Cartagena is a colourful port city, located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea in the north of Colombia. It is one of the cities most visited by tourists in the country, and during school vacation in Colombia, it’s one of the busiest places in the country. Like most large South American cities, it has its chaotic, traffic-ridden parts, and here in Cartagena you can go to the historical centre for culture-galore, or escape to the beach for the sea breeze and sunsets. There are so many great things to do in the city, such as visiting the incredible Ciudad Amurallada and the Palacio de la Inquisicion.
The most visited part of Cartagena is ‘The Ciudad Amurallada’ or 'old city', which a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you can discover old forts from colonial times, and wander cobbled streets lined with colourful houses, their balconies spilling out gorgeous flowers. Be sure to spend some time at Bocagrande beach, and enjoy the city’s tropical climate. Below is our Cartagena travel guide with information on all the best things to do, places to go and what not to miss.
CIUDAD AMURALLADA – The main attraction of Cartagena is this historic old part of the town. Within this area, you can find some of the first forts built in colonial times. This is one of the best places to visit if you are interested in the history of the city and the Spanish Empire.
PALACIO DE LA INQUISICION – This is one of the most famous and nicest buildings to visit in the city. Now a museum, it once was home to the brutal inquisition and their horrible torturous ways. Inside you can find many of the torture devices of the time period. These were used to make people repent of their demons and sins. Here is also where the main crimes of the people were judged, mainly witchcraft and magic. If found guilty they would be put to death before the public.
CASTILLO DE SAN FELIPE DE BARAJAS –This is one of the greatest fortresses built in Spanish Colonial history. This stronghold dominates the city with its overwhelming presence. It was first built in 1612 and later extended. Below the castle there is an abundance of tunnels which were used to escape from one part of the tunnel to another. These tunnels are now open for tours and offer a great historical insight into the time period.
TOURS – There are many companies that offer tours to some of the attractions around the city; one of which is Isla del Rosario – a set of small islands where you can see an aquarium as well as a beach called Playa Blanca.
There are other tours that go to some small fishing villages nearby to get a feel for the culture and offer a more laid back experience.
*** WHAT NOT TO MISS ***
The Old City of Cartagena is one of the best places to visit during your stay. Here you can see colonial history, and is one of the best attractions that the city has to offer.
In Cartagena, there is an abundance of places that offer some of the great cultural foods. You can find a mix between the old and new cultures of the area, including some African style dishes, as well as fresh juices for very good prices. Many restaurants and cafés are located in the Old Town.
If you’re on a budget, check out La Mulata (Calle Quero 9 58). It offers a simple menu, with typical, tasty Colombian dishes. Try the seafood, and cool down from the city’s heat with a limonada de coco, creamy and ice-cold. Make sure you get here before the peak hours, otherwise you’ll be in for a long wait… this place packs out quickly!
For a more bohemian atmosphere, go to Caffe Lunatico (Calle Espiritu Santo 29-184), located in the hip Getsemani district. Open 9am to 11pm, Monday through to Saturday, the chefs here previously worked in Barcelona, before opening up this place and bringing a chilled Catalonian vibe to Cartagena. The décor is minimal, but the food speaks for the whole restaurant. Get here early for dinner, and stay late for cocktails and conversation.
Hungry? Got laundry? Look no further than Beer & Laundry (Calle 31 # 10-101), where you can get your dirty washing smelling fresh again, and enjoy pizza with a few pints whilst your waiting. This is a great concept, and worth stopping by to meet other travelers, and chat to the staff, who will be more than happy to give you travel tips.
The Old City, as well as Bocagrande, offer some of the best places to enjoy the night-time partying. Some other great bars and pubs can be found near Centro de Convenciones.
One bar to visit is Café Havana (Calle Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero). Here you can enjoy a live band, and classic Cuban music and drinks. This place is shabby and quaint, with a great atmosphere, although it can get too full too dance properly – it’s one of the most visited venues in Cartagena. Note that there’s an entrance fee.
The perfect place to see the city by night is Mirador Café Bar (Carrera 7 N 32 - 77). Appreciate the amazing rooftop view, relax with a few drinks, and enjoy the Latin music played out by the DJ. The party picks up later on, when people start letting their hair down and dancing.
If you’re into salsa, don’t leave Cartagena without visiting Donde Fidel Salsa Club (De los Coches Square and Aduana Square). Here you’ll find cold, cheap, Colombian beer, a laid-back atmosphere, and have an authentic experience of how the locals like to party.
The climate in Cartagena is hot and windy, with the average temperature being around 28 degrees Celsius. The rainy time of year is from May to December, and the dry season is from January to April.
Cartagena has an international airport with flights from Panama City (1 hour and 5 minutes), as well as other major international cities such as Miami (2 hours and 40 minutes) and Atlanta (4 hours).
Cartagena also offers buses to nearly all of the major cities in Colombia. The Andes Mountains are further away, with the closest city being Medellin which is a 12-hour journey by bus.
There is also the option of taking a boat. Boats run from Colombia to Panama frequently and prices do vary based on the boat and the services that are provided and offered. One option is to sail via San Blas, and spend a few days or more exploring the islands.
Bocagrande offers some of the more upscale places to stay with a great view and access to the sea. Getsemani, on Calle de la Media Luna in Cartagena, is where you can find most of your lower budget hostels.
Hostal Mamallena (Calle Media Luna) is a colourful, social place with lovely staff. It’s located just 10 minutes by foot from the historic centre, and 2 minutes from bars and nightlife. Another great option is One Day Hostel (Calle 26 No. 10B-67), in the hip Getsemani neighbourhood. Breakfast is included, the beds are comfy, and everything is kept nice and clean.
A popular place to stay is El Viajero (Calle 7 Infantes 9-45). The reception staff will help you out with any of your queries, and there are daily activities organised, making it easy to meet fellow backpackers. The bathrooms are kept clean, and the rooms are pretty standard, with dorms and private lodgings available.
Be careful when wandering the city at night-time, and with where you go. There are lots of great places to see and stuff to do, but always keep an eye out and be safe.