A slice of Montevideo: Urban secrets served up on the Plate

The Uruguayan capital’s old town is slowly but surely regenerating

South America is blessed with several cities that need no introduction – beach-beautiful Rio; tango temptress Buenos Aires; Inca institution Cusco – and a few that probably do. Montevideo falls into the second camp. The Uruguayan capital is often lost in the dazzle emanating from its Argentinian counterpart across the River Plate. Yet, for those who have intrigued affection for the Latin continent, it is an alluring metropolis – not least at this time of year, as the Southern summer (December to February) drowns it in daylight.

The city spreads out on the north bank of the Plate and exudes a marked sense of chic in gilded districts such as Punta Carretas and Carrasco. It is, though, most of interest in the little lanes of its Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), where the core of the outpost founded by Spanish soldiers in 1724 is still visible amid a growing collection of eateries, shops and museums.

Begin your tour on the north side of the narrow peninsula that contains the city’s historic kernel, outside the Museo del Carnaval at 218 Rambla 25 de Agosto 1825. Uruguay has the longest pre-Lent carnival season on the planet, losing itself in parties and parades for 40 days (from 26 January). This museum explores the costumes and colour of this giddy ritual (00 598 29 165493; museodelcarnaval.org; daily 11am to 5pm; 65 pesos/£1.80).

Next door, the Mercado del Puerto is a Montevideo legend, a cavernous iron market hall dating to 1868. Nowadays, it plays host to a clutch of parrilla barbecue restaurants, such as  La Maestranza (lamaestranza.mercadodelpuerto.com) – which serves sizzling plates of colita de cuadril (rump steak) for 320 pesos (£9), as locals and tourists alike seek lunch.

Leave by the side entrance on to the pedestrianised Calle Perez Castellano. Follow it south as it cuts uphill through the peninsula. A block on, after the cross-street of Calle Cerrito, take note of the street art on the left, which depicts candombe (a style of carnival rhythms that originated with African slaves, and is especially associated with Uruguay) drummers in action. Then turn left on to Calle 25 de Mayo and halt at number 279, where MAPI (Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indígena) is a symbol of the barrio’s revival (see Fresh Cuts below).

Return to Calle Perez Castellano and continue south, perhaps observing the faded, pastel-hued prettiness of the houses beyond the cross-street of Calle Washington – a reminder that the Ciudad Vieja is still very much a residential area. Here, you reach the top of the slope. The River Plate will be resplendent in the middle distance, catching the sunshine.

Take the next left, Calle Sarandi (also pedestrianised). Changing times are apparent here, in the new apartments being slotted into lovely 19th-century structures on the left, and at number 349, in the inviting Café Jacinto (see Fresh Cuts below). Further on at number 359, Esencia Uruguay (00 598 29 154 472; esenciauruguay.com) waves a flag for Uruguay’s fast-improving wine industry, proffering bottles of red from the vineyards of the Plate estuary.

The next three blocks of Calle Sarandi are given over to recognisable brand-name shops – until you hit Plaza Constitución. The city’s oldest square (also known as Plaza Matriz) is home, at its south-west corner, to the Catedral Metropolitana (00 598 29 157 018; arquidiocesis.net) – a Baroque bastion, built between 1790 and 1804, whose cool marble interior is an example of Spanish colonialism at its best. Outside, traders sell bric-a-brac and old novels at stalls in the shade, while the salon landmark of La Corte (Calle Sarandi 586; 00 598 91 60 435; lacorte.com.uy) is a splendid spot for coffee (from 40 pesos/£1.15).

At the south-east corner of the Plaza, Calle Sarandi carries on. Trace it through further market stalls and across Calle Bartolomé Mitre, before pausing at No 675 – where Libreria Puro Verso (00 598 29 152 589; libreriapuroverso.com) is part bookshop, part temple to literature, with stacked shelves and panels of Art Deco glass framing a studious atmosphere. Upstairs, a restaurant serves salmon with citrus butter for 375 pesos (£10.50).

Calle Sarandi expires at Plaza Independencia, and with it, brings a close to the Ciudad Vieja. Here, the stone arch of the Puerta de la Ciudadella is a final fragment of the walled Spanish citadel that was constructed in 1746. On the far side, Montevideo’s key public space marks the start of the modern metropolis – though there are shards of the past here too. The equine statue in the middle is José Artigas, the revolutionary general who led Uruguay towards independence (from Argentina and Brazil) in the 1810s – while the tower-crowned building at the south-east corner is the Palacio Salvo, a grand pile that rose as a hotel between 1922 and 1928, and is now divided into flats and offices. It has enjoyed better days, but it remains quietly attractive. Rather like Montevideo itself.

Fresh cuts

MAPI (00 598 29 169 360; mapi.org.uy; 11.30am to 5.30pm, 10am to 4pm Saturday, closed Sunday; 65 pesos/£1.80) is the clearest sign of the slow regeneration of the Ciudad Vieja. Based inside a striking late 19th-century mansion, it displays totems of South American civilisation (above) from the centuries before Spanish conquest – from Inca weapons to Mapuche jewellery. It is joined as an enticing element of the Old Town by Jacinto, a breezy corner café which does fish cakes with salad for 260 pesos (£7.30), and wines by the glass from 80 pesos (£2.25) (00 598 29 152 731;  restaurantmontevideo.com).

Travel essentials

Getting there

American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) flies daily to Montevideo from Heathrow, via Miami.

Staying there

Axsur Design Hotel, Calle Missiones 1260 (00598 29 162 747; axsurhotel.com). Double rooms from US$139 (£85), with breakfast.

Touring there

Last Frontiers (01296 653 000; lastfrontiers.com) offers a 10-day Uruguay itinerary that takes in Montevideo, as well as Fray Bentos, Punta Del Este and Colonia from £2,783pp, including international flights, transfers and breakfast.

More information

montevideo.gub.uyuruguaynatural.com; lata.org

News
Food blogger and Guardian writer Jack Monroe with her young son
people
News
people
Environment
The plant ‘Nepenthes zygon’ was donated to Kew in 2004
environment
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Life and Style
Fraud contributes 11p to a £2.00 box of half a dozen eggs
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Investigo: Group Financial Controller

    £50000 - £55000 per annum: Investigo: A growing group of top end restaurants l...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital