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.
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).
American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) flies daily to Montevideo from Heathrow, via Miami.
Axsur Design Hotel, Calle Missiones 1260 (00598 29 162 747; axsurhotel.com). Double rooms from US$139 (£85), with breakfast.
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.