BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- The history of this city is written in its telephone directory.

"Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crespina D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild -- five names at random taken from among the R's -- tell a story of exile, disillusion, and anxiety behind lace curtains," observed the late travel writer Bruce Chatwin.

Allowing for a measure of literary hyperbole, Chatwin was correct in viewing this sprawling, fascinating port city of 48 barrios (neighborhoods), oft referred to as a European city in South America, as one great "theatrical" staging ground. In his harsh yet penetrating essay, "The Return of Eva Peron," V.S. Naipaul expanded the comment to embrace the entire nation, calling it less a country than a venue for absurdist political upheavals. Again, an exaggeration, but one bearing a portion of truth.

Melodrama aside, Buenos Aires is, undeniably, a masala of influences.

Today, some critics moan that its singular character is being infiltrated by creeping Americanization, especially among the young. Yet for all it has absorbed from abroad and engendered within, Buenos Aires represented an economically and culturally insular society a generation or two ago.

For many, that has changed. For others, the rebirth may be less tangible. The fact is that many Argentines simply cannot afford to indulge in their own capital city's pleasures.

At night, from the air, this urban landscape of 13 million souls (3 million in Buenos Aires proper) looks like a gigantic, illuminated circuit board, winking its feverish spectra. At ground level during the day, one is struck by the architectural styles -- elegant to elaborate -- of upscale districts such as Recoleta, and the contrast between the streets of Retiro or San Telmo (the city's oldest barrio) and the comparatively low-traffic residential enclaves of Palermo, Palermo Viejo (Old Palermo) and Villa Crespo (with its quiet streets and oak canopies) to the north. Each has its charms.

In some areas of the city, however, grinding poverty is just a few blocks removed from opulence. In this, Buenos Aires shares the same sad footprint as other metropoli. A classic example is La Boca, birthplace of the tango, a tattered though colorful working-class barrio originally settled by Italian immigrants. There is much to enjoy here, though it is one of the few districts that visitors are advised to depart before nightfall. The same advice holds, if somewhat less so, for the dockside areas of Puerto Madero.

For the most part, Buenos Aires' neighborhoods are remarkably, refreshingly green, from their innumerable tree-lined avenues and balcony cascades to Palermo's Jardin Botanico and adjacent Jardin Zoologico (Buenos Aires Zoo) on Avenida Las Heras.

Most tourist draws are within walking distance from one another or within short distance of public transportation.

Bustling, ambling

Recoleta beckons with posh international cachet, from the splendid centerpiece of the Alvear Palace Hotel (1891 Avenida Alvear) and famed century-old theater Teatro Colon (621 Libertad) to such museums as Malba and the exemplary Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (1473 Avenidadel Liberador). Here, too, are Recoleta Cemetery (where Eva Peron is entombed), the ritzier tango emporiums and shrines to conspicuous consumption, most notably the huge Patio Bullrich mall (think: Rodeo Drive in a box).

San Telmo, which just feels venerable, is a particularly rewarding barrio in which to wander, with somewhat less overt snob appeal and a heightened sense of history compared with Recoleta. A bohemian artists' quarter, it is the city's prime repository of cultural riches.

Accessed off Avenida Jorge Luis Borges (at Plaza Italia), the square at Serrano and Honduras in Palermo Viejo is a five-points confluence typical of the neighborhood's numerous public spaces, with flea markets, taverns, cozy restaurants, boutiques and a funky, youthful vibe. The tone is decidedly relaxed, but not to say it lacks energy.

While some have derided the district for selling itself as a cheap playground for "well-to-do wastrels" from North America, the barrio's breezy appeal quickly subdues the cynical impulse, even if the boutique-and-bistro segment of Palermo Soho does seem more than a bit derivative.

Nearby is one of the finest steakhouses on the planet, La Cabrera (5099 Cabrera), whose folksy ambience contrasts with its cross-town rival, the pricier, though impeccable La Cabana (1967 Rodriguez Pena) in Recoleta.

Speaking of steak, sampling (or rather, devouring) Argentina's famous beef is a must for all but the most confirmed vegetarian. But you will not have experienced the real Argentina without trying its simple, delectable empanadas. And by all means sip some mate, the country's traditional herbal tea. On such streets as the arching, barrio-spanning Ave. Santa Fe, cafe culture rules as the most civilized and pleasant way to decompress and take in the human promenade.

Dining out

Good deals on food can be found, but forget what you may have read about the currency crisis in Argentina, at least with relation to its effect on local restaurants. A few years ago, it was possible to spend $5 (U.S.) on breakfast, $7 on lunch and $10 on dinner with a decent glass of the nation's most seductive red wine, Malbec. No longer. Even the pizzerias sport prices all-too-familiar to Charleston diners.

Like any great city of the world, there are temples to haute cuisine. Yet if you want to experience the culinary soul -- and more -- of Buenos Aires, it resides in its bodegones, unassuming neighborhood restaurants of individual personality, modest trappings and good value that give "comfort food" the best possible name. Many began their lives as groceries. Some of the most favored, according to locals, are El Sanjuanino and El Cuartito in Recoleta, El Obrero in La Boca, Guido's Bar in Palermo, Pizzeria Guerin in the city center and Cafe Margot in Boedo.

The only things genuinely inexpensive in Buenos Aires are its squadrons of taxis. You don't need to take the subway to save pesos. Choose those cabs clearly marked "Radio Taxi/Remise" and venture all over the place for a pittance.

One fine guide to the pulse of the city is The Buenos Aires Herald, still the largest English-language newspaper on the continent. But you will find that if you make even the slightest effort to speak a few words of Spanish, most citizens (or portenos, as the locals call themselves), will be only too happy to try to accommodate you in English.

Do you tango?

Let's say it from the start. The tango is as overhyped a concept as moonlight, magnolias and Southern graciousness. That said, it's a dynamic art form that can be appreciated as a seasoned dancer, eager neophyte or spectator, and in your choice of fancy dinner theaters such as Retiro's expensive Tango Porteno (on Ave. 9 de Julio, allegedly the widest city street on Earth) or in more authentic local-color tango bars, milongas and dance halls, where all you need to pay for is a drink.

When to go

The Southern Hemisphere's seasons are reversed from ours. Summer runs December to February; fall is March to May; winter is June to August; and spring is September to November. Buenos Aires' climate is generally pleasant, with its changeable spring, humid summer and mild fall closely resembling New York City's seasons. Winter temperatures are much like those of Los Angeles or Cape Town.

Buenos Aires has two airports: Ezeiza (EZE) for most international flights and Aeroparque Jorge (AEP) for domestic and regional travel. Give yourself plenty of time to get there from the city center. Taxis are far less pricey than deluxe buses. And the conversations are better.

Reach Bill Thompson at bthompson@postandcourier.com or 937-5707