Cartagena is Colombia’s most popular destination with good reason. In addition to its pretty colonial architecture and vibrant culture, there are great beaches and islands nearby, historic sites and museums to explore, and great gastronomy. Here you can learn all about the 7 best things to do in Cartagena Colombia.
Top Things to do in Cartagena Colombia
1. Explore the Walled City.
Undoubtedly, the best thing to do in Cartagena is to wander the charming historic streets of the city’s historic districts. Inside the area known as the Historic Center (Centro Histórico) or Walled City, you’ll find many of Cartagena’s best boutique hotels and a wealth of restaurants amongst the flower-covered balconies and former colonial mansions.
In particular, you’ll want to walk through the Plaza of San Diego, where you’ll find great restaurants, the Simón Bolívar Park, where you’ll find a statue to Colombia’s founding father and be able to take in views nearby colorful cathedral, the Plaza San Pedro, outside the Church of San Pedro Claver, the neatest church in Cartagena, and the Plaza de Los Coches, located inside the entrance to the wall where the city’s iconic clocktower stands.
Be sure to try some of the traditional homemade sweets sold from the Portal de los Dulces under the archways across from the clocktower.
The coconut patties known as cocadas are a must-try. Come back here in the evening to have a beer at the famous Donde Fidel. You can choose to enjoy the people-watching and relaxed atmosphere of the outside tables or show off your best salsa moves in the crowded inside.
Be sure to take some time to wander along the wall itself as well. Cartagena is one of the few colonial cities in the Americas that still has much of its colonial-era wall intact, and you can walk on top of most of it today.
You can get some great views from atop the wall, especially on the sections that run along the Caribbean Sea. The area is known as Las Bovedas where once upon a time the barracks for the soldiers that manned these walls house tourist shops today that are great places to look for souvenirs.
2. Hang Out in Getsemaní
You will want to venture outside the wall as well to the equally impressive historic district of Getsemaní, located opposite the gates of the clock tower. During the colonial era, Getsemaní was home to the city’s artisan and craftsman working class and is often considered the birthplace of Cartagena’s culture.
Today, it’s home to many of the city’s trendiest restaurants and bars. You’ll want to get some photos with the colorful umbrellas overhanging the Callejón Angosto, the colorful pennant flags overhanging the Calle San Andres, and the flags from around the world on the Calle de la Sierpe.
Be on the lookout as you wander around Getsemaní because around every corner you will find neat pieces of street art nestled among the neat colonial architecture.
Head to the Plaza de la Trinidad in the evening to enjoy a neat atmosphere where locals and tourists mingle. You’ll find some of the best nightlife in town on the nearby Calle de la Media Luna and the Calle del Arsenal in Getsemaní as well.
3. Enjoy the Nearby Beaches
As you wander around Cartagena’s historic districts, you will certainly notice the year-round warm weather. What better way to cool off than a dip in the Caribbean?
The beaches in the town themselves are ok, but to find the best beaches of Cartagena, you will want to head out to the nearby islands, and doing so is definitely one of the best things to do in Cartagena.
About a 45-minute boat ride off the coast of Cartagena, you’ll find the Rosario Islands, a chain of small coral islands surrounded by idyllic crystal clear waters. The best way to enjoy the islands is with a private boat rental, which can be budget-friendly if you can manage to put together a group to share the cost.
If you do opt for the private boat, you can check out the party spot of Cholón, snorkel in the area known as La Piscina, or enjoy a more relaxed beach at Playa Agua Azul.
If you aren’t traveling with a group, don’t worry, there are a wealth of eco-resorts and beach clubs where you can spend the day or a night or two.
Isabela is a great choice for a relaxed beach day, and they have great cabins for overnight stays, while Bora Bora Beach Club is a great choice for those looking for a day pass with a lively, party atmosphere. A day trip on the Catamaran Bona Vida is also a nice way to enjoy a day in the islands.
Another good choice, especially for those on tighter budgets, is Playa Blanca, located on the island of Barú. Here you’ll find a beautiful stretch of beach with lots of rustic beachfront restaurants and cabins. You can also visit the nearby very well-done Colombian National Aviary.
Do note that Playa Blanca can get very crowded, so it’s best to head down the beach to the area known as Playa Tranquila to avoid the crowds. For a more exclusive experience, the resorts of Las Islas and Isla del Encanto located on secluded, private beaches of Barú are great options.
Finally, if you’re looking for beaches closer to the city, the island of Tierra Bomba just across the bay from Cartagena is also a good option. Good spots there include Palmarito Beach and Fenix Beach. Of course, there is also the option of enjoying the beaches in town if you want even more time on the beach, but if your beach time is limited it’s best to enjoy the prettier beaches out in the islands.
Regardless of where you enjoy the beach in Cartagena, you will want to keep in mind a few tips. Vendors on the beach can often be instant to the point of being pushy.
Be especially wary of oyster mongers and massage ladies offering “free samples” (they are not free). You may have to be firm in telling them “No, gracias.” Be sure to be clear on the prices of chairs and umbrellas as well as food and drinks as well and don’t be afraid to negotiate.
4. Marvel at the Caribbean Sunsets
Of course, you’ll get to enjoy gorgeous sunsets if you choose to stay a night or two at the beach. However, there are some great sunset spots in town as well, and enjoying them is another one of the top things to do in Cartagena.
The most famous sunset spot is Café del Mar, located atop the wall itself. Here you can get a direct view of the sun going down over the Caribbean while enjoying a refreshing drink.
Another terrific spot is the rooftop bar at Hotel Movich, which provides a great panoramic view of the historic city with the bay and modern buildings of the Bocagrande district behind it. It is arguably the best view in all of Cartagena.
You will want to try to arrive early at both places to make sure you get a table and a good view. Enjoying a drink while taking in the sunset from one or both is definitely one of the top things to do in Cartagena.
5. Enjoy Some Great Food
While on vacation, you have to enjoy some great food! Cartagena does not disappoint in that regard, and sampling everything from the great fresh seafood to the street food is another of the top things to do in Cartagena.
When in the Caribbean, you have to sample some great seafood. At the beach, you will want to sample the traditional fried fish plate.
You will get a whole fish fried golden brown (tip: eat one whole side, then flip it over and eat the other side to avoid the bones) along with coconut rice and patacones, fried smashed plantain patties. You can get this traditional plate at beach stalls as well as a more upscale restaurant.
Speaking of upscale restaurants, some great ones to try include Club de Pesca, located on a historic fort overlooking the bay, and Alma, arguably Cartagena’s finest restaurant, located in the walled city inside the luxurious Casa San Agustín Hotel.
For a more moderately priced dining experience, check out Buena Vida Marisquería, which serves up some unique spins on traditional seafood and also has a cool rooftop bar with great cocktails or El Candé, which serves terrifically presented local favorites. Finally, if you’re looking for some great food for budget prices, check out La Mulata and El Espritú Santo.
For even more budget-friendly eats, try some of Cartagena’s street food. Sampling an arepa de huevo is a must do in Cartagena. These are different from your traditional arepa. Made from yellow cornmeal and more closely resembling an empanada, they are fried crispy golden and have a cracked egg and ground beef inside.
They are a local favorite, can be enjoyed for everything from breakfast to a late-night snack, and can be found at street fry stands around town. Other great street foods to try include carimañolas, yuca fritters usually filled with either cheese or ground beef, and patacón con todo, a giant plantain patty smothered with meats and cheese.
6. Visit South America’s Largest Colonial Era Fort
Cartagena’s many historic mansions were built from the wealth brought by the city’s important role in colonial trade. That wealth also made it a target for Spain’s enemies, and the city was attacked numerous times, including being burned by Francis Drake.
It was Drake’s attack that prompted the building of Cartagena’s walls. The Castillo San Felipe was also built to further ward off attacks. The fort was built atop a hill and was the key to a successful defense of the city from a massive fleet headed by Edward Vernon in 1741. Considered so important to the city’s defenses, it was later expanded to encompass the entire hill.
That gives it a unique architecture that does not follow the usual rectangular, perpendicular shape of other forts built during this era. It is also the largest fort built by the Spanish on mainland South America.
This massive fort is another one of the best things to see in Cartagena. Be sure to wander through the tunnels inside the walls and take in the neat views of the walled city from atop the fort.
7. Learn More About Cartagena’s History at its Museums
For the history buffs, there are several museums worth seeing in Cartagena. The best museum to learn more about the city’s history is the Naval Museum (Museo Naval del Caribe). It has exhibits on colonial times, the independence era, and the modern Colombian Navy.
The Inquisition Palace is also neat to visit. This pretty colonial-era building located next to Bolívar Park once housed the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. Today, you’ll find exhibits on the history of the city as well as on the Inquisition, including a number of torture devices.
On the other side of the park, you can find the Gold Museum, which has some neat examples of precolonial gold work made by Colombia’s indigenous cultures. Admission to the Gold Museum is also free, making it a must include on your list of what to do in Cartagena.
Top Things to Do in Cartagena Conclusion
There are 7 wonderful things to do in Cartagena, ranging from exploring the historic city to learning more about its history to relaxing on the beach and enjoying great food. With something for everyone and so much to do, Cartagena really is an up-and-coming destination and well worth a visit.
About the Author
Adam McConnaughhay lived in Cartagena for a decade and writes about it and other destinations in Colombia at www.cartagenaexplorer.com.