The capital of Uruguay, Montevideo is a charming metropolitan oasis where the campo rural (countryside) lifestyle influences a not-so-fast pace of city life.
Once a walled citadel, the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) is now surrounded by remnants of the city walls, first erected in 1741. Beyond this historic core, visitors can stroll the longest continuous sidewalk of the world, relaxing on sandy beaches, visiting countless museums or strolling through carnival pace all year round.
Here’s our guide to the best things to do in Montevideo, Uruguay.
1. Enjoy the sand and surf on the beaches of Montevideo
Montevideo is surrounded by the wide Río de la Plata, and the city’s most popular beach is Playa de Los Pocitos, which offers soft sand and volleyball courts.
This real urban beach is framed by the buildings of the seafront of the homonymous district of Pocitos. During the summer months, you’ll see heaps of umbrellas that protect against Uruguay’s high UV rays (which can reach 11).
local council: The beaches are small and very crowded on the weekends, so plan your beach day during the week to avoid the crowds.
2. Visit the Memory Museum
The most important museum to visit in Montevideo is the Museo de la Memoria, open since 2007. Located about 3 km from Prado Park, the museum offers insight and context into the country’s 12-year civil-military dictatorship.
The site pays tribute to the 200 Uruguayans who disappeared during the junta (the Désaparecidos), and who are still missing.
A permanent exhibit featuring pots and pans seems inconspicuous – yet at this time Uruguayans used these simple kitchen utensils to oppose the state-sanctioned killing of civilians.
In a manifestation known as cacerolazocitizens banged these objects in front of their windows, creating a chaotic noise to get their numbers heard.
3. Fill your plate with grass-fed beef at these best places to eat in Montevideo
Uruguay is known worldwide for its superb grass-fed beef. (There are at least three sheep and three cows per Uruguayan citizen!)
At home, Uruguayans gather with friends and family almost weekly for an asado, in which different cuts of grilled meat are served with vegetables.
If you fail to score an invitation, you can always have a traditional parilla dining experience at García, a popular restaurant that has been serving premium cuts of meat paired with select local and international wines since 1967. The elegant dining room is a favorite with Uruguayans celebrating a special occasion.
local council: The famous Mercado del Puerto has, alas, lost its charm, and is today an overrated, overpriced tourist trap. Instead, head to Casa Pastora, Mercado Williman and Mercado Ferrando, all of which have food stalls serving parillas.
4. Experience carnival all year round
If you visit Uruguay between the end of January and the beginning of March, you can participate in the longer carnival party in the world. Uruguayans celebrate for 40-50 full days in the run up to Easter (known as Uruguay Tourism Week). The festivities are mainly attended by locals, although foreign visitors are welcome.
The tradition of carnival was brought to Uruguay by enslaved Africans. Their descendants invented candombe drums, a large percussion instrument that is worn on the body and played as the performer walks down the street.
Candombe is the heart of Uruguay and has been designated Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco since 2009. During carnival, candombe is part of almost every performance, with groups painting and decorating their drums to match the colors of the bedazzled lingerie and feathers worn by the dancers.
To kick off the festivities, the inaugural parade takes place at the end of January, during which candombe parade of drummers with dancers along central Avenida 18 de Julio. The following night is usually the parade of samba schools, where performers dressed in colorful clothing carnival dress dance on the street.
In February, the parade of Las Llamadas presents candombe drummers who walk the streets of the Afro-Uruguayan neighborhoods of Barrio Sur and Palermo.
Between parade dates, you can visit one of the many tablados (stages arranged around the city), which host frequent performances by satirical singing groups, called murgawho wear face paint and clown costumes.
If you can’t attend the festivities, sample the celebrations at the Museo del Carnaval, which houses videos of performances, costumes and drumming. In addition, candombe bands practice year-round — and even without the colorful costumes and marching band, they still provide a memorable experience.
Each neighborhood has a band that usually rehearses once a week in the streets in preparation for the annual carnival band competition.
Every Sunday at the end of the afternoon, the drummers gather in the Barrio Sur to play candombe – and everyone is welcome. Simply follow the sound of the drums to find the band.
local council: Unfortunately, since pickpocketing is prevalent at these gatherings, you should keep an eye on your belongings.
6. Choose your favorite football team
The first World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930 at the Estadio Centenario – and the Uruguayans (naturally) won the title.
Today, the two most prominent teams in soccer-crazy Montevideo are Peñarol and Nacional. The former wears yellow and black and plays at the Campeón del Siglo stadium, while the latter wears red, white and blue and lives at the Gran Parque Central stadium.
Choose a team to support, then catch a game during the Uruguayan Primera División season, which lasts from May to December. If there’s no game on while you’re in town, you can learn more about Uruguayan football at the Museo del Fútbol.
7. Cycling, rollerblading or strolling the Rambla
Montevideo’s riverside La Rambla is the longest continuous sidewalk in the world, at almost 14 miles (23 km). The avenue winds along the coast and is popular for cycling and in-line skating.
In Montevideo, one of the locals’ favorite pastimes is the preparation of yerba mate, a traditional indigenous drink first cultivated by the Guarani in Paraguay and popularized as a common drink shared by the Charrúa in Uruguay.
Many Uruguayans always carry their companion kit with them, which includes the yerba (loose caffeinated tea leaves) a comrade (the cup, traditionally a calabash), bombilla (spoon-shaped perforated straw) and thermal (hot water bottle).
Take your comrade and stroll down the Rambla at sunset. You’ll pass a skate park, the famous Montevideo sign, the moving Holocaust memorial, Pittamiglio Castle, and plenty of street musicians.
local council: It is customary in Uruguay to share mate with complete strangers. As this is not sanitary, we recommend purchasing your own kit, available at any grocery store.
8. Head east to Punta del Este
Once you get to know the capital, take a direct bus from the Tres Cruces terminal east to Punta del Este on the Atlantic coast.
Notable things to do here include relaxing in Playa Brava by the famous The Mano in the Arena sculpture, watch the surfers at Playa el Emir or catch the sunset while enjoying a pitcher of cleric (sangria with white wine) from the Parador I’marangatú.
Planning tip: Take a day trip on your day trip and head from Punta del Este to places like the Punta Ballena Whale Lookout, Fundación Pablo Atchugarry Sculpture Garden, and Arboretum Lussich.