Touching in down in Montevideo, the two of us city girls were giddy with excitement. Six weeks of traveling through barren landscape of Patagonia and the green spaces of Chile and Argentina’s Lake District had been unlike anywhere we had ever been, but we missed the buzz of a big city: culture, people, diverse food, art. After such great experiences in Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile, we also had high expectations for Montevideo, our third South American capital and Jess had even harbored some ideas about living there for a few weeks at one point. When we walked out of a gleaming, futuristic airport terminal to catch our bus into the city, we were convinced that Montevideo wouldn’t disappoint.
A few minutes in to the ride, however, and we had passed the first of many horse carriages and dirt roads. We wondered if maybe Uruguay’s capital wasn’t as modern as its airport had teased?
We started our exploration in Ciudad Vieja, the original colonial part of town. As we explored around our hotel, we discovered historic colonial buildings either in a charming state of disrepair or beautifully restored.
The Mercado del Puerto, the port market, was originally built in 1865 to be a train station. This wrought-iron construction now houses an array of restaurants that specialize in meat and seafood dishes. While there wasn’t much for us vegetarians to try, people rave about the restaurants in this market.
We loved the little restaurants,cafes and shops in the old town, and the old-fashioned fruit and vegetable stores.
This charming antique flea market sprawled out on the tiny Plaza Constitución, the oldest square in all of Montevideo.
Though it seemed impossible at first, Uruguayans are even more obsessed with drinking their mate, a South American herbal tea drink, than in Argentina. While we saw people walking around with mate gourds in Argentina occasionally, it seemed that everyone in Uruguay was bringing their mate gourd and a thermos with hot water with them, where ever they went.
Drinking mate out of hoofs seemed to be particularly trendy.
Our next stop was the Plaza Independencia, Montevideo’s most important square, which separates the old town from the commercial downtown center.
This modern office tower right on the square, the Executive Tower, is the workplace of José Mujica, the current Uruguayan Head of State.
The Palacio Salvo is the most impressive building on Plaza Independencia, however, with its 100 meter tall ornate tower (below on the right), designed by the architect Mario Palanti, who designed a similar building, the Palacio Barolo, in Buenos Aires.
Palacio Salvo marks the beginning of the Avenida de 18 de Julio, Montevideo’s most important shopping street which is also filled with gorgeous art deco buildings and old-fashioned shops and restaurants.
While shoppers go about their business, there are always groups of men playing chess on the sidewalk.
It is no secret that I am obsessed with love padlocks on bridges (and we even put our very own one on the Brooklyn Bridge!), so I was beyond excited to stumble upon an entire love lock fountain!
The fountain says: “The legend of this young fountain tells us that if a lock with the initials of two people in love is placed in it, they will return together to the fountain and their love will be forever locked”.
We loved the Diego y Jose lock – and were surprised to learn that the country is actually very gay-friendly, having recently passed a bill that will make same-sex marriage legal in Uruguay as of 1 August 2013 – making it only the 14th country in the world to legalize gay marriage. The Old Town even has a dedicated Espacio Libre de la Diversidad Sexual Montevideo, a square dedicated to sexual diversity!
Another thing we loved about Montevideo were the many tree-lined boulevards everywhere.
After marveling at some more of the city’s extraordinary architecture, it was time for us to hit the beaches. Montevideo has over 13 kilometers (8.1 mi) of sandy beaches. We rented bikes, but you can walk or even just drive along the Ramblas, the coastal road, for over 20km of beach after beach after beach.
Playa Pocitos is the best-known beach in the city, lined by luxury apartment buildings in this upscale part of town.
Montevideo does have all the ingredients of what makes a great city, but this particular recipe just didn’t impress us much. We weren’t captivated the way we were in Buenos Aires or even Santiago, which took longer to win our hearts. We might be biased because of the attempted robbery, but overall we felt that the city is a bit rough, lacking in much diversity and just doesn’t have the interesting, laid-back vibe that makes the rest of Uruguay such a great destination.
Have you been to Montevideo? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the city in the comments below.