The bitter-herb beverage of mate, drunk through a metal straw. Photo: Viviane Ponti/Lonely Planet
Montevideo is the forgotten city for most travellers who arrive in South America from Australia and head straight to Argentina, Brazil or Peru. Yet only three hours across the River Plate from Buenos Aires, this colonial gem is one of South America's most intoxicating cities.
The streets of Uruguay's capital are lined with jacarandas and cobbled lanes that wind through the old city to the sandy shores of the River Plate. There are strong influences from the descendants of the African slave population and a relaxed Spanish outlook on life.
One of the strongest customs in Uruguay is taking a morning mate (pronounced mah-tay). This herbal tea-like drink is consumed in a specially made gourd filled with bitter yerba (herbs) and hot water and drunk through a bombilla (a metallic straw). Seemingly unable to function without their mate hit, Uruguayans drink it constantly for its slight buzz. The first designated mate cafe in Montevideo, MateArte, is on the edge of the old city. Sofas are positioned around paintings by local artists for customers to admire while they sip their herb of choice. There are five varieties, including Taragui Red, Union Smooth and La Merced organic, and the owner, Gabriel, will happily introduce you to the city's mate culture.
MateArte, Peatonal Sarandi 294; +598 9571 1695; see MateArte on Facebook.
Propelled by the buzz from your mate, wander through the ciudad vieja (old city) of Montevideo. This enchanting quarter by the docks of the River Plate dates back to the 18th century, when Montevideo was settled as a Spanish port. Start the walking tour in the Plaza Independencia and pass through the traditional gateway, all that is left of the stout stone walls that once encircled the old city. Part Gotham City, part Miami Beach, the ciudad vieja is full of colourful colonial buildings, winding alleys, markets and the majority of the city's museums. Beyond the magnificent Palacio Salvo is the atmospheric Mercado del Puerto (port market), full of artisan stalls and some of the juiciest steaks in South America.
One of Montevideo's greatest attractions is its small size. Easy to explore on foot, it is even breezier on a ''bicicleta''. Hire a bike in ciudad vieja and cycle along the rambla (esplanade), the path that traces the coastline of the city past the beaches of Playa Ramirez and along to Playa Pocitos, which is the Bondi Beach of Montevideo, full of bronzed bodies and volleyball games on the golden sand.
Bicycles are available from Hostel Ciudad Vieja, Calle Ituzaingo 1436; +598 2915 6192.
There is a monster on the streets of Montevideo. The chivito is the Uruguayan ''Frankenstein's monster'', a round, toasted bread roll loaded with beef, egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, capsicum, olives, bacon, mushrooms, mayonnaise and palm hearts. Try this national sandwich by the river at the El Trebol bar in the suburb of Palermo. It's perfect washed down with a cold Zillertal beer.
El Trebol's chivito costs 220 pesos ($11.25); Calle Yaros, 951 Palermo; +598 2410 5033.
After this monstrous sandwich you'll need a walk. Head north to the Uruguayan football museum. The country's homage to all things football is inside the Estadio Centenario, where Uruguay famously won the first World Cup in 1930 with a 4-2 triumph over Argentina. ''La Celeste'', as they are known, backed it up in 1950 by winning the tournament in Brazil. Score a goal on the grass of the national stadium and visit the museum that features the first World Cup ball, jerseys worn by Maradona and Pele and photos from Uruguay's football exploits (including their unexpected fourth place at last year's World Cup).
Parque Batlle, Avenida Dr Americo Ricaldoni. Museum entry 80 pesos; +598 2480 1259.
After spending the day on your feet, indulge in one of Uruguay's most enjoyable customs. Take a long siesta in the tardecita (dusk) like the locals and recharge your batteries for the evening ahead.
You'll hear the thump, thump, thump of the candombe in the streets of Palermo before you see the lines of musicians. Candombe is the music of Uruguay's African community, which descends from the slaves who arrived here in the 19th century. The gyrating hips, hypnotic dancing and the thunder of hundreds of drummers in the candomblera can be seen and heard on the street of Isla de Flores in Palermo every night. It's a great chance to grab a beer and join the melee of swirling dreadlocks and rhythmic Latino dancers - and it's free. A good time to see candombe and hear ''las llamadas'' (the calls) of the musicians is during Carnival, the South American pre-Lent celebration made famous in Brazil. The Montevideo version starts on Tuesday and lasts for 55 days.
Uruguayans dine late, so once the sun goes down, head out to La Pulperia in the suburb of Lagunillas. This parrilla (barbecue) is a tiny place with dark wooden benches facing the street and is one of the most authentic barbecue restaurants in Uruguay. Order a bottle of Uruguay's famous tanat red wine and choose some (or all) of the grills: tira de asado (short ribs), pechito de cerdo (baby pork), chorizo (sausage), morcilla (black pudding), chinchulins (intestines) and rinones (kidney). Finish with a glass of home-made limoncello.
La Pulperia, Lagunillas, 448 J. Nunez and Punta Carretas; +598 2710 8657. A meal with starters and plenty of meat (including drinks) costs about 400 pesos.
Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Aerolineas Argentinas.
Aerolineas Argentinas has a fare to Montevideo from Sydney for about $1550 low-season return including tax, flying to Buenos Aires with a transit in Auckland (about 17hr, including down time), then to Montevideo (45min) on Pluna Lineas Aereas Uruguayas.
Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly Virgin Blue to Sydney to connect.
Una Noche Mas (One Night More) is a delightful bed-and-breakfast in Punta Carretas near the water. Rooms from $38, see unanochemas.com.uy. For more information, see welcomeuruguay.com.