You won't have to get up at some ungodly hour to enjoy the rough and tumble happening at the San Telmo Markets in Buenos Aires, as no one gets out of bed before about 10am, especially on a Sunday morning. Take your time getting there, but leave plenty of rubber on the soles of your shoes, as the markets seem to go on forever. If you happen to arrive too early, hang out in the Bar el Federal (circa 1863) that opens at 8am dunking your medialuna (croissant) into a cafe con leche (half espresso, half milk with foam) watching the street vendors set up their wares for sale.
The oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, San Telmo is cloaked in colonial buildings, outdoor cafes, antique shops and tango parlours, all spilling out onto the cobblestoned street. The market is the largest one held in the city with about 12,000 visitors every week rubbing shoulders, pushing strollers or shuffling their feet amidst the hordes.
Sundays it's a pedestrian walkway, and the only time the cars may interrupt your dedicated shopping bliss is when you need to cross one of the main thoroughfares where ample police are standing to attention. Strategically placed at the beginning of the gauntlet of artisan and food stalls is a prominent sign warning market goers that it's a haven for pickpockets.
One stall after another line the narrow lane of Calle Defensa in glorious mayhem, while old churches squat on corners juxtaposed with jacaranda trees, street performers, tango dancers and a variety of cafe tables and chairs. Calle Defensa cuts through Plaza Dorrego, where the flea market continues in all its glory of gawking tourists and gossiping locals.
Everything you could possibly want can be found here, whether it's a souvenir to take home, a whim of fancy or edible delights for a picnic. Be careful about impulse buying, as your flight home does not allow for that extra suitcase of goodies without paying excess luggage. Everything from handcrafted leather goods, handmade clothes, gaucho hats, ponchos and scarfs to musical instruments, traditional glass soda siphons and outrageous wooden dragons, along with the conventional mate cups and flasks can be bought as you meander along.
In the antique fair section in Plaza Dorrego, where it all started in 1970, you will find the real deal, as far as antiques are concerned. You will be mindboggled with the array of art, beaded bags, antique clothing, Peron-era memorabilia, military regalia, copper kitchenware, vintage buttons, and the list of paraphernalia is an endless treasure trove for bowerbirds. The further out the stalls are into the maze of spider leg streets, the more junk rather than quality you will find.
By the time you hit the San Telmo Mercado, it will be time for a feed, so head down the stairs and join the throng of hungry locals and curious tourists pigging out on all sorts of Argentinian delights in this huge indoor market that is wall-to-wall restaurants. The beautiful old building opened in 1897 for the wave of immigrants arriving from Europe. A national historic monument, you can still see its metal columns and beams of yesteryear while gorging on an empanada or wading your way through a carnivore lover's fantasy of meat grilled "parrilla" style.
Market Shopping Tips:
- Cash, cash, cash - pesos!
- If you are splurging on something super expensive, see if you can get a deal by paying with US dollars, but know the day's exchange rate before you attempt this.
- It's not the done thing to haggle, but you may be given a discount.
- Have fun and don't spend all of your pesos in the one spot.
- Take the time to appreciate the architecture in the area.
- Stroll down different streets to get a complete overview of San Telmo, with its bohemian vibes and brightly splattered street murals.
- For the artsy crowd, San Telmo is home to numerous art galleries and museums (about 30), as it's known as the "mecca of contemporary art".
Other markets worth exploring:
Feria Artesenal de Plaza Serrano
Where: Palermo Soho
Totally an artisan market of handmade goodies.
Feria de Artesanos de Plaza Francia
Where: Recoleta in front of the cemetery
Another smallish artisan market where you can sprawl on the grass and watch the buskers or the passing parade.