Around half of Uruguay's population live in its capital, Montevideo – home to South America's first national parliament and a rich, colonial backstory. Montevideo is often referred to as a 'forgotten gem' or 'South America's best kept secret', due to quieter tourism than its more frequented neighbours like Buenos Aires (just a ferry ride away). Embracing a traditionally Spanish way of life (relaxed with heavy importance placed on good food and great company), Montevideo is an old town with a new heart; a big city with a small-town feel. A hearty mix of utopian beaches, lively tango bars and charming colonialism, Montevideo is a unique South American treat with adventure around each cobblestone corner.
Some parts of Montevideo are stuck in another time, adding to the city's alluring charm. Ciudad Vieja (Old City) is the cultural heart, home to artists, musicians and creatives who spend their days musing in pop-up museums and hole-in-the-wall bars. By night, enjoy the sounds of candombe – Afro-Uruguayan rhythm – as it flows through the city streets. Centro Montevideo (downtown) is a great place to explore by foot, with arcade shops burrowing into 19th century architecture. While you're in the area, take in the sweeping views at the top of the Palacio Salvo – once South America's tallest building. If you are still searching for things to do in Montevideo, pay homage to the two-time FIFA World Cup champions at the Uruguayan football museum.
Many uruguayans like to kick-start their morning with a Mate ('mah-tay') – a tea-like drink made from bitter herbs, sipped through a metal straw which also acts as a strainer for the loose leaves. Your eyes may be bigger than your stomach at lunch if you decide to tackle a chivito – the national sandwich filled with beef, olives, mozzarella, tomatoes, bacon, eggs and other variables. After you have digested with a siesta (the custom of afternoon napping), it's time for another round of feasting at any number of Montevideo restaurants serving authentic parrilla (barbecue or grills) and a bottle of tannat (Uruguay's own red wine). Montevideo's bustling nightlife will have you dancing those meals away well into the wee hours.
Where to Stay
It is easy to get around central Montevideo and take in the sites by foot or bicycle. With easy access to the museums and cultural attractions – which are all free entry during the last weekend of September – bunking down close to the city centre or Old City is your best option. If you are travelling on a budget you will find Montevideo hotels to be very accommodating. Hostels are plentiful due to a large number of backpackers who flock from all around South America – WiFi, bicycle rentals and breakfast or kitchen facilities are often included. Mid-range or more lavish accommodation can be found along the Avenida 18 de Julio, Montevideo's main street or the Rambla.
Montevideo shopping is all about markets. For artisan crafts such as candles, leatherwork and ceramics, swing by the Mercado de los Artesanos. Of a Sunday morning, explore the Tristan Narvaja street fair which transforms thoroughfares into an open air market, attracting thousands of buyers and browsers. Antiques are commonplace at Tristan Narvaja as well as fruits and vegetables, cheap books and even livestock. Montevideo also features more contemporary shopping complexes like Punta Carretas Shopping, which has more character than some modern malls, being built in a former prison. Quality leather goods and textiles are the pride of Montevideo, found locally at the many bustling street markets.
Montevideo like a Local
To fit in like a true local on your Montevideo holidays, you might have to become a bit of a night owl. Baar Fun Fun is still one of the hottest places to go for a uvita (a shot of sweetened wine) and spot of tango, despite it being in operation since 1895. After a long sleep in, wander down to the Rambla – a long boardwalk along the coastline – where friends and couples meet up and share a communal mate, cast a line into the ocean or soak in the sunshine if the Montevideo weather is showing off. Book your flights to Montevideo to experience a South American classic that exists on the boarder of leisure and liveliness.