“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ― Gabriel García Márquez
Cartagena de Indias is Colombia’s most visited city and for good reason. With vividly coloured colonial buildings, cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages this city is something out of a fairytale. There isn’t a shortage of things to do in Cartagena, Colombia and you’ll easily be able to fill up a couple of days in this colonial paradise- and I highly recommend that you do. It is rife with life and you spend your days walking its picturesque streets, enjoying the colonial architecture and sipping cocktails on its white-sand beaches and soaking up all of the things to do in Cartagena Colombia.
The City of Cartagena is a large place but as a traveller, you’ll probably be interested in just the central, walled city and Getsemani. If you arrive by taxi from the airport or bus station then you’ll notice how large and loud the city really is. Don’t be concerned- the most beautiful parts of the city are small, walkable and self-contained.
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WHEN TO VISIT CARTAGENA COLOMBIA
Cartagena is hot and humid throughout the year and generally, temperatures stay within the mid-80s (Fahrenheit) or high 20s (celsius) all year round. What does vary, however, is the amount of rainfall from month to month. While it probably won’t rain all day for days on end, you can expect to see short bursts of heavy rain during the afternoons. The wettest months in Cartagena are October and November. May and July are quite rainy too. If a bit of rain doesn’t bother you then this also coincides with the low season where there will be fewer people around and you’ll be able to pick up some great discounts on hotels.
The best time to visit Cartagena is between December and April when the weather is hot, but not at its most hot and humid and with guaranteed sunny days. It’s the best time to visit if you’re planning to spend some time on the beaches around the city and on the Rosario Islands. This is high season in Cartegena so expect more people at this time.
If you can try to avoid the Christmas holiday and January and this is when most Colombians take their vacation making Cartagena extremely busy at this time.
Due to the heat, it’s always a good idea to book accommodation with a pool (many hotels and even budget hostels have them) and then sightseeing in the early morning and late afternoon while passing the hottest time of day having a leisurely lunch or in the pool.
WHERE TO STAY IN CARTAGENA COLOMBIA
Many travellers stay within the Old Walled City or in neighbouring Getsemani. Outside of these places you’ll find an ordinary hustling and bustling Colombian city like any other. I highly recommend that you stay in the Old Walled City or Getsemani which have plenty of boutique-style accommodation options for all budgets.
Another option is to stay in the Bocagrande neighbourhood of Cartagena- this is the beach strip part of Cartagena that reminds me a little of Miami beach. Here you’ll find all the 5-star resorts from all the top brands from around the world. While you’re a little further away from the Old Walled City staying here, you do have the beach right in front of you- it really depends on what you’re priorities are.
Here are our favourite places to stay in Cartagena:
What are the best places to stay in Cartagena I hear you ask? This is one of them. Ananda Hotel Boutique is what dreams are made of. Set in an old, colonial mansion right in the centre of the Old Walled City, this boutique hotel is the kind of place that will have you dreaming of it long after you’ve checked out. Among thick concrete, walls and staircases and original wooden, beam ceilings, this property really evokes the feeling of the past; their attention to detail is incredible. Suites are beautifully decorated and spacious with TV, wifi and air-con. There are two gorgeous pools in the property, a rooftop plunge pool and a larger one in the centre courtyard. They also have an onsite restaurant serving delicious local food and a spa where you can cool off from the midday heat and get a message. You won’t be disappointed here.
Another stunning option right in the middle of the city centre, this boutique hotel is full of old world-style touches, light and dark contrasts and earth tones. Among its thick concrete walls you’ll find traditional window shutters, wisteria-filled courtyards and antique furniture. The rooms here are gorgeously decorated and have everything you need for a comfortable stay; closet space, en-suite bathroom and plenty of space. There’s also a spa on-site that offers a number of different treatments as well as a courtyard pool to relax in during the day. This `property also offer bicycle rental, allowing you to explore the city on your terms.
For a chance to experience old-world style on a budget, Casa India is a great option. It’s another property housed in an old colonial building with an internal courtyard full of plants, a chillout area and of course a pool. Rooms here are cosy and simple with everything you need for a pleasant stay in Cartagena. They also have a great breakfast to take advantage of before starting your day exploring.
For an excellent location, world-class dining and one of the best rooftop views in Cartagena, make sure to stay at the Movich Hotel Cartagena. This stunning, Moroccan themed hotel offers a modern touch to your stay. With exposed stone walls and clean lines in each suite, the rooms are comfortable and luxurious and all the mod-cons. On the roof terrace, you’ll find a restaurant pool and bar with the best views of Cartagena. Even if you’re not planning on staying here, I highly recommend you come here for a sunset drink.
If you’d like to prioritize luxury, rest and beach over exploring the centre stay in Bocagrande at our top choice, the Hyatt Regency. This beautiful, world-class hotel offers a similar service you’d expect from this name around the world. With clean, modern and functional suites, large restaurants, chill-out areas, multiple pools including a rooftop infinity pool and some of the best sea views around, this is a great choice. On the wellness front, their large spa offers a variety of different treatments to enjoy throughout your stay from massages to facials. It’s the perfect place to relax and get some ‘me’ time and ‘beach’ time.
WHERE TO EAT IN CARTAGENA COLOMBIA
Pezetarian – With a colourful menu that contains only fresh fish, seafood and vegan dishes. Come here for a range of vibrant rice bowls, salads, sushi and more. What’s great about this place is their breakfast menu filled with eggs, pancakes and açai bowls. There is something here for everyone.
Girasoles Restaurante Vegetariano– This vegetarian restaurant provides you with hearty food throughout the day including breakfast. Tofu Scramble anyone? The thing to order here is the menu del dia which for $13,000 COP, you’ll get a soup, main dish and a juice. Food is based on Colombian classics and it’s really delicious home-cooked food.
Zaitun Cartagena – If your craving some Middle Eastern Flavours then head straight here to this popular spot to taste their unique Colombian- Lebanese fusion menu. With plant-based classics like hummus and falafel they also serve a number of different salads and mains that can easily be made plant-based.
There are a number of local fresh fruit sellers in Cartagena that you’ll encounter while walking around. These women are pretty unique and traditionally carry their wares on their heads. The fruit they sell is fresh a delicious. I highly recommend trying it when out exploring for the day.
For more eating options in Cartagena don’t miss: Where To Eat In Cartagena, Colombia (Healthy + Vegan)
TOP THINGS TO DO IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
EXPLORE THE OLD WALLED CITY
Walking through the Old Walled City is like being transported back in time, straight into the Spanish colonial beauty of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Cobbled-streets, quaint colonial churches, horse-drawn carriages in the evenings and balconies covered in bougainvillaea. This is the best way to experience this city’s magic than just walking around and getting lost.
There are a number of popular places to visit within the Old Walled City such as the Sanctuary of Saint Peter Claver, the clock tower, gold museum and the palace of the inquisition. Don’t miss the two most prominent cathedrals in the centre too.
WATCH THE SUNSET FROM THE WALL
If you’re in the city then there is no better place to watch the sunset than from the old city wall. Head to Cafe del Mar, right on top of the wall itself, order some cocktails and watch the sun go down in style. Be warned though, it gets very busy and you’ll have to get there pretty early to get the best tables. Otherwise, grab a beverage of choice from a vendor or local store, take a seat on the wall itself and enjoy the sunset and the number of street performers you’ll see here at this time.
WATCH THE CITY WAKE UP AT SUNRISE
If you’re a blogger or Instagrammer and you’re keen on getting some great shots with no one in them you’ll have to be on the street at 6 am. Cartagena’s old town is extremely busy, all day and every day and it’s impossible to photograph its streets without anyone getting into your shot. The harsh light contrasts are also difficult to work with. 6 am was my favourite time in Cartagena- the sun had just risen, it was still cool and I had the streets to myself. You also get to see the city waking up- cafes opening, breakfast and coffee vendors arriving on the street and university students heading to class. The city has a completely different feel to it that is well worth experiencing.
TAKE A TRIP TO PLAYA BLANCA
While in Cartagena you’ll see many street vendors trying to sell you trips to Playa Blanca and the surrounding islands. It’s well worth your time, but book your day trip with a reputable company. A simple 45-minute boat ride from Cartagena lies Playa Blanca, a gorgeous white sand beach, fringed by coconut palms and clear, turquoise water. It’s the beach you’d see on a postcard back when they existed. While it is one of the most beautiful beaches in Colombia on the Caribbean Coast, Playa Blanca can get extremely busy with travellers and locals alike. Try to avoid it during weekends, Colombian National holidays and holidays like Christmas and Easter. Prepare for it to be more hectic during the summer holidays too (January and February)
VISIT CASTILLO DE SAN FELIPE
This fortress (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas) was built by the Spanish in 1536 and later expanded to how it appears today. The fortress protected the Spanish from enemies, disease and floods for centuries and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pay the entrance fee to get in or walk around the outside to get an idea of the space. When walking around it keep your eyes peeled for iguanas. Iguanas live in the little holes in the fortress walls and they often come out in the early morning to hunt and sunbathe. Castillo San Felipe is easily reached on foot from Getsemani.
The historical centre is full of unique boutiques, independent Colombian brands and trendy concept stores. Perfect for finding that unique item to take back home. If you compare prices with back home however you’ll definitely notice a difference. American and European brands are much more expensive here so stick to the local labels. Some other items that you might want to purchase here are local Colombian coffee, locally made jewellery and other handicrafts.
DRINK WITH THE LOCALS AT A REALLY OLD BAR.
Now if these bars don’t transform you back to colonial times, I’m not sure what will. While only a few left in the centre, you’ll see mainly locals sitting in them. They offer alcoholic drinks, light snacks and even deserts. It’s the perfect place to rub shoulders with the locals and spark up a conversation drinking an ice-cold Aguila. While I’m unsure of the locations of other bars, the one I visited was on the corner of Carrera 6 and Calle 38.
DANCE SALSA AT CAFE HAVANA IN GETSEMANI
Cafe Havana is arguably the best salsa club in town and is an institution in its own right. Feel like your skills are up for it? Head to the dance floor and join right in. If not, its also a great place to just enjoy the music, sip a great Cuban cocktail and watch the locals strut their stuff.
TAKE A FREE WALKING TOUR
Just like in any other major city, Cartagena also has many companies offering free walking tours around the city centre. The local guides are all very knowledgeable and will tell you all about the history of the city up until now. If you have any other questions they are the perfect people to ask. Don’t forget to leave them a small tip at the end and try not to start a tour towards midday as things will get uncomfortably hot very quickly. I highly recommend this one.
Getsemani is my favourite neighbourhood in Cartagena. It’s a little boho, a little grungy, very cool, colourful and laid-back and most importantly- real. The area is a mixture of local business, hostels and boutique hotels, restaurants and local people living their lives on these streets. Check out the colourful houses, talk to some locals, grab a coffee in a hip cafe and most importantly, seek out the street art. Getsemani is full of street art from a variety of different artists. Most of which are extremely artistic and of a political nature. Make sure not to miss the iconic Plaza de la Trinidad where you can mingle with the locals in the afternoon and evening.
Do you have any comments or questions about things to do in Cartagena Colombia? I’d love to hear from you so comment below.
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