Surprising as it seems, one of the easiest weekend getaways from Buenos Aires is popping over the River Plate to Uruguay. It’s faster to take the ferry to Colonia than to travel overland to most major Argentine cities. So if you’re looking for a relaxed weekend away, here’s how to spend 48 hours in Argentina’s picturesque neighbor.
Colonia, the riverside jewel
Take an early-morning ferry to spend the morning and early afternoon soaking up the colorful streets.
Colonia del Sacramento is one of the few cities that avoided the grid style landscape typical of Spanish colonial cities, instead opting for long, winding cobblestone roads. Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, Colonia was the subject of numerous disputes with the Spanish empire due to its important strategic location. Despite changing hands many times, the city’s historic churches and fortresses were preserved. The Historic Quarter was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 due to the combination and preservation of colonial architectural styles. It’s a petite city of around 30,000, but there is still plenty to do.
Opening hours and entrance fees were correct at the time of writing but are subject to change depending on the season, inflation, and other factors
- Colonia del Sacramento Lighthouse (De San Francisco street; opening hours depend on season): Start your weekend at the Faro (lighthouse), perhaps Colonia’s most emblematic sight — it’s just a few blocks from the ferry terminal. The site was home to a convent that was partially destroyed in 1705. The walls of the convent remain, preserved in the lighthouse’s construction, which was finished in 1857. Colonia is almost solely composed of one-story buildings, giving this landmark — once an essential marker for guiding sailors — a bird’s eye view of the river and city.
- El Buen Suspiro (Thursday-Monday, 10 a.m-6p.m.; Calle de los suspiros 90 y 92) is a tapas bar that sells local artisanal products as well as wine from the bodegas in the hilly Uruguayan countryside. Ask for a tannat: it’s Uruguay’s finest grape. With its entrance carved into the side of one of the many historic buildings two blocks from the lighthouse, its cozy atmosphere is the perfect spot for a quick lunch
- Plaza de Toros Real de San Carlos (Guided tours hourly from 11 a.m-7 p.m; 8 p.m. on weekends. Av. Mihanovich 3) is the only preserved bullfighting ring in Uruguay. First built in 1910, its bullfighting shows ended in 2008, but a US$7-million restoration, completed in 2021, transformed it into a cultural center. Costs 170 Uruguayan pesos (US$4.50) but 140 pesos for BuqueBus and ColoniaExpress clients.
- El Mercado Artesanal de Colonia (Thursday-Monday, 10 a.m-8p.m. Arquitecto Miguel Angel Odriozola 277) is a popular shopping spot right inside the entrance to the historic neighborhood. It was recently renovated, creating a central handicrafts market with food stalls. Highlights include hand-knitted sweaters and handmade ceramics. Stop off for some souvenirs before moving on to Montevideo in the afternoon.
Montevideo, the coastal capital
Montevideo is Uruguay’s capital and largest city, home to about a third of the country’s population. Despite being a metropolitan city, it’s a good place to relax: hip, graffitied craft breweries jostle with traditional cafes and museums, and the downtown area is ringed on three sides by the river, offering some scenic beaches.
The city is home to La Rambla, the longest continuous sidewalk in the world, stretching about 24 kilometers past beaches and football pitches where youngsters play rain or shine — like Argentina, football has a grip on Uruguay’s collective conscience.
The historic quarter is Ciudad Vieja, home to countless museums built into grandiose mansions that once housed the great generals of the past. Although it was first settled by the Portuguese, Montevideo became the main naval base for the Spanish in their South American empire soon after its official establishment in 1724. Like Colonia, it was the subject of many sieges and occupations, and the British held the city for several months in 1807. To properly explore Ciudad Vieja, start at Plaza de Independencia, where you can take one of the many walking tours or take a stroll on your own.
If you’re arriving from Colonia with an appetite, seek out a restaurant serving chivitos, the national dish of Uruguay. Composed of sliced beef, mozzarella, ham, tomatoes, olives and mayonnaise this sandwich is a staple of the country and a must-try for tourists.
Montevideo is home to a thriving bar scene but it’s quieter than Buenos Aires after sundown — think more indy cultural centers and boutique beers than boliches (night clubs).
For day two of your trip, don’t miss some of these emblematic downtown buildings and museums.
- Teatro Solis (Guided tours Tuesday-Sunday, 4 p.m. Corner of Mitre and Buenos Aires) First opened in 1856 as a sort of “coliseum” for the people of Montevideo , this historic theater has an elegant facade while also staging plays, orchestral performances and musicals. It is almost directly next to Plaza Independencia.
- Palacio Salvo (Guided tours Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m; Pl. Independencia 848): Designed by the same architect as the famous Palacio Barolo in Buenos Aires, it was the tallest building in Latin America when construction finished in 1928. It now houses artist collectives, writers, and recording studios. There is also a museum on the history of tango, open to the public for 150 Uruguayan pesos.
- Museum of National History: (Wednesday-Sunday, 12 midday-6p.m. Rincón 437): an incredible walkthrough of the cultural and military history of Uruguay. Built into the house of Fructuoso Rivera, the first president of Uruguay, it is a detailed history of the foundation and fight for independence of Montevideo. The exhibition on the rules of the duel provides a glimpse into the early culture of Montevideo and its codes of chivalry.
- Mercado del Puerto (Hours vary between vendors. Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825): For lunch, don’t miss this popular market right by the city port. Restaurants with elaborate assortments of fresh seafood and smoked meats fill the small space with incredible aromas. The food is great, but check in advance whether there’s a service charge — some vendors charge eye-watering fees and they aren’t always upfront about it. This place is also not the best for vegetarians and vegans. If you are craving sweets after your meal, right across from the market are the award-winning alfajores at Alfajores de Uruguay
Extend your stay
If you’re in Uruguay a little longer, there’s plenty more to explore. Canelones and Carmelo are fabulous wine regions, ideal for a day trip in the hillsides.
Glittering Punta del Este is a favorite high-end resort city for Argentines during the summer months. It marks where the Rio de la Plata estuary ends and the Atlantic ocean begins.
Other sights along the coast include Casapueblo, Uruguay’s picture-postcard museum originally built as an artist’s workshop, and the one-of-a-kind sand dune ecosystem around the remote beaches of Cabo Polonio.
Take the ferry from Buenos Aires:
Buquebus (Av. Antártida Argentina 821)
ColoniaExpress (Av. Elvira Rawson de Dellepiane 155)
Buy online before you travel and arrive two hours early for passport and security checks.
At the time of writing, Colonia Express cost AR$41,000 (US$145 at the official rate or US$83 at the MEP dollar rate), but prices vary depending on season and when you book. Choose between traveling to Colonia, the boat-bus combination taking you to Montevideo, or a boat straight to Montevideo.
From Colonia, it’s a bus ride of around three hours to Montevideo. Some ferry tickets include immediate transfer, but we recommend taking the afternoon in Colonia — or even spending the night.