Cartagena is an exceptional destination where you can transport in time by wandering its well-preserved historic centre. You’ll find yourself in the city’s colonial heart, walking around a place that still preserves in its streets plenty of stories that have marked Colombia’s past.
Historic Centre & Getsemaní
In the historic centre you can visit the Museum of Gold. Here you’ll find a great collection of precious pieces, shells, gold and ceramic objects from the Zenú indigenous community. The culture of Zenú was one of the most prominent that was developed in this part of the country in the pre-Columbian times, from 200 BC until 1600 AD.
Additionally, it’s worth visiting the impressive Palace of Inquisition, a place of great importance during the Spanish colonisation. This is one of the city’s finest buildings, as it preserves its colonial architecture with its baroque style entrance and its long wooden balconies in the façade. Today it houses the Historical Museum of Cartagena de Indias.
As you enter the old town of Cartagena from the east, you’ll come across the famous monument of India Catalina, a tribute to an indigenous woman who served as interpreter for the Spanish in the time of conquest. Continue your tour by visiting some of the oldest religious temples of the city, including Cartagena’s Cathedral Santa Catalina de Alejandría, the San Pedro Claver Church & Convent and the Church of Santo Domingo. Take some time to rest in some of the best plazas in the city. The Plaza of Santo Domingo in the historic centre or Getsemaní’s Plaza de Santísima Trinidad are always filled with energy, music and life. The bohemian neighbourhood of Getsemaní is characterised by its vibrant streets, colourful buildings, creative street art and an exciting nightlife scene.
Food & Drink
The food scene in Cartagena reflects indigenous, African and European influences. Make a stop in one of the traditional restaurants in the historic centre or in Getsemaní to try the delicious Caribbean cuisine. Fish and seafood are prevalent in this region due to its proximity to the sea. Taste some of the most typical dishes, such as the sancocho de pescado (fish soup), coctel de camarón (prawn cocktail), arroz con chipi chipi (a type of local shellfish) and mote de queso (yam soup with cheese and coconut). Also, in various spots throughout the city you’ll find several exotic fruit sellers – among those the palenqueras – and street food like empanadas, arepas de huevo (corn dough with an egg inside), papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes), carimañolas (cassava pastries stuffed with meat and cheese) and cocadas (coconut based sweets).
By the end of the day, get immersed in the magical sunset from the walls surrounding the old town and view the sun vanishing into the Caribbean waters. Try to get here as early as possible to find a good spot. You can also enjoy the sunset from one of the wall corners where the famous Café del Mar is located – make sure you ask for a tropical cocktail! Sooner or later you’ll realise that the music and dance are always present in the life of the costeños – as the people from the coast are called. One of the most iconic bars in Cartagena is the Café Havana where you can enjoy your drink dancing in the rhythms of salsa, cumbia or champeta.
Castle of San Felipe de Barajas
One of the most iconic attractions in Cartagena is the Castle of San Felipe de Barajas, built in 1657 on the hill of San Lázaro. Once you’re in, explore the ramparts and underground passages, learn about its long history and enjoy the stunning view over Cartagena from the viewpoints. The castle is just a 10-minute drive from the historic centre and is open daily from 08:00 to 19:00 (except the last Sunday of each month that is open until 17:00). We recommend you take a taxi to the castle and avoid going on foot, as the surrounding area is not the safest. Also, try to get here early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the strong sun and midday heat.
To experience the modern side of Cartagena you can visit the district of Bocagrande, located about three kilometres away from the city centre. In Bocagrande you’ll find contemporary tall buildings, luxury hotel brands, casinos, shopping malls, high-end restaurants as well as a long coastline with sandy beaches. There’s a big architectural difference between Cartagena’s historic centre and Bocagrande that doesn’t go unnoticed – perfect for an alternative plan to the classic stroll in the walled city.
If you feel like escaping from the city and the heat and want to relax on a Caribbean beach, go on a day trip to one of the beautiful islands just off the coast of Cartagena. You can take a boat from the pier (Muelle de la Bodeguita) and in less than two hours you’ll find yourself in front of an exotic beach enjoying a coconut cocktail. The most popular are the Islas del Rosario and the Isla Barú.
The archipelago of Rosario consists of 27 small islands and is located southwest from Cartagena. The biggest of the islands and one of the most popular is Isla Grande, where you can not only enjoy the fantastic beaches but also explore the amazing natural environment. If you’re looking for something more exclusive and tranquil, the Isla del Pirata is one of the smallest of the archipelago and is ideal for enjoying the nature without distractions.
The Isla Barú, which you can reach by land, is well-organised with restaurants, bars and accommodation places to spend the night. Its most famous beach is Playa Blanca with white sand, palm trees and blue waters. To extend your holiday and spend a night in the island is a great idea, as you’ll be able to appreciate the beach without the noise of the crowds, who normally go back to Cartagena by 5pm. When the night comes you’ll have the chance to swim or go in a kayak among bioluminescent plankton that glow in the dark.
As of the menu in the islands, the typical dish is fried fish that comes with coconut rice and patacones (fried pieces of plantain). Give it a try, it’s delicious!
In these islands are found the best beaches of the area around Cartagena. Like in many Caribbean islands, be prepared to come across not only idyllic beaches with crystalline waters, coral reefs and palm trees but also forests of mangroves and lush vegetation.
After all, there are not enough words to describe the beauty of Cartagena. You just need to witness it with your own eyes!