With New World Wonder sites like Machu Picchu and Christ the Redeemer to choose from, many tourists don’t consider including Montevideo in their South America itinerary.
I think that’s a shame. The city is beautiful, the people are kind, and you can easily explore many of Montevideo’s highlights on foot.
I fell head over heels for Uruguay’s “mini Buenos Aires” and am here to share some of my favorite things to do in Montevideo to help you with your trip plans.
Accessible Travel Note: Montevideo offers several wheelchair accessible areas. Head towards the bottom of this post for more information.
How to Get to Montevideo
Before we discuss things to do in Montevideo, let’s talk about how to get there. The city sits picturesquely at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata River, and most tourists arrive by one of the following means.
There are a few ferry companies that run services between Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The fastest ferry takes around three hours. Some people even visit Montevideo as a day trip from Buenos Aires. That’s ambitious, but no judgment here since I’ve had my fair share of ambitious travel moments!
If you’re traveling to Montevideo by bus, chances are you’ll be doing so from Colonia. The bus ride between Colonia and Montevideo is about three hours. You can read detailed information about taking the bus from Colonia to Montevideo in my how to get to Colonia post.
Montevideo’s airport is an architectural gem. Fitting for a country of only about 3.5 million people, the modern Carrasco International Airport is small and easy to navigate. When traveling between the airport and downtown Montevideo, ask your driver to take you along the Rambla. The ride will last around 30 – 40 minutes and is a fantastic introduction to the city.
Things to Do in Montevideo
To me, Montevideo’s small size is part of what makes it so charming. And despite its size, Montevideo offers many things to do. Below are seven activities that I recommend incorporating as part of your visit.
1. Take a Free Walking Tour
I recommend starting your time in Montevideo with a free walking tour to get oriented. There are two companies that run free walking tours- Free Walking Tour Montevideo and Curioso Free Tour.
Both companies offer city tours twice daily during the week and once on Saturdays. If you’d like to take the tour on a Sunday, Free Walking Tour is your ticket- they offer a tour at 2:00 pm. Keep an eye on the weather—tours won’t operate if it’s raining/storming.
If you’d like to see even more of Montevideo, Curioso Free Tour runs tours of Parque Rodó (Monday – Friday) and Punta Carretas (Saturday).
A neat thing about visiting Montevideo is that since it’s still under the tourist radar, you stand a good chance of having a small or private walking tour. From my experience, the tour guides are informative and passionate, so you’ll surely enjoy your approximately 2.5 hour experience.
The meeting point is at the Plaza Independencia. Speaking of which…
2. Visit Plaza Independencia
Plaza Independencia is Montevideo’s main plaza and the transition point between the more modern part of Montevideo and its historical center.
From there, you’ll be able to get incredible views of the Palacio Salvo building. This plaza is an absolute must for a visit to Montevideo.
Despite being such a main attraction, the plaza never felt too crowded to me. However, to get the best photos without many people in them, aim to visit on a weekend morning. Since Plaza Independencia is located near the business district, things are quiet on weekend mornings before the day-trippers arrive.
Fun Fact- The beautiful Palacio Salvo was originally intended to be a hotel but now houses offices and private apartments.
3. Walk Through the Walled Gate
The massive but narrow walled gate at Plaza Independencia will surely draw your attention.
This gate is a far cry from the intact walled cities you’ll find in other parts of the world, but it makes for a unique backdrop and is a good conversation starter for learning about Montevideo’s history.
The side of the wall facing Plaza Independencia has cement blocks as support. Therefore, make sure to walk behind it where you’ll get to enjoy its more ornate decor.
4. Meander Through the Historical Center
Montevideo’s historical center is set up in a way that even those without a sense of direction would have trouble getting lost (yes, I’m talking about me here!). From Plaza Independencia, passing through the former gate, the historical center is a straight pedestrian path along Sarandí Street.
If you walk along the length of Sarandí Street it will take you through the entire heart of Montevideo’s historical district in about 10 minutes. That is, if you manage to do so without stopping.
More likely than not, side streets will lead you off track, creating a nice half-day, or so, of wandering around the district. Since the old town was built on a narrow peninsula, when walking through the center of town you can almost always see the river a handful of streets down on either side of you.
It’s a beautiful sight!
Travel Tip: Things in the historical center close down at lightning speed on Saturday afternoons. By around 3:00 pm, I found that most stores were closed. Sundays remain quiet, with some stores and restaurants closed all day.
5. Enjoy the Rambla
The Rambla is a 22.2km continuous boardwalk built in the early 1900s. It starts in the historic center and runs all the way along the coast, passing by several districts. It ends near the road to the airport.
It’s easy to believe that you’re looking out at the ocean when walking along the Rambla. However, the body of water is actually the mouth of the Río de la Plata River.
You may be tempted to walk on the Rambla near the old town and consider it a sight seen. However, I urge you to head many kilometers east towards Punta Carretas. Here, high-rise buildings and green parks will greet you.
There are a number of beach options to choose from the further out you travel from Punta Carretas. Unless you’re a super walker/runner, consider renting a bike or taking a taxi to get to these areas.
6. Feria de Tristán Narvaja
The Feria de Tristán Narvaja is a popular Sunday flea market in Montevideo. Since I wasn’t in Montevideo on a Sunday, I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to visit. However, if you’re lucky enough to be in Montevideo on a Sunday, you can find the market on Tristán Narvaja Avenue. It opens at 9:00 am and goes until mid-afternoon.
If, like me, you’re not in Montevideo on a Sunday, you may luck out and come across smaller flea markets. On a Saturday morning, I stumbled upon a couple of flea markets at plazas in the historical center, one of which is shown in the photo above.
7. Mercado del Puerto
Mercado del Puerto is located in the old town by the ferry terminal. Primarily a restaurant-based market, it’s a big attraction for tourists.
However, be prepared to leave with a much lighter wallet if you dine there! If you’re on a budget, I recommend heading to Mercado del Puerto to meander through the stalls of restaurants, taking in the smells, sights, and smoke of Uruguay’s famous meat asados.
If, like me, you’re vegetarian and/or are looking to keep your spending down, I recommend buying an empanada at “Empanadas Carolina.” The list of choices takes up the entire length of the empanada stand and the line to buy one is usually just as long.
Other Things to Note About Montevideo
If you’re still curious to learn more about traveling in Montevideo, read on for details.
English in Montevideo
When visiting a country that not as many tourists frequent, an understandable concern is how much English is spoken if you don’t speak the country’s language.
I encountered many English speakers in Montevideo. Therefore, if your high school Spanish is rusty, don’t let a language barrier discourage you from visiting Montevideo.
Safety in Montevideo
Uruguay is the safest country in South America, ranking well above countries like the United States. So, practice regular safety precautions that you would in any unfamiliar area, and you should be able to fully and safely enjoy Montevideo.
Wheelchair Accessible Travel in Montevideo
If you’ve taken a peek at the Accessible Travel section of this blog, you’ll know that with the help of my brother-in-law and sister, we’re working on building resources for travelers who are wheelchair users. Eventually, we’ll have full blog posts entirely geared towards accessible travel.
For now, we’re including accessible travel tips in areas that stand out for their wheelchair-friendly design. Montevideo is one of those places. I was impressed by how many areas in Montevideo are accessible, and learned that Uruguay has wheelchair accessibility laws.
There’s perhaps no better place showcasing that accessibility is at the forefront of Uruguay’s mind than Plaza Independencia. Here, they have an accessible sign in the center of the plaza.
I was equally happy to see that many older buildings have accessible entrances. For example, take a look at the front of the Bank of Uruguay with all its stairs:
And now, check out the side of the Bank of Uruguay:
The Nitty-Gritty of Accessibility in Montevideo
You’ll encounter signs in many parts of Montevideo indicating wheelchair accessibility. Crosswalks have ramps and sidewalks are…well, far from smooth, but manageable enough in most areas.
Sarandí Street in Montevideo’s historical center is mostly cobblestone. So, I recommend staying to the far right or left sides of this pedestrian street. That way, you’ll be able to explore the old town along a smoother surface.
Generally speaking, if you’re exploring streets that run parallel with the river, the terrain is mostly flat. Streets running perpendicular when traveling from the river up into the city are on a small but steady incline.
The Rambla boardwalk is wheelchair accessible and is an incredible way to enjoy some of the best views of Montevideo. The portion of the Rambla near downtown Montevideo is entirely flat.
However, as mentioned earlier in this post, I highly recommend visiting parts of the Rambla outside of downtown. These areas are on a fairly steep hill and are many miles from downtown. Therefore, it’s best to drive to Punta Carretas, or one of the beaches past it, and explore from there.
Fun Miscellaneous Items about Montevideo
- Street art abounds. Make sure to spend some time admiring the artwork, much of which you can see on side streets.
- Infrastructure is good. I found WiFi connections to be strong and there’s free WiFi in many public areas.
- Montevideo has a big cafe culture, and there are several healthy food restaurants. Think specialty coffee, avocado tuna sandwiches, acai, and fancy salads.
- Mate is Uruguay’s traditional drink. You’ll find mate cups, straws, and the herbs to make the drink everywhere. What you probably won’t find? Restaurants and cafes selling prepared mate. It appears that this is a make-it-at-home kind of drink.
- Marijuana is legal in Uruguay. If you plan on buying some mate herb to bring home as a souvenir, choose carefully. Tourist shops sell marijuana-infused mate!
- Credit cards are widely accepted. Even better? You won’t get the deer-in-the-headlight stare and machines that take a century to process, like commonly found in certain other parts of South America.
I hope this post inspires you to visit Montevideo. Will you be heading to Montevideo, or do you have your own tips to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.