“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. It is rife with life and you spend your days walking its picturesque streets, sipping cocktails on its white-sand beaches and soaking up the colonial charm.
Most 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. Cartagena is also extremely hot and humid throughout the year. 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.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
#1 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. There is no better way to experience this city’s magic than just walking around and getting lost.
#2 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.
#3 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 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.
#4 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, book your 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 gorgeous, 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)
#5 VISIT CASTILLO SAN FELIPE
This fortress 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.
#7 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.
Discover where to eat in Cartagena: Where To Eat In Cartagena, Colombia (Healthy + Vegan)
#8 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.
#9 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.
#10 EXPLORE GETSEMANI
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.
Do you have any comments or questions about things to do in Cartagena? I’d love to hear from you so comment below.
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