One of the best things to do in Buenos Aires is visit San Telmo, the city’s oldest neighborhood. It’s famous for colonial buildings, street art, cafes, tango parlors, antique shops, the San Telmo Market and the famous Sunday San Telmo Fair (Feria de San Telmo).
The latter, says the concierge at Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires, is a must-do. My stay overlapped a Sunday, so I taxied over to the Fair at its opening time of 10:00 a.m.
What Is the San Telmo Fair?
The San Telmo Fair started in 1970 as a small, Sunday antiques market. Today, it is an enormous bazaar covering blocks and blocks of cobblestone streets seemingly in every direction off of Calle Defensa. Many storefronts close because the vendors take to the streets instead.
Curio enthusiasts can easily spend an entire day here browsing through trinkets, antiques and souvenirs while stopping for a coffee or Malbec in between. About 12,000 people attend each week.
Getting to San Telmo Fair
Most people seem to start at Plaza de Mayo and walk downhill (it’s not a steep hill) on Calle Defensa to Plaza Dorrego. The latter is considered the true market. Plaza Dorrego is where the San Telmo Fair originally began as indicated by the yellow signage.
Due to a marathon happening in the city, I was dropped off closer to Plaza Dorrego which was totally fine.
The San Telmo Market
The San Telmo Fair is not to be confused with the San Telmo Market, which is open daily.
The San Telmo Market is housed in a gorgeous building (built by the same architect who designed the Recoleta cemetery) and opened in 1897 as a marketplaces to cater to the needs of immigrants from Europe. The building occupies a city block and is a national historic monument as of the year 2000. Inside, various stalls sell produce, meat and antiques. On Sundays, many of these vendors close their stalls inside the market to sell on the street at the San Telmo Fair.
What to Buy at the San Telmo Fair
The question is more like what can’t you buy at the San Telmo Fair. The first thing I saw were a variety of old books.
It’s a good place to buy old seltzer siphon bottles. You’ll see these in various places around town because carbonated water is a popular drink in Argentina (and mixed with wine, aperitifs and more). These glass seltzer siphon bottles used to be delivered to doorsteps, sort of like the Argentinian version of the milkman. The siphons keep the water pressurized, functioning like a more-primitive SodaStream.
Bottles sold in the market are primarily for decor so often do not actually work.
Of course, the market is an excellent place to shop for leather goods, knitwear and ponchos.
Mate tea is a traditional Argentinian drink (and popular in other South American countries). It originated in Northern Argentina by the Guarani indigenous culture and is served in a hollowed-out gourd with a metal straw. The straw has holes in it that filter bitter tea leaves to prevent them from getting into the mouth. It’s a strong, caffeinated tea thought to give you loads of energy and the gourds make a cool souvenir. At the San Telmo Fair, they’ll even carve your name into the gourd.
I enjoyed flipping through this stash of vintage postage stamps (note the old polaroid in the background).
Some vendors get a bit of a later start. Many were still setting up around 10:30 – 11:00 a.m.
And, of course, there are plenty of snacks for sale.
Near Plaza Dorrego, a duo played tango music. Later in the day, you may be able to watch live tango dancing, too.
Tips for Visiting the San Telmo Fair
It’s a crowded market so you must be aware of pickpockets.
Many of the vendors only take cash but some can accept payments via credit card.
Wear shoes with good support as the cobblestone streets can be rough on thin soles and your feet.
If you are at all interested in street photography, the graffiti, color, buildings, art and people make this a perfect place for it.
Even if your Buenos Aires vacation does not overlap a Sunday, you must visit the San Telmo neighborhood.
Have you been to the San Telmo Fair?