Uruguay is one of the most laidback and safest countries to visit in South America. Many travelers skip the country because they see it as a mini-Argentina. Nevertheless, there are a lot of cool things to do in Uruguay. Overlooked and charming, here are the ten best places to visit in Uruguay.
Welcome to Uruguay: a Small and Underrated South American Destination
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish and Portuguese divided the territory of modern-day Uruguay.
Both failed to establish long-lasting dominance in the region, but the colonial powers left their mark. As a result, many Uruguayans speak Spanish and Portuguese today, especially in the northern regions.
Uruguay became independent in 1824 and attracted massive waves of European immigration. The first immigrants were from the Canary Islands, but mainland Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and other European communities soon joined the party.
These migratory waves explain Uruguay’s demographics. Uruguay is the most ethnically European country in the entire Americas, with almost 90 percent of Uruguayans descending from European immigrants.
The Best Places to Visit in Uruguay
Uruguay is one of the smallest countries in South America. Nevertheless, it’s bigger than many European countries or US states.
If you want to see the entire country, two weeks will not be enough, but three weeks will give you a taste of various parts and all the major cities to visit in Uruguay.
If you only have 1-2 weeks, stick with the coast while including one or two excursions to the interior. The following are the ten best places to visit in Uruguay.
Colonia del Sacramento
When thinking about reasons to visit Uruguay, the Portuguese colonial town of Colonia del Sacramento often pops up as a worthwhile day trip from Buenos Aires.
The Portuguese founded the city in 1680 on the Río de la Plata, around two hours from Buenos Aires by ferry.
Colonia is a picturesque little town with Portuguese architecture and cobbled avenues. Some of the top things to do in Colonia del Sacramento include the 19th-century lighthouse, the old city walls, as well as several basilicas located on charming 17th-century plazas.
Colonia is walkable, and you can easily visit it in a day, but it can also serve as a starting point for your Uruguay itinerary.
If you are traveling to Uruguay from Argentina, taking the ferry to Colonia is a quick and relatively price-worthy alternative to flying. Better still, it also allows you to soak in the quaint architecture and scenic locations in Colonia.
Montevideo is the country’s vibrant capital city. Home to around one-third of the population, the city is among the safest and most liveable capitals in South America. Better still, it’s Uruguay’s economic heart and offers lots of beaches as well as cultural and culinary attractions.
All in all, Montevideo is an excellent place to spend a few days before continuing your journey along Uruguay’s beautiful coastline.
- Read my guide on The Best Things to do in Montevideo
Punta del Este
Many people nickname Punta del Este the “Monaco of the South” or the “St. Tropez of South America.” In this context, the city is home to a large casino and countless high-end hotels.
Punta del Este is undoubtedly among the most luxurious destinations in South America, but its beaches appeal to pretty much every type of holidaymaker.
As such, it’s the most developed beach town in Uruguay and offers a wide variety of activities such as water sports, boating, and cultural sights such as the Mano (hand sculpture).
The vibe is luxury-orientated, but Punta del Este has something for everyone. You’ll also find the stunning white houses of Punta Ballena on the outskirts of the city.
The city of Piriápolis is Uruguay’s answer to a traditional Mediterranean beach resort town. The town was built in the wake of the 20th century to develop beach tourism in Uruguay and has remained one of the country’s top beach destinations ever since.
Among the best places to visit in Uruguay for a relaxing beach vacation, Piriápolis is home to Uruguay’s first hotel, its first casino, but also Piria’s Castle, water sports, and European-style shopping streets.
Rocha, La Paloma & Cabo Polonio
The most recommendable places to visit in Uruguay also include Rocha and the nearby beach town of La Paloma.
The area acts as a starting point for lots of nature-related places to visit in Uruguay, notably Cabo Polonio, a small fishing village with mesmerizing landscapes. The dunes and the breathtaking sunsets create fabulous imagery, especially at dawn.
Cabo Polonio has no electricity, water, or sewage systems but a colony of sea lions on its beaches. The town represents a journey into the past and offers an excellent opportunity for a digital detox. Backpackers and hippies approve.
In this context, the uniquely appealing flora and fauna in the region around Rocha should feature on any Uruguay itinerary.
Punta del Diablo & Santa Teresa National Park
Among the best places to visit in Uruguay is undoubtedly Punta del Diablo and its rough surroundings. The small town is now hippie heaven but also an excellent destination for surfers, hikers, and adventurers of any kind.
A few kilometers from Punta del Diablo, you’ll find Santa Teresa National Park, one of the most pristine nature reserves in Uruguay. The park is home to a rough sandy coastline, mystical forests, and wide plains with excellent biking routes.
Whether you’re into mountain biking, trekking, swimming, or merely chilling, Punta del Diablo is a great spot to visit in Uruguay.
A few kilometers north of Punta del Diablo, you’ll reach the town of Chuy, twinned with its sister town Chui in Brazil. The town’s main avenue is the actual border between the two states, and you can easily spot “Bienvenido” signs on one side and “Bem Vinda” signs on the other.
Chuy is a worthwhile day trip if you are staying in the area of Punta del Diablo or Santa Teresa National Park. Eight kilometers west of Chuy, you’ll find the Fuerte San Miguel, an 18th-century fortress built by the Portuguese and consisting of four bastions and several ramparts.
Historically significant, it was here where nationalist forces fought off Spanish invaders during Uruguay’s struggle for independence.
Located on the Río Uruguay, Salto is the country’s second-largest city.
Home to around 100k inhabitants, it’s one of the top cities to visit in Uruguay, thanks to its charming riverfront and hot springs.
The Río Uruguay forms the western border between Uruguay and Argentina. As such, Salto is an excellent gateway to sights in north-eastern Argentina.
The city is known for its outdoor activities and its enormous river dam (around 20km from the center). When in Salto, don’t miss the hot springs in Daymán, one of the best things to do in Salto.
The region is authentic, laidback, and relatively unknown to Western travelers. On this basis, heading deep into the Uruguayan interior is one of the top things to do in Uruguay if you enjoy lesser-known destinations.
For those seeking an immersion into the fabled gaucho lifestyle, Tacuarembó is one of the best places to visit in Uruguay.
In this region, you’ll find nothing but rolling hills, cattle, farms, and steakhouses. The town of Tacuarembó is the center of the area and delights visitors with its tree-lined plazas and simple but beautiful architecture.
Aside from haciendas, the town is also home to the Museo de Los Indios, and it is the supposed birthplace of tango legend Carlos Gardel (even though his birth certificate says he was born in France).
When visiting Tacuarembó, don’t miss the Pozo Hondo, a cavern with a waterfall just outside of town.
In typical Uruguayan fashion, Carmelo transmits a laidback vibe and offers a relaxing getaway for travelers seeking a nature-related vacation.
Located near the convergence of the Parana Delta and the Río de la Plata, Carmelo is an excellent spot for water activities such as yachting, fishing, and sunbathing. It’s also an ideal base to explore the Parana Delta.
Among the best places to visit in Uruguay, Carmelo’s charming cobbled alleyways and colonial architecture warrant a visit if you have time.
Best Places to Visit in Uruguay – Know Before You Go
To have the best time in the country, here are some of the top things to know before traveling to Uruguay.
How to Get Around Uruguay
The main roads are excellent in Uruguay, but the smaller towns often have gravel roads. Buses are the primary mode of transport. In this context, Estación Tres Cruces in Montevideo serves as the gateway to most of Uruguay. International buses are also available.
Domestic air transport is scarce but available between larger cities. In general, buses are a better and more affordable option.
Montevideo Carrasco Airport is the country’s international hub. If you’re not arriving from Buenos by boat, you’ll likely land here.
Safety in Uruguay
Uruguay is one of the safest places to visit in South America. In my experience, that holds true.
Watch out for your belongings in the center of Montevideo, and don’t walk into unknown areas at night. In short, common sense will largely suffice to stay safe in Uruguay.
Weather in Uruguay
The best time to visit Uruguay is between October and March. The weather is generally warm and pleasant even though December and January can get very hot.
The winter months between April and September are mild, but July and August can have freezing nights – as well as lots of rain.
Infrastructure and Prices in Uruguay
Uruguay is undoubtedly the most expensive country in South America. Prices are comparable to many Central and Western European countries as well as some US states. The infrastructure is on point in the major cities and towns, but the rural areas are less developed.
Frankly speaking, it’s hard to see why things cost so much in Uruguay. Many travelers, therefore, pose the following question: Why visit Uruguay when you can have similar activities for half the cost in neighboring Argentina?
In my view, the prices shouldn’t deter you from visiting Uruguay. Uruguay has a particular appeal and its unique sense of laidback, stress-free living, but it also maintains a relatively high standard of life.
Ideas for Your Two-Week Uruguay Itinerary
Here are two recommended itineraries that include most of the top places to visit in Uruguay.
Number one is better for first-timers, as it includes the primary tourist attractions in Uruguay and the coastal hotspots.
If you want to see the interior, raw natural beauty, or plan on continuing into northern Argentina, the second Uruguay itinerary is for you.
Idea Focusing on the Coast
- Day 1: Colonia del Sacramento;
- Day 2-3: Carmelo;
- Day 4-6: Montevideo;
- Day 7-8: Piriápolis;
- Day 9-10 Punta del Este;
- Day 11: Rocha;
- Day 12-13: Punta del Diablo (one day in Chuy as an alternative);
- Day 14: Return to Montevideo.
If this Uruguay itinerary is too hectic for your travel style, skip Carmelo and Rocha.
Idea With the Coast and Interior
- Day 1-2: Montevideo;
- Day 3-5: Salto;
- Day 6-8: Tacuarembo;
- Day 9: Montevideo;
- Day 10-11: Punta del Este;
- Day 12-13: Punta del Diablo;
- Day 14: Return to Montevideo.
With this Uruguay itinerary, you’ll spend a lot of time in buses as Salto and Tacuarembo are located far into the interior. You’ll also have to return to Montevideo to get anywhere else, as the capital is the hub of the country’s transport routes.
Nevertheless, the second itinerary will give you a better picture of the country’s rural areas.