Cartagena is an attractive coastal city in Colombia famous for its colorful colonial buildings, rich history, and vibrant culture. And the best things to do in Cartagena run the gamut from walking the Old Town to boarding a boat to beautiful beaches.
I had the opportunity to visit Cartagena many times during my expat years of living in Medellin, and every trip was memorable.
The city is perfect for planning a long weekend in South America, whether traveling solo, with friends, or seeking a romantic getaway. Here are ten fun things to do in Cartagena, Colombia.
1. Explore the Old Town
The Old Town of Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its beautiful architecture, narrow streets, and plazas.
Stroll through the historic center and explore its many shops, restaurants, and museums. Street performers often play music later in the day, creating a lively atmosphere.
Due to the ever-present heat and humidity on Colombia's Caribbean coast, save your longer walks for the early morning and late afternoon or evening.
My favorite time to walk the walled city of Cartagena is in the evening when the temperatures are more manageable.
Everyone is out in dressier but comfortable clothing (white cotton and linen), and horse-drawn carriages ply the cobblestone streets.
2. Visit the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is a historic fort and one of Cartagena's most popular attractions.
It was built in 1536 by African slave labor under Spanish supervision while the Spaniards still occupied present-day Colombia.
You'll be treated to views of the surrounding city and the Caribbean Sea from atop the fort.
3. Take a boat tour
Several boat tours depart from Cartagena's port and will take you on a day trip to nearby islands and beaches.
Some of the most popular tours include visits from Cartagena to Isla Grande, the Rosario Islands, and the Baru Peninsula.
They're available as half or full-day trips, and I recommend the latter to get the most out of your time at sea. Either way, they're typically inexpensive by U.S. or European standards.
4. Walk along the walls of Cartagena
Back on the mainland, you'll want to check out the well-preserved city walls, an iconic Cartagena landmark offering breathtaking views of the Caribbean waters.
They're best explored in the early morning or late afternoon when the temperatures are cooler.
Cafe del Mar is a bar atop the wall on the west side of Cartagena's Old Town. It's one of the best places to enjoy a tropical cocktail and watch the sunset.
5. Relax on the beaches
Cartagena has some easily accessible beaches to spend a day soaking up the sun, swimming, and enjoying the Caribbean vibe.
The beaches on the mainland, in Bocagrande, have dark sand and waters. But they're the closest to the Old City, a quick rideshare or taxi ride away.
A word of caution, though. Hawkers selling everything from fresh little crab legs to massages can sometimes be very forward. If you're not interested, say “no” or ignore them entirely, and they'll move on.
For picture-perfect white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters, you'll need to hop on a boat and head to places like Playa Blanca on the nearby islands.
6. Visit the Museo del Oro
This museum showcases the rich history of gold in Colombia and features a stunning collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.
It's not as big a collection as the Gold Museum in Bogota, but it's still worth a visit.
7. Explore the Getsemani neighborhood
Getsemani is a fantastic neighborhood in Cartagena known for its street art, lively nightlife, and excellent food.
It also tends to be less expensive than the Old Town, whether that's the accommodation, restaurants, or bars.
For that reason, I stayed in Getsemani for three out of my four visits to Cartagena.
8. Visit the Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa
This historic convent is located on the highest hill in Cartagena and offers panoramic city views. The buildings date back to 1607.
For safety reasons, I recommend you only visit this place with a knowledgeable local guide or group.
It's a little removed from the rest of the city, and thieves have been known to operate in the area.
9. Attend a live music performance
Cartagena is known for its active music scene, and there are many live music venues throughout the city. Check out a salsa club or a traditional Colombian music performance.
One of my favorite bars in Cartagena, Cafe Havana, is in Getsemani. Drop by in the evening if you want to add live salsa music, dancing, and mojitos to your night.
10. Try the local cuisine
Cartagena has a rich culinary tradition, with many delicious local dishes to try.
Street food is sold by vendors throughout the city, and there's a seemingly endless supply of fresh fruit (mango, watermelon, papaya).
Additionally, try the ceviche, whole fried snapper (“pargo” in Spanish), coconut rice (arroz con coco), arepas, and empanadas, among other specialties.
I always drop by La Cevicheria, a restaurant featured on one of Anthony Bourdain's TV shows.
As the name suggests, they specialize in ceviche; however, there are plenty of other seafood and fresh fish options on the menu if you're not a fan.
I hope this list of the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia helps you plan a fun itinerary.
Despite my multiple visits, I still daydream about going back again and walking amid the colonial architecture of the Old Town.
It never fails to capture my imagination of what it would've been like to live there centuries ago.
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