Buenos Aires: Places to Explore


La Boca and San Telmo

"The south also exists," quip residents of bohemian neighborhoods like San Telmo and La Boca, which historically played second fiddle to posher northern barrios. No more. The hottest designers have boutiques here, new restaurants are booked out, an art district is burgeoning, and property prices are soaring. The south is also the linchpin of the city's tango revival, appropriate given that the dance was born in these quarters.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires' first suburb, was originally inhabited by sailors, and takes its name from their wandering patron saint. All the same, the mariners' main preoccupations were clearly less than spiritual, and San Telmo became famous for its brothels.

That didn't stop the area's first experience of gentrification: wealthy local families built ornate homes here in the early 19th century, but ran for Recoleta when a yellow-fever epidemic struck in 1871. Newly arrived immigrants crammed into their abandoned mansions, known as conventillos (tenement houses). Today these same houses are fought over by foreign buyers dying to ride the wave of urban renewal—the reciclaje (recycling), as porteños call it—that's sweeping the area and transforming San Telmo into Buenos Aires' hippest 'hood.

San Telmo has no major sights per se; it's the barrio itself that's the attraction. A few hours gazing at its soaring Italianate town houses or writing in your travel journal over a drawn-out coffee is as much an insight into porteño life as any museum display. However, there's plenty of contemporary high culture on offer in the neighborhood's growing number of cutting-edge art galleries. All those cobblestones aren't just picturesque; they're useful, too, as they force you to slow down and enjoy the barrio.

Although neighboring La Boca seems far more touristy, it shares much of San Telmo's gritty history. La Boca sits on the fiercely polluted—and thus fiercely smelly—Riachuelo River, where rusting ships and shipbuilders' warehouses remind you that this was once the city's main port. The immigrants who first settled here built their houses from corrugated metal and brightly colored paint left over from the shipyards. Today imitations of these vibrant buildings form one of Buenos Aires' most emblematic sights, the Caminito. Two quite different colors have made La Boca famous internationally: the blue and gold of the Boca Juniors soccer team, whose massive home stadium is the barrio's unofficial heart. Cafés, pubs, and general stores that once catered to passing sailors are now tourist traps dotting the partially renovated port. Whether your heart races over moves on the soccer field or the tango floor, over a fabulous building or a fabulous bargain, the south has plenty to spark your passions.


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