Neglected and charming, San Telmo was once the colonial heart of Buenos Aires.
The tumble-down streets of the city’s old, southern barrio conserve colonial facades, decaying Spanish churches and cobbled market plazas, whose roots go back to 1580 when Spanish explorers first settled here on the banks of a freshwater stream.
Much of it is crumbling, and romantic. Tango emerged from San Telmo in the 1890s, and a bohemian spirit survives, with exciting street art and food scenes today popping up amidst broken cobbles and derelict mansions.
Order a strong coffee at Bar Plaza Dorrego, an enjoyably melancholic café that opened in 1880 and is still served by bow-tied waiters with silver serving trays. On the stroll there, spot the early-morning ritual of maids and caretakers scrubbing down sections of cobblestone.
Locals do their morning food shopping at Mercado de San Telmo, a covered market whose structure of cast-iron and glass dates from 1897. Inside, it’s a whirl of herbaceous smells and hollering butchers, whose big, bloody beef cuts dangle from metal hooks.
Plaza Dorrego is an old market square dating from colonial times when gauchos on ox-driven carts would stop here to sell foodstuff to the city folk. Today, it plays host to an antiques fair and has outside tables that are the perfect brunch spot.
The belfries of the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Belén, a Spanish splendor, overlook the plaza. The nearby Pasaje de la Defensa is a sprawling mansion that was abandoned following a yellow fever epidemic. A flea market occupies its crumbling patios and balconies.
Pull up a stool–there are roughly 10 of them–at La Vermutería, a tiny, new tapas bar. It’s run by exciting chef Leandro Cristóbal, whose menu revives some of the forgotten ingredients of Argentine cuisine, including local river fish. Cristóbal prepares items in front of customers on a chaotic marbled counter while classic vermouths flow on tap.
There’s something spooky and cryptlike about El Zanjón, a hushed subterranean museum that conserves in situ the ruins of the early colonial city. Its underground tunnels trace the paths of old freshwater streams and pass ruined walls, water wells and more.
Dip in and out of the specialist stores, studios and ateliers lining cobbled Defensa and its adjoining streets. There are dozens of antiques stores, including Norberto Medrano, a specialist in Art Nouveau. Marcelo Toledo, a master silversmith, crafts ornate decorative pieces.
Full of native trees and meandering paths, Parque Lezama is memorable by twilight. Jorge Luis Borges used to walk this sweep of parkland, which was once the private garden of the Lezama family. The Lezama mansion today houses the national history museum, whose exhibits also remind that this is the spot where Spanish explorers first made landfall in Argentina.
Families dine at El Desnivel, a no-frills steakhouse festooned with soccer memorabilia. Its specialties are striploin and short ribs, served with the fat untrimmed so the juices really flow. These sizzle and smoke over charcoals on an open grill.
It’s lovely to go to a late-night milonga—local dancehall—where ordinary Argentinians dance tango. Order a Malbec and watch, as locals sweep gracefully across the dance floor in the old-fashioned, close-embrace style. At Maldita Milonga enthusiasts dance to a live orchestra. Otherwise, keep the bohemian spirit alive at Doppelgänger, a chic cocktail bar inspired by the Weimar Republic.
Around the intersections of Humberto 1° and Balcarce streets, fantastic murals paint the walls of an abandoned orphanage and school and capture San Telmo’s blossoming street art scene. One block south, the MAMBA is a much underrated modern art venue.