What to do in Cartagena, Colombia – Travel Guide
Cartegena is one of Colombia’s top touristic destinations, and with good reason! It boasts a gorgeous old city center, a mix of history and modernity, lots of touristic places, restaurants, bars, cafes, nearby paradisiac islands, and much more! Here we share with you our best tips about what to do in Cartagena.
What to see and do in Cartagena
In the Walled City
The “Centro” quarter, otherwise known as the “walled city” is the beating heart of Cartagena’s old city center. It is full of historic landmarks, beautiful sights, public squares, all kinds of restaurants, bars and coffee shops, and much more.
Are you visiting Santa Marta too on your trip to Colombia? Check our guide HERE!
Here are some of the highlights:
San Pedro Claver Square
One of the many squares of the old town of Cartagena, this one features the massive San Pedro Claver church which dominates de square. It is dedicated to Pedro Claver, a Spanish Jesuit priest and missionary who dedicated his life to helping the black slaves in 17th century Cartagena, thus becoming known as the patron saint of slaves.
The church is part of a complex of buildings, including the adjacent claustrum, which houses a museum dedicated to the life of the saint. The entrance costs $12.000 COP.
Plaza de la Aduana Square
Cartagena’s largest square, located just steps away from San Pedro square. It features a statue of Cristopher Colombus and it is surrounded by beautiful buildings that housed administrative offices during colonial times.
Plaza de los Coches Square
This is the square you step into if you enter the walled city through the gate under the clock tower. During colonial times the slave market took place here. Under its porticoes you can buy all kinds of traditional local sweets.
Just a couple of blocks away there is another iconic square: Parque Bolívar, dedicated to Colombia’s independence hero. This oasis is one of the few spots in the walled city where you can rest under the shade of trees. The square itself is surrounded by some notable buildings and museums:
The Inquisition Palace
On one side of this square you will find the Inquisition Palace building. The building’s façade is gorgeous, being especially beautiful before opening time when its doors are closed and you can better appreciate the lion door knockers.
It was built in the 18th cetury as the seat of the Inquisition Tribunal, and today it houses the Historic Museum of Cartagena. The entrance for adults costs $21.000 COP.
Located on the opposite side of the square, and managed by the Bank of the Republic, this free museum displays an impressive collection of pre-colombine works in gold and clay from the Zenú culture.
Adjacent to the Gold Museum, and also free, in this museum you can quickly learn about emeralds: the different kinds that exist, how it is mined and how it is processed to create precious jewels.
Santa Catalina Cathedral
Cartagena’s most important church, and one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas, its yellow and red tower is one of the main features in the walled city’s skyline.
Yes, there is a museum dedicated to chocolate in Cartagena! Here you can learn about the cocoa tree itself, and the different stages through which cocoa beans are processed and turned into chocolate and all of its byproducts. You can also try (and buy) an infinite amount of products made out of cocoa, like chocolate bars (duh) and other ítems like cocoa tea, sweets, liquors, skin care products, and much more. If you want, you can book a spot in one of their workshops in which you can make your own chocolate bar from scrap. There are two locations in the walled city: one by the Parque Bolívar square, and another right on the Fernández Madrid square.
Plaza Santo Domingo
Another of the iconic squares in the old city. This one is located right in front of the Santo Domingo church, and here you can find a statue from the famous sculptor Fernando Botero. This square is usually quite crowded, and is surrounded by restaurants that set up tables in the square itself. Beware, this can be some of the most expensive options to eat, so if you are travelling on a budget, avoid eating here at all costs!
Plaza Fernández de Madrid
Heading towards the San Diego neighborhood of the walled city you’ll find the vibrant Fernández de Madrid square, surrounded by restaurants, pizzerías, bars and a couple of hotels. This is another place where you can find some shade under the trees, or grab a quick drink to fight of the heat. At night there are plenty of options to eat, but the places around the square are not precisely the cheapest alternatives.
Plaza San Diego
Located in the heart of the neighborhood of the same name, the San Diego square is another very lively place where you can find something to eat or drink at night.
The square and the surrounding streets are full of nice restaurants, as well with some of the most beautiful and colorful houses within the walled city.
Speaking of what to do in Cartagena, we have to recommend a walk around the Getsemaní neighborhood. This bohemian and backpacker area of the city used to be the place where slaves lived during colonial times. Not so long ago this neighborhood was overridden by crime and drugs, and was not a place worth visiting at all. However, this place has changed a lot recently and is now one of Cartagena’s most colorful and vibrant quarters. You can now see hostels, restaurants, cafes, bars, and a handful of boutique hotels around. Here are some of the main sights:
Plaza de la Trinidad Square
The heart of Getsemaní. This square is located in the very center of the neighborhood and it’s an ideal place to start exploring in each possible direction. The main feature is the sober yellow church, and the square is otherwise surrounded by a small corner shop, pretty houses and some restaurants and bars.
During the day you’ll see some people around but at night is when this square comes to life as it can get very crowded with lots of foreign tourists chilling in the square.
Getsemaní is famous for being a street art paradise, so you’ll be able to see lots of graffitis in different walls all around the neighborhood. The most notable ones being the ones on the Calle de la Sierpe street and Calle de San Juan Street.
In Getsemaní you will find color wherever you go, but there are some streets that stand out from the rest: First, the gorgeous Calle de la Magdalena street, covered with colorful banners.
Second, the Callejón Angosto, a narrow alley with colorful umbrellas hanging over the street.
And third, Calle de San Juan with pretty little houses of all the colors you can imagine.
Because of all these gorgeous, colorful spots, we believe that a walk around Getsemaní is one of the best things to do in Cartagena.
San Felipe Fortress
Visiting this massive fortress will take you back to the times when Cartagena was constantly raided by pirates and foreign fleets. It is located a 15 or 20 minute walk away from the walled city, and is a must see when you visit Cartagena.
The entrance costs $25.000 COP (some $8 dollars), and once inside you can walk through the dark and narrow passageways built within the fortress, and enjoy the views of Cartagena from the top of its ramparts.
Beaches in Cartagena
A popular daytrip in Cartagena is visiting one of the many islands around for a day at the beach. The beaches in Cartagena itself are not that pretty, so in order to enjoy a truly beautiful beach you must go to Barú, Tierra Bomba or the Rosario Islands.
To catch a boat to any of these islands you must go to the Muelle de la Bodeguita docks, located just outside the walls of the old town, diagonal to the clock tower. Depending on where you are headed to, the boat ride will be somewhere between 20 – 60 mins. If you are going to Barú, you can get there by land by a combination of bus + motorcycle (more time but cheaper) or drive there if you have a car.
Nena Beach Club & Hotel
In our case we went to Playa Blanca beach in Barú. All along the beach you can find many different places where you can rent some beach chairs, have lunch or buy some drinks. In our case, we decided to treat ourselves and spent the day at Nena Beach Club, a place that clearly stands out from all the others at Playa Blanca. Here you’ll find 10 big and stylish beach beds just steps away from a beautiful turquoise sea. The bar area is also quite nice, with a great view towards the sea and some absolutely insta-worthy swings!
There are rooms available, some of them with views to the sea, in case you want to spend a night here. Here’s the link if you want to check availability, prices, and make your reservation via Booking.com: https://www.booking.com/hotel/co/nena-beach.en.html?aid=1766064&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1&label=nena-beach
One detail we loved is that Nena Beach Club has clean bathrooms and showers with running sweet water, which was very useful for washing off the sand and changing to dry clothes before leaving.
The service was impeccable, lunch was delicious (they have a vegetarian option too!) and the cocktails were big and pretty and reasonably priced. If you want to go to spend the day at Nena Beach Club, there are basically two options:
-Day Pass: it includes the boat ride from and to Cartagena, a beachbed, a welcome cocktail, coffee, lunch (3 options), access to all facilities, and personalized service. It costs $175.000 COP (~$55 dollars) per person, or $150.000 COP without sea transportation, in case you arrive by land.
-Without Day Pass: you can rent a beach bed, which costs $100.000 COP ($33 dollars) and can “seat” up to four people, and pay separately for each food item or drink you order. In this case you will equally have access to all facilities and personalized service.
Some info about prices:
Cocktails cost between $20.000 – $25.000 COP ($6-$8 dollars), and they are big.
Beers cost $7.000 – $10.000 COP ($2.5 – $3.5 dollars)
Entrees cost $15.000-$25.000 COP ($5-$8 dollars)
Main dishes cost $30.000 – $50.000 COP ($10-$16 dollars)
Where to eat and drink
Restaurants in Cartagena
Crepes and Waffles
A restaurant loved by Colombians, here you can find very affordable food in very nice locations. Here you can eat sweet and savory crepes, waffles, pitas and panne cooks. In the walled city there’s a location of Crepes and Waffles just one block away from San Pedro square. If you go for dinner, make sure to go to the rooftop for a nice view of the old town’s skyline.
As Italian food lovers, this is one of our favorite restaurants in Cartagena. Our preferred location is the one on Getsemaní, just one block away from Plaza de la Trinidad Square, on the corner of San Juan street. This place is famous for its pizza and pasta, but you can also find meat, chicken and fish dishes. Pizzas are big, with thin crust and top quality toppings that make each bite a delight. If you are in the Bocagrande area, you can find a Di Silvio there too.
A friend of Mariana recommended this place to us and it turned out to be fantastic. For brunch lovers, this place is a must. From 7:00 am to 2:00 pm they have a breakfast menu with various types of eggs, sandwiches, pancakes, French toast, and vegan and healthy options. We ordered pancakes and eggs benedict, and a cappuccino for each.
The portions were quite big and the flavours incredible, and the bill at the end was just $52.000 COP ($18 dollars) which is absurdly cheap for old town price standards. From midday on, they have the lunch menu with salads, burgers, pizzas, pastas and sandwiches. If you want to find a nice place within the walled city to eat something delicious without spending a crazy amount of money, this is the place to go.
Baruco by Cuzco
For a fancier option, you have to try Baruco by Cuzco, a restaurant specialized in seafood and Peruvian cuisine. It is just steps away from the Santo Domingo Square, the restaurant itself is gorgeous and the live music makes for a great ambiance. We tried pasta and risotto dishes and loved them.
For a very cheap and traditional snack or even dinner, head at night to a cart of “fritos” in the San Diego square called “Fritos Dora”. For one dollar or even less, you can get a freshly fried arepa stuffed with egg and ground beef, a staple dish of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. While your arepa is frying, you can go to the nearby corner shop to buy a cheap beverage to go with it.
Bars and cafés in Cartagena
This place is a must if you want to enjoy a good cocktail in Cartagena. This bar is very well known as a “lab” for the creation of unique cocktails. You won’t find margaritas or piña coladas here! You can stay indoors with good music and soft lights, or head to the rooftop on the third floor (our favorite option).
Each of the three floors or stories of the bar has its own cocktail menu. The average price of cocktails is $25.000 COP ($8 dollars), which we think it’s pretty reasonable. Don’t forget to swing by one night to try their original cocktails!
A few steps away from the Plaza de la Aduana square, you’ll find this amazing place to enjoy a 100% Colombian origin coffee from the country’s diverse coffee regions. Folklore offers both hot and cold coffee beverages, natural juices and infusions, which can be paired with some baked options.
Their fantastic service includes an explanation about the coffee making process, from the harvesting of coffee beans, to their roasting, grinding and packaging to create the product that can be consumed there. If you want, you can buy 100% Colombian coffee to take home with you!
Located a few steps away from Plaza Férnandez Madrid square, Townhouse hotel has a rooftop bar open to all, where you can enjoy appetizers and drinks with a fantastic view over the old town. This place can be relatively expensive, so to avoid spending much you can go up for a couple of beers while the sun goes down.
Bazurto Social Club
For a night of party and dancing we recommend Bazurto Social Club, located in Getsemaní, right in front of the Centenario park. The atmosphere and music here is 100% local, focusing heavily on champeta, salsa and merengue. Live music is amazing, and the band will surely get you into a festive and dancing mood! The entrance costs $20.000 COP ($7.5 dollars).
We hope you found our guide about what to see and do in Cartagena useful! Tell us in the comments if you have already visited this gorgeous city, and if so, what was your favorite thing to do?