Known as “the pearl of the Caribbean” and, by locals, as “the Fantastic”, Cartagena has plenty to offer visitors. Below are our top tips on what to do in this charming city. Once you arrive in the fortified city, you’re transported to another world and time. You’re going to love it.
THINGS TO DO IN CARTAGENA
Get lost in the colourful back alleys
The first item on the list of “things to do in Cartagena” is to go for a walk through the cobbled back alleys. Take some time to wander around and discover the city’s old stories, ghosts and legends. The colourful alleys are dotted with two-storey houses featuring ornate balconies with flowers in every colour spilling down towards the road.
Camellón de los Mártires marks the spot where Cartagena’s leaders were killed during the city’s battle for independence from Spanish rule. Walk along Calle Baloco with its incredible houses featuring colonial and republican balconies and Calle de Don Sancho with its fabulous views of Santa Catalina de Alejandría Cathedral.Explore the street art on Calle de la Sierpe, the Clock Tower (Cartagena’s new icon), Plaza de Los Coches or Plaza de la Aduana. The tourist office runs various free guided walking tours. Avoid walking around at lunchtime as it gets very hot in the city. If you want to take a guided city walking tour, contact us!
Walk along the fortified city walls
Built to offer protection from constant attacks by pirates and French, British and Dutch troops, the fortifications extend over 11 km around the old city. You can walk along them and enjoy the stunning views of San Felipe de Barajas Castle, the Bocagrande neighbourhood and the Bay of Cartagena.
Here too, avoid walking around at lunchtime as it gets very hot. At sunset, sip a cocktail at Café del Mar, the famous Ibiza bar on top of the city fortifications.
Have a drink in Plaza Santo Domingo
Named after the church that shares its name and sits in one of the corners, this square is packed with restaurants and bars. Have a drink in the lovely and lively Plaza Santo Domingo with its sculpture by Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist famous for his “fat females”. The local alcohol is your best bet. Colombia doesn’t produce wine: it’s imported from Chile and isn’t the best.
Don’t eat here as the restaurants aren’t recommended
Visit the Palace of the Inquisition
Cartagena was a key city for the Spanish Empire. All the boats packed with gold heading to Spain stopped off here for provisions. The Palace of the Inquisition is an amazing eighteenth-century building with architecture typical of the period.It’s a must-see Cartagena destination. Used as a place to bring “sinners” to justice, it had prison cells and torture chambers. Instruments used included racks, guillotines and witches’ scales.
Watch dancers in Plaza Bolívar
Stop off to admire this square as you move between Plaza Santo Domingo and the Palace of the Inquisition. Locals gather here to talk in the shade of the tall trees. In the evenings, professional dancers put on shows for the public in exchange for a few coins and you can watch typical Colombian dances like mapalé, cumbia, porro and puya.
San Felipe de Barajas Castle
This was the biggest fortress built by the Spanish during the colonial period. It’s strategically located so all the roads into the city can be seen from its batteries and parapets. The castle is made up of a complex maze of tunnels you can walk around. It’s huge and imposing. All the canons point towards the Bay of Cartagena to protect the city from invaders arriving by sea. Although the castle is just outside the fortified city, it’s totally worth the detour.
Enjoy the cuisine
Where should you eat in Cartagena? The city hosts lots of national and international events. The cuisine on offer is increasingly varied: Peruvian, Cuban, French, Italian, Spanish, Argentinian, etc. You’ll be spoilt for choice when choosing where to eat in Cartagena. If you want to try Colombian specialities, head for La Cocina de Pepina in Getsemani. Local legend María Josefina “Pepina” has created dishes that showcase Colombian Caribbean traditions and flavours. Prepare for an explosion of colour, flavour and recocha (local fun).
But if you want to see what the locals eat, you’ll find little restaurants in the same neighbourhood serving corrientazo with a special lunch menu for under £3. At breakfast, make sure you try arepa de huevo (corn cake stuffed with fried egg), carimañola (a type of meat pie in a cassava turnover) and exotic fruit juice like at Sierva María.
This residential neighbourhood is the city’s new trendy district. With its many restaurants and bars, the nightlife makes it a must-visit area that should be on your list of things to do in Cartagena. The alleyways are also just as charming as those you find in the fortified city and some of them are full of fabulous graffiti paying homage to the African and slave roots of Cartagena locals.This neighbourhood is worth visiting at any time of day, but make sure you come back at night when it’s livelier.
Dance the salsa and champeta or watch the dancing
How can you feel the city beat in Cartagena?
For salsa, Donde Fidel Salsa Club between the Clock Tower and Plaza de la Aduana is the place to go. Here you’ll find all types of people: students, businessmen and the Colombian jet set. All of them come here to enjoy the festival feel. Outside, you can have a drink on the wall; inside, you can watch a fantastic salsa show. Bazurto Social Club has a similar vibe, but focuses on champeta rather than salsa. Champeta is a Colombian musical style with a strong African influence.
Relax on the beach
Ok, so now you know what to do in Cartagena. But what about the beaches? Although we don’t recommend Cartagena’s own beaches, the ones on the Rosario Islands are worth a visit. This archipelago is made up of 27 islands within an hour of Cartagena. Although Playa Blanca is the most famous, it’s often packed with tourists. Instead, we suggest you go to Isla del Pirata or San Pedro de Majagua on Isla Grande. Want to visit these islands? We can help you organise your trip.
Sail on the Virgin’s Marsh
Not many tourists go to see the mangroves at the Virgin’s Marsh in the La Boquilla fishing district, but they’re definitely worth a visit if you’re in Cartagena. Climb on-board a launch and sail up and down the canal of love and joy, spotting a variety of birds as you go. Finish up by eating fresh fish of the day by the sea.
Want to go to Cartagena and visit other Colombian delights? Contact us now for more information and we can help you plan your bespoke trip.
Want more tips on what to do in Cartagena? Have other ideas about what to do in Cartagena? Feel free to use the comments section below!
Planning a trip to Colombia?
We’re English-speaking Colombians who are experts when it comes to travelling round our country. We have 100% customisable tours that take you to the real Colombia.View our trip ideas here or contact us: we’ll be pleased to discuss your plans.
Want to know who we are and why you should travel with us? Click here.