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.
Port of Montevideo
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The 18th-century buildings in Montevideo's historical "Ciudad Vieja" (Old Town) are just steps away from Plaza Independencia (Independence Square), 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, the city serves as Uruguay's major commercial center, though colonial customs -- long siestas, afternoon 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.
Top Montevideo Itineraries
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Where You're Docked
Montevideo's port is actually in a terrific location, just next to the historic center of the Ciudad Vieja at the southern tip of the city. The port is small enough that you can walk right from your ship into the heart of the old town in just a few minutes.
Just across the street from the port is the Mercado del Puerto, a beautiful iron and glass port building from 1868 that has been restored with 14 restaurants and stalls and several stores selling local handicrafts. This is a terrific place to taste Uruguay's delicious grilled meats. On afternoons and weekends, there are also outdoor tables with more local arts and crafts. 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.
Just next to the Mercado del Puerto is the Carnaval Museum (Rambla 25 de Agosto) documenting Montevideo's 40-day celebration prior to Lent. The exhibits show the elaborate processions that fill the street. Costumes and paper mache characters are on display, and, if you're lucky, you might even catch some being constructed in the workshop next door. A guided tour is included with admission.
Good to Know
Mosquitoes: They can be annoying and unwanted travel companions. Be sure to bring along some bug spray to put on before you venture off the ship.
Sundays: Many attractions and shopping stops (such as Mercado de los Artesanos) are closed, and the Congressional building does not run tours on Sundays.
Pickpocketing: Although it is not rampant, it does occur.
If you like to walk, you can get from the port to the center of Montevideo at Independence Square in about 25 minutes. Most cruise lines run shuttles from the port to the square, and taxis are plentiful at the port. You can take them to the square or even as far as the resort town of Punta del Este, about two hours away. Taxis have meters, but it is more common to decide on a fixed price first; they are listed at the taxi stand.
Representatives of the plentiful leather factories in Montevideo send free shuttles to the port to bring travelers back to their showrooms.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Uruguayan Peso is the official currency. For current conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There's an exchange bureau inside the port between Piers 1 and 2 and additional exchange bureaus and ATM's just outside the port entrance. ATM's are everywhere in Montevideo. You will find numerous exchange shops along Av. 18 de Julio and around Independence Square. U.S. dollars are accepted nearly everywhere, including in taxis. Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants and stores in the capital.
Spanish is the official language of Uruguay. The citizens of Montevideo share the same accent as their neighbors in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They speak Rioplatenese Spanish, the dialect common around the Rio de la Plata basin. Most Uruguayans don't speak English, but those working in the tourism business speak enough to get by.
Food and Drink
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.
For a Chic Experience: Try La Corte, which has a fabulous atmosphere and specializes in regional cuisine with a nouvelle touch. (Peatonal Sarandi 586; open Monday to Saturday 12 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.)
For a Contemporary Experience: Estrecho is a contemporary take on the concept of a luncheonette. All seats are at the counter of this narrow establishment with sleek decor, and quiet jazz plays 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. Note that they do not accept credit cards. (Peatonal Sarandi 460; open 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday)
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 (Plaza Cagancha 1365). On the ground floor of this 1909-built building is a fairly sizeable boutique of handmade items, from framed drawings to gorgeous wooden trinket boxes. You can even buy handmade leather footwear. Upstairs is a fabulous market, consisting of a series of restaurants that serve local specialties.