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A colorful walled city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena is known for its rich history, beautiful beaches and colonial architecture. From taking leisurely strolls around the city walls to sampling the local Caribbean cuisine and basking in the sunshine along one of its golden shores, this romantic city has a lot to offer. Read on to discover our picks for the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia.
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A walk around the Old City reveals some of the most historical parts of the city, where you can snap photos of its picturesque streets with its colorful colonial architecture, vibrant flower displays and local vendors selling trinkets on the streets. Nestled in the heart of Cartagena, head to Ciudad Amurallada to see the UNESCO-listed walled city protected by a fortress. Plaza Aduana is another historically important monument-filled area, while Plaza Santo Domingo houses the iconic Botero statue.
A must on any itinerary to Cartagena, Castillo De San Felipe De Barajas is a grand castle that dates back to 1639, but was not completed until 150 years later. It’s been serving as the crowning landmark in the city ever since, where visitors can step inside and see the historic battlements, explore underground passages and marvel at the impressive architecture. Make sure to grab an audio guide or book a guided tour of the castle so you can learn more about its fascinating history.
Located on Baru Island, Playa Blanca is no doubt one of Colombia’s most beautiful beaches. Only a 45-minute ride by boat or two-hour car journey, take a day to explore this scenic coastline so you can enjoy its white sand and crystal clear waters. Sit back and relax or enjoy the fresh fish with coconut rice on offer from local restaurants, while those looking for accommodation for an overnight stay will find anything from fancy hotels to budget-friendly hostels.
If you want to learn more about Cartagena’s history, spend an afternoon browsing the more than 55,000 exhibits at Museo De Oro. See its fascinating collection of gold-related artifacts, then admire the pottery of the Zenu (also known as Sinu) people. Learn how ancient cultures made jewelry and how gold was mined, then read how gold was used in ceremonies and rituals. Make sure to see of the most famous pieces, a gold boat called the Balsa Musica. Descriptions displayed are in both English and Spanish.
If you’ve got the choice of visiting one church in Cartagena, make it the Santuario de San Pedro Claver. You’ll be taken aback by the striking beauty of its exterior and imposing facade, which can be seen from many parts of the city. Step inside to discover an on-site museum showcasing religious artwork dating back to colonial times. Admire the stained glass windows and Italian marble altar, then browse the pre-Colombian ceramics and Afro-Caribbean pieces. Afterwards, relax in the church’s picturesque tree-filled courtyard area.
You can’t leave Cartagena without tasting some of its top-notch ceviche and fish restaurants. One of the best in the city is La Cevicheria, which offers incredible Peruvian-Colombian fusion food and some seriously good cocktails. Go for the lobster ceviche that is drenched in a citrusy broth and served with saltine crackers. This charming, no-frills eatery even earned the approval of Anthony Bourdain on an episode of No Reservations. Although it’s eternally busy, you can grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables during lunch and enjoy the prime people-watching.
Sitting on a hill that serves as the highest point in the city, Convento De La Popa is best known for offering stunning views of Cartagena. Take a cab up the winding road to reach the landmark, where you’ll discover a convent that dates back to 1607 and was fortified two centuries later. After snapping photos of the iconic view, step inside the chapel to see the image of La Virgen de la Candelaria and a flower-filled courtyard.
Start your night at Alquimico, where you can sip inventive cocktails while listening to live DJs inside a colonial palace. It offers two areas to hang out, the Art-Deco cocktail bar on the ground floor and the laid-back roof-top terrace. You can also dance the night away at Cafe Havana, which is a great place to be if you enjoy dancing to salsa music. The Cuban-style bar is perfect for even the most novice dancers, even luring in the likes of Hillary Clinton.
Brace yourself for a vibrant array of sounds, smells and sights at Mercado de Bazurto, as this bustling food market sells anything from fresh fruit to a two-course meal. Stroll through this market to experience a real slice of local life in Cartagena, where you can discover ingredients not found in supermarkets and unique items like kick-off brand name sports gear. It’s the biggest wet market in town, which means you’ll find locals at work slicing meat, scaling fish and cooking as you dine on your lunch.
While it might be a bit touristy, an evening spent on a chiva (party bus) is a great way to enjoy the city’s nightlife and meet some new friends. Hop aboard one of these colorful party buses, then expect live musicians playing Vallenato, open bars with local liquor and of course, lots of dancing. You’ll be dropped off at various bars around the city, then end the evening at a larger club where you can dance the night away.
Escape the city with a day trip to Rosario Islands, or Islas del Rosario, where you’ll be lured in the beauty of the 27 islands that are surrounded by the crystal clear Caribbean waters. This is a great spot to be if you’re looking for some outdoor adventures, as you can enjoy boating, swimming and snorkeling around its coral reefs that are teeming with aquatic life, while its white sand beaches also offer you the chance to dig your toes in the sand and unwind.