By Mike Gasparovic
Heading to Buenos Aires? If so, chances are you’re planning to stay in one of the districts well-trodden by the tourist masses. Microcentro (the city’s bustling, ultra-modern downtown) is an obvious choice, as are Recoleta (the swanky, old-money area) and Palermo (the upper-middle-class green zone farther west).
Well recommended by the guidebooks, all three. But if you want to experience a part of the city that’s funkier, less commercialized, more varied in its attractions, as well as more typical of the Buenos Aires experienced by porteños themselves, San Telmo may just fit the bill.
Why San Telmo? Simply because no other district features so broad a cross-section of what Buenos Aires does best. Bohemian cafes, atmospheric old bars, tango shows, restaurants plain and fancy, bookstores, historic houses, cobblestone streets, not to mention one of the best antiques markets in South America: if you visited no other district during your stay, you’d come away with a fairly accurate idea of the charms of this most European of Latin American capitals.
Here’s a guide to accompany you on your strolls through this neighborhood’s peaceful, picturesque streets.
San Telmo’s claim to historical fame lies in its cobble stoned main artery, Calle Defensa. In 1806, when the British invaded Buenos Aires in hopes of gaining a toehold in the decaying Spanish empire, they advanced up this street from the Riachuelo before being repulsed by an impromptu local militia.
A minor skirmish, in the eyes of London, but for Argentina, it was the shot heard round the world, for it offered proof positive that the colonists didn’t need a king’s troops to protect them. Four years later, Buenos Aires became one of the first Latin American cities to declare independence.
Towards the mid-19th century, San Telmo became a fashionably rich district, with many prominent families building homes along Defensa. Commerce (and late-night drinking) flourished. Then, in the 1870s, a yellow-fever epidemic swept through the neighborhood, killing 13,000 people in three months and causing the rich families anxiously to decamp for healthier pastures.
The district’s old mansions and commercial buildings were left to the slumlords, who refurbished them as conventillos (tenement houses) and rented out their cramped, one-room apartments to the arriving immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe. Poverty was widespread, and the neighborhood went into decline not long after the turn of the century. In the 1960s, however, an influx of artists, students, and foreigners began the urban revival that continues today.
Two sites in San Telmo, apart from Calle Defensa itself, reflect the richness of the district’s past. The first, the Zanjón de Granados (Defensa 755), is a former conventillo turned museum and offers a fascinating glimpse of immigrant life in Buenos Aires around 1900.
Visitors can enter not just the brick structure that housed the Italians and Irish upstairs, but the subterranean tunnels and cisterns that in those days furnished the district’s water supply.
Meanwhile, further south on Defensa, Parque Lezama (Defensa 1500) purports to be the site where the city was founded by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536 (the ill-fated explorer reportedly spent all his time battling the local Querandie Indians).
Scholars continue to dispute whether the site is or isn’t Ground Zero, but the park is attractively wooded and hilly. Next door, the Museo Histórico Nacional (Defensa 1600) has some interesting artifacts belonging to José de San Martín, the great Argentine liberator.
Like nearly every district in Buenos Aires, San Telmo is packed with parrillas, traditional steakhouses dedicated to the glories of what is, after soccer, the country’s chief obsession: beef.
Here one of the best is also one of the most venerable: the Gran Parrilla del Plata (Chile 594) is an old-timey, no-frills neighborhood joint with red-and-white tablecloths, an ample wine selection, and big, succulent cuts of steak, brought sizzling to your table on a hotplate. Both the food and the atmosphere are Buenos Aires at its best.
On the other hand, if you’re more of a seafood person, you’ll appreciate Cafe San Juan (San Juan 450), a tiny, open-kitchen bistro with an international flair. The shellfish used here in house creations such as five-spiced shrimp and octopus escabeche are flown in daily from Patagonia; you can also sample novelties such as grilled rabbit and goat cannelloni. A warning: go early or be prepared to wait.
Fine emporia such as these aside, one of the best reasons to eat in San Telmo is the abundance of cheap menú restaurants to be found there. For some $6, you can get a three-course meal every day at lunchtime, complete with soft drink. One of the best values is Del Establo (Defensa 1463), a saloon that offers mains such as garlic chicken and pork loin, plus appetizers and dessert. You’ll also find several excellent options in the 1000 block of Av. Peru, such as Origen (Humberto Primo 599) and Jardin de las Delicias (Peru 1024), both of which serve organic menus. Walk around and see what strikes you.
Finally, no trip to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to a restaurante popular. Raucous, fast-paced, and cheap, these eating houses frequently serve some of the best, most authentic food to be got in Latin America, and the atmosphere is electric.
An outstanding instance is Desnivel (Defensa 855), a parrilla with an intimidatingly vast menu and gut-busting portions for bargain prices. Try the Patagonian lamb or the beef tips in spring-onion sauce, and go during a soccer match for the full effect.
San Telmo is renowned as a Mecca for antiques junkies. Every Sunday, the Feria de San Pedro Telmo sets up shop in Calle Defensa itself, attracting hawkers and buyers from all over the city (and the world).
Whatever you’re looking for, be it hippie necklaces, touristy trinkets, tango CDs, or fine keepsakes from the shops lining the street, you have a good chance of stumbling across it in this buzzing bazaar.
For those seeking the truly unusual, the heart of the fair—and of San Telmo itself—is Plaza Dorrego, a small square surrounded by quaint old cafes and featuring amateur concerts and tango shows on weekends.
Here the wares run towards the artsy or kitschy: you can find modernist paintings, copies of the Buenos Aires papers announcing the death of Eva Perón, even sports magazines commemorating Maradona’s triumph at the 1986 World Cup. Below the park, underneath the highway overpass, Cooperative Argentine Handicrafts (Defensa 1244) sells handmade ponchos and shawls, gaucho-themed souvenirs, paintings, and mate gourds by local craftsmen.
If ambiance matters to you while you’re on the prowl for bargains, San Telmo has two indoor markets worth visiting. The Galería El Solar de French (Defensa 1066), with its lovely antiques stalls, is pastel-colored and quaint, while the historic Mercado San Telmo (Bolívar and Carlos Calvo) covers most of a square block and sells everything from fresh meat and produce to flowers to antiques, all beneath a lovely Victorian skylight that dates back almost a century.
Finally, book lovers will find San Telmo a happy hunting ground. Walrus Books (Estados Unidos 617) has the city’s best selection of materials in English, but if you read Spanish, don’t miss Librería Fedro (Carlos Calvo 578) for new stock or El Rufián Melancólico (Bolívar 857) for used.
One of Buenos Aires’s distinctive institutions is the cafes notables, a group of hundred-year-old bars that feature tile floors, antique shelves crowded with bottles and siphons, dim lighting, and wood—lots and lots of wood, worn to a polish by the generations passing through.
San Telmo has the distinction of sporting some of the oldest and most famous cafes notables in the city, including Bar Plaza Dorrego (Defensa 1098), Bar El Federal (Carlos Calvo 599), Cafe La Poesía (Chile 502), and Cafe Británico (Brasil 399). All serve substantially the same fare, but as the ambiance varies a good bit, be sure to check out several.
Of course, no guide to Buenos Aires is complete without mentioning tango, and San Telmo has no shortage of venues to experience the brothel-born national dance.
The best, however, is hands down El Viejo Almacén (Balcarce 799), located on a corner of lovely old Calle Balcarce. Performers started playing the venue some 100 years ago, and in the late 60s it became the tourist hotspot it continues to be today. A fitting capstone to your experience of the charms of historic San Telmo.