Uruguay - Europe of the South

Uruguay is the most European-influenced country in South America. Once colonized by the Portuguese and the Spanish, 88 of the country’s 3.4 million inhabitants are of European descent. Driving through the countryside, you will come across German towns, Italian communities and even street signs in foreign languages.

Nestled between Brazil, Argentina and the Atlantic Ocean, Uruguay’s landscapes cover rolling hills, green pastures, pristine beaches and charming towns. Uruguayans will tell you they have better food, music and scenery than their next-door neighbors, which you may need to judge for yourself.

At 97.3, Uruguay is one of the most literate countries in the world which consists of a large urban middle class. It is by no means a cheap travel destination but is gaining popularity among tourists looking for refined culture, fine cuisine and a less crowded vacation spot.

Arriving in the capital of Montevideo is easy. Take a ferry or short flight from the neighboring big city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Check-in at After Hotel which centrally located in one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods of the city. The modern boutique hotel is affordable yet luxurious. There is a rooftop swimming pool with great views and a lobby bar that is popular on the weekends. From After, walk alongside the coast savoring the cool Atlantic breeze. For a historic stay, rent a furnished apartment at Palacio Salvo built in 1928 and once known as the tallest building in South America.

It is easy to walk or drive in and around Montevideo. Admire the Spanish colonial architecture while walking through Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) with its 18th-century buildings, vibrant Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) and bustling commercial activity of Avenida 18 de Julio with theatres, museums and art galleries. Starting at Plaza Independencia, cross the gateway to Ciudadela (The Citadel) and walk along a charming pedestrian street, Sarandi, browsing through shops of clothes, souvenirs and handicrafts. On Saturdays, a large antique market is held at Plaza Constitución, around the historic marble fountain.

Next, stop at Intendencia de Montevideo, a government building that hosts exhibitions and fairs. Once you go inside, you may be able to find the free secret elevator that takes you to the top for some of the best cityscapes.

Drive to the less posh side of the city to Fortaleza del Cerro and see the old Colonial fortress and museum. The city views during sunset are also worth the drive.

It is true that the dairy farms, cattle ranches and vineyards in Uruguay are of very high quality and not very commercialized. The restaurants produce top-class dishes using only the finest of ingredients, many of which are locally sourced.  Here you can find some of the best pizza and pasta outside of Italy. The Mercado del Puerto is a good place to sample the local cuisine. Locals dine every afternoon under a giant tin roof structure, enjoying all kinds of grilled meats (asado) cooked in open kitchens. There are a number of parrilladas or wood-fired steak shops offering some of the juiciest beef available. For a fuller meal, try the Uruguayan sandwich known as chivito which consisting of filet mignon, mozzarella, tomatoes, mayonnaise, olives, bacon, eggs, and ham, fitted inside a bun and served with a side of fries.

Uruguayans are very fond of their homemade dulce de leche (caramel). It is used as a spread on toast, fillings inside desserts and drizzled as a topping. The European custom of savoring afternoon coffee and sweets al fresco can also be found in Uruguay.

A common sight is men and women walking around carrying a hot water thermos and a gourd with a straw, sipping the national drink. Mate is an herb-infused drink made with dried, chopped and ground yerba leaves that are brewed in hot water like tea. It is not customary to order mate (a caffeine-infused drink) at a restaurant, as you need to carry your own in a personal calabash cup. These are available for purchase on the streets and make great souvenirs as well.

After a couple of days in Montevideo, head to the beach town of Punta del Este in Southeastern Uruguay for some sun. The peninsula features thick golden sand beaches on one side and fine white sand on the other. With world-class resorts, nightclubs and watersports, the area is very popular with young crowds from around the world.

Colónia del Sacramento, in Southwest Uruguay, is another must-visit town for a day trip or overnight.  Known for its historic quarter (Barrio Histórico) which is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the city was built by the Portuguese in the 17th century. The cobblestone streets adorned with charming hotels, local cafes and historic squares are good places to wander around. Colónia do Sacramento is conveniently serviced by a ferry terminal and airport, from where it’s easy to head back home.

To plan your trip to Uruguay, visit Lonely Planet for where to go and what to do.

Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

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Sucheta is an award-winning food and travel writer who has traveled to 70+ countries and is on a mission to see the entire world. She is also the founder of the nonprofit organization, Go Eat Give and the author of a series of children's books on travel, "Beato Goes To" that teach kids about different countries and cultures. To learn more, visit suchetarawal.com.