First 24 hours in Montevideo, Uruguay

Often overlooked by travellers en route to Buenos Aires, the River Plate’s other great capital is compact, convivial and packed with historical character, writes Chris Moss

4 mins

Montevideo may be less glam than Buenos Aires but it has some advantages over its rival. For one thing, its centre is small, walkable and encircled by the River Plate – sea breezes keep the city airy, and you can walk to La Rambla promenade in a matter of minutes.

Founded in 1726, the Uruguayan capital honours national hero, José Artigas, on the expansive Plaza Independencia. The history of this small country, has largely been about constructing its own identity. Uruguay remains a largely agricultural country and Montevideo is its only major city, home to more than a third of the population. The best galleries, museums, theatres and music scene – including a lively tango circuit – are all here.

Liberal laws and a mini-construction boom have generated headlines, but Montevideo stands out for not changing very much at all: retaining its convivial pace and that oh-so-easy atmosphere.

First day's tour

Tango Museum, Montevideo, Uruguay (Shutterstock)

Tango Museum, Montevideo, Uruguay (Shutterstock)

An easy walk along Avenida 18 de Julio and calle Sarandí, through three plazas, opens up a lot that the city has to offer. Start with a coffee and medialunas (sweet croissants) at lively Bar Facal (Ave 18 de Julio 1249). Outside is a bronze of tango legend Carlos Gardel seated and smiling toothily. If tango’s your thing, six blocks south there’s street art dedicated to Gardel on pedestrianised Curuguaty – also known as the ‘Candombe street’ in reference to Montevideo’s African musical heritage.

Further along the avenue, inside an ornate 19th century building, is the Museo del Gaucho (Ave 18 de Julio 998; free), dedicated to the historical role and daily life and labours of the South American cowboy. The national numismatic collection is also here.

At the centre of the Plaza Independencia is the equestrian statue, and tomb, of Artigas. In the south-east corner is the Palacio Salvo, built in 1928 in a mixture of Art Deco and New York Gothic. At street-level is the privately run Museo del Tango – La Cumparsita (See Facebook, entrance fee includes a glass of wine), dedicated to the memory of the first performance, at this spot, of ‘La Cumparsita’ in 1917. The country’s main theatre, the Teatro Solís, is just off the plaza.

Continue along calle Sarandi into the heart of the old town. The Museo Torres García (Sarandí 683) houses a collection of works by Uruguay’s best known artist, Joaquín Torres-García, the father of Latin American Constructivism. Passing the Cabildo (Town Hall) on your right you’ll come to another square, the tree-shaded Plaza Constitución, where the cathedral stands. Continue to the Plaza Zabala, formerly the site of the city fort; turn right down calle Pérez Castellanos to end your walk at the Mercado del Puerto. Opened in 1868, it’s now full of traditional restaurants and bars, and a fine way to finish your day.

Stay or go

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay (Shutterstock)

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay (Shutterstock)

Unless you’re only here to dance, then explore beyond Montevideo. Around 180km west lies Unesco-listed Colonia del Sacramento, founded in 1680; though small, it played a key role in skirmishes between the two conquering Iberian nations. An hour’s drive north of Colonia is Carmelo, a riverside town close to one of Uruguay’s main wine-growing areas.

East of Montevideo the accent is on beaches. It’s a two-hour drive or bus-ride to Casapueblo, the remarkable Gaudí-esque former summerhouse and workshop of the late artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. Today it’s a hotel but there’s also a restaurant and it’s well worth a pitstop.

Beyond are the beach resorts of Punta del Este, La Barra and José Ignacio. Great for a swim and fine dining, they are not as alluring as what lies further up the Atlantic Coast. La Paloma and La Pedrera are smaller, more sedate seaside spots. Inland, at Garzón, you can indulge in great food and wine in a classic Pampas landscape, go birding or hire a horse.

Where to stay

Independance Square, Montevideo, Uruguay (Shutterstock)

Independance Square, Montevideo, Uruguay (Shutterstock)

Top end: Sofitel Montevideo is a luxurious hotel, casino and spa occupying a grand edifice, completed in 1921; it’s located in Carrasco, a beach resort east of the city centre (close to the airport). The French cuisine at the 1921 Restaurant, opulent setting and river views are the draws. 

Mid range: Alma Histórica has just 15 stylishly appointed rooms – each themed to honour an Uruguayan poet, actor or tanguero – and sits on the Plaza Zabala in the old town. 

Budget: Casa Sarandí Guesthouse is a beautiful Art Deco property in the old city run by a couple, Sergio and Karen, who also runs the English-language website 

Getting there and around

At the airport Carrasco International, 22km from the city centre, has limited connections to Europe; Air Europa and Iberia operate services to Madrid. In the arrivals hall are ATMs, casas de cambio and car-hire firms.

Getting into town The airport offers shuttles to the centre. Regulated taxis are also available.

Other ways to arrive Buquebus operates ferries from Buenos Aires. At least one operates in each direction daily (2hrs 15mins). It’s possible to cross a narrower section of the river, between Buenos Aires and Colonía de Sacramento, completing the journey to Montevideo by bus (4hrs). Buquebus and Colonia Express offer this service.

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