The Neighborhood: Buenos Aires Soul

This piece, written by Michael Luongo, appeared in the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

In the mid-19th century, Buenos Aires’s wealthiest families lived in San Telmo, south of downtown. But an 1870s yellow fever epidemic sent the well-to-do packing, their former digs repopulated by Spanish and Italian immigrants. The resulting cultural stew gave rise to tango and a robust street life.

Today, crumbling mansions lining the cobblestone streets are being renovated to house cutting-edge restaurants and indie shops. “There’s a reevaluation of the historical center of the city,” says Aldo Graziani, owner of Aldo’s Vinoteca. “San Telmo is the summary of who we are in Buenos Aires.” Walking San Telmo reveals how Argentina’s capital looks toward the future while holding on to its past.

Museo de la Ciudad
Nicknamed Buenos Aires’s attic, this kitschy museum displays homey hundred-year-old objects such as porcelain and lace dolls, dishes, and bicycles — many from Italian immigrants. A working vintage pharmacy features a ceiling adorned in art nouveau paintings of sinuous foliage.

Aldo’s Vinoteca
Wine bar and restaurant Aldo’s boasts a 500-bottle wine list, presented on an iPad, which highlights top producers from Argentine wine regions — Mendoza, Neuquén, and Cafayate. Young, casual patrons pair selections with steaks and Mediterranean cuisine.

Boutique Pablo Ramírez
Ramírez’s classic tailored designs for women are high fashion with value. He chose San Telmo for his store location because the area “has a lot of poetry and a soul.” Every clothing design comes in travel-friendly black.

Nora Iniesta
Nora Iniesta incorporates found objects (buttons, toys) and historical Argentine subjects—including iconic images of beloved former first lady Evita Perón—into her paintings, decorative objects, and clothing accessories. Her appointment-only boutique makes a great stop for arty souvenirs.

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolívar
Buenos Aires excels at experimental cuisine, exemplified by this tiny, easily missed bistro. Chef Alejandro Digilio applies molecular cooking principles, using few ingredients but each with strong flavor contrasts. Try the prawns with black garlic and mushrooms.

San Telmo Antiques Fair
This Sunday-only antiques, leather, and crafts fair centers on Plaza Dorrego, where an open-air tango event also takes place. Scour stalls for items such as old political buttons and Argentine comic books.