Montevideo is one of South America's hidden glories, too often overlooked in favour of nearby Buenos Aires. Yet the compact, laid-back capital of Uruguay makes for a great weekend stopover while on the continent.
Facing the mouth of the world's widest river, the River Plate, the city is fringed by white-sand river beaches and filled with glorious 19th-century architecture. Montevideo was developed as a slave port in the 18th century by the Spanish, a history that can be traced in the neighbourhoods that skirt the river – the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), Barrio Sur and Palermo – where some of the city's most beautiful architecture and splendid plazas can be seen.
The sounds of those days live on, too, through the rhythms of candombe music. This city may lay claim to being the true home of tango, but it's these beats brought from Africa to the shores of the River Plate that uncover Montevideo's very soul.
Yet, the city isn't all about the past. Centro hosts great shopping streets and one of South America's funkiest street markets, while Calle Soriano is the hip new place to appreciate the work of local artists. Chic new design stores, swish boutique hotels and conversted loft apartments are transforming the old town. In the upscale barrios of Pocitos, Punta Carretas, and Carrasco there's a smart restaurants and bars – this is the place to taste some of the world's best steak – and Uruguay's exciting emerging wines can be tasted at the boutique bodegas, just 15 minutes out of town.
Like all South American cities, Montevideo loves to party. In fact, the city lays claim to the longest carnival in the world – Carnaval runs throughout February and March. If you're heading there in the new year, don't forget to pack your gladrags.
Montevideo's most atmospheric barrio contains the city's oldest streets and plazas. Gaze at the façades of crumbling stone and stucco. This is also where you'll discover great new designer stores and cool cafés.
Mercado del Puerto (mercadodel puerto.com.uy)
Open-grill steakhouses crowd the old port market, a cast-iron and glass building dating from 1868. It's a den of open fires, sizzling grills and huge portions.
Candombe in Barrio Sur and Palermo
At weekends, candombe troupes parade through Montevideo's two most colourful neighbourhoods. Scores of tambores, shouldering barrel-sized drums, inch their way along narrow streets. As they go, the rhythms and dancing grow more frenetic. It is a compelling, uniquely Uruguayan spectacle.
Museo del Carnaval (museodel carnaval.org)
This museum captures the magic of Uruguay's Carnaval. Its displays feature costumes, masks, giant dolls and candombe drums.
Museo de Artes Decorativas, Palacio Taranco
The city's decorative arts museum occupies a 1910 mansion and has a dazzling Art Nouveau interior of stained glass, gilded ceilings, and original furnishings.
Museo Torres García (torresgarcias .org.uy)
Uruguay's most influential artist, Joaquín Torres García, founded the Constructive Universalism art movement. This excellent museum gathers together his works.
Monumental architecture rings the central plaza. The Palacio Salvo was once Latin America's tallest building, the Teatro Solis opera house is pure opulence. A monument to independence hero, José Artigas, adorns the centre of the square.
A week-long celebration in April of Uruguay's gaucho traditions.
Soriano Street (between Ciudadela and Convención streets) is an emerging arts zone. The action, so far, centres on the restoration of the Hotel Cervantes, once frequented by Jorge Luis Borges, and the Sala Verdi, a belle époque theatre. But watch out for new art spaces, scheduled to open soon.
Copa América at the Museo del Futbol
Memorabilia from Uruguay's national football team's anni mirabili – it finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup and won the 2011 Copa América ahead of rivals Argentina and Brazil – is now on display. The giant Estadio Centenario, built in 1930 for the first World Cup Final, is the venue.
Details: 00 598 2 480 1259
La Cuisine Secrete
New queen of the Monte- video supper-club, the French expat and wonder chef Elsa Manelphe, is currently wowing guests at her Ciudad Vieja home with nights of spicy French-Asian cuisine. Manelphe's new pop-up restaurant is also up and running.
Fernando Foglino at the EAC (Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo)
Foglino's installation, Eye of the Cyclone – a swirling cylindrical column made from 3,600 metres of rescued VHS tape – hangs suspended across two floors of this impressive new contemporary art museum. The cultural space occupies a recycled wing of the city's first prison, opened in 1888.
Don Boutique Hotel
This new boutique hotel occupies a recycled port bakery. Its design sets the original building's Art Deco façade against a swish, contemporary interior.
This new veggie eaterie is the proverbial needle in the haystack in meat-obsessed Montevideo. Its menu has Middle Eastern, Latin American and Thai dishes. There are home-made lemonades and natural juices served in a funky interior of tangerine walls, open kitchen, and wooden tables.
Sunday lunch at Bodega Bouza
A boutique bodega, Bouza offers personalised tours and tastings within a 10 minute drive of Montevideo. Sample its Tannat red wine – Uruguay's signature varietal – and visit this winery's new gourmet restaurant and wine boutique, both additions for 2011.
How to get there
Return flights are available with Air Europa through Skyscanner.net for £882.
Natalia Acquistapace, Store Owner, (imaginariosur.com.uy)
I love dancing tango at Lo de Margot. It's a romantic milonga [tango hall] with a bar serving a great medio y medio – a Uruguayan cocktail of sweet sparkling and dry white wines.
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