Bohemian San Telmo: A Self-Guided Tour

Know before you go

This self-guided tour is designed to discover the most interesting aspects of one of Buenos Aires’ most historic and emblematic neighborhoods.  In total the walking distance is only 3.7 KM (2.3 miles), and could be walked in its entirety in an hour or less, but it is advisable to budget at least a half a day to explore museums, markets, or other points of interest .  Be aware that in San Telmo many museums and restaurants are closed on Mondays, as such to make the most of this guide it is recommended to go another day of the week.  San Telmo is renowned for it’s Sunday street fair, as a complement to this guide, check out our Guide to the Feria de San Telmo.

Map:

1) Architecture on Avenida Caseros

Our tour begins on the southernmost border of San Telmo, Caseros Avenue. This is one of the most beautiful streets in the south of the city, featuring examples of the most well conserved Belle Epoque architecture. After the Spanish Independence wars, when Argentina was one of the first countries in South America to become independent, the aesthetic for Spanish Colonial architecture was quickly abandoned, thus Buenos Aires developed a distinct look from most other cities in Latin America. Seeking new influences, Argentines looked to other European cultures, especially French, English, and Italian.  During the immigration wave in the late 19th century, many European architects and laborers came to Argentina and helped to create the Eurocentric aesthetic that has helped earn Buenos Aires the somewhat begrudged reputation as the Paris of South America.

The 400 block Avenida Caseros between the streets of Defensa and Bolivar is comprised of four eclectic Belle Epoch style buildings all created by the same architect, Christian Schindler. The ornamental iron railings, french balconies and mansard roof, all original dating from 1910, show a Parisian elegance, while the bay windows hint at an English influence. Below the new restaurants on this block have also helped to maintain the charm of yesteryear using planters, lamp posts, and outdoor café seating to add to the Parisian feel.  This part of San Telmo, while somewhat isolated, is experiencing a culinary revival due to the many high-end eateries and drinking holes that have opened up on this street.

Caseros Avenue between Bolivar and Defensa.

2) Museo Histórico Nacional

museo-historico-nacional

Colonial courtyard of Former Lezama estate, turned Museum.

The National Historical Museum of Argentina is housed in one of the few remaining colonial style buildings, which is the former home the wealthy landowner, Gregorio Lezama.  Lezama, a botany enthusiast, employed a Belgian landscape architect to design a private garden that included a private zoo, elaborate displays of exotic plant life, and classical Greek sculptures.  In 1889 Lezama passed away and his widow decided to sell the property to the city government for a symbolic fee, with the stipulation that the private garden be turned into a public park and the home be made into a museum.  Today within the museum you can find Argentine art, documents from the independence movement, and a replica of San Martín’s saber (the real deal was stolen from the museum years ago).  The museum, mostly with explanations in Spanish, is nice if you are really into Argentine history, if not you can admire it’s Colonial architecture outside before moving along.

Entrance fee: 20 ARS (free on Wednesdays).
Wed - Sun and national holidays from 11 am - 6 pm.
Guided visits in English: Wed - Fri at 12:00pm.

3) Parque Lezama

Parque Lezama was the former garden of the Lezama family, after the city took over it in the end of the 19th century, it was converted into a public park. One of the many immigrants who came to Buenos Aires and left a legacy was the creative genius behind Lezama park and many of the city’s other green spaces.  Jules Charles Thays was a French landscape architect who immigrated to Argentina and became the Director of Parks and Walkways in Buenos Aires.  Thays was responsible for the creation of the most important parks in the city, the implementation of tree lined streets, and even helped to rescue the yerba mate plant from near extinction.

parquelezama

Walkway in Parque Lezama.

Before the arrival of Thays the vegetation of Buenos Aires was very swamp-like, Thays changed that by planting more than 400,000 trees brought from all around Argentina and the world, resulting in a drastically different aspect.  Parque Lezama is one of Thays’ greatest works and includes a sculpture garden, a gazebo, a colonnade and several varieties of trees including the Jacaranda, Tipa, Wax Palms, Ombúes and the Chilean Pine.

4) Monumento Pedro de la Mendoza

The monument at the corner of Av. Brasil and Defensa street pay tribute to the Spaniard credited with founding the city of Buenos Aires. Many suggest that this park was the point at which the colony of Buenos Aires was founded in the 16th century, and current-day Lezama Park was the point of Spanish landing.

Monument to Pedro de la Mendoza and the myth of the mountain of silver.

The Spanish captain who led the expedition was a nobleman named Pedro de Mendoza, who arrived in 1536 with 13 ships and some 2,000 men.  However, Mendoza’s expedition was ultimately a failure as he made war with the native Querandí tribe, whose prowess as warriors took heavy tolls on the Spanish settlers.  The Spanish also suffered from famine and had to resort to eating leather boots and even cannibalism for survival.  Mendoza was not capable of being a great leader as he was ailing from syphilis, which was slowly driving him mad.  Finally with all of the trials and tribulations, Mendoza authorized his second in command, Juan de Ayolas to take a ship and sail upriver in search of more hospitable territory, Ayolas would make his way to current-day Paraguay and found the city of Asunción.

In 1537, Mendoza decided to sail to Spain and ask for more reinforcements and resources to defend his struggling colony, however he would never reach Spain as he died at sea on the return voyage.  By 1541 Buenos Aires would be left abandoned completely, and would not be settled again for nearly 40 years. Nonetheless a monument was erected to Mendoza in 1936 commemorating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Buenos Aires.

Corner of Brasil and Defensa.

5) Russian Orthodox Church

At the North end of the park at Av. Brasil 315 stands the whimsical and seemingly misplaced Russian Orthodox Cathedral de la Santisíma Trinidad.  This church is a testament to the Russian immigration in Argentina, which today is a community around 250,000 strong.  The Russians came to Argentina in several waves, the first of which in the end of the 19th century were comprised of many different ethnics groups from Eastern Europe, who traveled under Russian passports.  The second wave consisted of scores of Russian jews fleeing to escape persecution from Czar Alexander II. Later many others followed in the beginning of the 20th century as a result of Russian Revolution, the Civil War and the World Wars.  The Russian Orthodox community built the first Russian Orthodox church in Latin America in the beginning of the 20th century.

Glitzy façade, onion shaped domes and east-facing crosses.

The Moscovite church was built between 1898 and 1901 by Norwegian architect Alejandro Cristophersen, based on a a 17th century design created in Saint Petersburg.  The five domed, indigo spires are covered with golden stars, which are to represent Jesus and his four Evangelists.  All of the crosses and the central nave are Eastern facing, so worshippers pray in the direction of Saint Petersburg.  The interior of the church is decorated very elaborately, as aesthetics are fundamental component to Russian Orthodox religious services.  Worship services are meant to engage all five senses, and the architectural design of the interior, the structure, and the ornamentation of the church all play to the sensory input of the congregation.

Av. Brasil 315.

6) Mural: Education or Slavery

This mural was painted by a group of muralists representing the Union of Education Workers. The central concept of “Education or Slavery” is that the only way to achieve liberty is through education and culture.

educacion-o-esclavitud

Mural on Juan de Garay and Paseo Colon.

To the left side of the mural are the masses; students and workers being protected by the educators. On the right is a governmental building guarded by the military and the mounted police as figure representing the government and big business sits at the helm of these repressive forces.  At the center are a mass of the uneducated and therefore defenseless individuals who are oppressed, unclothed and suffering.  The satellite represents the media, and the helicopter represents the intelligence services both of which serve the purposes of the state and the corporations.

educacion-o-esclavatud

Education or Slavery: Image of a not-so-distant future, painted June 2001.

The scene represented may seem like a dystopian, surreal future, but it was painted in June of 2001, only 6 months before a scene almost identical would play out in reality in the Plaza de Mayo, following the 2001 economic crash.  A decade of neoliberal economics in Argentina proved to be unsustainable and in December, 2001 Argentina suffered one of the greatest economic depressions in modern history. As a result protests in the Plaza de Mayo turned violent as horse mounted police units violently repressed protesters and put the city under a state of siege for nearly two weeks, in the end 33 civilians were killed throughout the country, most of which was believed to be caused by police repression.

Corner of Juan de Garay and Paseo Colón.

7) Paseo de la Memoria/ Ex-Club Atlético

Under the Freeway bridge is a testament to the most sinister chapter in Argentine history, the military dictatorship that senselessly killed an estimated 30,000 of its own citizens. From March, 1976 until 1983 the military ruled the country with an iron fist and sought out and “disappeared” dissidents, as well as anyone who thought differently from their repressive regime.  Just beyond the fence you can see the ruins of one of the horrific concentration camps, the Ex-Club Atlético: a clandestine center for detention, torture, and extermination.

Monument to the memory of the ‘disappeared’. Photo: Lucas Bois.

Prior to military reign, this was a neighborhood sporting and athletic center, however from 1976-1978 the military and the federal police used the basement to jail an estimated 1,500 political prisoners, who were shrouded in hoods and locked in tiny cells.  The prisoners were tortured by use of forced nudity, drugs, violence, electric shock, and even rape.  The majority of the political prisoners paid the ultimate price, death and abandonment. The modus operandi for the killings was to be transferred from their cells, drugged, loaded onto military aircraft and thrown to their deaths in the choppy waters of the Rio de la Plata, “disappeared” never to be heard from again.

The detention center was destroyed in 1978 as the freeway was built, however survivor’s testimony gave evidence of the evil that transpired within the institution, and in 2002 the excavation began as an urban archeological dig.  Today the space is a memorial and is continuously being unearthed to try to find evidence of political prisoners who may have passed through the horrific torture and detention center.

Paseo Colón between Cochabamba & Av. San Juan.

8) MACBA

The contemporary building’s use of ramps and light shafts allows light to flow freely through all levels.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Buenos Aires opened it’s doors in 2012, when a foundation was started to exhibit the private collection of Aldo Rubino, a collector who began acquiring international geometric abstract arts in the 1980’s. The building is a structure composed largely of concrete, glass, and steel, it’s minimalist design is intended to complement the contemporary collection. With 4 floors above ground and 3 basements, the clever design employs the use of two vertical, multi-level light shafts at either extreme of the building, which allow natural light to illuminate the subterranean levels. At times the museum is used as an event space for cycles of cinema, concerts, contemporary dance, and other performance arts (see agenda).

San Juan 328.
Website.
Entrance Fee: 60 Pesos
Opening Hours: Monday to Friday: 11 am to 7 pm. 
Saturday & Sunday 11am - 7:30pm. 
CLOSED TUESDAYS.

9) MAMBA

One of Buenos Aires’ most important modern art collections.

Directly adjacent to the MACBA is the MAMBA, the city’s modern art collection housed in a brick building that was formerly a cigarette factory. The city’s public art collection was established in 1957 although did not have a permanent home, it moved about the city in the subsequent years being housed in private residences, cultural centers, and even displayed internationally on a cruise ship.  In 1987 the current building was modernized and converted into a space for exhibition, while still carefully preserving many of the characteristics of the original structure; the English red brick facade, the massive door crafted from iron and oak, and the concrete emblems that display the number “43”, the brand of cigarettes which were once manufactured within. International artists such as Kandinsky, Picasso, Dalí, and Matisse have graced the collection with their showings, but locals such as pop-artist Marta Minujín, new-realist Antonio Berni, graphic artist Antonio Segui, and sculptor Alberto Heredía are the homegrown heroes who have long-standing residencies at the MAMBA.

San Juan 350.
Website.
Entrance Fee: Suggested donation of 30 pesos, FREE ON TUESDAYS.
Opening Hours: Tuesday- Friday 11am - 7 pm.  
Saturdays and Sundays 11am - 8pm.  
CLOSED MONDAYS.

10) Malegria Mural

malegria-san-juan

Mural painted by Malegria on San Juan avenue.

This mural was painted by a street artist who is extremely active in San Telmo, he goes by the name of “Malegria” (a combination of the word ‘mala’ – bad and ‘alegria’ – joy).  Malegria is a native of Bogotá, Colombia, but he has lived in San Telmo for the past eight years, and during that time he has used the barrio as his canvas, covering uncountable public spaces with his vibrant and erratic personal style of street art.  The work of Malegria is immediately distinctive, he uses a style that is raw and primal, based on indigenous traditions, Pan-american folklore and Art Brut.  Malegria made his first contact with Colombian folklore and imagery from a young age, as the son of an author/illustrator of children’s books who heavily influenced the strong artistic traditions in the family.

malegria-san-telmo

Sebastian “Malegria” and various works from the San Telmo neighborhood.

The body of work that Malegria has compiled around the Buenos Aires in the past 8 years is impressive, but San Telmo is his neighborhood and his nucleus, here it is possible to find his work on every block.  The bright vibrant colors and personal style immediately stand out, he never uses sketches, all his works are created from pure imagination. His creative process is unique and undoubtedly influential, he has been known to take hallucinogenics prior to painting in the streets, thus producing psychedelic results. The majority of his works are comprised purely from aerosol cans, rarely using brushes. The most distinguishing characteristic of his work is his obsessive use of eyes, which can create a sense of anxiety or uneasiness.  Other common forms include totems, masks and figures drawn from pre-hispanic legend taking on animal and reptilian forms.

Avenue San Juan between Bolivar and Defensa.

11) Pasaje de la Defensa

Through the 1860’s, before Recoleta and Palermo were integrated into the urban fabric, San Telmo was the wealthiest residential neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and this was home of the Ezeiza’s, a well-to-do Spanish family.  The type of construction is called a “casa chorizo” and was the typical home for many of the prosperous families. These constructions were built lengthwise starting from the street to the center of the block, all of the rooms in a row one behind the other, much like a shotgun house.  The rooms all were able to communicate with one another through interior doors, and had additional doors which opened onto three central patios. The name, literally “sausage house”, refers to the architectural style where all the rooms are in a line like a like a link of sausages.

The Ezeiza’s abandoned their home in the 1870’s, when San Telmo was the epicenter of a Yellow Fever epidemic that killed about 17% of the city’s population.  Most of the wealthy families abandoned San Telmo and moved to Recoleta hoping to escape the disease, creating an exodus of the affluent.  Those remaining in San Telmo were those without the means to move, mainly immigrants and the working classes, thus beginning a trend in Buenos Aires that would forever change the demographic composition of city as the north became wealthy and the south became a proletariat zone.

As a result many immigrants decided to squat on the homes abandoned by the wealthy. The casa chorizos proved to be great solutions for working class immigrants in search of temporary housing, occupying storage spaces, common areas and even the patios.  In the beginning of the 20th century, this home was converted into a conventillo or tenement housing which housed more than 32 families.  In 1982 the space was renovated while conserving the original architecture and enchanting decay. Today the building is called Pasaje Defensa, and is home to charming antique shops and a leafy courtyard, feel free to wander around and pop in the shops.

Pasaje Defensa (Former Casa de los Ezeiza).
Defensa 1179.
CLOSED MONDAYS.

12) Plaza Dorrego

One of the oldest and most idyllic plazas in the city, Plaza Dorrego has been the focal point of San Telmo since the inception of the barrio.  The plaza was key for the defense of the city when Buenos Aires, still a colony of Spain, was invaded by the English.  In 1806 the Napoleonic Wars in Europe had shown Spain’s vulnerability, and due to heavy colonial competition the British took advantage of the timing to launch an invasion.  With almost no support from Spanish authorities, the criollo colonials were compelled to form militias to defend themselves, and through grassroots, guerrilla defense were able to defeat the British and take back Buenos Aires.  The plaza was pivotal point for the defense of the city (hence the name of the thoroughfare that runs alongside the plaza) as townsfolk fought against the English in the streets and women poured cauldrons of boiling water onto British soldiers from their balconies.

p1060737

Historic Buildings surrounding Plaza Dorrego.

In 1816, independence from Spain was sworn on this site. The name of this square was given in homage to Colonel Manuel Dorrego, former governor and independence hero who once resided in front of the square. Since the 1960’s the ambiance began to take on a bohemian spirit, as many artist studios, cafes, and antique shops started to pop up around the plaza. In 1970 in an effort to stimulate tourism, the city implemented an antiques fair in the square each Sunday, which has become one of the main draws to the areas and a San Telmo institution. Today the restaurants around the plaza place tables outside to offer their culinary selections al fresco as tango dancers use the square for improvised shows.  On many nights the square is also utilized for live music and it is a must to visit on Sunday nights for the famous Milonga del Indio, a free local tango show that has been performed in Plaza Dorrego for the past 20 years.

Corner of Defensa & Humberto Primo.

13) Bar Dorrego

Opposite the square is one of the city’s famed ‘notable’ cafes, a meeting place with important historical and cultural significance.  This building dates from 1860, when the ground level was used as a grocery, and the units above were the workshop of a silver smith.  Inside the bar oozes of history, as dusty bottles, faded wooden panels, checkerboard tiles and heavily graffitied tables seem as if they haven’t changed a bit in half a century.

The culture for cafes in Buenos Aires is extremely rich, during the revolutionary period bars and cafes such as this one were used for clandestine political meetings and played an important role in the creation of the militias.  Later many became important cultural destinations, meeting points for philosophical debate, literary haunts, and places of exhibit for tango musicians.  Bar Dorrego was the setting for the exchange of ideas between two of Argentina’s most important literary minds, surrealists and major player in the Latin American literary boom; Jorge Luis Borges and Ernest Sabato.

borgessabato

Meeting of the Literary minds, Sabato (left) and Borges (right). Photo: oyeborges.blogspot.com.

Defensa 1098
Mon - Sat 8am - 3am; Sunday 8 am - 12 am.

14) Iglesia San Pedro Telmo

Half a block from Plaza Dorrego stands the 19th century church San Pedro González Telmo.  Named after the Patron Saint of Seafarers, the church gave the name to the neighborhood of San Telmo, and is one of the oldest churches in the city and one of the few remaining colonial constructions.  Originally built by the Jesuits in 1734 under the Baroque style, the church has seen numerous restorations giving a more eclectic style, most significantly Neocolonial and Plateresco.

santelmoiglesiapedrotelmo2

Above the namesake church stands San Pedro Gonzalez Telmo, Patron Saint of Seafarers.

Humberto Primo 340.

15) FASE mural

This mural was painted in 2011 by a crew of artists called FASE, consisting of four of the earliest artists in the street art scene; P3dro, Chu, Tec and Defi. FASE a collective of multi-disciplinary artists who met while studying graphic design in University of Buenos Aires, when they first formed they were involved with many experimental forms of expression, including art installations, performances, motion graphics, broadcasting, art design, animation, live electronic music, and visuals.

Given their artistic background of graphic design, FASE were pioneers in abandoning the traditional materials of graffiti, not using aerosol cans, instead opting for rollers and latex paints which better withstood the elements and were more resistant to fading. This particular mural was painted during the Meeting of Styles street art convention in 2012, and painted on the wall of a school that is part of the parish of the church, which gave consent for the artists to paint the space for the street art convention.

Corner of Balcarce & Humberto Primo.

16) San Telmo Market

Originally built in 1897, the Italian inspired structure was designed by Juan Buschiazzo who also designed the Recoleta Cemetery. The market was necessary as a food market for the incoming swathes of immigrants that began arriving in the end of the 19th century. Prior to this time the only food market in the area was an open air market in Plaza Dorrego, but due to higher demand a more secure trading place was needed.

In the center the original structure still reveals the exposed tin roof and metal beams. In the 1970’s the neighborhood started to develop a reputation as the antiques district in the city, at that time many of the stalls inside the market were rented by antiques dealers.  Today many of those very same antiquaries still have their shops in the market, although new culinary proposals have also began to develop. Taking a cue from San Miguel in Madrid, the market is now beginning to become a home from new culinary locales. For some of the best coffee in the city check out the Coffee Town kiosk in the center, while Merci, the French bakery, also makes great breads and pastries.  The market is open everyday, but many of the antique stalls only open during weekends.

Website.
Main entrance on corner of Bolivar and Carlos Calvo.
Everyday 8am - 9pm.

17) Casal de Catalunya

This cultural center for the Catalonian community in Buenos Aires is the place of residence for a Spanish restaurant, a library, and the 500 seat theater Teatro Margarida Xirgu. The complex, made up of two adjacent units makes use of two distinct architectural styles originating from Spain; both a Gothic Florido style, as well as one of the few examples of Catalan Modernism throughout the city.  The façade of the smaller wing of the Casal is elaborately decorated using natural forms and floral patterns in the stained glass windows and gold tiled mosaics and sculpted features to recreate the Catalan coat of arms.

Chacabuco 863.
Theater playbill.
Restaurant hours: 12-4pm; 8pm-12am everyday.

18) Aryz Mural

Playful imagery painted above Independencia Avenue.

This massive mural covering a five story building was painted single handedly by Aryz, a Spanish artist, during the Meeting of Style street art convention.  This playful piece of a horse riding a bicycle is representative of Aryz’ earlier works when the shading employs contour lines, almost like a paint-by-number style. One interesting thing about the modern architecture in Buenos Aires, is that the city was built almost wholly without zoning codes.  In many cases you can see 10 story buildings directly next to one or two story edifications.  This leads to a proliferance of what are referred to as medianeras, these huge exposed ‘sidewalls’ that make a perfect canvas for street artists.  

Corner of Independencia & Chacabuco.

19) Pasaje San Lorenzo

Quintessential San Telmo: fileteado and cobblestones.

San Lorenzo passageway is a quaint, picturesque street surrounded by many constructions dating from the mid to late 1800’s.  Many interesting and fading examples of fileteado are painted on the walls. Fileteado is a style of art created in Buenos Aires used to advertise local business, the style employs many curvalinear lines, floral motifs, banners, and an Olde English text created by a long horse hair brush called filete. One interesting detour from the street is to wander through Los Patios de San Telmo (San Lorenzo 325), which is home to several small art galleries, a restaurant and wine shop. Towards the end of Pasaje San Lorenzo is the Casa Mínima (see below).

Pasaje San Lorenzo is half a block north of Independencia
between Balcarce and Defensa.

20) Casa Minima

Casa Mínima, at just 2.5 meters wide, has the fame of being the narrowest house in the entire city.  Many have wondered why it would be constructed this way. Was this a colonial version of minimalist architecture? Although many tour guides have spread the urban legend that this was the home of an emancipated slave built by his former master, however that is just a myth. Truthfully the diminutive structure was once part of a larger home that was destroyed leaving only the space surrounding the door. Today the space makes up part of the El Zanjón complex (see below) who renovated Casa Mínima and use it for special events.

San Lorenzo 380.

21) El Zanjón de Granados

In the 1985 an investor bought the property of an abandoned tenement house for the purpose of building a restaurant.  In the process of remodeling, work crews made an amazing discovery in the basement, the property covered a system of subterranean tunnels and rivers. San Telmo and Monserrat neighborhoods have been connected through a system of tunnels for hundreds of years, but were only discovered in the 80’s and still largely remain a mystery. The owner later went through an exhaustive process to excavate the tunnels and restore the building, today it is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the city.

Photo: El Zanjón.

The restoration work has received kudos from UNESCO and the city government, making it the only privately owned institution in Buenos Aires to receive such honors. El Zanjón offers the opportunity to uncover more than four centuries of Buenos Aires and San Telmo history through their excellent guided tours.  The space is also used for special events, making it one of the most unique catering spaces in the city.

Defensa 755.
Website.
Guided tours schedule (in English):
Mon - Fri at 12, 2 & 4pm. 250 pesos (duration 1 hour).
Sunday every 30 minutes between 11am and 5:30pm. 200 pesos 
(duration 30 minutes).

22) Mafalda

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 that often draws a crowd.

Looking for other ways to explore San Telmo, check out our other guides for the borough:

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