Just a few miles outside of Montevideo there are smaller cities well worth a day trip or even spending a few nights. Punta del Este is the most luxurious, and expensive, seaside resort in the region. Every summer it receives hundreds of thousands of visitors from Argentina, other parts of Uruguay, and Brazil. Some eighty miles from Montevideo, it takes about two hours to drive there. The beach town of Piriápolis, roughly equidistant between Montevideo and Punta del Este, has the charm of resort towns from the thirties. Just over one hundred miles away is Colonia del Sacramento, a charming colonial city with cobblestoned streets and well conserved buildings. Colonia can be visited in a day.
Thanks to its tradition and history, the area around Plaza Independencia is home to many of the city’s classic restaurants and cafés, such as the historic Café Bacacay and Café Brasilero (which is over 120 years old). Rara Avis restaurant is another classic. You’ll have no trouble finding branches of La Pasiva, a chain that specializes in frankfurters and the “chivito canadiense,” a steak sandwich that comes with the works—ham, cheese, tomato, egg, bacon, and much more. If you want greater variety, head to Guga Chivitos, where over twenty different versions of the favorite Uruguayan sandwich are available. Another classic place to get a snack or pizza and beer is The Manchester. A well known secret in the area is Estrecho. The reason for the name, which is the Spanish word for narrow, is clear once you go inside. French food is available at the long bar.
When it comes to sweets, many restaurants and coffee shops serve massini, a delicious Uruguayan specialty. Italian in origin, it is made with cream, caramelized cake, and egg nougat.
Away from the downtown area you will find upscale residential neighborhoods like Punta Carretas, Pocitos, and Carrasco. Many properties with a much coveted item —access to the beach and views of the sea— are located in these areas. “What do you mean ‘sea’?” Yes, sea, because even though Montevideo lies along a river, locals call it the “sea”: the Río de la Plata is the widest river in the world and, because it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, it really does look like a sea. In any case, in summer months locals and visitors who come for the season flock to beaches like Carrasco, Ramírez, Pocitos, Buceo, and Malvín.
The Montevideo boardwalk is perfect for playing sports or just strolling. If you walk it in its entirety, you will go by all of the city's major neighborhoods. Starting at the port, the first neighborhood you'll come to is the historical district, followed by the commercial and financial center, then more residential areas like Barrio Sur and Parque Rodó, and finally Punta Carretas, Pocitos, and Carrasco. By following the boardwalk, you will get a sense of the city's geography. The city's fast and efficient bus system is the best way to get around.
Plaza Independencia marks the borderline between the old city and the new. The plaza —a large open space with a monument to Uruguayan founding father José Gervasio Artigas— is surrounded by some of the most important buildings in Montevideo, such as Palacio Salvo, Palacio Estévez, Torre Ejecutiva del gobierno nacional, and Teatro Solís —the bastion of cultural life in Montevideo and an architectural masterpiece. Regardless of the performance scheduled, Teatro Solís, which is structured like a classic opera house, is well worth the visit, as is the Auditorio del Sodre, another emblematic Montevideo venue. When it comes to museums, make sure you get to the Museo Torres García, which houses much of the work by that Uruguayan master.
Near the plaza, you can find some of the nicest bars, restaurants, and shops in the city, among them the lovely Puro Verso bookstore, which recently relocated to a three- level building.
This is another must visit in Montevideo. Ciudadela —the area of the city that, until the mid-18th that held up the gate at the entrance)— now combines shops with historical buildings. The outer limits of this area are Peatonal Sarandí and Plaza Independencia. It contains several history museums and important buildings like the Cabildo and the Iglesia Matriz. century, was a walled military fortress (you can still see the structure
No visit to Montevideo is complete without going to the port area. Start at the Rambla Francia, walk to the tip of the peninsula and down some of its side streets. Though the houses are in a state of disrepair, you can’t help but feel the port air that has made the city vital throughout its history. Finish your walk at Rambla 25 de Agosto, in the Mercado del Puerto. The large warehouse space no longer houses a market, but rather scores of food stands that serve, primarily, grilled meat.
Sit down on a bar stool and order a pamplona (a sort of stuffed meat roll and a Uruguayan specialty) while watching how the experts work the grill. To drink? A beer or a typical Uruguayan beverage called “el medio y medio,” a mix of sweet sparkling wine and dry white wine. Roldós and El Palenque are two of the most famous stands, but they are, generally speaking, quite good so just go with your instinct. If you want to sit somewhere more comfortable, many of the stands have sidewalk tables. On Saturdays, street musicians play.
Montevideo has always been, and continues to be, a major commercial port in the region. It was on the basis of the docks in this peninsular stretch of the Río de la Plata that the city began to expand inland, first as a walled military fort —the fifty some blocks that today make up the city’s historical area. The expansion continued into the more modern downtown area at the heart of which is the Plaza Independencia, the starting point for Avenida 18 de Julio, the avenue that crosses the city.
In this area, you can find some of the city’s most traditional activities, restaurants, theaters, and attractions. You can give them a try, or just get lost in the city streets, taking in the scene and verifying the lyrics sung by Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jaime Roos: “I can’t believe my eyes, when I see the city of Montevideo go by.”
Thanks to its music and murgas —or bands of street performers— costumes and bright colors, carnival is the most important form of cultural expression in Montevideo. "The longest carnival in the world" takes place from January until the end of March, though there are shows year-round in the street and in theaters. The origins of the celebration lie in Spanish and African immigrants who came to Uruguay during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another fruit of those immigrants (though mostly of the Africans) is candombe, a local musical style characterized by the rhythmic tapping of drums. It is common to hear this kind of music in the street during weekends and holidays.
Many foreigners find it startling: what is that thing that residents of Montevideo (and almost all Uruguayans, for that matter) carry with them everywhere? It's mate, an infusion prepared by mixing hot water (carried in a thermos) with the mate herb. Mate is consumed at breakfast and with an afternoon snack, at work and... well, any place and time of day. Some add sugar and others drink it bitter. A metal straw is used to sip mate and it is usually shared. Mate, then, is something of a ritual.
Over one hundred acres in extension, Parque Rodó is one of the city’s largest green spaces and the name of the surrounding neighborhood. In it, you can find a lake with pedal boats, museums, theaters, as well as a charming amusement park. Located fairly close to the downtown area, the park is easy to get to.
Tristán Narvaja market is the city’s largest market. A classic Montevideo event, it is held on Sunday mornings on Tristán Navaja Street. All sorts of things are sold: books and LPs, fruit, vegetables, and antiques.
A traditional Montevideo Sunday would include a walk down Avenida 18 de Julio to Parque Batlle, the largest park in the city. In addition to trees and paths, the park houses the celebrated Estadio Centenario, where the two most important soccer teams in the country —Nacional and Peñarol— play.
Another market worth the visit is Mercado Agrícola, where fruit, vegetables, and other fresh foods are sold. It also has a highly recommendable food court where Uruguayan and international food is available.