Uruguay's only real metropolis has its share of glitzy shopping avenues and modern office buildings. But few visitors come here specifically in search of urban pleasures. This city of 1½ million doesn't have the whirlwind vibe of Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, but it's a fine old city with sumptuous, if worn, colonial architecture, and a massive coastal promenade that—as it passes fine beaches, restaurants, and numerous parks—recalls the sunny sophistications of the Mediterranean. In fact, if you've been to Buenos Aires, Montevideo may strike you as a smaller, more manageable, less expensive incarnation of Argentina's capital. Built along the eastern bank of the Río de la Plata (River of Silver), Montevideo takes full advantage of its location. When the weather's good, La Rambla, a 22-km (14-mi) waterfront avenue that links the Old City with the eastern suburbs and changes names about a dozen times, gets packed with fishermen, ice-cream vendors, and joggers. Around sunset, volleyball and soccer games wind down as couples begin to appear for evening strolls. Polls consistently rate Montevideo as having the highest quality of life of any city in Latin America. After one visit here, especially on a lovely summer evening, you just might agree. Modern Montevideo expanded outward from the peninsular Ciudad Vieja, the Old City, still noted for its narrow streets and mix of elegant colonial and art deco architecture. El Prado, an exclusive enclave a few miles north of the city center, is peppered with lavish mansions and grand parks. When you remember that these mansions were once summer homes for aristocratic Uruguayans who spent most of the year elsewhere, you'll get some idea of the wealth this small country once enjoyed.
Menus don't vary much in Montevideo—meat is always the main dish—so the food may not provide a distraction from the blinding light (even the most fashionable restaurant in Montevideo seems to be brightly illuminated).
Many downtown hotels are grouped around the big three squares, Plaza Independencia, Plaza Fabini, and Plaza Cagancha. In the weeks before and after Carnaval in February, rooms become hard to come by. Otherwise, rooms are plentiful in summer, when beach-bound residents desert the city.
In Montevideo you'll find quiet, late-night bars, hip-hop clubs, and folk-music shows. The entertainment and cultural pages of local papers are the best sources of information; particularly useful is the Guía del Ocio, a magazine inserted into the Friday edition of the daily newspaper El País. With few exceptions, bars and clubs come to life around 1 am and don't close until it's time for breakfast.
Let's face it: Montevideans head to Buenos Aires when they want to go on an extra-special shopping excursion. But quality and selection are decent here, and prices are lower than in Argentina. Stores in Centro, along Avenida 18 de Julio, offer the standard selection of urban merchandise. The truly fun shopping experience is to be found in the city's markets.
Feria Tristán Narvaja
Started in the early 1900s by Italian immigrants, Feria Tristán Narvaja is Montevideo's top attraction on Sunday and one of the city's largest and most popular fairs. (It operates only on Sunday, a day when all other markets, and much of the city, are closed. Hours run about 9–4.) The fair, a 5- to 10-minute walk from the Old City and in the Centro district, is plentifully stocked with secondhand goods and antiques.
Parque Villa Biarritz
The Saturday morning market at Parque Villa Biarritz in the neighborhood of Pocitos, sells crafts, clothes, and some antiques. You can find some vendors set up other days of the week, as well. The small park also has a recreational center, Club Biguá, with tennis courts and other sports facilities
Between Avenida 18 de Julio and Calle Rondeau in Centro, Plaza Cagancha regularly has vendors set up in the area selling trinkets and crafts.
El Mercado de la Abundancia
Dating back to 1836, El Mercado de la Abundancia is a fun indoor market in Centro, a few blocks from the Palacio Municipal. Inside are a tango dance center, a handful of good choices for a lunchtime parrillada, and a crafts fair.
It's officially the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St. Phillip and St. James, but it is known to Montevideans as the Matriz ("head") Church, as well as the Catedral Metropolitana de Montevideo. The cathedral is the oldest public building in Montevideo, with a distinctive pair of dome-cap bell towers that stand guard over the plaza below. Besides its rich marble interior, colorful floor tiling, stained glass, and dome, the Matriz Church is notable as the final resting place of many of Uruguay's most important political and military figures.
The original City Hall is where the Uruguayan constitution was signed in 1830. This two-story colonial edifice houses an impressive collection of paintings, antiques, costumes, and rotating history exhibits. Fountains and statuary line the interior patios. English-speaking guides are available.
Connecting Cuidad Vieja and the Centro, Independence Square is the heart of Montevideo. All that remains of the original walls of the Spanish fort is the Puerta de la Ciudadela, the triumphal gate to the Old City. In the center stands a 30-ton statue of General José Gervasio Artigas, the father of Uruguay and the founder of its 19th-century independence movement. At the base of the monument, polished granite stairs lead to an underground mausoleum that holds Artigas's remains. The mausoleum is a moving memorial: bold graphics chiseled in the walls of this giant space detail the feats of Artigas's life. Two uniformed guards dressed in period uniforms stand at solemn attention beside the urn in this uncanny vault. There's a changing of the guard every Friday at noon.Towering over the north side of the plaza, the 26-story Palacio Salvo was the tallest building in South America when it inaugurated in 1928 (it's still one of the tallest buildings in Uruguay). Today this emblematic art deco edifice is simply an office building. It was here where the palace now stands that Gerardo Matos Rodríguez composed La Cumparsita, a famous tango that transformed into a Uruguayan cultural hymn. You can still hear strains playing around the building twice a day.
This plaza, also known as Plaza Matriz, is the heart of Montevideo's Ciudad Vieja. An ornate cantilever fountain in the center of this tree-filled square was installed in 1871 to commemorate the construction of the city's first water system.
Museo del Gaucho y la Moneda
This museum is in a rococo 19th-century mansion near Calle Julio Herrera y Obes, four blocks east of Plaza Independencia. Here you'll find articles from the everyday life of the gauchos, from traditional garb to the detailed silver work on the cups used for mate (an indigenous herb from which tea is brewed). Ancient South American and European coins are on the first floor. Tours in English are available with a couple days' notice.
Uruguay's most prestigious private social club, founded in 1888, is headquartered in this eclectic, three-story neoclassical national monument on the south side of Plaza Matriz. The club was formed for high society of European descent, but today is open to the public. Friendly, English-speaking guides happily bring visitors up the marble staircases so that they can marvel at the elegant salons. The club also hosts cultural events, including music performances and art shows, throughout the year. Non-members are welcome at the on-site bar and restaurant, but full access to the club's luxe facilities, including a library and billiards room, is reserved for its exclusive members.
Mercado del Puerto
For Montevideo's quintessential lunch experience, head to the old port market, a restored 1868 building of vaulted iron beams and colored glass, and a terrific example of urban renewal at its best. The market shields 14 stalls and eateries where, over large fires, the best asado (barbecue) in the city is cooked. It's a mix of casual lunch-counter places and sit-down restaurants. The traditional drink here is a bottle of medio y medio (champagne mixed with white wine). Many other eateries congregate outside around the perimeter of the building and are open for dinner as well as lunch.
Parque del Prado
The oldest of the city's parks is also one of the most popular. Locals come to see El Rosedal, the rose garden with more than 800 different varieties, and the fine botanical garden. Also in the 262-acre park you'll find the statue called La Diligencia, by sculptor José Belloni.
Museo del Carnaval
Move over, Rio. Montevideo's annual Carnaval celebration may be more low-key than that of its northern neighbor, but it lasts for a full 40 days. This museum next to the Mercado del Puerto celebrates and honors the pre-Lenten festivities year-round with displays featuring the elaborate costumes and photos of processions.