Montevideo is increasingly embracing modern trends: see fashion-forward boutiques opened by a new generation of designers, hipster restaurants, and the sprouting of glossy high-rises facing the Rio de la Plata. But what really defines this small South American city is a sense of timelessness: neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture, leafy plazas, and riverside promenades, all of which call to mind bygone eras when people took the time to slow down. Nowhere is this vibe more palpable than in the Ciudad Vieja, a historic district of less than a square mile dotted with cafes, bookstores, small museums, and a large collection of antique stores and auction houses packed with vintage treasures.
Montevideo enjoyed a golden era in the early 20th century, when wealthy local families traveled frequently to Europe in vast ocean liners, bringing back cargo trunks full of sophisticated furnishings and artworks. This, together with the belongings brought over by new immigrants from Spain and Italy, as well as goods made by highly qualified Uruguayan silversmiths and woodworkers, led to the city’s bounty of collectibles.
Over the past five years, discerning entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this abundance of relics to create atmospheric restaurants, hotels, and other businesses paying tribute to the capital’s character. The 15-room Alma Histórica Boutique Hotel , which opened two years ago by Italian art collector Gianfranco Bonan, showcases a carefully curated hodgepodge of locally bought furnishings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each room is unique, inspired by Uruguayan cultural icons such as painter Pedro Figari and tango virtuoso Carlos Gardel. A short walk away, on the other side of Plaza Zabala, one of the oldest and prettiest squares in Montevideo, is Jacinto, a casual restaurant run by acclaimed local chef Lucía Soria. Set in an old corner building with vaulted ceilings and brick walls, the space is decorated with vintage tables and chairs, including a series of 1960s metal typewriter carts used as waiter stations.
“Most of what we have was purchased at Bavastro,” says Soria, referring to a nearby auction house. “I love that place and I’m very fond of the family that owns it.” Soria is not alone. For the past 100 years, Bavastro has held weekly auctions, where customers vie for everything from porcelain figurines and rotary phones to intricately carved placards and grand pianos. The beloved emporium was also the setting for a recent dinner party held by Mesabrava, a buzz-worthy supper club that chooses unusual, often historical locales for its events. ”The tables were set using all the items that were there for sale; mixed wooden benches with wrought iron chairs and chesterfield sofas, and included some of their [Bavastro’s] statuettes as decoration,” says Gustavo Zerbino, one of…