Uruguay sometimes gets overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, Argentina to the west and Brazil to the north. But Uruguay is finally getting its time in the spotlight, and deservedly so. It boasts the perfect combination of beautiful beaches where you can relax, and urban escapes offering cultural adventures and culinary treats.
Soak in the sun in Colonia del Sacramento, the oldest city in Uruguay, famous for being one of the most beautiful cities in South America. It’s just 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires by ferry, which is one of the many reasons Argentines flock to the destination. Located on the Río de la Plata, the widest river in the world, it was founded by the governor of Rio de Janeiro and commissioned by Prince Pedro II of Portugal as a base to defend the Portuguese empire. In Barrio Histórico, located on a small peninsula, you can still see the mix of Portuguese and Spanish architecture today, which earned Colonia status as a UNESCO World Culture Heritage Site in 1995. Walk along the picturesque cobbled streets and it’ll feel like you stepped back in time.
Be sure to make a stop at the Old Town Gate, known as the Puerta de Campo or Puerta de la Ciudadela, which was built in 1745 by the Portuguese governor Don Manuel Lobo. It was erected to protect the town, since its valuable location off the Río de la Plata often sparked battles. The gate also marks the division between the new part of Colonia and its historical section. The Church Matriz, dating back to 1680, is believed to be the oldest church in the country, and was built when Colonia was founded. Also known as the Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento, it’s located in the Plaza de Armas.
Talk a walk down the iconic Calle de Los Suspiros, which aptly translates to “street of sighs,” and enjoy a meal at El Buen Suspiro, an artisanal food and wine store that doubles as a restaurant. They sell the best local wines, including Tannat, which is considered Uruguay’s national wine. El Buen Suspiro makes their own wine, liqueurs, cheese, marmalades and grappas, which you can sample in their restaurant, along with other tapas. Sit in the charming garden for the meal, then amble down to the nearby riverfront to catch the sunset. Be prepared to give it a hearty round of applause—it’s a Uruguayan tradition to clap for the pretty sunsets. For another spectacular view, visit El Faro Lighthouse to catch a panorama of the city. Built in 1857, the unique lighthouse was constructed on top of the ruins of the Convento de San Francisco.
Colonia shares the same latitude as Australia and New Zealand, so you’ll want to enjoy the delightful climate at a property that takes advantage of it. Enter the Sheraton Colonia Golf & Spa Resort, where the greatest challenge is tearing yourself away from the enchanting pool. (There’s an indoor pool too, as well as a whirlpool.) The nine-hole course is also a treat for golfers, and you can’t forget the views and serene vibes of the entire property.
If you’re looking to get a city fix, Montevideo is only a couple of hours away by car from Colonia. As the capital of Uruguay and home to almost half of the country’s population, Montevideo is a city that spans many neighborhoods, all with different aesthetics and cultures, ranging from industrial to historic to business to arts districts to beaches.
Also located along the Río de la Plata, Montevideo boasts beautiful beaches as well. But they’re not just for basking in the sun—kite surfing is very popular here. Try your turn at the sport, or just watch from the sand. Another way to take in the waterfront river view is to walk down the Rambla of Montevideo, stretching all along the coastline of the city, making it the longest continuous sidewalk in the world at nearly 14 miles.
History buffs will be in heaven with all of the storied places to visit. Start with the Legislative Palace, which was crafted in a Neoclassicist style from 52 kinds of marble between 1908 and 1925. The National Heritage Monument is where the Uruguayan parliament meets. Every five years, the inauguration of the recently elected president starts there with a parade that ends at Estévez Palace.
The most important plaza in the city is Independence Square, dividing Ciudad Vieja from downtown Montevideo. The Artigas Mausoleum stands at the very center, a monument to national hero José Artigas, who is considered the father of Uruguayan independence; his remains are kept underground beneath the statue. Many important buildings dot the plaza, including Palacio Salvo, an architectural wonder that is one of the city’s iconic landmarks, which was originally topped with a lighthouse. There’s also the Solís Theatre, the country’s most renowned theater, as well as the nearby Estévez Palace and Executive Tower, where the president of Uruguay works. And don’t miss the Puerta de la Ciudadela, a.k.a. the Gateway of the Citadel, which is one of the last remaining sections of the wall that stood around the oldest part of Montevideo. The citadel was torn down in 1829.
Another historic square is Constitution Plaza, the oldest in the city and home to the Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral and the Montevideo Cabildo. The latter was home to the government during the colonial era and is now a museum.
If all that history wears you out, rest your head at the Sheraton Montevideo Hotel, which is centrally located in the entertainment district of Punta Carretas and close to great shopping and restaurants. Speaking of food, Uruguay is a dream for any meat lover. Like its neighbor Argentina, the country is famous for its many different cuts of beef, which are prepared on a parilla, a special iron grill used throughout the country. Get a taste of this at the scrumptious steakhouse Garcia Parrilla Clasica y Bar, located just steps away from the hotel.
For a wider introduction to Uruguayan food, visit the Mercado Agrícola de Montevideo. The local marketplace is filled with fresh produce, local bites and even leather goods. In addition to foodies, architecture nerds also visit to see the stately cast-iron building, which is one of the most eye-catching in the city. Work your way through the food hall to sample local desserts and treats, sauces, and jams. Like Uruguay itself, the market offers so much, ensuring that it will satisfy a wide array of tastes.