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Microguides

How to spend a day in San Telmo, Buenos Aires’s coolest neighbourhood

This vintage-tinged shopping and snacking district has a politically engaged spirit and tons of lively street life, says Christine Gilbert

Thursday 06 January 2022 16:53 GMT
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<p>San Telmo’s Calle Defensa, famous for Argentina’s native tango  </p>

San Telmo’s Calle Defensa, famous for Argentina’s native tango

Our new microguides series is inspired by the slow travel movement, encouraging travellers to relax their pace and take a deep dive into one particular neighbourhood in a well-loved city. Rather than a whirlwind itinerary which aims to hit up every must-see attraction, these compact, close-up guides encourage you to zone in, take your time and truly explore like a local.

San Telmo doesn’t care what you think of it, but it may just befriend you and share some secrets if you stay awhile.

It’s a barrio (district) where new stores and restaurants pop up every few months alongside cafes where locals have ordered medialunas and café con leche for decades. The cobblestone streets host tango performances and antiques stalls, while the nearby Plaza de Mayo – where human rights association Madres de los Desparacidos first marched – still hosts the country’s most important protests. The neighbourhood’s most enduring and intriguing quality, however, might be just how much of the past remains present despite an ever-changing community of young creatives and digital nomads.

Easily walkable, San Telmo runs north for nine blocks from Parque Lezama to the Malfada statue on Chile and eight blocks east from Piedras Street to the train track border with Puerto Madero. Here’s how to spend a few days getting to know Buenos Aires’ oldest barrio.

Do

Run away with the circus

See a variety show of trapeze artists, acrobats, and hand balancers at quirky performance spot Circo del Aire. Shows usually happen on the weekend and can be booked through their Instagram account. Like what you see? You can also take circus-skills classes in silks, lyra (hoop tricks), and straps from Monday to Saturday (enquire at circodelaire@gmail.com).

Connect with nature

At Parque Lezama, the neighborhood’s largest park, you’ll stumble across food fairs, exercise groups and picnickers sipping maté, the cult South American drink. If you’re looking for less buzz and more peace, opt for the wilder Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve, only an 18-minute walk away. Here, hour-long trails weave through land inhabited by more than 2,000 species including turtles, lizards and dozens of native bird types.

Get a crash course in Argentine art

Housed in a former tobacco factory, the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAMBA’s) permanent collection holds 7,000 works of modern and contemporary art by Argentine and international artists (entry £3.60). See experimental temporary exhibits, like sculptures of spiderwebs, and order a locally roasted coffee at the fab Café del Moderno.

Watch or dance tango

Most afternoons, you can catch a spectacular free tango performance right in the middle of Plaza Dorrego square. Even if you tip generously, it’s an affordable way to see professional dancers do their thing. To dance it yourself, book a class at La Mariposita’s tango school, a few blocks west.

The Mercado de San Telmo, replete with everything from food stands to vinyl

Eat

Lo de Betty

The high-ceilinged, elegant Mercado San Telmo sells everything from fresh fruit to vinyl, but most flock here for its food stands. And, like a siren in a sea of hungry drunks, vendor Lo de Betty draws scores of late-night revellers to her humble empanada shop within its walls. It’s open until the wee hours, with patrons ordering standards like meat or chicken or the star, broccoli cheese.

Obrador de Panes

Standard Argentine fare gets spruced up with fanciful touches like ricotta cake with kumquats at bakery-café Obrador de Panes, with its glossy checkerboard floors and powder-blue tiling. Chat with a friend over a glass of wine or creamy pavlova in the breezy atrium and stay until the late afternoon.

El Baqueano Trashumante

An informal version of El Baqueano, one of Argentina’s top-rated fine dining restaurants, El Baqueano Trashumante specializes in preparing native meats in surprising ways. Think lamb sausage in garlic emulsion and curried ñandú (an ostrich-like bird).

El Banco Rojo

For food with funky music and a sense of humour, head to the back patio of convivial bar El Banco Rojo on Bolivar. Order a bacon cheeseburger with “stolen” salsa or the vegan burger with “sexy” ketchup. Weekly burger, taco, and empanada specials include meat and vegan options.

A colourful mural in the buzzing neighbourhood

Drink

Doppelgänger

A true coctelería, the intimate, low-lit Doppelgänger bar perfectly mixes classic cocktails with their own creations (like the vermouth-based Superman Is Italian), as well as shaking up custom cocktails based on your flavour preferences. The best part? They’ll keep that bespoke recipe on file for when you return.

Chin

Corner dive bar Chin is one of the city’s best people-watching spots. Street musicians, lively debaters and many other characters surface here, especially on the weekends. Order a moderately-priced craft beer and the vegetarian tamale around 10pm, then see how the night unfolds.

La Puerta Roja

A rowdy San Telmo staple with bar staff who look like rock band extras. Go through the famous red door to the second story of La Puerta Roja, where specialty nachos, beers, and “chilli bombs” (jalapeno-infused vodka mixed with a local energy drink) await.

Feria de San Telmo, the city’s renowned street fair

Shop

Feria de San Telmo

Every Sunday, the city’s most famous street fair stretches the length of Calle Defensa from the intersection of Cochabamba Street to Plaza de Mayo. Vendors sell antiques, second-hand clothes, jewellery and artisanal maté gourds. Street musicians perform throughout, adding to the lively atmosphere, and a drum procession closes out the festivities with a bang.

Jessica Kessel

A designer shoe shop with bubblegum-pink walls and rotating art installations, Jessica Kessel sells boots, sandals, wallets, and sunglasses grouped into seasonal collections. Many pairs are made from leather cut and painted by hand. Look out for fun pastel flats and disco-ready heels.

Mercado San Telmo

As well as being an essential lunch stop, the Mercado’s vendors tout everything from vintage clothing to stationery, kitchenware, and other oddities – gift-hunters should look out for the deli stand, with bottles of Argentine sauces and spices for sale.

Stay

L’Adresse Hôtel Boutique

Set on one of San Telmo’s quieter blocks, this four-star boutique hotel has an old-timey feel with fresh, breezy modern design. Mosaic-tiled hallways give way to wooden-floored rooms with comfy beds and private terraces, while extraordinarily helpful staff can arrange local bookings and a fresh, filling breakfast awaits each morning. ladressehotel.com

Book now

Cassa Lepage Art Hotel

With an onsite museum displaying 17th-century artifacts unearthed during the hotel’s renovation, Cassa Lepage is technically just over the border of San Telmo in Monserrat – but close enough for daily exploring. Soundproofed rooms and Egyptian cotton sheets ensure a comfortable stay, as well as chocolate tastings and perfume workshops. cassalepage.com

Book now

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

Ambitious types can hop on a cargo ship from Le Havre, France to Cartagena, Colombia, and make their way south to Buenos Aires by bus.

Fine with flying?

BA usually flies direct from London to Buenos Aires, though its schedule has been affected by the pandemic. Most airlines currently serving Buenos Aires require a connection in Madrid or Amsterdam.

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