It’s a Sunday morning, so naturally I am on my way to Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighborhood. I am joined by thousands of others, tourists and locals alike. San Telmo is a beautiful neighborhood on any day, but on Sundays, the area comes to life via the famous Féria de San Telmo, or San Telmo fair. (Think of it as a huge open air market.)
I take the Subte, or subway, into Buenos Aires’ heart, the Plaza de Mayo, and head south on Defensa. I am immediately greeted by booths lining both sides of the uneven cobblestone street, which is closed to vehicular traffic today. But this isn’t Féria de San Telmo. This is another street fair, one of easily four different (judging by signage) similar markets as I make my way into the San Telmo neighborhood. Booths stretch more than a mile along Defensa, with spurs heading off in other directions, before I even arrive at Plaza Dorrego, where the “traditional” antiques market that is Féria de San Telmo is centered.
To say it is overwhelming is an understatement. Booths range from junk to treasure, though which is which is a bit more subjective. Handicrafts, art, jewelry, clothing, antiques, all manner of bombillas – the traditional cup and straw combo (I think bombilla is the straw specifically) used to drink mate – and so much more… all of these have a place in one or more sections of the markets. The only thing missing is food, although a few tiny stalls sit in intersections selling churros, juice, roasted nuts, and coffee or mate. (Just note that this is definitely not a farmers market, and you won’t find produce here.)
While it is tempting to just look at each booth, to only look down would be a disservice to San Telmo. One of the city’s original neighborhoods, San Telmo reminds me more of Europe than of Latin America. Ornate stonework, wrought iron balconies, climbing vines, and facades ranging from well-kept-up to needing plenty of TLC line Defensa and some of the side streets. While the fair has been going since 1970, the neighborhood has much more history than that. Though the current architecture doesn’t date back to Buenos Aires’ 16th century founding, it does provide an air of nobility associated with an earlier time.
San Telmo has alternated between serving poor populations (including freed slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries) and the elite of Buenos Aires. Some of the old colonial estates have been converted into mini-malls, like El Solar de French, a truly beautiful space with greenery and overhead umbrellas and some upscale shopping. Today, the area is a bit more artistic or hipster, and the Féria is a byproduct of that more bohemian spirit.
Defensa is lined with shops and cafes, and I take a peek into one of a chain of dulce de leche stores I pass by. After more samples of different kinds of the traditional treat than I really care to admit, I purchase a jar to bring home to my rented apartment, and adding a small spoon to my morning coffee will become a joyous routine. Other stores hold antiques, leather goods, Argentine cow’s milk dairy products, and more.
While I am here mainly for the Féria, a few other sights catch my eye. San Telmo’s main church, now a museum, towers over a side street and I stop for a photo. Other museums like the city’s contemporary art museum MACBA and the National History Museum sit along the southern tip of San Telmo, though I choose not to enter MACBA and the history museums (there are two sites for the national museum) will be part of another article and will require a return trip to the neighborhood.
I do stop into San Telmo Market, a more traditional indoor market with varied food stalls. Here my perfect plan for the day fails me, however. I got an early start visiting the Féria to avoid the worst of the crowds, but the stalls inside the market that looked best for lunch options weren’t yet open by the time I got there. I guess I need to be a slower shopper.
I take another lap through the stalls back up Defensa to Plaza de Mayo and my return subway. It is incredible just how many booths there are, and how many people are marveling at them. San Telmo is a lovely neighborhood, and would be a great visit on any day. But on Sunday it is truly special.
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