Just south of Plaza de Mayo and la Casa Rosada you’ll find the cobblestone streets of San Telmo. Life moves a little slower in this section of Buenos Aires, especially when compared to the bustling avenues of Palermo or Recoleta. Fewer cars traverse up and down the small streets and the crowds of tourists or business people that can populate the sidewalks and cafes around central Buenos Aires thin out as you enter this barrio. As the oldest neighborhood of the city, San Telmo has witnessed countless transitions as Buenos Aires has grown over the years. The worn grandeur and eclectic architecture of San Telmo’s buildings reflects its long history, a history that has endowed this barrio with a character distinct from any other section of Buenos Aires.
Once the original industrial section of Buenos Aires, the area came to support the city’s growing middle class as well as its aristocratic elites in the 1800s. These wealthy porteños lived in lavish mansions built alongside structures dating back to the city’s colonial era. However, the landscape of San Telmo was forever changed when a yellow fever epidemic struck Buenos Aires near the end of the 19th century. Desperate to escape the disease, the majority of San Telmo’s residents fled their homes and resettled in the northern part of Buenos Aires in what would become Recoleta or Barrio Norte.
In their exodus, the former inhabitants of San Telmo abandoned hundreds of residences and mansions. A number of these structures were torn down to make parks while others became tenant homes, known as conventillos, that housed the multitude of immigrants flooding into Buenos Aires from Europe during this period. Within a few years San Telmo had transformed from the well-to-do residential center of Buenos Aires to a crowded multinational immigrant community. This community would have a major impact on the city as well as porteño culture, building such structures as the Russian Orthodox church, with its iconic onion dome spires, and giving birth to Tango. Even today most porteños cite the southern barrios of San Telmo and La Boca as the birthplace of their culture.
San Telmo fell into a state of decline as the upper classes of Buenos Aires continued to settle elsewhere in the city. However, as early as the 1960s a number of local artist began to take an interest in the historic barrio. The formation of artist guilds during this period paved the way for the recent rejuvenation of San Telmo as the center of Buenos Aires’s arts scene. Numerous galleries now fill what were once defiled mansions built centuries ago, helping to bring international attention to San Telmo’s thriving contemporary arts.
In addition to the museums, art spaces, and historic churches found within its domain, San Telmo is also know for its weekly fair. La Feria de San Telmo takes place every Sunday from morning till mid afternoon bringing thousands to wander up and down avenida Defensa, where they admire the wide variety of items for sell. Known in particular for the rich selection of antiques, the San Telmo fair also features street performers, food vendors, and tango displays ensuring a great time whether you decide to buy anything or not.
Past the end of the fair, near the termination of avenida Defensa, sits Lezama park, one of the open spaces created by the demolitions that took place after the yellow fever epidemic. Its design was the work of legendary urban planner Carlos Thays–the same designer behind the Botanical Gardens and many of Palermo’s parks. However, like most of San Telmo, Lezama park’s history goes back much further. Most historians agree that it was on one of Lezama’s hills that the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza first landed in 1536 and founded Buenos Aires.
The rich history of San Telmo can be felt at every turn in this enchanting barrio.
Here at Baires Apartments, we have a number of apartment rentals in the San Telmo area. Please visit the San Telmo link on the side of this page to view our San Telmo apartment listings.