Colonial houses, historic cafes, tango dancers, a flea market, the city’s oldest churches, narrow cobbled streets: this is San Telmo. Buenos Aires’ oldest neighbourhood provides a glimpse into the city’s past and its culture.
Come with me on this one-day itinerary of historic San Telmo (this walk technically begins in the neighbourhood of Montserrat, but nobody is splitting hairs here). I’ll show you my favourite places, where I like to eat or sit down for a cup of coffee, the historic and notable buildings, and many points of interest. You can take as long or as little as you want to do this walk. You decide where and when to stop for refreshment or if you want to skip an attraction.
Caveat: there are plenty of bars, restaurants, and cafes to make a pit stop at any given time. If you see a place you like, dive in! I’d love to hear where you stopped and how you liked the place.
Let’s get walking!
Perú 272 **** La Manzana de las Luces****
Our starting point is La Manzana de las Luces. Manzana means city block and the word luces doesn’t refer to any light but to the illuminated scholarly minds that left a mark at different moments of our history. The Jesuit order started building this complex in the 17th century. This is where they had their Procuraduría or administrative offices (the only extant section from the 1660s), a school, a pharmacy, warehouses and their living quarters.
When the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits from all the Spanish territories in 1767, the Viceroyalty of the River Plate – the local government – took possession of these buildings. They founded the Protomedicato, the first school of medicine.
After Argentina gained her independence, the former Jesuit building complex housed several government offices and important institutions, like the first House of Representatives or the Universidad de Buenos Aires, the successor of the Protomedicato (founded in 1822).
The Manzana de las Luces is famous for its colonial tunnels. There are many theories about their function, such as a means of escape in case of invasion, or a handy way to smuggle goods. The truth is that their function is not clear. As they are a safety hazard, visitors cannot enter them.
You can visit much of the complex only if you take a tour. Tours are in Spanish only. Or you can go as far as the patio and snoop around a bit. There is an arts-and-crafts market inside, but I don’t think there is much of interest there.
Monday to Friday: 10 am – 7 pm, Saturday and Sunday: 2 pm – 7 pm
Bolívar 225 **** Iglesia San Ignacio de Loyola****
San Ignacio de Loyola is the oldest existing Church in Buenos Aires. It’s part of the Jesuit complex of La Manzana de las Luces. Construction started in 1675 next to their school, now called Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires. The current building was started in 1710 and opened in 1722. The south tower is original, the north tower was added in the 1860s. Take some time to look at the Baroque art of each reredos along the walls and the main altar. Most figures date from the 18th century and were brought from Spain or made locally.
The church is open every day, so feel free to walk in, just mind the people who might be at prayer.
Adolfo Alsina 500 **** La Librería de Avila ****
There has been a bookshop in this spot since 1785, which makes Librería de Avila technically the oldest bookshop in the city. The current building is of course much more recent. You’re welcome to wander in and browse their rare books and historical documents.
Hours: 8:30 am – 8 pm
Adolfo Alsina 416 **** La Puerto Rico Café ****
This is one of the many historic cafes that are dear to the heart of porteños. La Puerto Rico was founded in 1887 and moved to the current location in 1925. The founder paid homage to Puerto Rico, where he lived for a while and of which had fond memories. The decor throughout the café has references to Puerto Rico.
Monday to Friday: 7 am – 8 pm, Saturday: 8 am – 8 pm, Sunday: 12 pm – 7 pm
Defensa 201 **** Farmacia La Estrella ****
La Estrella, founded in 1834, was the city’s first pharmacy. The current building dates from 1885. Don’t miss the ornamented tiled floor, the walnut counter and cabinets, and the frescoed ceiling. La Estrella is a living museum as well as a working pharmacy and it’s part of the Buenos Aires City Museum.
Monday to Friday: 8 am – 8 pm, Saturday: 8 am -1pm
Alsina 380 **** Basílica de San Francisco****
The Franciscan order built a church on this spot in 1731-54. The facade and towers collapsed in 1807 and the remodelling was finished a few years later. In 1911, the façade received an overhaul in the Baroque style. Look up and you’ll see the statue of St. Francis with Dante Alighieri, Giotto and Christopher Columbus, an unlikely mix!
The Franciscan Museum attached to the church opens Monday to Thursday: 11 am – 5 pm, Friday: 12 pm – 5 pm.
Defensa 422 **** Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Rosario y Convento de Santo Domingo****
That’s a mouthful! Everyone calls it Convento de Santo Domingo, though. This church has a very interesting story. Founded by the Dominican order and consecrated in the early 1780s, the church was the scene of a battle between the local militia and the invading British army in their second attempt to invade the colony in 1807. If you look up at the walls and towers, you’ll see cannon balls stuck on the walls. They were put in place decades later to mark the spots where enemy fire hit. The mausoleum in the atrium belongs to Gen. Manuel Belgrano, one of our greatest Independence heroes and the creator of the national flag.
Speaking of flags, inside the church you’ll find a few flags and standards captured in battle. Those belong to the 71st Highland Light Infantry (captured in 1807 after the failed invasion), and the Royal Navy (also from 1807), and two Spanish royalist flags donated by Gen. Belgrano.
Bear in mind that the official address is Defensa 422, but you can also use the gate on Avenida Belgrano.
Defensa 596 **** Brasserie Petanque ****
Brasserie Petanque is one of my favourite restaurants in this area. They serve traditional French dishes, as well as some Argentina classics. If it’s good enough for Ralph Fiennes and John Malkovich, it’s good enough for me!
Tuesday to Sunday: 13:30 pm – 3:30 pm, 8:30 pm – 12 am
Defensa 698 **** Mafalda and friends sculpture****
You’ll come across a colourful sculpture right on the corner of Defensa and Chile. It represents some beloved cartoon characters, Mafalda and her friends. I used to devour her comics. You’ll find other cartoon characters sprinkled around San Telmo. They are part of the Paseo de la Historieta and the idea is to pay homage to, you guessed it, beloved cartoon characters of all decades.
San Lorenzo 380 **** Casa Mínima ****
Take a small detour to see the narrowest house in Buenos Aires, the Casa Mínima. It’s not open to the public, but nothing stops you from posing in front of it with your arms stretched to show how narrow the house is. Nobody really knows why it is like that. The most popular theory is that it belonged to a freed slave. Romantic as it may be, it is not true.
Defensa 767 **** Casa Colectiva Bernardino Rivadavia ****
This building from 1921 was the second example of collective housing in Buenos Aires.
Estados Unidos 464 **** Mercado de San Telmo ****
Mercado de San Telmo was established in 1897 as a produce market. Nowadays, you’ll also find antique shops and trendy coffee shops. Look up at the beautiful wrought iron ceiling. Pedro Telmo is an interesting hole-in-the-wall, old school porteño bar outside the market, at Bolivar 962.
The market opens every day at 8 am and closes at 9 pm. Mind you, some antique stores may have different hours.
Carlos Calvo 383 **** Casa de Esteban de Luca ****
This house is one of the oldest in the city and it dates from the late 18th century. The façade is original, but the interior was renovated in the 19th century. It’s one of the few extant examples of colonial dwellings in Buenos Aires.
Corner of Defensa and Humberto 1° **** Plaza Dorrego ****
Plaza Dorrego is the epicenter of San Telmo, where everything happens. You can have a drink or a meal under the trees and watch tango dancers in action. You can browse the flea market’s stalls on Sundays when the Feria de San Telmo convenes (watch out for pickpockets).
Humberto 1° 340 **** Iglesia San Pedro Telmo ****
The Jesuits started building San Pedro Telmo church in 1734, but the current Baroque façade is the result of the renovations carried out between 1916 and 1931. Many original features and works of art from the late 18th century survive today.
The Church is open Monday to Friday 7:30 am – 12 pm, 4 pm – 8 pm. Saturday 9 am – 1 pm, 4 pm – 8 pm. Sunday 8:30 am – 8 pm.
Avenida San Juan 350 **** Museo de Arte Moderno ****
The Modern Art Museum’s collection includes more than 7,000 modern and contemporary works of art by Argentinean and international artists from the 1950s to today. The Italianate building, from 1918, belonged to Tabacalera Piccardo, a leading tobacco company known today as Nobleza Piccardo. The museum is constantly evolving and expanding.
Tuesday to Friday 11 am – 7 pm, weekends 11 am – 8 pm, national holidays 11 am – 8 pm. Admission is AR$30 (US$ 1 at the time of writing), free on Tuesdays.
Carlos Calvo 599 **** Bar El Federal ****
El Federal is one of the city’s oldest bars and a total classic. In its 150-year history, it was a pulpería (a general store where gauchos used to meet), a corner shop, it housed a brothel, film location, and a café. The building is the original one from 1864. The carved wood bar is 105 years old. You’ll definitely go back in time!
Sunday to Thursday 8 am – 2 am, Friday and Saturday 8 am – 4 am. You read that right, it opens until the early hours!
Chacabuco 863 **** Casal de Catalunya****
The Casal de Catalunya (1886) is a little bit of Catalonia in Buenos Aires, as well as the place where my maternal grandparents met. I wouldn’t be here without this place! This modernist building has been the hub of the Catalonian community in Buenos Aires for the over 130 years. Pop in and soak up Catalonian culture and its neogothic style and, if you wish, enjoy a traditional dish at the restaurant.
Monday closed, Tuesday to Saturday 12 pm – 4 pm, 8 pm – 12 am, Sunday 12 pm – 4 pm.
Mexico 564 ****Former National Library****
Take a little detour to see the Beaux-Arts building of the former National Library.
Perú 535 **** Ex Ferretería Hirsch****
This building from 1894 is an iconic example of industrial architecture in Buenos Aires. The iron structure was made at Gustav Eiffel’s workshop in France and assembled on site. Look up at the blacksmith that crowns the building, a symbol of hard work and industry. The place is nowadays a nightclub called Club Museum.
Avenida Belgrano 601 **** Otto Wulf building****
This wonderful building was built in 1914 in the Jugendstil style, the German version of the Art Nouveau, and was designed and built by Danish architect Morten F. Rönnow. A romantic urban legend has it that one tower represents Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and the other, his wife Empress Sissi. As with most urban legends, it’s not true.