There are some cities that just feel like home right away. Montevideo is that city for me.
I never thought I’d love Montevideo so much. I mean, I’ve never even heard of this little capital city until a few months ago. We only picked this place because we were visiting Buenos Aires and needed somewhere else to go for a month. Enter Montevideo – an easy boat ride across the river from BA. We’re honestly the laziest travelers I know, so easy wins every time.
I was a little apprehensive about coming here after a not so welcoming experience in BA. I was afraid that maybe since these cities are so close to each other, they would be just the same and I wouldn’t like Montevideo either. Turns out, I couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s true that there are a lot of similarities in that both are heavily European influenced cultures and have somewhat similar cuisines, but they may as well be on completely different continents, despite being just across a river from each other.
For one, Uruguayans are insanely friendly. I love that more than anything. And I think it’s awesome that the government is aiming to be the least corrupt government in South America. And apparently, Uruguayans and Argentinians hate each other’s guts (so I was told by locals). Hmm.. guess which team I’m on?
Montevideo is seriously cool, but I feel like it’s so overlooked. Most people seem to think that it’s only worth a few days of your time (our BA hosts thought we were CRAZY to be spending a month here. Because it’s small and boring, she said). But though I’ve been here for almost 3 weeks now, I feel slightly panicked that I’ll be leaving next week and won’t see/do everything I want to.
So I’ve been eagerly exploring and learning as much as my brain can handle.
I’ll continue to share more about Montevideo in the coming weeks, but this post focuses on Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), where we’ve made our home for this month.
**For a GPS-guided map of all the the landmarks and locations I’m going to talk about, you can download this article and a map on GPSMyCity here.
Intro to Ciudad Vieja
Ciudad Vieja is the oldest part of Montevideo and one of the most popular tourist destinations. It’s not hard to see why. Though small and compacted into an area of 8 x 14 city blocks, these blocks are chock-full of beautiful old architecture that lend Ciudad Vieja its character. During the week, the pedestrian streets are full of visitors, street vendors, and street musicians. The atmosphere is lively, yet retains that of a quiet, mellow small town.
But it wasn’t always this way.
The entire country of Uruguay suffered a hard financial crisis in the early 2000’s, mainly due to a crazy cow disease and spillover effects from Argentina’s financial problems. It was the largest banking disaster in the history of the country. Many people fled to greener pastures, leaving Montevideo Ciudad Vieja practically abandoned.
“If 10 years ago, you told me that tourists come to visit Ciudad Vieja, I would never have believed it.” Our local guide told us. “Now, it’s one of my favorite places in Montevideo.”
I agree. No matter how many times I walk through its streets, I’m still mesmerized by its old world charm and overly ornate architectural details.
But walking around, the aftermath of the economic crisis is still everywhere. I see a town with its best years behind it. Buildings that were once beautiful now only leave behind a crumbling facade, peeling paint, broken windows, and graffiti markings that no one bothers to clean up. Rows of abandoned buildings stand in silence behind padlocked doors.
But I also see an area with great potential for improvement. I see old buildings being restored to their former glory. I see gorgeous old cafés that have withstood the test of time and economy failures. I see new trendy bistro bars led by innovative chefs who are challenging the traditional Uruguayan cuisine. And bright, stylish stores selling the latest fashions.
No question about it, Ciudad Vieja in the midst of a revival. I’m just glad that the city has strict ordinances on the renovation work, so that the original facades won’t be lost.
Things to do in & around Ciudad Vieja
Relax at Plaza Matriz – the oldest plaza in Montevideo, which used to be the main hub for social gatherings. It contains an interesting Spanish fountain with alchemy symbols, the main church, and a few restaurants (though none that I can recommend). This quiet plaza may be underwhelming compared to other main plazas in other capital cities, but it plays perfectly into Montevideo’s small town feel.
Walk down Sarandí – the main pedestrian strip (running through Plaza Matriz), with tons of shops, restaurants, and street vendors.
Or explore Perez Castellano – the other quieter pedestrian street with grocers, butcher shops, and artisan craft stores. This street caters more to locals, and has more of a 19th century charm with some of the prettiest buildings in Old Town.
Release your inner bookworm at Libreria and Cafe Puro Verso – a beautiful bookstore right inside the main gate. Personally, I love bookstores and this one manages to be cozy (with it’s small size) and grand (with the staircase and stained glass) at the same time. There is also a café on the 2nd floor with a daily lunch menu and good selection of wines.
Escape the city for a bit at the rambla! Ciudad Vieja is situated at the tip of a peninsula and surrounded by the grand Rio de la Plata at all sides (it’s a river, but so wide that it stretches endlessly like the ocean. Across this river is Buenos Aires). Along the entire edge of the water is the rambla, or boardwalk. This is a perfect spot to catch the sunset!
Admire the magnificence of Plaza Independencia – the plaza directly on the other side of the main gate. Technically, this plaza is the start of Montevideo Centro. The most commanding building in this plaza is the Palacio Salvo. This unique building is designed by Italian architect Mario Palanti, and is famous for its amalgamation of architectural styles (he also designed a sister building in Buenos Aires, the Palacio Barolo!) It also led the title of the tallest building in all of South America for decades!
For a little culture, tour Teatro Solis – Uruguay’s oldest theater (built in 1856), located right on the edge of Plaza Independencia. Tours in Spanish and English are given almost daily for a small fee (except for Monday’s). And if you’re lucky, you may even score tickets for a free show there, if you inquire at the ticket counter.
If you’re craving meat, you’ll find the ultimate meatopia at Puerto del Mercado (located at the end of the Perez Castellano street), a marketplace with over a dozen parrillas all crammed in. You’ve never seen grills like this! Sure, this place is a little touristy, but it’s great for a meat fix, especially as parrillas aren’t all that easy to come by in Montevideo. The most fun part about it is eating at the bar-style counters in front of the grill.
For history and art lovers, there are a number of museums in Ciudad Vieja, including:
- Museo Andes 1972 | Rincon 619
- Museo Torres Garcia | Peatonal Sarandi 683
- Museo del Carnaval | Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825
- Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indigena | 25 de Mayo 279
And lastly, no visit is complete without dining at some truly innovative restaurants. I will be writing separate posts about the best restaurants in Ciudad Vieja, so stay tuned! But don’t come for dinner. Ciudad Vieja is mostly a financial/business district, with the restaurants serving mainly the work lunch crowd. So about 95% of the restaurants are only open during the week (M-F) for lunch.
Little quirks & details
Wandering around, you’ll probably notice random patches of shiny, colorful tile amidst the dirty, cracking original groundwork. This is the work of a secret artist! This mysterious do-gooder comes out when everyone else is tucked away in bed to fill in broken/missing tiles with colorful mosaics. I think they totally brighten up a sidewalk, don’t you?
And my absolute favorite thing about Old Town (actually, all of Montevideo in general) are the doors. I’ve never seen such colorful, unique doors! They’re mostly all French double doors, but very tall and narrow and constructed with amazing detail. They add serious character to the city. When I think of Montevideo, I think doors.
The old town could look pretty sketchy after the sun sets. Almost all businesses/restaurants are shut down and the streets become pretty much a ghost town. Is it safe?
It’s true that the safety of Ciudad Vieja has been a huge concern in the past years. When it was mostly abandoned for years, it became a breeding ground for hooligans and petty theft. However, the government just recently installed video cameras on practically every corner of the neighborhood, and crime rates dropped significantly to almost none. So while it LOOKS dodgy, you don’t really have much to fear and I’ve never felt unsafe. However, there are some areas to exercise caution in at night, mainly the area around Mercado del Puerto, and anywhere west of Perez Castellanos.
On weekends, especially Sundays, the old city empties of businessmen and most of the restaurants/shops close. And that’s my favorite time of the week. The only downside is the lack of open eateries and only having the McDonalds to quell your hunger. But it doesn’t matter; for on weekends, it’s my time to stroll around at leisure, discover new mosaic tiles, use the park exercise equipment, take tons of uninterrupted pictures, and window-shop abandoned buildings that I dream of owning.
On weekends, it’s my town. And it feels like home.
If you found this article useful and want to visit these places, you can download this on GPSMyCity here. You’ll get a GPS-guided map of these locations that you can use offline! This means you can spend less time looking for directions and more time exploring!