San Telmo has always held a special place in my cold expat heart. I lived there for my first year here, right around the corner from Plaza Dorrego on Defensa. Every Sunday I had the pleasure (or a hungover person’s nightmare) of having the San Telmo market right on my doorstep.
Plan Your Visit to the San Telmo Market
The market takes place every Sunday, converting the cobblestoned Defensa street in San Telmo into a treasure hunters dream. The hours are technically from 10 am to 4 pm. However, Buenos Aires isn’t exactly geared towards the early riser. You won’t find much action until the afternoon. So start your day by enjoying a leisurely brunch. After mimosas, make your way to Plaza de Mayo and head down Calle Defensa from there. Try to be in Plaza Dorrego at around sunset. As the antique vendors put dismantle their stands, tango dancers begin to dance towards the back of the plaza.
Manzana de las Luces: The Illuminated Block
One block in from Plaza de Mayo you’ll find the Basilica de San Francisco (above). If you hang a right at the historical pharmacy on Alsina and walk two blocks you’ll find the Illuminated Block (or Manzana de las Luces), named for the intellectual institutions that occupy the block. The streets that form the block are Alsina, Peru, Moreno, Bolivar and Avenida Julio A. Roca. The institutions include the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (the most prestigious secondary school in the country), the San Ignacio church, and the old Buenos Aires University building, among others.
Buenos Aires is generally poor in street food. But throw that idea out the window when it comes to the market. The sidewalks fill with street vendors selling choripan (chorizo and crusty bread sandwiches), fresh squeezed orange juice, empanadas, candied almonds, and more. Pro tip: skip the pan relleno salesmen, you’re more likely to get a lot of bread, and not a lot of filling. Keep an eye out for the Colombian guys walking the market selling Colombian coffee. They’ve been here for years and it really is the best coffee in the neighborhood.
Mafalda and Mate
At the intersection of Defensa and Chile, you’ll find a blanket full of mate gourds for sale and a statue of the Argentine comic strip character Mafalda. If you want a cliche tourist picture, line up here and take a picture with Mafalda herself. Or return during any other day of the week when there’s NO line and take your time.
Where to Find the Antiques
You can find leather goods, tchotchkes, and souvenirs galore. But where are the antiques? “Wasn’t this supposed to be an antique market?”, you ask yourself.
Plaza Dorrego – Plaza Dorrego is antique central. It’s full of random baubles, jewelry, and anything you can imagine. There are a few stands here offering antique seltzer bottles that are very (heavy and) popular with visitors.
Brick and Mortar Stores – Amidst the exchange shops and foreign fast food chains that are regretfully taking over Defensa, there are still quite a few physical antique shops. Don’t expect to find the bargain of the year here, but there is high quality to be found.
Mercado de San Telmo – There’s a permanent market that occupies most of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo streets. There are entrances on all four streets: Estados Unidos, Defensa, Carlos Calvo, and Bolivar. There are permanent shops inside selling antiques and vintage clothes. Inside there’s also a fruit and vegetable market and various restaurants.
Explore Side Streets
Something happens to tourists in a market that requires them to walk at such a glacial pace. When you need a breath of fresh air step just one block off of Defensa to either side (to Balcarce or Bolivar). Enjoy the street art, the historical but decaying old buildings, and a bit of personal space before diving back into the market.
There are a few street performers that seem to be staples in the market but none more so than Gardelito (below). Give him a tip and listen to the closest thing to Gardel himself. He performs every Sunday afternoon just before Plaza Dorrego next to a parking lot on at Defensa 1052.
Where to Eat (besides street food)
And finally, where to eat. Always the most important question of them all! When you need a break from walking and shopping there’s nothing better than resting your weary bones with a drink or a meal.
End the day with a relaxed steak dinner and a Malbec. You deserve it if you walked this market all day.
Desnivel – Defensa 855 – This is my favorite steak in the city. It may look kitschy and touristy but the food is incredible. Order one of the lomo (tenderloin) dishes. My favorite is the Lomo a la Mostaza, tenderloin in a mustard cream sauce.
La Brigada – Estados Unidos 465 – I have yet to eat here, because Desnivel, but I hear this is Francis Ford Coppola‘s favorite spot in town. They’ll cut your steak with a spoon for you before serving it, so you know the meat is tender.
Dorrego Cafe – Defensa 1098 – Located on the corner of Plaza Dorrego, insultingly across the street from Starbucks. Come here if you want to have a coffee while feeling as if you traveled back in time.
Coffee Town – Mercado de San Telmo – This coffee stand is located inside the market I mentioned above. It has great quality coffee and offers a chance to people watch while you sip on your flat white.
Notable Bars are historically protected bars and are loaded with character. My two favorite ones happen to be in San Telmo.
El Federal – Carlos Calvo 599 – Worth a stop even if you aren’t hungry, just come and have a fernet and enjoy the vibe. But if you’re hungry, order a picada (a charcuterie plate). They’re incredible here.
La Poesia – Chile 502 – Come with your journal or laptop and feel like a 1920’s intellectual writing the work of the century while sipping on a cortado.
Argentine ice cream is the unsung hero of Argentine cuisine.
Nonna Bianca – Estados Unidos 425 – There’s more than one chain restaurant selling ice cream along Defensa but I prefer this mom and pop operation just off Defense on Estados Unidos.
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