Travel | January 4, 2023 6:12 am

The Perfect Weekend in South America’s Hidden Gem of a City

Where to stay, as well as what to eat and do in Uruguay's capital city.

View of Independence Square in Montevideo
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The capital city of Uruguay isn’t as popular or as busy as South American destinations like Buenos Aires or Santiago — but Montevideo has a lot to offer discerning travelers in search of a laidback oceanside vacation. The largest city in Uruguay is home to just short of two million residents but the relaxed attitude and slowed-down pace of life make the city feel more like a small beach town than a bustling metropolis.

The unpretentious population is famously one of the most welcoming and liberal in the Americas; Uruguay has led the charge in South America when it comes to things like marriage equality, gender rights and even the legalization of marijuana. In short — there’s a lot to love about this modest capital city, whether it’s strolling down La Rambla, taking in the sights and sounds of the stunning Belle Epoque old town or just chatting up locals while sitting elbow to elbow at the market.

The laidback atmosphere and miles-long beachfront make Montevideo an excellent escape from the bustle of neighboring Buenos Aires, even if it’s just for a day or two. If you’re looking for an easy-going adventure that seamlessly combines exploration and relaxation — here’s what you’ll want to see and do while on vacation in Montevideo.

Where to stay

Montevideo isn’t as big or bustling as its big city neighbors in Argentina and Brazil — and as such it doesn’t have the same selection of big-name luxury brands to choose from when it comes to booking a hotel in the city. That said, it’s still home to a selection of great hotels dotted along the Ciudad Vieja and into Punta Carretas as well.

If you’re looking for laid-back luxury, consider checking into Hotel Sofitel Montevideo Casino Carrasco and Spa overlooking La Plata River. The stunning property features 116 well-appointed guest rooms and suites while the lobby and exterior architecture offer a well-preserved historical aesthetic. The Hyatt Centric Montevideo, on the other hand, offers similarly luxurious rooms and suites but its proximity to the Playa de los Pocitos makes this a better option for travelers in search of a beachfront property that is still walking distance to the Ciudad Vieja.

Looking to stay in the center of the old city in order to maximize your time in Montevideo? Consider checking into the stunning Alma Histórica Boutique Hotel. Located in a 1920s-era Neocolonial townhouse, the cozy boutique property was inspired by local Uruguayan artists and writers with each room following its own loose interpretation of a specific work of art or piece of writing. There’s also a stunning rooftop terrasse with unobstructed views of the Ciudad Vieja below (and a hot tub!).

Playa Ramirez
Playa Ramirez
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What to do

Montevideo is an extremely walkable city, which is perfect for making the most of a short weekend trip. Start your day by taking a leisurely stroll on La Rambla. The oceanfront sidewalk spans over 22 uninterrupted kilometers (about 13 miles) which makes it the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. Pro tip: consider renting a bicycle or rollerblades while you’re exploring the city; La Rambla is full of cyclists and pedestrians alike and is one of the fastest ways to get from point A to point B while exploring the city.

While exploring the sights and sounds along La Rambla, you’ll want to make your way to the Escaramuza Libros. The stunning mainly Spanish-language bookstore is housed in a carefully preserved building from 1903 with a built-in indoor/outdoor cafe occupying the back half of the building. If you’re working on your Spanish (or you’re already fluent), pick up a book of Uruguayan poetry as a thoughtful souvenir of your time in Montevideo.

Montevideo — and the rest of Uruguay — tends to lean into the concept of the siesta and as such, it can be hard to find businesses or storefronts open in the mid-afternoon. Consider spending your afternoon on one of the city’s many public beaches. The Playa Ramirez is on the smaller side, but it’s only about 15 minutes on foot from the Escaramuza Libros. If you’re hoping to find a more lively beach with white sand and action on the oceanfront (think kite surfing and kayaking) you’ll want to check out Playa de los Pocitos in the trendy Pocitos neighborhood.

The city of Montevideo might be small, but it’s mighty in terms of museum culture. There’s a museum to suit just about every taste and interest. Head to the National Museum Of Visual Arts or the Museo Juan Manuel Blanes if you’re interested in getting a better understanding of historic and modern Uruguayan art. The Museo Andes 1972 provides visitors with the chance to pay homage to the twenty-nine people who perished in the 1972 Andes plane crash while the Museo del Carnaval in the heart of the Ciudad Vieja gives guests an inside look at carnival culture in Uruguay.

Where to eat and drink

Although Uruguay is one of the few countries in South America that doesn’t produce coffee, the cafe culture in Montevideo is burgeoning. Start your day with an iced coffee or cortado at Cafe La Farmacia. The stunning coffee shop in the Ciudad Vieja is set in a former pharmacy and features carefully preserved antique woodwork, original cabinetry and high ceilings and windows that foster a cozy but sun-flooded atmosphere.

Television fame isn’t always the best co-sign when it comes to top-rated restaurants, but that’s certainly not the case at Jacinto. The well-loved eatery is a favorite among locals and visitors alike largely thanks to its appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and later when chef-owner Lucía Soria was featured on Masterchef. The checkered-floor mainstay is almost always bustling and features standout dishes like avocado-based bruschetta and beef tartare as well as a rotating wine menu packed with Uruguayan offerings.

Like neighboring Buenos Aires, Montevideo is known for its parilla (charcoal- or wood-barbecued meats). You’ll want to make sure to schedule time to indulge in a full asado experience while you’re in town. The Mercado del Puerto in the Ciudad Vieja, although slightly tourist-focused, is a great last-minute option with plenty of decadent asado restaurants to choose from.

If you’re looking for a more laidback dining experience, consider heading to La Pulpería, a casual parilla restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating (if you have sensitive eyes, we suggest the latter as it can get pretty smoky by the parilla). Wherever you go for asado, be sure to pair your piled-high platter of meat with a bottle of Medio y Medio — a Uruguayan wine cocktail made with equal parts white and sweet sparkling wine that pairs perfectly with heavy red meat.