48 Hours: Buenos Aires

New non-stop flights from London will make the sights and flavours of Argentina's colourful capital more accessible. Mick Webb reports

Click here for 48 Hours in Buenos Aires map

Travel essentials

The sultry summer in the Argentinian capital is giving way to less humid autumnal days. Buenos Aires provides a perfect two-day stopover for travellers en route deeper into the country, or across the Andes to Chile. And reaching the city is about to become easier with the restoration of non-stop flights from London.

Touch down

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies daily from Heathrow to Buenos Aires via São Paulo at present, but starts non-stop flights on 27 March. Cheaper fares are available for connecting flights on the Brazilian airline, TAM, via São Paulo, and on a range of American carriers via their US hubs. Ezeiza International airport is 35km south-west of the city centre. Buses operated by Manuel Tienda León (00 54 11 4315 5115; tiendaleon.com.ar) run every half-hour to the Puerto Madero bus terminal (1); pay your fare of 45 pesos (£7) at the counter in the arrivals hall; an extra 5 pesos buys a transfer from the terminal to city-centre hotels.

A taxi to the city centre costs about 130 pesos (£20). For a cheap but extended journey, take city bus (colectivo) 8 from outside the airport for just two pesos (30p).

Get your bearings

The districts of most interest to visitors are contained in a strip which runs south to north on the southern shore of the River Plate. The centre is sliced through by a 14-lane avenue, 9 de Julio, with a towering obelisk (2) as its focal point. The true heart of the city, though, is the historic Plaza de Mayo (3). South of this square are the bohemian district of San Telmo and working-class La Boca. To the north is the commercial and business district of Microcentro, beyond which is Retiro, home to the main bus station (4), classy Recoleta with its museums and parks and trendy Palermo.

The six-line metro system, el Subte, has a flat fare of just 1.10 pesos (20p). The most central tourist office (5) is at Florida 100, one block from the Plaza de Mayo (00 54 11 4313 0187; bue.com.ar; 10am-6pm daily); others can be found at the airport and the bus station.

Check in

Old-fashioned luxury is on offer at the Alvear Palace (6) at Avenida Alvear 1891 (00 54 11 4804 7777; alvearpalace.com); if you can't afford the rate for doubles (with breakfast) of US$469 (£313), then consider the wonderful afternoon teas (4.30-7pm daily). At the more functional end of the spectrum is the Grand King (7), centrally placed on the pedestrianised Calle Lavalle at number 560 (00 54 11 4393 4012; grandking.com.ar). Doubles start at US$80 (£53).

Smaller, boutique-style hotels have mushroomed in the districts of San Telmo and Palermo. A good example is the homely Posada Palermo (8) at J Salgado 1655 (00 54 11 4826 8792; posadapalermo.com). Doubles with ample breakfast start at US$125 (£83).

A recent addition to the thriving hostel scene is minimalist Ostinatto (9) at Chile 680 (00 54 11 43 62 96 39; ostinatto.com) in San Telmo. A bed in a dormitory starts at 46 pesos (£7.50).

Day one

Take a ride

Hop on (and off, wherever you wish) the Bus Turístico for an overview of the city (00 54 11 5239 5160; buenosairesbus.com). The half-hourly service with commentary starts at "Stop Zero" at the corner of Florida and Diagonal Norte (10) from 9am, stopping at 11 points.

Visit dilapidated La Boca, taking in the brightly painted corrugated iron houses of Caminito (11) and the nearby Boca Juniors football stadium (12), where Maradona played. Move on to the sharply contrasting riverside development of Puerto Madero, all corporate high-rises and warehouse restaurants. Tickets valid for 24 hours cost 70 pesos (£10.50) on the bus or from the tourist information kiosk (5) at Florida 100 (00 54 11 4313 0187).

Lunch on the run

The plethora of pizzerias is a reminder of the role of Italian immigrants in the growth of Buenos Aires. El Cuartito (13) at Calle Talcahuano 937, open 12.30pm-2am (00 54 11 4816 1758) is a city institution where the lavishly topped pizzas are sold by the slice (from 7 pesos/£1) or as a sit-down meal (from 33 pesos/£5). Wash it down with a draft Quilmes beer (un chopp) and take in the sporting memorabilia on the walls.

Window shopping

The boisterous intersecting streets of Florida and Lavalle are lined with shops selling leather goods, replica football shirts and the like, with the shopping arcade Galerías Pacífico (14) providing classier goods in a Parisian-style Belle Époque building. More popular with local people is the bigger, more fashionable mall of Alto Palermo (15) at Avenida Santa Fe 3253, next to Bulnes subte station on line D. For cut-price leather, head for Calle Murillo (16), while the most enjoyable shopping experience is to stroll down Calle Armenia (17) in Palermo, whose cool boutiques offer local designer goods for sometimes knockdown prices.

Take a view

The best view of the city is from the A222 restaurant (00 54 11 5199 0222) on the 19th floor of the Comega Building (18) at Avenida Corrientes 222. Look out across rooftops and the River Plate as far as neighbouring Uruguay from the dining room, which opens from 4pm to 8pm for afternoon tea.

An apéritif

At the heart of Palermo is Plaza Cortázar (19), also called Serrano. Sans, at Serrano 1595 (00 54 11 4832 7266), has a lengthy menu of snacks and beers and a pleasant roof terrace on which to enjoy them; 30 pesos (£5) will get you the trendy cocktail, Fernet con Coca, based on the bitter Italian liqueur.

Dining with the locals

Buenos Aires is the world capital of steak restaurants – las parrillas. Book ahead for La Cabrera (20) at Cabrera 5099 (00 54 11 4831 7002; parillalacabrera), which has a reputation for great beef. Its tender, tasty bife de chorizo (sirloin) comes with imaginative sauces and vegetable side dishes. A meal costs about 150 pesos (£25).

For an alternative to the ubiquitous parrilla, Cumaná (21) at Rodriguez Peña 1149 (00 54 11 4813 9207) serves melt-in-the mouth empanadas (pasties) and delicious locro (stew). It opens noon-1am and a typical meal costs about 60 pesos (£9).

Day two

Sunday morning: out to brunch

Imbibe coffee and atmosphere at Cafe Tortoni (22), Avenida de Mayo 825 (00 54 11 4342 4328; cafetortoni.com.ar), a historic meeting place for writers, politicians and tango stars. It keeps extensive hours: 9am-1am on Sundays, 8am-3am the rest of the week. Order the classic breakfast of coffee with three croissants (medialunas) for 19 pesos (£3), or a more substantial "Tortoni" including a toasted sandwich for 54 pesos (£8.50).

Go out church

One of the city's oldest churches is the Basílica del Pilar (23) (00 54 11 4806 2209; basilicadelpilar.org.ar), a white-washed, colonial building with half a dozen baroque altarpieces. Opens 8am-9pm daily. A short walk away is Recoleta cemetery (24) at Juní* 1760 (00 54 11 4804 7040; 7am-5.45pm), whose monumental mausoleums commemorate the city's great and good – including the tomb of Eva Perón.

Take a hike

Follow the Evita connection: start a walk in the huge Plaza de Mayo (3) with its street vendors, political protesters and iconic buildings. Admire the gaudy, pink presidential palace from which Evita addressed the crowds, and the neo-classical metropolitan cathedral.

Walk south down narrow, cobbled Calle de la Defensa, which is closed to traffic on Sundays and hosts a lively antiques fair. At the far end, in the district of San Telmo, decaying houses are being restored to their former grandeur. On the way, get yourself photographed sitting beside the statue of the cartoon character Mafalda (25), on the corner of Defensa and Chile, and take a guided tour of El Zanjón's fascinating archaeological reconstructions (26) at Defensa 755 (00 54 11 4361 3002; elzanjon.com.ar). Tours cost 30 pesos (£5) and run from 1pm to 6pm on Sundays. During the week they run from 11am to 3pm and the price rises to 50 pesos (£7.50). Tango musicians and dancers perform in Plaza Dorrego (27) amid al fresco bars and restaurants – any of which will tempt you to lunch.

Cultural afternoon

Amid the broad avenues, parks and elegant buildings of Recoleta stands the Museum of Latin American Art (28), known as Malba (00 54 11 4808 6500; malba.org.ar; noon-8pm daily except Tuesday, to 9pm Wednesday; 22 pesos/£3.50). Its spacious, light-filled building at Avenida Alcorta 3415 houses an inspiring collection including works by Kahlo, Rivera and Botero.

Half-an-hour's walk away – past the dramatic sculpture Floralis Generalis (29), whose huge steel petals open at dawn and close at dusk – is the National Museum of Fine Arts (30), at Avenida del Libertador 1473 (00 54 11 5288 990; mnba.org.ar; open 9.30am-8.30pm at weekends, from 12.30pm on weekdays, closed Mondays). The first floor has excellent 19th and 20th-century Argentinian works.

A walk in the park

Take the Subte (line D) to Plaza Italia (31) to begin a relaxing walk through a series of interlinked green spaces. Start at the Botanical Garden (32) at Avenida Santa Fe 3951 (00 54 11 4831 4527; 9am-6pm daily; free), with its fascinating collection of trees and plants from across the world. Carry on past the zoo (33) to the Parque 3 de Febrero (34) with a lovely rose garden (el Rosedal) and the bird-filled Poet's Garden.

The icing on the cake...

... is the tango. See an evening show at the Cafe Tortoni (22) at Avenida de Mayo 825 (00 54 11 4342 4328), for which you must book before noon. Also pay a visit to the museum-home of Carlos Gardel (35) at Jean Jaurès 735 (00 54 11 4964 2071; 11am-6pm, closed Tuesdays; 3 pesos/ 50p) to feel the aura of tango's first superstar.

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