Montevideo proudly displays its cultural heritages in its over 50 museums. Many are free to the public and several are attached to parks or gardens, perfect for a picnic after a jaunt through the galleries. Read on for our top picks including museums where you can learn about indigenous art, how historical guachos lived, and the world's longest Carnival celebration.
Across from the port, the Carnival Museum showcases the history, costuming, drumming, and lore of Carnival in Montevideo. Uruguay hosts the longest carnival celebration in the world (60 days), and this museum commemorates and explains the various practices involved including murgas (musical theater troupes which compete for carnival titles) and Candombe (the music created by enslaved Africans in Uruguay as a form of communication and connection). Listen to recordings of El Desfile de Llamadas, see fantastical masks, and catch the show of tamborile (Cadombe drum) players in the backyard amphitheater.
Andes 1972 Museum
In 1972, a plane carrying a team of Uruguayan high school rugby players crashed into the Andes mountains, stranding them in snow and ice in a remote part of Argentina. Those stranded would not be rescued until 72 days later, after three of the survivors had braved a perilous mountain trek to find help. The museum pays tribute to the 29 people who died as a result of the crash and extreme weather, as well as the 16 who survived. In addition to reading a detailed timeline of the day-to-day accounts of the passengers of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, visitors can see pieces of the plane, pictures, maps, and personal belongings from the survivors.
The Gaucho Museum chronicles the culture of Uruguay’s gauchos, famous for their nomadic spirit, large herds of cattle, and independent spirits. Housed in the exquisite Palacio Heber, walk through the displays of leatherwork and horse riding equipment of stirrups and silver spurs. Learn about the culture of mate drinking (a highly caffeinated tea) and see carved gourds used to hold the beverage. Observe the sculptures and paintings of gaucho life and see traditional gaucho wear like ponchos, rastras (broad belts), bombachas de campo (poofy pants), and daggers. Free to the public, it shares the palace with the Museum of Money.
The first time the tango anthem “La Cumparsita” was ever played was at the Montevidean bar La Giralda. Eventually torn down, the site now contains Palacio Salvo, and within it, the Museo del Tango, where a recreation of the original bar now welcomes patrons. Take a half-hour English-language tour to learn more about the birth of tango in the River Plate area (Argentina and Uruguay), as well as the tango’s influence on global pop culture, from Tom and Jerry to Harry Potter. After the tour, sip wine in the cafe and enjoy a live performance of a tango dance duo.
Taranco Palace Decorative Arts Museum
Formerly the house of the Ortiz de Taranco family, Taranco Palace holds collections of Spanish, French, and Uruguayan furniture, plus paintings from the masters of the Spanish Baroque period and Dutch Golden Age. There are also three ornately painted pianos. Initially, the furniture and paintings were collected by the original wealthy merchant owners. The house feels much the same as when they lived there, displaying the grandeur of life in 1920s Montevideo, only now there're occasional jazz shows and the Uruguayan government holds meetings in its halls. The basement has a bonus archeology museum featuring Egyptian and Roman artifacts.
Learn about the history of Uruguay’s progressive laws (including the legalization of marijuana) and marijuana’s current role in the country from friendly guides at the
Cannabis Museum in the Palermo neighborhood. Though only two floors, the space
is utilized well: the bottom floor displays hemp and cannabis products from around
the world, while the top is a small grow room with several plants and neon violet lighting.
Juan Manuel Blanes Museum
Situated in Prado Park, this small museum showcases the work of one of Uruguay’s most famous painters: Juan Manuel Blanes. Blanes was a realist painter, known for his scenes of gauchos and major South American historical events. He was also a celebrated portrait artist, painting the visage of the patriot, José Gervasio Artigas. The museum, housed in a neoclassical villa, has a 4,000-piece collection comprised of Blanes’ oil paintings, as well as works of modernist painters like Pedro Figari and Rafael Barradas. Enjoy the sculpture patio and be sure to see the Japanese botanical garden just behind the villa, complete with a koi pond, wooden bridges, and a waterfall.
National Museum of Visual Arts
The Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales (MNAV) holds one of the largest collections of art in Uruguay. Comprised of both national and international artists, see the works of Goya and Henry Moore, as well as Juan Manuel Blanes and Pedro Figari. In addition to the permanent collection, at least one to two temporary exhibits are featured each year, showcasing paintings like the cubism of Picasso or the Rio Platanese surrealism of Mario Arroyo.
Pre-Columbian and Indigenous Museum
The Museo de Arte Precolombino e Indígena (MAPI) contains archeological pieces from the indigenous people of Uruguay, as well as art and natural history objects from
other Latin American countries. See the permanent exhibition on Latin American musical instruments, including Afro-Uruguayan, Creole, and indigenous instruments from different countries and time periods. Visit the Food Room to learn the history of Uruguay through its eating practices from pre-Colombian times until today. Observe the building it’s housed in as well: an old hydro-therapy facility and national heritage sight in one. MAPI also acts as an educational and cultural center and facilitates creations of work highlighting Uruguay’s Indigenous cultures.
Located on the Rambla, Pittamiglio Castle was the former abode of the eccentric, esoteric architect Humberto Pittamiglio. Here, Pittamiglio experimented with alchemy in his quest for eternal life and was said to have hidden the Holy Grail somewhere in the labyrinth of narrow hallways, stairs to nowhere, and 54 rooms he was constantly remodeling. Take the tour to learn more about his body of work incorporating architecture from the Renaissance, medieval, Gothic, and Modern schools, as well as and discover hidden symbols throughout the property. Afterward, check out the magic plant shop or have lunch at the on-site restaurant.