Welcome to our Cartagena travel guide, where we’ll go through all the best things to do in Cartagena de Indias. It’s probably the most photographed and photogenic city in Central and South America. Here you’ll find gorgeous colonial buildings, plazas, squares, stunning churches and a hot Caribbean sun.
Cartagena de Indias is often called the Jewel of the Indies and its here that you’ll find a unique blend of cultures from the Palenque Ladies with their fruit baskets, colonial Spanish buildings, a building once used in the Spanish Inquisition for torture and an intriguing mix of food!
What you’ll find in this guide to the top things to do in Cartagena
Where is Cartagena
Cartagena is Colombia’s most visited city by tourists. This stunning walled city is located on Colombia’s northern coast, facing the Caribbean Sea. Cartagena is the capital of the province of Bolivar and her biggest city.
Cartagena Colombia Map
If Cartagena is your first stop in Colombia, then here’s all you need to know about arriving in Cartagena.
How to get around Cartagena
The easiest way to get around the old town of Cartagena is to walk! This isn’t a large area and there’s no better way to spot the incredible colonial architecture of the city than by getting lost wandering down the colourful streets of Cartagena.
Walking around the neighbouring Getsemani is also the best form of transport there, although you’ll find more cars and somewhat less shaded areas here.
If walking isn’t your thing, then either take an official yellow taxi (its best to ask your accommodation to call you one) or take a horse-drawn carriage tour around the highlights of Cartagena.
The Top things to do in Cartagena
You won’t get bored with things to see in Cartagena – and there’s a wide variety of activities, depending on what your interests are from museums to foodie experiences and churches galore. We recommend though that you start by taking a walking tour to get an understanding of the history of the city and also to get your bearings. We’ve divided this section into places to visit inside the walled city of Cartagena and those to visit outside, but still within the area of Cartagena.
Top Things to do in the Old Town of Cartagena
Take a Walking Tour of Cartagena
This is always the first thing that we do when arriving in a new place – take a walking tour. In Cartagena, you’ll learn about her history of Spanish colonialism, slaves and Catholicism. A walking tour is a perfect way to touch on all the best places to visit in Cartagena. Join a free walking tour and reward your guide with a tip or book a private tour and get a more tailored experience. You can include areas outside of the walled city if you take a private tour – like the Bazurto Market, the San Felipe Castle and the Convent of Santa Cruz (La Popa).
Free Walking Tours of Cartagena last around 3 hours and introduce the history, architecture, culture and food of the city. It’s also a great way to get recommendations of where to eat, drink and explore further. We recommend Beyond Colombia which offers free tours at 10 am and 4 pm from the Camellón de Los Mártires Square in both English and Spanish.
Explore the Walled City of Cartagena
Talking a walking tour of Cartagena should have whetted your appetite to see more of the walled city. Getting lost in the walled city is pretty safe, Colombia has a great tourist police presence in major tourist areas, just always be mindful of your belongings and if you feel unsafe in an area, leave it.
The streets of the colonial city of Cartagena are absolutely a photographer’s dream – if you can edit out the cars, other tourists and low hanging electricity wires of course. There you go ever the realistic. Seriously pick a decent angle and crop and you’ll see pastel-coloured buildings, wooden balconies and door knockers that will make your camera lens sing.
You’ll want to check out Cartagena’s most Instagram-worthy spots, which you can see here, as well as Cartagena’s famous plazas, of which there are many!
Understand and Meet the Palenqueras
The Palenqueras are an icon of Cartagena and internationally recognised as a symbol of Cartagena, although they’re not originally from the city. They came from, San Basilo de Palenque, a small town south of Cartagena, which was the first free slave settlement in the Americas and which had its own unique language.
You’ll easily spot Cartagena’s Palenqueras – they’re all women, they are dressed in hugely vibrant colours and they’re usually balancing a bowl of fruit on their heads. To find out more about this UNESCO listed town and the unique elements to it, why not take a tour? We recommend taking a trip to San Basilo and exploring the region – book now!
If you don’t want to buy their fruit you should leave a tip for taking a photograph, US$1 or US$2 is sufficient.
Shop in Las Bovedas
There are 23 domes and 47 porticos making up the area known as Las Bovedas, which means ”the vaults” in English. Originally constructed as a storehouse for munitions and jail this is now a popular artisan craft market.
Explore Cartagena’s Plazas
There are open squares, or plazas throughout the city of Cartagena and they’re an amazing place to people watch, but each of the main squares in Cartagena has something special to look out.
Plaza de Los Coches
Overlooked by the Torre Del Reloj (the Clock Tower), this is usually the first square that people see when they enter Cartagena. It’s called the Square of the Cars because the mayor used to let cars be parked here in front of the sweet shops under the arches in the Portal de Los Dulces. You’ll find a statue of Cartagena’s founder, Pedro de Heredia in the centre of the square.
Plaza San Pedro Claver
The main feature of this square is the Cathedral of San Pedro Claver, the patron saint of slaves. You’ll find the coral stone clad cathedral, along with a bronze statue of Claver and slaves.
Plaza de Bolívar
I’d be surprised if there was a city or town in Colombia that didn’t have a Plaza Bolivar. Cartagena isn’t bucking the trend, named after Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, you’ll find this square is a shady, tree-dominated plaza. Bolivar sites astride a horse in the centre and the square also the Zenu Gold Museum and the Cathedral.
Plaza de La Aduana
Named after the impression customs house building located on the square, this is one of the largest open spaces in the walled city. You’ll find a statue of Christopher Columbus and an indigenous woman on the square. The founder of Cartagena, Don Pedro de Heredia once lived in the customs house.
Plaza Fernández Madrid
This is a pretty laidback square, lots of restaurants and bars and seating options. It’s named after José Fernández Madrid and you’ll find a statue of him in the plaza.
Plaza Santo Domingo
Easy to spot because the Botero statue of La Gorda Gertrudis is in the middle of the square outside the convent of Santo Domingo. It’s a very touristy square with lots of Italian restaurants around
Plaza de La Trinidad
You’ll find this square in Getsemani, rather than the walled city, but it’s right in the centre of Getsemani and a great place to hang out on an evening for street food and drinks.
Take a Food Tour
The food of Cartagena is unique to the region, you’ll find man dishes here that you won’t find further inland to Colombia, so take the opportunity to explore it all while you can. Beyond Colombia run a free food tour every afternoon at 2 pm from Monday to Friday. The food throughout the tour will cost you around US$6, but you can also share.
You’ll get to taste Colombian ceviche (and its VERY different), fruit juice from a variety of local fruits, arequipe, plantains, iced coffee and a whole lot more. The Beyond Colombia tour is free and runs off tips. Expect to tip your guide around US$10 for the tour which should last around 3 hours.
The free food tour doesn’t explore any of Cartagena’s food markets, so if you want to, for instance, check out the famous Bazurto Market you’ll need to book a specific tour for that. Here are our recommendations for additional food tours in Cartagena.
Walk along the Walls of Cartagena
The 16th-century walls that surround the old town of Cartagena were originally built to defend the city that stands between the Sinú and Magdalena rivers from pirates. The port of Cartagena was one of Colombia and Spain’s most important – Peruvian silver was exported to Spain from here and slaves were imported.
Cartagena’s walls run for around 3 miles (5 kilometres) and are a great place for views of the city, Boca Grande and of course for a fabulous sunset spot.
Explore Cartagena’s San Pedro Claver Cathedral
The cathedral of Cartagena is named after Saint Peter Claver, who is also known as the patron saint of slaves. The external wall of the church is built completely of coral stone and it was begun in 1580 and not completed until 1654. The cathedral houses the bones of Saint Peter Claver, which are interred beneath the altar of the church.
Saint Peter Claver dedicated his life to improving the lives of slaves who arrived here. You’ll find the cathedral open from 0800 to 2000 and entrance will cost COP$12,000. Your entrance fee also includes the Cloister of San Pedro Claver and an archaeological museum.
Photograph Cartagena’s Clock Tower (Torre Reloj)
This was the original city gate entrance to the old walled town. The clock has been in place since the 18th century, although the tower was begun in 1601! There was also originally a drawbridge that linked the city to Getsemani. This area now links the old town of Cartagena and Getsemani neighbourhood. The light on this gorgeous tower is best earlier in the morning or late afternoon.
Eat your way along the Portal de Los Dulces
You’ll spot this as you walk under the arch of the Clock Tower into the Plaza de Los Coches. Here is the best spot to buy any type of sweet or candy imaginable. The market has been here for more than 100 years.
Convento de Santo Domingo
Located in the square of Santo Domingo and probably more photographed as a background to the Botero sculpture of La Gorda Gertrudis, this pretty convent was recently restored and is also available to visit in its own right.
Touch the Breast of Fernando Botero’s famous Gertrudis statue
Colombia’s favourite artist, Fernando Botero is famous for depicting people and figures in a large and exaggerated size – some say fat. It’s supposed to be lucky to touch la Gorda Gertrudis’s left breast and you’ll find her and her worn and shiny boob located in the Plaza Santa Domingo.
Visit the Cartagena Museums
Cartagena’s Zenú Gold Museum
This free to enter museum located near the Plaza Bolivar is open from 0800 – 1200 and from 1400 – 1800. You’ll get an insight into Colombian history as well as being able to see 700 pieces of gold from the Zenú indigenous culture. The Zenu’s were the indigenous people who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived.
The Palace of the Inquisition
Dating back to 1770 this gorgeous building was once where the Spanish carried out their inquisition tribunals and the execution of 800 suspected heretics. It once housed a museum of torture (which we visited in the past), but since the visit of Pope Francs in 2015 has been a museum of the city of Cartagena. Its open from 0900 until 1800 and the entrance fee is COP$19,000.
The Museum of Modern Art
Located in San Pedro Claver Square, this unique art museums houses pieces from artists such as Enrique Grau and Alejandro Obregon.
Watch the Sunset at Café Del Mar, Cartagena
Even if you’re on a tight budget, watching the sunset is a must do in Cartagena. The most iconic place to do this is the Café del Mar. The drinks are pricey (COP $12,000 for a cold bottle of beer) and the café is crowded. Staff don’t stop you if you wander in, walk to the edge of the city wall, take a photo and walk out again.
Where to drink beer at Sunset in Cartagena on a budget
Want a cheaper version of beer at sunset?
Head to the Café del Mar vicinity and buy a beer from a street vendor and find your own spot on the city wall (outside the café) to toast the sunset.
You won’t see the sunset, but you’ll see a lot of life if you head to the Plaza Trinidad, the central square in Plaza Trinidad, Getsemani buy a beer from a street vendor and join tourists and locals alike.
The Casa De La Cerveza is another spot to head to for an expensive sunset beer. Very cool with loungers and low tables, you’ll get decent views over Boca Grande, the Caribbean Sea and up towards Castillo de San Felipe too. Beers cost COP$15,000.
If you’re looking for a cold beer after a long hot sultry day in Cartagena, then there are plenty of bars to spend your money in. There are bars especially to watch the sunset. But you’ll find them all full of tourists. If you yearn for a more local experience inside the walled city of Cartagena, then head to 152, Cra. 6 #36, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia and settle down at Refresqueria La Estrella e La India.
Here you’ll find local tour guides also celebrating the end of their day, you’ll find local football fans and most of all you’ll find cold beer at local prices. Find a table (or share one if they’re busy), order your Club Colombia (dorada, roja or negra) or a cheaper, weaker and less tasty Aguila and enjoy a little people watching.
Best Things to do in Cartagena outside the walled city
There’s more to Cartagena that just the walled city, although if you only have a short time here you’re best staying there. Although most of the attractions are relatively close, the traffic and humidity might find you booking a tour or taking a taxi.
Check out the Street Art of Getsemani
Full of colourful buildings and amazing street art, the neighbourhood of Getsemani (pronounced Het-sem-an-ee) is the go-to place to backpackers looking for nightlife and cheaper accommodation. There are great restaurants and cafes and you’ll also find salsa and champeta dance clubs here too. At night, the Plaza de la Trinidad is a favourite hangout.
If your time is limited, take a Getsemani Street Art Tour and get right to the locations with the best artwork and stories.
Learn about Getsemani’s barrio history, get involved in a community art project and see all the incredible street art that Getsemani has to offer and understand its meaning. Book your tour NOW!
Spot Sloths and Monkeys in Centenario Park
Located just outside the walled city is Centenario Park. There are wild monkeys, iguanas and sloths to be found here. You’ll have to watch long and hard to find them. Dawn and dusk are the best times to spot them and entrance is free.
Our sole wildlife spotting was a squirrel, which was kind of exciting, but the people watching was also fun.
Explore Bazurto Market
Fifteen minutes taxi ride outside the managed and slightly manicured charm of the walled city of Cartagena is the Bazurto Market. It’s probably most famous for being visited by the late Anthony Bourdain. You’ll find everything here – from seafood to fresh fruit to clothes. It’s a busy market, many will find it huge, dirty, loud and chaotic. While it’s easy to take a taxi to get to the Bazurto Market from the old town, you may find it more convenient to organize your visit as part of a tour.
Check out our recommedned guided tour to Bazurto Market – in 3 hours you’ll get to the heart of the market, watch vendors and craftsmen alike as well as taste local delicacies. Plus a traditional Colombian lunch is included as is hotel pick up and drop off. Book your tour now.
Visit San Felipe Castle
High on San Lazaros hill above the city of Cartagena is San Felipe Castle. Named after Philip IV of Spain, the castle was constructed over a period of 120 years from 1639 to help protect Cartagena from being invaded by the French and English. This UNESCO World Heritage monument has great views over the city and coastal area and a host of underground passages to explore. It’s the best example of a Spanish fort in the Americas and you’ll still find the original cannons on the walls.
The entrance costs are $COP25,000 per person and it’s open from Monday to Sunday from 8 am to 6 pm.
In the heat and humidity of Cartagena, we recommend combining a tour of San Felipe with a visit to the Convento de Santa Cruz and the Bazurto Market.
Popa or Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa
A 40-minute slog uphill from the Castillo San Felipe and on top of a 150-metre high hill is the Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa. It was originally a small wooden chapel built in 1607 the convent was converted into a convent over time. You’ll now find a museum, the chapel of Cartagena’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Candelaria, which is Cartagena’s patron saint and (literally) breath-taking views.
Best Unusual Things to Do in Cartagena Colombia
Eat at a Women’s Prison in Cartagena – not at the usual tourist spots
Where else will you have the opportunity to eat at a working prison? This is one of the most unique things to do in Cartagena trust me! Restaurante Interno is an NGO set up inside the San Diego women’s prison in Cartagena. It’s the first restaurant inside a women’s prison facility. The aim is to provide a second opportunity for the women to reintegrate socially and also to improve the conditions in which the women are serving their sentences. The kitchen at Restaurante Interno is behind barred doors, and all the wait staff and kitchen staff are current inmates. This is a great way to support the community of Cartagena and get a decent meal at the same time.
We visited, ate dinner and enjoyed the experience. You can book by WhatsApp, by email or by chat message on their website or by calling on your way past the prison. It’s only open for dinner and we recommend you book a day or two in advance. The current menu with pricing is posted on their website too.
Restaurante Interno: Cárcel de Mujeres de San Diego, calle 39, Barrio San Diego, Cartagena.
Reservations: +57 (310) 2 600 134 : [email protected]
Visit the beaches of El Cabrero instead of Playa Blanca
Why pay US$35 to take a trip to Playa Blanca when you can rent a cabana for a few pesos and hang with the locals at El Cabrero just outside the walled city? Stock up on drinks and snacks either from the passing traders or head to the supermarket en route from the city to the beach and you’ll save a bundle.
It’s just a 15-20 minute walk to the beaches of El Cabrero from the old town of Cartagena and the cabanas start being set up at 0800. They’re the busiest when the schools close and the kids come for a swim.
Where is El Cabrero? Here’s a map, but if you arrived in Cartagena from the airport and took a taxi to the old town or Getsemani, then you probably passed it on the way.
If the white beaches of Playa Blanca are more your thing, then book yourself a tour and have fun in the sun and the sea.
Cartagena Nightlife – Things to do at Night in Cartagena
Cartagena comes alive at night, certainly inside the city walls and in the streets and squares of Getsemani. Whether you just want to take in a sunset beer, or party on a Chiva bus around Cartagena or dance to Salsa Music, there’s something for everyone.
Where to Dance in Cartagena
Cartagena is famous for her salsa clubs. You can head to the Bazurto Social Club, Café Havana or (our favourite) the Donde Fidel Salsa Bar in the Plaza de Los Coches. You don’t need to dance, the music is deafening, but I challenge you not to sway or tap your feet!
- Café Havana – for salsa
- Bazurto Social Club – for champeta
- Donde Fidel Salsa Bar for a cold beer and a local vibe
Why not combine watching with learning? Take a fantastic half-day salsa tour of Cartagena – learn basic steps and then try them out in a live music venue or two!
Party on a Chiva Bus
Before you ask, no we didn’t, but it’s a popular place and way to party in Colombia (especially in Medellin!). These open, bench seat buses come complete with live music, and open bar and lots and lots of dancing. You’ll party on the bus, then be driven to bars around the city, and end up at a club to party until dawn.
What to Eat in Cartagena
Cartagena’s location on the Caribbean coast and the prominence of fresh seafood and fruits makes her cuisine much more interesting than the rest of Colombia. Here are our recommendations for what you MUST each in Cartagena
There’s not just one type of ceviche here. You’ll find a myriad of ceviche here – try the ceviche with prawns and snails and mayonnaise and ketchup on the food tour (well, try it once anyway). Then head to one of the most recognised restaurants for their take on this fantastic dish – La Cevicheria is a favourite amongst all visitors here – but expensive, go early to get a table.
If you’re travelling for any length of time in Colombia you will come to know and love arepas. We had our first (and worst) here in Cartagena. Do yourself a favour, this is street food, find a busy street food arepa stall and eat them there, rather than ducking into a café.
Cazuelo de Mariscos
A creamy, coconut seafood stew. You won’t find this further inland, the seafood depends on the catch of the day. Slightly spicy, depending on the chef but amazingly filling and one to go back to again and again.
Posta Negra Cartagenera
You’ll only get this dish in Cartagena too, so make it your mission to seek it out. Cuts of sirloin steak are covered in a sweet yet sour sauce made of Coca Cola and Worcestershire sauce. There’s brown sugar in there too, sometimes cinnamon. Tasty, tender and unforgettable.
Call it stew, call it soup with lots of ingredients, your only challenge will be not falling into a food coma after eating this at lunchtime. Lunch or almuerzo is the main meal of the day here in Colombia, so get used to a hearty meal and a bit of a siesta. You’ll find chicken or fish and yucca, plantains, sweetcorn and cilantro in a filling bowl of Sancocho.
Sweets in the Portal de Dulces
If you have a sweet tooth then you really need to head here under the arches, opposite the Torre del Reloj in the Plaza de Los Coches. Homemade sweets, lots of sugar, lots of arequipe. Nom Nom.
Looking for the unique things to eat in Colombia, be sure to head to Salento and check out the Trout options – more here!
Where to stay in Cartagena
The main areas to stay in Cartagena are
- The Old Town
- Boca Grande
These areas are where you will find the most lodgings, hostels and hostels in Cartagena. To be right in the action, then the best places to stay in Cartagena Colombia are in the old walled city, the Old town of Cartagena. For a pretty close, but marginally cheaper option head to Getsemani. The Boca Grande area is where you’ll find apartments and the top hotels in Cartagena right on the beaches of Playa Grande.
For a more local experience, head to El Cabrero, a mere 15 minutes (safe) walk from the walled city Cartagena, where you can find an apartment with sea views, a balcony with a breeze and a more local vibe too.
Where to Stay in Old Town Cartagena
Staying in the old walled town of Cartagena means that you’ll have all the tourist attractions, cafes, restaurants and bars right on your doorstep! Here’s our recommendations of where to stay in the walled city of Cartagena.
- The Clock Hostel & Suites, Calle Roman # 5-30 Centro Histórico, Centro, 130001 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia: There’s AC in every room here and also a shared kitchen available. Free Wi-Fi and a shared lounge make this a home away from home and the location ? Just superb! Reserve your room now!
- The Bourbon Street Hostal Boutique Hotel, Calle 35 # 3-30, Plaza de Santo Domingo, Centro, 130001 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Don’t let the name hostal fool you. This is out and out a boutique hotel. There’s a swimming pool, a terrace, a kitchen and you will revel in the luxury here! Rooms, including the dorms, are very spacious and the staff are superb! Reserve your spot in luxury NOW!
- Casa Mantilla 3-37 Centro Historico, Calle de la Mantilla, Nº 3-37, Centro, 130002 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – A simply gorgeous colonial house. You’ve got an indoor pool, incredible staff and amazing luxury here. The terrace is to die for and the breakfasts are sumptuous. Don’t miss out on this one!
Where to Stay in Getsemani Cartagena
Getsemani is fast becoming the most popular place to stay in Cartagena – so we’ve selected three awesome places to rest you head and relax in the neighbourhood.
- Casa Venita, Calle San Antonio 25-37 Getsemaní, Getsemani, 130001 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – With a fabulous breakfast and a gorgeous terrace, this truly is a haven in Getsemani. All rooms have air conditioning (a must in this humidity!), the staff are super friendly and the Wi-Fi is pretty decent too. Reserve your room now!
- Casa Centenario, Calle San Antonio 25-37 Getsemaní, Getsemani, 130001 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – A great central location and helpful staff, this hostal has excellent Wi-Fi and great air conditioning. Staff speak English and they provide a great breakfast with lots of fruit! Check prices now!
- Life is Good Cartagena Hostel, Calle Larga Calle 25 # 9A – 05, Getsemani, 130003 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Excellent location for nightlife and boats to San Blas and for day trips. There’s a shared kitchen here as well as a lounge too. You can pick from double rooms, family rooms or dorms. Really helpful staff. Reserve your place here now!
Where to Stay in Boca Grande Cartagena
If you’re staying in Boca Grande you’ll want to be on the beachfront, so we’ve selected 2 great apartment options with amazing views and super locations.
- Palmetto Beach, Calle 5 – Carrera 1-115, Bocagrande, 130001 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Amazing views from huge balconies, this apartment building has an amazing location and a fabulous swimming pool. There’s a spa to treat yourself and a fitness centre as well. TV’s in the apartments have satellite channels and the kitchen facilities are perfect for a holiday. Reserve your apartment at the Palmetto Beach NOW!
- Penthouses Palmetto, Bocagrande, Avenida 1ra El Malecón, Edifico Palmetto, Bocagrande, 579986 Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – You’ll get a balcony with a view here, plus a pool that’s private for the complex and beachfront access. Apartments are superbly fitted out. There’s room service and a spa and fitness centre here too. Book a superb apartment in Boca Grande now
Where to Stay in El Cabrero Cartagena
We loved our stay in El Cabrero, Cartagena. We had arrived from a UK winter and the temperature in Cartagena Colombia and the humidity hit us like a brick, so our air-conditioned apartment with washing machine and dryer and with a fabulous balcony and welcome sea breeze in the afternoon was a fabulous get away from the sultry, sweaty city. The local vibe here was also good and the short 15-minute walk from the walled city was pleasant.
The staff at the front desk are fabulous, friendly and really helpful and his fabulous apartment is REALLY, really well laid out, plus has an amazing washer and dryer. There’s also a small store downstairs, where you can eat lunch with locals and have a beer while watching the football.
Final Thoughts on what to do in Cartagena
No matter how much time you have in Cartagena you’re sure to have a blast. There’s lots to do, lots to explore and lots to eat. While it wasn’t our favourite place in Colombia (more on that soon), it was a great and easy introduction to Colombia.
What about you? Where are you heading to in Colombia? And Cartagena did you explore the city and see things that we didn’t Let us know your thoughts!
Pin for later