The Chillest, Laid-Back City in South America Is Not Where You’d Expect

It’s all weed, beaches, and basic human rights here.

If it seems like everyone you know just got back from Lisbon and you’re looking for an enchantingly frozen-in-time port town where the cafes aren’t abuzz with complaints about Manhattan rents, we’ve got one word for you: Montevideo.

The capital of Uruguay was one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite destinations, yet few Americans are familiar with its selling points: block after block of faded Belle Epoque grandeur and Art Deco charm, beaches you can practically roll out of bed onto, a laid-back vibe that existed even before the weed became legal, super affordable steakhouses and tango bars to match its more-hyped neighbor Buenos Aires. And—seriously—a near total lack of tourists. Even during its month-long carnival season.

Uruguayans like to joke that everything arrives here 30 years late, but the locals are a modest and unpretentious bunch. What they’ll tell you only after a few glasses of delicious house Tannat wine is that their country scores well above the US on The Economist’s annual Democracy Index; has long led Latin America in ensuring gender, sexuality, and labor rights; and, yes, was the first country in the world to fully legalize cannabis (only for residents, alas, although there’s talk of passing the faso to Yanquis soon).

Italian and Spanish immigrants flocked to the progressive country in the 19th century, which is why you’ll find classic pizzerias like Bar Tasende and Bar Las Flores. The 1970s and ’80s were a little rocky, but things are looking up again. A prison that once held political enemies is now the gleaming Punta Carretas Shopping mall (one of the few places where international chains like H&M and Zara have encroached), and one of the leftists jailed there, José Mujica, went on to become the country’s beloved VW Bug-driving president, known affectionately as “Pepe.”

Now the city’s budding hipster district—Cordon “Soho,” as it’s cheekily called—plays host to the trendy food stalls of Mercado Ferrando, the artsy Escaramuza bookstore-cafe, the elegant jazz bar El Mingus, and funky gaucho hats sold at the century-old Tristán Narvaja flea market. You’ll find all this without the overly gentrified, “for export” feel of its Buenos Aires counterpart, Palermo Soho. One piece of graffiti says it all: “Pepe gave us artisanal beer bars!”

Here’s where to find those artisanal beers, grilled meats, best beaches, and take-it-easy vibes in Montevideo.

Urban sunset scene at beachfront square
DFLC Prints/Shutterstock

Ramble on the rambla

Montevideo is a famously secular town, but it does have one religion: chilling. People here are so devoted to keeping it tranqui that there’s a Rolling Stones cover band called Los Folding Chairs. On a given day, you’ll find most of those beach chairs parked over at la rambla, the nearly 14-mile promenade along the Rio de la Plata, the ocean-like river separating Uruguay and Argentina. (Should things get too chill, Buenos Aires is just a few hours away by ferry.)

As the sun sets, locals flock to their favorite grassy knoll or sandy beach along the riverwalk to partake in the national drug of choice: yerba mate. Give it a couple days and you’ll also be walking around with a thermos tucked under your armpit and a calabash gourd full of ground tea leaves in hand.

In the meantime, enjoy a beer and some killer river views at Artico—a sleek, modernist parador offering sushi and fried seafood—or at Noa Noa, a 1940s fishing club turned riverbank restaurant specializing in grilled fish. For sportier types, the waterfront also offers a skate park, beach volleyball nets, bicycle and jogging paths, and—obvio, obvio—soccer fields.

The rambla really turns up at the end of summer, during carnival season. From roughly late January through early March, the Teatro de Verano amphitheater hosts a nightly array of revues in which flamboyantly festooned singers and dancers stick it to The Man. Do not miss the Llamadas parade, when traditional candombe musicians take over Isla de Flores street and get everyone’s butts wiggling into the wee hours. During the off-season on Sundays, you can hear their furious drumming in the former Afro-Uruguayan neighborhood of Barrio Sur.

View of Pocitos beach, Montevideo
ElOjoTorpe/Moment/Getty Images

Choose between beaches by the river…

Sure, all of Montevideo’s beaches face the sometimes murky Río de la Plata rather than the ocean. But put some beer goggles on at the tiny alfresco bar on Playa Pocitos and it’ll begin to look like the poor man’s Pacific. At Playa Malvin, there’s beach volleyball and kitesurfing. And Playa Martinez offers a touch of Coney Island, thanks to the mini amusement park across the street in lovely Parque Rodó.

View of Portezuelo neighbourhood from Punta Ballena
ElOjoTorpe/Moment/Getty Images

…or by the Ocean

But if you believe a beach without waves is like steak without chimichurri sauce, you’ll want to do as the Argentinians do every summer and head to the Uruguayan resort town of Punta del Este, a couple of hours outside the city. When Punta starts to feel a little too much like J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise, drift further west along the Atlantic coast to the quieter beach town of Jose Ignacio.

Though it’s known as the Hamptons of Uruguay (bet you didn’t expect to blow $9 on a coffee in South America), you can still find affordable Airbnbs in converted shipping containers, and the beach bars known as chiringuitos serve cheap and potent caipirinhas. Reserve a spot at James Turrell’s Ta Khut skyspace—one of the Kanye-approved light artist’s trippy skywatching chambers—for a deeply unforgettable sunset. And if you want to get footloose and clothing-free, Playa Chihuahua is Uruguay’s only fully nude beach. Ay Chihuahua, indeed.

cooked steak on a plate

Order fiery, smokey meats

Un aplauso para el asador (“Applause for the grill master”) is as close as Uruguay comes to “In God We Trust.” To see multiple sausage slingers at work under one very impressive 1860s steel-beam roof, stroll around the Mercado del Puerto, and then saddle up to the bar at local favorite Cabaña Veronica to watch the flank steaks and sweetbreads sizzle over firewood embers.

After a day of exploring the quiet Prado neighborhood’s public park, Japanese gardens and charming Blanes art museum, grab a picnic table in the courtyard of century-old Los Yuyos tavern to sample an array of home-infused cane liquors. Order the morcilla dulce and decide whether you love or hate blood sausage sweetened by nuts and raisins.

At this point we are contractually obligated to mention chivito, Uruguay’s meatpile of a national sandwich. The most celebrated—and messiest—version can be found at half-a-century-old Bar Arocena, in the well-heeled Carrasco neighborhood.

Man holding burger
Sometimes Sunday Café Montevideo

But why stick to just the classics when innovative blends are happening all over the city? So many people flock to De Morondanga tapas bar for ridiculously fresh siri crab, caught off of the coast of Rocha, that it opened a twin location across the street. Buzzy brunch spot Sometimes Sunday serves up succulent pulled pork sandwiches to those suffering from milanesa fatigue.

Montevideo Wine Experience isn’t just the place to sample Uruguay’s undersung reds and whites—it’s also where you can score a well-crafted Manhattan or martini in a town slavishly devoted to negronis and gin tonics. Ask nicely and Es Mercat, the Catalan spot across the street, might just walk their fantastic chipirones (grilled baby squid) over to your sidewalk wine barrel. Montevideo is just that kind of place.

Hotel room with bed and desk and chair
Soro Montevideo, Curio Collection by Hilton

Sleep by the beach or in a haunted landmark

Montevideo still doesn’t have much in the way of boutique hotels, but Hilton’s recently opened SORO is nicely located steps from Pocitos beach, right on the border of tonier high-rise neighborhoods Pocitos and Punta Carretas.

If you’re looking for a less conventional stay, you’ll find it towering over the main square, Plaza Independencia. Though the Palacio Salvo and its twin brother in Buenos Aires, the Dante-themed Palacio Barolo, are no longer the tallest buildings in Latin America, they’re still among the most iconic, and scoring an Airbnb at the Salvo will win you major boho cred.

Plus, it’s a stone’s throw from the cultural amenities of the historic Ciudad Vieja neighborhood. Those include the 1850s Teatro Solis, a lavishly restored landmark hosting opera, theater, and musical performances; the Cinemateca Uruguaya, a discerning art cinema with an in-house bookshop and cafe; Puro Verso, a Belle Epoque bookstore and vegan-friendly cafe on the Sarandi pedestrian walk; and Baar Fun Fun, a tango bar where the great Carlos Gardel is said to have tossed back shots of the house uvita wine liquor.

A word of warning: Some think the Salvo is haunted by one of the brothers who built it, but he’s said to be helpful and friendly. In this town, even the ghosts are chill.

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Daniel Maurer is a contributor for Thrillist.