Uruguay’s capital is an eclectic mixture of beautiful beaches, grand plazas, wonderful parrillas and decaying mansions that would look at home in Havana. In other words, Montevideo is a feast for both the stomach and eyes.
After sailing west from Punta del Este along the mighty Rio de la Plata, our cruise ship arrived the next morning in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city and cultural soul.
Squeezed between two continental giants — Brazil to the north and Argentina to the south — little Uruguay was first settled by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 17th century. The Spanish eventually built a fort in 1714 as a bulwark against further expansion of the Portuguese colony of Brazil, and begin to recruit immigrants from the Canary Islands in 1726.
By the late 1700s, Montevideo had grown into one of the most important ports in all of South America, and was a key link for trade between Spain and the New World. In 1811 Uruguay rebelled against Spanish rule and eventually gained independence in 1826.
Today, Montevideo is an eclectic mixture of peaceful plazas, beautiful beaches, grand government buildings, and decaying mansions that are surrounded by water on three sides. While it may have seen better times, Montevideo is still an interesting and engaging city, particularly in the colourful “Old City” near the port.
While the ship offered several interesting excursions outside the city, including one to the old Portuguese town of Colonia del Sacramento some 2 ½ hours to the west, we decided to do a walking tour around the Old City just a few steps from our berth.
Our first stop was the nearby Mercado del Puerto, the city’s old market near the waterfront which now houses a number of wood-fired grill restaurants (parrillas) that serve a variety of barbecued meats, empanadas and local wine and beer in an old-world atmosphere. The market is a favourite with merchant sailors and cruise ship staff, and several waiters on our ship told us they were planning to eat there.
Since it was too early for lunch, we walked south along the narrow, winding streets of the Old City to the Plaza Zabalia, where we found the nearby La Museo Historico Nacional. The museum, which is housed in and around the former residences of the country’s first president and other national heroes, traces the history of Uruguay from its indigenous tribes, to the colonial period, and up to the present time.
We continued walking along the pedestrian-only section of Sarandi Street until we found the Plaza Constitucion, a beautiful park that serves as the heart of the Old City.
The park is surrounded by a number of colonial era buildings including the early 19th century Cabildo (the town hall where Uruguay’s constitution was signed), the Museo Torres Garcia (which houses the works of some of Uruguay’s most famous artists) and the beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral (an 18th century church built in a Spanish neo-classical style). The cathedral is the burial place of Fructuoso Rivera, Uruguay’s first president in 1830.
Our next stop was the gorgeous 19th century Teatro Solis on Calle Buenos Aires, just a few blocks from the Plaza Constitucion. Montevideo’s main theatre and opera house, the Solis was built in two sections between 1842 and 1869. The theatre is the oldest still in use in South America, and was fully restored in 2004. It hosts Uruguay’s most important cultural events, and is the site of the Museo Nacional de Historica Natural.
After leaving the theatre, we walked a few feet along Calle Buenos Aires to the Plaza Independencia, which was originally the site of a Spanish citadel. The old 18th-century gate of the original citadel is still standing at the entrance to the park, providing a vivid reminder of the city’s old fortifications. There’s also a large statue in the centre of the plaza dedicated to General Jose Gervasio Artigas, the hero of Uruguay’s independence movement.
But we came here to see the Palacio Salvo, the landmark building from Italian architect Mario Palanti which has been described as “a lighthouse on top of a building.” Originally built as an Art Deco hotel in 1928, the building was originally topped with a lighthouse with a parabolic mirror. Today, the 27-floor building is an eclectic collection of private residences and offices, and features a neo-Gothic limestone façade and extensive use of marble, granite and ceramic tile inside.
By now our feet were getting tired, and our stomachs were starting to growl, so we returned to the Mercado for a traditional Uruguayan lunch. Built in 1868 in the style of a 19th-centry British railway station, the market was originally used to sell fresh produce, but was later converted to a food emporium.
Throughout the morning, the winding streets and colonial-era buildings of Montevideo’s Old City had provided a feast for our eyes. Now it was time to return to the wonderful parrillas of the Mercado del Puerto to feast on some of the best barbecued pork, beef, chicken and sausage in South America.