Buenos Aires: Ancient meets modern in a boutique barrio

San Telmo, one of the Argentinian capital's oldest neighbourhoods, has been revived with independent shops and galleries that are supplemented by buzzing bars and restaurants. Nick Rider explores

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The Independent Travel

Central Buenos Aires can feel overpowering at first sight, and not just because of the thudding traffic along its multi-lane avenues. Its architecture quickly tells you this is a city where Europeans came to reinvent themselves on a grand scale. The "Paris of the South" label arose during Buenos Aires's golden age, from the 1880s to the 1930s, when beef and grain exports brought money and migrants flooding in, millionaires built lavishly and the tango swept the world. The memory of this era lingers still, perpetuated in stone.

Plaza de Mayo, the city's heart, is a prime example, surrounded by an extraordinary architectural menagerie led by the Casa Rosada ("Pink House"), the presidential palace that looks like a strange pink Italian Renaissance railway station. The relatively small white 1720s Cabildo, Buenos Aires's modest colonial town hall, is now a museum (cabildonacional.gob.ar). It is flanked by the immense city hall, built in the 1890s in an unmistakably French château style.

Buenos Aires's inhabitants – Porteños – often compare their city to Paris. Except that the "Parisian" buildings nearly always have more mass, pinnacles and curves than their European models, classic architecture pumped up by an all-meat diet.

Though France was the city's most beloved source of inspiration, Buenos Aires is nothing if not eclectic, and along Avenida de Mayo, its foremost Parisian boulevard, you can find many other styles, from Gothic to Viennese Art Nouveau.

Like every great city, though, Buenos Aires has changes of scale and pace. Just a short walk south of Plaza de Mayo is San Telmo, a knot of narrow streets, squares and venerable courtyards with a very different, intimate feel, ideal for unhurried urban wandering. It was the heart of the city before the great boom began, and was neglected for decades. Lately, it has been moderately gentrified as the coolest spot in the city centre.

San Telmo is now home to boutique hotels and laid-back cafés as well as compact 19th-century houses, shabby 1940s office blocks, snorting buses, alarmingly pot-holed pavements, antiques emporia and wonderfully atmospheric old bars. Like quieter Palermo, some way west, it is a centre of a vibrant, modern design scene, discovered in idiosyncratic, often tiny shops spread around the old streets.

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Plaza de Mayo (Alamy)

Unpack

Mansion Vitraux (00 54 11 4300 6886; mansionvitraux.com) is just a block away from Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo's main square. It is a typically Buenos Aires combination of historic architecture – including an atrium with glorious stained glass – and modern design. It offers snug but stylish rooms, plus a rooftop pool. Doubles start at US$143 (£89), including breakfast.

Think local

On Sundays San Telmo's main artery, Calle Defensa, fills up with a craft and knick-knack market. For a less hassled look at local creativity it's better to go on a weekday afternoon (never bother with an early start: shops rarely open before 11am, and stay open till 7–8pm).

I was given excellent guidance by Luján Cordaro of Buenos Aires Design Tours (badesigntour.com.ar). Modern design in Argentina, she told me, began with the country's financial collapse in 2001. Fashionable Porteños suddenly found international brands unobtainable and new opportunities opened up for local makers. The tours cost from US$60 (£38) per person.

Eat

Restaurantes escondidos (hidden restaurants) or pop-ups are the current rage in Buenos Aires. They are run by enthusiasts offering something different from the meaty Argentinian norm. Many are naturally temporary and hard to catch, but several have near-permanent status. In San Telmo, Jueves a la Mesa (00 54 15 6200 0004; juevesalamesa.wordpress.com) offers the most radical alternative – refined vegetarian cuisine, every Thursday evening. The venue, always in San Telmo, can vary, so booking is essential.

Alternatively, try lunch at the historic Bar El Federal on Calle Carlos Calvo (00 54 11 4300 4313; barelfederal.com.ar). Founded in 1864, it has beautiful original woodwork and stained glass, generous sandwiches, and a lovely daytime tranquillity.

If you crave a taste of Argentinian beef, La Brigada on Calle Estados Unidos (00 54 11 4361 5557; parrillalabrigada.com.ar) is a celebrated parrilla (traditional grill) with massive steaks.

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Drink

Plaza Dorrego is one of surprisingly few squares in central Buenos Aires filled with pavement bars. Tango dancers perform there every Sunday and, as the evening goes on, anyone who wants to try their footwork can join in.

For a taste of historic San Telmo, try the 1920s-vintage Bar Plaza Dorrego (00 54 11 4361 0141), with its mirrors and wood panelling layered in tobacco smoke and graffiti Classic tangos by Carlos Gardel waft in the background.

For something less traditional, try La Puerta Roja, a few blocks away on Calle Chacabuco (00 54 11 4362 5649; lapuertaroja.com.ar), a loud, buzzy, friendly cocktail bar that stays open very late.

Spend

Many local designers make wonderful use of a prime local asset – fabulous leather – in unexpected forms such as delicate jewellery. Along Defensa, the street that runs down the east side of Plaza Dorrego, is a fascinating array of antique and curio shops and arcades. Kimidori (00 54 11 4361 2384), in the Solar de French arcade, has brilliantly colourful leather goods. One of the best outlets for original clothes, jewellery and other objects is Materia Urbana (00 54 11 4361 5265; materiaurbana.com).

A few blocks away on Calle Perú is the discreet store of high-chic fashion designer Pablo Ramírez (00 54 11 4342 7154; pabloramirez.com.ar). His superbly tailored, fabulously elegant clothes for men and women come strictly in black and white.

Back on Defensa, the covered Mercado de San Telmo dates from 1897. It combines a neighbourhood food market with an extraordinary array of antiques and collectibles. It's hard to think of anything you couldn't find inside: musical instruments, Baroque furniture, fedoras, old toys, film posters, riding kit, statues of saints, and some tourist tat.

Don't miss

The Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, Avda San Juan 350 (00 54 11 4300 8753; museos.buenosaires.gob.ar) is a lavish exhibition space, and showcase for Argentina's contemporary art, installed in a former cigarette factory on the south side of San Telmo.

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