It looms like a doorway between two worlds, or a portal between two different times. I’m standing in front of the Puerta de la Ciudadela, the Gate of the Citadel, on a sunny afternoon in Montevideo, Uruguay. As I slowly take in this latest wonder that I’ve found in Uruguay, I realize that in many ways, this Gate really is a crossover point between the old and the new.
When it was built around 1742, Montevideo was an important Spanish military fort, in their struggle with Portugal for control of the region. Today, Montevideo is a multi-cultural, modern city, and known more as a growing haven for software and high-tech companies than for any strategic military value. So now the Gate stands alone, all that is left of the fort (save for a few stones that still lie along Bartolomé Mitre Street and the waterfront), separating the quaint Old City from the bustling new downtown.
You can pass through the Gate to the west, and enjoy a stroll down the Peatonal Sarandí, the main pedestrian thoroughfare through the Ciudad Vieja. There you will find a delightful mix of museums, parks, restaurants, small shops, and residences that have the feel of an old European neighborhood.
The Old City is by no means simply a relic – after all, it is where the thriving Port of Montevideo is located. Here goods are shipped in and out around the world, and cruise ships bring thousands of tourists to visit the popular Mercado de Puerto y Mercado de los Artesanos.
Pass through to the east, and you are in the large Plaza Independencia, a popular gathering point for both tourists and residents, and a great spot to observe Uruguayans practicing their tranquillo lifestyle. Central to the park is the mausoleum of Uruguay’s most famous hero from the past, General José Artigas. Topping the mausoleum is a large statue of the General on horseback.
Perhaps fittingly, the General has his back to the Past of the Old City, and is instead facing the Future, as represented by Montevideo’s contemporary and eclectic downtown.
The distinctive Palazio Salvo dominates one corner of the park, with its iconic rounded turrets and Italian architecture. However, looking around the plaza and walking the downtown streets, you find examples of building styles from all over Europe and from many time periods.
It’s a fascinating and captivating city. Here are just some of the highlights of our visit to Montevideo, Uruguay.
I have always felt that the best way to get to know a city and the people who live there, is to get out and walk. When you are exploring on foot, you can take the time to look more closely, and experience the changes as you walk between neighborhoods and districts. My wife and I spent a liitle more than a week in September of 2017 (took the weekend off to visit Buenos Aires) walking in and around Montevideo; strolling its wide and attractive rambla, through barrios like Punta Carretas, Pocitos, Cordón, the Old city and the New, and stopping in parks, restaurants and neighborhood bars and cafés. We fell in love with the calm, easy-going lifestyle of its citizens, as well as the blend of European cultures – with a South American twist.
We started our visit with a slight mis-adventure. When we first arrived in Uruguay a week earlier, we rented a car at the airport, since we intended to spend the first part of our trip exploring the coast. For our time in the capital city of Montevideo, it seemed like having a car would just be a nuisance, so we stopped back at Carrasco International to drop off our car and get a cab to our hotel in Punta Carretas.
BTW, another sign of the tranquilo lifestyle. We’ve become used to the Car Return Dance, where we park, wait at the counter, all walk back out to the car, and circle it slowly checking for dents and dings, recording the mileage, etc. At this airport I turned in the keys and signed a time-stamped form, and was told “gracias”.
“Don’t you want to come out and check the car?”, I asked?
“Why? Is there something wrong with it?”, he replied.
“No, I just thought …”
“No worries, we have your contact information if there are any problems. Have a nice day!”
Trust me, this is NOT the norm in international travel and car rental.
Anyway, back to our cab into the city. We told the driver we were going to the Esplendor in Punta Carretas. I even gave him a copy of the confirmation with the address. He assured us he knew just where we were going, and we took off. It is not a very long ride into town, and we were enjoying the sights. However, I had done a lot of research and looked at a lot of maps, Google Street View and so on during our planning, and I couldn’t help but notice it looked like we were passing Pocitos, and Punta Carretas should have been right next to it. But he kept going, and soon we were in the downtown area, where the driver pulls over and tells us this it it.
I said no, I don’t think so, but he points to the hotel sign “Esplendor”. We let ourselves be convinced, and things happened quickly since staff showed up immediately and began carrying our bags inside. I paid the driver, and we went up to the desk.
No reservations under my name.
We soon discovered why – as I had suspected, we were not at the correct hotel. We needed the Esplendor Wyndham. Fortunately, this apparently happens a lot, so they just called a new cab and trundled us back outside for the short ride back to our home for the next ten days.
After unpacking a little and getting our bearings, we were ready for our first walk on the rambla. A rambla is what many Spanish-speaking countries call a walkway along a beach, and there were many along the coastal towns of the Atlantic beaches in Uruguay.
But the rambla in Montevideo is special: a combination walkway, bike path, and park system that stretches 13.7 miles along the waterfront of Montevideo. It holds the distinction of being the longest continuous promenade of its type in the world. For convenience, there are names for almost two-dozen smaller sections of the rambla, making it easier to share a favorite location with a friend, or to set a meeting place. From early morning until late in the evening, the rambla is busy with people out enjoying the pleasant climate.
In addition to people out for a walk or a run, there’s a bike lane that also gets some inline skaters. There are terrific restaurants at intervals along the rambla (we discovered two favorites), and places to fish if you want to try and catch your own meal. You find periodic parks where you can stop and fly a kite, watch a pickup futbal or rugby game, do some sunbathing, or of course, just sit and enjoy your mate.
Also very noticeable to the newcomer, both on the rambla and in other parks all over Uruguay, is the number of outdoor exercise station. I have seen these areas with five or six pieces of equipment in other countries, but I have never seen as many – or as many people using them – as I saw in Uruguay. It was rare to pass an exercise station that did not have a group of people of all ages and skill levels out for a little workout in the fresh air. Again, in keeping with the tranquilo mood, people are not posturing, or showing of their body or abilities. They are just doing what they do, and don’t seem to care what others may think.
Our first experience on the rambla was joining it at the point of Punta Carretas, where a large and colorful tent advertised that Cirque du Soleil was in town, on the section know as Rambla Gandhi. Flipping a mental coin, we chose to turn left and walk east towards Pocitos, so the setting sun was at our backs as we strolled along. We had no real agenda, just getting the lay of the land, stretching our legs after our drive in from the coast, and looking for a good place to have dinner.
We found a great restaurant – which btw is not particularly difficult to do in Montvideo – right on the rambla. El Viejo y El Mar (The Old Man and the Sea) caught our eye, and we found our seats in the back of the restaurant, overlooking the river and a park where a semi-serious game of rugby was underway. Perfect scenery to enjoy our mojitos.
Our first meals in Montevideo did not disappoint. We both went with the grilled swordfish filet, served smothered in a seafood sauce (including shrimp, calamari, and mussels) and served with what appeared to be some type of sweet potato mash. Didn’t ask questions, as it was terrific. Also enjoyed a rather unusual broccoli and cabbage side salad. And another mojito, of course.
The next morning was a Friday. We were planning on taking the Buquebus over to BA for the weekend Saturday morning, leaving most of our luggage in the hotel and just packing our backpacks and camera bag for the trip. So we thought a nice thing to do might be to walk the rambla to west this time, all the way around to the Buquebus Terminal to see where we would have to go in the morning, and then work our way back through the city.
The morning was clear and beautiful, a perfect day for walking. Our path took us along the Rambla Presidente Wilson past a golf course, the Holocaust Memorial, and around the Playa Ramirez where it becomes the Rambla Argentina. We made a mental note to check out the Parque Rodó soon.
The Buquebus Terminal turned out to be a little further away than we had estimated, but we eventually rounded the point, and made it to our goal. We talked to a ticket clerk about how soon we should arrive before departure time. She suggested we buy our tickets online in advance rather than purchase them at the gate (which we did that evening – very easy process), and we were free then to start exploring the downtown area.
The first plaza we came to was the slightly diagonally-shifted Plaza Zabala. Beautiful little park, surrounded by both business and living spaces. It is one of the places we would consider living for a while in Ciudad Vieja.
Central to the plaza is a monument honoring General Don Bruno de Zabala, one of the founders of Montevideo.
By this time after walking about four miles or so, we were getting a little hungry and thirsty. So we set our sights on Plaza Matriz, just three blocks to the east. Although we did not know it at the time, this was an excellent choice. Plaza Matriz is a big gathering place for locals, especially for lunch and the after dinner drinks and small meals that are so popular here, where as in many South American countries, lunch is the big meal and dinner is usually served at 8pm or later.
We lucked into one of the best restaurants in the area, La Corte. As with most restaurants in Uruguay, there was both out and indoor seating. We chose to go inside, and admired the beautiful bare-brick walls, wooden floors, and sweeping curved staircases.
They offered a full menu, but we chose instead one of the “lunch specials”. We had some great burgers (can’t say enough about Uruguay’s beef), fries, a small desert with our meals, and treated ourselves to some local draft beer.
After our meal, much refreshed and relaxed, we hung around the plaza for a while, enjoying the sights and the sounds.
We continued our walking tour, making our first visit to the City Gate and Independence Plaza.
As we discovered during our visit, the city is very walkable; wide, safe sidewalks in most sections, streets given over to pedestrians in the Old City, and of course, the Rambla along the waterfront. We had no problems at all as we continued our walk through the downtown section and worked our way back to Punta Carretas and our hotel (about an 8-mile loop). We felt very safe everywhere we traveled in Uruguay, and the city was no exception. I know, there are rough places in any town, but we just use common sense when we travel.
Montevideo is a truly beautiful city. There’s a variety of architecture, parks everywhere, and plenty of places to take a break for some coffee or a beer – or to watch a public display of the tango.
After our whirlwind visit to Buenos Aires, we returned to Montevideo for the “working” portion of our trip. Part of the reason I was in town was to research for a series of articles and to update web content for International Living Magazine and some of their sister publications. So we did have some appointments and interviews lined up with expats, business owners, bankers, immigration attorneys, and realtors.
In between though, we still managed to have some fun and see more of the city. I regret that we only spent time in four or five of the 62 barrios, but we saw enough that we would like to return and live for a month or more in Uruguay to get more of a feel for the city and the country.
To give you an example of some of the simple pleasures we enjoyed during our “off-duty” moments, on one of our walks back to our hotel in Punta Carretas from some meetings in the downtown area, we were running out of steam with still a mile or so to go – and frankly, we were also in need of a baño. We were about to go into a coffee and ice cream shop across the street from a children’s carnival, when we spotted something even better – an unassuming blue corner-building with a sign that read “Pizzaria y Chiviteria Bar Sporting”. We were not that hungry, but we were attracted to the “Bar” part of the sign!
We eagerly entered, and found this was a nice little neighborhood watering hole. We were the only tourist in the place, but we were welcomed warmly. We ordered rum and diet cokes, and we were pleased to see they were delivered in 8 ounce tumblers with about a 50/50 mix of ingredients. As we enjoyed our break, we saw several regulars come in, to be greeted with hugs and kisses. Everyone smiled and nodded to us, and gave us the “buen provecho” greeting you often get in South America. The staff did not hassle us to order something more, or slap a bill down to encourage us to hurry out. When we were ready to leave, we were thanked as warmly as the locals when we settled up (just under $8), and told to stop by again sometime.
Here are just a few of the many things we saw in Montevideo.
We explored Pocitos, Punta Carretas, Cordón, Palermo and Parque Rodó, but by and far my personal favorite is the Ciudad Vieja, or Old City, of Montevideo. For me, this barrio represents the best of everything Montevideo has to offer. In fact, when we do manage a return visit to live for at least a month in Montevideo, we would like to take a closer look at properties in the Old City. It is surrounded on two sides by the rambla, it has several beautiful squares, there are pedestrian streets lined with art deco buildings of great architectural character, terrific restaurants and coffee shops with outdoor seating, recurring street mercados, and my favorite perk – the Mercado del Puerto.
Since 1868 the Mercado del Puerto has been the heart of the old city. Today it is one of the must-see spots of any tourist to Montevideo. Outside are stalls and stores selling all kinds of souvenirs, clothing, crafts, and art work. Inside there is more of the same, plus several great examples of the Uruguay’s highest culinary art form – the grill. The restaurants are laid out so that the grills are in plain sight, and they combination of meats and red peppers set out to cook over the wood flames is a treat for the eyes – and the nose.
Rita and I enjoyed a lunch at “La Chacra del Puerto”, one of several busy grill restaurants in the Mercado del Puerto. I hadn’t had a really good steak for a while, so I went with the full cut. Rita did not want a big meal, so instead ordered the “petite filet”. Imagine her surprise when our meals arrived, and she was presented with a half-pound chunk of steak, three inches thick in the middle, and grilled to perfection. I thought that maybe they had given her my order by mistake, but no – mine arrived a minute later, taking up half of the large platter, and giving off a heavenly aroma. Veteran travelers that we are, we decided to roll with it. The steaks were juicy, tender, and without a trace of fat. It was an economical meal as well; we were both still so full at dinnertime, we could only eat a salad.
I’ve run on for about 3,000 words now, and I could easily go another 3,000 without covering everything we loved about our visit. We found Uruguay to be an extremely interesting destination, with fertile and beautiful farmland, an eclectic variety of coastal cities, and of course the world-class city of Montevideo. I know that we only scratched the surface, and we are looking forward to returning soon for a longer stay. It is not one of those “live overseas for less!” destinations, in fact we found it to be about the same as prices in the US – some things a little higher, other things about the same or lower in price. But in addition to a great place to visit as a tourist (no visa needed, just valid passport with at least 6 months remaining), I do think Uruguay is well worth considering for the potential expat who values quality of life, stability of government, and the welcoming tranquilo lifestyle we found in this under-appreciated South American country with a European flair.