Montevideo

Montevideo, the southernmost capital in the Americas, is the forgotten side of the Río de la Plata; according to official figures, only 45,000 Americans visit the whole of Uruguay each year. Those who skip over Montevideo for historic Colonia or the resort town of Punta del Este miss a relaxed city with delicious meat, sandy beaches, and a well-preserved culture. The best way to see the whole city at once may be the winding, brick-lined Rambla, or boardwalk, that bends its way along the shoreline of the Río de la Plata where fishermen serenely cast from beachside rocks, couples stroll hand-in-hand alongside joggers and dog-walkers, and everyone from students to grandfathers sit on its brick rails as the sun sets, some drinking beer or mate, and other smoking cigarettes or both. Montevideo boasts 12 miles of white-sand beaches and a Mediterranean climate, but it is also a city filled with museums and architecture that fittingly reflect Uruguay’s Italian and Spanish roots.

To best see Montevideo, start in the Ciudadela or Old City. The heart of the Ciudadela is in the Plaza de la Independencia, guarded by South America’s first skyscraper, the 26-story Palacio Salvo, and the 30-ton monument commemorating independence hero José Artigas. North from here, through the giant colonial door, the Puerta de la Ciudadela is a wide pedestrian mall of museums, stores, and restaurants. The weekend is the most colorful time as musicians, tango dancers, and artists fill the space with their sounds and movements. The must-see portion of the walk is the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market). The portside building opened in 1868 and houses a throng of restaurants selling delicious Uruguayan beef, cut thick and piled high on iron grills. The best traditional way to top off a steak dinner here is with a glass of “medio y medio,” a surprisingly tasty blend of sparkling and white wine. The most distinctive aspects of Montevideo, however, go far beyond the Rambla and juicy steaks.

One of the most defining characteristic of Uruguyans and Montevideo is their love of Yerba Mate (yer-ba mah-tay). “Mate,” as it is also known, is an infusion similar to tea, but whose crushed leaves are sipped from a gourd via a silver straw, or “bombilla.” An equally distinctive feature of Montevideo culture is candombe music. On Sunday nights, impromptu formations of candombe bands march through the streets, especially in the Barrio Sur, traditionally composed of many Afro-Uruguayans. Candombe is a uniquely Uruguayan musical rhythm based on Bantu tribal dances brought to the Americas by African slaves. It is played on three different pitched drums called tambores and is similar to Brazil’s samba. In addition to candombe, Uruguay also has an important chapter in the history of tango; Carlos Gardel, the world’s most famous tango singer, was born in Montevideo. Tango clubs dot the city to this day and fill up on the weekends with locals. Unlike Buenos Aires, Montevideo’s clubs are inexpensive and almost totally devoid of tourists.

Uruguayans, especially middle- and upper-class Uruguayans, love to shop. One of the most controversial shopping centers in town is Punta Carretas Shopping, located between the Parque Rodó and Pocitos, which served as a prison up through the dictatorships of the 1970s and early 1980s. A visit to one or many of its 200 stores is a also a visit to the past. Interesting sights also include the Parque Rodó, the Botanical Gardens, the wealthy suburb of Carrasco, and the weekend Tristan Narvaja Street Fair that stretches on for blocks and blocks in every direction and sells everything from mate paraphernalia and books to old license plates and hubcaps.

El Cerro, an old fortress sitting atop Montevideo’s only hill, is an interesting visit, and provides some great views of the Río de la Plata estuary and the city. The best museum in the Ciudadela is the Museo Joaquín Torres García. A friend and collaborator of Picasso and Gaudí in Spain, Torres García was a pioneering modernist artist. The Estadio Centenario, site of the first World Cup, plays host to soccer games and rock concerts throughout the year; the most anticipated game of the year is played between Nacional and Peñarol, the two Montevideo teams with the most history.