San Telmo, Buenos Aires' Historic Heart

by Asli Pelit

The oldest neighborhood in Argentina‘s capital, San Telmo is a barrio founded in the 16th century, where history – romantic cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, cafés, churches — happily coexists with today’s fashionista edge and Montmartre-like buzz. It became a bastion of the upper class in the 1800s, declined after the cholera epidemic of 1871, and has been reviving since the country’s economic crisis in 2002, luring (mostly European) investors and bargain-hunting tourists.

Today, two wildly different types of allures make the neighborhood a must-visit. On the one hand, there are the museums, antiques shops, historic churches, and the Feria de Antigüedades — the Sunday antiques fair that’s the world’s second largest after Barcelona’s. On the other hand, there’s a 21st-century Bobo (bourgeois bohemian) side, too, with boutiques hawking famous porteño designers, yoga centers, restaurants of varying degrees of chicness, and even a thriving gay scene.

First, I’d recommend booking a room at Babel (from US$110) or Telmho (from US$70), both boutique hotels with 21st-century appointments inside restored colonial homes; the Mansión Dandi Royal (from US$130) is a more traditional-style charmer, and includes not just a tango theme but lessons. To avoid crowds, check in on a Monday and leave by Saturday.

Traditional San Telmo

Every Sunday the abovementioned Feria de Antigüedades features a boggling array of silverware, lamps, gaucho accessories, toys, art, jewelry, and more; the people-watching is equally entertaining. From the Plaza de Mayo, stroll to the feria along Calle Defensa, the barrio’s main street, passing tattered mansions and drooping balconies that give San Telmo so much of its Old World flavor. You can even get a glimpse of one of their interiors by visitingPasaje de la Defensa (Defensa 1179), which now houses souvenir shops.

If you’d rather get to the fair faster or just avoid the tourists on Defensa, turn left on any street and continue on quieter Balcarce, lined with tango venues, restaurants, and cute little cafés.Once you reach Plaza Dorrego, one of B.A.’s few Spanish-influenced plazas and the hub of the sprawling fair, then squeeze through the crowd to grab a beer and a bucket of peanuts at the historic Bar Plaza Dorrego (top right).Or get a table at Parrilla El Desnivel(Defensa 855), a traditional steakhouse, a hole in the wall that serves immense portions of that famous Argentine beef for 40 pesos* or less.

Some historians consider Parque Lezama, a lush, French-designed park at the southern end of town, the site where Buenos Aires was first settled, so a monument at the corner of Brasil and Defensa commemorates Pedro de Mendoza’s arrival in 1535. A 19th-century mansion with patios, an observation tower, and princely chambers sits just inside the park and is now home to the Museo Histórico Nacional.

You might be surprised at what’s facing the park, though — with its vibrant blue onion domes like something out of Red Square, Argentina’s first Russian Orthodox Church dates from1904, built to serve the many rusos among the Europeans who immigrated here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the Europeans who contributed to that classic Argentine dance and music form, tango. And San Telmo is great for getting away from the city’s many touristy tango shows; El Viejo Almacén and Bar Sur (above left) both offer authentic performances in traditional settings.

San Telmo Shops & Bites

Start with breakfast at Matilda’s (Calle Chile 673), a bakery with top-notch coffee and muffins (not to mention bagels that get thumbs-up even from New Yorkers). Late morning calls forshopping: The latest in home décor can be found at Arte Pampa or La Mersa, both onDefensa. For artsy gifts, Materia Urbana (Defensa 702) offers everything from leather accessories to paintings.

Since the 2006 opening of designer Vicky Otero’s boutique (Calle Carlos Calvo 600), others have followed. The shop of up-and-coming fashionista Pablo Ramirez (Calle Perú 587) is a must for Hollywood-style glamour-hounds; for a funky trip through time, check out Cualquier Verdura (Calle Humberto I 577).

You could take a yoga class at BuenaOnda Yoga, but my favorite way to relax after a day of strolling and shopping is wine and tapas at Sagardi Basquerestaurant (Calle Humberto Primo 319). Don’t fill up, though, because you don’t want to miss a late-night dinner at La Vinería de Gualterio Bolívar, one of the best restaurants in Buenos Aires. Run by Alejandro Digilio, who worked at Ferrán Adrià’s famed El Bulli in Spain before returning home, La Vinería specializes in esoteric cuts of slow-cooked meat (right), “molecular” creations like “liquid ravioli,” and small plates that go for about 15 pesos.

San Telmo’s other gastro-gem, by the way, is 647 Dinner Club, which may be the only restaurant in town where you can enjoy a crayfish salad perfumed with Bombay Sapphire or a proper duck breast with blueberry sauce. And you’ll never mistake 647 for a typical Argentine parrilla steakhouse.

*US$10.33; for other currency conversions, see’s Currency Desk.

Photos:, Feyzi Pelit, La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar

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Comment by Vincent Bontoux on December 16, 2013 at 1:44pm

The boboisation of San Telmo is a fact... but it is fragile, and limited to a few streets. Most of the area still pretty much wears the stigmates of its very recent run-down past. I know Americans are a bit paranoid about safety, so please know that some streets, especially, on the Southern tip of the barrio, are better not roamed alone at night. As per Bar Sur, yes, it is lovely and atmospheric, but 200% touristy (remember the movie Happy Together), as is the whole bobo part of the barrio. But it's cute enough. The Feria de Antiguedades itself is limited and more junk and tourist stuff oriented than towards real antiques, so it is better to browse the real antique shops around. Or to visit one of Emmaüs's two outlets in Buenos Aires, real treasure troves without the tourist prices.

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