In many ways, Montevideo feels like it has been abandoned. Graffiti crawls up the sides of government buildings, litter blows along empty streets and, in decaying tower block apartments, it appears that nobody is home.
It is all just so quiet. Can this really be a South American capital? Where is the endless noise, the teeming streets and the suffocating fumes of big city congestion?
Of course, one can't be too surprised that capital of a country with just a smidge over three million citizens feels a little less chaotic than the metropolises of its big brother neighbours. Montevideo instead moves to its own, understated rhythm.
As there was very little buzz about it on the traveller trail, we were a little unsure of how we would spend our time in the city. Yet, despite there being no big-ticket tourist attractions, over the course of our three day stay we both fell for Montevideo's hidden charms. Here are some of our favourite things to do there.
Try mate for the first time
Despite encountering mate obsessed Argentinians throughout much of our travels, we clearly didn't understand the meaning of true addiction until we arrived in Uruguay. You cannot walk more than a few paces down any street before passing someone clutching a cup in one hand and a flask of hot water under the other. It wasn't a surprise when we learned that the country consumes more kilos per person of the stuff than anywhere else.
So, where better to try it for the first time than in the capital of the world's most prolific drinkers?
If you can't join a 'mate circle', then your options are limited, as it's not the sort of drink you can just buy at every cafe. Thankfully, La Materia Canaria in Mercado Agricola de Montevideo will ease you in gently and provide you with your own mate cup full of yerba, bombilla (straw) and flask of hot water - if you ask nicely, the staff will even explain how the hell you drink it!
Once you've drained your flask, or given up trying to like its bitter taste, take a while to browse the market. There's a fantastic empanada place next door to the Materia and a variety of excellent quality grocery stores, plus a few cool places to grab a drink or meal.
Opening times: Monday to Sunday 8 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Address: Mercado Agrícola de Montevideo – Local 80 – José L. Terra 2220
Price: $24 pesos per cup, irrespective of how many people you share it with.
Want to know more about the importance of mate culture in South America? Check out this article.
Get the meat sweats at Mercado del Puerto
If there's one thing Uruguayans love almost as much as mate, then it's meat. Although Montevideo has a burgeoning restaurant scene, the pick for most visitors (and a number of locals) continues to be lunch at the bustling Mercado del Puerto. Although the eats were out of our budget (plus not too much fun for a vegetarian), we'd recommend a visit to everyone, whether you're dining or not.
It's all incredibly atmospheric. There are over a dozen restaurants - some fancier than others - within the beautifully restored building plus a few watering holes which look like they haven't changed in decades. : Families sit around long tables to share an entire carcass, work colleagues perch on stools, gossiping over a steak and wine, whilst cooks sweat over the myriad of open fire grills weighed down with beef, chicken and pork. Outside the market, there's a few souvenir stalls, jewellery sellers and the odd busker or two, mingled in with throngs of Brazilian tourists and men advising you to visit their store for some marijuana.
Opening times: Daily 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Address: Mercado del Puerto, Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825 228
Photograph the old and new in la Ciudad Vieja
As with many of the cities we have visited, it is within the old town that the real beauty and character is found. A palette of pastels and brushed grey, oversized weather worn doors, family run restaurants with vintage signs and crates of fresh fruit so perfectly arranged that is difficult to believe it was accidental.
Under a cloudless sky, Montevideo's La Ciudad Vieja is an Instagrammer's dream - so don't forget your camera!
For those that need to have their sight-seeing punctuated by a caffeine hit, be sure to check out Sinestesia, a desperately cool coffee shop with cakes to die for and a lovely outdoor area from which you can watch the world go by.
How to find it: Take any bus to Plaza Independencia, and head west, straight down the street behind the last remnants of the Puerta de la Ciudadela.
get lost and found at the Sunday Flea Market
Held every Sunday, the Tristán Narvaja Street Market is the largest in the country and an absolute must for anybody that visits the capital on the weekend.
A haven for those seeking artisan handicrafts, mate paraphenalia, antiques, old books and their weekly supply of fresh fruit and veg, even those who choose to spend nothing will pass hours exploring the myriad of stands that sprawl throughout the narrow streets of central Montevideo along with what seems like the rest of the city's population.
Opening hours: Sunday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m, although most of the crowds and some of the stalls will be gone after 3 p.m.
Address: Begin your explorations at the corner of Tristán Narvaja and Avenida 18 Julio.
Ramble along la rambla
There are few better ways to get to know a city than to simply walk its streets, and in Montevideo there are few better places to walk along than La Rambla, an avenue that takes in the entirety of the capital's coastline.
Whilst some sections are a little run down, the road extending from Playa Ramirez to Playa Los Pocitos lines white sand family-friendly beaches replete with volleyballs nets, seafood restaurants and grassy knolls. At any given time of day, you will share the curving paths with roller-bladers, cyclists, runners and people simply out for an afternoon stroll - on a sunny weekend, you'll find the entire city there!
For those that wish to cover the entire 22km avenue, bike rental is very popular. Lots of hostels provide them for free or at a small cost but for those that are looking for a rental company, Orange Bike seems to be the most popular choice. Our pick of the beaches were Playa Ramirez and Playa de los Pocitos.
In our experience, museums of contemporary art can be a little hit or miss, often leaving us scratching our heads at what on earth the artist was trying to say. Whilst some of the exhibits in Espacio de Arte Contemporaneo definitely fell into this category, this particular gallery is well worth a visit - if only for the building in which it is housed.
Converted from an old prison, the west wing has been revamped with each 'cell' now home to the work of individual artists. At the end of a cavernous hallway, a wall of glass separates the old from the new, whilst the east wing remains just as it was after the final prisoner departed.
Opening times: Wednesday - Saturday 2 p.m. - 8 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Address: Arenal Grande 1930
To continue your education in Uruguayan arts, don't miss the Centro de Fotografia, showcasing the very best of the country's foremost photographers. You'll find it at Avenida 18 de Julio 885.
Where did we stay?
Our stay in Montevideo was hosted by Destino 26, a fantastic little hostel located centrally in Pocitos - in our opinion, the best area to base yourself in. On your door step you'll find some of the city's best nightlife, lots of restaurants, a number of great beaches and regular buses (#121) direct to the Old Town and the bus terminal. The area was pleasant and felt safe to walk around in the evening.
We had the pleasure of staying in their beautiful double room furnished with solid handcrafted furniture, comfy king sized bed and private balcony, the latter providing a fantastic sun drenched spot to savour a bottle of the country's excellent wine after a day of sight-seeing.They also have a number of dorms available, with big lockers to secure your valuables.
Facilities included a great outdoor area, fast wifi, tour and city information plus a TV/social lounge. Their breakfast goes above and beyond what we've come to expect in this part of the world with fresh fruit juices, good coffee, a variety of cereals and fruits plus toast and the ubiquitous dulce de leche. For your evening meals you have the choice of utilising their large, well-stocked kitchen or using the large outside BBQ for a traditional Uruguyan asado. The staff were friendly and spoke excellent English - we'd happily recommend the hostel to other travellers visiting Montevideo.
Address: 26 de Marzo 1125, Pocitos
To make your reservation, click here.
Travel in the city
Make the most of the excellent public bus system to navigate between the bus terminal, Pocitos and the Old Town. The most common type of bus ticket to ask for is 'una hora', which costs $26 pesos. Usually there is a man in a little stall on the left hand side of the bus who takes your money and gives you the ticket. Aside from the bus, we spent hours walking from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, which is our favourite way to discover a new city and, due to its size and the fact that's it's consistently found to be one of the safest cities in South America, you can happily cover a lot of Montevideo on foot.
In addition to our suggested activities, there is a daily free walking tour (tips encouraged), starting at 11 a.m. from Plaza de Independencia. Football fans may like to visit the national stadium or the football museum to learn about how this little country has been one of the heavyweights of the beautiful game, whilst it is possible to take trips to wineries outside the city.
The Tres Cruces bus terminal is likely to be your arrival and departure point. From there you can take a local bus or a taxi to your hostel, either in Pocitos or the Old Town - these leave frequently just outside the terminal. Onward travel from Montevideo is straightforward, with frequent westward connections to Colonia del Sacramento (2.5 hours, $335 pesos) or eastward travel to the coastal town of Punta del Este (2.5 hours, $268 pesos).