The neighbourhood of San Telmo is the Buenos Aires that people imagine when they think of the city. Dancers really do tango on the plazas, the sound of an accordion can be heard echoing through doorways and elephantine steaks are served in the area’s restaurants.
The streets are cobbled, the buildings are being eaten by time and modernity, just about remembering its opulent past, and the cragged faces of its residents tell the story that reflects the city: one of stoicism in the face of hardship, but also a joy in the simple luxuries in life.
Tango in the street
San Telmo was once the richest neighbourhood in the city. The barrio lies few blocks south of the Casa Rosada. To walk south along Defensa, towards the Plaza Dorrego in the heart of San Telmo, is to walk through one of the oldest parts of the city. The tall and grandiose mansions are now crumbling echoes of what they were before a cholera epidemic struck in the early part of last century, moving the wealthy to the northern suburbs. Today, they are conventillos (small rooms filled with entire families), or boutique hotels. On street level, it’s antique and curio shops that dominate the doorways.
Gentrification, as always in run down areas, is not so much sneaking in the back door as crashing in like a tidal wave from the River Plate. Alongside the tenement blocks are artists’ lofts; next to 100-year-old parrillas (grill restaurants) are new eateries serving nouvelle cuisine; by the ‘old man’ bars are hip new cocktail bars. It makes for an intense and eclectic experience. There is also a thriving gay scene around its streets. It’s one of the destinations on the top of any visitors’ itineraries, but San Telmo retains an edge – and by edge, I mean don’t walk around late at night.
San Telmo really comes alive on Sundays. Craft stalls line the streets while smartly-attired tango dancers dodge each other on the pavement, wooing tips from the many tourists. The atmospheric bars, particularly around Plaza Dorrego, are packed and the chances of bagging a table for an asado are slim. Go on a Sunday, but return on a weekday too for a lazy breakfast of coffee and pastries.
Where to Eat
Like the rest of Buenos Aires, San Telmo is a place to live, not just to visit. By that, I mean take the time to sit with a coffee, linger over a meal with a bottle of wine or wander slowly around the antique shops – just like the locals. Eating in San Telmo is asado, asado and asado! Be warned that there are a lot of mediocre places, but some are excellent and atmospheric, such as:
La Brigada (Estados Unidos 465, San Telmo, 4361 4685) is particularly renowned for their kid chinchulines (small intestine). Similar to chinchulines, although not as common, is tripa gorda (large intestine).
El Desnivel (Defensa 855, 4300 9081) is a classic, if a little down-at-heel eatery. It’s my favourite place for a meat blow out.
Hurl yourself into modernity at one of Buenos Aires’ most unique places to eat: La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar (Bolivar 865, 4361 4709, www.lavineriadegualteriobolivar.com). After the parrillas and pizzas of San Telmo, this diminutive restaurant sells superlative food, adapting Argentine classics with ‘molecular gastronomy’ techniques. Its wine list is marvellous, too.
Where to Drink
San Telmo is awash with cafés and bars. Some of my favourites include:
Bar Plaza Dorrego (Defensa 1098, 4361 0141) is a San Telmo classic. The bar, and probably some of the waiters, have been there for more than 100 years. The atmosphere is fantastic, with tango records crackling away in the background. If it’s early order a café con leche and media lunas (de grasa); in the afternoon, a frosty beer and peanuts.
Bar Plaza Dorrego – Photograph by Tran’s World Productions
Bar Seddon (Defensa 695, 4342 3700) attracts a younger clientele, but the vibe is resolutely classic: black and white tiles and wax-laden bottles with candles.
Where to Stay
Although it’s not as popular as Palermo, there are some boutique hotels springing up in San Telmo. 1890 Hotel (www.1890hotel.com.ar) is a bed and breakfast run by an artist mother and daughter team.
Casa Bolivar (Finochietto 524, www.casabolivar.com) has 14 independent lofts with kitchens. The owners are friendly, often putting on asados for guests.
San Telmo Loft (Av Paseo Colón 1131, santelmoloft.com) offers a collection of 4 fun and stylish self-catering loft apartments in the area, perfect to rent for longer stays in Buenos Aires.
For tango lovers, head to the Mansion Dandi Royal (Piedras 922, www.mansiondandiroyal.com). A self-styled residential tango academy, there are classes everyday and the 30 well-appointed rooms are in a classic 1930s style.
What to See
To see inside an old house, go to Pasaje la Defensa (Defensa 1179) a traditional family home from 1880. At San Lorenzo 380 is the narrowest house in the city, the Casa Minima – a mere two metres wide, but 50 metres long. Nearby, on Defensa 755 is El Zanjon de Grandados, where you’ll find a difficult to define art space and museum. Either way, it’s a well-restored residence, with occasionally bizarre displays. History buffs should head to Museo Historico Nacional (Defensa 1600, 4307 2301).
Casa Minima – Photograph by Juan Geracaris
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