Whenever I visit Buenos Aires, there is a place I never miss – San Telmo, one of the most interesting, charming and quaint barrios (neighborhoods) of the Argentine capital.
This part of town is famous for the milongas (places where locals go dance tango) and the antiques market, but I admit I go there to check out the millions stalls of the Feria de San Telmo – the street market that takes place on Sundays only. It’s a fantastic place to buy a unique item (or three), to test your Spanish while you haggle with the vendors, and to mingle with locals.
Curious to find out more about this charming area of Buenos Aires? Continue reading as I guide you trough the unmissable things to do in San Telmo Buenos Aires and share some practical tips for visiting.
Make sure to also read my post 38 Unmissable Things To Do In Buenos Aires.
The History Of San Telmo, Buenos Aires
San Telmo is the oldest barrio of Buenos Aires, and so the district is awash with layers of history. Specifically the district dates back to the 17th century, when it grew up as the home of people who worked in the industry of the area. They chose this area as it was close to the old dockyard area, where they worked in warehouses, and as millers and brickmakers.
Many of Buenos Aires’ exports came from this part of the city, which also included leather, hides and wool. Workers would prepare these various materials and store them in warehouses during the colonial period. The area of San Telmo was a multicultural one. Free and enslaved people of African origin as well as other immigrants arrived in the city for work, gravitating towards San Telmo as their new home.
San Telmo officially became incorporated into the city of Buenos Aires in 1708 and was known as “the ovens and storehouses of San Pedro”. Poverty was rife in this part of town, so the Jesuits set up a spiritual house in order to help alleviate some of the issues that the residents faced. Charity and education were the pillars here, but in 1767 the Jesuit Order were effectively shut down during a period called the Suppression, during which the order was banned from both Western Europe and the colonies.
In order to fill the spiritual hole in the neighborhood, the parish of San Pedro Gonzalez Telmo (otherwise known as San Telmo) was established in 1806. This saint was, and still is, the patron of mariners, sailors and fishermen. However, this didn’t provide the same amount of support that the Jesuits had previously offered; there were very few establishments initiated to help the residents of San Telmo and the district began to deteriorate — even after Argentine independence in 1816.
In the face of these challenges, however, San Telmo still grew. The city of Buenos Aires in general, and San Telmo as a result, had been under the thumb of the wealthy dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. After his removal in 1852, things began to look up for the area. New civic projects were carried out; these were much needed as San Telmo was effectively without public infrastructure.
Electric lighting, sewers, gas mains, running water and cobbled streets were brought into the neighborhood, as well as medical clinics; a market was established too. In the western portion of San Telmo, residential homes for the more well-to-do were established.
In 1871, the fledgling fortunes of San Telmo dived following an epidemic of Yellow Fever. The newly established health clinics did much to help curb the spread, but more than 10,000 lives were lost, and the growing middle classes left the area (mainly to Barrio Norte). This meant the properties that they had built became vacant. New uses were thought up for them: A public park came to the area, and a museum too.
But most of the houses became conventillos (tenement blocks), designed to house a wave of immigrants arriving from Europe between 1875 and 1930. This influx of people created a multicultural district, where communities from Italy, Galicia, Britain and Russia lived together. It was at this time that tango was born, the result of mingling musical and dance traditions from across Europe.
The district gained a reputation as a bohemian neighborhood, and attracted artists and writers alike. In the mid-20th century, the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA) was set up, as well as an artisan guild called Republic of San Telmo. Young creatives took up space in the colonial era buildings, establishing music halls and other creative enterprises.
Though bohemian, decay was still evident in the district, so in the 1990s San Telmo was given a new lick of paint and restored to something of its former 19th-century glory. It became a popular area for visitors to Buenos Aires to explore — not just for its old-world charm and cobbled streets, but also for its credentials as the birthplace of tango.
Best Things To Do In San Telmo
Go to the Feria de San Telmo (San Telmo Market)
The main draw to San Telmo is the feria – the street fair, or San Telmo Market – that takes place every Sunday (unless it’s raining, in which case most vendors won’t even set up), from around 10:00 am till 5:00 pm.
San Telmo market goes along Defensa Street, starting from Plaza de Mayo. The street fair is a great place to buy all sorts of souvenirs and items to bring home with you – leather bags, shoes, clothing, all sorts of accessory and jewels: you name it. I bought one of my favorite bags there.
Within the Feria de San Telmo, you’ll also find a smaller covered market. With its roots in San Telmo’s connection to trade, this market has long played an important part in the daily life of the barrio. Though there had been more informal markets taking place in the district, this one was built in 1897 by the Italian-born architect Juan Antonio Buschiazzo. This architect was also behind the famous Recoleta Cemetery.
The covered San Telmo market takes up almost a whole block of the area – that of Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo streets. It’s a beautifully made wrought iron structure, but sadly doesn’t have its original ceiling. Take a step inside here from one of the four gates to find a host of places to grab a coffee or an empanada, enjoy a drink or browse for retro records and vintage clothes. They even sell fruit and vegetables.
It’s open every day, 8:30 am to 9:00 pm. Keep your belongings close to you though: this lively and frenetic market is a great way to see local life, but it is also known for pickpockets. Make sure you stay aware of your surroundings, and if you stop for coffee don’t hang your bag on a chair or put it under the table — keep it with you. It really is notorious for pickpockets.
Go antique shopping
Antique lovers will find San Telmo to be something of a paradise for them. Here there are a number of places where you can pick up objects and furniture from yesteryear, one of the main ones being the above-mentioned Feria de San Telmo.
This antique market has been going strong since the 1970s and regularly draws in crowds of thousands of people to browse its 300-plus stalls. Vendors spread out their wares on tables, or simply on blankets on the cobbles, and market-goers stroll between the stalls, sifting through the antiques to find hidden gems. Visit and you’ll also be entertained by tango musicians and dancers along the way.
Note that – once again – this can also be a hotspot for pickpockets. Keep nothing valuable in your pockets themselves, and have your bag well secured (and close) to your body as you explore.
Visit the Manzana de las Luces
In parts of the district, San Telmo seems to flawlessly spill over into the Montserrat neighborhood to the north, and vice versa. These two districts share a similar history in the development of Buenos Aires, namely that they are the oldest barrios of the city. Just across the border in Montserrat you’ll find a relic of the Jesuit heritage of Buenos Aires in the form of Manzana de las Luces.
Translated to “Block of the Lights”, the complex is made up of a church, a cloister and colonial-era administration offices. In its heyday, the building played a pivotal role in the day-to-day running of this part of the city.
Later, in the 19th century, Manzana de las Luces was once also home to the city’s (and the country’s) first library, first college and its first law-making assembly. But as interesting as that is, it’s the most intriguing thing about this complex.
Tunnels were first uncovered here in 1865, during projects to drain the area of San Telmo; even more tunnels were found in 1912 when the city’s metro network was being created.
Nobody really knows the reason for the tunnel network. One theory states that they were intended to connect the various churches of the city. Though some of them were demolished, or had naturally caved in over the centuries, the tunnels beneath Manzana de las Luces are available to visit.
Tours run Monday to Friday; however, even if you don’t go on a tour, you can still visit the old Jesuit complex, walk around its courtyard and take a peek at the architecture.
Sit next to Mafalda statue
This statue, seemingly of nothing more than a cartoonish girl on a bench, is actually a depiction of one of Argentina’s most-loved comic strip characters. Mafalda is the six-year-old title character of the comic strip by the famous Argentine cartoonist Quino (1932-2020).
First launched in 1964, Mafalda represented a burgeoning middle class in the country, with themes often focused on humanity, social problems and world issues, but through the lens of the innocence of youth.
The statue of Mafalda was erected in 2009 outside the home of Quino. Members of her family also scatter the area. Visiting this spot is one of the most popular things to do in San Telmo (almost a pilgrimage for some people), so don’t be surprised if you have to wait your turn to snap a picture of yourself sitting on the bench next to Mafalda.
Attend a tango show
This is one of the most popular (and often free) things to do in San Telmo. Tango is part of the lifeblood of San Telmo, being born here in the late 19th-century. Though tango itself became a little unfashionable elsewhere in the city after its initial boom, it remained a popular pastime in San Telmo.
You can sometimes actually see tango being danced in squares around the district (ie in Plaza Dorrego), seemingly spontaneously, there are specific places you can go to watch tango — or even get involved yourself. Quite a few, in fact.
Over at the Buenos Aires Club on Wednesday nights is when Maldita Milonga takes place. Amateur dance partners take to the floor along to the soundtrack of a band; late in the night, the professionals come onto the floor instead.
La Ventana provides an interesting mix of tango and folklore, infused with Andean music performances as well as gaucho hunting weapon displays. You can even order dinner here and eat your meal while being entertained.
Taking place since 1969, El Viejo Almacen puts on one of the longest-tango shows in the city. The evening starts with diners enjoying meals in a building dating from the 19th century, after which they’re ushered across the road to the dance hall, where a sparkling show wows the audience in a cozy setting.
Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso is more about the music side of things, with tango musicians from across Argentina making their way to this venue to entertain audiences. The music runs from traditional tango to more rock-infused varieties.
Then, last but not least, we’ve got Todo Mundo. Located on Plaza Dorrego, inside a laid-back eatery, Todo Mundo is famed for its lone pair of dancers who twirl around the floor in the day-time and into the evening. On Thursdays, however, there’s an all-out show that starts around 10:00 pm, featuring rock music and tango dancing.
To book a tango show in San Telmo, click here.
Visit El Zanjón de Granados Tunnels
Back in 1985, a chemical engineer called Jorge Eckstein purchased a run-down mansion in the San Telmo area. However, the structure, which was originally built in 1830, needed some serious renovation. It would have once been a lavish home for the wealthy Buenos Aires residents who moved into this district in the early 19th-century; it is enormous, and has over 20 rooms.
During refurbishment work, Eckstein noticed that the patio or inner courtyard area seemed to be slightly sunken. Excavation work was carried out to find out what the problem was. Underneath the patio there were tunnels. Two kilometers (1.2 miles) of passageways were unearthed, with debris shifted in hundreds of trucks, and archaeologists called in to ascertain the tunnels’ origin.
Unlike the Jesuit tunnels underneath the Manzana de las Luces, it’s believed that these tunnels were constructed by the local residents around 1780 to manage the sewerage system of the area. Today the large mansion is now a museum, which also provides tours of portions of the tunnels.
Take a look at La Casa Minima
While there are some large mansions to be found throughout San Telmo, over on Pasaje San Lorenzo you’ll find the narrowest in town. Look out for number 380; but you can’t miss it, thanks to its bright green door.
Measuring in at 3.27 meters (10.72 feet) wide and 13 meters (42.65 feet) deep, La Casa Minima was a tiny house before tiny houses were so fashionable. Once slavery was abolished officially in 1853, it was known that formerly enslaved African people were sometimes given small portions of land by their former owners; this is the only one that remains.
It’s uncertain whether this was the case with La Casa Minima, but according to popular tradition that is what happened. Another story says that the house was once larger and was split and sold off or rented over its history. The owner kept the portion in the middle.
You don’t have to just marvel at the small house from outside, you can actually explore within the tiny space on a guided tour. It’s open every day for tours (apart from Saturdays). For more information, check the official website.
Head to Pasaje de la Defensa
One of the best things to do in San Telmo to appreciate its interesting historical architecture (as well as doing a spot of browsing on a lazy afternoon), is to make your way to Pasaje de la Defensa.
This almost-hidden spot takes up space inside a large mansion that was built in 1880 for the Ezeiza family. But this mansion, like many others in the district, went on to become a conventillo, where multiple families lived together.
Today the Pasaje de la Defensa is an attractive place for a photo opportunity, with several black-and-white tiled patios and charming building facades. It’s also a nice place to shop, as there are a few antique vendors and art stores dotted around in the old apartments.
Practical Guide For Visiting San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Guided tours of San Telmo, Buenos Aires
One of the best ways to get a deeper insight into the San Telmo district is to book yourself a tour. This is also a particularly good way to see San Telmo if you’re short on time. Either way, having a knowledgeable and friendly local guide you around an area they know very well lets you see things from a different point of view. Plus it’s nice to be able to be told the history rather than referring to a guidebook every 30 seconds!
For a private walking tour of San Telmo, click here.
For a bike tour of San Telmo, click here.
For a tour of Buenos Aires that also goes to San Telmo, click here.
For a guided food tour of San Telmo, click here.
Where to sleep in San Telmo, Buenos Aires
I must admit San Telmo is not my favorite area to stay in Buenos Aires. I am a fan of Palermo for that. Having said that, there are some good accommodation options in this part of town too.
When you’re deciding on a place to stay in San Telmo, it’s important that you read reviews. Make sure that hotels and hostels have reviews from people that mention its safety or security credentials. If you read reviews that say things about the property not being secure, or anything like that, it’s probably best to avoid this sort of accommodation.
Luxury — Anselmo Buenos Aires, Curio Collection by Hilton
This sophisticated accommodation option is part of the Hilton hotel chain. Set in a historic building, guest rooms here are decorated in plush furnishings and make use of the period features of the building.
There’s a range of amenities to make full use of throughout, including a shared lounge, a cafe and a bar; food here is made using local produce.
Midrange — L’Adresse Hôtel Boutique
L’Adresse Hotel Boutique is a beautifully curated four-star property, which has carefully considered the history of the building in its interior design.
Rooms feature white-washed walls, polished wood floors and large windows; some even come with their own balconies where you can look out over the neighborhood. It’s within walking distance to a number of main sights, while it also has the convenience of an onsite eatery and bar.
Budget — Circus Hostel
Circus Hostel goes above and beyond what you’d expect from budget accommodation in San Telmo. The rooms here are clean and well-maintained, and range from a six-bed dorm to a private double room.
Location-wise, you’ll find this hostel close to San Telmo Market, with good transport connections and a number of eateries on the doorstep. After a busy day of exploring you can return and enjoy a refreshing dip in the hostel’s very own private pool.
Don’t forget to also read my post Where To Stay In Buenos Aires.
How to get to San Telmo from the airport
There are actually two airports in Buenos Aires. Ministro Pistarini International Airport, known as Ezeiza, is where international flights and. Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, locally known as Aeroparque, is in Palermo and it is mostly used for domestic flights, and some international flights to destinations in South America.
Here’s how to travel to San Telmo from each airport.
From Palermo Jorge Newbery Airport
For those who want to make a smooth transition to your hotel, a taxi is a good idea. They wait outside the airport, you don’t have to book in advance, and it’s straightforward to get into a licensed taxi. You need to get a ticket from a kiosk (you can find these throughout the arrivals terminal) and then take this to the official taxi rank.
Fares are fixed, and depend on the time of day. There’s also a surcharge for baggage. Public taxis in Buenos Aires are yellow and black; don’t take an unauthorized taxi. The ride should take around 20 minutes.
By private transfer
Private transfers aren’t necessarily the cheapest way to get from the airport to your accommodation, but they are the most convenient. However, if you are traveling in a small group or landing late, this is probably the best option. They’ll be waiting for you on your arrival, so there’s no waiting around. You can book them in advance.
But the best thing of all is booking a hotel (or hostel) that has its own private transfer included in the room rate, meaning you don’t have to pay extra, and be whisked seamlessly from touchdown to the hotel lobby.
You can book your private transfer here.
This is the most budget friendly way of traveling from Aeroparque to San Telmo. Bus services 33B and 33C run from Jorge Newbery Airport to San Telmo. The bus takes around half an hour.
From Ezeiza Airport
When it comes to taxis at Ezeiza Airport, again, make sure that you only travel in authorized taxis. If people come up to you asking if you want a taxi, the likelihood is that they are driving an unlicensed taxi, so ignore them. The taxi will take between an hour and a half and one hour 45 minutes, depending on the time of day and traffic.
By private transfer
Private transfers can be booked in advance, but it’s best to try to arrange this beforehand with your accommodation. You’ll know it’s for you as the driver or staff member will have your name and possibly arrival time written on a placard, waiting as you enter the arrivals terminal. Again, this is a convenient and no-hassle way to get from airport to accommodation.
I would recommend a private transfer traveling from this particular airport, as it’s so far away. It would end up being much cheaper if you’re traveling in a group, too, meaning you get to split the cost of the single vehicle rather than pay for three or four individual tickets.
You can book your private transfer here.
There are shuttle buses that run from Ezeiza Airport to San Telmo – the price depends on which company you choose. There are desks for bus services in the arrivals hall. Public buses — such as the number 8A — also connect the airport and San Telmo; these are cheaper, but take up to (and possibly longer than) two hours, so it’s probably not a good idea if you are only spending a short time in the city.
You should also read my post The Best Way To Get From Ezeiza To Buenos Aires.
These other posts will be useful when planning your trip to Buenos Aires:
- A Guide To Palermo Buenos Aires: 12 Best Things To Do
- 11 Fantastic Day Trips From Buenos Aires
- Airbnb Buenos Aires: 11 Fabulous Places To Stay