Dan and I spent Thanksgiving 2018 in Uruguay! We initially started in Western Uruguay and moved East after a few days. Particularly, after visiting excellent wineries in Carmelo, Uruguay (Western Uruguay) for as much Tannat as we could drink, we spent a few days in Montevideo before flying to Chile for more wine tasting!
Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay, located not on the Atlantic Ocean, but on the Rio de la Plata – the widest river in the world. Despite being on a “river city,” Montevideo has beautiful, expansive beaches that given the feel of an ocean city. In fact, most people would never realize they are not on the Atlantic! In addition to its beaches, Montevideo also has an old town that reminded me a lot of what I think Buenos Aires may have been like 40 years ago – very little English, very little North American influence, a very old school European feel, and lots of art deco architecture. Montevideo is not very touristy and for whatever reason, is much less popular with North American tourists than its neighbor, Buenos Aires. But, it does have a solid tourism infrastructure and is quite popular with Uruguayan, Brazilian and Argentinian tourists. Uruguay also constantly ranked as one of the safest countries to visit in South America – so go and don’t worry!
If you find yourself in Uruguay, you will almost certainly spend at least a day in Montevideo, if for no other reason than to use its new, super modern airport (the nicest airport I have been to in South America). However, I recommend spending at least 2 nights, and 3 if possible, to get the feel of Montevideo and at least scratch the surface.
WHERE TO STAY
For tourist purposes, Montevideo is split into two main areas – the Cuidad Vieja and Pocitos. Montevideo’s Cuidad Vieja (or “Old Town”) is located nearish to the Buquebus Terminal and extends back to Independence Plaza, at which point the area technically turns into “downtown.” This is where I stayed in a Four Points by Sheraton for free on points. The Old Town/Downtown area is good for walking and seeing the “real” Montevideo, but things close down very early and the area is practically empty at night. That being said, we enjoyed staying in this area and would do it again. Stay here if you are short on time and want to see Montevideo’s tourist highlights.
On the other hand, Pocitos is the newer part of Montevideo that is filled with modern high rise buildings on Pocitos beach. This part of town is popular with well-to-do Uruguayans, as well as tourists from all over. Pocitos has a lot of restaurants and night clubs, as well as access to the beach and the famous Montevideo sign on the beach (we skipped it because it rained). I recommend this area if you are in town for the beach, staying for longer than 2 days, or are not a seasoned traveler and may not feel comfortable in the Old Town.
In either case, there are plenty of hotels, AirBnBs, and restaurants in both parts of town. It takes about 15 – 20 minutes to get between the two areas by car, and 1.5 hours to walk.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Montevideo does not have that many “must see” sites – there is no Sugar Loaf, no Casa Rosa (a la Evita #dontcryformeArgentina), and no ancient Inca ruins. That being said, Montevideo definitely more than enough to keep you busy for a few days! Our first stop (well, after lunch) was a stroll through Cuidad Vieja. Our walk started at Independence Plaza, Montevideo’s most important square and home to the Uruguayan President’s office. The square features lovely art deco buildings (as in the cover photo), the Gateway of the Citadel – the last standing piece of the old wall surrounding Montevideo, and the gorgeous Palacio Salvo. Its also home to a Federal Express store if you need to mail anything home…
Just next to the Independence Plaza is the Teatro Solis, Uruguay’s most famous theatre that dates back to 1856. Shows sell out in advance, but, even if you do not have tickets for a performance (we did not), its worth a walk by to admire the pretty building. Visitors can also go inside for a tour. Across the street from the Teatro Stolis are a few streets with cute bars and restaurants for a casual meal or a drink. We stopped at Dagda Beer and Wine Store for a local Uruguayan stout.
After, we continued our walk in the Cuidad Vieja, eventually ending up at the Mercado del Puerto (aka the Port Market). The Mercado del Puerto dates back to the mid-1800s and no longer functions as a real market, but is home to lots of shops, restaurants, and cafes (that all close super early for a big city). It definitely makes for an interesting morning or afternoon, and it is the best place in Montevideo to souvenir shop. For homemade souvenirs, check out the Mercado de los Artesanos just next to the Port Market. Note that since most of the shops close early, the area around the port market can seem a little desolate at night and I would recommend taking an Uber to the area after dark.
Aside from the Cuidad Vieja, the other most touristy part of Montevideo is the Pocitos beach neighborhood. Go to Playa de los Pocitos to view the famous Montevideo beach sign and the beach. There are lots of shops along the beach selling beach necessities like swim suits and towels, as well as tons of cafes and restaurants. We ended up just view this area from a tour bus, because it rained on the day we had planned to explore the beach. Next time!
If you have extra time in Montevideo, the Canelones wine region is located just outside of Montevideo (about 20 minutes by car from Cuidad Vieja) and makes a good half-day excursion if you have the time. The Canelones wine region produces both red and white wines and is pretty gorgeous. On our trip, we visited Bodega Bouza for a tour and lunch and it was definitely worth half-day, and Bodega Bouza has a program where they will come pick you up from your hotel and drop you back off!
WHAT AND WHERE TO EAT
Before visiting Uruguay this time around, I was pretty unfamiliar with Uruguayan food and was not terribly excited to try it. However, after this trip, I can confidently say that it is really, really good! Due to its European ancestors, there are strong Italian and Spanish influences in Uruguayan food. Before even getting into where we ate, if you are in Montevideo (or Uruguay in general), do not leave without trying these foods (just don’t):
- Medio y medio (a sweet sparking wine mixed with a dry white wine) at the Puerto del Mercado (or anywhere in Uruguay really).
- Empanadas with llajua sauce (this red sauce with empanadas is a Uruguayan thing).
- Uruguayan dulce de leche (so much better than Argentinian dulce de leche, sorry Argentina!).
- Coffee at one of the cute hipster coffee shops in the Cuidad Vieja.
- Beef from an outdoor grill – at the Puerto del Mercado or Parrillada la Pulperia.
- Uruguayan wine (Tannat and Albarino are two common grapes in Uruguay that I think the Uruguayans do particularly well that will be somewhat difficult to find outside of Uruguay).
We tried all of these things on our trip at some really great restaurants (most of which I will blog about separately). But quickly, or my overview of Montevideo, on our first night in Montevideo we went to Jacinto, a modern restaurant in the Cuidad Vieja that was visited by Anthony Bourdain. Clearly, anywhere that Bourdain stamped his approval on, I book a reservation. At Jacinto, along with other dishes, I enjoyed some really tasty shrimp empanadas with llajua sauce (SO GOOD). Go to Jacinto for modern, hip Uruguayan food in the Old Town. Make a reservation on weekend nights.
The Cuidad Vieja is home to several hipster coffee shops, all of which make for a relaxing, quick break on a town tour. We visited Farmacia, a coffee shop in an old pharmacy. The coffee and decor were excellent. Visiting one of these coffee shops is a good way to see the “new” Montevideo and support some local, typically younger entrepreneurs. My coffee was delightful.
For our second dinner in Montevideo, we went for the grilled meat! And, for those unfamiliar, grilled meat in Uruguay, like in Argentina, is SO popular, and all tourists should have a grilled meat dinner at a proper parrillada – i.e. a real casual restaurant with a HUGE grill! We enjoyed our grilled meat dinner at Parrillada la Pulperia for truly a great dinner of just grilled meats! I will definitely be writing more about Parrillada la Pulperia, but for now, suffice it to say that there are no reservations and you should be prepared to wait. Also, get the dulce de leche flan.
If you are looking for something different than typical South American food in Montevideo (it happens on long South American trips!), try a falafel or shawarma at Ashot. Ashot is a hole in the wall technically “downtown,” but not too far from Independence Plaza. My falafel was delicious and huge, but it was a bit more pricey than other lunch restaurants in town. It also hit the spot of not grilled meat and empanadas (although I love both so!). The owners were also so nice, spoke great English, and helped us order!
Finally, you cannot visit Montevideo without tasting some Uruguayan wine! Finding Uruguayan wine in Montevideo is incredibly easy. First, there are wine shops all over Uruguay and supermarkets sell wine. One of the cheaper, popular wine makers is a brand call Don Pascual. You can find Don Pascual and its branding everywhere. This is probably the cheapest way to try Uruguayan wine.
For a nicer bottle of wine or a more exclusive experience, visit the Montevideo Wine Experience near the Puerto del Mercado. The Montevideo Wine Experience has a vast selection of all different types of Uruguayan wines, which are served in tastings or by the bottle or glass. The owner talks to each customer to ensure that you know what you are drinking and that you enjoy it. These wines are often paired with large plates of meat and cheese. I strongly recommend making an advance reservation. The Montevideo Wine Experience is tiny and definitely books up. In any case, this is a great way to experience Uruguayan wine, especially for those unfamiliar but interested in the subject.
SAFETY & GETTING AROUND
Montevideo is quite safe as compared to other South American capitals, and Uruguay is constantly ranked as one of the safest countries in South America. Obviously, use common sense, but we never felt unsafe in Montevideo. I will say however, especially downtown, the streets can feel very empty and dark at night. And, again, while I never felt unsafe, you may feel a little uneasy if walking alone at night just because it can get dark. During the day its totally fine.
We got around by walking most places during the day and using Uber at night. If you are on an extreme budget or really want to get in with the locals, public buses run all over Montevideo and is the public transportation of choice (if not the only means) of the locals.
TIPS FOR VISITING MONTEVIDEO
- Uruguay uses both USD and Uruguayan Pesos. ATMs dispense both. However, most places accept Visa and Mastercard.
- Many places close around 7 PM and the downtown area can feel like a ghost town in the evening.
- Uber works well.
- There is less English spoken than you would expect; although most tourist oriented places will speak at least some English.
- Go to the Mercado Del Puerto early in the day. Shops close even earlier than the rest of town.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Four Points by Sheraton: Ejido 1275, 11100 Montevideo, Uruguay. Standard Four Points by Sheraton hotel located in downtown Montevideo. There is a small pool on the roof. We only stayed here because we stayed on points for free.
Tetro Solis: S / N, Buenos Aires, 11000 Montevideo, Uruguay. Information on tickets and visits are in English on the website.
Mercado del Puerto: Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825 228, 11000 Montevideo, Uruguay
Bodega Bouza: Cno. de la Redención 7658, 12500 Montevideo, Uruguay. Open 9 – 19h. Closed Sunday. Bouza offers a program where it will pick you up from your hotel in Montevideo, take you to Bouza for a tour and lunch with wine pairing and then return you to your hotel for 3,000 Uruguayan Pesos/person. While not cheap, this tour was very easy and the food was delicious. Otherwise, guided tours are 490 Uruguayan pesos/person, a five wine tasting is 1,200 Uruguayan pesos/persona, and transportation to and from the winery is 400 Uruguayan pesos per person. Reservations are strongly recommended and can easily be made on Bouza’s website.
Jacinto: Sarandí 349, 11000 Montevideo, Uruguay. Open 10h – 00h. Closed Sunday. Recommend making a reservation online for weekend evenings.
Parrillada la Pulperia: Lagunillas, 11300 Montevideo, Uruguay. Closed Sunday and Monday. Open Tuesday – Saturday 19h – 00h. No reservations. Get there at 17h or prepare to wait.
Ashot Shawarma: Zelmar Michelini 1295, 11100 Montevideo, Uruguay. Open Monday – Friday 11 – 17h, until 00h or Friday. 12h – 00h on Saturday. Closed Sunday. Big plates but more expensive than expected. This is definitely a hole in the wall with minimal seating.
Dagda Beer & Wine Store: Bartolome Miter 1316, Montevideo, Uruguay (across from Teatro Solis). No hours posted, but there are several fun bar/restaurants on this street, if it happens to be closed when you visit. A good spot for Uruguayan beer and wine, and international whiskey.
Montevideo Wine Experience: Piedras 300, 11100 Montevideo, Uruguay. Purportedly open daily 12h – 23h (only until 20h on Sunday & Monday), but I would call to confirm. They were definitely closed one evening and during the day when we were in town. This is a wine bar, but they do serve plates of meat and cheese to pair with wine. I recommend pairing a tasting here with a meal in the Mercado del Puerto (a few restaurants stay open at night).
ON A BUDGET
While not as cheap as some of its other South American neighbors, Montevideo offers some excellent budget options. From lodging, to food, to transportation, deals can certainly be found. I recommend looking in the downtown area for the best deals, or for AirBnBs if you want to stay near the beach.