Why is Montevideo the Capital of Uruguay?

Why is Montevideo the Capital of Uruguay?
Why is Montevideo the Capital of Uruguay?

The capital of the South American country of Uruguay is Montevideo – the largest city in the country with a population of almost 1.4 million (as of a 2017 census). Roughly one-third of Uruguay’s citizens live in Montevideo. 

According to a 2019 Mercer report on the quality of life of various cities throughout the world, Montevideo ranked as the city with the best quality of life in Latin America. Montevideo is considered one of the world’s most progressive cities, being ranked in 2014 as the fifth best city for LGBTQ+ rights and ranked first in Latin America. In 1930, Montevideo was the home of the FIFA World Cup. 

Read on to learn more about this unique city and its integral part in Uruguay’s economy, as well as how it came to be the capital of this vibrant Latin American country. 

Where is the Capital of Uruguay Located?

Where is the Capital of Uruguay Located?
Where is the Capital of Uruguay Located?

Montevideo lies on Uruguay’s southern coast, just 140 miles west of the Argentinian city of Buenos Aires, on the northeastern bank of the Rio de la Plata, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Its distinction as a port city makes Montevideo a lively hub for international trade and a vital part of Uruguay’s economy.   

Montevideo handles the lion’s share of Uruguay’s foreign trade. The country’s main exports are meat, wool, and animal hides, but the city also produces exports such as: 

  • Meat
  • Wool
  • Hides
  • Textiles
  • Shoes
  • Soap
  • Matches
  • Clothing

There are many major factories throughout Montevideo that produce its exports and package them for trade. 

Brief History of Montevideo


Early History

Montevideo was founded around 1680 by the Portuguese and was originally named Colonia do Sacramento. 

While the Spanish also colonized large parts of South America alongside Portugal, Spain didn’t try to claim the city until 1724, when Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, the Spanish governor of Buenos Aires, organized an attack on the city. Portuguese colonists were forced out of the city and the Spanish took over, with Zabala renaming the city San Felipe y Santiago de Montevideo. The city’s name was later shortened to Montevideo. 

With the Portuguese gone from the city, the Spanish transplanted a handful of families from Buenos Aires to Montevideo in order to establish their own Spanish population in the city. Over the next few years, many families migrated from the Canary Islands and moved to Montevideo. 

Wars and Colonialism

Montevideo and Uruguay as a whole experienced frequent periods of changing leaders, with colonial affiliations switching with startling frequency. The city was officially founded by the Portuguese in 1680 before being taken over as a Spanish settlement in 1724 by Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. 

The following list illustrates Uruguay’s colonial affiliations leading up to the country’s independence. 

  • Portuguese Empire: 1680 – 1724
  • Spanish Empire: 1724 – 1807
  • British Empire: 1807
  • Spanish Empire: 1807 – 1814
  • Río de la Plata: 1814 – 1815
  • Federal League: 1815 – 1817
  • Portuguese Empire: 1817 – 1822
  • Empire of Brazil: 1822 – 1828
  • Uruguay (Independent Nation): 1828 – present

While Uruguay finally established independence in 1828, the wars and strife were far from over. Montevideo suffered nation-wide violence due to the tensions between two revolutionary leaders – Manuel Oriba and Fructuoso Rivera – fighting over the presidency of the country. 

The city and the country were divided in loyalty into two factions, with those loyal to current president Oriba and those loyal to his contender Fructuoso at odds with each other. The violence got so out of control that Montevideo and its residents were under siege for eight years, with both the French and British offering support and supplies by sea. 

20th Century

It wasn’t until the 1850s when the conflicts ended, and the city could finally expand and embrace growth. In the early 1900s, many people came to Uruguay seeking opportunities, including many Europeans. In 1908, roughly 30% of the nation’s population were born in foreign countries. 

The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s saw widespread political violence that nearly bankrupted the country and left many of its citizens in dire straits. From 1973 to 1985, Uruguay was in the grip of a military dictatorship, the leaders of which carried out numerous human rights violations on the country’s citizens. Population declined rapidly, with so many people dying and fleeing the country. 

When the dictatorship ended and democracy returned to Uruguay after 1985, the country slowly began to recover. 

When did Montevideo become the Capital of Uruguay?

Montevideo, Uruguay, customs and port administration building.
Montevideo, Uruguay, customs and port administration building.

While Montevideo had always been the epicenter of trade and industry in Uruguay, it wasn’t officially named as the nation’s capital until 1828, when Uruguay was established as an independent state, and has remained the capital since. 

Why is Montevideo the Capital of Uruguay?

Montevideo’s location on the coast and proximity to Buenos Aires, Argentina, has always been an important location since it was first established as a Portuguese settlement in 1680. Located on the northeast bank of Rio de la Plata, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, Montevideo is an important port city surrounded by a rich abundance of natural resources. 

Best Places to Visit in Montevideo

If you are lucky enough to visit this vibrant city, it can be overwhelming when trying to decide which places to visit – especially with a limited time frame. 

Fortunately, we’ve curated a list of must-see Montevideo attractions for any tourist.

  1. Plaza Independencia – located in the heart of the city, Montevideo’s city square has a rich and colorful history. You’ll find yourself surrounded by historic buildings, not to mention the remains of the city’s gate and walls. 
  2. Castillo Pittamiglio – created by the eccentric architect and alchemist Humberto Pittamiglio, this castle is a breathtaking monument that is a must-see for any adventurous traveler.
  3. Mausoleo al General José Gervasio Artigas – this museum pays homage to General Jose Gervasio Artigas, who sacrificed his life fighting tirelessly for Uruguay’s independence and died in exile. Learn all about Uruguay’s national hero in this informative and fascinating museum. 
  4. Estadio Centenario – for those passionate about the World Cup, this historic football stadium was originally built in 1930 to host the very first FIFA World Cup. 
  5. Letrero de Montevideo – no trip to Uruguay’s capital is complete without a trip to the city’s name spelled out in enormous colorful letters. 

See Also

Capital Cities 

Hi and welcome to my travel blog! Based in London, I work in investment banking in a quantitative field and although I am not part of the travel industry, I have a ton of passion for travel. My blog is a reference guide for my fellow travelers with the same passion as me. Hopefully the blog is easy to navigate and my aim is to bring the most relevant and interesting information before you begin your journey!