When the cool crowd flees the northern winter there's only one place to go these days - Buenos Aires. Ian McCurrach gets tangoed

Buenos Aires, or BA, as it is known, is once again the winter sun and social playground for those in the know. But where in the past it was only the well-heeled who could afford to party there, these days it is the cheapest capital in South America. Sadly for the locals, this is due to Argentina's cataclysmic meltdown in late 2001 and the scrapping of its rigid exchange rate in early 2002 that caused the peso to plummet.

Who could resist eating the best three-course meal in the swankiest new restaurant in town for less than £12, including some of the finest Argentinian wines? What could be more exciting than partying till dawn in the coolest bars and clubs with the beautiful portenos (BA residents)?

On arrival you could be forgiven for thinking that BA isn't in South America at all. Instead of an Aztec or Mayan legacy laced with a veneer of Spanish colonialism, the city's wide Haussmann-style tree-lined boulevards, ornate parks and belle époque architecture have more in common with Paris and Madrid than Peru.

In fact, what is so intriguing about this hedonistic capital is that it blurs the distinctions between night and day, past and future, Europe and Latin America. It has taken the best of Spanish, British, French and Italian cultures and made them entirely its own.

The Faena Hotel + Universe is a case in point. The successful coupling of former Argentinian fashion designer and entrepreneur Alan Faena with Philippe Stark has produced a venue which redefines the destination hotel. Housed in a former seven-storey grain store (built in 1902), when floodlit at night the building resembles a Manchester canal-side warehouse (the distinctive red bricks were transported from Manchester over a century ago). This "new universe", as Faena refers to it, "is the uniting of old and new, and is a celebration of the warmth and vibrancy of Argentinian life and values". It is the place to see and be seen.

Getting to grips with the city can prove daunting. With a population of some 11.5 million spread out over 47 districts or barrios. Not to be missed are Recoleta - all-English Mayfair and fancy stores; La Boca - the biggest Italian community outside Italy and home to the colourful Boca Juniors football team; Palermo Viejo (Hollywood and Soho) - crammed with trendy boutiques, bars and restaurants; San Telmo - the original Spanish settlement, now one of the biggest and best antique centres in the world; Micro Centro, Congreso and Tribunales - all stately buildings including the famous Pink House or Casa Rosada where Evita waved from the balcony to her people.

Taxis are cheap and plentiful and while the traffic is a nightmare, with cars careering across five-lane boulevards, a journey across the city costs less than 12 pesos (£2). The Subte (metro) is worth exploring as it dates from 1912 and still operates with the original wooden cars. For nostalgia, take line A, which displays its original 1930s posters. No journey costs more than 10p.

One of the coolest ways of seeing this sweltering city is on a guided bike tour. Buenos Aires Urban Biking (tel: 00 54 11 4855 5103; www.urbanbiking.com) was set up last year by a group of young students and offers four different itineraries led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable twentysomethings. Each route explores different aspects of the city - there's even a nightlife tour.

Argentinian cuisine is currently enjoying a renaissance and offers the best of local fare (meat and fish) fused with world cooking. Palermo Hollywood (think sophisticated chic) and Palermo Soho (think bohemian hip) have the greatest concentration of new eateries. Eating out, like the BA nightlife, is a late affair and no one thinks of dining before 10pm.

The current top table is Santa Cruz (Uriarte 1658, tel: 00 54 11 4833 1112), which opened last December to great acclaim. Juan Santa Cruz and his partner chef have created a stunning redwood-panelled lounge with low lighting, vast distances between the tables and a superb menu. Feast on dishes such as sea bass with parsley mashed potatoes, avocado, and salami chips topped with an egg, which tastes sublime. For sensational sushi in a concrete minimalist interior try Dashi (Fitz Roy 1613, tel: 00 54 11 4776 3500).

Sucre (Sucre 676, tel: 00 54 11 4782 9082) is pure theatre. The pan-Latin dishes are served in a vast neo-industrial space incorporating high-caged walkways that lead to the restrooms.

Palermo Viejo is retail heaven. Wander into any of the small stores and pick up a neighbourhood retailers' map. For funky menswear head for Felix (Gurruchaga 1670) and for womenswear you can't beat Lupe (El Salvador 4719).

BA is also a city which never sleeps. Post-prandial activities begin around 1am when the bars and clubs and milongas (tango clubs) come to life. Clubbing has long been big in BA but now tango and after-hours tango are taking over as the in thing. Head for Le Catedral (Sarmiento 4006) after midnight to see the young portenos practice their sexy steps that combine traditional tango with street dance such as hip-hop.

The only thing BA lacks is a beach. So make sure you opt for a hotel with an outside swimming pool to soak up those hot December rays.

British Airways (tel: 0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has return flights from Heathrow to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo in Brazil from £697 return. The Faena Hotel + Universe (tel: 00 54 11 4010 9000; www.faenahotelanduniverse.com) offers double rooms from US$300 (£160) a night, including airport pick-up, breakfast, and local phone calls

Winter-sun cities

Cape Town

Unrivalled in its unique combination of sun, sea and sensational scenery. From the beaches and the bays to the glitzy bars, it's easy to see why the beautiful people fly in here to party.

Sydney

Great beaches, hip neighbourhoods, superb cuisine, stunning architecture plus the Opera House, bridge and harbour.

Miami

Join the armies of Sybarites and trendsetters who cruise, lounge and pose in this land of absolute fabulousness. Worship at the stunning Art Deco shrines, which are now ritzy restaurants, bars and clubs.

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