Cartagena is far and away Colombia’s premier international travel destination, and with good reason. Who doesn’t love a place with colonial charm, a fascinating history, and a vibrant culture? And that’s not to mention the year round beach weather!
Here you can learn about some of the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia and how to plan an amazing trip there!
Table of Contents
Tour the Historic Colonial Districts
At the top of any list of what to do in Cartagena has to be roaming the historic colonial districts of the Centro Histórico aka Historic Center aka Walled City and neighboring Getsemaní, the colonial home of the city’s artisan class and usually considered the cradle of Cartagena’s culture.
Cartagena is one of only a handful of places with most of its colonial era wall still standing. That wall was put there to protect against attacks by pirates and Spain’s European competitors. The wall was actually built after the city was sacked by Francis Drake.
Inside that wall, you’ll find some hustling and bustling streets as the area remains the downtown commercial heart of the city. However, a block or two over, you’ll find quiet streets with flower covered balconies from the mansions of the colonial merchants and royal officials of yesteryear, many of which house some Cartagena’s best boutique hotels and restaurants today. There are also a number of lovely plazas.
Interesting stops include the Museo Naval del Caribe, where you can learn more about the city’s history, fortifications, and the various attacks on it as well as the modern Colombian Navy. For more history, head to the Palacio de la Inquisición, once the site of the Spanish Inquisition’s offices in Colombia and home to a museum on the city’s history and the Inquisition today. Finally, the Gold Museum, or Museo del Oro, although much smaller than its counterpart in Bogotá, has some lovely examples of precolonial era gold work.
You will of course want to take some time to enjoy the views of the city on one side and the Caribbean on the other from atop the wall itself. A stop for sunset drinks at the Café Del Mar, atop the oldest section of the wall is all but one of the obligatory things to see in Cartagena. Another great view and sunset spot is the rooftop bar at the Hotel Movich.
Head outside the wall to Getsemaní to enjoy more charming colonial architecture as well as see the best street art in the city. Lots of trendy cafes, bars, and restaurants have also opened up in this area, making it one of the hippest neighborhoods in all of Colombia. You’ll also find some of the best nightlife in the city here along the Calle del Arsenal and the Calle Media Luna. The Plaza de la Trinidad is also a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
Beach it in the Rosario Islands
No trip to Cartagena is complete without a visit to the Rosario Islands. There are decent beaches in the city itself and other popular beaches like Playa Blanca nearby. However, they suffer from overcrowding and lots of pushy vendors.
So, most travelers will find the idyllic coral islands of the Rosario Islands the best beach experience in Cartagena. The islands are a little over an hour boat ride away but the crystal clear waters make the trip more than worth it.
There are a variety of boat tours as well as resorts and eco lodges that offer day passes and overnight stays in the islands. However, the best way to do the islands is with a private boat rental that allows you to make stops to snorkel, visit some of the smaller beaches, or spend some time having a dancing party at Cholón Island (or, even better, all three!).
The private boat can be on the pricey side if you are traveling solo or in a small group. In that case, consider the catamaran boat tour or one of the shared multi-island boat tours. For day passes or spending the night, check out Las Islas or Isla del Encanto for luxury experiences, IslaBela for good value, or Bora Bora Beach Club for a lively, party atmosphere.
Visit the Castillo San Felipe
In addition to the walls, Cartagena had an elaborate network of fortifications meant to protect it. The largest and most famous is the Castillo San Felipe, located just a short taxi ride from the Walled City.
This is actually the biggest fort built by the Spanish on the South American mainland and has a unique architecture. Most forts built in this era were perpendicular squares or rectangles. However, because the fort was built atop a hill and its expansion was done by basically covering the hill with stone, it has non perpendicular design.
You can get some amazing views from the top of the fort and a great photo op with the giant Colombian flag. Be sure to walk through the eery tunnels connecting the different sections of the fort as well.
Sample Some Delicious Food
It shouldn’t be a surprise you can try some great seafood in Cartagena! One of the unmissable things to do in Cartagena is without a doubt trying the traditional fried fish plate. You will get an entire fish served up fried to a crispy, golden brown, along with coconut rice and patacones, mashed and fried plantain patties. This meal pairs perfectly with a sunny day at the beach and an ice cold beer or coconut limeade, a local favorite.
Cartagena has been increasingly put on the foodie destination map with a proliferation of terrific restaurants opening up in recent years. Some favorites include Alma, Marea by Rausch, Restaurante Fuerte del Pastelillo, Candé, La Cevichería, and Buena Vida Marisquería.
For cheap eats, you have to try an arepa de huevo, a unique to the Caribbean take on the traditional Latino favorite. Almost more akin to an empanada, it is a round, corn meal fritter filled with an egg and usually ground beef. You can find them at street stalls around town or head to Donde Magola for some unique takes with different fillings. It makes an especially good breakfast on the go or afternoon or late night snack.
Strap On Your Dancing Shoes for a Night Out on the Town
Some Final Tips on Visiting Cartagena