A Step Back in Time in Montevideo, Uruguay

“Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (Old City) is as close to time travel as I can get,” says expat Madeline Parmot. Madeline’s home is on a pedestrian street of restored colonial buildings, just a few blocks from Plaza Matriz, Montevideo’s original plaza. The grand Metropolitan Cathedral, dating from 1790, graces the plaza, and rows of tall trees shade wooden benches around a white gargoyle- and cherub-decorated marble fountain.

“It is also the original brain and heart of the city. Almost all goods and services are available here,” says Madeline. Built on a peninsula, Ciudad Vieja’s eight-by-12 blocks were once the entire original city of Montevideo, founded in 1730.

Today it’s a neighborhood bustling with more tourism and business activity than any other place in the city. Visitors come to Ciudad Vieja on their own, with tour groups, and by cruise ship.

One of the most popular attractions here is the Mercado del Puerto, a large building housing several traditional Uruguayan barbecue restaurants. My local friends have convinced me that Estancia del Puerto is the best. It has an area of dining tables, but we prefer to eat at the bar to be close to the fire and to the giant-sized grill, loaded with meat cuts, sausages, potatoes, and bell peppers.

Ciudad Vieja has about 16,000 residents. U.S. expats Don and Kathie Huster recently bought a condo on Sarandi, a pedestrianized street popular with expats. “The architecture in the area reflects the strong European influence. Many buildings are only four or five stories tall or less, so it doesn’t feel like a high-rise condo suburbia,” says Don.

“Similar to many older neighborhoods in cities around the world, Ciudad Vieja was in decline and suffering from neglect until authorities began a major effort to restore the area,” explains Kathie. “The results have been striking.

“Short walks from our apartment are the waterfront, a farmers’ market, the Solís Theater, the Mercado del Puerto, and many other restaurants. There is the ferry boat to Buenos Aires, and much more,” she adds.

Most restaurants and shops in Ciudad Vieja target daytime business from commuters and cruise-ship passengers and close before dinner. The exception is the eastern edge of Ciudad Vieja, where Montevideo’s two largest theaters are located. One is the Solís Theater, which dates from 1856 and looks like an Italian opera house. The other is the Adela Reta National Auditorium. It’s a modern space, completed in 2009 and seating 2,000.

For good eats in Ciudad Vieja, this is the area to visit. Thanks to demand from the theater crowd, it offers excellent restaurants, cafés, and bars that are open for dinner and into the night. Rara Avis, in the east wing of the Solís Theater, is arguably the best restaurant for chef creations in the city. Two blocks away, on the 25th floor of the Radisson Hotel, is the Arcadia, serving classic dishes like grilled rack of lamb and duck confit.

A block south of the Solís Theater is Baar Fun Fun, with its small stage where tango music is often performed. Just north of the Solís is Bartolomé Mitre Street, a block of landmark bars, including The Shannon Irish Pub, a comfortable place for adults of all ages.

As well as on Sarandi Street, expats tend to live around the plazas. An area near the Mercado del Puerto has also begun attracting both government and private investment.

Some expats have purchased neglected historic properties in Ciudad Vieja to restore, but this can get tricky and expensive. However, you can often find like-new condominiums in restored buildings at reasonable prices.

One example is a restored colonial building just one block from Plaza Matriz. The interior has been reconfigured, and the units can be used either as office or residential space. The building’s common area includes a reception desk and a fully-equipped conference room. It also has WiFi, below-ground parking, 24-hour security, and a community terrace. This building makes sense for someone who works at home but needs a professional place to hold meetings. And you can get a 584-square-foot unit here for $136,500.

If you prefer to rent, a 645-square-foot, one-bedroom condo, in a refurbished art-deco building, is right on Sarandi. The $1,000-per-month rent includes the gastos comunes (common expenses for the building, like home owner-association dues).

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