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Residents of Montevideo travel to nearby Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo when they crave big-city excitement, which may suggest that there's not much going on in the Uruguayan capital of 1.4 million. But don't dismiss it yet! Montevideo, at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Rio de la Plata, is an intriguing mix of old and new.
The 18th-century buildings in Montevideo's historical "Ciudad Vieja," or "old town," are just steps away from Plaza Indepencia, the bustling, modern main square -- and even that was once a citadel (one gate's stone base has been left standing to mark the division between the old and new parts of the city). Montevideo was founded in the 18th century by the Spanish, and over the years its citizens fought against the British, Spanish and Portuguese for independence, as well as neighboring Argentineans and Brazilians. Today, politically and economically stable, it serves as Uruguay's major commercial center though colonial customs -- long siestas, high tea -- still exist.
Montevideo is the perfect "kick back and relax" respite from glitzier ports on South America itineraries. It may be sleepier and less cosmopolitan than metropolises in Argentina and Brazil, but Montevideo offers a broad range of possibilities for the day-tripper: monuments, restaurants, gorgeous urban plazas, beaches and a burgeoning arts and culture movement.
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Other South America & Antarctica Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Spanish; English is not widely understood except by folks working in the tourism industry.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Uruguayan peso; $1 is worth about 28 pesos. ATM machines are plentiful (though if only visiting Uruguay for the day you may want to try your luck at spending dollars).
Montevideo is a mecca for leather lovers; you'll find great values on excellent quality jackets, skirts, pants, coats, wallets and belts in calf, antelope, suede and sheepskin.
Interested in artisan crafts? Check out Mercado de los Artesanos (San Jose 1312). On the ground floor of this 1909-built building is a fairly sizeable boutique of all manner of different handmade items, from framed drawings to gorgeous wood trinket boxes. You can even buy one-of-a-kind leather footwear! Upstairs is a fabulous market, consisting of a series of locals' restaurants.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the pier on the southern tip of the city.
Mercado de Puerto, a street fair open weekends and afternoons where you can sample Uruguayan dishes, is within walking distance of the pier; maps are available at the pier. From the market you can keep walking into the Old City, but motorized transportation (cabs or ship-organized shuttles) is recommended; some of the streets surrounding the market and port are not heavy on tourist traffic.
Typically ships arrange for shuttles to transport passengers to Plaza Independencia. A taxi is amazingly cheap -- the trip from town to the port costs about $2, and takes about 10 minutes. Otherwise, representatives of the city's leather retailers await passengers as they disembark -- some stores, like the Leather Factory (Plaza Independencia 832), provide free shuttles.
Watch Out For
Sundays: Many attractions and shopping stops (such as Mercado de los Artesanos) are closed, and the Congressional building does not run tours. Pickpocketing is not rampant but does occur.
The main square in the new part of the city, Plaza Indepencia, is anchored by a monument of national hero Jose Gervasio Artigas (his ashes are contained in a mausoleum under the equestrian statue); Artigas led the battle for independence against Spain and was the first statesman of the Rio de la Plata Revolution. Look for Citadel's Gate, which was part of an elaborate defense system in old Montevideo (this reproduction was built in 1959, on top of the original gate's stone base). Palacio Salvo, once the tallest building in South America, overlooks over the square.
From Plaza Indepencia, you can access Avenida 18 de Julio, one of the city's main thoroughfares and a street lined with stores and cafes. Along this street you'll find Museo del Gaucho y de la Moneda, which features exhibits of gaucho (cowboy) clothing and artifacts, and a collection of currency used throughout the country's history. Antiques shops selling textiles, furniture, knickknacks and jewelry abound on Tristan Narvaja St.
In the "Ciudad Viejo" or "Old City" area, the main square is Plaza Constitucion, home to a weekly (Saturday) flea market -- though enterprising locals will set it up on an off day if cruisers are in town. Visit El Cabildo, the old town hall that also served as the city's jailhouse in the 19th century (on the corner of the Plaza Constitucion and Sarandi St.; a pedestrian street with outdoor sculptures). It is now a museum housing the city's historic archives as well as maps, photos, antiques, costumes and artwork.
Montevideo's Congress Building was constructed between 1908 and 1925 in colorful marble and ornate woodwork. Closed on Sundays.
Take a tour of the historic 1925 Etchegaray House, a three-story French-style mansion. There is a collection of art and antiques, but the architecture and interior design is worth the visit alone -- Italian marble, Bohemian crystal chandeliers, a German Bluthner piano.
Been There, Done That
On the southern tip of Uruguay lies Punta del Este, a seaside resort for upscale vacationers from the country, the continent and across the globe (Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio are among them) -- consider it the St. Tropez of the Southern Hemisphere. There are white-sand beaches for swimming and water sports, hotels and restaurants, plus outdoor activities including golfing, biking and horseback riding.
Casino gambling is legal and big business in Montevideo; try the Radisson Hotel & Casino (Plaza Independencia 759); on offer are French roulette tables, blackjack, Baccarat, slot machines and horse races.
In Montevideo, you'll find excellent seafood and steaks rivaling Argentina's. The signature local sandwich, the high-calorie "chivito," is (depending where you order it) a steak sandwich topped with a fried egg and cheese, and any combination of bacon, ham, mayo, olives, lettuce and tomatoes. You might say it is Montevideo's version of the Philly cheesesteak; there's just as much back and forth throughout the city on proper preparation, and where to get the best of the best.
For a Traditional Experience: Try a confiteria, where you can get everything from sandwiches and salads to incredibly decadent pastries and even wine, beer and liquor. These are scattered all over the city; we enjoyed La Catedral de los Sandwiches Confiteria (Sarandi 502, open all day).
For a Chic Experience: Try La Corte (Peatonal Sarandi 586, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Monday - Friday). The restaurant has a fabulous atmosphere and specializes in regional cuisine with a nouvelle touch.
For a Contemporary Experience: Estrecho (Peatonal Sarandi 460, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday - Friday) is a contemporary take on the concept of a luncheonette (all seats, for instance, are at the counter of this narrow establishment), while sleek decor and quiet jazz play on the sound system. The local food, using fresh, seasonal ingredients, is delicious and simple (try the "sarandi ensalada" or spinach salad with bacon and the chicken curry baguette). They also feature Uruguayan wines. Editor's Note: no credit cards accepted.
Curious about Uruguay's Wine Industry? If offered, definitely tour the "vineyards of Juanico." The Establecimiento Juanico is full of atmosphere (buildings date back to the 1840's), equipment comes from France and Uruguayan "traditions" are employed for producing wines, which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier.
Experience Life on the Farm: Visit La Rabida estancia (Princess offers a morning or afternoon excursion depending on what time your ship is in town; a "gaucho" (or cowboy) breakfast or lunch will be served respectively). Young locals in black gaucho uniforms and red flowing dresses performed folk dances and songs, and guests are given the chance to try their hand at daily farm chores, such as milking cows and shearing sheep.
Staying in Touch
An Internet cafe is located right at the port (you can also make international phone calls); otherwise, cyber-centers are ubiquitous in Montevideo where you will find one on almost every block.
For More Information
Call the Uruguay Tourist Office at 305-443-7431
Cruise Critic Message Boards: South America
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: South America
Uruguay's Ministerio de Turismo is at Rambla 25 de Agosto 1825.
--Updated by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor