Located on the Caribbean coast, colourful Cartagena, Colombia feels like being a tropical resort, with the added perks of having historical landmarks, fun nightlife and all the amenities found in a big city.
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While there’s always something going on in Cartagena, the city is surprisingly laid-back and safe, and whether you love the beach or are a history buff there’s truly something for everyone. From island getaways to towering fortresses, here are the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia.
What to do in Cartagena: Centro Historico
The old town is an absolute treasure, and wandering around the narrow cobblestone streets is one of the top things to do in Cartagena. The vibrant colonial buildings which are perfectly maintained, and lush greenery and bright pink flowers cascade over the intricate railings decorating each window.
The whole area is surrounded by old stone walls which were built back in the 1500s to protect the city, and stretches for dozens of city blocks. The Clock Tower (Torre del Raloj Publico) is considered the entryway into the city—and a great landmark if you get lost. It leads into Peace Plaza (Plaza de La Paz) which has a number of restaurants and shops, then branches off into the side streets.
Highlights of Cartagena’s historic centre include:
- Naval Museum– Holds models and exhibits highlighting Cartagena’s military past—great for history buffs.
- Palace of the Inquisition– This is where sentences were handed out during the inquisition, and can be found across from Bolivar Park.
- Museo del Oro– This gold museum is free of charge, and has two floors full of pieces including ceramics and goldsmithing.
- San Pedro Claver Temple– A stunning historic building located in equally beautiful San Pedro Plaza, the monument features a cupola which can be seen across the entire city.
The 11 kilometres of stone walls surrounding the centre are also an attraction in themselves, and if you climb up to the lookout points you can see both the ocean and Centro Historico at the same time. If you venture toward them from the outside you’ll notice there are cutouts in the wall, which are a popular spot for people seeking some shade.
Bolivar Plaza is a beautiful, leafy green park surrounded by a number of important buildings, so it’s another good spot to start your tour. The plaza is stunning in the evening, when the soft light highlights the fountains. Grab a drink during happy hour at one of the second-storey restaurants that looks down on it, or hop in a horse-drawn carriage for the ultimate romantic night out.
Globe Guide tip: Start touring old town early in the morning (9-9:30 a.m.) as there aren’t many people in the streets and it’s also not as hot.
For a taste of Cartagena’s glitz and glam, head to Bocagrande—or better yet, stay there. The area is simply exploding with development, resulting in a sea of bright white high-rises holding hotels, resorts, upscale condos and shopping malls.
Even if you’re more of a poolside person, it’s worth heading out to the beach for at least an afternoon, where the surf is surprisingly warm and great for swimming, especially if you like navigating the crashing waves. Visitors can rent a beach chairs flanked by a little tent to keep the sun away, or grab a Pina Colada at one of the many small bars that line the strip.
After a day of relaxing, head out for a walk along the main avenue in Bocagrande, called Carrera 2da (or Avenida San Martin). This is where you’ll find clothing boutiques, souvenir shops, casinos, grocery stores, cafes, dozens of restaurants and fast food chains. If you’re lucky you might even stumble across a group of dancers or musicians performing on the side of the road.
Castillo de San Felipe
One of the popular places to visit in Cartagena is Castillo de San Felipe, which is a fortress perched on top of San Lazaro hill. Fortunately the city is no longer a target for foreign takeovers, so the fort is now open to visitors who want to check out its dimly-lit bunkers and maze of tunnels.
There are also great views of the city from the top lookout point. As it’s situated away from the main tourist areas, either take a cab to Castillo de San Felipe, or brave the half-hour walk from the historic centre. Admission is about $8 for adults, or you can combine a visit with this city tour: Click here to book
Go salsa dancing in Cartagena
If there’s one thing those hip-shaking Colombians are famous for it’s their slick dance moves, so hit the town for a night of salsa dancing.
There’s a great spot in the Old Town just a couple of blocks from the Clock Tower called Crazy Salsa, which offers both private lessons and drop-in group classes several times per day. For 20,000 pesos (around $10), participants learn how to salsa and merengue during the 90 minute class.
Take a chiva ride
A super fun, unforgettable way to see the city is to hop on a chiva, which is a brightly-decorated bus tricked out with neon lights. The best time to jump on is at night, when it turns into a party bus. The cheap rum flows without abandon as the chivas zoom around the city, accompanied by the delighted cheers of the drunk partiers on board.
Tickets for the night tour are about $17 per person including unlimited drinks, and can be purchased from any tour operator around town.
The Rosario Islands
One of the top things to do in Cartagena is sailing over to the idyllic Rosario Islands, which is an archipelago in the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park. The hour-long boat ride over departs from the Muelle de la Bodeguita pier in front of the walled city, which is a hub of activity with many tour operators trying to sell packages to tourists (haggling is welcome).
There are all sorts of options, including half-day, full-day, some that include drinks or lunch, and a few that visit multiple islands. To avoid the stress and confusion, pre-book a Rosario islands tours like one of these:
Some of the most popular places to visit on a Rosario Islands day trip are Barú Island, Isla Grande and Cholon, which have things like blissful beaches lined with colourful bars and cafes, stunning turquoise water to swim in, and coral reefs.
Book a tour to see the top Cartagena attractions
Cartagena has a great mix of culture, landmarks and adventurous activities, so try to combine some city sightseeing with fun on the water by booking a couple of these excursions:
Tips for visiting Cartagena:
Getting around: Cartagena is surprisingly walkable, and major sites are all within 30 minutes of each other. However, taxis are also plentiful, safe and cheap, so this is the more popular option, especially when it’s blazing hot outside. Expect to spend 6,000 pesos to get from Bocagrande to old town (about a five minute drive) and 17,000 pesos from Bocagrande to the airport.
Tipping: Tax and service charges are usually included on restaurant bills, and cab drivers also don’t expect tips. However, it’s nice to leave a bit extra if you had good service, as they’ll always appreciate it.
What to eat: One of my best finds in the old town was a stand selling fresh-squeezed, sweet tangerine juice for about $1 per glass, along with patacons for $2 each. Patacons are amazing! They’re basically a taco wrapped in a plantain, and the inside is stuffed with meat, cheese and salsa. They’re filling, delicious and cheap.
Where to stay in Cartagena
- Hampton by Hilton Cartagena: This hotel in Bocagrande has a beautiful rooftop pool, which is a great place to soak up the sun. Click here to book
- Casa Gastelbondo: This highly-ranked boutique hotel has a great location near the old town, and its rooftop is the perfect place to watch the sunset. Rooms are large, and there’s also a rooftop pool. Click here to book
- Alfiz Hotel: Located in a colonial house in the historical district, the garden and rooftop with a hot tub are like a private oasis in the heart of the city. Rooms are beautifully decorated in the traditional style, and the breakfast is excellent. Click here to book
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