In Buenos Aires Sundays are generally the quietest day of the week, reserved for family get togethers, many shops are closed and the city often seems empty. However San Telmo, always marching to the beat of its own drum, is the place to be on Sunday due to the Feria de San Telmo, one of the best ways to get a glimpse at the soul of the barrio.
Many a tour guide taking creative licenses have said that the origins of the fair began with the yellow fever outbreak in 1871, that killed an estimated 16,000 residents of Buenos Aires, with San Telmo as the epicenter of the contagion. Wealthy San Telmianos in turn fled the neighborhood transplanting themselves north to Recoleta, unaware of how infectious disease worked, they hoped to escape by abandoning their homes complete with all of their earthly possessions inside. Later immigrants arrived and squatted on the abandoned properties, converting former estates of the elite into precarious tenement housing for the huddled masses, those immigrants then began to hawk the abandoned heirlooms of the socialites on Defensa street, thus giving birth to the antiques fair.
This version is historically dubious, but there is some truth behind it, especially regarding the bounty of 19th century antiques that can be found in and around San Telmo. At the turn of the 20th century Argentina was the eighth wealthiest country in the world and the aristocracy demanded their luxury items be imported from France, everything from art nouveau furniture, works of stained glass, to name brand luggage, sterling silver cutlery and crystal chandeliers were crossing the pond to be proudly displayed as a symbol of the elite’s spending power. However this period of wealth, known in Buenos Aires as the Belle Epoch, would not last. Argentina was one of the countries hardest hit by the international economic crisis of 1929, and has been in an economic back pedal ever since. Spurred on by mass immigration, economic ebbs and flows, and military governments, San Telmo would become a multi-cultural, marginalized neighborhood throughout most of the tumultuous 20th century.
La Feria de San Telmo officially began in 1970 as the ‘fair of antiques and old things’, the feria was influenced by antiques fairs in the fashion of El Rastro in Madrid or Tristan Navaja in Montevideo. The fair began as a hand full of booths in the Plaza Dorrego displaying antiques hauled from all over the city. At the time the street fair opened, San Telmo only had one antique shop in the entire neighborhood, but as the reputation as the antiques district of Buenos Aires began to blossom more antique shops began to spring up in the area. Later the city government established subsidies for owners of antique shops, viewing these establishments as historic and cultural patrimony, today San Telmo has the largest collection of antiques in the whole of Latin America, as a result many of these antique shops are living museums.
The street fair is the crown jewel of this collection and has been going strong for the past 47 years. Each week the event can draw as many as 20,000 visitors who come to peruse the antique stalls as well as take in the bohemian spirit of the barrio. Today the street fair is much more than just antiques, it is a day long event celebrated throughout the neighborhood with live music, street food, art and of course the neighbors themselves.
Know before you go
Officially the feria has a schedule of 10am – 5pm, although often lasts to about 6 or so. Afterwards the barrio is converted into a series of street parties, as festivities continue all throughout the neighborhood. The stalls of the street fair run for more than 13 blocks along Defensa street between Plaza de Mayo and Parque Lezama (see map below) with a few offshoot branches stretching out on the bisecting passageways. Wear comfortable shoes as Defensa street is filled with awkwardly shaped cobblestones and potholes.
I always recommend starting in late morning or early afternoon, from the northern end at the Plaza de Mayo and walking south. This allows you to have lunch somewhere in the middle and end near the Plaza Dorrego when the action of tango dancers, live bands, and street performers is at its peak. Accordingly, This guide will also be oriented from North to South in each section.
There are plenty of places to stop and take a load off in between, check our guides to the best cafes, restaurants, and bars in San Telmo. Lastly, be sure to walk through the array of opulent antique shops, however be sure to wear your backpack or purse on your side or your front, as to avoid any expensive accidents.
The antique stores along Defensa increase progressively in both concentration and splendor moving south between Independencia and San Juan. At Defensa 517 is Fior di Ligi, a small but elegant collection of crystal ware, chandeliers, and antique clothes. The Mercado de San Telmo is another detour loaded with humbler antique booths selling an array of rarities, the entrance is between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo streets. Just in front of Plaza Dorrego is an obligatory stop for browsing at Gabriel de Campo (Pasaje Bethlehem 427), an antiques vendor with a flair for the dramatic in the display of everything from vintage clothes to antique motorcycles. The original antique vendors have their booths in the privileged position along the Feria de la Plaza Dorrego, in the plaza on Humberto Primo street, here anything from antique soda siphons to gramophones are up for sale.
Crafts & Artesanias
All along the 13 blocks are vendors selling various handicrafts which can make great souvenirs; mate gourds, leather goods, and original art are just a sample of the things you can find. Some of the more interesting handmade crafts include wooden pinhole cameras and electric 1-string slide guitars made from repurposed cigar boxes.
A plethora of interesting original arts, from classic photographic images of Buenos Aires, original paintings, silk screens, and many other mediums are for sale at reasonable (and negotiable) prices. More practical items are also available; electric adapters, t-shirts, to leather belts and boots. The fairs snakes off on two bisecting streets where there are more crafts available on Pasaje Giuffra and Humberto Primo street.
Ethnographic Museum ‘Juan B. Ambrosetti‘ (Moreno 350). Set inside a beautiful Academic style building half a block from Defensa street is the archaeology and anthropology museum dedicated to research of the native people of Northwestern Argentina and Patagonia. Most of the displays are in Spanish, and Sundays the museum does not open until 3pm. Entrance is by voluntary donation, usually 20-30 pesos is sufficient.
Basilica de San Francisco de Asís (Alsina 380). The Neo Baroque church and convent was once under the order of the Franciscans. Strangely the brilliantly sculpted images above the portico depict Saint Francis de Assisi with his arms flanked over three secular figures; renaissance instigators Giotto di Bondone and Dante Alighieri, next to a kneeling Christopher Columbus, all of whom belonged to the Franciscan Brotherhood. At time of publishing the church is being renovated and may not be visited.
Convento Santo Domingo (Belgrano 422). This convent was the setting for the heroic resistance of the Argentine militia during the English invasions of 1807. The church fell under heavy fire and the Eastern facing bell tower was destroyed by cannon blast, but the locals defeated the English encroachment. When the tower was rebuilt it was constructed with wooden replicas of the cannon balls that were found in the rubble, still visible on the bell tower today. The church’s atrium also houses the tomb of General Manuel Belgrano, intellectual and hero of Argentina’s Independence movement.
Mafalda (corner Chile and Defensa). Mafalda is the most famous comic strip in the Spanish-speaking world, one could say a uniquely Argentine version of Charlie Brown. Mafalda is very political for a 6-year-old and is not shy of sharing her opinions on feminism, world peace, and concern for humanity along with other topics using her characteristically charming naivety. Today a statue of her sitting on a bench with her comic friends Manolito and Susanita, present an excellent photo opportunity, which on Sundays will always draw a queue.
El Zanjón de Granados (Defensa 755). The neighborhoods of San Telmo and Monserrat have communicated with one another through a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels since around the 17th century. However these tunnels were not discovered until the 1980’s and while they are believed to be built by the Jesuits, nobody is really sure what purpose they served. El Zanjón offers a highly recommended, english tours of the urban archeological complex along with an informative view of the city’s construction. Guided tours every 30 minutes between 11am and 5:30pm each Sunday, 200 pesos.
Casa Mínima (Pasaje San Lorenzo 380). Curiously, this is the smallest house in all of Buenos Aires, at only 2.5 meters wide (just over 8 feet). Local legend maintains that this home was created for a freed slave by his master following the abolition of slavery.
Iglesia de San Pedro Telmo (Humberto Primo 340). Arguably the oldest church in the city, San Pedro Gonzalez Telmo was constructed by the Jesuits in 1734, it is one of the few examples of true Spanish colonial architecture remaining in the city today. The neighborhood is actually the namesake of the church, as it was the custom to name the original barrios of Buenos Aires after the main church parish in the vicinity. Today you are allowed to wander inside, but please be respectful of the congregants and remember photos without flash.
Pasaje Defensa (Defensa 1179). This building is a great representation of the ups and down that San Telmo has continuously experienced, built in 1876 by the Aristocratic Ezeiza family, it was abandoned following successive yellow fever outbreaks. The period that followed was marked by massive immigration, these newcomers essentially squatted on the home, a former single family estate thus became tenement housing to hundreds of immigrants. Today it has been recycled once again into a gallery with antique shops, art boutiques, and other curiosities. At time of writing the upstairs courtyard was being used for tango shows by dancers of exceptional skill each Sunday. The tangueros work based on tips and will pass the hat after every dance or so.
The feria is a great place to sample many traditional foods from Argentina and Latin America. Of course empanadas are on offer, but so too are humitas, veggie-friendly, slightly sweet corn tamales; panes rellenos, calzones in assorted flavors; and the infamous choripan, a sausage sandwich served with delicious chimichurri sauce. Other classics are fresh-squeezed orange juice; crepes with generous dollops of dulce de leche; and garapiñadas, peanuts carmelized in copper kettles filled with sugar syrup.
Don Esculapio is a long-standing facet of the feria, the friendly Mexican guy selling burritos, arepas and chili con carne in front of the parking garage north of Chile street is the place to get your picante fix on the cheap. Also the guys from Café Colombia walk through the fair carrying big metal coffee urns selling good Colombian coffee. If you are looking for a cold beer you can try Barba Roja (Defensa 550), the guys at Debar sell draft beer on the street on the corner of Venezuela, or just pop into one of the supermarkets lining Defensa street for a budget friendly brew (yes, drinking in the streets is legal in Buenos Aires and encouraged in San Telmo). If you are looking for a proper restaurant check our guide to San Telmo restaurants.
Gallery Mercedes Giachetti (Defensa 718). Inside a beautifully refurbished historic building is a collection of contemporary, abstract, and figurative arts specializing in the context of the urban landscape and the human figure.
Espacio Biazzi (Defensa 763). This vividly colorful gallery displays the body of work created over more than 50 years by the Miguel Ángel Biazzi, an artist inspired by art of the indigenous nations of Argentina. In 2016 Biazzi passed away, but his son is now devoted to keeping alive his father’s body of work.
Quorum (Defensa 894). An art store created by artists with the mission of creating a marketplace for assorted mediums at democratic prices. Illustration, photography, graphic design, silkscreen, painting, and sculpture are some of the many original works up for grabs.
Granada Tienda (San Juan 411). The San Telmo offshoot of the Palermo gallery features smaller scale illustrated works, paintings, water colors as well as mixed media works. The art store also runs regular shows featuring local talent.
Street Performers & Music
Everything from buskers to marrionette shows, living statues, celebrity impersonators can be found along the street fair but they tend to concentrate especially around the Plaza Dorrego, the focal point of the fair. There are always live tango shows in the street at the corner of Humberto Primo and Defensa, just down the street at Pasaje Defensa it is also possible to see professional dancers performing. Stop by Movimiento Afro Cultural San Telmo (Defensa 535) to check out South America’s proud African rhythms. Every Sunday there are live performances playing candombe, bossa nova, tropicalia and hip hop. Just down the road on the corner of Mexico and Defensa inside the parrilla/car park, El Rey de Chori, the cover band Los Leyendas pumps out loud energetic rock ‘n roll ranging from Chuck Berry to the Alan Parsons Project.
In the quaint passageway, Pasaje San Lorenzo, an avant-garde tango quartet called Bestias fuses Argentina’s two most revered musical styles, tango and rock creating an original, contemporary sound. Near the intersection of Defensa and San Juan the Jamaicaderos bring a lively blend of reggae and ska that always draws a large crowd.
After the street fair begins to shut down San Telmo starts to show its nocturnal spirit as both organized and spontaneous parties take over the barrio. Each Sunday night at 7:30pm the tangueros come out to strut their stuff in La Milonga del Indio, a free open-air tango venue hosted in Plaza Dorrego. Many Sundays it is possible to see candombe percussionist troupes performing in the streets following the feria. Candombe is a musical style brought to the Americas by the Bantu slaves, today San Telmo has an important community of Afro-Argentines and Afro-Uruguayans that proudly keep this musical style alive. At least once a year is a huge candombe performance called the llamada is held in the San Telmo, but occasional impromptu events are known to take it to the streets on Sunday evenings as well.
Another exemplification of African culture that can be found is Murga. The celebration of Carnival around the Rio de la Plata, Murga is both a form of reverence and protest, that is based on candombe rhythms and elaborate dance routines put on by neighborhood marching bands. San Telmo’s murga group is called Caprichosos de San Telmo, they can be spotted by their bright red and gold jester-like outfits. They often feature post-feria impromptu performances in the streets on Sundays.