Buenos Aires, bustling and modern, is the Argentine capital and an endlessly fascinating urban landscape to explore. But you might find yourself pining for a quiet, colonial city, with strollable streets and perhaps a historic city center so lovely and well preserved that it’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Perched atop a small peninsula jutting out into the Rio Plata, Colonia was the perfect spot for Portuguese explorers to found Uruguay’s first city back in 1680, keeping an eye on those pesky Spaniards settling the opposite side of the river. The Spanish and Portuguese fought over the city for the next 250 years, each occupying it for decades at a time. The result is a fascinating history celebrated in the fusion of two very different, but equally impressive, architectural styles in the Barrio Historico, or Old Neighborhood.
Begin your tour of the historic area on the “Street of Sighs,” its cobbled streets and winsome facades a symbol of the city. Until 1968, this was a dangerous red-light district, fallen into deep disrepair over the decades. That’s when an ambitious restoration project began to rebuild the fortified stone retaining walls and narrow defended streets of the Portuguese eras, and the more spacious, ornate sections built during various Spanish occupations.
There are several historic sites worth visiting, beginning with the massive Porton de Campo (City Gate), entered only across an old wooden drawbridge built in 1745. Also visit the 1857 Colonia de Sacramento lighthouse, built on the stone masonry ruins of much older Convento de San Francisco Javier; the 1808 Basilica of the Holy Sacrament, featuring Portuguese artwork and artifacts; and 18th-century Casa de Nacarello, also built by the Portuguese. The theater, Bastion del Carmen, was once a factory.
There are at least seven museums welcoming visitors to explore Colonia de Sacramento’s culture and history, including the Museo Portuguese, showcasing Portuguese architecture and artifacts and Museo Español, which covers the decidedly less militarized Spanish eras with housewares and clothing. Museo Municipal includes exhibits from both sides of the city’s history.
If you have time, you could also hire a boat to Gabriel and Farallon Islands, both national monuments; Isla Gabriel is also a National Park.
Today, the city is a popular spot for travelers, but has a thriving economy in trade and agriculture, thanks to the fine port and rich farming regions all around. There are several good restaurants, the best specializing in Italian cuisine and asados (grilled meats). Accommodations, ranging from basic backpacker hostels and campsites, to historic posadas and four-star golf resorts, await if you just don’t want to leave.
While it’s great to arrange an all-inclusive guided tour of the city from Buenos Aires, independent travelers have other options. Ferries make the two-and-a-half-hour run, as do faster busqueaviones and catamarans, which make the trip in 50 minutes