Written by Adam McConnaughhay for MonaCorona.com.
Cartagena is by far Colombia’s best international travel destination. It sports a neat and fun vibe with nice beaches and historic charm. Learn all about visiting Cartagena in style and get ideas for your Cartagena itinerary, including some of the highlights to see, some restaurants to try, some advice on nice places to stay, and some practical tips for fully enjoying a visit.
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Cartagena Itinerary – Best Things to Do in Cartagena
There is a variety of neat things to see in Cartagena. Here are a few of the city’s highlights.
Exploring the Historic Districts – Cartagena Walled City & Getsemani
Once on the ground in Cartagena, it’s not hard to figure out that this was an important jewel in Spain’s New World colonial crown. As you wander through the narrow streets, you’ll marvel at the Colonial Era mansions with their huge wooden doors and flower-draped balconies.
The two main historic districts are the Centro Histórico, literally the Historic Center, also known as the Walled City or Old Town, and Getsemaní, located adjacent to the Walled City. Cartagena walls are among only a handful of mostly intact examples of Colonial Era city walls still standing today.
Inside the Walled City, some highlights to see include the San Pedro Claver Church, the Palacio de la Inquisición Museum, the Museo Naval del Caribe, the Plaza San Diego, and the Parque Fernandez de Madrid. Be sure to also take in the views out to the Caribbean along the wall itself.
Getsemaní, located across the way from the Clocktower that marks the entrance to the Walled City, was the colonial home of the city’s artisanal class, many of them freed slaves. It is considered the melting pot that created Cartagena’s unique blend of African, Spanish, and Indigenous cultures. Today, it is home to a mixture of long-time residents and some of the city’s top up-and-coming cafes, restaurants, and hotels. Particularly neat is the street art, and it’s a great place for taking photos.
You’ll also want to head back here at night as it’s where you’ll find some of the liveliest Cartagena Colombia nightlife as it is home to the best Cartagena bars and nightclubs.
Explore the Castillo San Felipe
Located just outside the Walled City, the Castillo San Felipe fortress is a must-see during any visit to Cartagena. Meant to serve as the last line of defense of the city from a land attack if an attacking force got past the city’s coastal defenses, it is actually the largest fort built by the Spanish on the South American mainland.
It is also a unique example of Colonial Era fortress architecture. Most were built as perpendicular squares or rectangles, but since this fort was originally built atop a hill, when it was expanded, the entire hill was basically encased in stone, giving it a non-perpendicular shape.
It was the site of a famous battle where Cartagena’s outnumbered defenders made a last stand and defeated a British Invasion force led by Edward Vernon in 1741. Today, you can get some great views of the Walled City and bay from atop the fort and walk through its eerie tunnels.
Hitting the Cartagena Colombia Beaches
One of the interesting facts about Colombia is its access to two coast lines. While the beaches in Cartagena proper aren’t nearly as nice as those out in the Rosario Islands and Barú discussed below, they are convenient to visit. The most popular Cartagena beaches in town are in Bocagrande, and this is where you’ll find lots of the modern high rise hotels and apartment buildings. The best area of the beach is around the restaurant known as Kiosco Bony and often called Hollywood Beach. It can get crowded and there can be lots of vendors, so come prepared for that.
Farther down at the end of the Bocagrande Peninsula, you’ll find the beaches of Castillogrande, which often are less crowded than the main beaches in Bocagrande. Just past the airport on the outskirts of town, you’ll find the Cartagena beach, La Boquilla, or Playa Azúl. This area attracts a mostly local crowd and has a nice, wide stretch of beach that does not get as crowded as the beaches in Bocagrande.
Taking Day Trips from Cartagena to the Islands
The Cartagena beaches on the mainland are nice enough, but to get the picturesque white sand beaches with crystal clear Caribbean water, you’ll have to head out of town to the nearby islands from the Cartagena Colombia Port.
You’ll find the small chain of the Rosario Islands as well as the larger Island of Barú roughly 45 minutes away by boat. To explore Baru or Rosario Islands from Cartagena, the most stylish way to do it is with a private boat rental, where you can plan a day island hopping while stopping for snorkeling, visiting hidden beach spots, having a dance party at the popular Cholón Island, or some combination of all of the above.
If you don’t do the private boat, there are a number of nice day tours, like sailing on a catamaran or planning a day pass at the fun Bora Bora Beach Club or another resort / Cartagena beach club in the islands. There are lots of nice Rosario Islands hotels to spend a night or three as well.
Sample Some Great Food
No vacation is complete without treating yourself to some great food. On the Caribbean coast, it’s no surprise that seafood shines in Cartagena. You have to try the traditional fried fish plate which comes with a whole fish fried to a golden brown crisp, along with local favorite sides of coconut rice and patacones, crunchy, fried plantain patties. It is the perfect dish for lunch at the beach.
Other good local dishes worth trying include the cazuela de mariscos seafood stew, any seafood rice, and the shrimp in garlic sauce known as camarones al ajillo. Also, you have to try some of the street foods, like the arepa de huevo a corn arepa filled with a fried egg and meat that is a local favorite.
Best Cartagena Restaurants to Try
If, you’re wondering where to try all that great food, you have no shortage of great Cartagena Colombia restaurants. Recent years have seen more and more great restaurants open up in the city and it is increasingly on the map as a foodie destination.
Some highlights include the Restaurante Fuerte del Pastelillo, located in a gorgeous location atop a small Colonial Era fort overlooking the bay and with some of the freshest seafood in town.
Alma, located inside the Casa San Agustín, also has a lovely decor and terrific food.
Carmen Cartagena serves creative dishes using traditional Cartagena and Colombian ingredients.
Finally, Candé serves great traditionally inspired food in a pretty old mansion that often features live music and dance performances.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
You’ll find some modern high-rises that are terrific such as the Hotel Estelar, Hyatt Regency, and Hilton Cartagena in the beachfront and posh Bocagrande district. However, for most travelers to Cartagena, especially first-time travelers, it can be an absolute treat to stay inside the Walled City itself.
Here, you’ll find mostly smaller, boutique-style hotels, many located in charming Colonial era mansions with neat courtyards and rooftop pools. Staying here also offers easy walking access to many of the best things to see, Cartagena Colombia best restaurants and cafes, and places to go out dancing. Some particularly good choices are:
- Casa San Agustín – Cartagena’s finest hotel, located in a group of former Colonial era mansions.
- Sofitel Legend Santa Clara – Located in a former convent and one of Cartagena’s loveliest hotels.
- Hotel Movich Cartagena – One of the few more modern high-rises in the historic city, Movich has an amazing rooftop bar that is worth a visit to enjoy the view with drinks whether you stay here or not.
- Casona del Colegio – In a recently renovated building, it has a lovely decor paying homage to Cartagena and Colombia’s history, culture, and geography. Suites here feature their own mini pools on the balconies.
- Hotel Capellán Getsemaní – In Getsemaní, this is one of Cartagena’s newest luxury hotels and has a lovely rooftop pool, nice restaurant, and a great location that offers easy access to Getsemaní and the Walled City.
Some Practical Tips on Visiting Cartagena
Best Time to Visit Cartagena
The weather is warm year-round in Cartagena, although it can be rainy in October and occasionally into November and early December. A popular getaway for Colombians too, the traditional travel seasons around Easter and Christmas can get very crowded. The period from mid-January to Easter can be a great time to visit as it is often nice and breezy but sunny.
Is Cartagena Safe?
Cartagena is quite safe, although it does suffer from some crime such as pickpockets targeting tourists. It is therefore best to leave your best jewelry at home and avoid carrying large amounts of cash. Common sense safety tips should help you avoid any problems.
Vendors can also be a bit of a nuisance, although it’s worth keeping in mind the city suffers from chronic unemployment. You’ll want to practice your best “no gracias” before travel, be aware that if you do want to buy anything, prices are negotiable, and also keep in mind there is no such thing as a free sample. Vendors can be especially pesky on the beaches in town and at outdoor tables in the Walled City, so if you would rather not deal with them, it’s best to avoid these areas.
How to Get Around Cartagena:
Getting around is quite easy. If you do choose to stay in the Walled City or Getsemaní, you can walk to many places, although later at night a taxi may be the best choice. Taxis are plentiful, easy, and safe to flag down. You will want to agree to a price before getting in, and generally you should not be paying more than $8,000-15,000 pesos (approximately $2-5 USD) for anywhere in the main tourist sectors.
Now you have all you need to know to visit Cartagena, Colombia yourself. It makes for a great Caribbean vacation that offers sun and sand but also lots of fun, history, and culture. The year round warm weather makes it an especially good escape from winter weather elsewhere. It is also a great gateway to visit more of Colombia.