a five-minute cab ride to the Retiro bus station. On weekdays, it is loud and busy, because it's located in the heart of the business district. If you prefer quiet, tree-lined streets and a less urban feel, seek out a hotel or rental in Palermo or Recoleta.

Getting around

Buenos Aires is a large city, and the distance between the neighborhoods is too great to hoof it. The subway is a fast and cheap alternative (2.5 pesos per ride), but it doesn't connect to all neighborhoods, like the Recoleta. Radio Taxis are the next-best alternative; look for the yellow-and-black cars that have "Radio Taxi" printed on them. Our most expensive ride was about $7. If you take a cab, give the driver the street, then the address.

Dining notes

Five things about restaurant dining I wish I would have learned from guidebooks:

-- There is no host to seat you. This is fabulous because you can sit wherever you want.

-- Argentines are not carb-conscious like Americans, neither are they overweight, so a bread basket is standard fare at most restaurants. Certain places charge a small fee for it under table service. Don't skip it -- the options can be gourmet and usually come with seasoned oils or butters. You'll walk it off, trust me.

-- Waiters don't obsess about service. When you need help, look for your server. Usually, eye contact and a nod work. They'll come right over.

-- You pay for water. There are two options, "sin gas," or still water, and "gaseous," water with bubbles.

-- Argentina is a cash-carrying society. Many smaller restaurants only take cash as payment.

Where to eat

Dada (San Martin 941, Microcentro): Eclectic kitsch and funky art are the decor at this intimate cafe that's a favorite with locals. Tables are few and close. Meanwhile, your neighbors seem even closer when the cacophony of good cheer reaches a fever pitch and there's not an empty seat. Order the ojo de bife (ribeye steak) served with chimichurri.

Don Julio (Guatemala 4691, Palermo): Arrive early -- that would be around 9 p.m. -- and score one of the coveted sidewalk tables perfect for people- (and dog-) watching in the city's most lushly green neighborhood. Don Julio is a traditional Argentinian parrilla, or steakhouse, so order the beef, which is local and served in plentiful portions. The staff is helpful and attentive.

El Cuartito (Talcahuano 937, Microcentro): This restaurant has been serving up cheesy pizza slices since 1934. Get one of the flaky, stuffed empanadas as a starter. If you like lots and lots of onions, try the fugazetta, a traditional Buenos Aires deep-dish pizza oozing with mozzarella and onions.

Bar El Federal (Carlos Calvo 599, San Telmo): Cafe Tortoni (est. 1858) is the city's most well-known cafe bar -- you'll frequently see tourists waiting for the doors to open -- but El Federal (est. 1864) seems more like a local joint. It's a short walk from Plaza Dorrego, home of the Sunday antiques market in San Telmo, but far enough to escape the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that fill a mile-long stretch of Defensa, which is closed to car traffic. The hearty lomo completo bife sandwich is a burger with all the fixings, including a fried egg. Wash it down with Quilmes Stout, a local brew that tastes more like a rich, American porter.

La Baita (Thames 1603, Palermo): Fact: About 60 percent of Argentinians are descendants of Italian immigrants. Because of this, do not pass up the chance to have authentic Italian cuisine in Buenos Aires. At this family-owned restaurant, pick a dish featuring the home-style pasta and save room for dessert. A flaky pastry of phyllo layered with lightly sweetened cream and berries disappeared all too quickly.

La Fabrica del Taco (Gorriti 5062, Palermo): After feasting daily on empanadas (the Argentinian street food of the masses), we couldn't resist gorging on a plate of Mexican-style tacos served with margaritas. Each table features three bottles of hot sauce ranging in heat from "For Argentinians" (extremely mild) to "For Those Who Dare" (blazing hot). Try them all.

Where to shop

Argentina is known for its leather products, mate sets (used to drink a traditional tea made from yerba mate leaves) and wine.

Carla Danelli (Armenia 1902 or Honduras 4802, Palermo): Trendy leather handbags and shoes at modest prices made by one of the top leather producers in Argentina.

San Telmo antiques market (Sundays in Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo): Go for the people-watching -- the streets are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with gawkers of all nationalities. Look for a crowd holding up cellphones -- that's where the tango dancers perform. Yes, you can buy antiques, but most of the best bargains will cost too much money to ship home. For example, we found a chest painted in Tiffany blue with nine glass-front drawers that was marked at about $150. It would have been a steal until the shipping was factored into the price. Instead, most people purchase smaller items like gaucho knives with carved handles, colored glass soda bottles, house number plaques and retro phones or cameras. Artisans sell their work on the streets surrounding the market, as do many other people selling cheap, tourist-friendly goods.

(Jennifer DeCamp can be reached at jdecamp(at)tampabay.com.)

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