I’m a sucker for romance, anything that transports me to the past, makes me feel like an extra in the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris and I’m there. San Telmo, Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood really scratched that itch for me. The streets are tight and charming, the painted facades of buildings are crumbling and tiny cafes and restaurants line every street. The place is literally antique heaven, so if that doesn’t make you nostalgic, then I don’t know what will.
Globalization can be a dirty word, used to lament the abundance of McDonald’s and Starbucks at every corner of the earth. But what happens when globalization goes beyond the mainstream and infiltrates the underground, the “cool”? Its like the globalization of hipsterdom. Every cool neighborhood it seems must complete a checklist: street art, craft beer, bicycle shops, brunch spots, repurposed buildings, and so on… I call it the Brooklyn checklist for success. These areas sacrifice their individual spirit to the gods of cool in exchange for beanie wearing, latte sipping residents. Very rarely do I find a cool neighborhood that doesn’t remind me of a previous one. But something about San Telmo captured me the first time I walked its cobblestone streets. Sure, it has a lot of the elements that other decidedly cool places do, but the place is buzzing with a charm all its own.
I recently took a walking tour of one of Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhoods to get a better feel for the place – because any chance I get to go to San Telmo, I take, because duh. I took the San Telmo Art & History Walk, now a part of Buenos Aires Art Tours, a cross neighborhood journey that takes you from one edge of historic San Telmo to the other and back again. The tour’s founder, Rick Powell, is an American expat and long term resident of the ‘hood.
Powell created the tour in 2011 after noticing the abundance of street art in the neighborhood, but lack of any information regarding the artists and their works. The tour was founded with the idea of connecting tourists and curious residents (myself included) to San Telmo’s vivid street art scene. He recently sold the tour to Buenos Aires Art Tours, a city wide tour company that offers seven (with more in the works) tours that cover different aspects of Buenos Aires including a craft beer tour in San Telmo and a gallery tour of Palermo.
“Borges considered San Telmo and La Boca to be the last barrios where the spirit of old Buenos Aires could still be felt. San Telmo is in touch with its past in a way that no other neighborhood I’ve lived in is. It’s in a constant state of flux between the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the traditional and the entrepreneurial, and with great pride in all of it. I felt comfortable here as soon as I started walking the streets and I still do,” said Powell.
Walking around the neighborhood for three hours highlighted these inconsistencies for me and the fountain of information that is your tour guide beats stopping to Google something every half block. I could now tell you all about that beautiful and colorful curlicue writing that marks almost every San Telmo building. Did you know it was called fileteado? I can now differentiate between the street artists that use the buildings of San Telmo as their canvases based solely on their style. Ever wanted to know history of a Spanish cultural embassy turned squat? Tours get a bad rap but it’s hard to argue with a tour guide who will tell you the history of an old antique market place one second and the best place to grab a prints from up and coming independent photographers the next. San Telmo is the perfect place for that, one of the areas of Buenos Aires where the old is felt and lives alongside the new.
And while there exists plenty of art to be seen on the streets, the area is also a hub for indoor art with the Museums of modern and contemporary art, MAMBA and MACBA, respectively. But it doesn’t stop there as San Telmo is “still a heavy-drinking neighborhood, thankfully, with no boliches, and I might be wrong but San Telmo seems to have the highest concentration of craft-beer bars in the city, which you can sample on Buenos Aires Art Tour’s pretty incredible San Telmo Craft Beer Walk,” said Powell, in regards to the endless opportunities his neighborhood offers.
I mean we all knew it, but that place is packed with history and culture. Every Sunday the street Defensa fills with merchants and antique dealers and what seems like the entire population of Buenos Aires crowds the street. The Sunday market is great, and pure San Telmo, but I’d recommend visiting on a quieter day when the streets are empty enough for you to stroll down the middle of the cobble stone and the Parque Lezama at the edge of the neighborhood is the perfect place to sip a mate, or whatever else it is you prefer to sip, with friends.