Montevideo not only is the capital of Uruguay, it is also one of the most important cities in South America. Unlike other large cities in the region, there are no big skyscrapers, pollution, or traffic jams. The clear view towards the Rio de la Plata is ubiquitous, there are many parks and you can see many people walking at leisure, always carrying a hot water thermos under the arm so as to have a mate, the typical Uruguayan infusion, at any time. A city with a rich culture and history, cordoned off by 30 kilometers of sea-side promenade bordering the coast and the whole city, stretching from the port to the beaches of Pocitos. A city that deserves to be well-known, traveled and lived.
Just a few miles outside of Montevideo there are smaller cities well worth a day trip or even spending a few nights. Punta del Este is the most luxurious, and expensive, seaside resort in the region. Every summer it receives hundreds of thousands of visitors from Argentina, other parts of Uruguay, and Brazil. Some eighty miles from Montevideo, it takes about two hours to drive there. The beach town of Piriápolis, roughly equidistant between Montevideo and Punta del Este, has the charm of resort towns from the thirties. Just over one hundred miles away is Colonia del Sacramento, a charming colonial city with cobblestoned streets and well conserved buildings. Colonia can be visited in a day.
Punta Carretas is home to some of the hippest and most original restaurants in the city. One of them is Francis. With over a decade of experience and two locations (the other one is in the Carrasco neighborhood), Francis is a point of reference in gourmet cuisine. Its extensive menu includes sushi and ceviche as well as grilled meats. 62 Bar, in the heart of Pocitos, has a similar style: warm atmosphere with checkered floors and exposed-brick vaulted ceilings. It also has tables on the sidewalk. Another point of reference in more modern cuisine is Café Misterio, which specialized in Japanese food. This is the place for you if you want fresh sushi.
There are many candidates in the running for the post of best chivito in the city. Decorated like a typical U.S. diner, Thelma Bar (until recently called Bulebar) serves traditional chivito, as well as vegetarian options, hamburgers, and smoothies. At Casitanno as well, you can try creative versions of the chivito, where the tenderloin is replaced with rib eye. They even serve a chivito made from sweetbreads. Tinkal, which has been around for over forty years, serves bacon chivitos. But if you want to try the classic chivito, you must head to Bar Tabaré, a café that dates back to 1919. Though it has been thoroughly remodeled, Bar Tabaré has lost none of its original mystique. The dishes served range from Mediterranean fare (black rice risotto) to ethnic food (sea bass ceviche) and grilled meats. If it's pizza you want, Pizzería Trouville never fails. The most popular choice is the mozzarella, ham, and olive pie. For dessert or a sweet snack any time of day, try Cake's, a Montevideo institution.
The Dakota Steakhouse & Bar, located in Hotel Dazzler, is a North American-style grill known for its excellent fourteen-ounce-plus baby back ribs and classic cocktails, from margaritas to gin and tonics. It is a favorite of guests at the hotel and others who want to try the house specialties. Just a few yards from the hotel is El Viejo y Querido, an old general store that offers lunch specials and afternoon snakes. The vintage objects that decorate the restaurant are for sale.
A number of attractive bars are located in Punta Carretas. Gallagher's is a typical Irish pub that serves a wide range of locally brewed and industrial beers. Clyde's is another favorite in the area thanks to its decoration (with lots of wood) and range of beers and cocktails.
Another outstanding feature of Montevideo is its views. Be sure to visit the Plaza de la Armada (also known as Plaza Virgilio). Thanks to its location over the boardwalk, it provides a privilege view of the river and the city. A classic Montevideo outing consists of going there to have a few mates and take in the view. Some sixty-two feet above the ground, the lighthouse at Punta Carretas (for which the neighborhood is named) also provides a great view.
Ramírez, Pocitos, Puertito del Buceo, Buceo, Malvín, Honda, Ingleses, Mulata, Carrasco, and Miramar: those are the names of the beaches on the coast of Montevideo near Punta Carretas. Thanks to their white sands, they draw locals and tourists alike. All the beaches have bathroom facilities, snack bars, and areas for recreational activities. Slightly further from the downtown area is the less crowded Carrasco beach, which is as glamorous as the neighborhood it is in.
And, in addition to the beaches, don't forget those eighteen miles of boardwalk, a perfect place to walk, jog, go for a bike ride, or talk a stroll while enjoying the views of the city and the river. Montevideo is a city that can be enjoyed outdoors all year round.
The Montevideo boardwalk is perfect for playing sports or just strolling. If you walk it in its entirety, you will go by all of the city's major neighborhoods. Starting at the port, the first neighborhood you'll come to is the historical district, followed by the commercial and financial center, then more residential areas like Barrio Sur and Parque Rodó, and finally Punta Carretas, Pocitos, and Carrasco. By following the boardwalk, you will get a sense of the city's geography. The city's fast and efficient bus system is the best way to get around.
Unlike the downtown area whose main appeal is tradition and history, the Punta Carretas area is known for its bars and restaurants, lovely views, and easy access to the city's beaches.
Just three miles from Plaza Independencia, Punta Carretas, like neighboring Pocitos, is an upper-middle-class residential neighborhood. For much of the 20th century, a penitentiary was located in the area. It was shut down in the eighties and, in 1994, the premises —pursuant to a fair amount of controversy— was turned into a large shopping mall. Punta Carretas Shopping, with its wide range of stores, is one of the most attractive malls in Montevideo. After the mall was open, the area developed considerably and it is now a must for anyone who visits the Uruguayan capital.
Thanks to its music and murgas —or bands of street performers— costumes and bright colors, carnival is the most important form of cultural expression in Montevideo. "The longest carnival in the world" takes place from January until the end of March, though there are shows year-round in the street and in theaters. The origins of the celebration lie in Spanish and African immigrants who came to Uruguay during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another fruit of those immigrants (though mostly of the Africans) is candombe, a local musical style characterized by the rhythmic tapping of drums. It is common to hear this kind of music in the street during weekends and holidays.
Many foreigners find it startling: what is that thing that residents of Montevideo (and almost all Uruguayans, for that matter) carry with them everywhere? It's mate, an infusion prepared by mixing hot water (carried in a thermos) with the mate herb. Mate is consumed at breakfast and with an afternoon snack, at work and... well, any place and time of day. Some add sugar and others drink it bitter. A metal straw is used to sip mate and it is usually shared. Mate, then, is something of a ritual.