15 Useful Things To Know Before Visiting Cartagena

15 Useful Things To Know Before Visiting Cartagena

Cartagena is a great place to explore, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia, yet many things about it may leave you puzzled and chances are you wish you’d knew about them before going – that was certainly the case for me! Hence, I thought I’d share a list of things you should know before visiting Cartagena – from interesting facts to tips that will help you plan your trip. 

Continue reading to discover everything you need to know before traveling to Cartagena.

Cartagena

Cute corners throughout

Everything You Must Know Before Visiting Cartagena

It’s gorgeous

One thing for sure, Cartagena is as beautiful as they say. Easily one of the prettiest cities in South America, it is the kind of place where you will be glad to spend your time roaming around without looking for anything in particular, but just to uncover its prettiest corners – you will have an abundance of those.

Except for the beaches

This is probably the most surprising thing to learn when visiting Cartagena! A city that sits right on the Caribbean Sea completely lacks a good beach. The main one, Bocagrande, is an almost complete disappointment. It’s dirty – picture trash and cigarette butts and the last thing you’ll want to do is putting your feet in the sand; crowded; and there are so many vendors that instead of relaxing in the sun, you’ll spend your time thanking them and saying you really don’t want to buy ceviche, or drugs, or whatever. El Laguito is only a bit better.

Cartagena

A colorful mural dedicated to Cartagena’s favorite writer

There’s more to see than you’d expect 

There is really loads to see and do in Cartagena – in fact, much more than you’d imagine. Plan to spend three or four days there, so that you can discover all the main attractions and you have an extra one to get out of town to one of the nearby islands. 

Most places that will be of interest are concentrated in the Walled City. That’s where you will find the Puerta del Reloj (Cartagena’s clocktower); San Pedro Claver church; Santo Domingo church; Parque Bolivar, the Palace of the Inquisition; the Cathedral and the Museo del Oro Zenu (the Gold Museum). Right outside you will be able to visit San Felipe Castle and to take a walk on the city walls. 

The other part of town you should not miss is Getsemani, once riddled by petty crime, drug dealing and prostitution, then a backpacker hub and now one of the most up and coming areas of Cartagena, with lots of interesting street art, gorgeous narrow alleys and beautiful squares. 

Another thing you shouldn’t miss when visiting Cartagena is a tour that follows in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Colombia’s most famous and celebrated writer lived in Cartagena most of his life and based his most popular novel – 100 Years of Solitude – right in the city. Though his books aren’t the easiest to read (I admit to putting down the book a few times before finally managing to finish it), a tour of Garcia Marquez’ Cartagena is a must! There are several good ones you can consider, such as this one.

If you decide to spend an extra day in the city, you can even push yourself beyond the limits of the old city and visit the Convento de la Popa for impressive views; and the Mercado de Bazurto, a beautifully local market. 

For a more detailed list of things to do in Cartagena, head over to this post.

day trips from Cartagena

Looking for nice beaches? Head to Islas del Rosario

You must visit the islands

Don’t despair! If you are looking for fine, white sand and clear turquoise waters that are perfect for snorkeling, you can still find some – just a bit out of the city. Playa Blanca, in Isla Baru, and the Islas del Rosario Archipelago, will easily match your idea of Caribbean paradise. You can easily get there independently or on a guided day trip such as this one or this one.

TIP: For the perfect Caribbean respite, consider flying to San Andres, off the coast of Nicaragua. It’s Colombian territory and there are direct flights from Cartagena.

For more day trips from Cartagena, read this post.

Cartagena is crowded

Being so beautiful, Cartagena is an incredibly popular tourist destination. I found it to be crowded with tourists when I visited, a few years ago, and rumor has it that the city is now receiving even more visitors – thanks to cheap flight connections, cruise ships and social media promotion. Add to this that Colombia has finally managed to get rid of its reputation of being a dangerous country, and you get the idea: don’t expect to have the city to yourself, or you will be truly disappointed. 

traveling to Cartagena

Book your room well in advance

THIS IS SO KEY! With the city being so crowded and so hot (more about that in a bit), having a good room where you can rest is essential for a good trip. Not only that – the best rooms at reasonable prices are the first to be booked out, so as soon as you have set your dates for your trip to Cartagena, start looking for a place to stay. 

GOOD TO KNOW: Peak season in Cartagena goes from December to March, with the weeks around Christmas and those at the end of January and beginning of February, when Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias (a literary and cultural festival) takes place, being by far the busiest.

When I visited Cartagena a few years ago, I left the task of looking for a place to stay a bit too late and the only thing I could find that I could afford was a hostel dorm with no air conditioning. To say that the room was suffocating is an understatement! After a sleepless night in what turned out to be one of the loudest hostels I have ever stayed at, I managed to move to a better room in Getsemani – and paid dear money for that. 

Not sure where to start looking? Check out my post Where To Stay In Cartagena – The Best Neighborhoods And Places To Stay.

Cartagena street vendor

Getting a cold drink in Cartagena

It’s terribly hot

Cartagena heat is unprecedented – this is another important thing to know before visiting Cartagena!

Although in theory you can go year round, depending on when you go you may encounter larger crowds of tourists, get quite a bit of rain (though since it is in the Caribbean, it can rain year round) and find the city to be unbearably hot and humid – we are speaking 80% and even 90% humidity.

In order to escape the heat (and the crowds), you will need to have an early start every day, visiting museums when it gets too hot so that you can enjoy a bit of AC; opting for a drink in an air-conditioned café to give yourself a break; drinking lots of water or juice, while avoiding alcohol, to stay hydrated. You will also have to stretch your budget to get a room with air conditioning so that you can rest decently at night. 

Arguably, the best time to visit Cartagena is between December and March, when the temperatures aren’t as hot and humidity is lower. I visited in February and it was way hotter than I had expected – though a nice breeze would blow in the late afternoon every day, giving everyone a break from the heat. It was so hot that heat exhaustion hit me and I cut my time in the city short and move south. 

TIP: A hat, high SPF sunblock and light cotton or linen clothes and good walking sandals are all a must. Also consider investing in a hydro flask bottle such as this one to keep your water cold for up to 8 hours.

visiting Cartagena

It’s not that cheap

With tourism becoming an important source of revenue in Cartagena, the price of services to tourists have been increasing, and even just looking around for a place to stay in town you will quickly realize that it’s not nearly as cheap as you’d have hoped. The good news is that this is probably the most expensive city in Colombia, so if you are visiting Cartagena first, and then the rest of the country, you will be relieved to find more convenient prices. 

Cards are accepted, but for cash Peso is the (only) way to go

One important thing to know is that while Colombia’s neighbors (Panama and Ecuador) use US dollars as their main currency, the official currency in Colombia is the Colombian Peso (COP) and US dollars (as well as Euros and British Pounds) aren’t accepted. At the time of writing, the exchange rate is around COP 3500 to $1 USD, COP 4200 to €1 Euro, and COP 4800 to £1 GBP.

Most businesses now accept card payments, and in case you need cash you will find several ATMs in the old city where you can withdraw – but keep in mind that most will charge a fee any time you withdraw, to which you will have to add your bank withdrawal fee (I use N26 and they don’t charge!) and the currency exchange fee.

Las Bovedas

It’s photographers’ paradise

With narrow, cobbled alleys, breezy squares, colorful buildings and fruit carts, souvenir stands and lots and lots of street life, your photographer’s eyes will be popping out when visiting Cartagena!

If you are hoping to come back from your trip with lots of good photos, set your alarm clock nice and early and head out before everyone else does. This is your best chance to catch the city while it’s still empty – not to mention, to avoid the heat! 

GOOD TO KNOW: If you want to take a photo of the Palenqueras (the colorful ladies selling fruit, as pictured above), you will either have to pay for the photo, or buy some fruit or a drink from them.

trip to Cartagena

A guided tour of Colombia may be a good idea

If you would like to visit Cartagena, but have no time for planning or would rather leave this job to the experts, you should consider joining a guided tour of Colombia. G Adventures runs some excellent ones. I have selected the most interesting ones:

visit Cartagena

It’s easy to reach

Getting to Cartagena is actually incredibly easy and you can travel there by plane, bus or even boat. 

BY PLANE – The airport in Cartagena is called Rafael Nunez Airport (CTG) and serves both domestic and international flights. The good news is that it is really close to the city, and you can easily get there by taxi (they have fixed prices based on where you are going), colectivo (shared shuttle) or private transfer. If your flight is landing late, you may want to opt for that. You can book your private transfer here.

BY BUS – It’s interesting to note that while the airport is really close to the city, the main bus terminal is at 45 minutes drive from the historic center. Your best option to get from the bus station to the historic center is a taxi – again, prices are fixed. Just make sure to double check how much you are meant to pay before hopping on. 

BY BOAT – There is no regular ferry service between Panama and Cartagena, but you can count on a number of sailing boats that connect the city to Panama via the San Blas islands. The trip lasts around 5 days and you should expect to pay no less than $500 USD. I don’t recommend sailing trips unless you are accustomed to sailing already and know that you won’t get sea sick!

visiting Cartagena

The best way of visiting Cartagena is on foot

It’s best explored on foot

Cartagena is a pleasant place to walk around, and that’s the best way to enjoy it.

Having said that, there is a fairly good and cheap public transportation system which includes the Transmilenio Bus – for which you will need a Transcaribe Card which you can get at one of the many stations and works on a top up basis; and the “buseta,” smaller, older, more colorful and significantly less comfortable buses.

A taxi may come in handy occasionally. Taxis in the city don’t work on a meter system, but rely on set of zone rates – so in theory you should know how much you will be charged before getting on. To avoid any surprise, make sure you agree on a final price before hopping on and try to carry small bills to pay at the end of your ride.

GOOD TO KNOW: The best taxi app in Colombia is EasyTaxi, so use that instead of Uber.

Cartagena

The city is safe

Cartagena is a safe enough city, but remember that where there are large tourist crowds there will be touts, scams and pickpockets. Always keep your eyes open and your valuables safe, and keep a low profile to avoid becoming a target. A polite but firm “no, gracias” will normally send touts away. 

One thing I noticed when I visited Cartagena is that drugs run abundantly in certain parts of the city – especially where backpackers hangout, in Getsemani. If you are offered any, you have the simple, reasonable and responsible option of saying no and walk away, or – should you decide to say yes and take those drugs – accept any possible consequences if things go wrong. 

Other useful things to know before your trip to Cartagena

Finally, here are a few other useful tips for traveling to Cartagena.

Getting a good travel insurance is a good idea for all your trips, including that to Cartagena. You can get yours here.

If you are visiting Cartagena as the first leg of a longer trip around Colombia, you may want to invest in SIM card so that you can count on data to navigate the web or use apps when needed. The best provider in the country is by far Claro, and you can opt for the basic “Prepago fácil” plan. You can get a SIM card at one of the kiosks at the airport or in town. Remember you will need a copy of your passport for that.

Water in Cartagena is safe to drink, which will come as a massive relief as this way you won’t have to worry about brushing your teeth with it, or eating a salad that has been washed in it. If you want to be extra safe, you can opt for a bottle with a water filter such as this one.

Finally, some suggest that it is possible to visit Tyrona National Park and / or Santa Marta on day trips from Cartagena. Don’t believe them! Keep in mind that it’s a 5 to 6 hours drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta, which would leave you very little time to explore the national park.

Further Readings

Make sure to read my posts about other Colombia destinations:

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7 Great Day Trips From Bogota

7 Great Day Trips From Bogota

Bogota is a fun enough city to explore, but it can honestly get to you – it’s incredibly crowded, traffic is insane, and it is sadly terribly polluted. The good news is that getting out of town is actually quite easy, and there are many great day trips from Bogota. 

Although most places mentioned in this post can be visited independently, the easiest and most hassle free way to enjoy them is on guided day tours that include transportation, with a pick up and drop off, as well as lunch and other fees, and most importantly which include an English speaking guide which will shower you with information. 

Ready? Check out the best day trips from Bogota.

Day trips from Bogota

The interior of Zipaquira Cathedral

The Best Day Trips From Bogota

Chicaque Natural Park

Chicaque Natural Park is a great place for day trips from Bogota. It’s located at just 30 minutes south west of the city and home to a beautoful cloud forest. There are plenty of good hiking trails so it’s a great place to hike. You will even find tree houses in case you feel like spending the night there.
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: There is a $4 USD admission fee to enter the National Park. You can get there by bus or on a guided group tour such as this one.

Zipaquira and the Salt Cathedral  

Easily the most popular day trip from Bogota, Zipaquira is a lovely small colonial town home to a salt cathedral which was actually created out of an old salt mine and it’s located 200 meters below ground. it’s honestly an incredible place to visit. The Cathedral was first opened in 1995 and can fit up to 8400 visitors. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Zipaquira is located 50 km north of Bogota. To get there, you will need to hop on a combination of buses. For a more hassle free way, join a guided tour such as this one or this one.

Guatavita

Guatavita Lagoon

Another cool place to visit which is not far from Bogota is La Laguna de Guatavita, 18 km out of Guatavita. This lake is actually sacred for the Muisca indigenous people, and thought to be the place where the El Dorado legend originated from. Most tours that go to La Guavita also include a stop at the Museo del Oro in Bogota – which has lots of artefacts coming from this region.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can reach Guatavita by bus but you will have to make several changes. Alternatively, go on a guided tour such as this Zipaquira Salt Cathedral and Lake Guatavita tour from Bogota.

Chingaza National Park

Another great place to visit on a day trip if you are keen on hiking is Chingaza National Park. It’s where 80% of the water that Bogota consumes come from, and the landscape will remind you little of South America and the Andes and more of northern England – though come to think of it, Bogota reminded me a lot of British cities!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Chingaza National Park is located at about 2 hours from Bogota so I recommend going there on a guided tour such as this one, which also includes a guided hike to Laguna de Butrago. 

Villa de Leyva building

A typical colonial building as found in Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva

At about 3 hours drive from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is a pleasant, small colonial town which you can easily explore in just a day. You will find a massive town square (Plaza Mayor) surrounded by well kept colonial buildings, cobbled alleys galore, colorful doors and lots of small cafés and restaurants, not to mention many good shopping opportunities and a couple of good museums (the Museo Paleontologico is the best, if you ask me!) and art galleries. It’s not by chance that it was declared a National Monument in 1954!

I honestly think Villa de Leyva deserves a bit more as its surroundings are gorgeous and there is lots to do, but if a day is all you have you may as well go. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: There are plenty of buses connecting Bogota to Villa de Leyva, but if you are going there for just a day, you may be better off joining a guided tour such as this one.

La Chorrera Waterfall

Quite possibly the most fun place to escape the city for a day, La Chorrera Waterfall is actually the highest one in Colombia. Getting there is in and of itself an experience – you will need to walk through the cloud forest – but it’s truly rewarding. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: La Chorrera is at about 2 hours drive from Bogota. You are definitely better off joining a guided tour to get there. I recommend this one.

Termales Santa Monica

If you aren’t interested in hiking but just want to relax for a day, you may want to go to Choachí and visit Termales Santa Monica. A day pass is in the range of $12 USD during the week, and around $15 USD during the weekend, so it won’t blow your budget. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Choachí is at an easy 1-hour bus ride from Bogota.

Further readings about Colombia

Are you planning a trip to Colombia? Make sure to read my other posts!

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The Best Day Trips From Cartagena

The Best Day Trips From Cartagena

You can go on a few great day trips from Cartagena.

This may come as a surprise to you, but although Cartagena sits right on the Caribbean Sea, it actually lacks a good beach. Bocagrande, probably the most popular beach in town, will probably be a disappointment as it is somewhat dirty (picture cigarette butts and trash) and plagued by vendors who at literally any minute will interrupt you from your nap to ask whether you want to buy a juice / ceviche / or even drugs. If that is not your idea of a relaxing day, you’ll be relieved to know that there are many great places that can be visited on day trips from Cartagena.

Not sure where to go? Continue reading to discover a selection of places that are perfect for a day trip – and a few tips on others that are too far for that. 

day trips from Cartagena

8 Great Day Trips From Cartagena

Playa Blanca and Isla Baru

This is probably the easiest of all day trips from Cartagena – and a popular one. Playa Blanca is located on Isla Baru, about 20 km south of Cartagena. It’s a lovely beach of fine, white sand and clear turquoise waters, where you can spend the day being lazy in the sun, enjoying a bit of snorkeling and getting a drink from one of the kiosks or the beach vendors. The beach is equipped with umbrella and sun beds which you can rent for the day. 

It’s a popular place among locals and tourists, so it can get quite crowded.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Isla Baru is actually connected to Cartagena by road, so you can get there by taxi or public transport. Alternatively, you can go there on a guided tour that includes hotel pick up and drop off and lunch – such as this one.

GOOD TO KNOW: For a beach a bit closer to the city, opt to go to El Laguito – there even is a trail that is perfect for running, skating and biking. The beach is honestly much better than Bocagrande.

day trips from Cartagena

A tiny island in Islas del Rosario

Islas del Rosario

If you only have time for a day trip from Cartagena, definitely opt for this one. The archipelago of Islas del Rosario was declared a national park in 1998 and is made up of 27 islands. Most of them are public, some are privately owned and a couple are so tiny that literally no more than a shed can be built on it.

The waters of the archipelago are as clear as it gets, and a fantastic place to spend the day swimming, snorkeling and simply having fun. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The archipelago is located at about 35 km south of Cartagena and it takes around one hour to get there on a speed boat (lancha rapita); a bit longer on slower boats. You can go there independently or on guided day trips. 

INDEPENDENTLY – Boats depart at 8:00, 9:00 and 10:00 am from El Muelle La Bodeguita (just outside the walled city). Expect to pay around $20 USD for the boat ride and the port fees (one way). If you visit independently, keep your eyes open for the fishermen who may be able to catch fresh lobster or crab. You will literally be able to pick which one you want, and can ask them to be back at a certain time with lunch ready for you – I have done it and it was probably the best crab I have ever eaten in my life!

GUIDED TOURS – Most guided tours go to Isla del Rosario and Isla Grande, which are the largest islands and where most guided tours go. Guided tours depart from El Muelle La Bodeguita and include lunch, and are usually back by 4:00 pm. You will be offered a variety of guided tours as soon as you walk inside the harbor, or you can book your day trip here. 

La Boquilla

La Boquilla is a nice place for a day out of town

La Boquilla

If you fancy a place that is a bit lesser known, and where you will find some beautiful mangrove swamps, head to La Boquilla, a lovely fishing village at about 20 minutes from Cartagena which is an excellent place to learn a bit more about the life of the local Afro-Colombian communities. It’s not the best beach in the area, really, but you will likely have it to yourself – which is a nice change! 

You can easily go there independently – just hop on a taxi from Cartagena after having negotiated the price. Alternatively, ask your accommodation to book you for a guided tour, which will include transportation and a canoe ride through the mangrove swamp.

Manzanillo del Mar

Another nice place that can be visited on day trips from Cartagena and which is ideal for a day in the sun is Manzanillo del Mar, home to a lovely beach with fine sand and clear waters. It’s a bit of a lesser known place, so you won’t find it too crowded. Once there, you can rent an umbrella or even a thatched hut for shade, and enjoy grilled fish at one of the local restaurants.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Manzanillo del Mar is about 40 minutes north of Cartagena. You can get there by bus.

El Totumo

El Totumo mountain of mud

El Totumo Volcano

At about 50 km northeast of Cartagena, El Totumo is a volcano crater that instead of throwing out lava, it spits out mud. Climb to the top using the stairs, then head down to the crater and have a mud bath – they say it’s great for the skin and for the bones. Afterwards, you can go wash the mud off in the lagoon. Just make sure to bring a towel and a change of clothes.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can go to El Totumo independently on a combination of buses, or else you can opt to take a guided tour such as this Totumo Volcano and mud baths day tour from Cartagena.

San Basilio de Palenque

Declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, San Basilio de Palenque is an interesting place to visit to discover more about the traditional life and struggles, as well as the history of Colombia. This is one of the first cities in the Americas were the slave trade was prohibited. The people of African descent living in San Basilio de Palenque have been recognized as an indigenous group in Colombia, and the cultural, linguistic and even musical heritage of the village is something you will want to learn about.

GOOD TO KNOW: Many of the inhabitants of Palenque now work in Cartagena, usually as street vendors – hence the name “Palenqueras.”

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The best way to visit is on guided tours such as this one.

day trips from Cartagena

Tierra Bomba

Right in front of Bocagrande and easily seen from Cartagena, Tierra Bomba is home to around 9000 people and used to have an important defensive role for the Spaniards – as testified by the forts built to monitor it. Other than the fort, the main attraction is the beautiful Punta Arena beach. You will also be able to enjoy delicious seafood.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can get to Tierra Bomba by boat from Bocagrande. The ride lasts around 10 minutes and costs around $5 USD one way.

Usiacurí

83 km and 1 hour 40 minutes drive from Cartagena, this village is a great example of Spanish colonial architecture. Founded in 1533 by Francisco Cesar, it’s one of the oldest towns on the Atlantic Coast of Colombia. Other than walking around the village, it’s a great place for shopping as you will find lots of crafts and souvenirs to buy. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can get to Usiacuri by bus from Cartagena. 

Where Not To Go On Day Trips From Cartagena

While preparing my trip to Colombia I came across a bunch of posts that said it is possible to visit places such as Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Taganga and even Tyrona National Park on day trips from Cartagena. While Tyrona National Park is actually doable if you join a guided day tour such as this one that depart super early to take you there – I honestly don’t recommend you do it. Nor do I recommend going to the other places for such as short time. 

Indeed, they are honestly stunning and deserve way more time than just the few hours you may be able to squeeze in if you went there on a day trip. My advice if you are short on time? Either cut your visit of Cartagena short and head there for a few days to properly explore, or skip it completely for a day trip closer to the city.

Further Readings

Make sure to read my posts about other Colombia destinations:

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22 Incredible Things To Do In Cartagena

22 Incredible Things To Do In Cartagena

There are many incredible things to do in Cartagena, and it’s so easy to fall in love with it.

This Colombian colonial town is rightly considered the most beautiful city in the country, and one of the most beautiful ones in South America. It’s the kind of place where you can get lost in the narrow, cobbled alleys while sipping some tropical fruit juice; where you will end up dancing salsa in the streets, or playing futbol with a team of local children. Regardless of how you spend your time, you’re bound to enjoy it.

Founded in 1533, Cartagena soon became one of the most important cities in the region. Nowadays, it is Colombia’s largest port; it has swelled to more than a million people; and it has became a major resort city thanks to the easy access to the beautiful Caribbean Sea. Tourism in Cartagena is constantly growing, but despite the increasing number of visitors the city has remained a great place to explore.

In this post, I highlight all the unmissable things to do in Cartagena and share some useful tips to make the most of it.

what to do in Cartagena

Walking around the city is so pleasant!

22 Fun Things To Do In Cartagena, Colombia 

Follow the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Whether or not you enjoyed reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez books (I admit I am not a fan), you will agree that one of the top things to do in Cartagena is going on a walk to follow his footsteps – after all, he is Colombia’s best known writer and he spent most of his young life here, and thoroughly depicted the city in his novels.

If you haven’t done so yet, make sure to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Then, while in town, go on a literary tour that takes you to all the most famous places mentioned in his books. This is a very good one.

GOOD TO KNOW: If you want to shop for books, go to Ábaco Libros y Café (Abacus Books and Coffee), by far the best bookstore in town.

things to do in Cartagena

A walk around the main square is a must

Walk around Cartagena Old Town

To many, the atmosphere of Cartagena is reminiscent of that of Havana.

The walled city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of hidden treasures: colonial style balconies pour colorful flowers onto the cobbled streets; street vendors sell their fresh fruits at street corners; locals and tourists alike sit in one of the lovely coffee shops, trying to get away from the heat.

The following is a list of places you should not miss during your walk.

THE CLOCKTOWER, AKA PUERTA DEL RELOJ – Where the Puerta del Reloj is now located there used to be the main gate to the walled city which was linked to Getsemani via a drawbridge. The watch was actually added in the 19th century. Behind it, therE’s Plaza de los Coches, which used to be Cartagena’s biggest slave market and where there now is a monument to Pedro de Heredia, founder of the city. This is one of Cartagena’s top tourist attractions.

EL PORTAL DE LOS DULCES – Right by the clocktower there is an archway known as el portal de los dulces, where you will find a multitude of vendors selling traditional Colombian sweets. If you have a sweet tooth, you will want to stop.

IGLESIA Y CONVENTO DE SAN PEDRO CLAVER – San Pedro Claver church has an imposing stone façade and inside there are the remains of Claver. Next to it there is a huge three floors building which surrounds a beautiful courtyard. This is the convent of Pedro Claver, a monk who lived in Cartagena in the 17th century and who made it a mission to serve to the slaves brought from Africa. A part of the convent is now an interesting museum that is open to visitors.

Cartagena

What was I doing?

PALACE OF THE INQUISITION – Known as Palacio de la Inquisición in Spanish, this is one of the nicest buildings in Cartagena and one of the best examples of colonial architecture. Today, the palace is a museum with an exhibit of instruments of torture that were used at the time of the Inquisition. Admission is around $6 USD. 

PARQUE DE BOLIVAR – This small urban park (little more than a square, really) is next to the Palace of the Inquisition and a good place to rest in the shade before you continue your walk. It’s a popular hangout spot for street artists.

IGLESIA DE SANTO DOMINGO – This is Cartagena’s oldest church, whose interior is really spacious and beautiful. There’s an entry fee (unless you are going for Sunday mass), but with that you also get an audio guide in a variety of languages. Make sure to also stop by Plaza Santo Domingo, where you’ll spot a statue by Colombian artist Botero.

CARTAGENA CATHEDRAL – Among the many buildings in Cartagena that took years to complete there is the Cathedral. It was begun in 1575, destroyed by Francis Drake in 1586, and completed in 1612. There is a dome on the tower, which was added in the 20th century. It’s one of the nicest tourist attractions in Cartagena.

TIP: A guided walking tour may be a good idea to get to know the city. Free walking tours in English and Spanish are offered daily at 10:00 am or 4:00 pm – but you still have to tip the guide. For a less crowded experience, there are tours you can book online such as this one.

TIP: Head out for your walk nice and early to avoid the terrible heat, and head back to your hotel during the hottest hours of the day.

GOOD TO KNOW: A great alternative to a walking tour may actually be a bike tour. You can book it here.

things to do in Cartagena

A walk on the city walls is what to do in Cartagena

Walk along the City Walls

Walking along Las Murallas is one of the things to do in Cartagena. This is a walled city – indeed, the old town of Cartagena is surrounded by thick walls that were built to protect it at the end of the 16th century, after the city had been attacked by Francis Drake. It actually took almost two centuries to complete the walls, because continued pirate attacks and storms caused much damage to the construction.

TIP: You will be fully exposed to the sun when walking along the walls, so make sure to wear a hat and sunblock, and try to head there early in the morning or right before sunset.

Visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

In order to appreciate its history, one of the top things to do in Cartagena is visiting the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which is located just outside the city walls and from where you can get impressive views. Construction of this fortress – the largest ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies – started in 1657 and went on for 150 years. Yes, it took a long time to build it, but once it was completed the city proved to be unassailable!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: San Felipe Castle is a 10 minutes walk from the clocktower. Admission is $7.5 USD and it closes at 5:00 pm.

TIP: Visit in the early morning to avoid the terrible heat, and purchase an audio-guide to make sense of what you see. Make sure to also walk through the tunnel system at the Castillo San Felipe!

Cartagena

A colorful mural dedicated to Cartagena’s favorite writer

Visit one of Cartagena’s Museums

Cartagena has several good museums and art galleries you may want to check out. The best part of it is that they have air con – so you can learn more about the city and escape the terrible heat. 

The following are my favorite museums in town.

MUSEO DEL ORO ZENU – If you would like to know more about the history of Cartagena and how important gold was for it, then visiting Museo del Oro Zenú (the Gold Museu) is among the things to do in Cartagena. The exhibit displays pre-Columbian gold and pottery that throughout time was raided from the Zenú indigenous peoples. The first expedition against them was actually organized by Pedro de Heredia, who went up the river Sinú in search of gold. The museum is located in Plaza Bolivar and it’s free to visit.

TIP: If you are interested in learning more about the Zenu indigenous communities, you can join a sustainable guided tour led by a member of the Zenu community such as this one.

MUSEO DE ARTE MODERNO –  Located in the 17TH century former Royal Customs House, this nice museum has a good exhibit with a collection of works of the most prominent Colombian artists. 

Getsemani

A street art tour of Getsemani is one of the best things to do in Cartagena

Explore Getsemani  

One of my favorite areas of Cartagena is Getsemani, right outside the city walls. Once an area of prostitutes and drug dealing, it’s now been restored to its old splendor and is a maze of narrow alleys where the most common scene in the early afternoon is that of locals sitting right outside their door, trying to catch a bit of breeze and have a break from the heat.

In its restoration process, most of the walls of Getsemani were painted with some beautiful murals and this part of Cartagena is now packed with incredible street art. One of the nicest things to do in Cartagena is going street art hunting. Check out this guided tour of Getsemani street art, as it will help you make the most of it. Alternatively, you can opt for a free walking tour in English – it lasts two hours and you have to actually tip the guide.

Hang out in Plaza de la Trinidad

At night, Plaza de la Trinidad, the heart of Getsemani, gets packed with food carts; bars open up and start pouring beer, and the actual square becomes a football field for children. You will see locals as well as tourists hanging out, enjoying a cold beer at one of the many tables that are scattered around the square, while local street vendors pull their small carts around, selling ice-cream and other snacks.

GOOD TO KNOW: The best cocktails in this part of town are at Demente. 

Have a burger

If you are hungry, Plaza de la Trinidad is perhaps the best place in town to grab some street food. One of the most popular spot here is the Colombian-style burgers – your classic burger topped with cheese and stuffed with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, any sauce you may like and lots of chunky fries. It’s super budget friendly (under 10000 Colombian Pesos (COP), or less than $3 USD) but be prepared to line up. 

things to do in Cartagena

Taking in the views

Visit Convento de la Popa

Although the city is mostly flat, one of the nicest things to do in Cartagena is getting a panoramic view. Convento de la Popa, which was founded by the Augustinians in 1607, is built on top of a hill beyond San Felipe fortress. There is a nice chapel and a gorgeous patio filled with flowers. The main attraction, however, is the incredible view of the city.

TIP: This place is a bit of a way and public transportation doesn’t get there. Make sure to haggle the price of a taxi: the area is notorious for robberies, and it’s better to keep in the safe side.

things to do in Cartagena

Make sure to visit the market

Explore Mercado de Bazurto

At around 15 minutes drive from the historic center of Cartagena there is a really cool market, Mercado de Bazurto. It’s massive, chaotic and – at least to the eyes of a tourist – quite dirty. Yet, it’s an incredible place to catch some local action, not to mention to buy some fresh fruits and vegetables. Visiting is, quite simply, one of the most fun things to do in Cartagena. If you aren’t comfortable exploring on your own, you can actually take a guided tour such as this Cartagena 4 hour Bazurto market or this Real Cartagena: a tour of the market.

Las Bovedas

Las Bovedas

Go shopping at Las Bovedas

Las Bovedas are 23 dungeons that were built in the defensive walls on the northern tip of the old town at the end of the 18th century. They were meant to have military purposes but today they are tourist shops and it is a great place to visit if you are after souvenirs and local crafts.

Try all the food

Much like the rest of South America, Cartagena has an incredible street food scene, and a number of local specialties you will be tempted to try. These are all the ones you should not miss:

CEVICHE – This delicious, marinated raw fish dish has lots of lime and fresh flavors, and is common in all of South America. The best places in Cartagena for ceviche are La Cevicheria and El Boliche Cevicheria – they are not cheap, however. You can also have ceviche from street vendors such as Ostreria Sincelejo for around $6 USD. If you opt for that, be an eco-friendly traveler and bring your own collapsible cup so as not to use styrofoam cups.

AREPAS – Easily my favorite street food in Colombia, arepas are a sort of bready – doughwy corn cakes (so yes, they are perfect to eat even for celiacs and gluten intolerant people) that are grilled and then filled with just about anything. The best ones are with cheese. They can be found anywhere in the streets of Cartagena.

FISH WITH COCONUT RICE – Commonly found in all of the Caribbean, it literally is a whole fried fish served with rice cooked in coconut oil, and patacones (fried plantains that are flattened and then… refried!).

Arepas in Colombia

Arepas are a common street food in Colombia. They are corn dough tortillas filled with cheese

POSTA NEGRA – Another typical Caribbean fare found mostly just in Cartagena, this dish consists of sirloin steak smothered in a sauce made with Coke and Worcestershire sauce. The best place to try it is La Mulata.

FRESH FRUIT – If there is one thing that you won’t be missing in Colombia, that’s fruit. From passion fruit (locally known as maracuja), to mango, papaya, avocado and banana, to others that you’ve probably never even heard of such as lulo (a fruit only found in some parts of South America). You can have it fresh – just buy it from one of the many vendors (called “palenqueras”) you’ll encounter on the street – or even enjoy a refreshing smoothie. The best bit? If you are buying fruit from the Palenqueras, you automatically qualify for a photo.

Not sure where to start eating around Cartagena? You can join a guided tour such as this street food tour of Cartagena or this one. 

Cartagena street vendor

Getting a cold drink in Cartagena

And all the drinks

Cartagena is hot. I mean, it’s so hot and humid that you’ll get exhausted and probably end up dragging yourself from place to place, and at times all you’ll want to do is sit somewhere (possibly with air-con) and a cold drink at hand. There are a number of drinks you should try when in town. Let me highlight the ones you can’t miss. 

JUGO – Literally, fresh juice. With all the fresh fruit available in Colombia, the next best thing to have is fresh fruit juice – usually pureed fruit with water and / or ice. If you want to go for a local drink try lulo mixed with milk and sugar. I can’t comment on the taste as I haven’t tried it (I am lactose intolerant) but my friend Diana swears by it. Make sure to specify you 

CAFE CON LECHE – Coffee is big in Colombia (and good). If you fancy a quick coffee all you have to do is look around to find a street vendor pouring hot coffee from a thermos. 
 
TIP: Most drinks in Colombia are served with a plastic straw. Bring your own reusable one and specify you don’t need it!
 
things to do in Cartagena

Make sure to admire the sunset

Sip a sunset drink

When the sun goes down, one of the things to do in Cartagena is heading out for a much deserved refreshing sunset drink. The best place for that is Café del Mar – the combination of excellent cocktails and incredible views make it a very popular spot.

Another great place for cocktails is Alquimico, a super-cool bar with a rooftop terrace and an extensive cocktail menu. It’s open until 2:00 am on weekdays and 3:00 am at the weekend; prices are more similar to what you’d pay in Europe – but it’s worth it.

Alternatively, enjoy sunset on the ramparts

If you don’t quite feel like splurging on drinks at Café del Mar, you can still enjoy an amazing sunset. Make sure to arrive to the location of Café del Mar early enough, and get a spot on the walls. Local vendors will quickly appear selling cheap bear – voilà! Here’s your budget friendly drink with an incredible view.

Or go on a sunset cruise

Should you want to admire sunset but would rather go for a more intimate experience, go on a cruise – it’s one of the nicest things to do in Cartagena. They normally last around two hours and depart from the marina. You can opt for this Cartagena de Indias 2 hour sunset cruise or this 1.5 hour bay sunset yacht cruise

things to do in Cartagena

Make sure to enjoy the nightlife

Have a good craft beer

The beer scene is finally changing in South America too, and you can finally get away from the watered down bottled lager. The Beer Lover is your best bet for good beer on tap – and for a selection of imported beer. They even have IPA!

Go party at Media Luna hostel

Located in Getsemani, Media Luna is a lovely hostel in a colonial building that has an incredible rooftop lounge and a small yet nice pool. I won’t recommend staying there if you actually care to sleep, but if you are looking for a good party, this is the place to go in Cartagena. 

Learn to dance salsa

An incredible way to experience nightlife in Cartagena is dancing salsa. If you are a keen dancer, this is one of the most fun things to do in Cartagena. If you are not, you may want to join a class, such as those offered by Crazy Salsa in Calle Tumbamuertos, or such as this one.

Cartagena

Cute corners throughout

Then hop on a Chiva

In case you are looking for more fun things to do in Cartagena, make sure to go party on a Chiva. It’s a bus (yes, really!) where you are likely to get live music, a good cocktail and lots of dancing. The bus goes bar hopping, making stops at various places around town, and eventually stops at a larger salsa club where you can continue dancing. You can ask your accommodation to arrange a chiva tour for you.

Learn Spanish

Speaking and understanding Spanish will help you enormously during your trip across Colombia and South America. If you feel the need to revise your Spanish language skills or a complete beginner, Cartagena is a good place as there are plenty of place where you can take classes – from group lessons to private ones. I can’t comment on any of the courses as I already spoke Spanish fluently before visiting Cartagena, but I am sure a simple online research will help you find the best classes in town.

day trips from Cartagena

Spend a day out of town

One thing that may surprise you about Cartagena is that it actually lacks nice beaches. The mean beach, Bocagrande, will leave you disappointed – especially if you are accustomed to great beaches like I am. First of all, it’s quite dirty – trash, cigarette butts: you name it. Secondly, you won’t be able to lay down and relax as you’ll constantly have to deal with vendors offering you anything from drugs to ceviche. 

Your best bet for a good beach is to head out of town. Below is a selection of places you can easily visit on day trips from Cartagena.

Playa Blanca

Located at about 20 km south of Cartagena on Isla de Baru, this beach is one of the nicest ones in the area: it’s a white-sand beach with incredibly clear turquoise waters. You can get your own umbrella and chairs, and grab food and drinks from the many vendors on the beach.

You can get there by taxi, and there even are tours that take you there such as this one.

GOOD TO KNOW: If you don’t want to travel far from town, go to El Laguito – it’s where you will find the best beaches, with tranquil waters and even a track perfect for running, skating and biking. The beach is honestly much better than Bocagrande.

La Boquilla

La Boquilla is a nice place for a day out of town

La Boquilla

This little fishing village right outside Cartagena is where to go if you are trying to get a bit off-the-beaten-path. The beach isn’t the best you will find in the region, but it’s really nice and empty. You will find several fish restaurants all serving good food – it’s just a matter of picking one that attracts you. You can also explore the mangroves on a canoe, but you may need a guide for that. 

Islas del Rosario

At about 35 km south of Cartagena there is an archipelago of 27 small islands called Islas del Rosario. Some are so small that they literally only fit one house. One of the nicest things to do in Cartagena to escape the heat is going on a day cruise to these islands. Cruises live from the Muelle Turistico and usually involve lunch (the lucky ones get freshly caught lobster!) and lots of snorkeling in the incredible waters. You can book your day trip here.

El Totumo

El Totumo mountain of mud

El Totumo Volcano

El Totumo is a volcano crater at about 50 km northeast of Cartagena The interesting thing about it is that instead of lava, it actually spews out mud. There, you can climb to the top using the stairs, then head down to the crater and have a mud bath – apparently it has therapeutic properties, much like that of the Dead Sea in Israel. Afterwards, you can go wash the mud off in the lagoon.

You can go there independently on a combination of buses, or else you can opt to take a guided tour such as this Totumo Volcano and mud baths day tour from Cartagena.

What Not To Do In Cartagena

This is a tip valid for any place you visit, but since I have noticed it is a common thing tourists do in Cartagena, it is worth mentioning it:

Please, do not ride the horse-drawn carriages! Those horses are forced to stay under the sun for hours; they have to trot around the noisy streets of the city, among cars, buses and noise. The city is not a place for them! Do not contribute to their suffering.

Make sure to read my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”

things to do in Cartagena

Walking around Getsemani is so pleasant!

Cartagena Travel Tips

Guided Tours

You can easily explore Cartagena independently, but a guided tour may be a good idea to get a proper introduction to the city. There are several ones that can be truly interesting. I recommend this Cartagena 4 hour guided city tour. A nice alternative may be this Gabriel Garcia Marquez tour of Cartagena

Where To Stay In Cartagena

Cartagena has a great selection of places to stay catering to any budget and taste. I have written a full post on Where To Stay In Cartagena detailing the best areas and places to stay by budget, but here is a quick selection:

How To Get Cartagena

BY PLANE – Rafael Nunez Airport (CTG) serves both domestic and international flights and it’s actually quite close to the city. The easiest way to get from the airport to the city is by taxi, and the good news is that prices are fixed and based on the area you need to go to. You can also opt for a colectivo or, for ease, book your private transfer here.

BY BUS – Cartagena main bus terminal is 45 minutes drive from the historic center. The easiest way to get from there to the city is by taxi, and again the prices are fixed and by area. Make sure you confirm that with the driver before setting off.

BY BOAT – Sailing boats regularly connect Cartagena to Panama via the San Blas islands. The trip lasts around 5 days and the prices vary depending on the company, but it usually is a minimum of $500 USD. 

Further Readings

Make sure to read my posts about other Colombia destinations:

Have you been to Cartagena? What did you enjoy the most there?

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Read about the best things to do in Cartagena - via @clautavani

The Best Places To Visit In Portugal

The Best Places To Visit In Portugal

Are you traveling to Portugal and looking for the best places to visit in Portugal? Look no further!

Portugal is a magical country full of amazing places to visit. Although it is a small country, there is such a diverse selection of architecture, landscapes, and landmarks to discover that will all wow and amaze you! If you are looking for a list of the best places to visit in Portugal to inspire your visit, then this list is for you.

One of the things that makes Portugal so special is the inviting and vibrant atmosphere of the country. In every city, town, village and beyond you will feel the welcoming atmosphere which only makes traveling in Portugal even more special. In addition to this, Portugal is stunning in a variety of ways. The landscapes, the buildings, and the views are like nothing else in Europe and offer a very unique experience. 

If you are looking for culture, history, beauty, beaches, wine or anything else, Portugal has it. The diversity of Portugal and wide array of offerings for its visitors will amaze you and choosing one city to visit is often a challenge. That is why it is best to plan to visit two or three places in Portugal when you visit. Use this list of the best places to visit in Portugal to plan where you want to visit most!

Lagos

The Best Places to Visit in Portugal 

Lagos

Lagos is one of the most beautiful places in the world and easily one of the best places to visit in Portugal. This small town sits in the famous Algarve region, along the Southern Coast of Portugal, and is more often than not the highlight of a trip to Portugal. It’s known for its unique beauty, extreme landscapes, and coastal vibes.

A visit to Lagos feels and looks like you’ve left Europe and travelled to Bali, with its surfing community, plethora of beaches and warm sun filled days. 

What makes Lagos so special is its extreme, orange hued cliffs that make up the coast. The beaches in Lagos sit at the bottom of these cliffs and the views of these unique rock formations are like nothing else in the world. All along the coast you can walk high in the cliffs, or during low tide along the beaches, and admire these stunning rock formations.

This is an idyllic place to visit for anyone looking for a beach vacation. You can expect warm, sunny days that are perfect for beach days. Spending the day at the beach is one of the more popular things to do in Lagos, with the most unique and beautiful beach being Camilo Beach.

Before relaxing on the beach in Lagos you MUST visit stunning Ponta da Piedade which is one of the most famous viewpoints in the Algarve. From the top you can admire the rock formations and huge cliffs, plus you can walk down and view the blue waters and orange cliffs from below. You can book a guided tour here, or opt for a kayak tour such as this one that brings you all around with a guide explaining things along the way. 

GOOD TO KNOW: Another great beach at just 40 minutes drive from Lagos is Praia Da Amoreira.

These guided tours may help you make the most of Lagos and its surroundings:

Sagres

GOOD TO KNOW: If you are searching for a truly dramatic spot, there’s no dispute that Sagres is one of the lesser-known yet best places to visit in Portugal. Not only it is one of the best places in Europe to go surfing, but it’s also where you’ll find Cape Saint Vincent and some gorgeous beaches such as Martinhal and Mareta. You can visit Sagres and Cape Saint Vincent on day trips from Lagos (click here for more information). You can also enjoy a Sagres sunset tour (check it out here).

TIP: Make sure to also check out Salema, a lovely fishing village at about 25 minutes drive from Lagos, with a beautiful sandy beach and cliffs.

Albufeira

Albufeira

Just a short distance from Lagos sits the quaint and underrated town of Albufeira. As another town in the Algarve region, Albufeira has similarities with Lagos, but still has a very unique charm and enchantment.

What makes Albufeira special is its small town feel, where wandering the streets and exploring the beaches feels slightly more intimate. This makes it the perfect seaside village to enjoy a relaxing and memorable Portuguese getaway. 

There are many amazing things to do in Albufeira. This is the perfect place to stroll around admiring the whitewashed architecture and huge sandy beaches. Make sure to visit São Rafael Beach! From wine tasting, to dolphin watching, to boat tours, and beyond you can find a ton to do in this small coastal town to fill an entire itinerary. 

But there is also another side to Albufeira that makes one of the most interesting places to visit in Portugal, and that is its nightlife! Albufeira has a vibrant nightlife scene that is perfect for travelers looking for beauty by day and party by night. By going to Candido dos Reis at night you can have your choice of a ton of bars, clubs, and pubs and enjoy cheap drinks in an exciting atmosphere.

These guided tours may help you make the most of Albufeira and its surroundings:

GOOD TO KNOW: At about 30 minutes drive from Albufeira, Praia da Marinha is one of Portugal top attractions. This gorgeous sandy beach is a great place for snorkeling, and you will find many beautiful caves, cliffs and rock pools. It’s definitely a must-see.

best places to visit in Portugal

Lisbon

Lisbon is the capital city of Portugal and one of the best places to visit in Portugal for history and culture lovers. The city is known for its hilly terrain, colorful buildings, and stunning sites and attractions. As one of the most touristy places in Portugal, there is no wonder as to why people from around the world flock to this magical city to enjoy some of the best of what Portugal has to offer. 

Lisbon is the largest city in Portugal and has enough things to do to keep you entertained for days! This makes it the perfect place to stay in for a while to fully explore and immerse yourself in the Portuguese culture. Plus, as the capital city, Lisbon is full of historic sights and things to see which make it all the more enticing.

The highlight of Lisbon is the charming streets and architecture. You could easily spend hours wandering the cobblestone streets, walking up and down the huge hills, discovering more and more beauty as you move through the city, the best area for this is Alfama District. The streets of Lisbon are some of the most Instagrammable in the world making it one of the best places to visit in Portugal for photographers.

There are a ton of amazing things to do to do in Lisbon, more than just exploring the wonderful streets. Many people want to see the iconic view of the city from above which can be admired from Miradouro da Graça. Some other amazing things to do are walk down the famous Rua Augusta, visit the ornate Monastery Jeronimos (get your tickets in advance here), listening to Fado music and much more! You can surely find a ton of amazing things to do in Lisbon to keep you entertained. 

These are the best guided tours of Lisbon:

You may also want to consider getting a Lisbon Card. Get yours here.

cascais

GOOD TO KNOW: West of Lisbon, Cascais is one of the best places to visit in Portugal for holidays, blessed with beautiful beaches where you can practice all sorts of water sports (the best is by far Praia do Tamariz); an incredible nightlife scene, and a bunch of interesting sights such as the Conde de Castro Guimares Museum (a well curated art gallery) and the Caiscia Marina marina. Guided tours of Cascais departing from Lisbon usually also go to Sintra. Check them out here.

TIP: If you feel the need to get away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon, Arrábida Natural Park, at around 40 km south of the city, is just about the perfect place where you can enjoy hiking, climbing, biking and other adventure sports, as well as wildlife spotting and swimming in one of the stunning beaches such as Praia do Ribeiro do Cavalo. Interesting sights in the area include the 1542 Franciscan Convento da Arrábida, and Portinho da Arrábida, a village in the Bay of Setúbal. For day trips from Lisbon, click here.

Make sure to read my posts:

things to do in Portugal

Sintra

Sintra is one of the best places to visit in Portugal for anyone looking to escape reality for a while and transport into a fairytale fantasy world.  Home to some of Portugal’s most beautiful castles and pieces of architecture, the forested landscape make it even more charming to visit.

Sintra is home to four main attractions: Castle of the Moors, Pena Palace, Quinta da Regaleira, and the National Palace. The Castle of the Moors is an old fortress that was built between the 8th and 9th centuries. The fortress itself is well preserved and the views from the top are amazing.

Pena Palace is the most famous and beautiful building in Sintra. It is a multi colored palace that sits high in the mountains and is a sight to behold. The bright colors pop, and the whimsical design of the palace is amazing. Quinta da Regaleira is a beautiful stone palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sintra National Palace is an old palace that is not the most popular attraction in Sintra but well worth a visit if time permits. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Sintra can be easily seen on day trips departing from Lisbon. It only takes 20 minutes by train from Lisbon to Sintra and then you can spend the day exploring. The city is free to enter but the cost of attractions varies from €15-20. This one also goes to Cascais and Cabo da Roca. You can book it here. If you’d rather visit independently, make sure to get your Pena Palace tickets in advance. You can get them here.

GOOD TO KNOW: At 30 minutes drive north of Sintra (about 45 minutes from Lisbon), Ericeira is a lovely fishing village and one of the best places to visit in Portugal to go surfing and to taste the country’s famous seafood. You can book a surfing lesson here.

things to do in Portugal

Óbidos

One hour drive north of Lisbon, in the Estremadura province, Óbidos is one of the most beautiful small towns in Portugal. According to history, the village was donated by King Denis I to his wife, Queen Isabel who, in the 13th century, fell in love with it. From then on, a tradition was established by which kings would buy beautiful villages for their queens!

Óbidos is a fortified town that’s a maze of scenic cobblestone streets that are a photographer’s dream. Its main landmarks are the beautiful Igreja De Santa Maria, whose interior is adorned with 17th century azulejos; the town’s museum and the city walls, from where you can enjoy great views. 

Other things to do in Óbidos include trying the local cherry liquor, Ginja de Óbidos, which is traditionally served in tiny chocolate cups. If you wish to explore the surroundings, make sure to go to the nearby lagoon – Lagoa de Obidos.

GOOD TO KNOW: The Castle is now a luxury hotel – Pousada do Castelo.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can visit Óbidos on day trips from Lisbon such as this one or this one. Keep in mind that day trips typically go to other places too such as Fatima, Batalha and Nazaré.

Faro

Faro

If you manage to scratch beneath the surface, you will agree that Faro is one of the best places to visit in Portugal. It’s Old Town – Cidade Velha – is definitely worth seeing. The main features are the 16th century walls that were built over the Roman foundations, and the beautiful Baroque cathedral that dates back to the 13th century. 

Other things to do in Faro include climbing the medieval tower for views of the city; visiting the Museu Municipal de Faro, and the Igreja do Carmo, which has a Bone Chapel preserving the skulls and bones of more than 1000 monks.

Parque Natural da Ria Formosa

Located east of Albufeira in the Algarve region, Parque Natural da Ria Formosa is one of the best places to visit in Portugal for nature lovers. With saltpans, water lagoons and sand dune islands, it’s the perfect place to enjoy nature walks (keep your eyes open for the sea daffodil) and observe the local wildlife. Expect to find an incredible variety of birds, including flamingoes. The visitors’ information center is near Olhão.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can visit Parque Natural da Ria Formosa on guided tours departing from Faro such as this one. Alternatively, you can opt for a boat tour departing from Olhão such as this one.

Tavira

Tavira

Located in the Algarve region, Tavira is easily one of the best places to visit in Portugal. The best sights in town include a Roman footbridge over the Rio Gilão; the castle, from where you can enjoy views of the old town and of the coast; the beautiful Igreia de Santa do Castelo church; and the Núcleo Islâmico museum. 

The waterfront is an ideal place for a walk; and you can also visit the nearby Tavira Island, home of a paradisiac beach.

TIP: A tuk tuk tour may help you make the most of the city. You can book it here.

Evora

The Alentejo Region

Known to be one of the best places to visit in Portugal, the Alentejo region has a lot to offer to its visitors. 

The main city, Évora, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a real treasure chest with many impressive sights and quite simply a pleasant place to walk around and get lost in the narrow alleys.

Among the places to visit in Évora there are the Templo Romano (Roman Temple), which dates back to the 2nd century; the 12th century Sé (cathedral) and the 16th century Igreja de São Francisco, famous for its Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones).

GOOD TO KNOW: You can visit Évora on a day trip from Lisbon such as this one. If you wish to visit independently, consider joining a guided tour such as this one once there.

Another place not to miss in the Alentejo region include Elvas, where you’ll find a fantastic example of military architecture whose 17th century fortifications are in a star shape and so unique that they are a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site. Remarkable sites include the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação and the castle set on the north wall, from where you can get to the Aqueduto da Amoreira, a well kept 16th century aqueduct.

Finally, Marvao, in the Serra de São, is a lovely medieval town with beautifully preserved 13th century walls and offering stunning views of the surrounding region.

Coimbra

Coimbra

The Velha Universidade, a UNESCO World Heritage site is only one of the many reasons why Coimbra, once the capital of the country, is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.

Other unmissable sights are the beautifully kept Baroque Biblioteca Joanina; the 12th century Se Velha (the old cathedral); the 18th century clock tower; and the 1131 Igreja de Santa Cruz, where Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, is buried. Make sure not to miss a walk along the banks of the Montego River. 

GOOD TO KNOW: A guided tour may be a good idea to visit the University of Coimbra. Check this out.

best places to visit in Portugal

Porto

Porto is an intriguing and unique city in Portugal that should be on everyone’s travel itinerary. Beyond its stunning beauty, Porto is full of hidden surprises and interesting attractions that are sure to entice anyone! Plus, Porto is just as historic and cultural as Lisbon, but attracts fewer tourists so exploring is less busy!

One of Porto’s highlights is the architecture. The city is made up of stunning colorful houses, churches covered in famous azulejo tiles (such as the Igreja Paroquial de Santo Ildefonso), and a huge bridge that crosses the city Luis I Bridge (AKA Ponte Dom Luis I). These things make Porto a feast for the eyes and exploring these beauties is a wonderful experience. 

Porto has also some unique and special features like its Port Wine cellars! If you are a wine lover then Porto is the city for you. There are a ton of Port Wine Cellar tours that will bring you into the old cellars and let you sample the famous wine from this region. You may want to check out this 3-hour Port wine walking tour with tastings.

Douro Valley

In addition to this, Porto is famous for being a place with many ties to the famous Harry Potter. J.K Rowling lived in Porto for some time and some places in the city were used to inspire the books. If you are a Harry Potter fan then a visit to the beautiful Livraria Lello Library is a must. 

From churches to buildings to Harry Potter inspiration, Porto is full of beauty and excitement. Porto is a very unique place and one of the best places to visit in Portugal for travelers looking for a getaway that offers more than meets the eye.

GOOD TO KNOW: Porto is a perfect starting point to explore the Douro Valley, easily one of the best places to visit in Portugal, a gorgeous unspoilt area famous for its wine production. You can visit it on day trips from Porto such as this one.

To make the most of Porto, you may want to join one of these guided tours:

Check out my posts 10 Fantastic Day Trips From Porto and The Best Restaurants In Porto For The Best Porto Food.

Portugal attractions

Aveiro

Known as the “Venice of Portugal,” Aveiro is located in the region of the Beira Litoral and sits on a series of lagoons and canals. The city is known for its many Art Nouveau buildings, examples of which can be found scattered around town.

While exploring the colorful canals – where you can spot the beautiful barcos moliceiros (which will certainly remind you of Venetian gondolas) is definitely the best thing to do, when in Aveiro make sure to also visit the Museu Arte Nova (which as the name says is dedicated to Art Nouveau) and the Museu de Aveiro, which is located in the 15th century Convento de Jesus and whose has a collection dedicated to the life of Santa Joana, who lived in the convent until her death in 1489.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Aveiro is at around 50 minutes drive south of Porto. You can visit it on day trips such as this one.

things to do in Portugal

Braga

Easily visited on day trips from Porto (for the best guided tour click here), Braga is one of the best places to visit in Portugal. The city features a gorgeous historic center with beautiful mansions and churches, the most important of which is the 11th century cathedral.

Make sure not to miss the main square, packed with lovely cafés located under the arcades and where you’ll find the 14th century Torre de Menagem. At 1.5 km from the city, the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte is another great place to visit. 

GOOD TO KNOW: At less than one hour drive from Braga, Amarante is one of the most picturesque cities in Portugal, also famous for the production of green wine. 

Guimarães

Guimarães

At less than one hour from Porto you’ll find Guimarães, the first capital of the country, a UNESCO World Heritage site and definitely one of the best places to visit in Portugal. Its main landmarks include the castle and the royal palace (Paço dos Duques); as well as the beautiful main square and the 14th century shrine of the Padrão do Salado. 

The best museum in town is the Museu de Alberto Sampaio, located in the Romanesque cloister of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: Guimarães can be easily visited on day trips from Porto, that usually also go to Braga. For more information, click here.

Peneda-Gerês National Park

Peneda-Gerês National Park

Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is the only national park in the country, so  you’ll want to visit! It’s located in the northeast Minho region on the border with Spain and is a place of lush vegetation, beautiful lakes with clear waters, waterfalls and scattered with incredibly scenic villages. Living in the park there are several species of animals, including wolves and wild boars, as well as golden eagles.

It’s a perfect place to go hiking since you will find a great variety of trails of different difficulties, especially if you are visiting Portugal during the Spring.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can visit the national park on day trips from Porto such as this one or this one.

Sao Miguel

The Islands

Madeira

Madeira is a fairly small island located between Portugal and the Canary Islands and blessed with fabulous subtropical weather, which makes it the perfect place to visit for winter sun. The main city, Funchal, is a lovely place to explore. Don’t forget to also visit the house that belonged to Christopher Columbus and the Madeira Wine Museum.

GOOD TO KNOW: The nearby island of Porto Santo has the best beaches!

São Miguel

The largest island of the Azores is a beautiful destination packed to the brim with things to see and do. Make sure to visit to enjoy its hiking trails, waterfalls and the twin lakes Lagoa das Sete Cidades, and don’t miss Furnas, a small village sitting on the volcano.

Bragança

Lesser known places to visit in Portugal

Bragança

If you’re keen on getting off-the-beaten path, Bragança may be a great option. Located at around 3 hours drive from Porto, if features a well kept citadel dating back to 1130! The best places to visit in town are the castle, the Domus Municipalis, a council chamber which is fantastic example of Romanesque civic architecture of a bizarre pentagonal  shape that was built in the 15th century. The Church of Santa Maria is another impressive sight. 

GOOD TO KNOW: If you decide to spend a few days in the area, make sure to also visit the nearby Parque Natural de Montesinho, on the border with Spain.

Sortelha

In the North East of Portugal at about 3 hours drive from Porto and more than 3 from Lisbon, and close to the border with Spain, Sortelha is a gorgeous medieval small town with a charming history, a gorgeous renaissance style church, and narrow alleys galore. It’s an incredibly photogenic spot!

Serra da Estrela

Serra da Estrela – or Star Mountains, in English – is home to the highest peaks in the country, reaching almost 2000 meters above sea level. It’s one of the best places to visit in Portugal to go hiking, and villages such as Linhares and Valezim are the perfect places to stop. This is the only place in Portugal where you can actually go skiing – so consider this option if you are visiting in the winter. You may want to consider this day ski-trip from Porto here.

Porto

Monsanto

The village of Monsanto, at 3 hours drive from Lisbon, counts no more than 1000 inhabitants and is built around, into and under massive boulders. It’s one of the most unique places to visit in Portugal.

Mértola 

This lovely small town in Alentejo deserves to be mentioned among the best places to visit in Portugal. It is a Vila Museu – a museum town located on the banks of the River Guadiana. Though its origins are Phoenician, it is clear that it went under the influence of the Romans and the Moors. The most impressive sight is the 13th century hilltop castle – built by the Moors. The church was once a mosque!

Beja

Located in the Baixa Alentejo, this is another well preserved Roman town. Its most notable sites is the Museu Regional, located in the Convento de Nossa Senhora da Conceição. North of the city you will find the Ruinas Romanas de São Cucufate and the castle, where you can access the Torre de Menagem for impressive views.

Sado Estuary

Close to Lisbon, the Sado Estuary is a fantastic place for birdwatching and other wildlife spotting.

Portugal

Useful Information To Plan Your Trip To Portugal

When to visit Portugal

Portugal is a great place to visit all year long. Each season offers something different and depending on the type of traveler you are is how you can decide when you’d like to visit. 

The spring months – March to May – in Portugal welcome warm temperatures and sunny days. You can expect days with highs over 20 degrees and may find yourself enjoying summer like temperatures in months like March and April. Plus, during these months there are fewer tourists than in the summer so you can enjoy the country with fewer people.

The summer months – June to August – are hot! If you love hot summers then a visit to Portugal during the summer months is what you need. With temperatures over 30 degrees be sure to prepare for the hot days and bring sunscreen. Also, there are far more tourists in Portugal in summer than in the other months which means more people and higher costs. 

September to November are the perfect months to visit for those looking to extend their summer a few months longer. You can get temperatures in the 20s and high teens in the fall and enjoy the last of the summer heat. These months also have less tourists.

Winter – December to February – is the least touristy time in Portugal. You can still expect warmer temperatures and sun, but it is not super hot. 

Portugal travel tips

Some tips for anyone visiting Portugal:

  • The currency used here is Euros
  • The country is very small and you can get around quite easily by train or bus
  • Rent a car if you plan on visiting multiple places
  • Always wear sunscreen
  • Vegetarians may have a harder time finding vegetarian food options, but it is not at all impossible
  • Get a rechargeable metro card in Lisbon and Porto 
  • Most museums are free on Sundays 
  • Wear comfortable shoes, you will be walking quite a bit, and up and down many hills

Portugal truly is a unique and amazing country to visit. There is so much beauty and diversity in the small area of land that will wow you from start to finish. Using this list to find the best places to visit in Portugal will have you ready for your next adventure in this stunning country. 

This post was contributed by Samantha Karen, the founder of Sam Sees World. She is a twenty something traveler on a mission to explore the world to seek the new and unknown so she can document her experiences and inspire others to explore. Her objective is to learn about the world while also searching for her place in it. You can follow Sam on Pinterest and on Instagram too.

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Discover the best places to visit in Portugal - via @clautavani

Read about the best places to visit in Portugal - via @clautavani

Read about the best tourist attractions in Portugal - via @clautavani