Compact and historic, Montevideo is frequently overlooked by travellers in favour of Buenos Aires across the river. Talk about Argentina, and everyone knows what you’re talking about. But mention diminutive Uruguay, and folks aren’t so sure. But for every great steak and Tango Buenos Aires has, Montevideo’s got one, too, plus its own twists. With a population of 1.5 million people, it’s easier to feel like Montevideo is yours, if only on loan.
Montevideo is not a tiny Buenos Aires. It’s a city with colonial charm, one of the world’s longest river walks, loads of park space, a bustling market, a vast flea market for antique lovers and a slow pace of life that might just make you ask yourself, “Could I live here?” And you wouldn’t be the only one. A recent Mercer Resource Institute study found that Montevideo was the highest quality of life among Latin American cities. By North American and European standards, it’s also quite affordable.
Suppose you just want to take a quick spin around the city to orient yourself and see some highlights, like Independence Plaza and Parliament Plaza. In that case, a Montevideo city tour is a great start. Afterwards, get out and explore on your own to take a better look at buildings, parks and neighbourhoods you passed by on tour.
Unlike in most other Latin American cities, the centre of Montevideo socialising is not limited to one of its many plazas. In Montevideo, it’s the 17-mile long Rambla. This riverwalk hugs the shore of the broad La Plata River that brings people together. On the Rambla, from dawn to dusk, you’ll find walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders and in-line skaters sharing space with families, fishermen, and couples sitting together, enjoying the fresh breeze off the river. Many people will be sharing a mate, the communally drunk herbal tea sipped through a straw out of a gourd. This is a constant in much of Uruguay. You will often see people carrying their mate kit in a leather case that houses the cup, the herb and the thermos full of water used to continually refresh the tea.
Downtown Montevideo is dotted with old buildings, such as the oldest theatre in South America, the Teatro Solís. But most of the most eyecatching of these historical buildings has to be the Palacio Salvo. It’s 26 stories/95 meters tall and is mixed-use, apartments and offices. It has a highly elaborate, multiple cupola design that defies it being called a specific architectural style. Instead, most people refer to it as “eclectic.”
Independence Plaza, opposite Palacio Salvo, is the home to a giant equestrian statue of General Artigas, considered the father of Uruguayan independence. Behind the statue is the entrance to a vast mausoleum lit from below and houses Artigas’ ashes. There is a 24-hour guard in place. The only remaining gate of the former citadel (the old walled city) is also located in this Plaza.
Montevideo was founded in 1724, and the Ciudad Vieja (Old City), located on a peninsula that juts out of the city, has some of the oldest architecture. Most of the tourism in Montevideo takes place around the Ciudad Vieja. You can spend a whole day in this area if you like art galleries, cafés, photographing old buildings, and antique stores bookshops. Some people liken the Ciudad Vieja to Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan or other old colonial cities in the Americas.
But if you’re short of time and need to make a surgical strike, you’ll probably head straight to the Mercado del Puerto around lunchtime. You can’t miss the market full of the smell of grilling meat. Unfortunately, portions are punishingly large, and you might want to plan accordingly or just resign yourself to eating only half of your meal. If you eat fish, you’ll find a tomatoey-oniony stew with fresh fish on offer, too, under the name cazuela.
Food and Entertainment
Much of the nightlife in Montevideo has moved towards the Ciudad Vieja in recent years. Taking a taxi in and out is recommended. There are tango performances and milongas (small gatherings of people who dance the tango, not professionally, just because they enjoy it).
Restaurants continue to serve traditional Uruguayan food in the evening. You shouldn’t leave Uruguay without trying the national sandwich, the chivito. It’s a somewhat messy and filling sandwich, with layers of meat, cheese, olives, and sometimes a fried egg often served with french fries at informal eateries. But suppose it’s the 29th of the month. In that case, you’ll have to trade out the chivito because Uruguayan tradition dictates that you eat gnocchi for good luck. Of course, it helps if you put a coin or bill under your plate to attract (depending on who you ask) luck or money.
Whatever you eat, be sure to try Tannat, the signature wine of Uruguay, which is robust like an Italian red table wine, but with more than a hint of astringency.
There are more museums and galleries in Montevideo than you will have time for unless you spend a couple of weeks or more. One of my favourites is The Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda (cowboy and coin museum), which showcases Montevideo’s old-west feeling gaucho days, with saddles, spurs and stirrups from antaño (yesteryear). But the runaway winner is a display of embellished, emblazoned and intricately decorated silver mates (the cup from which the bitter herbal drink is sipped) that might even make you consider giving a mate a try, if just for the showmanship of it. You can’t buy the museum pieces, of course, but in many nearby shops, you’ll mates covered in silver, leather or silicone, and even some made of guampa (bull’s horn). Some come with the bombilla (the sieve straw used to sip it) included, or you can mix and match.
Diehard fútbol (soccer) fans might take a trip out to the Estadio Centenario in the Parque Batlle neighbourhood. The Uruguayan national team is well regarded and has beaten top-ranked Brazil several times in this stadium. It was originally built to host the 1930 FIFA World Cup. There is a museum onsite with jerseys, memorabilia, trophies and historical photographs of important matches.
If you’re a dedicated museum-goer, you might want to buy the Pase Museo, which gives you the right to enter four different museums for 200 Uruguayan pesos (about ten dollars) Precolumbian and Indigenous museum, and the Museo del Carnaval.
The Feria Tristán Narvaja is of Latin America’s great flea markets. It takes place in Montevideo on Sundays in the neighbourhood of Cordón. The market is a large open-air affair with everything from lamps to minerals to old cameras and furniture, to women selling tortas fritas (similar to the sweet fried dough) and men selling garrapiñada (candied peanuts) that they make fresh on the spot. There’s a tremendous old-and-new contrast here, with women in sundresses and young men in sports jerseys taking the time to talk to older people wearing dress pants and shirts tucked in. Even if you don’t plan on buying anything, a walk through Tristán Narvaja is well worth the time.
Uruguayan Carnaval, which bears little relationship to Brazil’s more famous Carnaval celebrations, officially starts with the “llamadas” parade in the south of downtown Montevideo a few days before Carnaval, usually in February. The llamadas is the first large parade, with marching bands and dancing. After that, the entire week of Carnaval is marked by celebrations, performances and tablados (living dioramas) in the street, and many businesses will be closed the whole week. The nighttime celebrations of murgas are a big draw for tourists and locals (though truthfully, more locals). These are folk performances, which are primarily acoustic and often quite political and eye-catching. As early as December, you might be lucky to catch some Carnaval preparations, even if you’re not going to be there for the whole event. Or, if the timing doesn’t work out for you to be in Montevideo for carnival, try the Museo del Carnaval any time of year.