For many tourists, there are only two reasons to visit Uruguay: beachy, clubby Punta del Este and quaint, historic Colonia del Sacramento. Montevideo, the nation's relaxed capital on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, offers an eclectic mix of architecture and culture, but is often relegated to the status of stopover.
Perhaps that is because the city doesn't exactly reach out to grab you. Like Uruguayans, it sits back and reveals itself little by little. There is much of the old, and a small but slowly growing dose of the new.
“We have a conservative mentality, very conservative, and so we don't like change,” says Eduardo Lopez, who has been selling coins and antiques at the Saturday flea market on Plaza Constitucion for 12 years. As an impromptu parade of soldiers in ceremonial uniforms tromps by, he adds that since the country's banking crisis in 2002, there has been little money for investing in the future. The economy is growing again, but so far that growth hasn't produced many new facilities for travelers.
The past lives on in style, though. Back in 1870, the average living standards there were higher than in the US, and it shows. Take a walk through the Old City, where almost every street has a view of the water, sometimes at both ends, and you'll discover a bounty of architectural treasures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A good place to start is the National History Museum, housed in 10 old residences. The main museum is in the former home of Fructuoso Rivera, the country's first president; the collection traces the country's history from before the European colonization to the middle of the 20th century.
The corner is marked by an upturned cannon, but you also can't miss the building's octagonal cupola. Another of the houses, in slightly worse repair, was occupied by Giuseppe Garibaldi (known locally as Jose) when he led the Uruguayan fleet in the 1840s.
A few blocks away stands the gorgeous and idiosyncratic Palacio Taranco, at the corner of 25th of May and 1st of May streets. It's a sprawling castle from 1910, decked out with stone urns and Roman arches, that used to be a family residence but now houses the Museum of Decorative Arts, with a collection of European antiques that ranges from paintings to porcelain.
The Old City isn't just a collection of architectural heirlooms, though. Some of the country's hippest young designers have installed their boutiques on its narrow streets. At 280 25th of May St., a metal door with pink and red portholes stands out like the proverbial aching digit. Inside is a sleek store selling the creations of Ana Livni and Fernando Escuder, avant-garde designs using soft materials and occasional shots of bright color.
“Design here is growing — very slowly, but it's growing,” says Stefania Reta, a design student who works there. She also says that there's a streak of patriotism among the younger generation.
“They all studied here,” she says of the local designers. “The idea is always to make it grow here, to apply our knowledge here.”
If you're looking for more traditional knits and leather goods, the nearby Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) is worth a stop. For the locals, though, it's more of a lunch spot; dozens sit at long counters, facing open grills covered with fat cuts of beef, sausages and enormous red peppers.