Headed to South America and looking for things to do in Cartagena, Colombia? You’re in the right place, my arepa-loving, aguardiente-sipping amigos. Here you’ll find all my favorite things to do in Cartagena, along with what to eat, where to stay, how to get around, and more!
I visited Cartagena on my first ever trip to South America — and boy do I wish I visited sooner! The city is charismatic yet chaotic at times, bursting with color, and surprisingly relatively hip and bougie. Expect cobblestone streets, colorful colonial buildings, a tropical climate, all the fresh fruit (and juices) you can imagine, and delicious seafood (think ceviche and Caribbean fish).
We had the absolute best time possible, and I can’t wait to share all our favorite things to do in Cartagena! With a gorgeous historic old town (that’s entirely walkable), iconic Cartagena balconies, stone archways, overflowing flower pots, and charming doors and plazas, it’s a fantastic juxtaposition between old and new.
The city kinda reminded me of other colorful, colonial cities, like San Juan in Puerto Rico and Antigua in Guatemala. But it’s got its own charm and grit – it’s basically the Queen of the Caribbean coast!
I tend to gravitate towards colorful cities and attractions, and Cartagena, (like Sayulita, Austin, and Salvation Mountain), definitely didn’t disappoint! I can’t wait to share all the best things to do in Cartagena in this massive post!
If you’re headed to Medellin and wanna explore another one of the most colorful towns in Colombia, head on over to Guatape. The vibes super different, yet so inexplicably colorful!
- Psst – the city is technically called Cartagena de Indias, and pronounced kaɾ-ta-hen-uh (that g is pronounced like an H).
Cartagena Trip Planning Logistics
Where is Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena is a port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the northwestern part of the county. It’s towards the tippy top of South America, so pretty far from other popular spots like Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, Buenos Aires in Argentina, and Machu Picchu in Peru.
Also, being in the department of Bolivar (Colombia’s form of states/regions), it’s a far distance from the other main cities of Colombia — a 12 hour drive from Medellin and roughly an 18 hour drive from Bogota. But don’t worry, there’s easy flights, which we’ll dive deeper into soon!
Also, Cartagena is right on the equator, meaning high temperatures all year round. Lots more info on the weather below!
How to Get to Cartagena
Can’t wait to experience all the great things to do in Cartagena? Thankfully, the city is pretty easy to get to! I didn’t realize this before planning our trip to Colombia, but Cartagena has its very own airport — Rafael Núñez International Airport (airport code CTG). And the airport is only 15 minutes from Old Town!
We were arriving in Cartagena from Medellin, so our flight was only about an hour or so. If you’re coming from further afield, here’s a small sampling of flight times to give you a general idea of how long your flight may be.
Unfortunately there’s only a few nonstop flights from the US that run year round, New York City (JFK) and Miami (MIA). Others are seasonal.
Soooo you’ll probably have to make a connection if you’re coming from the US (we stopped in Panama City). For reference, our flight was roughly $550 per person, which I didn’t think was too terrible at all!
- From Miami (MIA): ~3 hours non stop
- From Mexico City (MEX): ~ 4 hours non stop
- From New York City (JFK): ~5 hours non stop
- From Dallas (DFW): ~6 hours connecting
- From Los Angeles (LAX): ~8 hours connecting
- From San Francisco (SFO): ~8 ½ hours connecting
Psst – if you’re flying Copa (like we did), you can take advantage of their free stopover program (here’s all the info from our epic trip to Panama, so yeah, that’s definitely another country to check out).
Coming from Colombia
If you’re already in Colombia, it’s relatively easy to get to Cartagena. There’s buses and flights from all major cities, although the flights may actually be cheaper (if you find a deal that is!).
- Bogota: 21 hours via bus, 1 ½ hours via plane (nonstop flight)
- Medellin: 14 hours via bus, 50 minutes ia plane (nonstop flight)
Just look at those numbers! Since airlines need to compete with the buses, flight prices are exceptionally cheap! We found nonstop flights (with 50 pound luggage included) direct from Medellin to Cartagena for about $30USD! Yes, THIRTY DOLLARS. No way I’m wasting an entire day on a bus when I can get there in less than an hour or so).
Popular airlines in Colombia are Avianca (Star Alliance), KLM (SkyTeam), LATAM, Plus Ultra, and Viva Air. We chose to fly Avianca between cities (and this is where we found our $30 nonstop ticket!). Be careful booking low-cost airlines as they tend to nickel and dime for every little thing (not the case with Avianca).
Psst: Tourist buses in Colombia are very comfortable. And it’s actually a very popular way to get around. There are a few different reputable companies, but Copetran and Expreso Brasilia seem to be the most popular with plenty of routes. So if you don’t mind sitting on a bus for hours on end and have lots of extra time to spare, that’s another option as well. But why?!
How to Get Around Cartagena
Walk the Walled City: One of the best things about Cartagena?! The walkability factor! It takes less than 20 minutes to get from one side of the walled city to the other, and if you’re staying in the center of town like we did, nothing will be more than a 5 minute walk away. I swear! The longest walk we did was to the fort (20 minutes away) and to Getsemani (15 minutes), both well outside the Walled City.
But lemme tell you — even those 20 minutes are a killer in the intense heat and humidity. So come prepared with lots of water, slather on that sunscreen, and wear a hat. You’ll thank me later.
Trust me, all the best things to do in Cartagena are only a matter of minutes away.
Do note most of the streets are cobblestone, so wear your comfy sandals (and leave those heels at home). And plus, because of the city walls, it’s practically impossible to get lost if you don’t leave them!
You’ll undoubtedly see horse-drawn carriage rides around town, and while these are synonymous with a visit to Cartagena, PLEASE do not partake in these ridiculous rides. There’s been speculation that the horses are mistreated, malnourished, and plenty are just too old to be working.
Uber: You probably won’t need Ubers or taxis much since you’ll be walking practically everywhere. But you’ll of course need to use them when arriving or departing to/from the airport, and if you can’t fathom walking 20 minutes to the fort (we made the smart decision calling an Uber on the way back from the fort — we were sweaty and tired).
We found Ubers to be very safe, clean, and reliable in Cartagena. We never waited more than 10 minutes for a car, and the prices were exceptionally reasonable! Like a 15 minute ride was less than $3! Way cheaper than at home!
And plus, there’s no language barrier so you’ll always get exactly where you need to go.
Do note that Ubers are technically a gray area in Colombia – there’s been controversies with the local taxis ever since Uber arrived in the country. And they’ve been banned in the past. Like in Medellin, most Ubers requested one of us sit in the front seat to avoid any problems – I’m guessing to hopefully stay inconspicuous (just something to be aware of).
I learned about InDriver (another ride sharing app similar to Uber) from the man sitting next to me on the plane, so that’s another option if you’d like to download it. You do have to make an offer of what you’re willing to pay, and if you’re not familiar with the rates, you’ll probably have no clue what to offer, haha. We stuck with Uber.
Bike: A bunch of high-end boutique hotels have bikes that their guests can use! Since we didn’t take any out for a spin (I’m such a klutz on a bike…), definitely ask your hotel if they have any recommendations for you (where to go/not go, will it be ok locked up in town, etc).
Taxi: While you can hail a yellow taxi super easily from anywhere in the walled city (they’re practically everywhere), I heard the drivers don’t use a meter and typically overcharge tourists. If you are using a taxi, always negotiate on a set price before getting into the car. If you don’t like the price and can’t come to an agreement, simply shut the door and find another taxi.
Public Transit: While there’s no major public transport here, you may come across some Transcaribe buses. Mostly locals use these, and since nothing is terribly far, you can probably just walk anywhere you wanna go.
Hop On Hop Off Bus:
If you wanna see the main sites outside the walled city and really explore all the things to do in Cartagena (San Felipe Castle, Simon Bolivar statue, Museo de la Esmeralda, etc), consider taking the Hop On, Hop Off Bus of Cartagena! It has 14 stops and even includes a complimentary walking tour of the old town!
We saw guides in the street promoting the activity, but if you wanna prepare, definitely book ahead (I hate waiting until the last minute and stressing out).
If you’ve only got a day in Cartagena, booking a hop-on, hop-off bus might be a good idea if you wanna explore further than the walled city.
Weather and When to visit Cartagena
So here’s the thing about weather in Cartagena — it’s gonna be hot and humid and disgustingly sticky year round. No matter when you visit. (So yes, get a hotel with a pool.)
Why? Because Cartagena experiences a tropical Caribbean climate, meaning intense heat and humidity. There’s actually little variation in temperatures year round, although temps get up to the hundreds in July and August (I wouldn’t wanna go there then). Although it was in the high 80s when we visited, the “feels like” temperature (accounting for the humidity too) was in the mid-90s. Yuck!
We found ourselves heading back to our hotel for quick dips in the pool or sneaking into cafes for latte frios to cool ourselves off.
We’re not used to the humidity (or harsh heat!) living in San Francisco — and the places we do love that experience high heat (Palm Springs, Orange County, Scottsdale, etc) all have dry heat — which is COMPLETELY different.
If you’re not used to dripping constantly and sweating profusely, you’ll definitely need some time to adjust here in Cartagena. Make sure to stay hydrated (and no, coffees and pisco sours don’t count) — drink tons and tons of water.
We thought we’d get some relief from the heat and humidity once the sun went down, but nope! We were just as sticky as during the day (although the temps went down a few degrees…. from like 87 to 82, haha).
- DRY SEASON: The best time to visit Cartagena is between December and April, during the city’s dry season. Temperatures will be hot, but manageable.
- WET SEASON: May through November is considered the wet season in Cartagena, and while it probably won’t completely ruin your trip, definitely expect some showers every now and then.
For reference, we visited the end of March to very early April, and had mostly clear skies without a drop of rain. One thing I learned – NEVER trust the weather report. There was between a 50-70% chance of rain/thunderstorms every single day for the duration of our stay, and what do you know?! It didn’t rain once! You bet I was thrilled about that!
Where to Stay in Cartagena
Historic Walled City “Centro”
The historic downtown area of Cartagena is what probably enticed you to visit Cartagena in the first place. There’s fine dining and street food, luxury hotels and colorful hostels, craft cocktails and fresh fruit juice. And it’s filled with colorful colonial buildings and charming cobblestone streets – It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site afterall!
This area’s typically more expensive than Getsemani, but it’s in the middle of all the action and you can walk practically everywhere! Easily accessible to all the fun things to do in Cartagena. Plus, it’s very safe.
A few recommended hotels:
- Ananda Boutique Hotel: This is where we stayed for the majority of our time in Cartagena, and I highly recommend it! The pool vibes are similar-ish to Casa San Agustin (minus all the lovely greenery), but for ½ the price. And there’s another pool on the roof overlooking the city. I’d consider the rooms rustic chic, and the cozy Mediterranean restaurant where we had breakfast every morning was super cute! It’s in the quiet part of the walled city (San Diego) so it’s very peaceful, especially at night which we appreciated. Although still never more than a 5-6 minute walk away from anything!
- Movich Cartagena de Indias: If we didn’t stay at the Ananda, I think we would have chosen the Movich. It’s a super popular spot for sunset, since the terrace overlooks not only the iconic Santa Ana Cathedral, but all the other landmarks in the city. Easily the best panoramic views in all of the city, and one of our favorite things to do in Cartagena. And that rooftop infinity pool – OMG! Small and quaint but definitely not lacking in charm!
- Casa San Agustin: This gorgeous hotel is considered the best 5 star hotel in all of Cartagena, easily. We came here for lunch one day, and although we could only see small glimpses of the hotel, it’s the real deal, folks. If you’re planning on splurging at some point during your trip to Colombia, this is the place to do it. Or just come for lunch like we did and sneak off to check out the pool a bit (although it was a bit smaller than expected).
- Nacar Hotel Cartagena, Curio Collection by Hilton: I promise you, despite being a Hilton, the hotel does not feel corporate in any way. I mean, it’s located in a refurbished colonial mansion after all. I could have stayed under the cabana at the rooftop pool all day long sipping fresh lulo juice and dipping my toes in the water! Fresco, the adjoining restaurant where we ate breakfast, is so hip and fun with banana leaf wallpaper and street views from the floor to ceiling windows. AND they had a complimentary basket of granadillas at check in – which of course I dove right into.
If you’re looking to stay near the walled city and all the things to do in Cartagena but are traveling on a tighter budget, consider staying in Getsemani! It’s located right outside the walled city, and I swear it’s super hip – expect lots of colorful street art, cafes and restaurants, a vibrant culture, and lots of action at night (especially in Trinidad Plaza).
We loved visiting the area during the day and I can see its appeal. It used to have a reputation for being primarily for backpackers and partiers, but more recently, there’s been some cute boutique hotels opening up! Do note that some areas can be sketchy at night, so stick to major streets with lights.
Looking for that Miami Beach vibe?! You’ll find it here in Bocagrande! The area’s a mix of modern high-rise hotels and condos with lots of restaurants on the main strip of Avenida San Martin. While you’ll find more international hotel chains and less of the smaller, boutique hotels, the area’s missing that colonial charm that really makes Cartagena special in my opinion.
These hotels are right by the beach (although not as good as the beaches of Isla Baru and Rosario Islands), so you can literally walk to the sand whenever you want! Plus, it’s considered a very safe area.
Additional Tips When Visiting Cartagena
Ohhhh, prepare to feel like a millionaire in Cartagena (literally, 1 million COP is only ~$250USD). Like the rest of Colombia, the local currency in Cartagena is the Colombian Peso, or COP (very different from the pesos we’re used to in Mexico).
I highly advise you to take out some pesos at an ATM at the Cartagena airport upon landing (as you’ll get the best conversion rate using an ATM and never at a currency exchange kiosk).
And cash you’ll need! We paid for almost everything in cash in Cartagena, besides our hotels and a few higher-end restaurants. I highly advise you to always have some cash on hand as you’ll undoubtedly need it for street arepas, latte frios, and fresh jugo (fruit juices) from local vendors!
At the time of writing (April 2022), 10,000 Colombian pesos (COP) is equivalent to ~$2.50 USD (or $1 USD = ~3,770 COP). I typically have an easy time converting different currencies in my head but I just couldn’t here in Colombia! We used our currency conversion apps a lot (and were always surprised how cheap things were)!
Psst: mil means thousand, NOT million. We kept getting confused. You’ll see what I mean when you take out cash.
A rough estimate we used was: 100,000COP ≈ $25USD. To make things a bit easier, we attempted to convert by knocking off the thousands and trying that way. So instead of 100k, we simply tried to remember 100COP ≈ $25. And even that didn’t help all that much, haha. There’s no shame in using a currency app!
With that being said, do note everything is way more expensive in Cartagena than other spots in Colombia. We went to Medellin before heading to Cartagena, and everything was at least double the price in Cartagena! Still way cheaper than at our home in San Francisco though (and elsewhere in the US or Europe).
- Tipping in Colombia:
Standard tipping is 10%, unlike the typical 20% in the USA. Some restaurants automatically add this 10% into your bill (you’ll see it listed as “propina voluntaria” – voluntary tip), so check before leaving an additional tip (unless the service was absolutely outstanding and deserves extra!)
Spanish is the official language of Colombia, and practically everyone in Cartagena speaks it. It’s honestly a hit or miss as to whether people speak English or not.
We found that less people in Colombia speak English than in other Spanish-speaking countries we visit, like Los Cabos and Sayulita in Mexico. While some hotel and restaurant staff will know a little bit of English, don’t expect to have full conversations.
We attempted to use as much Spanish as we could (out of respect and because we kinda had to), and were able to get by with our minimal – moderate Spanish skills.
If you don’t know any Spanish at all, there’s definitely gonna be a big language barrier. I recommend brushing up beforehand (at least some common travel phrases) and downloading a translation app for when things get tough. Practice on Duolingo for a few weeks to at least get a few important words.
Health and Safety
Health: While some sources say you can drink the tap water in Colombia, I honestly wouldn’t chance it — you just never know how your body will react. Why waste half your trip in the bathroom.
With that being said, we didn’t think twice about drinking latte frios and cocktails with ice, fruit juices and other things blended with water/ice, indulging in fresh fruit/veggies, and brushing our teeth with tap water.
If you’re like me and would rather stick to bottled water, you’ll find them ridiculously cheap in street markets. Or you can bring along a reusable water bottle with a steripen inside – a few people on our Comuna 13 tour in Medellin had them and I thought it was brilliant!
Food: We found all the food in Cartagena to be safe to eat (and yes, even the street vendors). What I didn’t realize beforehand is that Cartagena is home to some of the best restaurants in all of Colombia.
I’ll go into way more detail about the food below, but you can expect to find both high-end restaurants serving amazing seafood as well as a plethora of fresh fruit juices on every corner. And unlike what happens to us in Mexico sometimes, we didn’t have any bouts of stomach bugs or food poisoning.
Safety: And now the million dollar question… I know what you’re thinking — is Colombia even a safe place to visit?!
Everyone hears Colombia and instantly freaks out; the country’s definitely got a wildly bad rep for safety and crime. But that’s mostly a thing of the past. When we told friends and family we booked tickets to Colombia, a lot questioned our reasoning for visiting. And I get it – there’s definitely parts of the country I’d steer clear of, but Cartagena is not one of them.
We felt completely safe in Cartagena, even walking around the walled city at night. We stuck to busy streets and squares, and didn’t drink much once it got dark.
There’s plenty of police out on the street (both day and night), and it’s true that the crime in Cartagena typically happens outside the main tourist areas. So just stick to the Walled City. And say “no gracias” or simply ignore the loud rappers on the street if you want nothing to do with them.
As always, use normal precautions when traveling. Before traveling anywhere, I always check safety warnings and scams on travel.state.gov.
A few tips to help ensure your safety, which make sense no matter where you’re traveling:
- Let friends/family back home know where you’re traveling
- If you’re taking a taxi/Uber alone, send the taxi # and/or license plate to a friend/family member.
- Be extra cautious when visiting local bars and nightclubs. Know your alcohol limit.
- Don’t make yourself an easy target. Keep expensive jewelry/watches at home, and keep those electronics hidden. Ladies – wear your bags cross-body, and men – keep your wallets in your front pockets.
- Be extra careful and observant at banks and ATMs.
- Don’t buy or do drugs – plain and simple.
Cartagena is one of the most visited cities in the Americas, so if it wasn’t safe, well, I don’t think that many people would actually go. I sure wouldn’t. And as always, ALWAYS trust your gut. If you don’t feel safe, take yourself out of the situation immediately.
How Long to Stay in Cartagena
To get a good feel for the city, I say 2-3 days will suffice. For reference, we stayed 3 full days in Cartagena itself and felt that was the perfect amount of time. With that being said, we originally planned for longer in order to take day trips to the islands, but flight problems automatically changed our plans for us.
You can easily fill a whole week in and nearby Cartagena – 2-3 days in the Walled City, a few days on the beaches/exploring the islands, and taking a few day trips (like the mud baths up north). While there’s a whole slew of things to do in Cartagena, we just loved strolling around so a few days were plenty for us.
But after 3 days in the intense heat and humidity, we were ready to find some constant AC and head back to SF’s foggy coast.
A short history lesson on Cartagena’s past
Cartagena has a complex and dark, yet interesting history. Pirate invasions! Slavery. Independence!
To start things off, sailors from Spain arrived in Cartagena, Colombia in the 1500s to start a new life. Cartagena was in fact the first Spanish colony in the Americas. And it was built entirely by Afro-Caribbean slaves.
Many don’t know this, and I sure didn’t, but Cartagena was once the largest slave port in the Americas, with Spanish galleons bringing over one million slaves to the small city.
After a fatal fire occurred in the city, treasures were found in the Sinus Amerindian tribe tombs (who buried their dead with all their riches). This ultimately led the city to prosper, but then came the attacks.
You’ll probably notice that the Walled City does in fact have walls around it (hence the name). These were to protect the city from pirate invasions back in the day. Yes, real-life pirates (like in Kleftiko Bay in Milos, Greece). Absolutely wild! I still can never get over the fact that pirates actually existed!
Then in the 1700s, the Queen of England ordered for the invasion of every single Spanish port in the Caribbean. The Spanish won, and remained the main Spanish port in the Caribbean Sea.
In the 1800s, Cartagena was the first city to declare independence from Spain.
What to pack for Cartagena
In terms of clothing, you’ll wanna wear loose-fitting, flowy clothes, as it gets ridiculously hot here and you don’t want your shirts sticking to you (ugh, how uncomfortable!). Plan to bring along a cute bathing suit coverup or two, as well as some comfy sandals for the pool, beach, and walking around town!
To be completely honest, you’ll probably wanna pack a few extra outfits (actually double). I found myself changing throughout the day after taking a dip in the pool – once you wear an outfit here once… well… you probably won’t wanna wear it again. That humidity is killer!
Other miscellaneous items you’ll wanna bring along:
- Polarized sunglasses (better for blocking out the harsh UV rays)
- Beach bag and/or backpack: make sure it’s large enough to fit a beach towel or two! Ladies, I’d choose a purse that zips up.
- Hat/s: The sun is strong here! I love taking a wide-brimmed sun hat for the beach and when strolling around town.
- A waterproof kindle or other e-reader for reading at the beach and resort pool (I’d be worried a physical book may accidentally get wet!)
- Your hotel may give you towels, but we love traveling with a sand-free beach mat
- Reusable water bottle with in-bottle filtration system: better for the environment and a must at the beach and in town! Plus, that filtration system will ensure you only drink safe water!
- Reef Safe sunscreen (always apply when you’ll be in the ocean water, as other sunscreen is harmful to marine life): We love ThinkSport (make sure the bottles are less than 3.4 ounces if you’re bringing them in your carryon)! Don’t forget about SPF lip balm as well!
- Aloe Vera Gel: always have some handy in case you get a sunburn; aloe will give the burn some much-needed relief
- Dramamine: This will help with motion sickness if you’re planning to do a snorkeling or boat tour (the waves can get rough depending on the day!).
- Bug spray will come in handy year round since Cartagena’s always humid, and calamine lotion/hydrocortisone cream is good to have on hand for when you undoubtedly get bitten
- Underwater camera: Snorkeling at the Rosario Islands? All my underwater photography tips and gear here. I’d check out an underwater phone case, too.
- Portable battery charger: Charge your phone on the go and never run out of a charge
- Noise-canceling headphones: Great for both the plane and the beach! I’m obsessed with my AirPods and Noah loves his Bose Quiet Comforts.
- Tote bag: If you’re planning on doing some shopping in Cartagena, bring your own fold-up tote bag! I love this collapsible reusable tote bag (hardly takes up any room in your suitcase and it’s so lightweight)
- Some meds for an upset stomach/antidiarrheal medicine (just in case you accidentally drink the water or something)
Best Things to do in Cartagena
And now, finally, all the best things to do in Cartagena!
Wander around the Walled City
Cartagena’s Old Town just happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site — balconies with the most beautiful bougainvillea flowers, massive churches in leafy plazas, cobblestoned streets and colorful colonial buildings — each one more beautiful than the last. Walking around the narrow streets is by far one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena. We strolled and strolled until we got too hot, and then we went off searching for some AC.
While you can (and should) simply wander the colorful streets soaking up the atmosphere, there’s a few things not to miss:
- Eat all the street food! Grab some fresh fruit from one of the street vendors, sip on a fresh coconut, and indulge in a made-right-before-your-eyes arepa con huevo (arepa with egg) and/or arepa con queso (arepa with cheese). Simply nothing better. You’ll need cash so always keep some handy. I suggest taking a street food tour your first day so you know exactly all the secrets and what else to try!
- Palenqueras! Take photos or simply watch the Palenqueras (Afro-Colombian ladies in bright colorful dresses balancing bowls of fruit on their heads) — true symbols of the city’s culture. Most people don’t realize they originally came from the village of San Basilio de Palenque — the first freed slave settlement in all of the Americas (and home to a completely different language). You’ll need to tip them if you wanna take a photo of/with them, just FYI.
- Check out the street vendors! You can’t miss them. Besides all the fresh fruit, you’ll find knock-off RayBans, homemade shoes, brightly colored mochila bags, and loads and loads of hats. If you’re looking for souvenirs, you’ll have lots to choose from. Use your bargaining skills over here, but remember this is how the vendors make a living (and everything’s already pretty inexpensive).
Photograph the colorful doors and buildings!
You cannot visit Cartagena and not go off in search of all the colorful colonial buildings – I honestly couldn’t put my camera away. My husband definitely got a bit annoyed at me after listening to me gush about every single door and building (although I swear, they were all so cute), and having him take pics of me. Thanks, honey!
We found the prettiest streets in Cartagena to be in the San Diego neighborhood (just put “Carmen” into your GPS and voila – color galore)!
Also, pay special attention to the door knockers — we spotted lots of different animals. I recently learned these intricate door handles used to signal your hierarchy in society – whoa, talk about status symbols!
Do note that harsh sunlight makes taking photos particularly difficult in the midday sun. Plan to come early to beat both the crowds and nasty shadows! We got “lucky” and had a bit of cloudy morning once which was perfect for taking some photos glare free!
Walk on the City Walls
Cartagena built 11km of walls around its city to defend itself from pirate attacks back in the day, and you can now walk on them! Now, I’m not suggesting you walk all 11km of walls – it’s far too hot and sticky for that! Instead, when we noticed we were on the edge of town, we found some stairs and walked a bit on the walls. And when we got too hot, we cooled off in a cafe, haha.
There’s uneven footing and a bunch of ups and downs, so make sure you wear flat shoes (flat sandals should be fine). We chose to walk on a few walls, and got views of both the Walled City and Caribbean Sea. While the walls are pretty high, don’t worry, there’s easy access via stairs every now and then.
Hanging out on the city walls are exceptionally popular at sunset – it’s kinda like a mini party here every night! You can either grab drinks at the popular (and super-crowded) Cafe del Mar (where you can expect to pay triple the price for a cocktail or beer), or join the locals and buy a few cheap beers from vendors selling them right on the walls.
Getsemani is kinda like the Walled City’s hipster younger sister. It’s way grittier, and was actually once a seedy haven for prostitutes and hard drugs.
But now? It’s turned into a cool tourist spot literally bursting with color! Plan to spend a few hours here taking it all in. While you can simply stroll around, there’s a few things to take note of and a few specific streets you should walk down.
I’m planning on writing an entire post dedicated to Getsemani (this unique neighborhood is just so cool), but here’s a sampling of the top things to do in Getsemani.
- Check out the street art and graffiti on Calle de la Sierpe (The Street of the Serpent, Calle 29): SO. MUCH. COLOR. Do not miss this winding street if you’re a fan of vibrant street art. We stumbled upon it and are so glad we did (it’s famous for a reason). The pieces depict racial segregation, tourism, and gentrification, and are seen in pieces of indigenous women, Maria Mulata (the official bird of Cartagena), the three warriors, and plenty of Palenqueras. There’s also smaller pieces for sale – kinda like an open-air art gallery!
- People watch in Trinidad Plaza: Looking for all the action? Make your way to Trinidad Plaza once the sun goes down. It’s easily the most happening square in all of Cartagena. We visited during the day when we were exploring Getsemani, but if you wanna see what all the fuss is about, make sure you come back when it’s dark! You’ll find carts with gelato and street burgers, tons of music and art, mimes, dancers, and just people having an overall good time with a few cervezas (beers).
- Take loads of photos on the umbrella streets: Yes, there’s two umbrella streets in Cartagena – Callejón Angosto and Calle de la Magdalena! Lighting will be intense so try to come early.
- Go on a walking tour of Getsemani: If you’d prefer to wander around with a local guide who knows their stuff, sign up for a walking tour of Getsemani! After reading about it, I kinda wish we signed up for one (since it’s evident we missed some of the most important graffiti). Visit studios of local artists, Centenario park, Holy Trinity Square, Umbrella street, and even try a local snack and ice cream. Sign up here!
- Walk down Calle Tripita y Media: This is the main street in Getsemani, with plenty of street vendors, restaurants, and cafes. We shared a Kola Roman over here – a Colombian soft drink that was invented in the city of Cartagena itself back in 1865. It’s super sugary and super sweet, so we could only handle a few sips each! And get this – it’s actually one of the oldest sodas in the world (invented 20 years before Coca Cola)!
Plaza de Bolivar
There’s no shortage of plazas in Cartagena, and Plaza de Bolivar is one of the best! A leafy-green oasis during the day makes it the perfect spot to visit if you’re longing for a bit of shade (there’s lots of trees and benches over here!) And plus, it’s surrounded by some of the most elegant colonial buildings – complete with gorgeous balconies.
We had our first grilled arepa con queso over here from a nearby street vendor, and Plaza de Bolivar was the perfect place to eat it. You’ll see a statue of Simón Bolívar on horseback in the middle of the square.
Sip sunset cocktails on the roof of Hotel Movich
Easily the best spot in town for sunset! Aim to get there around an hour or so before the sun goes down, as this spot gets crowded, and for good reason. The views are absolutely to die for. The terrace overlooks not only the iconic Santa Ana Cathedral, but the church of San Pedro Claver as well. Plus, there’s the modern skyscrapers of Bocagrande behind it all. Views from every angle – I promise!
Do note Hotel Movich is super popular for private parties (people get married here, the views are that good!), so I suggest heading there on your first night to find out when the rooftop will be open to the public.
Out of our 3 nights in Cartagena, it was only open our last night – so good thing we kept going back to check! We ended up coming here on the last night of our trip, and it was a great way to say goodbye to our new favorite city!
Relax at your hotel pool
Whatever you do, book a hotel with a pool – you’re gonna want it. With super high temps year round, plus the disgusting humidity, you’ll either wanna shower midday or take a quick dip in the pool (or both). It was hard to be outside between noon and 3!
We loved the rooftop pool at the Nacar, the cozy, colonial pool at the Ananda, and of course I couldn’t stop sneaking peeks of the gorgeous pool at Casa San Agustin. Plus, who doesn’t want an excuse to sip on fresh juices and pisco sours everyday?
Try some sweets at El Portal de los Dulces
Cartagena has an entire block filled with sweets, how perfect is that?! No, not your typical candy shop, but traditional Colombian sweets. It’s basically one big candy market just bursting with color and vendors.
The candies are all homemade and very, very sweet. We bought a small box for 5 COP (~1.50USD) to try some of them.
A few candies you’ll come across: cocada (balls or patties of syrup and shredded coconut), blocks of guava paste, dulces de leche, and tamarind balls (not my favorite). And if you act interested and ask questions, they’ll probably give you samples!
Look for monkeys at Parque del Centenario
On our walk over to Getsemani, we strolled through Parque del Centenario in search of tiny tamarin monkeys! We actually saw a lizard as well. At first we couldn’t find any, but when I heard some rumbling noises in the trees, I knew we were in luck! The monkeys are oh so cute!
If you can’t find any, look for the people staring in awe up at the trees. There’s apparently a few sloths in the park as well but we couldn’t find them. While the park itself isn’t anything special in my opinion, it’s worth a quick stop if you’re passing by for the wildlife!
Explore Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe Castle)
Feel like wandering around a real life castle?! You need to head over to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas! It’s by far the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards, completed way back in 1536 in order to protect the city from attacks for over 400 years (remember – pirates tried to invade Cartagena plenty of times).
Definitely worthy to check out, and one of Cartagena’s most iconic landmarks. Grab your ticket (25 COP, so about $8USD), and walk on up! Definitely bring or buy some water as the uphill climb was harder than I thought.
One of my favorite aspects of the fort? Walking through the tunnels! You can’t walk through all of them, but some are lit and open to visitors. Easily one of the best things to do in Cartagena if you’re a history lover!
Thankfully, Castillo San Felipe is not far from the Walled City – either a scorching 20 minute walk or a super quick Uber ride. We walked there to get our steps in, and then took an Uber back once we couldn’t handle the heat anymore.
Explore Santa Catalina Cathedral
You can’t visit Cartagena and not visit Santa Catalina Cathedral – it’s one of the most recognizable buildings in the entire city! And magnificent it is, with a black and white marble floor, limestone exterior, and the original baroque 18th-century gilded altar.
This Spanish-style Catholic basilica was built during the 16th and 17th centuries, and is officially named Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa Catalina de Alejandra – such a mouthful, right?! And get this – the cathedral continues to run as a working church, with mass held every morning.
For some reason, we kept on having the hardest time finding the cathedral (of course I wanted to take pics with it early in the morning). You’d think the distinctive terracotta dome would be visible from anywhere in the city, but it’s really not!
But here’s a secret tip – if you head to Abaco Books, the cathedral will be right down the block on Calle don Sancho. So take some early morning photos, then head to the cafe to slow down with a coffee.
Take a day trip to the Rosario Islands
Crystal clear Caribbean water. Pristine, white sandy beaches. Fantastic snorkeling! If you’re in Cartagena for at least 3 days, plan to spend one of those out on the water.
Unfortunately, due to all our flight problems (our flight from Medellin was delayed a whopping TWENTY FIVE hours, yes, 25 hours), we completely missed out on our beach day in Cartagena. But I’ve heard from so many people that the Rosario Islands are the way to go.
Sure, Playa Blanca’s way closer and all, but it’s not the idyllic escape it used to be. Choose a beach club on the Rosario Islands if you’re looking for a more peaceful day, or a sailing trip for something more adventurous.
Of course I did my research thinking we would be going for a day or two; here’s my top choices:
- Rosario Islands Sailing Catamaran Tour
- Rosario Islands Snorkeling Tour
- Full-Day Rosario Islands Including Barú, Cholon and Playa Blanca
- Day Pass to Pao Pao Beach Club
- Day Pass to Blue Apple Beach Club
- Day Pass to Bora Bora Beach Club
Cool off at Abaco Libros y Cafe
I’d seen photos of Abaco before, so I knew I wanted to visit before we even got to Cartagena. It’s an old school bookstore, with titles in both Spanish and English, and the most GORGEOUS stone archway. Plus, the books are literally stacked floor to ceiling – AND there’s a coffee bar inside!
This was my husband’s favorite coffee shop in Cartagena (yes, we went to quite a few to escape the heat!). We even bought a bag of beans to bring home! And some for our friends too (yes, it was that good).
This charming little bookstore is located right near the iconic Cartagena cathedral, so make a pit stop here for some latte frios and photos!
Shop for Emeralds
Cartagena is known as the Emerald capital of the world, so there’s no better place to buy them! I had no clue that Colombia supplies almost all of the emeralds on the world market – almost 90%!
What’s so special about Colombian emeralds? Their intense, green color. I swear, the stones looked like a dark leafy green color. Which I later learned is less commonly found.
There’s two areas where you’ll find the highest concentration of emerald shops – Plaza de las Esmeraldas (just south of Bocagrande) and within the Walled City itself. We weren’t even looking for them but found a whole bunch of shops just strolling around town.
You’ll see plenty of jewelry shops around town, including Mister Emerald and Lucy Jewelry (with one of the most upscale showcases). Head to the Caribe Jewelry Museum & Factory near Bocagrande for a super wide selection.
Green isn’t my favorite color so I didn’t buy anything, but if you’re in the market, Cartagena (and Colombia in general) is the perfect place to find your favorite stone. Stones highly range in price depending on the quality, but you can find some as low as ~110 COP ($30US) or as much as 36,000,000 COP (~$10,000 COP).
Shopping for emeralds is one of the best things to do in Cartagena for jewelry lovers!
Get your salsa on at Cafe Havana
No visit to Cartagena is complete without a night out at Cafe Havana – it’s the most famous salsa club in the city afterall! I mean even Hilary Clinton danced here when she visited Cartagena! Cafe Havana, located in the hipster neighborhood of Getsemani, is easily one of the best things to do in Cartagena at night!
Throw back a few classic cocktails (beware, they’re strong) and join in on the fun – there’s such great energy here! And if you’re too shy to dance, there’s nothing wrong with watching everyone else. Sometimes that’s even more fun, haha.
If this isn’t one of the most authentic things to do in Cartagena, I don’t know what is! It’s like stepping right into authentic 1950s Cuba, live salsa music and all!
What and Where to Eat in Cartagena
To say I was pleasantly surprised by the culinary scene in Cartagena is a massive understatement. From the few luxury meals to the mouth watering street food to everything in between, it was all delicious. I wanted to eat everything!
Watch this space – I’m planning to write an entire guide to everything we ate (and drank) in Cartagena.
Here’s a sampling of my all-time favorites:
Carmen Cartagena: By far the best meal of our trip – in all of Colombia. I’m not exaggerating. Every damn dish was pure perfection. I’m still talking about it to this day – I swear it rivals the tasting menus we’ve had in Mexico City, and that’s saying something since those are in the Top 50 restaurants!
You have the option to order a la carte or indulge in their 7-course tasting menu…. I think you know what we did! We savored perfectly cooked sea bass, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, and even a great posta negra Cartagenera.
Plus, the space is super chic and timeless, set in an intimate colonial house. We chose to sit indoors (the AC was calling our name), but if you can tolerate the heat better than we can, the outdoor terrace is absolutely gorgeous.
Psst — There’s another Carmen over in Medellin if you can’t make it here. I kinda wish we tried them both!
Street Arepas: If there’s one street food you’re gonna try in Cartagena, make sure you indulge in some mouthwatering street arepas. I’ve never had a better arepa in my life. Swear to the Colombian heavens. Probably one of my favorite things I ate on our entire trip to Colombia (and I don’t say that lightly).
We saw multiple vendors around town grilling these up, but had our favorite one right outside Plaza Bolivar. Be careful – each arepa is piping hot and dripping with tons of cheese. Kinda messy, but oh so worth it!
Psst – they’re super filling and very dense; I’m so glad we shared them.
Try everything at Alma: Have a leafy green lunch at Alma, inside the insta-popular Casa San Agustin Hotel. Everything we ordered was delicious – lobster empanadas, avocado ceviche, grilled octopus, all of it!
We were silly and ate outside (it was our first day in Cartagena and didn’t realize just how humid it was), but the courtyard was gorgeous. Sophisticated, posh, and upscale! Come early and grab a table by the pool!
Try some famous ceviche at La Cevicheria: If Anthony Bourdain says it’s good, it must be. I’m so sad we missed this place (it was randomly closed the day we planned on going). The Peruvian ceviche, lobster paella, and grilled seafood tower for two sound absolutely delicious though!
If there’s a long line (which there usually is), El Boliche Cebicheria is quite the contender so head there if you’re in a time crunch!
Chill out at a few Coffee Shops: I already gushed about Abaco, but we also loved Epoca (another top contender), Cafe La Manchuria, and Cafe San Alberto. Honestly, there’s nothing better than camping out at a coffee shop sipping on something cold – no matter the time of year.
Indulge in local fruits and fresh jugo (juice): One of my favorite things about Colombia?! The wide variety of exotic fruits and fresh juices! And the fact that they’re all pretty cheap is a huge bonus.
Granadillas were by far our favorite. You have to crack it (students take them to school and crack them on their friends’ heads), and the inside is slippery and weird and full of seeds (which you kinda slurp down). Our first hotel had a huge basket of them right by reception so you know I took a few every day.
I think I drank 3-4 fresh juices every day. And all kinds. Fresa (strawberry), maracuya (passionfruit), mango, naranja (orange), lulo (little orange). The list goes on. Juice in the US just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Buena Vida: Such a colorful and hip restaurant in the center of Cartagena! Everything on the menu looked fantastic – it was super hard to choose. We ended up going with the fried calamari, seafood bisque arepas (made out of pink cornmeal!), and lobster mac n cheese.
The vibe was so fun; definitely make a reservation for their balcony seating upstairs – I’m so sad we missed out.
A few other things to try in Cartagena:
- limonada de coco hierbabuena (you’ll find these on practically every single menu)
- allll the pisco sours (I had no clue they were so big here – in size and popularity, haha!)
- bocadillos (guava pastries from bakeries around town)
- pandebonos (little balls of cheesy bread deliciousness from La Esquina Del Pandebono)
- craft cocktails at Alquimico Bar (there’s 3 different levels with 3 different menus!)
- Caribbean food at La Mulata (soulful Caribbean dishes, particularly seafood)
- Posta negra Cartagenera (Colombian style black beef, which is absolutely delicious)
Sample 3 Day Cartagena Itinerary
- Day 1: Wander the Walled City and get your bearings, cool off at a coffee shop, explore the castle/fort, quick dip in the pool, sip rooftop drinks at Movich
- Day 2: Day trip to Rosario islands – go sailing, snorkeling, or stay put at a beach club (or pool day), dinner at La Cevicheria, then late-night drinks at Alquimico
- Day 3: Street art in Getsemani, look for monkeys and sloths in Parque del Centenario, indulge in a bougie lunch at Carmen or Alma, Walled City/shopping/coffee/pool, sunset from city walls (drinks at Cafe Del Mar)
Hope this helps you plan your trip to Cartagena! Which of these things to do in Cartagena will you be adding to your itinerary?!