Day Trip: Colonia del Sacramento
Historic sites and authentic restaurants line the cobblestone streets of this rustic Uruguayan town.
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay’s oldest city and a UNESCO-protected jewel box of a town, sits on the banks of the Río de la Plata—one of the world’s widest rivers and the natural water boundary between Argentina and Uruguay. A quick jaunt from Carmelo, Uruguay (an hour’s drive to the north), or Buenos Aires (an hour-long river ferry ride across the river), takes you steps from the old drawbridge gate leading to Colonia’s walled Barrio Histórico (historic quarter). Here, English-speaking guides set out on hour-long walking tours of the quiet colonial town. You’ll be sufficiently transported by their historical anecdotes and the aging charm of 17th-century Spanish and Portuguese colonial architecture, built layer upon layer as this once-coveted port changed hands between the duelling imperial powers before ultimately settling into sovereignty as part of Uruguay in 1828.
The compact old town’s roughly cobbled streets lead from the riverfront and ancient ramparts, meeting with several leafy squares and the flower-dressed windowsills of craft shops and cafés. A local love affair with vintage automobiles adds to the stuck-in-time appeal.
Embracing Colonia’s history is the best way to get to know it. Linger in the simple yet elegantly restored Basilica of the Holy Sacrament, Uruguay’s oldest church, dating back to 1808. Several small but engaging museums showcase collections that detail the town’s past. (A single ticket grants admission to them all.) Peek at colonial-era artefacts and documents at the Municipal Museum, and duck into the tiny 18th-century Nacarello House next door for a depiction of colonists’ lives and times. Climb the lighthouse (circa 1857), built upon the ruins of a 17th-century convent, for 360-degree views over river and land.
You’ll find an excellent spot to refuel amid the pastel stucco and tile roofs on Calle de los Suspiros, a cobblestone lane whose name means “Street of the Sighs.” Buen Suspiro pairs traditional Uruguayan fare with local wines: Order one of the signature “picada” samplers—a hearty selection of cheeses, cured meats and pies, with ingredients sourced from the surrounding farmland—and pair it with Tannat, Uruguay’s national wine.
After a laid-back lunch, rent a car for the 8-minute drive to Bodega Bernardi, a family-owned operation dating back to the 19th century where you can taste house grappas and stroll through the vineyards. Also worth visiting is the eccentric Granja Colonia collections museum down the road, site of the world’s largest pencil collection.
As the sun starts dipping towards the horizon, return to the heart of town and take the riverfront road rimmed with pretty beaches. Pick a sunset perch at the atmospheric watchtower-cum-restaurant El Torreón overlooking the river, where a glass of Uruguayan wine complements the waterfront views. Round out the evening at the quirky El Drugstore café, with its generous drink list and artsy décor, before returning to modernity.