best things to do in cartagena

The Best 22 Things to Do in Cartagena Colombia

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 – truly the top things to do in Cartagena Colombia. Cartagena de Indias is often called the Jewel of the Indies and it’s 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!

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What you’ll find in this guide to the top things to do in Cartagena

In this guide on what to do in Cartagena Colombia, we’ll cover Cartagena Colombia things to do, what not to do in Cartagena, we’ll cover must do in Cartagena, some of the best things to do in Cartagena at night, and fun things to do in Cartagena Colombia

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 colorful streets of Cartagena. You don’t need to do it by yourself, there are a host of free walking tours here – check them out

photogenic cartagena

Walking around the neighboring Getsemani is also the best form of transport there, although you’ll find more cars and somewhat less shaded areas here. if you don’t want to wander by yourself, then this FREE WALKING TOUR OF GETSEMANI is fabulous

If walking isn’t your thing, then either take an official yellow taxi (it’s best to ask your accommodation to call you one) or take a bicycle tour of the area – or even take a horse-drawn carriage tour around the highlights of Cartagena.

horse drawn carriage ride cartagena

The Best 22 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 FREE 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.

The Best 15 Things to Do in the Old Town of Cartagena

1. 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), also Convento 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 these fabulous free walking tours of Cartagena Colombia which offers free tours at 10 am and 4 pm from the Camellón de Los Mártires Square in both English and Spanish.

take a walking tour in cartagena

2. Explore the Walled City of Cartagena

Taking 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.   Seriously pick a decent angle and crop and you’ll see pastel-colored 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!

3. Understand and Meet the Palenqueras

The Palenqueras are an icon of Cartagena and are internationally recognized as a symbol of Cartagena, although they’re not originally from the city.  They came from, San Basilio 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.

palenqueras in cartagena

You’ll easily spot Cartagena’s Palenqueras – they’re all women, they are dressed in hugely vibrant colors and they’re usually balancing a bowl of fruit on their heads.  To find out more about this UNESCO listed town and its unique elements, why not take a tour?  We recommend taking a trip to San Basilio 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.

4. Shop in Las Bovedas in Cartagena

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.

5. 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 for.

Plaza de Los Coches, Cartagena de Indias

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 center of the square.

pedro de heredi cartagena reloj del torre

Plaza San Pedro Claver, Cartagena de Indias

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, Cartagena de Indias

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 center and the square also the Zenu Gold Museum and the Cathedral.

simon bolivar square cartagena

Plaza de La Aduana, Cartagena de Indias

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 – Cartagena de Indias

This is a pretty laidback square, with 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, Cartagena de Indias

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 Cartagena de Indias

You’ll find this square in Getsemani, rather than the walled city, but it’s right in the center of Getsemani and a great place to hang out on an evening for street food and drinks.

6. Take a Food Tour in Cartagena

The food of Cartagena is unique to the region, you’ll find many dishes here that you won’t find further inland to Colombia, so take the opportunity to explore it all while you can.  This tour with a local foodie is brilliant.

You’ll get to taste Colombian ceviche (and it’s 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 on tips.  Expect to tip your guide at 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. Check out private food tours in Cartagena and reserve your spot now!

7. Walk along the Walls of Cartagena Colombia

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 city walls

Cartagena’s walls run for around 3 miles (5 kilometers) and are a great place for views of the city, Boca Grande, and of course for a fabulous sunset spot.

8. 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.

san pedro claver cathedral

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 the entrance will cost COP$12,000.  Your entrance fee also includes the Cloister of San Pedro Claver and an archaeological museum.

9. 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 the Getsemani neighborhood.  The light on this gorgeous tower is best earlier in the morning or late afternoon.

cartagenas torre de reloj

10. Eat your way along the Portal de Los Dulces – Cartagena de Indias

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.

portal de los dulces cartagena

11. Visit the Convento de Santo Domingo – Cartagena de Indias

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.

12. Touch the Breast of Fernando Botero’s famous Gertrudis statue

Colombia’s favorite 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.

13. 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 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 were the indigenous people who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived.

The Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena

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 Francis in 2015 has been a museum of the city of Cartagena.  It’s open from 0900 until 1800 and the entrance fee is COP$19,000.

The Museum of Modern Art, Cartagena

Located in San Pedro Claver Square, this unique art museum houses pieces from artists such as Enrique Grau and Alejandro Obregon.

14. 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.

cafe del mar for sunset cartagena

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 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.

15. Share a Beer with the Locals at Refresqueria La Estrella e La India

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.

donde fidel salsa bar cartagena

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.

drink_cheap_beer_in_cartagena

Best Things to do in Cartagena outside the Walled City

There’s more to Cartagena than 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.

1. Check out the Street Art of Getsemani

Full of colorful buildings and amazing street art, the neighborhood of Getsemani (pronounced Het-sem-an-ee) is the go-to place for 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 favorite hangout.

street art in getsemani cartagena

If your time is limited, take a Getsemani Street Art Tour and get right to the locations with the best artwork and stories.  This is one of the best things to do in Getsemani.

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!

2. Spot Sloths and Monkeys in Centenario Park –  Best wildlife in Cartagena

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.

centenario park wildlife cartagena

3. Explore Bazurto Market outside Cartagena

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 recommended 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.

4. Visit San Felipe Castle above Cartagena

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 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.

5. Go to Popa or Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa – Cartagena

A 40-minute slog uphill from the Castillo San Felipe and on top of a 150-meter 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) breathtaking views.

Two Unusual Things to Do in Cartagena Colombia

1. 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.

restaurante interno cartagena restaurant inside a womens prison

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. 

Restaurante Interno:  Cárcel de Mujeres de San Diego, calle 39, Barrio San Diego, Cartagena.
Reservations: +57 (310) 2 600 134 :   [email protected]

2. Visit the beaches of El Cabrero instead of Playa Blanca, Cartagena

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.

If you do spend the day on the beach be sure to secure your valuables. We use and recommend portable travel safes – here’s our guide to the best travel safes.

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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.

el cabrero beach cartagena

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.

el cabrero map colombia

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 de Indias

Cartagena is famous for her salsa clubs.  You can head to the Bazurto Social Club, Café Havana or (our favorite) 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
donde fidel salsa bar cartagena

Party on a Chiva Bus around Cartagena

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, an 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. Book your Chiva party now and get to know a whole host of new friends!

What to Eat in Cartagena de Indias

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

Eat Colombian Ceviche 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 recognized restaurants for their take on this fantastic dish – La Cevicheria is a favorite amongst all visitors here – but expensive, go early to get a table.

Arepas from Cartagena

If you’re traveling 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 favor, this is street food, find a busy street food arepa stall and eat them there, rather than ducking into a café.

Enjoy Cazuelo de Mariscos in Cartagena

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 – speciality of Cartagena de Indias

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.

posta negra cartagenera

Sancocho -Cartagena’s stew

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 of Cartagena

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.  One of the best things to buy in Cartagena de Indias

Looking for the unique things to eat in Colombia, be sure to head to Salento and check out the Trout options – more here!

Where is Cartagena located?

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

where is cartagena colombia map

If Cartagena is your first stop in Colombia, then here’s all you need to know about arriving in Cartagena.

Where to stay in Cartagena de Indias

The main areas to stay in Cartagena are

  • The Old Town
  • Getsemani
  • 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.

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 are 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 a glorious boutique hotel.  There’s a swimming pool, a terrace, and 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!

Travel Tips for Exploring Colombia

Final Thoughts on the 22 Best Things to Do in Cartagena Colombia

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.   Cartagena is a great and easy place to start your trip to Colombia, it’s a great and easy introduction to Colombia.  We had a week in Cartagena so we were able to knock off all the main Cartagena things to do and we loved it!


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