Montevideo may be the only large city in Uruguay, but it's also one of South America's most interesting centers, if not always its liveliest. Many Argentines come here to relax during their summer break and bask on the white sandy beaches that Uruguay and Montevideo have in spades. The capital of Uruguay has a surprising cultural diversity for such a small population, and is a picturesque blend of colonial Spanish, Italian and Art Deco styles. Often bypassed by travelers in favor of Buenos Aires, Montevideo has often suffered at the hands of its more famous and flamboyant neighbors.

Montevideo lies on the east bank of the R?o de la Plata, almost directly east of Buenos Aires in Argentina on the west bank. Most visitor attention is focused on the Ciudad Vieja, the old city built on a small peninsula close to the port and harbor that was once surrounded by protective walls. The city’s functional center is Plaza Independencia to the east, with many historic public buildings of the republican era. Most inexpensive accommodation is on the side streets around Plaza Cagancha, though some are in the Ciudad Vieja.

Many points of interest are beyond downtown, resulting from Montevideo’s sprawl both east and west along the river. To the east, the Rambla, or riverfront road, leads past attractive residential suburbs and numerous public parks (including Parque Rod?) at the south end of Bulevar Artigas. Farther east, but well within the city limits, are the sandy beaches that are popular with locals in summer and on most weekends.

Montevideo’s port market was the continent’s finest when it opened back in 1868, but today it survives on personality and atmosphere, of which there are plenty. The old port market building is an impressive wrought-iron superstructure which houses outstanding seafood restaurants as well as the more traditional grills that sell parillas (choose your cut off the grill).

The national history museum is actually four different Ciudad Vieja houses, mostly former residences of national heroes. Casa Lavalleja, built in the late 18th century, was the home of General Juan Lavalleja whose rebellious campaigns against the occupying Brazilians eventually led to the creation of Uruguay. Casa Rivera belonged to Uruguay’s first president, General Fructuoso Rivera. Casa Garibaldi was home to the Italian patriot who commanded the Uruguayan navy from 1843-51. The Museo Romantico is filled with paintings and antiques and still retains some of its original colonial style.

With a proud tradition in theater and arts, Uruguay is justifiably proud of its Teatro Sol?s, with its superb acoustics and a quality roster of local and international performers. Named after the first Spaniard to set foot in what is now Uruguayan territory, the theater opened in 1856. It’s certainly worth catching a show here.

The neoclassical legislature, dating back to 1908, was constructed from an original design by Victor Meano. Brilliantly lit at night, the three-story building is one of the Montevideo’s most impressive landmarks. There are guided tours available in English and Spanish.