What to See in Buenos Aires’s San Telmo Barrio

With colonial buildings on the corner of the block, pedestrians crowd the street between tent stalls.

The market at Plaza Dorrego. Photo © Jorge Lascar, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

After yellow fever drove elite families to northern barrios like Palermo and Belgrano in the 1870s, San Telmo’s narrow colonial streets became an area where impoverished immigrants could find a foothold in conventillos, abandoned mansions where large families filled small spaces—often a single room. Today, it’s a mixed neighborhood where conventillos still exist but young professionals have also recycled crumbling apartment buildings and even industrial sites into stylish lofts. Famous for its Sunday street fair, a favorite among Argentines and foreigners alike, it’s one of the city’s best walking neighborhoods.

While colonial Spanish law dictated a city plan with uniform rectangular blocks, in practice things were not quite so regular. North–south Calle Balcarce, for instance, doglegs between Chile and Estados Unidos, crossing the cobblestone alleyways of Pasaje San Lorenzo and Pasaje Giuffra. The Casa Mínima (Pasaje San Lorenzo 380) takes the casa chorizo (sausage house) style to an extreme: Now open to the public as part of tours of the nearby El Zanjón de Granados (Defensa 755, tel. 011/4361-3002), the width of this twostory colonial house is barely greater than the an average adult male’s arm-spread.

To the east, on Paseo Colón’s Plaza Coronel Olazábal, sculptor Rogelio Yrurtia’s Canto al Trabajo (Ode to Labor), a tribute to hardworking pioneers, is a welcome antidote to pompous equestrian statues elsewhere. Across the avenue, the neoclassical Facultad de Ingeniería (Engineering School) originally housed the Fundación Eva Perón, established by Evita to aid the poor—and her own political ambitions. Three blocks south, beneath the freeway, the so-called Club Atlético was a clandestine torture center during the Proceso dictatorship; it is now a memorial park.

San Telmo’s heart, though, is Plaza Dorrego (Defensa and Humberto Primo), site of the colorfully hectic weekend flea market. A few blocks south, in a cavernous recycled warehouse, the Museo de Arte Moderno (Avenida San Juan 350, tel. 011/4361-1121) was closed for remodeling but was to reopen in late 2010.

Plaza Dorrego

Six days a week, Plaza Dorrego is a quiet shady square where porteños sip cortados and nibble lunches from nearby cafés. On weekends, though, it swarms with Argentine and foreign visitors who stroll among dozens of antiques stalls at the Feria de San Pedro Telmo, the most famous and colorful of the capital’s numerous street fairs. Items range from antique soda siphons to brightly painted filete plaques with piropos (aphorisms), oversized antique radios, and many other items.

The plaza and surrounding side streets also fill with street performers like the ponytailed Pedro Benavente (“El Indio”), a smooth tanguero (dancer) who, with various female partners, entrances locals and tourists alike—even though his music comes from a boom box. Up and down Defensa, which is closed to cars on Sunday, there are also live tango musicians and other dancers, not to mention puppet theaters, hurdy-gurdy men with parrots, and a glut of estatuas vivas (costumed mimes, some original and others trite).

The Feria de San Pedro Telmo takes place every Sunday, starting around 9–10 a.m. and continuing into late afternoon. Even with all the antiques and crafts stands, there’s room to enjoy lunch and the show from the sidewalk cafés and balconies overlooking the plaza.

Parque Lezama

The presumptive but unlikely site of Pedro de Mendoza’s founding of the city, famed landscape architect Carlos Thays’s Parque Lezama is an irregular quadrilateral above the old river course (now covered by landfill). Shaded by mature palms and other exotic trees and studded with monuments, it’s the place where aging porteños play chess, working-class families enjoy weekend picnics, and a Sunday crafts fair stretches along Defensa to Avenida San Juan.

On the capital’s southern edge in colonial times, the property came into the hands of Carlos Ridgley Horne and then Gregorio Lezama, whose widow sold it to the city in 1884. Horne built the Italianate mansion (1846) that is now the national history museum; at the northwest entrance, Juan Carlos Oliva Navarro finished the Monumento a Don Pedro Mendoza (1937) a year too late to mark the 400th anniversary of Buenos Aires’s original founding.

Opposite the park’s north side, architect Alejandro Christopherson designed the turquoise- colored onion domes and stained-glass windows of the Iglesia Apostólica Ortodoxa Rusa (Russian Orthodox Church, 1904, Avenida Brasil 315), built with materials imported from St. Petersburg.

Museo Histórico Nacional

Like many Argentine museums, Parque Lezama’s Museo Histórico has undergone an overhaul for Argentina’s 2010 bicentennial, with new and surprisingly evenhanded material on Peronism (note Juan Perón’s Grundig tape recorder, which he used to communicate to his faithful), the state terror of the Dirty War, and the 1980s democratic restoration.

There are also thematic exhibits, such as early daguerreotypes of famous but also anonymous figures from early-19th-century Argentina, that border on a social history that’s often overlooked in museums of this sort. More conventionally, there’s a re-creation of liberator José de San Martín’s French bedroom-inexile, portrait galleries of figures such as San Martín and independence intellectual Mariano Moreno, and massive oils that romanticize the brutal Patagonian campaigns of General Julio Argentino Roca.

The building itself is a well-kept landmark whose subterranean gallery hosts special exhibits and occasional concerts. The Museo Histórico (Defensa 1600, tel. 011/4307- 1182, informes@mhn.gov.ar, free) is open 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Wednesday–Sunday.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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