Blessed with cobblestoned streets, a crumbling, faded grandeur, an amazing weekly street market and many good places to eat and drink, San Telmo is a Buenos Aires barrio that simply cannot be missed.
An introduction to San Telmo
San Telmo is the barrio that lies six blocks from Plaza de Mayo, bounded to the north and south by the Microcentro and La Boca, and to the east and west by Puerto Madero and Avenida 9 de Julio. It’s the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires. It dates back to the 17th century, when it was first home to dockworkers and brick-makers, and later became an industrial area.
San Telmo was a poor area, and one attempt to address this was the establishment of the Parish of San Pedro González Telmo in the area in 1806. ‘San Telmo’ is the patron saint of seafarers, and he is of course the namesake of the barrio today.
San Telmo began to attract the well to do after the establishment of gas mains, lighting, sewers, running water and cobblestones, which led to the construction of many mansions and imposing homes.
This ended quickly after a cholera epidemic in 1871 that claimed over 10,000 lives caused many people living in San Telmo to flee from the area and head northwest to Barrio Norte. Due to this, San Telmo became intensely multicultural, as wave of European immigrants made it their home. During the middle of the 20th century San Telmo starting attracting artists, taking on a bohemian vibe and establishing the area as a hotspot for tango.
Today San Telmo reflects all of this history while continuing to move forward. It’s part tourist trap, part Bohemian enclave, part rough-and-tumble inner-city suburb, and part tango center…all of which makes it a pretty interesting place to stay, live, or even just visit.
Things to see, do or both
In order to properly enjoy San Telmo, you really need to go there on a Sunday. That’s when the huuuge antiques-market-cum-street-market-cum-street-party turns Calle Defensa into the funnest place in town. There are hundreds of stalls, lots of street performers, and more opportunities to buy souvenir mate cups than anyone could possibly need! It’s a really good time.
If you can’t make it to San Telmo on a Sunday you should of course still go. The best place for a stroll is along Calle Defensa between Avenidas San Juan and Independencia, stopping to peer in the window or go into some of the many antique shops that line the street. Plaza Dorrego has professional tango dancers strutting their stuff most of the time (tip them after watching a show), and is a nice place to stop for a drink anyway.
San Telmo has lots of great restaurants (see below), but if it’s just a snack you’re after while you’re wandering the streets, grab a choripan (sausage in bread) and a beer at the little choripan place on Calle Carlos Calvo between Calles Defensa and Bolivar – usually it has stools out the front. You should definitely slather on the both the red and the green chimichurri (spicy, garlicky marinade), but if you do, don’t plan on kissing anyone for a good hour or two afterwards!
For a coffee or a daytime beer, El Federal (cnr Perú and Carlos Calvo) and Bar Plaza Dorrego (Defensa 1098) ooze with old-time atmosphere; they were established in 1864 and 1881, respectively, and much of their original décor has been preserved.
Nightlife and restaurants
Bars and restaurants abound in this part of town.
• Comedor Nikkai (Independencia 732). The entrance to this Japanese restaurant is off the street, which makes it really easy to miss. Find your way in however, and you’ll find faultless, very authentic and tasty Japanese food in peaceful faux-Japanese surroundings. There are set menus at lunchtime which are huge – it’s best to prepare by not eating breakfast! The one with the gyozas is perhaps the best, but they’re all good.
• El Desnivel (Defensa 855). This much-loved parilla is surely San Telmo’s worst-kept secret. It’s probably not as cheap as it used to be, and yes, a lot of tourists go there, but this huge, bustling place is always a great experience, so who cares? Despite its size, the service from the entirely male wait-staff is outstanding, and frequently very funny (none of them lack for personality). Penguinitos (little jugs) of the house red are great value.
• Sagardi (Humberto 1° 319). There aren’t necessarily all that many reasons to be walking along Calle Humberto, but if you happen to do so then there’s no way you could miss the Basque restaurant Sagardi. It’s brand new, modern, and really quite beautiful – all metal and blonde wood – with a large, open bar area at the front. This front section is where they serve pintxos (Basque-style tapas). The idea is that you get a plate and just help yourself to any and all of the many trays that line the bar. There’s a big communal table where you eat, and then when it comes time to pay, the staff simply count the number of toothpicks on your plate and tot up your bill accordingly. If you need a drink to go with the pintxos, try a bottle of the Zapiain cider.
• Gibraltar (Perú 895). Gibraltar would be utterly unremarkable in England, but in Buenos Aires a decent pub is just the place for when you need a break from steak and wine. Go for an after-work pint (the Antares Scotch is excellent) and stay for the pub food, which includes one of the best green Thai curries you can get in Buenos Aires.
• 70 Living (Defensa 714). It’s not immediately obvious that there’s a bar at this address, as the downstairs area is a restaurant, but head straight up the stairs on the right and you’ll find yourself in a very chic little place. It’s usually pretty quiet, which makes it a nice option for when you want to meet friends for a chat a few cocktails before heading on to a boliche in Puerto Madero.
San Telmo has it all: history; beauty; ugliness; life; decay; great food; tango, and antique shops. It’s not as polished as Palermo, or as plush as Recoleta, but for many tourists and expats it’s their favorite barrio of all. So go there! You might just be one of them.