Cartagena, Colombia’s Colonial Caribbean Gem

Cartagena, Colombia’s Colonial Caribbean Gem
01 Aug 2023

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Cartagena, or to be more specific, Cartagena de Indias, is the crown gem of Colombia’s growing tourist industry. The colonial city, once a center of Spanish wealth and power, offers lovely, charming historic sights and gorgeous nearby beaches. Here you can learn all you need to know about visiting Cartagena, Colombia, including what to do, where to stay, and some helpful tips.

at islabela in rosario islands Cartagena

What to Do in Cartagena

There’s a wealth of things to do in Cartagena. First of all, you’ll want to set aside some time to just stroll the historic city center, known as the Centro Histórico or Walled City. You can wander down picturesque narrow streets while staring up at flower-covered balconies in former mansions of the colonial well-to-do. Today, they house a combination of lovely boutique hotels, shops, and some of Cartagena’s best restaurants.

Some particular sites of interest inside Cartagena’s Walled City include the San Pedro Claver Church, where Pope Francis gave a mass. Behind this historic church, you can find the Naval Museum, or Museo Naval del Caribe in Spanish. This is the most informative historic museum in Cartagena and includes some great exhibits on the colonial era fortifications and attacks on the city, including one by Francis Drake.

The city’s most famous fortification is located a short taxi ride outside the Walled City. The Castillo San Felipe is the largest fort built on mainland South America by the Spanish. The fort has a unique architecture. Most forts built in the era followed a perpendicular square or rectangular shape. However, since the Castillo San Felipe was built atop a hill, when the fort was expanded, the Spanish basically encased the hill in stone, giving it a non-perpendicular shape. There are some neat views of the Walled City and the bay from atop the fort, and exploring the dark and eery tunnels that connect different sections is neat.

Other neat museums in Cartagena are the Palacio de la Inquisición, which features exhibits on the history of Cartagena and the Spanish Inquisition, and the Gold Museum, which features some neat examples of indigenous people’s gold work.

Next door to the Walled City, you’ll find equally historic Getsemaní. This was the colonial home of the artisan class, many of them freed slaves, and it is generally considered the cradle of Cartagenero culture. Today, it is home to many neat cafes and restaurants. There is also terrific street art, especially around the narrow Callejón Angosto with its colorful overhanging umbrellas.

Of course, you’ll also want to take a walk on the wall itself. A particularly neat spot is Café del Mar, a bar and restaurant atop the oldest section of the wall. This is a great spot to enjoy the sunset. The rooftop bar at Hotel Movich is also a can’t-miss sunset spot. Other good places to enjoy a drink include long-running local favorite Donde Fidel near the city’s iconic clocktower, eclectic Al Quimico with its unique cocktail concoctions, and the rooftop bar at Townhouse Hotel.

There is plenty of terrific food in Cartagena too. Some standout places to eat include the Buena Vida Marisquería for some creative spins on traditional seafood, Candé for all-around good food inspired by traditional Cartagena dishes, and Restaurante Fuerte del Pastelillo for great seafood in a neat setting in a former colonial-era fort. For fine dining, Carmen offers a terrific multi-course meal as well as a regular menu. Alma is another standout for fine dining.

street art getsemani Cartagena

Cartagena also has a vibrant nightlife. Mr. Babilla is one of the city’s most famous clubs and is known to attract Colombian celebrities now and then. Club Havana was once visited by Hillary Clinton and is the city’s most famous salsa dancing joint. Seven Times is one of Cartagena’s newest clubs and has quickly become one its most popular. It has seven different rooms, each with its own ambiance and musical style.

One of the great things about Cartagena is the year-round beach weather. You will want to make sure you give yourself at least one day to enjoy the beach. However, don’t fall for the tourist traps at the beaches in town. They are fine, but they get crowded. Plus, you’ll find much better beaches outside the city.

The best are in the Rosario Islands, about a 45-minute boat ride away. Doing a private boat rental is a terrific way to go island hopping to different beaches and snorkeling spots. It’s also fairly affordable, especially if you can put together a group. There are also a variety of beach clubs that offer day passes if you prefer a more relaxed day. If you have the time, spending a night at one of the best hotels in the Rosario Islands is also completely worth it. You’ll get to enjoy the beach after day trippers go home, and the sunsets and sunrises out on the islands are gorgeous.

Cartagena in walled city

Where to Stay in Cartagena

Most travelers will prefer staying in the Walled City itself or the neighboring Getsemaní district, another historic neighborhood. These two areas offer easy walking access to many of the city’s best restaurants, nightlife, and things to do.

There are also many great options for all budgets. For higher-end places, the Casa San Agustín or Sofitel Santa Clara are gorgeous and set in lovely colonial-era buildings. Nice midrange options include the Hotel Capellán and Townhouse Boutique. The Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia is a great budget-friendly option.

The beachfront area of Bocagrande nearby is another popular area to stay. There are lots of restaurants and shops here and the area’s hotels offer easy access to the beaches in town. The Walled City is also just a short taxi ride away. Good options here include the Cartagena Hilton, Hyatt Regency, and Hotel Caribe.

There are many great AirBnB options in these areas as well.

Cartagena callejon angosto gesemani

Getting Around in Cartagena

The easiest way to get around Cartagena is to use taxis. They are plentiful and easy to flag down. However, it is important to always negotiate prices when entering. Some taxi drivers will attempt to overcharge. Generally, within the main tourist areas, fares should range from $8,000 to $15,000 pesos.

The ride-share application InDriver is quite common and suggests a fair price, so it can be helpful to make sure you don’t get overcharged. Uber exists in a legal gray area in Colombia and is not as common in Cartagena, although you can use it.

Cartagena sunset at cafe del mar

Other Practical Tips for Visiting Cartagena, Colombia

In addition to some unscrupulous taxi drivers, street vendors in Cartagena do have a bit of a bad reputation. They can be very pushy. If you aren’t interested in what they are selling, the best approach is to be even more insistent than they are, giving them a firm “No, gracias” with a stern finger wave. Anything you do want to buy, whether it be on the street or on the beach, you should be sure to negotiate and agree on the price.

Most restaurants and shops accept credit cards, but it’s still a good idea to have some cash for taxis, street food, and souvenirs or other things from smaller shops. ATMs generally give better exchange rates than money exchange houses so taking money out as you go is better than bringing cash to exchange. You should avoid paying for things in dollars or other foreign currencies though as you’ll overpay.

Cartagena has year-round hot and humid weather, so come prepared for that with comfortable clothes for the heat, sunscreen, and a good hat. While tap water is treated, it’s recommended to drink bottled water to avoid any potential for an upset stomach.

in walled city Cartagena

Cartagena, Colombia Travel Guide

Now you know all you need to plan a trip to Cartagena, Colombia. This Caribbean colonial gem is only set to grow in stature in the coming years, and you won’t be disappointed with its charm and beautiful islands.

Craig Silva

Craig is a passionate and seasoned travel, food, and lifestyle writer, whose words paint vivid pictures of the world's most captivating destinations. His work not only inspires others to embark on their own adventures but also fosters a deep appreciation for the beauty and diversity of our world. He captures the essence of each locale, offering readers a glimpse into the cultures, landscapes, cuisine, and experiences that make travel so enriching. Craig is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA). If you are a PR agency or brand and would like Craig to review a travel destination, vehicle, restaurant, product or service, please send him an email.

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