Many visitors to Uruguay skip Montevideo, perhaps because of its lack of quality hotels or because they’re in a hurry to get to the beach. This is a mistake. Montevideo (meaning “I see a hill”) is a polite, attractive city with some superb architecture and excellent restaurants; it easily warrants a night or two on either side of a beach holiday.
I concur with the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who said of it, “You are the Buenos Aires we once had; That slipped away quietly over the years; False door in time; Your streets contemplate a lighter past.” The most interesting part of town is the Ciudad Vieja (Old City), where Montevideo was founded in 1726 with the arrival of a hundred settlers from the Canary Islands. The city’s popular Mercado del Puerto is located here, next to the old port. Dating from 1868, it consists of a series of smoky pavilions originally manufactured in a Liverpool foundry. Today, it has become an atmospheric showcase of Uruguayan barbecue culture.
Uruguayans are mad for grilled meats, and not just steaks but morcilla (blood sausage), mollejas (sweetbreads), chinchulines (chitterlings) and choto (grilled lamb intestines). Most of the grill places that fill the market close in the evening, but El Palenque serves dinner and has a spacious terrace for good-weather dining. In addition to great steaks, don’t miss the grilled Provolone cheese and vegetables.
Most of Montevideo’s main sights surround the Plaza Independencia: the Palacio Salvo, a superb art deco apartment building; the Casa de Gobierno (Presidential Palace); a statue of José Gervasio Artigas (the George Washington of Uruguay); and the handsome Solís Theater, which has an excellent restaurant, Rara Avis. A long stroll on Avenida 18 de Julio, Montevideo’s main drag, is a good way to take the pulse of the city and enjoy its wonderful art deco architecture. The city also has several charming small museums. I’d never heard of the Uruguayan artist José Gurvich before I visited the Museo Gurvich, but I was charmed by his art and fascinated by his family history. The Gurviches immigrated to Uruguay from Lithuania and eventually became part of Montevideo’s small but influential Jewish community. I also recommend a visit to the Museo del Carnaval, which displays masks, drums and costumes connected to South America’s longest and liveliest carnaval (it runs annually throughout February and March). Finally, the elegant Museo de Artes Decorativas is an atmospheric time capsule of an art nouveau mansion with a small but rich collection of art and antiques.
While I can’t make any formal hotel recommendations, there are several perfectly suitable options. I prefer to stay downtown rather than in the city’s palmier residential districts or suburbs. The 21-room Don Boutique Hotel, the most talked-about new hotel in Montevideo, is located just across the street from the Mercado in a renovated art deco office building. The slick contemporary décor of this property takes a page from the Miami Beach boutique hotel playbook. The rooms are snug, but the staff is friendly and there’s a pleasant rooftop pool and solarium. For anyone who prefers more traditional comfort, and full-service properties, the best options are the Radisson on Plaza Independencia or, farther afield, the TRYP Montevideo Hotel. This fall, a new seaside Sofitel will open in the former Hotel Carrasco, a 1920s hotel-casino, the first major new luxury property in Montevideo in many years.