The Uruguayan capital might not be the most popular travel destination in South America, and many see Uruguay as a mini-Argentina. There are similarities, but Montevideo has its own charm and is much more than a smaller version of Buenos Aires. On this basis, here are the best things to do in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Welcome to Montevideo: an Underrated South American Capital
In the late 17th century, the Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence divided the New World. In this context, the line between the two ran straight through what is today Uruguay.
The Portuguese controlled the northern shores of the Río de la Plata and founded the city of Colonia del Sacramento. On the other side of the estuary, the Spanish became wary of Portuguese dominance in the region.
In the early 18th century, they sent military expeditions over from Buenos Aires, forcing the Portuguese to abandon their fortifications. One of these was the “Montevieu Fort.”
In 1724, Mauricio de Zabala, the captain-general of the Spanish Río de la Plata region, founded the city of Montevideo around the former Portuguese fort.
After the conquest, the Spanish Empire populated the city and the surrounding region with immigrants from the Canary Islands. As such, Montevideo rapidly evolved into the second most important coastal city on the Río de la Plata – rivaling Buenos Aires and becoming a trade hub.
Immigrants from all over Europe flocked in, but the two primary groups were Spaniards and Italians. Even today, Italian names are still commonplace in Uruguay.
Uruguay declared independence in 1824 and enacted its first constitution in 1830. The early 20th century witnessed another wave of European immigration into Uruguay.
Today, almost 90 percent of Uruguayans have European (primarily Spanish, Italian, and German) ancestry. Uruguay is thereby the most ethnically European country in the Americas.
Montevideo gradually developed into one of the safest, most liveable, and most thriving cities in South America. In 2017, Mercer ranked Montevideo’s quality of life as number one in South America, right in front of Santiago, Chile.
The Best Things to do in Montevideo, Uruguay
You’ll find the top places to visit in Montevideo all over the city, but many are in the historic center. The city center isn’t the best place to stay in Montevideo (see accommodation point), but it’s where your visit should start.
Take a Stroll in Montevideo’s Historic Ciudad Vieja
Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (“Old Town”) is brimming with colonial architecture and historic mansions. Some have seen better days, but the Old Town still conveys a charming historic atmosphere.
The showpiece square in the Old Town is the Plaza Independencia (“Independence Square”). The plaza is home to two of Montevideo’s most famous structures: the Palacio Salvo and the Teatro Solís.
Finished in 1928, the architect designed the Palacio to become the city’s most luxurious hotel. That plan never materialized, and the Palacio has since been a multi-purpose historic skyscraper housing offices and private residences.
At the intersection of the Palacio Salvo and Independence Square, you’ll find Avenida 18 de Julio, the longest avenue in central Montevideo.
Teatro Solís opened in 1856 and is still Uruguay’s most important performance center. Fully renovated in 2004, the Solís Theatre nowadays hosts ballet, concerts, operas, and plays.
In addition to its historic architecture, the Old Town has a wide variety of museums, bars, and restaurants. As with many South American cities, the older part of the city is safe during the day, but you’ll need to be cautious at night.
Discover Uruguay’s Most Famous Painter in the Blanes Museum
One of the best museums in Montevideo is undoubtedly the Blanes Museum. It’s located in the Prado area, one of the city’s less fortunate neighborhoods.
Don’t let its surroundings deter you from visiting, however. Housed inside a magnificent 19th-century villa, the museum’s opulent architecture and garden make it look like an alien structure in this neighborhood.
Inside, you’ll find some of the most impressive Blanes paintings. Juan Manuel Blanes is Uruguay’s most well-known painter and his works depict scenes from the country’s history. In this context, Blanes immortalized the nation’s founding in 1830 – as well as other significant episodes on his canvases.
In addition to art, the Blanes Museum has a beautiful park boasting a fully-fledged Japanese garden. The government of Japan donated the garden to the city of Montevideo to celebrate 80 years of successful diplomatic relations in 2001.
Among the best free things to do in Montevideo, visiting the museum doesn’t cost a penny and will enable you to relish Blanes’ typical marriage of art and history.
Head to one of the Best Beaches in Montevideo
Located on the Río de la Plata estuary, heading to the beach is among the best things to do in Montevideo on a sunny day.
The best beaches in central Montevideo include Playa Pocitos, located next to the charming “Rambla” promenade, and Playa Ramirez. Montevideo enjoys pleasant weather from October until March, and the beaches are located close to the city center.
A bit further out in the eastern direction, Playa Carrasco, Playa Buceo, Playa Malvin, Playa de los Ingleses, and Playa Verde are also among the top places to visit near Montevideo.
Enjoy a Night Out in Some of the Best Bars and Clubs in Montevideo
The nightlife in Montevideo is varied but tame in comparison to other South American capitals.
That’s on the one hand due to the city’s spread-out layout. Montevideo has 1.5 million inhabitants, but the density is quite low. The high prices for South American standards are another reason why the nightlife in Montevideo cannot compete with comparable cities in Argentina or Colombia, for example.
You’ll find the best bars and clubs in Montevideo around three areas. The high-end district of Pocitos has some of the best nightlife in the city, with something for every taste.
In this particular area, we recommend Gallagher’s Irish Pub, one of the trendiest pubs in the city. Other options include Lotus Club, the city’s most hailed upscale party temple, and Burlesque, a hip cocktail bar with a chic yet cozy feel.
Aside from Pocitos, Parque Rodó is the area to be if you are looking for a high density of nightlife venues in Montevideo.
Some of the best bars in Parque Rodó are Brickell, an Irish institution in Uruguay, Bar Lola, one of the city’s top electro bars, Puta Madre Bar, a popular cocktail venue, and Shelter Patio Cervecero, a hidden craft beer garden.
In the Old Town, El Pony Pisador, Tango Bar El Hacha, and Bar Andorra are recommendable spots to check out.
See a Football Game
Football is a religion in Uruguay thanks to the fact that this nation of just over 3.2 million people has won two world cups and continues to be successful in most tournaments. Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, and Fede Valverde are just some of the best Uruguayan players who currently light up Europe’s most competitive leagues.
Even though the level in the national league is lower, many people love watching their favorite team either on TV or in the stadium.
The relatively affordable ticket prices – and the widespread fan culture – explain that even insignificant games attract over 30,000 spectators.
Montevideo has several successful teams. The largest are Peñarol and Club Nacional. Their rivalry is legendary in South America and derbies frequently paralyze the whole city.
On this basis, attending a Peñarol or Club Nacional Game is among the most authentic things to do in Montevideo. You can buy tickets at Redpagos stores or in the stadium.
Peñarol used to play in the historic Estadio Centenario (see further below) but now plays in the brand-new 40,000-seater Estadio Campeón del Siglo, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city center.
Club Nacional plays in the 120-year-old Estadio Gran Parque Central in central Montevideo. Renovated on numerous occasions, the club is currently expanding the stadium from 35,000 to 40,000 spectators.
What to Know Before Watching a Football Game in Montevideo
- Be aware that most of the stands are terraces without actual seats. The layout creates an electrifying atmosphere with thousands of people constantly cheering and dancing. However, if you are not used to South American football, the craziness might overwhelm you.
- In addition to that, officials discourage tourists from standing in the “ultra” sections behind the goals. Violence is rare in Uruguayan football, but hooliganism is not unheard of.
- Another thing to know before going to a game in Uruguay is that cannabis consumption (legal in Uruguay) is omnipresent during the games.
On this basis, if you don’t like ecstatic crowds or the smell of weed, rethink this idea of going to a football game in Montevideo.
Learn About the History of Uruguay in Some of Montevideo’s Best Museums
Aside from the Blanes Museum, other cultural institutions are among the top places to visit in Montevideo.
In this regard, the best museums in Montevideo include the Art History Museum, located in the Old Town. It features a wide variety of historical exhibitions, ranging from Egyptian treasures to Mesoamerican civilizations.
The top cultural things to do in Montevideo also include the Museum of Visual Arts. Located inside Parque Rodó, the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales permanently exhibits Blanes and other local artists in addition to its architecture-related temporary exhibitions.
Finally, the Castillo Pittamiglio, the former residence of famous Uruguayan architect Humberto Pittamiglio, is certainly worth a stop as well if you are into architecture and alchemy.
Visit the first FIFA World Cup Stadium
After having soaked in the infectious atmosphere at one of the games, why not visit the football temple where Uruguay won the first-ever FIFA World Cup against Argentina in 1930?
Before 1930, there was no global football tournament. This ended with the first-ever FIFA World Cup, hosted in Uruguay.
Three stadiums were used in this particular world cup, and two still stand. The Centenario (“Centurion”) was finished just in time for the World Cup in 1930. Its name is an homage to Uruguay’s first constitution, enacted a century earlier.
The official capacity is 60,000, but the Centenario’s attendance rose to 80,000 on numerous occasions, notably when Uruguay played Yugoslavia in 1930.
Modernized several times, the stadium has retained its original look and is currently under renovation to be used again in the future. Between 1930 and 2016, it hosted national team games, Peñarol games, but also famous concerts such as Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones.
The stadium also holds the Museum of Football, explaining the history of the sport and detailing the exploits of Uruguay’s national team.
The importance of this particular stadium for the most popular sport in the world makes it an absolute must for sports fans and one of the top places to visit in Montevideo.
Enjoy Succulent Meat in the Mercado del Puerto
The Mercado del Puerto (“port market”) is one of the best things to do in Montevideo for gourmets. The market was inaugurated in 1868 and still functions as an aggregation of food stores.
Nowadays dotted with restaurants, the Mercado del Puerto is an ideal spot to eat Uruguayan beef, fish, and other specialties such as the torta frita (a typical Uruguayan pan-fried cake).
Akin to their Argentinian neighbors, Uruguay is a meat-loving country, and the world-class quality of Uruguayan beef is comparable to the one you’ll find in Argentina. On this basis, the Mercado del Puerto is among the top places to visit in Montevideo for foodies and gastronomy lovers.
Visit the Hillside Fortaleza del Cerro
The Fortaleza del Cerro (“hillside fortress,” also known as “Fortaleza General Artigas”) is a fortified structure overlooking the Bay of Montevideo. It was built between 1809 and 1832 and served as an observation point on the hill, complete with a lighthouse.
Today, with its fabulous views, it’s a top Montevideo tourist attraction.
Where to Stay in Montevideo, Uruguay
The best areas to stay in Montevideo are undoubtedly Pocitos (around the World Trade Center) and Punta Carretas (around the Rambla Gandhi). These neighborhoods have beaches, high safety levels at all times, and modern infrastructure.
As an alternative, the area around Parque Rodó is strategically located between Pocitos and the Old Town and is home to some of the best nightlife in Montevideo.
Finally, budget travelers should consider the Ciudad Vieja and the area around Tres Cruces Bus Station. These areas have lots of budget accommodation choices but less infrastructure and lower safety levels.
Things to do in Montevideo: Know Before You Go
- Montevideo has Uruguay’s largest international airport with many connections to South American capitals. Several connections to US and European cities are available as well.
- It is also possible to take a four-hour boat from Buenos Aires to Montevideo.
- Safety in Montevideo is high for South American standards. Montevideo is arguably the safest capital in South America. Nevertheless, it is still South America. Don’t walk around too much at night in the Old Town and guard your belongings in crowded areas. In short, common sense should largely suffice to stay safe in Montevideo.
- Uruguay is a Spanish-speaking country, and English levels are low in Montevideo. Be sure to learn some Spanish to fully enjoy your trip to Uruguay.
- The Uruguayan capital doesn’t have a subway but a large bus network called “omnibuses.” These are the best way to get around if you are on a budget. Uber and taxis are omnipresent and very convenient. Taxi journeys are cheap within the central areas.