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.
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.
If you want to shop for books, go to Ábaco Libros y Café (Abacus Books and Coffee), by far the best bookstore in town.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A great alternative to a walking tour may actually be a bike tour. You can book it here.
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.
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!
San Felipe Castle is a 10 minutes walk from the clocktower. 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Visit the 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.
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.
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.
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!).
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 one.
Make sure to also read my post The Best Colombian Food To Try.
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.
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.
Most drinks in Colombia are served with a plastic straw. Bring your own reusable one and specify you don’t need it!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You should also read my post 19 Best Beaches In Colombia.
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 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.
Cartagena Travel Tips
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, and a post about the best airbnbs in Cartagena, but here is a quick selection:
- HOTEL LM A LUXURY BOUTIQUE HOTEL – A fantastic small hotel located in the heart of the old town.
- BOURBON S HOSTAL BOUTIQUE – A lovely boutique hotel with conveniently priced rooms.
- HOSTAL CASA ROMAN – A great option for travelers on a budget.
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.
Make sure to read my posts about other Colombia destinations:
- 29 Beautiful Places To Visit In Colombia
- The Best Itinerary For 2 Weeks In Colombia
- 15 Useful Things To Know Before Visiting Cartagena
- The Best Day Trips From Cartagena
- Is Cartagena Safe For Tourists?
- 17 Unmissable Things To Do In Bogota
- 7 Great Day Trips From Bogota
- A Complete Guide To Where To Stay In Bogota
- An Excellent Guide To San Gil, Colombia
- A Concise Guide To Salento, Colombia
- A Complete Guide To Hiking Valle De Cocora, Colombia
- A Concise Guide To Villa De Leyva, Colombia
Have you been to Cartagena? What did you enjoy the most there?