Before traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I had never heard of the nearby town of Colonia del Sacramento. When I was skimming the Lonely Planet South America guidebook, though, I was surprised to discover that one of the fifteen best places to visit in all of South America was located just across the river from me. Of course I had to book a ticket!
Usually just called “Colonia”, Colonia del Sacramento is located on the opposite shore of the Rio de la Plata. The big draw here is the town’s historic quarter, where colonial Spanish and Portuguese architecture still stands on picturesque cobblestone streets. This historic neighborhood has been identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noteworthy for the astounding number of original, single-story buildings that remain today. An entire tourism industry has popped up around this well-preserved historic quarter, meaning that visitors have more than enough boutiques, restaurants, cafes and museums to fill a day trip or weekend getaway.
Things to Do in Colonia del Sacramento
Walk Around the Historic Quarter of Colonia
Colonia del Sacramento is small, and there’s not a lot to “do”. However, there is a lot to see, and nearly all of it is located on the bumpy cobblestone streets of the historic quarter. It’s easy to spend three or four hours wandering through the historic quarter, photographing the stunning old buildings, petting the many dogs that explore the street by day (most go home to loving homes at night!) and trying not to catch your flip-flop between two cobblestones.
Perhaps the most famous street is Calle de los Suspiros, or the Street of Sighs, where the stones are particularly steep and slippery, but the legends are aplenty and the art galleries that line the street today are worth a quick tour.
Colonia del Sacramento Lighthouse
Construction of Colonia’s iconic lighthouse began in 1855, in an effort to reduce the number of shipwrecks on the rocks and islands around Colonia, Uruguay. By the time construction was finished two years later, it was such a big deal that it was featured in newspapers across Europe. A ticket to ascend the tower costs 25 Uruguayan pesos, and the lookout decks offer views of the river and the historic quarter.
At the base of the lighthouse you can wander through the ruins of the old Convento de San Francisco, a 17th-century convent that stood for only ten years before being destroyed in a fire.
The Porton del Campo (Citadel Gates)
One path into Colonia’s historic quarter passes through the Porton del Campo, or Citadel Gates. A reconstruction of the original 1745 drawbridge passes under the arch that was once an important part of Colonia’s defenses. It is also possible to walk along what remains of the old fortified walls along the water’s edge, though the walls aren’t well-maintained and you should ascend cautiously.
Colonia del Sacramento Beaches
If suntanning on a white sand beach and cooling off in crystal-clear waters is the highlight of your holiday, skip Colonia altogether and head further along the coast, past Montevideo, to Uruguay’s famous Punta del Este. However, if you just want to spend an hour or two sunbathing, or don’t mind swimming in water that is a little… sediment-y… Colonia del Sacrament has a couple of different beaches in the Rio de la Plata that might be worth a visit.
The top photo shows Playa el Alamo, a pleasant fifteen-minute walk from the historic quarter of Colonia. When I visited there was security at the beach (but no lifeguards), plus ample parking and a beachside restaurant. However, there were no beach chairs for rent, so bring a big beach towel.
The second photo shows Playa Urbana del Rowing, a small beach that is only three minutes on foot from the center, beside the city’s rowing club. This beach was less busy but still had a number of locals sunbathing, drinking beer and playing with their dogs in the water.
As both beaches line the Rio de la Plata river, rather than the Atlantic Ocean, the water has a fair bit of sediment and is not very clear. However, it doesn’t look “dirty” (in that there’s minimal visible garbage, oil or other chemicals that would be visible to the human eye) and lots of locals and tourists alike were swimming in the water at both beaches.
Watching the Sunset in Colonia
I didn’t actually believe people when they said that Colonia was famous for its sunsets… until I happened to head out for dinner just before sunset one night. I was immediately greeted with this view, taken from the little plaza at the end of General Flores Street. The spectacular colors shimmer over the water, and on a clear evening you can even see the Buenos Aires skyline on the opposite side of the Rio de la Plata.
Portuguese Museum of Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia del Sacramento is actually home to eight different museums, which is remarkable for such a small town. They are clustered in the historic quarter and are all quite affordable (during my visit, it was possible to buy a combination ticket for all of the museums for about $3 USD), so feel to pop in and out of any of the museums that capture your interest, but only plan to spend twenty or thirty minutes inside each one.
The Portuguese Museum focuses on the history and culture of Portuguese colonists in Colonia del Sacramento. Curated inside an old house in the historic quarter, it contains clothing, furniture, musical instruments and other objects used in the day-to-day life of Colonia’s earliest Portuguese community.
Indigenous Museum of Colonia del Sacramento
Originally the private collection of local Robert Banchero, the Indigenous Museum in Colonia includes pottery, ceramics, tools and clothing from historic local indigenous tribes, predating the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese settlers. There is also a collection of geological artifacts (that’s a fancy way to say rocks) from Colonia del Sacramento and the surrounding regions.
Naval Museum of Colonia del Sacramento
Only for true fans of naval history, the Museo Naval is home to a small collection of artifacts (like maps, navigation equipment and model ships) along with several pieces of artillery that were recovered from Spanish and Portuguese shipwrecks in the waters near Colonia del Sacramento.
Colonia del Sacramento Hotels and Hostels
Posada El Capullo
This is where I’d wanted to stay during my weekend in Colonia del Sacramento, but unfortunately they were fully booked by the time I made up my mind to come over from Buenos Aires. If you want to stay at this lovely boutique hotel, make sure to book your room at Posada El Capullo in advance! It’s located right inside the historic quarter, and it’s built around a lovely courtyard with lush greenery and a pretty swimming pool. Amenities include a daily continental breakfast with local breads and jams, as well as bicycle rentals and a tour desk.
Toca Madero Hostel
Since my first choice wasn’t available, I decided to make my stay in Colonia a budget trip and booked a dorm bed at Toca Madero Hostel. Although this hostel is new, it’s a bit of a throwback to old-school backpacking days in that the dorms are a bit on the small side, but the atmosphere is really friendly (and it’s super-clean!). There is a private room up a steep set of stairs… and a marijuana dispensary across the street, if that’s your thing. Wink emoji.
When you’re choosing a hotel in Colonia del Sacramento, look for one that is located as close as possible (or inside) the historic quarter. The outskirts have little to offer for a one- or two-night stay, with all of the restaurants, cafes, shops and attractions in the old town. You can use this map to find hotels in your price range in the historic center of Colonia.
Colonia, Uruguay Restaurants, Bars & Cafes
Budget travelers, take note! Uruguay issues instant tax rebates to foreigners who pay with a foreign credit card in any restaurant, bar or cafe. This saves you 22% off the prices you see on the menu!
It works in two ways: either you will see the lower charge right away on your bill, or the restaurant will automatically process a 22% refund immediately after the charge. You don’t need to request the refund – by law, it will happen automatically.
There is no rebate when you pay with cash (and some restaurants are cash-only, while a small number only accept Visa or Mastercard). If you’re with a big group or splurging on an expensive meal, confirm in advance that the restaurant will accept your credit card so you can take advantage of the savings.
Sort by controversial and Lentas Maravillas will come out on top, namely because of this little guy. This vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurant (with lots of meat dishes on the menu too!) feels like you’re dining in someone’s living room or garden, complete with the occasional feline dining companion. I stopped by for lunch and had their daily special: pasta with zucchini, cream cheese and pesto, accompanied by a glass of homemade lemonade and followed with a mixed-fruit ice sorbet bar. I was also eyeing their trio of hummus dips and their big salads. Highly recommended, as long as you’re not allergic to cats.
Another restaurant that feels like you’re walking through someone’s living room to reach the kitchen, Gitana Gastrobar has a small menu of homemade dishes, including vegetarian options like mushroom risotto and grilled vegetable salad with goat cheese. If you’re a drinker, they’re passionate about cocktails here, and also have bottled craft beer from a Colonia microbrewery. Go early to get one of the coveted outdoor seats with a view of the river.
Queirendote Tea House & Bistro
It’s a good thing Uruguayans like to go for dinner at 10:00 pm or later, as otherwise you’d spoil your dinner when stopped by Queirendote for homemade cakes, cupcakes and pastries with a beautiful view of the river (especially at sunset). As a fun bonus, the decor looks like an eclectic English granny’s house.
If you’re looking for a down-home burger and craft beer on tap, head directly to Bocadesanto in the historic quarter of Colonia del Sacramento. In addition to lots of beef, they’ve got a fun veggie burger on the menu (a lentil patty topped with grilled veggies and carrot mayonnaise) and I was psyched to find a pumpkin ale on tap, since I missed the entire Pumpkin Spice season during my travels this year.
Colonia, Uruguay Shopping
Malvon Uruguayan Design
One of my two recommendations for clothes shopping in Colonia del Sacramento, Malvon is also recommended by the Lonely Planet for its collection of blankets and clothes made by a local artisan cooperative. In particular, I liked the knitwear here, as it was lightweight and would make good layering pieces on summer evenings (or in heated offices during the winter).
Penelope is another Colonia del Sacramento boutique featuring local, handmade clothing and blankets. If you’re visiting from a cold climate, this would be the place to pick up warm and heavy knitwear, including cashmere and merino wool ponchos, sweaters and cardigans.
How to Get to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
While I actually stayed in Colonia for two full days, it’s possible to visit Colonia del Sacramento as a day trip from either Buenos Aires, Argentina or from Montevideo, Uruguay. If you’re planning to visit Colonia on a day trip, make sure to book your transportation well in advance, choosing the earliest possible ferry or bus on your departure, and the latest possible ferry or bus when you return. If you’re coming for the weekend, you can afford to be a bit more flexible in your scheduling.
Ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento
This is how I traveled from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento. There are a number of ferry companies but I went with Colonia Express because it was easy to buy my ticket online prior to the departure. I recommend booking between several weeks and several days before departure, as the ferries do fill during high season and last-minute tickets are the most expensive.
The Colonia Express ferry terminal in Buenos Aires is located close to the city center and Puerto Madero. You need to arrive at the terminal at least ninety minutes in advance, either with printed tickets or with your PDF confirmation on your phone. As a foreigner, head straight to the check-in queue as you are not eligible to use the kiosks.
After checking in you will be directed to a hallway where you will pass through both Argentinian and Uruguayan immigration, and you will receive your Uruguayan passport stamp at this time. From here, head to the boarding area where you can grab a coffee or snack before boarding the boat.
The actual Colonia Express ferries are large and comfortable, with air-conditioned indoor seating areas, outdoor walkways and duty-free shopping. The trip should take one hour and fifteen minutes, but my experience is that the boat may not depart on time and your arrival could be delayed by as much as thirty minutes.
Bus From Montevideo to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
There are regular buses between Colonia del Sacramento and other cities in Uruguay, but the most frequent service connects the port city with the capital, Montevideo, and the company that operates this route most often is Turil.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to purchase my Turil bus tickets online with my foreign credit card. I think this was just a glitch with my bank, as I heard from other travelers who were able to book without problem. Instead, I went to their office (click on Agencias at the link above for a full list of their offices, both in Montevideo and in Colonia) and bought a ticket in person. The bus trip takes just shy of three hours, and you can select your seat at the time of booking. As with the ferry, it’s best to book at least a few days in advance as the buses can fill during high season.
In Colonia, the Turil bus station is located at the port, beside the Colonia Express terminal. In Montevideo, the bus starts and ends at the Terminal Tres Cruces, beside the shopping center of the same name.
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