Considering Uruguay’s proximity of being wedged between its bigger neighbours of Brazil and Argentina, it’s almost a given that this small country makes it to the travel itinerary; despite being overlooked by many that travel though this part of South America.
So what is there to do in Uruguay, a country that’s home to less than 4 million people?
A good place to start is Montevideo, where almost half of the country’s inhabitants live. Our question was,
“Where are all the people?”
Arriving at mid-afternoon on a Saturday, the centre of the nations capital resembled a virtual ghost town. Cafes, restaurants and shops were closed, a lone guy stood on the the main drag selling sugared nuts, and the only other humans were the ones slowly strolling past clutching a yerba mate gourd in one hand and flask under the other.
Truth be told, it is a financial and business district, so I’m guessing this is a Monday-to-Friday part of town.
Ciudad Vieja is where many of us out-of-towners start. This is the oldest part of town and can be easily located by simply seeking out Palacio Salvo, that commanding Italian Gothic marvel that looms over Plaza Independencia. You can take the elevator to the top of the palace, free of charge, but it was after hours when we dropped by.
Calle Sarandí, a mostly pedestrian thoroughfare, forms a kind of retail backbone through the old town. It’s lined with shops and restaurants and some of the most stunning old buildings oozing with grandeur and character. Yet, once again, every business had its shutters down on the weekend.
Head further along Sarandí and you enter a part of the old town that’s more residential, more run down and, in parts, a little sketchy. Look past the junkies on Calle Pérez Castellano and you discover small grocers, cafes, butchers and crafty-type stores.
My favourite – Confitería El Louvre with its glorious window filled with cakes and pastries. Step inside and you’re met with even more – alfajores, medialunas, breads and easy lunch options like the ubiquitous milanesa sandwich.
Confitería El Louvre, Calle Perez Castellano 1399
The main attraction in this part of town is none other than Mercado del Puerto. In 1868 it was a hotspot of activity, supplying fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and groceries to ships that pulled into the nearby docks. Elite locals even dropped by to stock up on goods as they built their mansions on nearby land.
Today, the restored building houses more than a dozen parrilladas, where you can perch up at the counter and take in all the grilling action. Sip on beer, vino or medio y medio – a traditional drink that combines moscato with sparkling pinot – order your desired steak, sausage, chicken, offal or suckling pig and get prepared for the meat sweats.
To see the above parrilla in action, tap on this link.
Our pick for lunch was at La Chacra, where we dosed up on provolone (140), choripan (chorizo roll), and entrecot con papas fritas (560). Prices may be geared for the tourist trade, but the food sure is great.
Mercado del Puerto, Piedras 237
Mercado del Puerto isn’t the only mercado in town. For a true local experience, being in town on a Sunday means you can dive into the city’s largest and most well known market.
Spanning almost ten city blocks in Barrio Cordón, Feria de Tristán Narvaja offers fresh produce, traditional baked goods, kitchenware, pets, mate kits and just about anything you’d expect to see at a flea market.
For more info and pics, see my previous post.
Feria de Tristán Narvaja, Calle Tristán Narvaja, Barrio Cordón – Every Sunday 7am to 4pm
Greengrocers, seafood, top quality meats, cheeses, charcuterie, gifts, flowers, gourmet products and much more can be found in Mercado Agrícola de Montevideo, a venue that’s been going strong for more than a century.
The historic building is home to over 100 businesses and is a one-stop-shop for services and household necessities. On top of that there’s La Cocina del Mercado, a gastronomic plaza where you can sit and chow on the likes of chivotos, ice cream, pizza or panchos as well as enjoy a coffee, local brew or deliciously charred meat from the parrilla.
Mercado Agrícola de Montevideo, José L. Terra 2220, Barrio Goes – Open 7 days 8am – 10pm
Cafe culture is pretty strong in Montevideo and some of the country’s best cafes can be found here. From historic coffeehouses to more contemporary cafes, you’d be hard-pressed to walk the streets and not stumble upon one.
Here are a few places we found during our short time in town.
Spotting the glorious green tile work on this corner building is enough to make you want to open the front door and take a seat. Las Misiones made its home in a former pharmacy that sits on what was once the most elegant street in the city.
It now services the Monday-Friday crowd that works in the area with breakfast and Urugayan and International fare.
Las Misiones Restaurant y Cafetería, 25 de Mayo 449 & Misiones, Ciudad Vieja
Opening its doors in 1877, Cafe Brasilero is the oldest working coffeehouse in the city and the place where many notable writers, journalists, musicians and actors have graced its small wooden tables.
Take a seat, order a coffee or light meal and take in the rich history that oozes from this old relic.
Cafe Brasilero, Ituzaingó 1447, Ciudad Vieja
Whilst it may not qualify as being an historic coffeehouse, La Pasiva has a perfect spot on the main drag in the centre of town. Facing the leafy Plaza Ingeniero Juan P. Fabini, La Pasiva serves up coffee, beer, pizza, chivotos and more.
Sitting at one of its outdoor tables allows you to take in the city and appreciate its slow-paced lifestyle – even witness an evening of locals dancing on the pavement nearby.
La Pasiva Centro, Av. 18 de Julio 1022, Centro
Nightfall in the centre of Montevideo doesn’t provide a great deal of eating options other than fast food and a couple of late-nighters. This diner-style eatery is popular with locals and tourists alike, chowing pizza, chivito, steaks and burgers.
This was my first proper taste of Uruguay’s national sandwich, the chivito – an enormous construction of ham, bacon, steak, cheese, tomato, boiled egg, roast peppers, olives, lettuce and palm hearts. Well, this was The Manchester chivito (340), anyway. You can get many varieties all over town.
The Manchester, Av. 18 de Julio 899, Centro
For the ultimate fast food from the streets of Montevideo, head to one of the food vans parked in the side streets for some sloppy sandwich action.
It was the words “Hamburguesa Completa Gigante” on the side of this shiny trailer that drew us in for a quick, easy and inexpensive dinner. Choose either a hamburger or chorizo, then take you pick from the array of fillings like olives, marinated mushrooms, sweetcorn, peppers, salsas, sauces and more.
Something like the chorizo extra will set you back about 85 pesos, whist the hamburguesa gigante triple is 150 pesos.
Mi Viejo, Río Branco 1388, Centro
How we got to Montevideo from Buenos Aires.
The easiest way to get to Montevideo from BA is by direct ferry, a three hour service that runs twice daily. Prices hover around the US$100 mark, but as with plane tickets, they vary according to when you’re travelling and how far in advance you’ve picked up your ticket.
The most cost effective option for us was with ColoniaExpress, where for ARS$1008 pp we could get the ferry to Colonia del Sacramento, then a ColoniaExpress bus to Terminal Tres Cruces in Montevideo. From there it’s a 15-20 minute local bus ride into Ciudad Vieja, the old town.