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The main reason to visit Mar del Plata is the beaches, all of which spread out from the city's heart at Plaza Colón. Here you'll find the Mar del Plata Casino (tel. 223/495-7011; www.loteria.gba.gov.ar). The red brick-and-granite structure guarded by sea lion sculptures is the social center of the city. Walkways and steps lead from here to the beach, with many people posing in front of the giant granite sea lions for their only-in-Mar del Plata photos. In the early evening, as the crowds head home from the beach, you'll often see street performers and musicians here. (Watch your pockets if you stand and admire.) With long, slow breaks, Waikiki is the best spot for surfing. The coastline is nice, but you should not come expecting to find the Caribbean -- the Atlantic remains fairly cold, even during summer. Once you've brushed off the sand, visit the fishing harbor, where hundreds of red and yellow boats unload their daily catches. The harbor houses a colony of 800 male sea lions that come to bathe on the rocky shores. (Be warned that btw. the sea lions and the fishing boats, it's an olfactory disaster.) Next to the colony, there's an ugly but intriguing boat graveyard where rusty boats have been left to rot away.

In the Los Tronces neighborhood, Villa Victoria, at Matheu 1851, at Arenales (tel. 223/492-0569), showcases the early-20th-century summerhouse of wealthy Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo, who published the Argentine literary magazine Sud and was the first female member of the Argentine Academy of Letters. Some of Argentina's greatest authors have stayed here visiting her writing salons, including Jorge Luis Borges. It is open year-round Thursday to Tuesday from 1 to 8pm, with an admission charge of about $3 (£2). In summer, musical and theatrical performances are held in the gardens, with various entry prices depending on the event. Villa Ortiz Basualdo, Av. Colón 1189 (tel. 223/486-1636), is an English-style Victorian mansion decorated with exquisite Art Nouveau furniture from Belgium. The building is open daily from 10am to 10pm with an entry charge of just over $1 (70p). In the same neighborhood, the Museo del Mar, Av. Colón 1114, at Viamonte (tel. 223/451-9779; www.museodelmar.com), houses a collection of 30,000 seashells. Stop in for a bite at their cafe, surrounded by tanks of sharks staring at you and your meal. This is an ideal spot for visiting if you're with kids, and the rooftop terrace has an amazing view to the ocean a few blocks away. In summer, it is open Sunday to Friday 9am to 7pm and Saturday 9am to 10pm. During the winter, it's open daily from 9am to 1pm. Admission is about $2 (£1.35) for the museum, and various prices for lectures and other events at the adjacent auditorium.

Twenty minutes from the city center, De Los Padres Lake and Hills is a picturesque forest with wide parks surrounding the lake, perfect for an afternoon picnic. Nearby, in the Barrio Sierra de los Padres, is the Zoo El Paraíso, Ruta 266, Km 16.5 (tel. 223/463-0347; www.zooelparaisoonline.com.ar). The park is open daily 10am to 7pm, with a charge of $8 (£5.40) for adults and $3 (£2) for children. It features a wonderful collection of flora and fauna, including plants and trees from all over Argentina as well as lions, pumas, monkeys, llamas, and other animals. For information on surfing, deep-sea fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, trekking, and other adventure sports, contact the tourism office.

The tour company Olitas Tours also does half-day city tours, as well as a special tour for children on a bus filled with clowns. Visit their kiosk at Plaza Colón, call tel. 223/472-6810, or log on to www.olitas-tours.com.ar.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.