A Wayward Weekend in Montevideo, Uruguay

By Johanna Read, TravelEater.net

Montevideo is a capital city where I’d love to live. The kind people, incredible food, beautiful architecture, sunny skies, in-town beaches, cultural focus, and open-minded values make it my kind of place.  

Uruguay looks out for its people, with an eye on the past and on the future. For example, every year a town is selected — yes, a whole town of 800 people or so — to come to Montevideo to tour the city, see a performance at the spectacular Teatro Solís, and learn more about their country’s history and culture, all free of charge.

Teatro Solis Johanna Read TravelEater.net - Wayward Weekend in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Uruguay likes information to be available too, so there’s free wifi not only in the airport, hotels, restaurants and cafés, but also on long distance and local buses (though sadly not on the Buquebus ferry crossing the Rio de la Plata). Guruguay.com should be one of the first places you go to with your free wifi for great tourist information, all in English.

There’s also free wifi in schools, because Uruguay promotes online learning. Every Uruguayan child in the state-run education system has a laptop. Not only was Uruguay the first country in the world to fully achieve the One Laptop Per Child initiative, but rural kids got their laptops first before kids in the capital.

Environmentally, you can rest assured that most of the power consumed in Uruguay is renewable. 94.5% of the country's electricity (and more than 50% of the overall energy mix, including vehicle fuel) is from renewable resources. Wind turbines prettily dot the countryside and solar panels are everywhere. Uruguay has so much energy they export power to neighbours Argentina and Brazil.

Only one warning about Uruguay: Uruguayans (properly pronounced “Er-oh wash-oh”) will constantly go out of their way to help you,  providing advice on where to eat, what to see, giving directions and maybe even walking you to your destination to make sure you find it. Unlike in most major cities in the world, this is not a ploy to get you to buy something or to pick your pockets — they’re really just that nice.

Arrival

Though you can fly to Montevideo, most people arrive in Uruguay by ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, and then make the two hour journey to Montevideo. Long distance buses are frequent (all go to Tres Cruces bus station), though you can hire a car as well. In town buses are easy to take too, and it is about a 20-minute trip on the local to our recommended hotel, Alma Histórica, right in the heart of Ciudad Vieja (old town). See our feature on Alma Histórica here.

Friday

After you’ve checked-in at Alma Histórica, take a stroll through Ciudad Vieja to get your bearings and admire Montevideo’s beautiful architecture, including one of the best collections of art deco buildings in the world. Some are in great condition, like the imposingly Banco República. Other buildings are more rundown, but give an indication why Montevideo is often used as a stand-in for Havana in films and TV shows.

Stroll along the Rambla, Montevideo’s 25-km waterfront promenade, to watch the sunset over the Rio de la Plata, the widest river in the world. You might pop into the old port for a drink or a look, but it is quite touristy, catering to cruise ship passengers.

Dinner in Uruguay is late, around 10:00 p.m., though you could eat at 9:00 p.m. and still be considered somewhat fashionable. My favourite place for dinner (or lunch) at any hour is Jacinto Café and Restaurant (Sarandí and Alzáibar). Chef/owner Lucia Soria’s restaurant focuses on local food prepared in innovative ways with Italian and Spanish influences. The menu changes regularly, reflecting what’s best in the local markets. They aim to “emphasize the purity and simplicity of each one of the ingredients, without ornaments” and my meal there was one of the best I had during my month in South America.

After dinner, head back to Alma Histórica for a soak in the hot tub on the roof terrace.

Saturday

Breakfast is included in rates at Alma Histórica and you won’t want to miss Pilar’s outstanding omelettes, accompanied by fruits, pastries, lattes and juices.

Spend your Saturday morning along the Sarandi pedestrian street, which you caught a glimpse of at dinner last night.

Walk up Sarandi to Plaza Independencia to admire the building housing the office of Uruguay’s president. The previous president, Jose Mujica, is described as “the world’s most humble president” because he shunned the pomp and luxury normally associated with presidency. He donated 90% of his salary to charity and often picked up hitchhikers in his 1987 VW Beetle on the way to work from his home on a small farm just outside the capital. Elected in March of 2015, the current president is respected but doesn’t have quite the same reputation. Six months into his presidency, however, he did save the life of a fellow passenger on a transAtlantic flight after she suffered a severe allergic reaction.

At the end of Plaza Independencia is a bulbous towered building which will remind you of Gaudí’s fantastical architecture in Barcelona. It is said that the first tango was danced here at Palacio Salvo, and you can take a tour of the building and admire the views of Montevideo from the top.

Teatro Solís is just off Plaza Independencia. Before arriving in Montevideo, review the schedule and plan the rest of your weekend around seeing one of the performances. Built in 1856, it was meant to rival European theatres and is an immense source of pride to Uruguayans. Take a tour (free on Wednesdays) to see the gorgeous building if you aren’t able to get tickets to see a performance. Uruguay’s values are well on display. When a stairway needed to be replaced after a fire, access to the theatre was completely redesigned because it was deemed undemocratic to force people going to the less expensive seats to climb narrow, dark stairs. Prices are geared to encourage all Uruguayans to enjoy their theatre, with performances free for retirees on Sundays and various discounts on other days. There’s a large variety of performances — jazz, rock, film, children’s — because the city does not want the theatre to be just for the elite.

Head back down Sarandi to do a little shopping and museum-hopping. There are several stands selling Uruguayan souvenirs such as the ubiquitous maté cup, thermos for hot water, and a spoon-like straw meant for sipping this tea that is so full of tea leaves you couldn’t possibly drink it any other way. Be like a real Uruguayan and carry the three with you everywhere you go.

Quick detours into the Más Puro Verso bookshop and Plaza Constitución are essential. The bookshop is in a stunning art nouveau building with a grand staircase and beautiful balconies (and a café in back). In the square, check out the stalls of people selling antiques and other vintage goods and admire the fountain. Along Sarandi you’ll see musicians playing, brightly painted wall murals, and local people relaxing, usually accompanied by their cups of maté.

Pop into at least one museum during your stay, though there are too many to choose from for just one weekend. Some examples:

  • Museo Torres Garcia (Sarandi 683). Born in Montevideo, Constructivist Joaquín Torres Garcia championed Latin American art, for example by drawing a map of South America with north and south reversed, and publishing The School of the South, a manifesto about the importance of the continent’s pre-European past and art. He spent much of his adult life in Spain, where he collaborated with Antoni Gaudí on the incredible Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. You can also see his work in the Guggenheim and MoMa, amongst other top museums.
  • Museo Gurvich (Sarandi 522): José Gurvich was another key player in the Constructivism movement with the distinctive red, blue and yellow style. His paintings have been compared to Miró and Chagall, and many at the museum include depictions of Jewish history and life on an Israeli kibbutz. Born in Lithuania, his family emigrated to Uruguay when he was a child. He was a painter and potter as well as a musician.
  • Museo Andes 1972 (619 Rincón). Just  a few blocks from Alma Histórica, this museum  exhibits artefacts and news stories from the 1972 plane crash in the Andes that was depicted in the movie Alive. Twenty-nine Uruguayans died in the crash, though 16 “returned to life” after suffering through 72 days of horrendous conditions.

Estrecho (Sarandi 460) is a great place for lunch, assuming your weekend in Montevideo falls on a weekday. Except Saturdays and Sundays, this mostly female-staffed restaurant serves amazing fusion dishes. In this long narrow (“estrecho”) restaurant, you'll sit at a lunch counter, with full view of the chefs and servers bustling about. The atmosphere is very communal — we had three different people offer us restaurant recommendations, and one even drew us a map of what to see in Punte del Este (see, Uruguayans are very helpful!).

If Estrecho is closed, try Café Brasilero (Ituzaingo 1447). Founded in 1877, it’s the oldest café in the city and the haunt of artists and writers, past and present. The menu is local and seasonal. For dessert, try a submarino, a typical treat in Uruguay and Argentina. A cup of hot milk is accompanied by a bar of chocolate, which you drop into the drink where it will sink like a submarine and then melt into deliciousness.

For dinner you have several options, but consider Uruguay Natural (Dr Héctor Miranda 2432). A traditional parrilla, Uruguayan grilled meats (all INAC-certified) as well as many vegetarian and gluten-free options. Don’t forget to try Uruguay’s delicious tannat wines. You’ll need to take a taxi from Alma Histórica.

Later go to Lo de Margot (Constituyente 1812) to watch local people dance the tango.

Sunday

After breakfast, why not go further afield?

The government-run website comoir.montevideo.gub.uy provides information on how to travel by bus, bike or on foot to any destination in Montevideo. The site is only in Spanish but it is pretty easy to understand if you have just a smattering of vocabulary. You can rent a Movete bike provided by Montevideo’s transportation system, STM. There’s a station at the old port, a short walk from Alma Histórica. You need a bus card to unlock the bikes.

The Tristán Narvaja market is a great place to spend Sunday morning. There’s lots of vintage and antique furniture, art and objets, as well as more modern stuff, throughout this Sunday market. You may be able to find the folded book sculptures you saw in the Alma Histórica’s library. They’re by Hugo Alonso (though note if you’re buying directly from him that he can neither hear nor speak).

There are several cafés in the neighbourhood for your lunch.

Leave some time for the beach! Playa Ramirez is a touch closer to Alma Histórica, but I like the long stretch of Playa de los Pocitos and the graffiti-covered wall which seems perfect for drying off in the sun before putting your cover-up back on to return to the hotel to pack.

Before you depart, take some time to people watch in the Plaza Zabala, a park next to Alma Histórica.

If you have more time to explore Uruguay (and you should!), take a wine tasting tour to a winery like Bodega Bouza or Bodega Carrau. Spend a few days in Colonia del Sacramento, the site of some UNESCO ruins, but really more for soaking up the laid-back atmosphere. Drive out to where the Rio de la Plata changes into the Atlantic Ocean, beginning at Punta del Este. The views are incredible and the hotels and restaurants are very luxe.

Editor’s note: The writer was hosted by the hotel, but all opinions are her own and no one from the hotel reviewed or approved the article.

Published: 3/23/2016

Johanna Read is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel, food and responsible tourism. A former Government of Canada executive, Johanna retired early to pursue her passion: travel. Writing for a variety of print and digital publications, she encourages sustainable travel and promotes unique destinations. A 2016 goal is repeating her six-continents-in-one-year travel feat.