Cartagena, one of Colombia’s trendiest tourist destinations. With many visitor-friendly neighborhoods, there’s a little something for everyone in Carta – historically known as Cartagena de Indias.
The lay of the land
The Walled City is probably the main reason most visitors come to Cartagena. The old town or centro is known for its vintage lined homes, small shops, restaurants, and of course the fortress surrounding the entire town. While you’re at it, stop by one of the local cigar shops and learn how to roll a cigar!
Getsemani is particularly popular, known for its more hipster vibes, street artists & musicians and numerous outdoor cafes and bars.
Bocagrande is a promenade of sandy beaches, resorts and casinos. You can opt to stay here if you’d like to be on the coast versus staying in the walled city!
San Diego if you’ve come across photos of Cartagena online, they were most likely in San Diego. Home to some of the most picturesque streets and colorful buildings in the city. San Diego is only about 10-15 blocks from El Centro and is certainly worth the walk.
Where to Stay
Casa La Carbonera – if you’re traveling to Cartagena in a group, there is no better place to stay other than Casa La Carbonera. It’s a beautiful estate, several floors, indoor pools, and wonderful in-house staff that prepare meals for you any time of the day! Check out their site here.
If you’re traveling solo or in a small group, there are plenty of boutique hotels in Cartagena! Or you can opt to stay outside of downtown and right on the water, perhaps at the beachfront Hilton Cartagena Hotel & Resort. I stayed at the resort for a few days, and although it’s great, it wasn’t the authentic experience I was looking for and moved to Carbonera after two days!
What to Do
Cartagena is a wanderer’s dream, the contrast between old & new, the walled in city, the narrow streets and colorful vintage buildings. Here’s a list of best things to do in Cartagena.
Walk the Wall
Cartagena’s most unique feature is that it’s a walled colonial city with a beautifully preserved fortress (this is why it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The best part? You can walk along most of the 4km pedestrian pathway on top of the wall that once served as the Spaniards’ protection from incoming attacks.
The wall encloses the Centro or downtown Cartagena, and it’s a galore of street art, boutiques, restaurants and everything in between.
Cathedral of Cartagena
Built in 1577, the Cathedral is formally known as the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. You won’t miss this bright yellow basilica in the middle of El Centro!
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Yet another fortress and essentially a castle located on the Hill of San Lázaro and was built in 1536. You’ll be amazed at how well this space is preserved. Walk through underground tunnels, narrow bunkers, and get lost in a maze of what is one of the most magnificent defense structures from that era.
Convento Santa Cruz de la Popa
A religious complex dating back to 1607, this convent is a beautiful stop outside of Cartagena. Get to the terrace and enjoy the perfect panoramic view of the city. Discover the gardens and a little history of the construction of the chapel and its’ fortification.
Where to Eat
Carmen’s Courtyard Patio– outdoor terrace wrapped around a gigantic tree trunk, this jungle vibe is not to be missed.
Restaurante Interno –Prison restaurant? Why yes.This neat restaurant is run by inmates at the San Diego prison, following a cool concept to prepare women to immerse in society after release. & the food is amazing!
Cevicheria– repeatedly voted the best Colombian ceviche in town!
Mila– is a small café in the middle of town, & a perfect place to pick up some breakfast, pastries and coffee.
Tcherassi – inside a hotel/spa, is this bohemian styled lunch spot, you’re really here for the ambience!
Ursula Cafe Bistro– a few blocks out of Plaza de San Diego is this hip café serving some of the best Colombian delicacies.
La Chiva Colombiana– nervous to be adding this to the list, but it’s another tourist trap that’s honestly just fun to experience! La Chiva is a party bus in every sense of the word! Take a ride around Cartagena, enjoy Colombia’s top hits and BYOB.
Café Del Mar– a staple tourist stop in El Centro, standing nice and tall right at the tip of Cartagena’s “wall” is this busy café. Make sure to get here for sunset!
Café Havana – the hippest bar outside of the Wall! Although it’s Cuban, you’ll get an authentic experience with locals and tourists and lots of salsa dancing!
El Barón – an impressive cocktail bar in the heart of the city. Big city vibes, amazing décor and hands-down one of the best.
Tucandela– a crowded dive bar with quite the performances!
Playa Blanca in Isla Baru
A local’s favorite and one of Cartagena’s most visited beaches. Bright blue Caribbean Sea, pam trees and plenty of beachfront shacks serving up fresh seafood. Playa Blanca is only an hour away by taxi, but if you’re looking for more beach time there are several hotels that let you enjoy the paradise overnight.
You can’t get enough of Caribbean water, and the Rosario Islands serve sensational beach dreams. The islands are a set of 27-30 islands (depending on who you ask) and can easily be reached by boat from Cartagena’s main marina. The ride is only about an hour and absolutely worth the trip!
We opted to visit Islas Grande, and spent the day at the private Hotel San Pedro De Majagua. Amenities are limited for day-use visitors, but do you really need more than a towel and crystal clear water? For booking check them out!
If you’re looking for some great gifts, visit Mapale arte de mano, a small shop that sell artisan pieces all handmade!
Cholon – Although I didn’t get to this myself, I heard many rave about this off the beaten path party island.
Volcan de Totumo – expect a mud bath with plenty of strangers. It’s not every day that ones gets to bathe in a volcano of mud!
Cartagena is a beautiful place and will surely keep you busy! Make sure to let us know if you discover any hidden gems for next time.