I have wanted to visit Cartegena since watching Romancing the Stone in the 1980s. This beautiful city has captivated the hearts of travelers, filmmakers, artists, and authors. As I explored the top things to do in Cartagena, it was easy to understand why the city has been a magnetic backdrop for numerous movies and books.
On my journey there, I fell in love with the food, the vibrant colors, and the history. Cartagena is the perfect spot to get your fill of history, culture, and amazing Latin food. But there is so much more to the city than its rich past.
Best Things to do in Cartagena
There is so much to see and do in Cartagena that it’s hard to fit everything into your itinerary. Whether you are a history buff or seeking adventure, here are a few of our favorite things to do.
1. Explore the Walled City (Ciudad Amurallada)
Cartagena’s walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of colonial architecture, vibrant streets, and historical landmarks and colonial buildings.
The old city has some of the best places to visit in Cartagena. Be sure to stop at the Torre del Reloj, Cartagena’s regal clock tower that stands at the entrance to the old walled city. You can also book a private tour of the city for a more intimate experience starting at $156.
2. Take a Walking Tour
One of the best ways to get acquainted with any city is to book a walking tour. Free walking tours used to be offered, but it seems to not be in operation anymore. However, you can book this walking tour of the historic city to learn about its rich history as you take in the old town’s architecture and see Cartagena’s elite, who still own many of the grand colonial homes in the old city.
When you walk through the cobblestone streets, you get a glimpse into what the city was like centuries ago. The Cartagena Full Day City Tour takes you through the highlights of the city, including Las Bóvedas, the streets of Getsemaní, the tunnel system of Castillo de San Felipe, and more for just $49 per person.
3. Shop at Las Bóvedas
A series of vaults turned into shops selling local crafts and souvenirs. This bustling marketplace is filled with tourists. If you brave the crowds, you will get a chance to shop for unique trinkets, souvenirs, and beautiful mochila bags made by the women of the Wayuu indigenous tribes.
Las Bovedas is a sight in itself. One of the last structures built within the walled city, it has forty-seven arches and twenty-three domes. It also has a checkered past serving as a munitions store and then a dungeon before its current status as a bustling marketplace. Get Your Guide offers city tours and excursions around Cartegena with easy cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.
4. Street Art of Getsemani Neighborhood
The Getsemani neighborhood is another stop you should add to your itinerary. It’s one of the most important neighborhoods in Cartagena, plus a cultural and political hub. It’s filled with amazing street art.
Bright colors and beautiful murals adorn many of the walls there and keep you captivated as you wander around. Known for its colorful streets, graffiti art, and lively atmosphere, this neighborhood is a cultural hotspot.
5. Visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Visiting Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is not just a trip to the historic fortress of this fortified city on the Caribbean Coast. It’s an immersive journey into the heart of Cartagena’s colonial history. This imposing structure, proudly standing atop the San Lázaro hill, is a symbol of the strategic importance of Cartagena in the colonial era.
Recognized as one of the most significant fortifications built by the Spanish in the Americas, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is an architectural marvel and has incredible panoramic city views. The Castillo is easily one of the top attractions and one of the best things to do in Cartagena.
The fortress, originally built in the 17th century, played a crucial role in defending the city against pirates and invaders during colonial times.
Visitors can take guided tours to learn about the fortress’s history, strategic importance, and construction details.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is located just outside the walled city and is easily accessible by a short taxi ride or a moderate walk from the city center. Its prominent position on San Lázaro Hill makes it a visible landmark. The top of the fortress offers breathtaking views of Cartagena and the Caribbean Sea, ideal for photography enthusiasts.
6. Relax at Playa Blanca
Located on Barú Island, this stunning white-sand beach is a slice of paradise, known for its crystal-clear turquoise waters and picturesque setting.
The beach is ideal for swimming due to its calm, clear waters, and sunbathing on the soft, white sands is a relaxing way to enjoy the tropical sun. You can go snorkeling, and there are several beachside restaurants and shacks to enjoy fresh seafood and traditional Colombian coastal dishes.. Relaxing at Playa Blanca in Cartagena offers a perfect blend of natural beauty and serene ambiance.
Playa Blanca is a popular day trip from Cartagena, and you can visit it as part of a tour or on your own. The most popular way to reach Playa Blanca is by boat. You can catch a boat from the Muelle de los Pegasos near the Cartagena Convention Center. These boats usually depart in the morning and return in the afternoon.
You can also reach Playa Blanca by road. It’s about a 1.5-hour drive from Cartagena. You can hire a taxi or join a group tour that includes transportation. These idyllic islands offer crystal-clear waters and are perfect for snorkeling and diving.
7. Take a Rosario Islands Day Trip
Just 100 kilometers (62 miles) offshore, but seemingly a world away, is the Rosario Islands. The Rosario Islands are a group of over 28 islands and are part of Colombia’s National Natural Park system.
There you can enjoy the local seafood and everything that you love about the Caribbean – the clear blue skies, white sand beaches, and living on “island time.” The islands boast some of the most beautiful beaches in Colombia.
The clear Caribbean waters and coral reefs make this a prime spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. : Many tours offer the chance to explore various islands in the archipelago, each with its unique charm and features.
To reach the Rosario Islands, consider Sunset Sailing Cartagena, which offers day tours. This highly rated tour offers sailing trips to the Rosario Islands starting at $86.
Taking a day trip to the Rosario Islands is a highlight for many visitors to Cartagena, offering a sublime escape into an archipelago renowned for its stunning natural beauty and vibrant marine life.
8. Experience the Nightlife in Cartagena
The Old City comes alive at night with a rich, vibrant nightlife.
Make sure to visit the lively bars, clubs, and cafes, especially in the areas of Getsemaní, the Old Town, and Plaza de la Trinidad. Plaza de la Trinidad has plenty of food stalls selling street food at reasonable prices and street vendors selling exotic fruits and souvenirs. The square is alive with street performers, dancing, and music.
In the evening, Plaza de San Diego also transforms into a vibrant nightlife spot.
9. Visit the Palace of the Inquisition
The Palace of the Inquisition is a museum that offers insights into the Spanish Inquisition’s history in Colombia. This iconic landmark, located in Plaza de Bolívar in the heart of Cartagena’s walled city is not only a window into Colombia’s colonial past but also a testament to the resilience and transformation of its people.
Visiting the Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena is a profound and enlightening experience, delving into a significant aspect of the city’s rich historical tapestry.
The Palace of the Inquisition is situated in the bustling Plaza de Bolívar, easily accessible from any part of the Old City. Its central location makes it a convenient stop for visitors exploring the historic district.
The building itself is an architectural marvel, with its baroque architecture, beautiful façade and well-preserved interior courtyards reflecting the Spanish colonial style. It was once the seat of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Cartagena, established to judge and condemn heresy and other religious offenses. One of the more chilling exhibits includes the instruments of torture used during the Inquisition, providing a stark glimpse into this dark period of history.
The museum also showcases a variety of historical artifacts, colonial art, and documents that paint a vivid picture of life in Cartagena during the colonial era.
10. Explore La Popa Monastery
Exploring La Popa Monastery is a mesmerizing journey to one of Cartagena’s most iconic landmarks, perched atop the highest hill in the city it provides stunning views of the city and houses religious art and artifacts. La Popa Monastery, officially known as the Convento de la Candelaria, offers not only a spiritual retreat but also some of the most breathtaking views of Cartagena.
La Popa Monastery is located on La Popa Hill, the highest point in Cartagena. It is easily accessible by taxi or a guided tour, which is recommended due to the steepness and seclusion of the road leading to the monastery. The journey to the top offers glimpses of the city from different perspectives.
Originally built in the 17th century, the monastery is steeped in history and has served various purposes throughout the centuries, including a fortress and a religious center. Inside, visitors can see a rich collection of religious art and artifacts, including the famous statue of the Virgin of the Candelaria, the patroness of Cartagena.
Perhaps the most stunning feature of La Popa Monastery is the panoramic view it offers of Cartagena, the Caribbean Sea, and the surrounding areas, making it a fantastic spot for photography.
11. Go Dancing
Learn about local dances like salsa and champeta. The people of Cartagena love to dance and the best way to immerse in the culture is to go out and dance with the locals.
If you aren’t confident about your dance skills, don’t worry! Brush up on your salsa skills at Crazy Salsa. Their professional dancers will help you master your moves in no time and introduce you to this popular Latin American dance. Cafe Havana is another place that has salsa experiences where you can watch people dance or join in.
There are tours that cater to dancing your way around the old town and its local bars. This is a great tour that includes eating at local street food spots, a mixology class, and a night of dancing.
12. Visit the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Zenú)
Visiting the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Zenú) in Cartagena offers a deep dive into Colombia’s pre-Columbian heritage. It displays a collection of gold and pottery from the Zenú culture. This museum is located in the heart of Cartagena’s historic downtown and showcases the cultural history and craftsmanship of the Zenú indigenous people.
The Gold Museum is conveniently located in the Plaza de Bolivar, in the historic center of Cartagena. This central location makes it easily accessible on foot from many other tourist attractions, hotels, and restaurants in the Old City. Plus, the Gold Museum offers free entry, making it an accessible attraction for all visitors.
The Gold Museum presents a unique opportunity to understand the ancient civilizations that once thrived in this region.
13. Relax in the Plaza de San Diego
Relaxing in the Plaza de San Diego is a quintessential Cartagena experience offering a vibrant slice of local life. This picturesque square is nestled in the heart of Cartagena’s historic district. It is a perfect spot to unwind and people-watch.
The plaza is surrounded by a variety of cafés and restaurants, offering a chance to taste local Colombian cuisine as well as international dishes. The square often comes alive with street performers, musicians, and artists, adding a lively cultural vibe to the atmosphere.
Plaza de San Diego is located within the walled city, making it easily accessible on foot from many of the city’s top attractions. Its central location in the San Diego neighborhood places it close to various hotels, restaurants, and shops.
14. Set Sail on a Sunset Cruise
Enjoy the coastal beauty of Cartagena from the water. One of the best things to do in any tropical destination is to go sailing. This romantic sunset cruise leaves from the Muelle de la Bodeguita pier in front of the walled city. Book it here.
You’ll set sail through the Bay of Cartagena de Indias as you listen to music and take in the skyline of spectacular Cartagena. You’ll see the Manga and Bocagrande neighborhood, Castillo Grande, and Manzanillo Island, and then you’ll continue along to the El Laguito neighborhood and Tierrabomba Island.
15. Stroll Along the City Walls at Sunset
If you aren’t up for hitting the water, take a stroll along the city walls for a view of the historic centre from above. These walls offer a romantic and picturesque view of the city. Make your way to Cafe del Mar for sunset cocktails.
The walls were built to protect from pirates as Cartagena de Indias was a strategic location and port for export to Spain.
16. Coffee tasting at San Alberto
Do a coffee tasting at Cafe San Alberto, led by 3rd generation coffee grower Gustavo Villota. In the class, you will learn about coffee plants and how to process coffee. You’ll experience a sensory exercise as you enjoy freshly brewed coffee.
This is one of the most awarded and well-known specialty coffees grown in Buenavista, Columbia. When you taste this, it just might be the best coffee you’ve ever tasted. After your class, visit the cafe below the classroom to shop for quality beans to bring home.
Libertario Coffee Roasters is another cafe where you can enjoy delicious Colombian coffee. You really can’t go wrong with any cafe. Colombia has great coffee.
17. Rum and Chocolate Tasting at Sofitel Legend
Tempt your senses with a rum and chocolate tasting at the Sofitel Legend. There you will experience some of the finest aged rum in the Caribbean perfectly paired with an array of delicious Colombian chocolate, all curated by the somellier.
While there, take in views of this historic hotel, which was formerly a convent.
18. Visit the National Aviary
If you love birds, then visit the National Aviary of Colombia Tour. It houses 135 species of wild birds and lets visitors learn about the different species through 21 interactive stations. Expect to see flamingos, parrots, emus, Harpy Eagles, and many more.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
Historical residences and restored convents now house some of the luxurious boutique hotels in Cartagena.
Sleeping in quarters built in Spanish colonial times, you will find that most of the rooms are centered around open-air courtyards but have been updated to house modern amenities. Here are a few of our favorite places to stay.
Casa San Augustin – The Casa San Augustin is a boutique hotel that exudes luxury from its colonial-era white-washed buildings to its prime location in the heart of Cartagena.
It’s 17th-century grandeur at its finest. The 20 rooms and 11 gorgeous suites are located in three houses to give it the feel of home.
The architectural details are second to none, from the wood beam ceilings to the spiral staircases in some of the two-story suites. Suites are furnished with all the creature comforts, robes, and Ortigia Italian amenities.
The hotel also includes a relaxing spa and a 300-year-old aqueduct in the center of the hotel with a picturesque L-shaped pool. Fine dining is available in the Alma restaurant, which also serves as the breakfast room in the morning.
Casa Cochera del Gobernador – Staying at the Casa Cochera del Gobernador for two nights and we could have easily stayed more.
Located in the historic Cartagena de Indias by the Santa Catalina Cathedral and is housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings, dating back to the 16th Century.
The rooms are beautifully appointed with luxurious bedding and a light and airy feel, giving you the perfect backdrop for an evening of rest. A delicious breakfast is served by friendly staff on the second floor, and the fresh, local fruit on the buffet is mouthwatering.
Enjoy Local Cuisine
Try traditional dishes like arepas, ceviche, and fresh seafood.
The city’s culinary scene is thriving in Cartagena. Locally sourced foods are abundant here.
From the bounty of the sea to the fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies, many of the local restaurants use this rich resource to create traditional dishes with an island flair. Here, you will find traditional dishes like ceviche, or Arroz con coco or Pargo Frito.
Whether you are dining at a five-star restaurant or grabbing a quick bite from a street vendor, you won’t be disappointed. In Cartagena, there is no shortage of amazing restaurants and cafes to experience.
Concina de Pepina – Depending on your tastes, you can try the ceviche or Mote de Queso at Cocina de Pepina, for traditional Colombian fare and one of the most famous restaurants on the north coast.
Just be sure to get there early, as they don’t take reservations.
Carmen Restaurant – One of my favorite lunch spots is Carmen Restaurant.
I loved the picture-perfect modern décor and the lush tree-filled patio. Food is art at this family-run restaurant, serving up local flavors with a modern twist. Try the artfully presented salads and ceviche dishes, and mains with fresh fish.
Marea by Rausch – Another waterfront option is the Upscale Marea by Rausch Restaurant. There, you can enjoy delicious watermelon salads, Ceviche, and fresh seafood dishes.
Carne lovers can enjoy well-prepared beef filets served with wine jus. Expect to enjoy Michelin-star service and food without the hefty price tag brought to you by the famous Rausch brothers.
- Book ahead for a table on the sought-after waterfront terrace, where you not only get an amazing river view you can enjoy the cupolas of San Pedro Church.
Cartagena de Indias is the jewel in Columbia’s crown. This seaside city is rich with maritime history and bustling with adventure, charm, and a past filled with pirates.
Founded in 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, the city grew prosperous quickly, and with the newfound riches came the threat of attacks from marauding sea pirates.
After multiple attacks, Cartagena began to protect itself by constructing walled compounds and castles. Many of these exist today and await being explored.
- Cartagena is located in Colombia, South America. The main language is Spanish.
- The currency is the Colombian Peso: 1 USD = 3019 Colombian Pesos. See Currency Converter for up-to-date rates.
- Copa Airlines offers daily flights to Cartagena through Panama City (airline hub).
- Flying with Copa Airlines allows you a ‘24-hour layover in Panama’ at no extra cost.
- It’s a great opportunity to visit Casa Viejo and the Panama Canal.
When to visit Cartagena
The weather remains constant in Cartagena. It is hot year-round. The only things that change are humidity and precipitation.
December to March is the best time to visit Cartagena: The weather is warm during the day and breezy at night, and the humidity is low. But it is the high season so there are more tourists. If you like nightlife, the bars will be hopping at this time of year.
There is another secondary high season the week before Easter. It is crowded during this time, and prices are more expensive. June through September is the wet season and the hottest months. Temperatures range throughout the year from 24 – 32 degrees Celcius. (75-91 Fahrenheit)
And now that you know more about all the things to do in Cartegena, I will leave you with a story.
One of the most famous writers from Colombia was Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
While working as a journalist for El Universal, the local newspaper, he learned about the discovery of a corpse of a young girl with copper hair as they were renovating the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Hotel, a former convent and hospital. The crypt where she was found can still be accessed through a glass gate at Santa Clara’s El Coro Bar.
This experience inspired his bestseller, Of Love and Other Demons.
Photo courtesy: Joe Ross from Lansing, Michigan via Wikimedia Commons
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