By Briana Seftel
Heading to Colombia’s fairy tale city? We’re so jealous! With so much to see and do in this colorful and historic city, you’re going to need a little guidance. Whether it’s your first or fifth time visiting Cartagena, our essential city guide will help you make the most of your trip.
Known in the colonial era as Cartagena des Indias, Cartagena was once one of the most important port cities in the world. Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, for almost 200 years Cartagena was the place where the Spanish hid all of their stolen riches from South America. Adding in a flourishing slave trade, the city became one of the richest colonies but was susceptible to pirates and pillagers hungry for their share. In the early 18th century, it was abandoned as a port city, but luckily its colonial charm remains to this day, earning it the title of the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast.
What to Bring
Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena has a tropical climate that is hot and humid almost all year long. With humidity hovering around 90% most of the time, you’ll want to bring light clothes, preferably in cotton. Comfortable sandals, a wide-brimmed sun hat, and an umbrella are other essentials, as well as a zippered bag. Don’t forget to bring a few nicer items for going out - Cartagena has a great nightlife scene!
Walking is the best way to see Cartagena; you most certainly do not need a car in Cartagena’s Old Town. Not only are the streets very narrow, but there’s always street vendors and people walking along the sides that makes driving nearly impossible. If you plan on taking day trips, you can rent a car near the airport. Taxis are also a good option if you want to be on the safer side, especially at night. If you want to see the city the traditional day, hitch a ride on a horse and carriage!
Where to Eat
Cartagena has one of the best and most vibrant food scenes in the country. Many of the dishes are seafood based, given the city’s prime location near the sea. You’ll find everything from 5-star restaurants to mom-and-pop places, not to mention legendary street food like arepa de huevo - an arepa filled with an egg and fried! Cartageneros also love their candy, and you can find many of these sweet treats around Plaza de La Aduana. Below are a few of our favorite places to eat, drink and dance!
- La Cevicheria: Cl. 39 #7 14
- La Mulata: Calle Quero 9 58 Sandiego
- La Cocina de Pepina: Cl. 25 #10B-6
- La Vitrola: Cl. 30 #20-192
- Pasteleria Mila: Calle de la Iglesia No 35-76
- La Paletteria: local 2, Cl. 35 #03-86
- Café Havana: ESQUINA, Cra. 10
- Café del Mar: Baluarte de Santo Domingo
- Donde Fidel: Cra. 4
Bonus: Bazurto Market.
Want a really authentic taste of Cartagena? Make a beeline for Bazurto! Located 15 minutes from the city center, this market is overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, seafood, dry goods and more. Sample some of the country’s exotic fruits like lulo at one of the many juice stands.
What to See
Most of what you’ll want to see and do in Cartagena will be in the Old Town. This part of the city, surrounded by fortified walls, is the most atmospheric and beautifully preserved. Bocagrande is the city’s modern counterpoint with sleek skyscrapers, sprawling hotels and miles of beaches. When exploring Cartagena’s Old Town, it’s best to leave your guidebook behind and wander at your leisure. With that in mind, below are a handful of top sites.
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
The greatest fortress ever built in a Spanish colony, Castillo San Felipe sits majestically above the Old Town as a reminder of the city’s importance as a major port. Despite numerous attacks, the fortress was never taken. Today, visitors can roam the complex system of tunnels that were expectly built to hear even the quietest footsteps. Climb to the top for panoramic views of Old Town and the sea.
When entering Cartagena’s Old Town, you can’t miss the city’s fortified stone walls (las murallas), built in 1595 to protect the city from pirate attacks. Seven miles of these imposing walls surround the historic center, punctuated by fortifications and bastions. Come here at sunset to take beautiful photos of the sun dipping below the sea.
Palacio de la Inquisición
Bordering Parque de Boliver, the Palace of Inquisition was one of the headquarters during the Spanish Inquisition. Today, the palace is a museum displaying the various torture devices used during the time. For the more faint of heart, the museum also holds a collection of pre-Columbian pottery and Colonial-era painting and furniture.
Convento de la Popa
Perched high above the city on Mount Popa, this convent-monastery is a popular place to come for stunning views of sprawling Cartagena. Dating back to 1607, the convent has a beautiful inner courtyard that will transport you back in time. It’s also home to a museum and the chapel of the Virgen de la Candelaria, Cartagena's patron saint.
Venture just outside of the city wall’s to the funky, alternative neighborhood of Getsmaní. Here, visitors will find tons of laid-back restaurants, bars and hostels. Most nights the action centers in Plaza de Santisma Trinidad, where street carts hawk tasty snacks and even blended alcoholic drinks.
Additional must-see sites:
Plaza de La Aduana, Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, Parque de Bolivar, Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Las Bovedas, Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena de Indias, Torre del Reloj.
Once you've strolled the cobblestone streets to your heart's content, you may be thinking of what to do outside the city. Luckily, beautiful beaches and charming vilages are all easily accessible and make great day trips.
The most popular day trip from Cartagena is Playa Blanca on the Isla de Barú. With miles of buttery-soft white sand and calm, clear water, this is the Caribbean beach dreams are made of. The easiest way to get here is by a 45-minute speedboat, which can be taken from the Muelle Turistico de la Bodeguita.
Islas del Rosario
Another popular day trip is to Islas del Rosario, an archipelago comprised of 30 islands within the municipality of Cartagena. From the city, it takes about two hours by boat, although times can vary depending on what boat you take. Upon arrival, you may visit an aquarium and oceanarium. You can also take a combined tour of Rosario and Playa Blanca.
La Boquilla is a small fishing village northeast of Cartagena, sitting at the northern tip of a narrow peninsula. You can either spend the day at El Paraíso beach or arrange a boat tour and explore the winding water channels and mangroves that make up the area.
- Hello - Hola
- Goodbye - Adios
- Thank you - Gracias
- Please - Por favor
- Yes/No - Si/No
- Excuse me - Disculpe
- I don't understand. - No entiendo.
- Do you speak English? - Hablas inglés?
- Where is the bathroom? - ¿Dónde está el baño?
- How much does that cost? - Cuanto cuesta?
- Is the tip included? - ¿Está incluida la propina?
- I would like... - Me gustaría
- The check, please. - La cuenta, por favor.
Enjoy your trip to Cartagena!