Residents of Montevideo travel to nearby Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo when they crave big-city excitement, which may suggest that there’s not much going on in the Uruguayan capital of 1.4 million. But don’t dismiss it yet! Montevideo, at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata, is an intriguing mix of old and new.
The 18th-century buildings in Montevideo’s historical Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) are just steps away from Plaza Independencia, the bustling, modern main square — and even that was once a citadel. (One gate’s stone base has been left standing to mark the division between the old and new parts of the city.) Montevideo was founded in the 18th century by the Spanish, and over the years its citizens fought against the British, Spanish and Portuguese for independence, as well as neighboring Argentineans and Brazilians. Today, politically and economically stable, the city serves as Uruguay’s major commercial center, though colonial customs — long siestas, afternoon tea — still exist.
Montevideo is the perfect “kick back and relax” respite from glitzier cities in South America. It may be sleepier and less cosmopolitan than metropolises in Argentina and Brazil, but Montevideo offers a broad range of possibilities for the visitor: monuments, restaurants, gorgeous urban plazas, beaches and a burgeoning arts and culture movement.
The main square in the new part of the city, Plaza Independencia, is anchored by a monument of national hero Jose Gervasio Artigas. (His ashes are contained in a mausoleum under the equestrian statue.) Artigas led the battle for independence against Spain and was the first statesman of the Rio de la Plata Revolution. Look for the Citadel Gate, which was part of an elaborate defense system in old Montevideo; this reproduction was built in 1959, on top of the original gate’s stone base. Palacio Salvo, once the tallest building in South America, overlooks the square.
From Plaza Indepencia, you can access Avenida 18 de Julio, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, lined with stores and cafes. Along this street you’ll find Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda, which features exhibits of gaucho (cowboy) clothing and artifacts, as well as a collection of currency used throughout the country’s history.
In the Ciudad Vieja area, the main square is Plaza Constitucion, home to a weekly (Saturday) flea market — though enterprising locals will set it up on an off-day if a big cruise ship in town. Visit El Cabildo, the old town hall that also once served as the city’s jailhouse. It’s on the corner of the Plaza Constitucion and Sarandi Street, a pedestrian street with outdoor sculptures. It’s now a museum housing the city’s historic archives, as well as maps, photos, antiques, costumes and artwork.
Montevideo’s Palacio Legislativo, the country’s Parliament building, was constructed between 1908 and 1925 in colorful marble and ornate woodwork. It’s open for guided tours on weekdays.
The Torres Garcia Museum has seven floors devoted to the works of Joaquin Torres Garcia (1874 – 1949), perhaps Uruguay’s most famous artist and the founder of Constructive Universalism. Torres Garcia is known for his Cubist paintings and iconic portraits of historical figures. He encouraged other Latin American artists not to renounce their heritage.
If golf is your passion, hit the links right in Montevideo at the Club de Golf de Uruguay, also known as the Punta Carretas Golf Club after the fashionable neighborhood where it is located. The par-73, 18-hole course has great views of the Rio de la Plata. On Mondays, non-members can use the greens free of charge.
On the southern tip of Uruguay lies Punta del Este, a seaside resort for upscale vacationers from the country, the continent and across the globe. (Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio are among them.) Consider it the Saint-Tropez of the Southern Hemisphere. There are white sand beaches for swimming and water sports, hotels and restaurants, plus outdoor activities that include golfing, biking and horseback-riding. It’s about a two-hour drive from Montevideo.
Uruguay has a growing and celebrated wine industry. One of the country’s best (and most beautiful) vineyards is Establiciemento Juanico, about 45 minutes from Montevideo. Here you can take a cellar tour and do some extensive wine tasting (including delicious empanadas and local cheeses and meats). The buildings date back to the 1940s. Both French and Uruguayan “traditions” are employed for producing wines, which include cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and viognier.
To experience life on a farm, visit La Rabida Estancia, a 100-year-old estate on the Rio de la Plata. The owners greet guests on horseback and show them traditional Uruguayan farm life. Gauchos prepare and serve a meal of local specialties, including beef from the estate’s cattle. Young locals in black gaucho uniforms and red flowing dresses perform folk dances and songs, and guests are given the chance to try their hand at daily farm chores, such as milking cows and shearing sheep.
In Montevideo, you’ll find excellent seafood and steaks rivaling Argentina’s. The signature local sandwich, the high-calorie chivito, is (depending where you order it) a steak sandwich topped with a fried egg and cheese, and any combination of bacon, ham, mayo, olives, lettuce and tomatoes. You might say it is Montevideo’s version of the Philly cheese steak; there’s just as much back and forth throughout the city on proper preparation and where to get the best of the best.
For a Traditional Experience: Try a confiteria, where you can get everything from sandwiches and salads to incredibly decadent pastries and even wine, beer and liquor. These are scattered all over the city; we enjoyed La Catedral de los Sandwiches Confiteria at Sarandi 502.
For a Chic Experience: Try La Corte at Sarandi 586, which has a fabulous atmosphere and specializes in regional cuisine with a nouvelle touch.
For a Contemporary Experience: Estrecho, at Sarandi 460, is a contemporary take on the concept of a luncheonette. All seats are at the counter of this narrow establishment with sleek decor, and quiet jazz plays on the sound system. The local food, using fresh, seasonal ingredients, is delicious and simple; try the sarandi ensalada or spinach salad with bacon and the chicken curry baguette. They also feature Uruguayan wines.
For Meat Lovers: If you want to try some of the city’s best barbecue, head to La Pulperia at Lagunillas 448, a traditional parrilla, or steakhouse. It fills up fast with locals and visitors eager to try its affordable, delicious beef dishes.
Shopping in Montevideo
Montevideo is a mecca for leather lovers; you’ll find great values on excellent quality jackets, skirts, pants, coats, wallets and belts in calf, antelope, suede and sheepskin.
Interested in artisan crafts? Check out Mercado de los Artesanos (San Jose 1312). On the ground floor of this 1909-built building is a fairly sizeable boutique of handmade items, from framed drawings to gorgeous wooden trinket boxes. You can even buy handmade leather footwear. Upstairs is a fabulous market, consisting of a series of restaurants that serve local specialties.
Just across the street from the cruise port is the Mercado del Puerto, a beautiful iron and glass port building from 1868 that has been restored with numerous restaurants and food stalls as well as several stores selling local handicrafts. This is a terrific place to taste Uruguay’s delicious grilled meats. On afternoons and weekends, there are also outdoor tables with more local arts and crafts.
Tristan Narvaja is the spot to find antique shops selling textiles, furniture, knickknacks and jewelry. This is also the site of a Sunday morning flea market called La Feria de Tristan Narvaja, where you can browse used books, music, ceramics and more. (Be prepared to haggle.)
Punta Carretas Shopping Center is the city’s most upscale mall, located in a historical building that was once a prison.
–written by Kathy McCabe