Poor Montevideo, overshadowed by its boastful neighbor across the Rio de la Plata, ignored by its Brazilian neighbors to the north, and generally forgotten by everyone else, Uruguay’s capital city is an oasis of calm and old-world sophistication in the Southern Cone. Perhaps true to its role as a mediating state (Uruguay served as a “buffer state” of sorts between post-colonial rising Argentina and Brazil), the country of 3.4 million is a stable, egalitarian, and quietly prosperous place. Gauchos at heart, Uruguayans have made Montevideo into a rustic expression of all things theirs.
Does it make it a little boring? Maybe. But is that a bad thing in Latin America? Absolutely not. Montevideo is probably the most civilized city on the content. Yes it lacks the frenetic energy that keeps Buenos Aires alive or the joie de vivre of Rio de Janeiro, but instead it drips with a sense that there’s nothing more you need in life than what Montevideo provides.
Many travelers only pass through Montevideo on the way to Buenos Aires or Punta del Este, with only a day to spare. But 24 hours is all you need in Montevideo to get a taste of the good life that Uruguayans lead, and give you ganas to make a return trip and stay awhile.
1pm – All you need is meat
I have dreams about the Mercado Central – rich, fragrant, and ethereal dreams that end too soon. Forget anywhere you’ve been in Argentina, this is pure meat heaven. Walk in, take your pick from any of the counters (they’re all good) and watch the magic happen. Start off with a provoleta, which your server will hack off a large roll of provolone and stick directly on the grill. Then make way for the chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage) if you’re adventuresome, and get yourself a good vacío, bife de chorizo, or whatever strikes your carnivore fancy.
You can sit down with the local office workers at the tables, but it’s a lot more fun to witness the parrilla at work at the counter.
Top it off with a bottle of Uruguayan medio y medio (a delicious if slightly wine cooler-like combo of cava and white wine) – but it’s a national treasure!
The irony of the Mercado Central is that it might very well be the only place in the entire city where you’ll find tourist schlock and souvenirs outside – Montevideo is just that unvisited and unloved…
3pm – Shopping stroll in the old town
Some of the shops might be closed, but a quick stroll from the Mercado Central will take you up to Montevideo’s central square, Plaza de Independencia, which is lorded over by the magnificently fanciful Palacio Salvo. On the way, you’ll find a few nice cafes and shops. Stop by Jacinto Café for a glimpse into the city’s hip and creative classes communing over coffee and cake. You’ll also find the Mercado Plaza Constitución, which has a friendly group of vendors selling bric-a-brac and antiques on a daily basis under the shade of the jacaranda trees.
Once you reach the plaza, admire the undulating Max-Weber type spaceship from the height of Uruguay’s rise. The story is quite fascinating, and the building has an equally impressive, if better hidden, sister in Buenos Aires, the Palacio Barolo.
5pm – The rule of law
Hanging a left right after the plaza will spare you the city’s dusty main drag. Instead you’ll head down a wide boulevard towards the distant, towering Parliament building. A good 25 minute stroll will take you through one of Montevideo’s unremarkable, but solidly middle-class neighborhoods. If you’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America, moments like these will pop out at you as memories of what makes Montevideo different.
Once you reach the building, admire the ornate expression of governance, quite a spectacle for such a small country, and if you feel particularly brazen walk around the side and into the back entrance of the building. If you feign enough curiosity, and just generally look like you’re not up to no good, they’ll let you leave your license/passport at the front desk and you can walk around the magnificent building. Inside, you’ll get a tour of the social and political history of the country, and see the grandeur of better days.
10pm – Back at the barbie
Once you’ve felt like you’ve walked (or slept) off your lunchtime sins, go back at it because, hey, this is the capital of good meat. And when’s the next time you’ll get to Montevideo? Head over to Pocitos to La Otra Parrilla, a handsome and rustic joint in one of the capital’s nicest neighborhoods. Admire the formidable grill as you enter, and sit down to a feast of a parrillada – and don’t forget the provoleta and a salad for good measure. Worry about the waistline tomorrow – aren’t all these Uruguayans skinny anyway?
10am – Bumming on the beach
Unlike in Rio de Janeiro, where you have to watch your wallet and most of your limbs while you’re sitting on the beach, or Buenos Aires, where urbanity has reduced the strand to a sad stretch of rocks near a highway, Montevideo has miles of white-sand beaches that are as relaxed as any you’d find in Spain or Portugal. Stake out a spot, take a dip (if it’s warm enough), and watch the world go by.
If it’s chilly, take a book, sit down for a while, and admire the stark coastline and the feeling that you are, indeed, on the edge of the earth. But a very civilized end of the earth.