South of the centre
The city's most atmospheric barriois also its oldest. San Telmo starts south of the Plaza de Mayo, and is built along a slope which was once the old beach of the Río de la Plata. Formerly one of the wealthiest areas of the city, it was abandoned by the rich during a serious outbreak of yellow fever in 1871, and so was never modernized or destroyed for rebuilding like much of the rest of the city. San Telmo is one of the few areas where buildings have survived from the mid-19th century, crumbling and largely unchanged, so it's a delightful place to stroll and explore the artists' studios and small museums hidden away in its narrow streets, with plenty of cafés and shops selling antiques, records, handmade shoes, second-hand books and crafts of all kinds. In the last couple of years, new boutiques, design shops and chic bars have been opening up in newly renovated old houses in San Telmo and moving out towards Montserrat too, similar to those in Palermo Viejo.
A quiet place to meander during the week, the barriocomes alive on Sundays when there's an antiques and bric-a-brac market held in the central Plaza Dorrego, a small square enclosed by charming old houses. This is a good place to start exploring, after enjoying the free tango demonstrations which take place near the plaza on Sundays. Behind the plaza, on Carlos Calvo there's a wonderful indoor fruit market - Mercado de San Telmobuilt in 1897. Walk south along Defensa, filled with street musicians on Sundays, many of them excellent, and pop into the artists' studios, antique shops and cafés which line the street. Just a block from the plaza is the white stuccoed church of San Pedro González Telmo. Begun by the Jesuits in 1734, but only finished in 1931, it's a wonderful confection of styles with ornate baroque columns and Spanish-style tiles. One block further south, in an old tobacco warehouse, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires www.museos.buenosaires.gov.ar/mam.htm, houses good visiting exhibitions of contemporary international and Argentine art. There is also a small fine art bookshop.
At the end of Defensa, is Parque Lezama originally one of the most beautiful parks in the city, but now a little run down, and not a safe place to wander at night. According to tradition, Pedro de Mendoza founded the city on this spot in 1535, and there's an imposing statue to him in the centre of the park. Also on this corner you'll find the famous Bar Británico which has been open almost continuously since 1960. It has featured in films and was an institution in the suburb, but has been refurbished by new owners. It it still open 24 hours and is a good place to have a coffee and watch the world go by. On the west side of the park is the Museo Histórico Nacional which presents the history of the city and of Argentina through the key historical figures and events, with some impressive artefacts, portraits and war paintings, particularly of San Martín. Sadly, there's currently little information available in English.
There is an ever-growing number of restaurants along Defensa, many of them cheap and lively places to eat, and several venues offering tango shows. The best is the historical El Viejo Almacén iIndependencia and Balcarce www.viejoalmacen.com, started by celebrated tango singer Edmundo Rivero in the late 1960s. Here the city's finest tango dancers demonstrate their extraordinary skills in a small, atmospheric theatre, with excellent live music and singing from some the great names of tango. Highly recommended. There are plenty of good restaurants sprinkled through San Telmo, and lots of hostels are here too.
East of the Plaza de Mayo, behind the Casa Rosada, a broad avenue, Paseo Colón, runs south towards the old port district of La Boca, where the putrid Riachuelo river flows into the Plata. An area of heavy Italian immigration in the early 1900s, La Boca was known for the brightly-painted blue, yellow and lime green zinc façades of its houses, a tradition brought over by Genoese immigrants who painted their homes with the left over paint from ships. It's a much-touted tourist destination, but very disappointing in reality. There is nothing authentic left of the area, and just one block of brightly painted houses to see on pedestrianized El Caminito, put there, somewhat cynically, by the Buenos Aires tourist board. El Caminito leads west from the little triangular plaza La Vuelta de Rocha, and this street is in fact the only place you're allowed to visit in La Boca, since policemen are permanently stationed there to stop tourists from straying further. This is because the area is apparently rife with petty crime and tourist muggings are a common occurrence. There's a small arcade of artists' workshops and a couple of cafés in the Centro Cultural de los Artistas, with tango dancers, street entertainers and touristy souvenir shops. You might be tempted to stray from this touristy area and find the 'real' La Boca: don't. The surrounding streets are notorious for violent crime, you will almost certainly be a very obvious target, and in any case, the Riachuelo river is far from picturesque, with its distinctive rotting smell.
The real attractions here are two fine museums: La Boca really owes its fame to the artist Benito Quinquela Martín (1890-1977) who painted its ships, docks and workers all his life, and whose vivid and colourful paintings can be seen in the Museo de Bellas Artes Benito Quinquela iPedro de Mendoza 1835. The artist lived here for many years, and you can also see his own extensive collection of paintings by Argentine artists, and sculpture on a roof terrace with wonderful views over the whole port, revealing the marginalized poverty behind the coloured zinc façades. There's more contemporary art a block away in the Fundacíon Proa iAv Pedro de Mendoza 1929 www.proa.org, a modern space behind the ornate Italianate façade of a 1908 warehouse, showing temporary exhibitions of Argentine, Latin American and international contemporary art. The roof terrace here is also great, and a nightclub venue for electronica music at times.
La Boca is home to one of the country's great football teams, Boca Juniors, and the area is especially rowdy when they're playing at home: do not attend a match alone. Football is one of the great Argentine experiences, and the easiest way to go to a match is as part of a group arranged with a company such as Tangol.