Montevideo is well worth the 45 minute flight from its glitzy neighbour across the River Plate.
Montevideo might be less well-known than Buenos Aires, but there’s a lot to love about this charming, quirky, laid-back, free-thinking and surprising place.
One of the first things I noticed about Uruguay’s capital on arrival was the number of vintage cars being driven around, mostly European models from the 1960s and 1970s but also some American classics. This was just one of the city’s charms – others include its delightful seafront, atmospheric old town, interesting museums and refreshing parks and gardens.
Montevideo has been rated top city in Latin America every year since 2005 by the prestigious Mercer Quality of Living survey. It’s not hard to see why. Here are my top 10 reasons to visit.
1. fabulous views
I always say that the best place to start exploring a new city, if possible, is from a great height. A couple of options for Montevideo are the Fortaleza del Cerro, which overlooks the bay from the city’s highest hill, and the Mirador de la Intendencia which gives a 360 degree panorama from the 22nd floor of the city hall.
The Fortaleza, completed in 1839, was the last Spanish fort built in Uruguay. It appears on the coat of arms of Montevideo.
2. warm and welcoming LOCALS
Montevideo is sometimes referred to as the Brussels of South America, as it hosts the headquarters of international organizations Mercosur and ALADI. The locals, who are all descended from immigrants – particularly Spanish and Italian – are used to welcoming travellers and are by nature warm, open-minded and friendly.
I was reliably informed that even the President emerges from his office in the Executive Tower a couple of times a week to welcome tourists outside and have selfies taken with them. Though I’m sure that the pandemic has since restricted his ability to do this.
Uruguayans are liberal thinkers compared with their neighbours in other parts of the continent. Gay marriage is legal, as is marijuana. The country was the first in the world to regulate the production, sale and consumption of the drug. There’s a strong sense of community among the population, with voluntary collaborative labour a common feature of everyday society. It’s very positive and refreshing to encounter such open-mindedness.
3. awesome PERIOD architecture
Like many South American cities, Montevideo has long since lost most of its colonial era buildings. But there are plenty of impressive civic, religious, commercial and residential buildings and monuments from later periods.
A good place to start exploring the city is Plaza Independencia, a large central square which is home to the presidential offices and other important buildings. It’s a little like the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires or Parliament Square in London. One of the first stand-out sights is the Artigas Mausoleum. This huge monument is dedicated to General José Artigas, who is considered to be the hero of Uruguayan independence.
Other noteworthy buildings include the Palacio Salvo, once the tallest building in South America. The 100 metre-high tower was opened in 1927 and is a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Art Deco styles. Built as a hotel, it is now houses residential apartments. Meanwhile the Palacio Estevez was the seat of government until 1985 and is now a presidential museum. It’s free to enter and is well worth a visit to see its eclectic and quirky exhibits.
Head through the Puerto de la Ciudadela – all that remains of the old city wall – and you’ll find yourself in the delightful Ciudad Vieja, or old town. This is a charming old neighbourhood of cobbled streets and wrought iron balconies draped in bougainvillea. Jacaranda trees add a splash of colour in early summer.
It’s here that you can find my favourite building – the enchanting bookstore Más Puro Verso. As well as being home to a wonderful collection of books, this gorgeous Art Deco treasure houses Montevideo’s first-ever elevator. The second floor coffee shop is a great stop.
Inaugurated in 1856, the magnificent Teatro Solis has been completely renovated and is renowned for its fantastic acoustics. It’s worth a visit just to appreciate its architecture, but even better if you can book a show there.
4. the Cathedral
Although, like many Uruguayans these days, I consider myself an agnostic, I couldn’t resist attending a mass at the cathedral. Old habits die hard! When I’m in a place that feels so different and far from home, there’s something about the familiar rituals – even in another language – that are reassuring. It’s a bit like visiting your parental home, where a welcome is always guaranteed.
The cathedral dates from the late 18th century but there has been a church on the site since 1740. Built in neo-classical style, the interior is particularly beautiful, with marble walls and a high dome above the altar decorated with stained glass.
You can be spiritually uplifted here whether you’re religious or not. The cathedral is an oasis of calm, peace and quiet away from the bustling city outside.
5. THE WATERFRONT
One of Montevideo’s gems, the 22 k coastal route known as the Rambla is much loved by walkers, joggers and cyclists. The Rambla also gives you a great view of the city and is the perfect place to hang out with the locals on a sunny day. Inevitably it gets very busy so it’s not the place to go for peace and quiet.
The Rambla leads you to the large Montevideo sign, which is pictured on selfies all over the world. And to a couple of lovely beaches – the Playa Ramirez and the Playa de Los Pocitos. Here you’ll often see the locals playing volleyball or drinking maté (more of that later). A great time to head down there is at nightfall, as the sunsets can be spectacular.
6. dance (like everyone’s watching)
Uruguay has a rich artistic and literary tradition, and there’s plenty to do for those who enjoy these pursuits.
My favourite dance is the tango. My husband and I have taken classes in the past. We love the sensual, passionate character of the dance and its evocative music. Although it’s mostly associated with Argentina, Uruguayans are just as proud of their tango, and some say that it’s even more impressive.
The best way to find out is to attend a tango show. If you go to one of the many Milongas in the city, you can even have a lesson and give it a go yourself.
Another traditional Uruguayan dance is Candombe, which combines African and European musical traditions. It’s so important to Uruguayans that it has its own National Day, intended to celebrate racial equality. There are many free shows around town on Sundays.
7. museums and galleries
For history buffs, there’s no shortage of excellent museums and galleries to visit. What’s more, many of them are completely free to enter. Here are my top suggestions.
Museo Historico Nacional
It’s only fair to start with the impressive National History Museum, which is spread over several buildings in the old town including some historical ‘casas’. You can follow the country’s history from its founding, through the colonial period to independence. There are interesting collections of artefacts, objects, furnishings, paintings and documents.
Museo de Historia del Arte
The National History of Art Museum has an interesting collection of archaeological artefacts and decorative pieces. Most noteworthy is a mummy of the Egyptian priestess Esoeris. There are 3 floors of permanent exhibits and one floor of rotating exhibitions.
Located in a gorgeous mansion in the Prado district, this lovely museum is dedicated to Juan Manuel Blanes, Uruguay’s most famous painter. It’s a great place to spend an hour or two, not only to see the beautiful paintings but to spend time in the pretty Jardín Japones which is right next to it.
Museo del Carnaval
If you don’t happen to be visiting during Carnival time (between January and March) you can still experience the spirit of the occasion by visiting this amazing museum. It contains photographs, costumes and masks going back more than 100 years.
Museo Andes 1972
If you’ve seen the film Alive starring Ethan Hawke (1993), you’ll know the incredible story of the 16 passengers who survived for 72 days after their plane crashed in the Andes in 1972 – and lived to tell the tale after finally being rescued.
The ill-fated flight had left from Montevideo carrying 45 passengers and crew. How the survivors managed to beat the odds in freezing wild weather conditions at high altitude is a miraculous and humbling story. This museum tells that story.
Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indígena
This interesting and important museum tells the history of Uruguay’s indigenous population, which no longer exists, and other similar groups of the Americas.
8. enticing MARKETS
Mercado del Puerto
Right by the harbour in the old town, the port market is one of Montevideo’s best known and loved attractions. The building itself is reminiscent of a British railway station, so it’s no surprise to hear that the structure was built at the Union Foundry in Liverpool. The market was opened in 1868 for the trading of meat, fruit and vegetables and various imports from Europe.
Today, following a sympathetic restoration, the market is mostly occupied by steak houses offering parrilla – barbecued meat dishes. It’s a favourite lunch stop for locals and tourists alike, so can get very crowded. I enjoyed a fabulous lunch here with a couple of work colleagues.
Outside, you can find stalls selling souvenirs, leather goods and antiques. Candombe groups often perform in the area too.
Mercado de los Artesanos
This small market has been going since 1982 and is the brainchild of a dedicated group of artists – the Asociación Uruguaya de Artesanos. This is the place to find wonderful traditional handicrafts to take home. The market is located at Plaza Cagancha 1365.
Feria de Tristan Narvaja
This is held on Sundays and is Uruguay’s second largest open air market. You can find bric-a-brac, second-hand clothes and books, antiques, fruit and vegetables. Plus hand-crafted jewellery and souvenirs.
Mercado Agricola de Montevideo (MAM)
This market is gastronomic foodie heaven, housed in a beautiful traditional building. There are over 100 specialist stores selling meats, fruit, vegetables, seafood, cheese, flowers and plants. You can also enjoy cooking demonstrations, shows and other events. There’s also a food court and supermarket – and, for this soccer-obsessed nation, there’s even a huge screen so that you don’t have to miss a single kick of the football match.
9. tempting food and drink
If the markets haven’t tempted you enough to try Uruguay’s cuisine, the cafes and restaurants surely will. Although Montevideo has plenty of international food offerings, it’s always fun to go local.
The nation’s favourite dish is chivito. You can take it al plato – on a plate – or a la canadiense – in a sandwich. It consists of beef steak, mozzarella, egg, olives, mayonnaise, ham, tomatoes, and bacon. You can try it at the Port Market. Like Argentines, Uruguayans love their steak – and I can testify that it’s very, very good in both countries.
Another trait shared with Argentina is the love of the caffeinated drink maté. Drinking it is a social ritual and almost a way of life in itself. Friends get together in groups to maté and it’s not uncommon to see people walking in the street carrying their flasks. Maté is made with hot water which must be at 84 degrees celsius and the powdered yerba which is made from the leaves of an evergreen tree. The drink is sipped through a metal straw known as a bombilla.
Uruguay is South America’s fourth-largest producer of wine, thanks to the enterprise of Basque and Italian immigrants who introduced the industry to the country in the 19th century. Some very drinkable reds are produced in regions north of Montevideo, mainly from Tannat and Albariño grapes.
Along with the Más Puro Verso bookshop cafe already mentioned, a couple of other favourites worthy of mention are the Cafe Brasilero and the Lavender Tea Rooms.
The Cafe Brasilero is the oldest in Montevideo, dating back to 1877 and is an officially-recognised place of cultural interest. Rather like Les deux magots in Paris, the Cafe Brasilero has been a favourite of artists, writers and musicians for many years. Many famous Uruguayan names have enjoyed its hospitality, great coffee and delicious food. It’s a very cool and atmospheric place.
The Lavender Tea Rooms are also a great place to stop and escape from the hub of the city. They’re located in a garden centre in the upmarket neighbourhood of Carrasco. You can spend a pleasant time strolling through the displays of roses, herbs and many other flowers and plants, then enjoy a delicious healthy lunch or afternoon tea in the lounge. The cheesecake is not quite so healthy but is to die for.
10. good choice of day trips
If you have more time to explore, there are awesome places to visit within a couple of hours’ drive of Montevideo. Here are some suggestions:
Wine tasting tour
There are some great tour options to visit wineries and taste some of those gorgeous reds that I mentioned earlier. You can either choose a small group tour or an individual one. Most of these last for 3 to 4 hours.
The aptly-named Bouza tour is for small groups and will pick up from central Montevideo hotels. Included are 4 wine tastings and lunch at the Bouza Bodega, with commentary and a visit to the owner’s classic vehicle collection. See advertisement at the foot of this section.
The Wine Experience also offers small group visits, this time to 2 family wineries with up to 10 tastings and tapas. Hotel pick-up and drop-off included.
day trip to Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a pretty town with cobbled alleys, bright white buildings, colourful flowering gardens and amazing restaurants. It’s well worth more than a day if you can spare the time.
The town is 2 hours’ drive from Montevideo or there are several daily bus services if you don’t want to take a guided tour.
Day trip to Punta del Este
Popular with the rich and famous, this sophisticated beach resort city is well worth a visit to soak up the atmosphere. It’s 2 hours’ drive from Montevideo, or there are regular buses.
When to go
October to March is the main holiday season, with the best summer weather. However, if you don’t like very hot summers or crowds, you’ll probably prefer to visit Uruguay during the shoulder seasons: March to May, or September to November. January is the hottest month, and July the coldest. Rain is common all year round.
How to get to Montevideo
If you’re travelling from Buenos Aires, you have a couple of options. You can take the 35 minute flight from Aeroparque Internacional Jorge Newbery, the smaller and more central of BA’s two airports. On arrival in Montevideo, you can take the bus into town – the stop is right outside the terminal. Taxis are expensive and not recommended.
Alternatively you can take one of the regular fast ferries, operated by Buquebus. The journey takes around 1 and a half hours.
There are regular buses connecting Montevideo to Buenos Aires, Colonia del Sacramento, Punta del Este and Punta del Diablo. Buses in Uruguay are usually punctual, reliable and inexpensive. It’s best to book in advance as they’re popular and very busy.
Getting around the city
Montevideo is easily explored on foot. When you get footsore, the city buses are a good, reliable option. There are plenty of rental outlets for those who enjoy cycling.
Some shops still close in the afternoon for the traditional siesta. Some museums and public places close on Mondays. So it’s a good idea to check first if you’re really keen to shop or visit somewhere.
Where to stay
Note: this post contains affiliate links, which are identified with an asterisk * – please see our marketing – disclosure page for further information on how this site earns revenue through affiliate marketing and advertising.
As my trip was for both business and pleasure, I found the Hotel Lafayette very comfortable and well-located. It was close to the government agencies I was visiting, and also the best sights of the city.
Alternatively, we recommend Booking.com* for great deals on hotel stays. They have a wide choice of hotels to suit all budgets in different Montevideo locations.
You can filter your search by budget, hotel stars, top reviewed and many other features that matter to you.
If you’re interested in South America, you might enjoy my post on Buenos Aires and my review of Rachel Friedman’s The good girl’s guide to getting lost, which has some memorable descriptions of her travels in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
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