Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America, but one that offers everything from beautiful colonial towns to fashionable beach resorts and gaucho ranches. Uruguay is also one of the most peaceful of the sometimes politically unstable South American nations and has a generally high standard of living that some other South American countries envy. Uruguay is often referred to as the Switzerland of South America, not because of its mountains, but because of its generally strong economy and high standard of living.

Most visitors start their trip in the capital, Montevideo, a city that was originally founded by the Spanish as a fortress outpost of their sprawling empire. Montevideo experienced a wave of immigration from Europe during the mid-18th century and developed into a major port. Today the city still has something of a European feel to it, with architectural styles ranging from colonial to Art Deco to modern. The bustling waterfront is still the best place to experience the daily life of Montevideo, with its seafood restaurants, bars and street performers. The port market, which dates from 1868, is well known not only for its cafes serving huge plates of barbecued meats, but also for its arts and crafts stalls. Montevideo also has several excellent museums, but one of the most fascinating places to visit in the city is the large underground mausoleum known as the Mausoleo Artigas, where many notable Uruguayans are buried.

The coastline to the west and east of Montevideo is mostly unspoiled, with small fishing villages and plenty of deserted beaches. About a hundred miles along the coast to the west of Montevideo is one of the most historic towns in South America. The small town of Colonia del Sacramento was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and dates from the 1600s when the area was still a Portuguese colony. It’s a maze of lovely balconied houses and narrow streets and churches, including the country’s oldest church. There are several museums that offer an overview of the town’s history, as well as an unusual museum devoted to decorative tiles. One of the best things to do in Colonia is just wander the narrow streets, explore the small shops and restaurants and take in the great river views.

To the east of Montevideo is the sophisticated seaside resort of Punta Del Estes. The town offers miles of beaches, varied water sports and the choice of restaurants and nightlife you would expect to find in any large resort. Shopping is also a favorite pastime in Punta del Estes, and the town has many exclusive shops and boutiques to rival those of nearby Montevideo and Buenos Aires.  You can also take fishing expeditions into the Atlantic Ocean, and many visitors choose to take one of several tours to a nearby island that has a large seal colony.

Much of the country to the north and west of Montevideo consists of the pampas, a large area of plains and grassland, dotted with small ranches. This part of the country is the home of the Gaucho, the legendary horsemen of Uruguay and Argentina, whose skill in cooking meat is almost as well-known as their spectacular horsemanship. There is a small museum dedicated to the folklore and history of the Gaucho in Montevideo, but for a more hands-on experience, you can stay on several of the ranches as a paying guest.  Uruguay is still a major beef producer and one of the most famous names in beef production, Fray Bentos, actually took its name from the town of the same name. Its meat plant is now a museum offering guided tours of the corrals and slaughterhouses.

Football is the national sport of Uruguay, and even if you aren’t a big fan of the game, attending a match anywhere in the country can be an unforgettable experience. If you don’t have the chance to enjoy a game, the next best thing may be a tour of the Centenario Stadium and football museum in Montevideo.

Uruguay may not be an obvious vacation destination, but for those looking for somewhere a little different, it offers a variety of activities and diversions, friendly people and a fascinating history and culture.