A visit to Cartagena is a must when you’re in Colombia. In this Caribbean city, you’ll experience the vibrant Colombian culture at its best. There are so many things to do: everywhere you’ll find cozy squares where musicians and dancers steal the show in the evening. The historic center is a collection of centuries-old colonial buildings with graceful balconies and colorful facades. During the Spanish rule, Cartagena endured many hardships, but miraculously, the charming old town has been incredibly well-preserved. Welcome to the most beautiful city in Colombia!
What to do in Cartagena?
To fully experience Cartagena, we recommend staying for two to three full days. Here are the must-see attractions and activities. In other words: the best things to do!
Explore the historic center of Cartagena
The biggest attraction in Cartagena is El Centro, the historic center surrounded by thick city walls. In El Centro, you’ll find the famous Cathedral of Cartagena, many beautiful squares, beautiful colonial buildings, and picturesque streets. This part of the city has been incredibly well-preserved over the centuries and has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1984. It’s recommended to explore the city in the late afternoon as it can be very hot during the day, and the city truly comes alive in the late afternoon with musicians, dancers, and numerous food stalls. If you prefer to avoid the crowds, go out early in the morning, and you’ll have the streets all to yourself.
Stroll through the colorful streets of Getsemani
Once upon a time, the neighborhood of Getsemani was a dangerous area plagued by criminal gangs. In recent years, Getsemani has undergone a transformation and is now considered the coolest district in Cartagena. Getsemani is located just outside the city walls, a stone’s throw away from El Centro. However, the atmosphere here is completely different. Getsemani has a bit of an edgier vibe, and there is a lot of street art to be found.
Experience the ambiance (and cheap cocktails) at Plaza de la Trinidad
Cartagena truly comes alive once the sun sets. From around 8 o’clock, Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemani is the place to be. Both locals and travelers gather here to watch street performers, sample street food, and enjoy cheap cocktails. On weekends and busy days, small parties can even spring up. It’s a great place to hang out, meet other travelers, or stop by before the clubs open.
Visit the Rosario Islands
Leave Cartagena and board a boat heading towards the Rosario Islands. This is an archipelago located just off the coast of Cartagena, consisting of 16 heavenly islands, with Isla Grande being the largest. It’s a delightful escape from the crowded city, allowing you to plunge into the sea. You can visit the Rosario Islands in various ways, but the best way is to stay for one or more nights. There are fantastic hotels on the islands, often with private beaches, where you can comfortably explore the island at your own pace. For example, you can stay at the intimate Hotel Islabela in an idyllic bungalow on a private beach. The sea is calm, the water is crystal clear, and there are comfortable beach loungers. Welcome to paradise! There are only 4 bungalows, so early booking is recommended. On weekends, the islands can be crowded with locals who come to party. Therefore, if you prefer a relaxing stay, it’s better to avoid the weekends.
If you only want to spend a day on the islands, you can take a morning boat from the port of Cartagena. You’ll sail to Isla Grande, where you can relax and swim. The more luxurious option that we chose is this boat trip. This trip is not primarily focused on the Rosario Islands but more on enjoying a day at sea. You’ll sail on an ultra-relaxing boat to Isla Grande, where you can jump into the sea and go snorkeling. The boat is luxurious, with a bar, large nets for chilling, and a delicious lunch included. You won’t go ashore, so you won’t see much of the island, but you’ll have a delightful day on the water.
Take a sunset walk on the city walls
Cartagena was once a crucial city in the Spanish empire and, therefore, needed strong defenses. That’s why a thick wall was built around the old town. You can freely walk on the city walls, and on the northern side, you’ll have a view of the sea and Cartagena’s skyline. Café del Mar is the place to be for a drink during sunset. Keep in mind that there might be a long line to get in. Alternatively, you can bring your own drinks and climb on the wall just a few feet away for the same view.
Note: The city walls can get very crowded during sunset. Keep a close eye on your belongings.
Find something nice for your wall back home
Cartagena is a city of artists. As you stroll through the streets, you’ll come across many shops selling paintings of all kinds and sizes. It’s enjoyable to browse through them, and even more delightful to purchase one and hang it on your wall as a lasting memory of Colombia.
Visit the ancient fortress
An intriguing attraction is the centuries-old Spanish fortress called Castillo de San Felipe. Construction of the fort began in 1536 and was carried out by enslaved Africans. The fort is situated on a hill, allowing the Spaniards to have a clear view of the sea and spot approaching enemies in time. Cartagena was frequently attacked by the British and the French. In 1741, the British launched an attack with an army of around 27,000 men, nearly 200 ships, and thousands of cannons. The Spaniards defended the fort with about 4,000 men and only 6 ships. Yet, through clever defensive strategies planned from the fort, the Spaniards emerged victorious in the prolonged battle against the British. After 67 days of fighting, the British retreated, leaving behind 18,000 dead and wounded.
Tip: Visit early or late in the day to avoid the intense heat, and consider hiring a guide or taking an audio tour. Without a guide or audio tour, you’ll miss out on valuable information.
Try the most delicious Colombian fruits
In Cartagena, you’ll easily find your daily dose of vitamins, as fruit stands are present on every street corner. Colombia offers a wide variety of fruits, making it a great opportunity to try something new. Here are some of our favorites:
Lulo: a small orange fruit with a sour taste, often pressed into a delicious fresh juice.
Maracuya: or as we know them, passion fruit. In Colombia, they are yellow in color and incredibly tasty and healthy.
Granadilla: this fruit is a relative of the passion fruit, but this variety is larger and has a slightly different taste than the passion fruit we are familiar with.
Uchuva: also known as “the Colombian Goldenberry.” It is another small orange fruit with a refreshing, tangy flavor. Some berries may still have dry leaves around them.
Take a mud bath in the El Totumo volcano
Actually, this volcano looks more like a giant termite mound. El Totumo volcano is one of the smallest volcanoes in the world. You can climb into the volcano using a small ladder and immerse yourself in the mud. It might feel a bit strange, but it is said to be very beneficial for your skin due to its high mineral content. If you’re in the mood for a Colombian massage, this is the place to try it. This tour costs $25 and can be booked here.
Tip: Skip Playa Blanca
Playa Blanca is considered the most beautiful beach in Cartagena, with white sand and a blue sea. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth. The beach is completely crowded, filled with the smell of gasoline from the numerous jet skis, and you’ll be constantly bothered by vendors. If you want to use a beach bed, it’s free as long as you order food and drinks, but the prices are literally 10 times higher here. Additionally, it will cost you a lot of time and money to get there as you can only reach it by boat or spend an hour in a taxi each way. It’s a waste of your time and money.
Best Restaurants in Cartagena
Cartagena is known for its many excellent restaurants. Prices are generally higher compared to the rest of Colombia, but the food is delicious. We’ve tested out numerous restaurants, and these are our favorites:
Beiyú: The first recommendation is Beiyú, our favorite restaurant in Cartagena. It’s a tiny place that serves excellent food for breakfast and lunch. They have an extensive menu with many healthy dishes such as acai bowls, vegetable omelets, quesadillas, salads, and delicious coffee.
Di Silvio Trattoria: At Di Silvio Trattoria, you can enjoy the best pizza and pasta in Cartagena, and the interior is charming.
Pezetarian: For delicious sushi, ceviche, ramen, and tasty stir-fries, head to Pezetarian. They use fresh vegetables extensively, and there are plenty of vegetarian options.
Epoca Espresso Bar: Whether it’s breakfast, brunch, lunch, or just a good cup of coffee, Epoca Espresso Bar is the place to go.
Terraza Municipal: This is not a restaurant but a food court. It’s located in a fantastic waterfront spot with various food trucks. There are plenty of seating options, and especially if you dine here during sunset, the view is amazing!
Where to Stay in Cartagena?
Cartagena is a large city with almost 1 million inhabitants, but only a small part of it is interesting for travelers. The historical center is the most beautiful part of the city, and Getsemani is the most lively neighborhood. Outside of these districts, it’s less safe, and as a traveler, there isn’t much to see. Both Getsemani and El Centro are great places to stay, with Getsemani being slightly more affordable. It’s up to you to decide which neighborhood suits you best. Everything is within walking distance, even between these two districts, so it doesn’t make much of a difference.
Our Favorite Places to Stay in Cartagena
Cartagena can get incredibly hot, so in our opinion, a hotel with a pool is essential for the hot afternoons. A nice and affordable option with a pool and pool table is Casa Relax. It’s perfectly located in Getsemani, just a one-minute walk from the lively Plaza de la Trinidad, but inside the hotel, you’ll experience an oasis of tranquility. The rooms are quite simple, but Cartagena can quickly become expensive, and the location and pool make up for it. If you prefer staying in a cozy hostel, then Republica Hostel is a top choice. It’s located in the old town and perfect if you want to meet other travelers. And of course, a nice pool is also available here. If you have a slightly larger budget, Casa Pizarro Hotel Boutique is the best choice. This charming boutique hotel in Getsemani guarantees a delightful time. It features a pool, jacuzzi, rooftop, and a delicious breakfast served every morning. Enjoy!
|Casa Pizarro Hotel Boutique