Gates to the city

Old Town

The only significant remaining piece of the 6-metre thick wall that in colonial times surrounded the Old Town, and protected the city against its many invaders, is the ornamental gate at the entrance of the Old Town (Ciudad Vieja in Spanish). The district – a finger of land jutting out into the River Plate – is a curious and fascinating mixture of financial centre, working port, restaurant hub and low-rent housing laid out on a precise grid plan.

The pedestrianised calle Sarandí leads from the ornamental gate to the Plaza Matriz, the heart of the Old Town. Don’t miss the wonderful art deco Ferrando building, constructed in 1917, as you walk down the first block of Sarandí. The ground floor is given over to a bookshop; take a look at the beautiful stained glass above the stairway at the back of the store (there is a café upstairs). In the same block is the Torres García art museum (see our feature, here); to the left is pretty calle Bacacay with its cafés and restaurants. There are plans afoot to put a glass roof over this street, which has the width of a passageway. Nearby calle Bartolomé Mitre contains several well established antiques shops. The Teatro Solis, the city’s beautiful opera house, can be reached by walking down calle Bacacay and crossing calle Buenos Aires. For more about the opera house, click here.

Plaza Matriz (also known as Plaza Constitución), a block distant, is the true heart of the Old Town. There are often tables of old books, postcards and bric-a-brac to browse in the shade of the trees in the garden at the middle of the square. On one side is the old Spanish Cabildo, or government building (1804), which now contains a small museum of furniture, clocks, maps and documents from the earliest period of the colony. The large rooms on the ground floor are given over to rotating exhibitions. The first formal reading of the constitution of the new republic took place here on 18 July 1830.

The renovated neo classical Cathedral faces the Cabildo and is the venue for many of the city’s society weddings. On the same side of the square you’ll find the Gurvich Museum, which contains a small collection of paintings, ceramics and wood carvings by José Gurvich, one of Uruguay’s leading constructivist artists. Gurvich, who could turn his hand to most anything, would no doubt have become better known internationally had he not died at the age of 47 (opening hours: Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm; Saturday, 11 am to 3 pm; closed on Sundays). Another building to look out for is the Club Uruguay, on the south side of the square, with its gorgeous, partly baroque, façade. Meanwhile, Plaza Matriz has two fine antiquarian bookshops in its environs; click here for our feature.

The Old Town’s eclectic architecture is evident as you walk west from the square. The modernist Stock Exchange (built in 1936, at the corner of calles Misiones and Rincón) contrasts with the handsome, neo-classical former headquarters of the Montevideo Water Company (corner of Rincón and Zabala).

If you take Sarandí as far as Alzaibar and turn right, you’ll find the attractive Plaza Zabala, with a pretty garden in the middle full of screaming pigeons. This area of the Old Town is currently the focus of good deal of gentrification. We don’t recommend that you go any further west of this square, as the area is unsafe, despite the presence of special tourist police. But make sure you visit the Palacio Taranco, a remarkable mansion that occupies the whole of an (uneven) city block on Plaza Zabala.

The Palacio Taranco is the former home of a wealthy merchant who imported all his fixtures and fittings from Europe. Built in 1908, but furnished to evoke an earlier era (there is very little evidence of art deco in the building, for instance) the building intrigues from the first sight of a life-sized marble flamenco dancer in the hallway. The most impressive room is probably the dining room, with its exuberant panelling and moldings, and tapestries depicting idealised rural scenes. The mansion is sometimes referred to as the Museum for Decorative Arts and is open from 2.30 pm to 6 pm every day except Monday.

A few steps away from Plaza Zabala on calle 25 de Mayo, you’ll find the Romantic Museum, which contains a beautiful, quiet patio and as well as furniture and household objects dating from the Uruguay's independence (1830) until approximately the turn of the twentieth century (opening hours: Tuesday to Friday, 12.30 pm to 6 pm; Sunday, 2 pm to 6 pm; closed Saturday, Monday). Close by on calle Zabala, the Andalusian-syle home of General Juan Antonio Lavalleja, who led the liberating crusade of the Thirty-Three Uruguayans, is one of the oldest buildings in the city. The house contains documents and artifacts relating to the country’s rather convoluted struggle for independence, plus some nice moldings and furniture. It is currently closed for renovations.

Meat lovers will want to make a pilgrimage to Montevideo’s famous Port Market (Mercado del Puerto), across a busy dual carriageway from the waterfront and about ten minutes walk from Plaza Zabala. The cast-iron Victorian structure was forged in Liverpool and was, so the story goes, originally destined for a buyer in Chile. The restaurants inside the Port Market are open at lunchtime; only a small number with access from the street outside open in the evening. The Mercado del Puerto is thronged at Sunday lunchtime and on any day a large cruise ship is in port. There many souvenir shops in the vicinity, but avoid changing money here, as the rates are poor. While a visit is a must, it has to be said that the service in some of the restaurants has become a little charmless as the number of overseas visitors has risen. You should take caution in this area at night.