24 Hours in Montevideo, Uruguay

Market stall in Montevideo, Uruguay

24 Hours in Montevideo

Nestled between Brazil and Argentina, indisputable titans of tourism, Uruguay is often forgotten. A small nation with only three million inhabitants, what Uruguay lacks in size it makes up for in variety. Whether you’re interested in quiet, hippy seaside towns or Monaco-esque celebrity-filled resorts, tiny villages pulled straight from rural Italy, or green expanses waiting to be explored by just you and a horse. At the heart of it all is the young and thriving capital, Montevideo.

With Uruguay being an incredibly forward thinking and liberal country, particularly next to her Latin American counterparts, quality of life in Montevideo is some of the best in South America. Women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights are progressive here, they have universal healthcare and excellent university education, which attracts expats from all over the world. They also have legal marijuana, but without the rampant overtourism that that has brought to Amsterdam’s worn canals.

Though there is no indigenous race left in Uruguay, the descendants of the Spanish and Italian immigrants that populated the land have formed their own familial communities. Many neighbourhoods are built by families that pool their resources to help each other build homes, and to create a community beyond the family. Even the classic mate cup, which at least half the population of Montevideo seem to have on them at all times, is all about community and sharing. Mate tea, also popular in Argentina, is always shared amongst friends, strangers, or anywhere in between. Whatever you have is whatever everyone has.

The country doesn’t subscribe to the same ardent Catholicism of her neighbours either, with mixed religious views being tolerated and practised more widely here. This means that there isn’t quite the same range of grand churches, but is another sign of the tolerant and accepting attitudes of Uruguayans. They also have one of the most consistent and strong economies in South America. Good for Uruguayans, less good for tourists, as Montevideo is incredibly expensive compared to countries like Peru or Bolivia, or even Argentina or Brazil.

Montevideo is also very safe, which is always on my mind as a solo female traveller. I walked half way the city with a group of Argentinian and Uruguayan girls late at night, without any of the harassment or nerves that you find in much of the rest of the world. The city being far quieter than most other Latin capitals does help this, with a population of just over one million.

Progressive, safe, always incredibly friendly and welcoming. Add in tango dancing, great food and fantastic football fanaticism and you’ve got Montevideo.

Many people just pop over to Uruguay for a day or two on the boat from Buenos Aires, which is why I’ve decided to get together a list of the must-see’s in that time frame. It only takes a couple of hours to get in from the Argentine capital, on a fairly bog-standard ferry with painfully expensive cups of bog-standard coffee.

What’s there to do?

1. Ride a bike down La Rambla

With many hostels and stores renting out bicycles around Montevideo, a popular activity for tourists is to take one down La Rambla, the seafront route around the city. The curving road is home to bicycles, roller-blades and running shoes, with seemingly half the city making their way out to the sea on the weekends.

2. El Mercado Puerto

My favourite spot in the city is the market, inside the old port building of Montevideo. At the entrance I was impeded by a game of spontaneous street football, a wonderful regular feature of South America, and once I managed to get inside the place suddenly stopped to watch a dancer and a troop of musicians that struck up a busk between stalls. Smoke from the barbecues fills the old building with the smell of the parrillas, old locals in patched caps chat animatedly, there’s hustle and bustle and amazing food everywhere. Grab an empanada or a glass of wine and indulge in the afternoon buzz. The market has been running for more than 100 years in the old industrial building, and the setting is only a bit less intriguing to peruse than its inhabitants are.

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3. Tristán Narvaja Flea Market

If your 24 hours happen to fall on a Sunday, get yourself down to the massive open market that fills Montevideo’s streets. Whether you’re looking for curious antiques, well-loved copies of a random assortment of literature, fruit and vegetables hand-picked by the farmer that morning, or furniture that will never fit in your backpack, you can find almost anything in the market. The market is filled with people shopping each week, so spend your time people-watching and browsing early on a Sunday morning.

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4. Plaza Indepencia

Home to the tomb of General Artigas, and his memorial on the city’s central plinth, the Plaza Indepencia serves as a memorial to José Gervasio Artigas, ‘the father of Uruguayan nationhood’. Similar to Salta’s General Guemes, Artigas was a gaucho turned liberator, who led Uruguayan patriots in a battle for independence from Spain. The story of the actual creation of the modern-day state is longer and significantly less exciting than the image of a mounted cowboy leading an army of ramshackle patriots against an empire. Sometimes it’s better to indulge in the more entertaining story. The plaza is in between the old city and the new, and is home to the Dante inspired Palacio Salvo, sister of the Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires.

5. The Old City

Though Montevideo is a relatively young city, the old city is nonetheless worth a wander around. The weathered pastel walls mark architectural trends the city has seen over its years, and the historic cafes and family-run restaurants they hold swing vintage signs and serve colourful fresh fruits for your walk through the old town. In many ways, Montevideo could be a European city, and there’s not too many European cities around without an at least mildly interesting old city, right?

6. Seek out street art

If you’re into communist street art lining quaint little side streets, or grand murals paying tribute to the city’s storied inhabitants, you can find all sorts in the brightly coloured walls of Montevideo. The new and the old parts of the city maintain this artistic tradition, and there’s many interesting pieces on display for the keen-eyed rambler.

7. Montevideo’s cultural museums

I was told by one local that I could sum up the culture of Uruguay in 3 quick stops: the tango museum, the football museum, and anywhere serving parrilla. If you’re interested in the story of Uruguay’s national dance or of Uruguay’s national passion, these museums will give you a little insight into some local obsessions. If you’re into your meat, the parrilla addition is unmissable.

It may not have the attention-grabbing sights of its neighbours, but the personality of Montevideo is clear and captivating. Soak in the markets, eat, drink, smoke, or go dancing in bars that don’t require an expert knowledge of salsa (exciting for South America). Uruguayans are open, friendly, and typically very good at holding an interesting an engaging conversation, which is a serious perk.

If you have more than one day to spend in Uruguay, check out my guide to Colonia de Sacramento.

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A guide to Montevideo, Uruguay, travel blog