Uruguay is not exactly your typical vacation destination. It is not nearly as well known as, say, Argentina (hello fabulous Buenos Aires) or Brazil (hello carnival). Both countries are well-traveled tourist destinations in South America. But to tell you the truth, with all Uruguay has to offer, especially its capital Montevideo, I’m rather surprised it’s not on more travelers’ radars.
While living in Santiago, Chile, I traveled a lot. After spending some time in fabulous Buenos Aires, I learned of a ferry that sailed from Buenos Aires to Montevideo. It arrived in Montevideo in under 3 hours and seemed like a no-brainer to get to explore a new country for a long weekend.
I spent 4 awesome days in the lovely capital of Uruguay. Here, I’ll share with you the best experiences you can have while visiting this underrated city. And if you find yourself in Buenos Aires with a few extra days on your hand, check out that ferry and get yourself to Montevideo. You won’t be disappointed.
1. Take A Free Walking Tour
Free walking tours are some of my most favorite things to do in any city I travel to. Why? Well, first, they’re free. It’s my favorite word when it comes to traveling. Second, they are a great way to orient yourself in the city.
I like to take these walking tours as soon as I can upon arriving. This way, I get the lay of the land and know the areas I’d like to return to and the attractions I’d like to visit later and explore more.
In Montevideo, there are a handful of free walking tours you can choose from. Most tours meet in Plaza Independencia. Your tour operator will let you know how to spot them. Usually, the guide will be holding a colored flag or they might wear a brightly colored t-shirt. If you see a big group of foreigners gathered together on the plaza, that’s probably your group.
It’s a good idea to sign up for the tour, however, if you happen to just show up, they aren’t likely to turn you away. The tours are usually about 3 hours and you will be walking everywhere, so ensure you have comfortable footwear and appropriate clothing for the weather that day.
In Montevideo, your tour will take you to the top spots in the city. These include the Ciudadela Gate, Artigas Mausoleum, and the Solis Theater. Along the way, you’ll learn all about Uruguayan history, culture, and traditions. Your guide will also (if you ask) tell you about local restaurants and bars to visit to get a real feel for the city.
Pro Tip: While it says it’s free (and that’s my favorite word), it is customary to tip your tour guide if you enjoyed your experience. Be sure you have some local cash on you to leave a “thank you” at the end of the tour.
2. Eat All The Beef
As one of the top five beef-producing countries in the world, if you’re going to eat beef anywhere, Uruguay is the place to do it. Believe it or not, I was a vegetarian when I lived in South America (no small feat on this meat-heavy continent). But, I made sure I got myself a nice, juicy steak to see what all the fuss was about.
Uruguay’s climate and mostly flat landscape means the cows can graze freely, resulting in meat that is very high-quality, tender, and tasty. Uruguay is also the only country in the world that has a computerized traceable system, which means buyers know exactly where their meat is coming from.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy this beef is with a traditional Uruguayan parrilla. A parrilla is a barbecue style that is found in many South American countries. Using a metal grill, which is placed over firewood, all sorts of meats and cuts are grilled to perfection.
There are several steakhouse parrillas to choose from in Montevideo. Because the quality of the meat is so superb, it will be hard to make a bad choice. But the place in which I enjoyed my first steak in decades is called El Fogon. There you can get a full parrilla consisting of several cuts and styles of beef and other meats. This is huge and will be best shared. They also offer seafood and pasta dishes.
Pro Tip: Be sure to complete your meal with a glass of Tannat wine. Tannat is the most widely grown grape in Uruguay. It’s a lovely, full-body wine best enjoyed with, well, steak.
3. Shop At The Flea Market
If you happen to be in Montevideo on a Sunday (try to be in Montevideo on a Sunday), do not miss the giant flea market spanning several blocks. Tristán Narvaja Street Market is the biggest market in all of Uruguay. Locals and tourists alike flock to the Cordon neighborhood to explore the sprawling market.
This is not your typical tourist haunt. You will not likely find tacky souvenir trinkets or t-shirts. Instead, this is really more of an authentic flea market. There are antiques, some in brick-and-mortar stores, some that are set-up stalls on Sundays. You’ll browse through streets filled with furniture, books, artwork, jewelry, fruits, vegetables, and everything in between.
This market is a great way to experience the local life of Montevideo as not just tourists shop here. It’s great for people watching and soaking up the culture. There’s also lots of street food on offer, so come around lunch time and plan to spend a lazy afternoon there. Or, if you’re on the hunt for something special, get there early.
4. Enjoy A Beach Day
Remember that ferry I told you about? It runs on the Rio de la Plata, an estuary that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic Ocean borders Uruguay and Montevideo is situated right along the coast. So, while you’ve probably not heard too much about the lively beaches of Uruguay, they exist, and you don’t have to go far to find them.
If I can manage it, I like to save the last few of any big trip to just relax. No more sightseeing and running around and trying to fit everything in. The hope is that I have fit everything in and now I can breathe a sigh of relief and take in the beautiful waters and gorgeous scenery of wherever I am.
There are several beaches you can check out in Montevideo. Many of these can be reached by using the great bus system in the city. The beach I enjoyed the most was Playa Ramirez. It’s quite close to the center of Montevideo where you are likely to stay. Playa Ramirez is popular with locals and tourists alike.
There’s some great people watching and shell finding. As you walk along the sand, you will find people playing volleyball and soccer, or practicing yoga. This is not a quiet beach, so be sure you’re ready for fun (probably loud) music, children playing and shouting, and vendors hawking — but usually with yummy food.
Whether you’re headed to Uruguay or you’ve got a few extra days in Buenos Aires to head to Montevideo, your visit there will be full of fun adventures. Try the steak Uruguay is famous for, shop at the unique flea market, familiarize yourself with the city, and enjoy an exciting day on the beach.