Though small and compacted into an area of only 8 x 14 city blocks, Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) is the oldest and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Montevideo. On weekdays, the Ciudad Vieja bustles with activity. On weekends, not so much, but it’s a good opportunity to peruse this unique neighborhood at your own leisurely place without the overwhelming crowds. Come take a walk with us…
Cuidad Vieja was once surrounded by a fortress. Today, the only remaining portion of the original wall stands just south of the Plaza Independencia.
The Plaza itself is hard to miss with its massive bronze statue of Uruguay’s founder, José Gervasio Artigas, looking onwards towards the impressive Palacio Salvo.
Adjacent to the square sits the Teatro Solis, a recently renovated cultural hub where locals can enjoy a wide variety of arts. Ballets, operas, symphonies, and the famous annual Jazz Festival all take place in this theater.
Just a few blocks from the theater, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Of course, part of the city’s charm comes from a not-so-charming history of economic fluctuations. While some streets showcase brilliant Art Deco features and opulent entrances in polished marble and hand painted tiles, others have been reduced to crumbling facades and peeling paint.
We’re told that some of these same streets double for Havana, literally. Thought Miami Vice was actually shot in Cuba? Think again. It was actually in the time-warped streets of Montevideo.
Heading away from Plaza Independencia brings you to the oldest plaza in Montevideo, Plaza Matriz (also known as Plaza Constitución). This is perhaps the most European-esque block we happened upon. The cafes and open air market under a leafy canopy felt very Parisien to us.
The Metropolitan Cathedral towers over Matriz. Built in 1804, the cathedral still serves on Montevideo’s main Catholic church and even houses several tombs of important figures in Uruguay’s history.
Keep your eyes open for fun pops of color cemented into the sidewalks around the old town. As it happens, even the locals don’t know who makes these mosaics, which makes spotting these gems even more fun.
Uruguayans never skip merienda, or teatime. Just behind the Metropolitan Cathedral sits Café Brasilero, the city’s oldest and most beloved coffee shop to enjoy their “tea for two.” Built in 1877, Café Brasilero feels like a scene out of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Pictures of local author and activist Eduardo Galeano enjoying a cortado hang from the walls while tourists and locals alike wait patiently to take a photo in the same seat as the author.
Shameless “you should be here plug” alert: Uruguay is currently offering a 22% VAT discount to everyone who uses a foreign credit card on hospitality services: restaurants, bars, pubs, cafes, hotels and hostels. The discount even applies to car rentals or private drivers.
Our delicious spread of 2 coffees, 4 buttery croissants, 8 ham and cheese sandwiches, 2 cheese cakes, and a plethora of pumpkin spice jam cost only $450 UYU ($16 USD), but thanks to the discount, even after tax and tip, we ended up paying $416 UYU ($14 USD)!
Uruguay is best known for their barbecues, or asados, and there’s no better place to taste the smoked meats than at Mercado del Puerto, a busy market packed with multiple steakhouses.
Fun fact: the asado is also a cause of rivalry between opposite shores of the Río de la Plata. Both Argentines and Uruguayans boast of having the best barbecue in the world. In a competition like this, everyone is a winner.
The building itself is a cast-iron Victorian behemoth that was originally built in Liverpool and was, so the story goes, originally destined for a buyer in Chile.
The market also hosts various musical acts every Saturday. We were lucky enough to catch a local troupe performing some serious samba moves. People all over the market were dancing to the beat of the vibrant Brazilian drums.
After trying (and failing) to dance a few samba moves of my own, we left the market and walked right into… Kenny Loggins’ Footloose blaring from a small stage in the Plaza Zabala. As it turns out, this was not a one-time thing. Uruguayans seriously love the 80’s. Finally, a city that shares my own stuck-in-the-past musical taste!
At any given moment, you can hear American 80s jams blasting from car stereos, cafes, restaurants, boutiques…you get the idea. There’s even a national holiday called Nostalgia Night, where every August 24, Uruguayans dance the night away to old hits. Sigh, this city gets me.
After I finished my footloose dance moves (you’re welcome, people who walked passed me staring at the crazy gringa flailing in the middle of the street), we began our long walk back home on the Rambla.
Fortunately, we had some more musical motivation on the walk when we stumbled upon a percussive group performing the Afro-Uruguayan tradition of Candombe. Troupes of musicians carry barrel-shaped drums and march in unison along the winding streets. This tradition spans nearly 200 years and is uniquely Uruguayan and was even recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage of humanity.
It’s safe to say our day in the Cuidad Vieja was a great success, and we look forward to exploring it more during our stay here.