In a bid to add more passport stamps or perhaps do a visa run, day-trippers frequently flock to the charming city of Colonia, Uruguay. Located on the country’s east coast, it’s just a one-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires across the Río de la Plata, making it easy to squeeze in a visit from neighbouring Argentina. The historic quarter Colonia del Sacramento rewards those who make the trip with colourful facades, vine-draped shops and palm-fringed boardwalks set within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the type of laid-back place where one simply wanders around losing track of time.
Originally founded by the Portuguese in the 1600s, the city passed between Portuguese and Spanish rule for decades, and the influence of that melting pot is apparent in the resulting colonial architecture and vibrant streetscapes. Today, visitors come to explore the streets of Barrio Historic which is now under UNESCO protection, ensuring it retains its old-world charm.
The gateway to the historic quarter is a drawbridge called Puerta de la Ciudadela, leading into what used to be a fortress. One needs only a couple of hours to navigate all of Colonia’s wedge stone walkways, which wind past treasured spots like the enchanting Street of Sighs. Calle de los Suspiros is lined with houses dating back to the first colonial period, framed by the river on one end and Plaza Mayor on the other making it a popular stop for photographers.
Perhaps the most important landmark in Colonia is the Convent of San Francisco, which was reduced to ruins during a fire in the 1700s. Despite rubble being all that remains, visitors are welcome to wander through the pathways and old stone walls which lead to a new addition: the Colonia del Sacramento lighthouse. After paying $1 admission, guests climb 111 steps up a winding, narrow staircase to the very top, and get to soak in the city’s best views.
Back on solid ground, the Basilica of the Holy Sacrament is one of the oldest churches in all of Uruguay, and found just a short walk away from the lighthouse. But perhaps even more impressive is the street leading up to it: Calle de Portugal, where foliage and flowers spill out of antique cars parked along the cobbled street. Auto enthusiasts will be pleased to know this isn’t the only spot to find vintage cars—VWs, old Fords and Hillmans are parked all around the historic quarter, giving Havana a run for its money.
The final stop on a tour of Colonia del Sacramento should be the waterfront which overlooks the vast Río de la Plata. Even on an overcast, windy day it’s still a dramatic scene, and the perfect spot to finish off a day trip to Colonia del Sacramento before hopping back on the ferry.
How to get to Colonia: Most visitors arrive from Montevideo as part of a stop on their Uruguay road trip, or from Buenos Aires, Argentina. It takes just over two hours to drive to Colonia from Montevideo, and can be done by renting a car or booking a seat on one of the comfortable buses operated by Turil. There are also a handful of fast ferries, which take about one hour to cross the river between Colonia and Buenos Aires.
Currency: The Uruguayan Peso, though Argentine Pesos are accepted in some places. Credit cards are also accepted by most merchants.
Top tip: Arrive first thing in the morning to get the streets to yourself. Colonia gets quite busy starting around 10:30 a.m. when the tour buses pull in, so those who arrive earlier can enjoy some solace before hoards of day-trippers descend on the town.
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