Uruguay’s capital, indeed its only major city, sits on the estuary of the River Plate, with 13km of beaches linked by a waterfront boulevard known as the rambla. In fact, one of South America’s finest natural harbours is tucked away, half-forgotten, behind the old town. It’s a delightfully laid-back, peaceful and friendly city where a normal working day seems like a sleepy Sunday morning in Buenos Aires, but it has all the services you’d expect plus a lively social and cultural scene.
In 2019 and for most of the past several years, Mercer’s worldwide ‘Quality of Living’ survey ranked Montevideo as the city with the best quality of life in Latin America.
What to see and do in Montevideo
The obvious place to begin a tour of the city is the Mercado del Puerto, across the road from where ferry and cruise passengers emerge from the port. Although it’s widely believed that this cast-iron structure, opened in 1868, was intended to be a railway station in Chile, this is an urban myth as it was always planned to be a market here.
The 3,500m² market is now one of the city’s prime tourist attractions, and a hub for montevideanos too, especially at weekends when the many restaurants inside are buzzing. There’s no smoking inside, of course, but thanks to all the parrillas grilling away inside, the cloudy vaults could almost belong to a steam-era railway station after all.
Alongside the Mercado is the Museo del Carnaval. Across the road is the massive Customs building (Aduana, 1923), and on its north side (passing a plaque put up by the Customs men in honour of the 1928 Olympic soccer team), the entry to the port. On display just inside the port gates are an anchor of the battleship Admiral Graf Spee and her 27-tonne rangefinder, salvaged in 2004, as well as a small dockside steam crane and other bits and pieces; however, it’s not possible to view them until a new cruise terminal opens in 2021.
The Centro (New Town or midtown) is the commercial heart of the city, and to many Uruguayans and tourists it is the city. It was laid out after 1861, and by 1867 development had spread beyond the present Palacio Municipal into the Cordón area.
The city’s most recognisable landmark is the Palacio Salvo, built in 1922–28 on the site of the Confitería la Giralda, the café where the very first tango, La Cumparsita, was performed in 1917. Hour-long tours that take in stunning city views start from the main foyer (Plaza Independencia 848), from where you can also take more detailed tours with a historian and hour-long night tours. These can be combined with entry to the Museo del Tango La Cumparsita.
On the other side of Avenida 18 de Julio, the Palacio Rinaldi is a fine Art Deco apartment block (built in 1929) with beautiful reliefs on the façade. Buildings to look out for along the avenida include the Jockey Club, the Edificio Lapido (a splendid Expressionist apartment block, built in 1930), the Palacio Brasil and the Palacio Uriarte de Heber, now housing the museums of the Gaucho and of the Mint.
Immediately east of the Palacio Municipal the main avenue splits on either side of the Gaucho statue. To the south of the statue at Constituyente 1460 is the city’s Methodist church, much like a Catholic church but with a style of steeple that’s only possible with concrete.
Five blocks up Avenida 18 de Julio you’ll pass Plaza de los Treinta y Tres Orientales, better known as Plaza Lavalleja (because of a statue) or Plaza Bomberos (because of the imposing 1920s fire station on its north side, known as the Cuartel Centenario de Bomberos).
It’s two blocks further to the Lycée Française and the Biblioteca Nacional, their Neoclassical porticos echoing each other. Immediately beyond is the main building of the Universidad de la República. There are a few student bars and bookshops in this area, but not as many as you might expect.
On the far side of the harbour, rises the distinctive Cerro de Montevideo, the 139m-high mount that gave Montevideo its name. Uruguay’s oldest lighthouse was built here by Spain in 1802 and was restored in 1931–39 to become a military museum.
To the southwest lies the delightful Club de Golf del Cerro with its vintage clubhouse, founded in 1905 as the Chimont (Chicago–Montevideo), a nod to the home of the owners of the Frigorífico Montevideo. The Frigorífico Montevideo, known as the Frigorífico Swift from 1916, is the meat-packing plant immediately to the south on Punta de Lobos. Just to the west is the Frigorífico Nacional, also American-owned; both were closed by 1978.
The eastern suburbs
To the south of the Centro is the Barrio Sur, a poor residential district with many run-down Belle Époque houses and a few Art Deco ones; this is the heart of the candombé culture, with comparsas often drumming in the streets on Saturday and Sunday evenings. The only tourist sight in the area, other than the stroll along the rambla past the formerly British gasworks, is the Cementerio Central, laid out in 1835. Its alleys are lined with grand tombs including those of journalist and statesman Dr Washington Beltrán and President Claudio Williman.
To the east of Ejido, running south from the Palacio Municipal, is Palermo, similar but with growing patches of gentrification, and a few bars and restaurants along Avenida Gonzalo Ramírez. On the east side is the excellent Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales. To the south is a funfair, and across the rambla is Playa Ramírez, the nearest beach to the city centre, popular for beach volleyball and soccer.
Getting to Montevideo
Carrasco international airport, 20km east of the centre, saw double-digit growth in flights handled over the first decade of the century, leading to the opening of a much larger new terminal in 2009. Although much expanded from the previous terminal (which is still visible about 1km towards Montevideo), it still has only eight gates (on four airbridges) and three baggage reclaims.
The direct ferry from Buenos Aires operated by Buquebus docks at the port on the north side of the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), where you’ll find an attractive terminal with an ATM, Wi-Fi, phones and a café.
Two other companies, Colonia Express and Seacat Colonia, operate fast ferries from Buenos Aires to Colonia, with bus connections from the port direct to Montevideo and Punta del Este.