Cartagena is a city which gets under your skin almost instantly.
Its crumbling walls of yellow, red, and blue, are perhaps the most photogenic we’ve ever seen in South America.
However this beauty goes to another level when juxtaposed with the endless street scenes which unfold before you when exploring this impossibly hot Colombian city. There’s the old man selling mangoes and watermelons in front of the tango club, family barbershops full of laughing men, a spontaneous street band playing on Carrera 10 under billowing flags at sunset, the woman making fresh fruit juices in front of the old banana-yellow church.
The city has, undeniably and unequivocally, seen a lot of change in the last decade. Much of this is positive, a bellwether that Colombia’s position as a safe country for travel has now spread outwith the backpacker network. However, Cartagena is also starting to become a victim of its Instagram-and-word-of-mouth fuelled success; on our two trips to the city across four years, the scale and pace of its tourist transformation really did take us by surprise.
Yet a destination which ebbs and flows between being the inspiration for many of Garcia Marquez’s dreamlike creations and the poster child for the opportunities of tourism in the ‘new Colombia’ is never going to be jettisoned from itineraries covering our favourite country in South America - whether you’re travelling Colombia for a few weeks or a few months.
To help you have the most memorable time in the city, here are our favourite things to do in Cartagena, including insider advice on where to stay, how to find an insight into authentic Colombia, and some of the best places to eat and drink.
The Best Things to Do in Cartagena
Explore The Streets of Getsemaní
If something has drawn you toward Cartagena, then it’s likely to be a photo of one of its many, many, colourful streets.
Although there are no shortage of these dreamy kaleidoscopic calles and carreras within the Walled City (more on those later), we largely preferred those we found ten minutes walk away in and around the Getsemaní neighbourhood.
Once the grungy, gritty, salubrious part of old Cartagena, Getsemaní evolved into the hub for backpackers and curious travellers in the last decade. However, it was clear on our most recent visit that gentrification and wider tourism have now also arrived here in spades. Although homeless men still sleep in one section of the painted street off Plaza de Trinidad, which was unlit and avoided for years, that section is now also home to a cool Italian restaurant, cocktail bar, and visitors strolling to or from some of the various boutique hotels nearby.
So the invisible barrier between Getsemaní and the historic walled tourist centre of Cartagena is certainly now blurred to the extent that it no longer exists, and the pace of development is clear. Its punk spirit is fading quickly, being replaced by the modern and hipster-friendly aesthetic of new Cartagena within the crumbling, colourful colonial walls.
And yet, it remains our favourite part of Cartagena though (we’re also suckers for that hipster-friendly aesthetic, so totally get that we’re part of the problem!) and, for our money, it’s still home to the prettiest and most atmospheric nooks and crannies of the city even if those nooks and crannies are less and less populated by various generations of families.
If you explore in the early morning or with an open mind off the main streets, you can still find moments and snapshots of the old Cartagena.
Tip | If it’s you’re flying into Cartagena and it’s your first time in the country, then it’s a good idea to book a private airport transfer online before you arrive to bring you straight to your hotel.
Apologies for that terrible pun, but it’s at least better than Andrew’s preferred option of ‘A Street C-ART-agena Named Desire’.
Ok, they’re both equally terrible.
Colombia has actually become a bit of a mecca for graffiti artists, and though Bogota is the undisputed epicentre for this (weirdly due to Justin Bieber), Cartagena’s walls are home to some of our favourite works.
The Indian girl on the doorway, the beaming Afro-Colombian woman with streamers for hair, the masked group of children staring down at your with menace or glee. Many of these works will reveal themselves to you as you stroll around the street, and share stories indelibly linked to the story of the neighbourhoods, their most famous sons and daughters, and the city’s past and present. One piece however - “Las Tres Guerreras” (The Three Warriors) - is so hypnotic, towering, and well-executed, that you simply have to seek it out at the entrance to the new (and rather fabulous) Santuario Hostel.
You can read more about the artist and the piece here, and can see some more shots of Cartagena’s Street Art in this post. There are also various 2-3 hour street art specific tours advertised in hostels and cafes across the city.
Brunch At Cafe Stepping Stone
We had been travelling for three months in South America, and so were hankering for some decent brunch and a lazy morning catching up on news on our first morning in Cartagena. We strolled down Carrerra 10, which has always been a go-to place for backpacker-friendly eats in Cartagena, and saw that much had changed; mostly for the better.
The blackboard menu at Cafe Stepping Stone drew us in with its promises of smashed avo, homebacked sourdough, and flat whites (yes, we recognise our hypocrisy right now given the hipster rants, but we did at least admit that we’re also suckers for it?!)
The brunch and atmosphere was so good, we went back twice. However, it’s also the ethos and work that Stepping Stone’s three young Australian founders are doing which really makes it stand out amongst the rest.
It’s a social-enterprise cafe which employs and trains local disadvantaged youth, with the cafe providing them with skills, confidence and opportunities to gain future employment and change their lives. They have had a really good first two years, with positive results for those they are aiming to help, and they share everything transparently over on their website too.
So, go for the brunch and great coffee, go again to help them create better opportunities for many.
Walk the Walled City
There’s actually not a lot to do in Cartagena; it has a few museums, a couple of activities and sights, but none that are world-famous or absolute must sees like Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Cusco.
This is not a bad thing.
It means that the main attraction is the city itself - its film-set pretty streets, its living history, its characters and charmers, its nightly rhythm to the sounds of salsa, the fumes of aguardiente, and sizzling steam of street food carts. It’s a place for you to come and explore and learn and be curious, but then to relax in the sunshine, with a cocktail in a plaza, a freshly brewed coffee, or to have your first taste of Colombia’s infectious joie de vivre.
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La Ciudad Amurallada, or the Walled City, is where most of this will be done and where most non-backpacking visitors to Cartagena will stay. These walls, a UNESCO World Heritage site, remain standing strong and their primary role was to support the Spanish conquistadors in defending their first colony in the Americas against others looking to loots its riches.
Did you know | In the 16th century, the drawbridge would raise from the city walls every evening at 6 p.m., separating wealthy Spanish families on the inside from slaves and workers on the outside.
Fast forward to the present and the street inside the Walled City become quite crowded in the late morning and afternoon due to their popularity (and that Cartagena is being added to more cruise itineraries). The way to see them at their very best is therefore by rising early before the rest of the city wakes (we did this on a couple of mornings to take photos). Otherwise, put on comfortable walking shoes, slap on the suncream, and explore the streets to find its most charming corners, impressive structures, and secretive streets over the course of a day.
Understandably, much of Cartagena’s history and its best stories are found within this part of the city, behind the grand doors of its churches and colonial homes (look out for those fantastic knockers by the way), underneath its yellowed arches, vaults and in its colourful cloisters, and between the looks of strangers
The best way to uncover these stories for yourself is to take one of the many free walking tours available in the city - do note however that they’re not actually free, as a tip is very much expected at the end. If you prefer a small, more in-depth walking tour in Cartagena, then take a look at this two-hour private walking tour, or this longer private sightseeing tour around the city.
Tip | Each time we’ve been in Cartagena, we’ve made a beeline for one of the delicious artisan icicles (paletas) and ice-creams from La Paletteria in the walled city (Calle 35 #03-86). They’re perfect to ward off the Cartagena heat! The Walled City is also home to Cartagena’s best artisan stores and boutiques, so if you want to shop, this is the place.
Take A Day Trip to The Islands
You may be wondering why we haven’t yet mentioned any of the beaches in Cartagena? After all, this is a city right on the Caribbean sea so surely it’s got to have some!?
However, it’s important to know before you arrive that Cartagena really isn’t the place to come for a beach holiday or to enjoy tropical vibes. Yes it has a handful of city beaches (such as Bocagrande), but they are likely not what you’re hoping or planning for.
However, the good news is that it’s very easy to access several excellent postcard-worthy beaches on a day trip from Cartagena! For more information, read this post on the 6 Best Day Trips from Cartagena.
Taste Proper Colombian Coffee
The best coffee in the world is from Colombia. Full stop, no arguments.
Its chocolate and caramel rich aromas are simply wonderful, and any visit to the country should involve a little bit of tasting its most famous (legal) export. Cartagena doesn’t have as many of the truly excellent specialty coffee shops which can be found in Medellin, Bogota, and in the towns of the Coffee Triangle, but if you are only visiting the city and the Caribbean coastline, then you should make a beeline one morning to sup on some of the good stuff (or for a break from the Cartegena afternoon heat).
Juan Valdez is the Starbucks of Colombia and you’ll find a few of these in the Walled City, but your best bet to taste single-source beans from the regions and enjoy a good atmosphere are:
Folklore Cafe | A large cafe close to the Clock Tower, its walls explain coffee production in Colombia and you can taste seasonal single-origin beans from the key production areas in the country. Servce V60s and Chemex as well as standard espresso-based drinks.
Gato Negro | On the same street as Stepping Stone, its got better single-source coffee (and a bloody wonderful cat).
Cafe Mural | Down the graffiti-heavy Calle San Juan side street in Getsemani, this small but lively coffee shop is actually only open in the public from 3 p.m. - 8 p.m. as they provide private coffee classes and tastings in the morning. A place for coffee lovers and those who want to learn about it.
Ábaco Libros y Café | A contrast with much of Cartagena, this cafe and bookshop feels more like a Harry Potter hideaway.
Go On Gabo’s Trail
If you have never read Gabrial Garcia Marquez before, then your trip to Colombia is about to get a whole lot better.
Colombia’s most famous author grew up and spent much of his early life in Cartagena, and much of his inspiration was drawn from the city:
"All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them...and, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena."
So, if it’s your first time in Colombia, we highly recommend you make reading one of his best works a big part of your pre-trip planning process!. Not only are they wonderful, but they will transform how you see and interpret the world on your strolls around Cartagena.
Tip | If you’re already a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then you can take this literary tour around the city focused on his works and his words. Book lovers should take a stroll through Parque Cenetario in the late morning or early afternoon; the large park between the Walled City and Getsemani is home to various bookseller stalls.
Sunset on the Ramparts
You may have read that sunset on the old ramparts is a must-do in Cartagena - and we totally agree.
However, you may also have read that it’s best done from a table at Cafe del Mar?
We’re here to tell you that that’s nonsense.
It may have been the case five or ten years ago when Cartagena was still very much under the radar, but now Cafe del Mar is simply oversubscribed at sunset and way way way too crowded.
However, all is not lost!
Instead, our alternative recommendation to enjoy the Cartagena sunset over the sea is to arrive at the old wall ramparts either side of Cafe del Mar an hour or so before the sun starts to set with some beers and snacks, and settle in to one of the many gaps in the walls.
Much more romantic, much cheaper, much easier - there are also a number of vendors selling beer at sunset.
If you want a more intimate or romantic sunset experience in Cartagena, this two-hour sunset cruise is highly rated.
Tip | You may see horse carriage rides being offered in the city. We would implore you to please not do these as the horses all looked to be in really quite terrible condition. You may think that the only way to improve their condition is by giving their owner more money, but it’s clear that this doesn’t go towards the horse’s welfare.
VISIT BAZURTO MARKET
If you’re a foodie or want to see a slice of Cartagena proper, then head out to the chaos of Bazurto market for a morning - it’s an experience all on its own!
We love visiting local markets wherever we go in South America, and Bazurto delivers on all sensory levels. From exotic fruits you won’t find anywhere else, a bizarre conflagration of meats, fish, and spices, it’s an experience all on its own and a must for the cultural and curious traveller.
It’s just 15 minutes from the Walled City, and you can get there by taxi for 8,000 COP - just make sure you turn up with minimal stuff on you.
Alternatively, first-timers in Colombia or non-Spanish speakers may prefer this excellent 4-hour guided visit to this hidden gem of Cartagena (which includes transport to/from the centre)
Eat Local + Try Colombian Street Food
There are so many new restaurants popping up in old Cartagena, and most of these are very focussed on the international market and palette. You really won’t struggle to find somewhere you like.
However, to give you some insight into day-to-day Colombian life, we highly recommend that you go out of your way to spread your spending and support the livelihoods of lifelong residents who may not be directly benefiting from the rapid change Cartagena has seen.
So, make sure to eat lunch at one of the remaining small, local restaurants. Atmospheric, cheap, affordable, and delicious, they all put on a menu del dia each day, which is a fixed two-course lunch menu plus a fresh juice for as little as 8,000 COP (£1.8 / $2.5). Our particular favourite which we’ve visited each time in Cartagena is on Carrera 10 in Getsamani and does the best sancocho de pescado (Colombian fish soup) we have ever tasted. It’s easiest to find if you search for Malagana Cafe & Bar, and it’s literally opposite!
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Next up, make a point as a traveller in the city to purchase fresh mangoes, avocadoes, bananas, and all manner of other fruits which only exist in Colombia from the men and women with street carts. They’re all over the city, but you’ll find a lot on and between the busy streets of Avenida Venezuela and Calle 32 which split Getsamani and the Walled City in two. Similarly, slurp on one of the fantastic fresh juices which are also sold on various carts and a few local stalls at Parque De Las Flores. We became quite addicted to having cold Lulo juice and Maracuya juice in Colombia and you should go out of your way to try either at least once in Cartagena! Emily would always just have hers with water, Andrew would sometimes take the milk option with a dash of sugar, so take your pick!
Lastly, have your first taste of arepas - the very traditional Colombian staple. You can buy bags of them from the supermarket and simply slather them with avocado, indulge in a heart-attack inducing arepa con quest from one of many carts on the street, or tuck into a stuffed arepa from the stall on Carerra 10.
If you want more insights into Colombian food and flavours, then check out this street food tour or head to a cooking class offered by Caffé Lunatico.
Tip | If you’re staying in a hostel with a kitchen in the Walled City or Getsemani, then doing your shopping at the large air-conditioned Éxito supermarket on #9 Avenida Venezeula or nearby Supermercado Olímpica La Matuna is the most convenient option for everything else.
A Drink in Plaza de la Trinidad
Plaza de la Trinidad is our favourite hangout spot in Cartagena, and we spent many a late afternoon there sipping on cold beers watching the world and men wheeling carts go by. Though its tables are now more populated by fellow gringos than locals, and English is the language carried in the breeze, it’s still a lovely spot.
You can’t go wrong with a pavement table on the corner at Solar, whilst the newer, hipper, colourful Palenqueras restaurant / bar on the other side of the square serves a mean cocktail.
In the evenings, Plaza de la Trinidad transforms into a more raucous, social street party (especially on Friday and Saturday nights). Musicians, clowns, street dancers and performers, street food carts, and hundreds of locals and visitors cluster together in the small square for good time. With the big increase in visitor numbers, we felt it was close to becoming a little too oversubscribed, but it’s doubtless still authentic at its core with just as many locals as gringos.
Tip | The streets of Getsemani are very busy and social at night, but if you want to escape to a less salubrious spot in the evening, then go to Basilica (Cra. 26 #25-78). Its pizzas are bloody marvellous, and the triangular little square is filled with live music and couples dining outside in the lingering warms air. Nearby Carrera 10C is also a good shout for evening cocktails and dining, but its options are definitely a little classier.
Party & Dance
As the heat dies down, Cartagena comes alive.
A big part of being in this city is enjoying its nightlife scene, in and beyond Plaza de la Trinidad. Cafe Havana, Quiebra-Canto, Donde Fidel are classic and best options for salsa, whilst there are a bunch of hostels down Calle 30 in Getsemani (these are all nearby eachother) for backpacker evening beers.
For amore upscale evening, be sure to check out El Baron. Staffed by excellent mixologists, they serve up the sort of cocktails that have you going back again, and again.
Enjoy the Best Views of Cartagena
Before telling you the best places to stay in Cartagena and our essential travel tips for the city, you need to know that the last thing to do for a perfect visit to the city is to savour some of the best views over it! These can be found at:
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas | San Felipe Castle for short, this fort was built by African slaves in 1657 to protect the conquering Spanish against pirates and rivals. The history of this city is so interwined with slavery and colonialism, and taking a walkling tour is the best way to undersatnd this history. However, the castle itself remains a much-visited site in Cartagena and is a popular alternative for sunset (although it closes at 5 p.m.) and impressive views of Cartagena. It’s just outside Getsamani, or a 10-minute walk from the Walled City’s clock tower. Entry 25,000 COP (£6 / $7.5)
Movich Hotel | Many hotels in Cartegana has great rooftops with great views (often with a pool too), but non-guests can also enjoy the rooftop bar at any time of day with a stunning view at this luxury 5-star hotel. Another rooftop bar with good views is Sunset Gastro Lounge.
Convento de la Popa | On the highest hill in Cartagena, this panoramic viewing spot lets you fully appreciate how much far Cartagena spreads outside the historic centre. However, the views from this pretty 17th century convent are not visited by many as it’s a taxi-ride away or oppressive walk in the heat. San Felipe is the preferred alternative of most visitors.
Where To Stay in Cartagena
Most visitors staying in Cartagena fall into three camps: those backpacking for a month or longer in Colombia, those who are visiting for a two-week vacation in the country, and those who are taking advantage of cheap new flight connections with the US to spend their time solely in and around Cartagena.
Obviously, there are a lot of different budgets and travel styles to cater for there, but Cartagena does offer something which suits everyone. Many homes and old buildings in the Walled City have been transformed into Conde Naste-style boutique hotels, whilst nearly every other building in Getsemani seemed to be a recently opened cool hostel or Airbnb apartment.
However, before you arrive, it’s essential to understand that prices for accommodation in Cartagena are notably higher than elsewhere in Colombia and - with more and more visitors each year with all sorts of budgets - there is very high demand. If you know that you’re going to be visiting Cartagena soon or in the next few months (especially in December - April), it is absolutely essential that you book ahead.
Hostels in Cartagena
If your budget isn’t so tight, you’re looking to enjoy one of great new hostels in the city, or you want to see some alternative options for inspiration, then this post on the Nine Best Hostels in Cartagena is essential reading and gives an overview of hostels prices you can expect.
Boutique Hotels in Cartagena
If you’re visiting Cartagena for a more stylish, luxurious or romantic experience, then you will be able to choose from a fantastic selection of boutique and bespoke hotels in the Walled City - many also come with rooftop pools! To get some inspiration and start planning, take a look at this overview of Cartagena’s hotels. We’re also putting together a little guide of our top boutique hotel recommendations - out soon, we promise.
Airbnbs in Cartagena
Unsurprisingly, there are now a growing number of stylish and affordable Airbnb apartments in Cartagena.
You can view our personal selection of the the very best Airbnbs apartments in the city (including two absolute gems for under £40 a night), but if you’ve never used Airbnb before you can sign up via this link and receive up to £25 off your first booking!
Essential Travel Advice for Cartagena
Cartagena Airport | Both international and domestic flights will arrive to Rafael Nunez Airport (CTG code) which is weirdly in quite a residential area of the city. From there you can queue up to take a taxi for 13,500 COP (the price is fixed depending on which zone you go to). Alternatively, if your Spanish is limited and you prefer the comfort and convenience as you arrive for your first time in Cartagena, you can easily book this good value private airport pick-up service online.
Cartagena Bus Station | If arriving into Cartagena from elsewhere in Colombia, then you should know that the main bus terminal is 45-minutes outside the historic centre. Thankfully, you’ll have no issue finding a taxi out front to take you to your hostel. Prices are fixed and clearly indicated on a sign to specific zones in the city. Just make sure that you confirm the price and zone with your driver before you set off. When we visited in March 2019, the price to Getsamani and the Walled City.
We have shared everything else you need to know plan and prepare for your trip to Cartagena, including tips on taxis, safety concerns and travel scams, how to deal with the heat, the best time of year to visit, just how many days you actually need to stay in Cartagena, a definite answer on whether you can drink the tap water, and advice on how to get from Cartagena to Tayrona National Park, in our post 21 Things To Know Before You Visit Cartagena.
Please do and check it out next!