I was in BA for 10 days at the end of October. I would have had a far less successful trip without the wonderful BA forum posters at TripAdvisor. So thanks!
I’m a single woman (age 29) from San Francisco. This was my first big solo trip to a non-English-speaking country (I’ve been to several with friends), and I don't speak Spanish -- I studied hard!
I'd never danced but thought it would be fun to learn tango during my visit. Then I realized it might be better to learn the basics first, took a class and fell in love with it. I took lessons 3-5 hours a week (and went to milongas) for about four months before leaving.
I rented an apartment through ApartmentsBA – it was luxury for a good value, and I wanted a kitchen and some independence. I rented unit PS22 in Palermo Soho. The building was new and had a doorman, the bed was comfortable, and everything worked (though I never did figure out the oven). There was a supermarket, restaurants and boutiques nearby, and it was close to the subte. Taxis were easy to find.
Location: Palermo Soho was great for me. I felt as safe as I do in San Francisco, and it wasn’t touristy (I rarely heard English spoken). It felt like neighborhoods I've lived in and loved.
Safety: I’d read about all the scams. None happened to me. I did not get pickpocketed. No cab drivers tried to claim I’d given them counterfeit bills. Nobody squirted me with a foul-smelling substance. Nobody tried to snatch my purse. Even at the milongas, when all I had in my purse (which I left by my chair) was lip gloss (my cab fare was hidden on my person, let’s leave it at that), nobody touched it. I took the same precautions I do in any big city -- and I was lucky, because often that’s what it comes down to.
Dining: I can’t eat wheat ("Soy celiaca!" I told waiters), but I just stuck to steak and potatoes. I’ll post more details in the restaurant thread, but my favorite was Don Julio, at Guatemala and Gurrachaga. I went several times and always had an excellent meal, and while not exactly cheap it was a good value. Others I liked were El Establo, another parilla (on Paraguay in Recoleta); Gardelito, in Palermo Soho on Thames; and Las Cholas in Las Canitas, which I visited twice (best value -- thanks, karmalaw!). Sadly, Simona, an Italian restaurant with a gluten-free menu, had closed for good the week before I arrived. But the fabulous dietetica on Viamonte between Suipacha and Tucuman (thanks, karmalaw! again!) had gluten-free medialunas, muffins, cookies and empanadas to enjoy at home. I never got sick because of wheat -- U.S. restaurants are not nearly as careful as the ones I went to in BA.
Shopping: I was only going to buy one pair of Comme il Faut tango shoes. I bought two on my first visit, then returned for another pair. They were much cheaper than in the U.S. -- 400 pesos a pair (380 if you paid cash). I visited Darcos, 365 Suipacha and others but didn’t find anything I wanted.
The San Telmo Sunday fair was packed and noisy. I am not keen on crowds, so it wasn't the ideal place for me. I was much more comfortable at the smaller Recoleta Sunday fair and the Santa Fe artisans market (Saturday, I think?), because they weren't nearly as crowded. They were ideal places to buy souvenirs for friends – magnets, cheap leather goods, mate gourds, etc.
I also bought a leather purse and wallet at Prune (recommended here by Scarlett and others – thanks, ladies!) that qualified for the tax rebate; if you buy at the store in the Galerias Pacificas, you can get all your paperwork for the rebate there. I bought lots of clothes (cute, though the quality isn't great). I stopped by Gaucho100K's wine store (sadly, he wasn't there that day) and bought two bottles. I needed a second suitcase to bring home all my purchases!
Dancing: I went out almost every night. I didn’t end up taking many classes, but since I rarely get to milongas at home, social dancing was more important to me. I had mostly good experiences. It was terrifying at times -- I’m pretty shy, I’m only an OK dancer at this point, I don’t speak much Spanish, and I was alone. I didn’t really reflect on the “solo” part when I planned the trip (despite everyone I knew saying, “Wow, you’re going ALONE? Aren’t you SCARED??” -- uh, thanks, I wasn’t until you said that!). But solo might be the best way for a woman to go to a milonga if she wants to be asked to dance. I got asked a lot. Usually it turned out great; a few times it ended in abject humiliation. Just like milongas in San Francisco!
I went to Salon Canning twice -- once for the Parakultural milonga on Friday night and again on Tuesday for a different milonga and a lesson. The lesson was not for beginners -- they jumped right into a complicated step sequence involving sacadas, giros, boleos and Lord knows what else. I don’t think I’d have been able to keep up if I hadn’t been paired with a really good leader who helped me understand it all. It was definitely beyond anything I’d learned previously. The teachers were bilingual and there were a number of native English speakers taking the class. The milongas themselves were a bit intimidating later in the evening -- if you’re newish and uncertain of your skills, go early so you can find your groove before things really get going. I’m not sure this place is appropriate for people who just want to watch; the vast majority seemed to be there to dance. But I've heard from people who did just go to watch and had a great time, so you may want to give it a try. Make reservations!
El Beso was great. I went there twice. It’s a much smaller, more intimate space than Salon Canning, and maybe that’s why it felt more welcoming to me. I would not recommend this milonga to nondancers; I didn’t see any obvious onlookers there, and it’s a small space; again, call ahead.
La Marshall, which is apparently “the” gay milonga, was one of my favorites. I’m not gay, but I’m from San Francisco, where same-sex dance partners are not unusual, and I was curious. I am so glad I went to this one. It was about 50% male/male and 50% male/female; I saw just one female/female couple (much more common here in S.F.). The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. They’d play a tanda of traditional music with a cortina of electronic tango (Gotan Project, etc); they’d play the whole song for the cortina and people would dance through it. I didn’t get asked to dance too many times here, but I was very content to watch – a few of the m/m couples had a very aggressive, athletic style that was a joy to watch. I couldn't stop smiling.
The only place I didn’t get many dances was Confiteria La Ideal, and I think that was because I went on the wrong night; most people there seemed to be couples and/or tourists. That said, I highly recommend it for people who just want to watch, and the setting is pretty special. They frequently have live music. Also onlooker-friendly was Las Glorietas, a milonga in a park in Belgrano. That was one of the coolest experiences of my trip -- dancing in a quaint gazebo in a park on a balmy spring Saturday afternoon. (The marble floor is HARD, though, so bring well-cushioned shoes if you plan to dance.)
I did not like La Viruta (I went on a Friday night). I found it too much of a meat market. It was the only place where I got creeped out by inappropriate attention. And even if you understand Spanish, the people teaching lessons prior to the milonga are very hard to hear because the place is so loud. I left about half an hour after the lesson because a guy wouldn't leave me alone. Ick.
And I know La Catedral is a dump, but I went anyway and I had a good time. It had a very decrepit bohemian feel. The setting (an old, not very well cared-for cathedral, I think) definitely has character. The dance floor was nightmarish -- don't wear nice shoes, they'll get torn up. It was quirky and cool. Not for everyone.
I took one day trip to Tigre. I foolishly followed Fodor's advice rather than seeking recommendations on TA, and took the public boat to El Gato Blanco restaurant, which turned out to be an overpriced tourist trap with indifferent food. Most of the stalls in the market in Tigre were closed (it was a weekday), so I didn't linger, though I picked up a few souvenirs for friends.
I did few other touristy things. I saw the sights and all, but I was more interested in immersing myself in the culture and trying to experience life (at least a little) as locals live it. Lingering in cafes over coffee, sitting in a park watching the world go by, wandering the streets, enjoying dinner on a sidewalk table at a neighborhood parilla – that was priceless.
Buenos Aires did not disappoint. I can't wait to return.