Making the most of Montevideo

By | Category: Travel destinations


The very first time I set foot on Uruguayan soil was back in 1991. I have returned twice, each time with over a decade passing between visits. My impressions back in the early 90s were almost entirely favourable, while in 2003, the years had evidently not been kind. Returning earlier this year, however, I was in for a pleasant surprise. Uruguay is in the process of reinventing itself, while also grabbing the attention of international media. Tourism is on the increase and that quirky president of theirs, Mujica, nicknamed “the poorest president in the world”, is quite possibly creating more international interest in Uruguay than ever before.

It’s hard to believe well over half the country’s population lives in and around Montevideo – the Uruguayan capital just doesn’t come across as that big and, in reality, it isn’t. The country’s total population is no more than 3,5 million and less than 2 million live in the metropolitan area of Montevideo itself. Founded in 1724 by the Spanish, Montevideo is one of few cities in the region to have been under British rule and there is plenty of interesting history to be discovered here, if you’re a history buff (see someone else’s written works).

Mercado del Puerto Montevideo

Mercado del Puerto Montevideo

In order to reacquaint myself with the city, I found a pleasant hovel not far from the Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo’s slightly ramshackle, but not unsightly, Old Town. To make the most of Montevideo, strolling is a definite must – especially since the main drag, Avenida 18 de Julio, turns into pedestrianised Calle Sarandí, after Plaza de la Independencia, all the way to the harbour. Leaving my humble abode, I followed 18 de Julio, a bustling avenue home to a wide variety of shops, catering to local Montevideans. No tourist tat here, just every day shops, cafés, bakeries and excellent ice cream parlours.

Architecture throughout the city is pleasantly random with styles, eras, materials and colour-schemes mixing, blending and clashing quite cheerfully, often in the very same street. The centre of town has a number of noteworthy buildings, statues, plazas and other sights worth a stop and 18 de Julio passes right by many of them. The Museum of Contemporary Art, the Gaucho Museum, and Government House, are just some of the places deserving a peek, before reaching main square, Plaza de la Independencia, where hero of the independence struggle, José Gervasio Artigas, overlooks the daily comings and goings from this horse-bound vantage point. 

Cross Plaza de la Independencia and you’re officially in the old town, walled until 1829, although next to nothing remains of the old fortifications. Despite gentle sprucing up and attempts at gentrification in recent years, the old town, home to the country’s biggest port, retains a slight rough-around-the-edges vibe and care should be taken if venturing out at night. Daytime, however, I found it to be one of Montevideo’s most charming and buzzing areas. Calle Sarandí, closed to traffic since 1992, is something of an impromptu street market any day of the week, particularly if there are cruise ships in town (on such days the old town can get a little too packed at times). This is the place to check out leather goods, textiles, jewellery, art and much more – haggling is always appreciated – and the street vendors hail from a variety of South American nations, not just Uruguay.

some of the many colourful buildings in the old town

some of the many colourful buildings in the old town

Continuing towards the port I ambled across another two leafy squares – Plaza de la Constitución and Plaza Zabala – taking a look at the imposing Cathedral, before following my nose towards Mercado del Puerto. Following the smells of a port market might seem a tad too brave, or even foolish, but this is no run-of-the-mill fish market. Mercado del Puerto happens to have some of the finest food in Uruguay and, not so much a market anymore – although it is using an old market building – it’s instead home to a wide variety of excellent eateries. This wonderful in- and outdoor space is popular with locals and visitors alike, and, although rustic-looking, it is anything but. Food here can cost a cheek and a rib, there’s full table service and very pretty the tables are too. Mercado del Puerto is best enjoyed at lunchtime on a weekend – this was a Sunday and it was heaving, but well worth the squeeze. Choices included traditional Uruguayan fare (think meat and lots of it), Italian, Spanish, seafood and much more. I was in Sunday lunch heaven.

The delicious lunch meant I was sadly unable to move very far that afternoon, having stuffed my face on seafood and enjoyed the white wine version of sangria, known as clericó (and what a cleric has to do with white wine, I will never fully grasp). Determined to make amends for wussing out so early, I headed off to explore more of Montevideo the following day. Much of the city follows the River Plate and consequently there are numerous beaches within the city limits, some of which are surprisingly pristine-looking. Playa Ramírez, complete with funfair and candy-floss sellers, is the most central (and therefore not quite so pristine). Nearby Rodó Park is another pleasant stop, with an outdoor theatre and a small artificial lake for boating.

Although Montevideo is a very walkable city, it does extend some 23 km, so buses occasionally come in handy. Several of them take the coastal route from central 18 de Julio, passing one of the prettiest, white-sand beaches, Playa Pocitos, on their way east. The barrios of Pocitos and, exceedingly trendy and also pricey, Punta Carretas, have good shopping, posh restaurants and cool bars, but if you want to go really upmarket, another good option, slightly further out of town, is Carrasco. A comparatively quiet neighbourhood with an extensive beach, Carrasco is enjoying increased fabulousness, with the completion of the 3-year restoration project of their grand casino. Carrasco Casino is now a Sofitel property as well as a casino and the restaurant and bar are open to the public, if you’re feeling flush and want to check out the inside of this very grand, 100-year+ building.

Carrasco casino

Carrasco casino

If, on the other hand, your cash doesn’t grow on trees, there is always my old favourite five minutes up the road – La Pasiva. This Uruguayan chain first opened its doors in 1986 and it’s wonderfully unpretentious (read: cheap and cheerful), friendly and easy-going. Uruguay, a completely football-crazed nation, were playing Austria on the big screen, in the run-up to the World Cup, as I settled in for my first of several panchito hot dogs wrapped in bacon, all washed down with a local red. Sure, I love a bit of posh, but you can’t beat tasty hot dogs and cheap plonk, while watching footie with the locals.

Getting there and around:

There are currently no direct flights from the UK to Uruguay, but good connections via South American, European or U.S. hubs.

All main cities and towns are served by a variety of bus companies originating from the Tres Cruces Terminal in Montevideo. Most buses are of a high standard and very comfortable, with toilet onboard and some even have Wi-Fi. However, more remote locations, smaller towns and villages are served less frequently, particularly off season. The website is only in Spanish.

For more information about Montevideo, click here.

For more information about Uruguay, click here.

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