San Telmo Not for Tourists
For the past few decades, the historic Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo has been dismissed by locals as a tacky tourist spot. The place surges to life on Sundays, when crowds plow down Defensa Street to Plaza Dorrego to take in tango performances and buy cheap knickknacks. Then, on Monday morning, like an Argentine version of Brigadoon, everyone forgets about San Telmo. The cycle begins all over again six days later. Lately, though, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires has been rediscovered by locals, not to mention trendy designers and innovative chefs. Now there are a variety of activities, restaurants, and shops away from the madness of the plaza to occupy your Sunday, or any other day of the week.
Those who love San Telmo also often love antiques. Entire blocks seem dedicated to the stores and my favorite is Gil Altiguedades (Humberto Primo 412). Inside is a treasure trove but the real finds are housed on the basement level. Seek out Maria Gil, one half of the store’s husband and wife owners, to request access. She’ll appraise like you’re on sale at an auction and decide whether or not to say yes. If she does, she’ll lead you downstairs to a wonderland of flapper dresses, stylish old hats, and lace gloves too delicate for modern times. It’s no wonder celebrities from Kylie Minogue to Karl Lagerfield have looked to her for sartorial inspiration.
The effortlessly elegant Maria recently opened her own vintage bridal shop, also called Gil (Estados Unidos 361). She told me a woman who wasn’t even yet engaged recently bought a dress she fell in love with at the store, explaining: “I’ve got the dress. The man will follow.”
If your clothing tastes are more contemporary, well-known designer Vicki Otero (Carlos Calvo 416) recently moved her shop, full mostly of black and white pieces, to San Telmo. Sophisticated Pablo Ramirez (Peru 587) is another favorite. If you prefer books to clothes, check out Walrus Books (Estados Unidos 617). They’ve got a massive selection of used English-language texts that will make even the most homesick bibliophile feel right at home. I also adore the relatively new store Cualquier Verdura (Humberto Primo 517), where I bought a book called, appropriately enough, The Book of Books, filled with entries on each and every bookstore in literary Buenos Aires. You can also fill your bag with various quirky finds from records to retro board games.
If you, like me, find shopping really works up an appetite, San Telmo has a range of dining options. While the enclave is increasingly trendy, it’s also still got its fair share of backpackers on a budget. They do well at slightly off the beaten path spots like Hippopotamus Café, built in 1909. Here men who have inhabited San Telmo for generations slowly sip coffees and make small talk with the wait staff while buttering rich croissants. One of my favorite Saturday or Sunday rituals – and one you can almost guarantee will be free of tourists who never leave the main plaza – is popping into the Byzantine styled Russian Orthodox Church (Brasil 315) to witness a traditional service and listen to their excellent choir. Ladies who aren’t in skirts can borrow them at the door.
For a more substantive but still budget friendly meal, head to Habibi (Humberto Primo 517) for delicious Arabic food. I also love Hierbabuena (Av. Caseros 454), an organic restaurant where celebrities like Gael Garcia Bernal have been known to dine. And if you need something to wash down all that great food, walk to Doppelganger (Juan de Garay 500), an art deco cocktail bar so serious about mixology they make their own fresh juices daily.
While I love shopping, eating, and drinking, my favorite San Telmo activity won’t cost you a cent. Tourists seldom wander down Avenida Caseros, a street lined with stunning French architecture – but they should. The aristocratic buildings are a history lesson unto themselves.
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