In early March, American pop icon Cyndi Lauper was among a large group of stressed-out travelers stranded at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Airport when weather caused serious flight delays. When Lauper decided to break the tension by taking over the public address system and spontaneously belting out her popular “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” the mostly Argentinean passengers sang along, turning the departure area into a makeshift dance floor and bringing the vibrant and passionate ambience of Buenos Aires into the sterile confines of an international airport. Lauper’s impromptu show immediately went viral on YouTube, with more than 1 million viewers.

The free-spirited display at the airport was so representative of Buenos Aires that I cannot imagine it happening anyplace else in the world. After all, where else will you find, as part of the national culture, romantic, open-air tango parties popping up in the middle of city streets? And can you imagine the drama and sensual passion in the capital city of a country that has given the world such oversized personalities as Juan and Eva Perón, Che Guevara, Jorge Luis Borges and Diego Maradona? With 300,000 more women than men in Buenos Aires province, there is a sexual tension here that the porteños (natives from the port town of Buenos Aires) enjoy with humor, music and good wine.

Flamboyant Buenos Aires, with its lovely, tree-lined, Parisian-style boulevards (it is often called the “Paris of South America”); upscale business and residential districts; popular steak restaurants; art and music venues and dozens of lively tanguerías (tango show houses), was not always so vibrant. The 16th-century Spanish settlers who established Buenos Aires on the banks of the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver) had high hopes the river bottom would yield flecks of silver, which they had noticed crafted into beautiful bracelets and necklaces by the native population.

But silver was never found in the river, and it wasn’t until the 1800s — when cattle ranching on the huge expanse of grasslands outside the growing town brought meaningful revenue — that some prosperity came to the area. After two unsuccessful attempts by the British to capture Buenos Aires, and Napoleon’s subsequent invasion of Spain, the settlers of Buenos Aires became part of Argentina’s independence movement, led by national hero José de San Martín.

As the city’s economy and cultural importance grew during the 20th century, spurred by a surge of skilled immigrants from Europe, Buenos Aires was the scene of much political and social upheaval, culminating in the country’s infamous La Guerra Sucia, the “Dirty War” that rocked Buenos Aires with conflict between the military rulers and young dissidents, many of whom were executed without a trial or disappeared from their homes without a trace. The trials of some of the military men involved in those cases are still being heard in very dramatic testimony in Argentine courts.

Today, Argentina is governed by its first elected woman president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose former husband preceded her as president. President Kirchner has been trying to solve Argentina’s economic problems and has succeeded for the most part, although political debate and confrontation in the country are practically a national pastime, much like fútbol (soccer) or tango. In the fall of 2010, Kirchner incurred the wrath of the country’s Catholic Church by signing a bill that legalized same-sex marriage.

Buenos Aires province has 15 million of Argentina’s 40 million residents and is reaping the benefits of the country’s recent economic gains in agricultural exports and high commodity prices. Argentina’s economy grew 9.5 percent in early 2011; and although inflation is now catching up with the economic surge, the national growth is reflected in Buenos Aires, with shopping center sales in early 2011 up 27 percent over the previous year, construction activity up 12.5 percent and fully funded real estate projects popping up all over the city.

A development called Hudson Park is transforming 168 acres south of downtown into a mixed-use commercial center with offices, condos, a hotel and a convention center. Costing about $20 million, it is one of the city’s largest projects scheduled for completion this year.

A neighborhood close to downtown known as Parque Patricios was designated by the city government as a new high-tech district, and Vizora is one of the developers investing in the area, with plans for a $6 million project to turn a former paper mill into office and storage space.

Two popular residential and shopping areas, Palermo and Belgrano, have also seen new construction projects for both office and residential uses; and the Puerto Madero neighborhood will be the site of the new Palacio Reggio complex, with a new hotel, offices, residential lofts and Madero Walk, a $3 million event hall built over water. Also in Puerto Madero is Santiago Calatrava’s graceful, white pedestrian bridge called Puente de la Mujer (Bridge of the Woman), which is supposed to represent a couple in a tango embrace.

Visitors to the city enjoy strolling around San Telmo, one of its most historic neighborhoods. The district, originally settled in the 1700s, has seen a steady increase in residential upgrades and new restaurants and shops. All along the tree-lined Avenida Independencia, Avenida San Juan and the narrow, colonial-era Calle Defensa one finds unique art galleries, clothing boutiques, outdoor cafés and stunning architecture.

Another neighborhood, a former manufacturing and warehouse district, began to transform in the 1980s from a primarily residential area known as Palermo Viejo to a more upscale, chic and trendy entertainment area now known as Palermo Soho because of its similarity to New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. Of course, it is not to be confused with the nearby neighborhood of Palermo Hollywood, another hip, youth-oriented area where filmmakers, designers and fashionistas hang out in nightspots that stay open until dawn.

Getting around to all these high-energy Buenos Aires neighborhoods is easy with the city’s extensive tram, subway (El Subte) and light rail system run by a private firm called Metrovias. Asnew Metro stations extend into the suburbs, offices and residential buildings follow, increasing land values and fostering even newer and more eclectic neighborhoods throughout the city. For instance, when subway line A opened a new station in the western suburb of Flores, many new businesses positioned themselves around Plaza Flores in anticipation of the area’s growth, which soon followed in the form of new and colorfully designed residential units, trendy shops, restaurants and schools.


Info to Go

Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) is 21 miles from downtown Buenos Aires, approximately 45 minutes by taxi ($9–13). A closer airport, National Airport-Jorge Newberry (AE P), is used for domestic flights, including service to Iguazú Falls and the Andes Mountains ski areas. Visit www.turismo.gov.ar/eng/menu.htm.


Diversions

Eat well . . . and often. The best steak houses (called parrillas) are inexpensive and plentiful; the Malbec is excellent, your fellow diners extroverted, gracious and well-dressed.

Become part of the city’s wonderful and colorful urban fabric by stopping for coffee (so delicious and affordable you can have one on every block) at the cafés in Recoleta and Puerto Madero and watching the attractive porteños shop, eat, drink, chat, surf their laptops, kiss and possibly slip into an impromptu tango.

Speaking of tango, the soul of Buenos Aires, few visitors leave the city without taking in a tango show at any of the numerous tanguerías in the city. Places like Tango Porteño (Cerrito 570, tel 54 11 4124 9400), El Querandí (San Telmo, Peru 302, tel 54 11 5199 1770) or Te Matare Ramirez (Palermo Soho, Gorriti 5054, tel 54 11 4831 9156) are great places to watch these over-the-top tango shows. To experience a more traditional tango dance hall, called a milonga, where visitors can take lessons, head to El Niño Bien (Humberto Primo 1462) to dance or just watch the locals show off their moves.

Take time from the restaurant and café life to visit Teatro Colón (Cerrito 628, tel 54 11 4378 7100), the city’s popular 1908 opera house and performing arts venue; the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art, or MAM BA (San Juan 350), which recently completed a $15 million renovation and re-opened in 2010 with 6,000 works of modern art by Albers, Berni, Kandinsky and others; and the Museum of Latin American Art (Figueroa Alcorta 415, tel 54 11 4808 6500 ), known as Malba, with its collection of works by Kahlo, Rivera, Botero and others.

An interesting off-beat attraction is El Ateneo de Buenos Aires (Ave. Santa Fe 1860), a former early-20th-century theater converted in 2000 into an ornate book and music store. With its restored ceiling frescoes and endearing, sculpted caryatids, the store is a magnificent place to visit, and its café is a great place to have a coffee and survey the crowd. El Ateneo was listed by London’s The Guardian newspaper as the second-best bookstore in the world.

The port area of La Boca is also interesting to visit, especially the brightly painted, corrugated iron houses of Caminito and the Boca Juniors soccer stadium, where Diego Maradona once played, which you can tour.


Lodging

Caesar Park Buenos Aires Hotel

Located in upscale Recoleta close to museums and parks, the 5-star hotel has a fitness center, impeccable service and excellent restaurants. Posadas 1232, tel 54 11 4819 1100 $$$$

Hotel Pulitzer Buenos Aires

A new boutique property in the Microcentro financial district has 104 contemporary guestrooms and suites, an open-air sky bar, roof-deck pool, indoor parking, free WiFi. Calle Maipú 907, tel 54 11 4316 0800 $$$

Sofitel Buenos Aires

Located on Arroyo Street, surrounded by antique shops and art galleries, this 5-star hotel blends French panache with Argentine tradition in an Art Deco style created by renowned interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. Arroyo 841, tel 54 11 4131 0000 $$$$

Dining

Duhau Restaurant & Vinoteca

Chef Federico Heinzmann designs an exquisite menu of Argentinean dishes using local and seasonal produce. An extensive wine list and terrace dining are available. Park Hyatt Hotel, Ave. Alvear 1661, tel 54 11 5171 1340 $$$$

El Obrero

Opened in 1910, this family restaurant, a favorite of celebrities and locals, is one of the best steak places in the city. La Boca, Agustín R. Caffarena 64, tel 54 11 4362 9912 $$

Sucre

Eclectic, industrial design includes a soaring ceiling and outdoor seating in an upscale neighborhood. Fish dishes are noteworthy; reserve for lunch and dinner. Belgrano, Sucre 676, tel 54 11 4782 9082 $$$