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By: Jeannette Neumann
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Argentina's capital Buenos Aires is a cosmopolitan city best experienced through its monumental passions rather than its monuments.
Argentines adore steak and red wine dinners that stretch on for hours, the sultry nostalgia of tango dance halls, a nail-biting match between rival soccer titans and spirited conversations that keep the vibrant cafe culture humming - and their fervor is contagious.
Visitors get the most out of their stay delving into these pockets of passion in Argentine life, rather than scurrying from cathedral to war monument - many of which are often less impressive than their European counterparts.
When London or New York City has called it a night, portenos - as Buenos Aires' port-dwelling residents are called - are just putting on their dancing shoes, heading out until dawn to tango halls, clubs pounding experimental cumbia music or bars that only kick out frolickers once the sun comes up.
The city is also a bargain compared to Europe or the U.S. The Buenos Aires tourism industry has grown accustomed to the steady wave of visitors since the Argentine peso plummeted to a third of its value following a devastating 2001 economic crash. While some tourist hot spots have hiked up prices, there are ways to keep costs down while exploring portenos' many passions.
Many cultural activities are free thanks to hefty government subsidies and a political push to uphold Buenos Aires' reputation as one of Latin America's cultural reference points.
Browse the city's cultural website -buenosaires.gov.ar/areas/cultura, Spanish only - for a list of free tango and jazz performances and film festivals. Or visit the city's tourism site -bue.gov.ar, bilingual - for self-guided tours and free goings-on.
Now, for the first local passion, according to portenos: beef.
Argentines lead the world in beef consumption, eating an average of 143 pounds per person a year.
When choosing one of the city's ubiquitous grills, or parrillas, steer clear of Puerto Madero. The city's newest neighborhood is also one of its most expensive. Stop in one of its upscale restaurants for a $6 glass of Malbec red wine along the docks. But then head a few blocks east to the Costanera. Here dozens of grill stands serve up hamburgers and the like for around $2, right at the entrance to the Nature Reserve - a favorite haunt for bird watchers and Sunday strollers.
Rent a bike nearby in San Telmo at La Bicicleta Naranja (Pasaje Giuffra 308) for $3 an hour to peddle through the reserve to the banks of the Rio de la Plata, one of the widest rivers in the world. It's best to visit the park and the Costanera on a weekend afternoon, rather than at night.
Few dances are as passionate as the tango, next on the list of local obsessions.
But few stops on the tourist "to do" list are more expensive than an elaborate tango show, which can run upward of $100 per person with dinner.
Go to a tango dance hall, or milonga, instead, where entrance is usually around $5. Most people go to dance, but you can sit and have a drink while dozens of intertwined couples prove romance isn't dead.
Just don't look too intently at anyone - in milonga etiquette that's a sign you want to dance. If a muse does inspire, however, many milongas offer inexpensive classes before the regulars hit the floor.
Explore the early days of tango in colorful La Boca neighborhood with Cicerones, cicerones.org.ar. They offer personalized tours in English led by volunteers who love sharing their inside local knowledge. They can take you to the city's best museums or famed soccer stadiums like Boca Juniors "Bombonera." Cicerones recommends reserving five days in advance and a donation of $10 per person for the three-to-four-hour tour.
Divide the weekend by neighborhood - Saturday, Palermo, and Sunday, San Telmo - to be sure catch each barrio at its best.
Head to Plaza Cortazar - or Plaza Serrano as it's popularly called - to delve into the almost comical frenzy of consumerism that make portenos some of the most stylishly attired people in Latin America. Eager to capitalize on the neighborhood's notorious trendiness, real estate agents have aptly dubbed the area Palermo SoHo.
Hit up the ring of bars and restaurants encircling Plaza Serrano. They temporarily stop serving on Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m.-8 p.m., opening their doors to dozens of young designers who transform the bars into impromptu stores, selling shirts, purses and accessories on the cheap. Outside, scores of artisans sell handicrafts.
After shopping around Plaza Serrano, relax with a $3 glass of wine and gloat over bargain buys while deciding where to go for dinner.
Great eats in the area include Social Paraiso (Honduras 5182) and the popular La Cabrera parrilla (Cabrera 5099), where diners can split a gluttonous 2-pound steak for less than $20. With each bite you begin to understand the buzz about Argentine beef.
Confer with the online restaurant guide guiaoleo.com.ar, a helpful local version of Zagat's.
If an after-dinner coffee puts a kick in your step, head out for a $5 cocktail in preparation for the next leg of the never-ending Buenos Aires night: dancing. There's no need to rush: Most portenos wouldn't be caught dead at a club before 2 a.m. Popular clubs in the Palermo area include Niceto Club and Pacha, where entrance is less than $15.
Take a taxi - even crossing the city, it will rarely cost more than $10. Radio Taxi is the safest option.
Ease your transition back into daylight Sunday morning with the typical Buenos Aires breakfast: a cafe con leche, fresh-squeezed orange juice and three croissants, or medialunas, for less than $4.
Pick up Spanish-daily Pagina12 and flip to the supplement Radar, which has one of the best weekly cultural calendars.
Other great cafes are La Biela (Av. Quintana 600) - under an enchantingly expansive tree and right across from the must-see Recoleta Cemetery where Eva "Evita" Peron is buried; the classic Cafe Tortoni (Av. De Mayo 825/29); Bar Britanico (corner of Brasil and Defensa) and Las Violetas (Av. Rivadavia 3899).
The neighborhood of San Telmo is a microcosm of porteno charm, with its elegantly decrepit 19th-century buildings, cobblestone streets and a quirky mix of expatriates and Argentines who all frequent the same butcher shop in the 1897 San Telmo indoor market.
The neighborhood hosts a not-to-be-missed festive street fair every Sunday, running for 10 blocks along Defensa Street.
Meander all morning without spending a cent, listening to live tango orchestras, laughing at street performers and people-watching. One of the better parrillas in the city, Desnivel (Defensa 855), is on the route, where you can get a juicy steak and a good bottle of Malbec red wine for less than $20. Or try La Brigada parrilla around the corner (Estados Unidos 465).
Grab a slice of cheese-filed pizza, called fugazza con queso for about $1, at Pirilo's (Defensa 841), a tiny joint with standing room only. Accompany it with the traditional cup of moscato, an Italian sweet wine.
The most local charm for your pesos is on the bar stools at Carlos Calvo 471, where you can buy a $1 choripan - chorizo sausage on baguette bread, an Argentine favorite. Pile on the chimichurri sauce and be mesmerized watching the owner tend a grill full of meat.
Stick around for the free outdoor milonga from 7:30 p.m. to midnight on Plaza Dorrego, held every Sunday, weather permitting.
Another Sunday option is the Feria de Mataderos, a gaucho arts and crafts fair with folk dancing and traditional food from Argentina's north - about half an hour from the city center. The free fair is held Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. unless it rains, and is well worth the short trip, feriademataderos.com.ar.
A nighttime diversion is walking along Buenos Aires' luminous theater strip, Corrientes Avenue. Catch a show or movie (English-language films are subtitled rather than dubbed) and then eat some Argentine pizza - a delicious missing link between thin crust and deep dish. Sweeten the night with a dulce de leche ice cream.
You'll have to sleep some time, and boutique hotels are surprisingly affordable in Buenos Aires, with double rooms for around $150. Check out Hotel Home, homebuenosaires.com; Hotel Bobo, bobohotel.com and Malabia House, malabiahouse.com.ar.
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