By Briana Seftel
A city of nearly one million residents on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Cartagena is a fascinating combination of old and new. Despite boasting high-rise hotels and miles of beaches, it's Cartagena Walled City that really attracts the masses. Colorful and dripping in bougainvillea, the old town is just as beautiful as you would imagine. Discover the top things to do within the city walls, from churches to plazas!
The beauty of Cartagena's walled city is its compact size. You could see the entirety of the old town in just a couple of hours, but why leave so little time? We recommend spending at least two to three days wandering through the cobblestone streets, past colorful homes and Spanish colonial gems. It's best to leave your map behind and simply get lost in the maze - you're on Cartagena time!
2. Walk the city walls
Encircling the old town is Las Murallas, the 400-year fortified stone walls built to protect the city from pirate attacks. Spanning eight miles, the walls feature several lookout points with views out toward the glittering blue sea, as well as a handful of outdoor cafes like the popular Café de Mar. Strolling the periphery of the old town at sunset is one of those quintessential Cartagena experiences.
3. Hop from one plaza to another
Linking Cartagena's narrow streets are several beautiful plazas. Just behind the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Tower), which is the main entrance to the walled city, is Plaza de la Aduana. This plaza really comes alive at night, with vendors selling piping-hot arepas and locals swaying to salsa or cumbia. Plaza de Santo Domingo is dominated by the bright yellow Santo Domingo Church and features a bronze sculpture of a woman by Fernando Botero. The shady Plaza de Bolivar, named after the man who liberated Colombia in 1819, is the site of nightly performances.
4. Eat, eat, eat
Cartagena's food scene is among Colombia's best. Due to its proximity to the sea, expect to find typical seafood dishes like ceviche, azuela de mariscos (a coconut-based seafood stew) and fried fish accompanied with arroz de coco (coconut rice). Street food is a must, with arepa de huevo (a deep-fried arepa with an egg inside) being one of the most popular snacks. Pair it with a refreshing agua de coco (coconut water)! Cartagena has also plenty of fine dining restaurants for those looking for a more upscale experience. Go all out at La Vitrola - their margaritas and live Cuban music are legendary!
Pro tip: You will likely notice women balancing bowls of fruit on their heads - they are known as palenqueras. You can purchase fruit from them or take a photo - but be sure to give them a tip!
5. Uncover the secrets of the Palace of the Inquisition
Discover Cartagena's dark past at the Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición), one of the torture headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition. Inside the beautiful 18th-century palatial mansion, the Spaniards carried out gruesome attacks on those they deemed threats to the Catholic Church. Today, the palace is a museum displaying various torture devices and some pre-Columbian artifacts.
6. Shop for souvenirs at Las Bovedas
Where else can you shop for souvenirs with a fascinating history? Translating to "the vaults," Las Bovedas is a series arches that were originally used to store munitions. It was also used as a dungeon during the fight for independence in the 1800s, and according to legend, it's said that prisoners would be up to their knees in seawater during high tide. Today, the area buzzes with vendors hawking everything from handwoven bags to candy made from coconut and tamarind.
7. Visit San Pedro Claver Church
The 17th-century San Pedro Claver Church, with its imposing stone facade and three domes, is one of the city’s iconic sights and most important churches. The church is named after Saint Pedro Claver, who dedicated his life to tending to the slaves brought to the Americas. Inside the church under the altar lay his remains in an illuminated case.
8. Admire Colombian artists at the Museum of Modern Art
Housed in a former customs house dating back to the 17th century, the Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno) showcases a small but important collection of historical works by several Latin artists including Alejandro Obregon and Enrique Grau. In addition to rotating exhibits, you will find several sculptures outside of the museum, providing a great backdrop to a Cartagena selfie!