Ultimate Guide of Things to Do in Cartagena (Colombia)

by | Aug 10, 2020

Cartagena – Colombia’s Vibrant Caribbean Getaway 

A city of soft yellows and bright oranges.

Colourful walls and welcoming locals. Traditions and historical buildings have remained intact but a huge tourist infrastructure has grown around them.

Cartagena is the most visited city in Colombia by foreigners and native Colombians alike.

Its appeal is obvious.

Tropical temperatures, vibrantly coloured streets, and salsa clubs packed full until morning.

This guide will walk you through all of the best things to do in Cartagena – the iconic landmarks, the off-the-beaten-path stops, the tastiest food, and some noteworthy accommodation in Cartagena to help you plan your perfect Colombian Caribbean getaway.

Overview

wandering old town one of the best things to do in cartagena

Why Visit Cartagena?

Cartagena is the soul of Colombia.

You’ll instantly be captivated by the rainbow pennants flapping high above the cobblestone streets.

It’s home to salsa dancing, ceviche, and balmy tropical heat.

Ancient fortresses welcome wandering, Palenqueras (the fruit-bearing women) pose for photos, and just off the coast, the San Bernardo and Rosario islands call to be explored.

The citizens of Cartagena appreciate a good historic building.

Countless 200+ year-old mansions have been renovated for hotels, hostels, and restaurants.

Keeping the beauty of the old architecture and refurbishing with bold color palates.

The contrast makes Cartagena the most photogenic city in Colombia.

tour group exploring the best things to do in cartagena

Cartagena is a great beginner course to Colombian culture.

With the sheer number of tourists at any given time of year, you’ll still feel quite at home.

The infrastructure is well in place to make travel easy. You can get a taste of Colombia or really jump right in.

Visit outside the towering walls of the old city and you’ll get a grittier Cartagena.

Without the tourist glitz and glam.

More authentic.

The choice is up to you just how far in you want to dive.

Cartagena is also a perfect jumping off point for exploring the rest of the Caribbean coastline. Minca, The Lost City, Santa Marta, Palomino, and the La Guajira are all just a short bus ride away.

wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

Weather in Cartagena

If you’re looking for tropical weather Cartagena is the place to be.

Located on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena is HOT and humid for most of the year with average temperatures ranging between 76F – 88F (24 – 31C).

Thankfully, Cartagena’s climate is ideal for sunbathing, catching the refreshing sea breeze and swimming in the nearby ocean.

The driest months are December – April and when we say ‘dry’ we mean DRY because Cartagena gets virtually no rain during these months. Even during the ‘wet’ season it remains pretty dry. Needless to say Cartagena’s rainfall is significantly less than in Bogota and Medellin.

Note: for a more in-depth look at Colombian climate, check out our blog post: When is the Best Time to Visit Colombia 

Palenqueras: one of the most important things to see in cartagena

Transportation in Cartagena

Cartagena is easy to get around.

Unlike Bogota and Medellin which are built into the mountains, this city is relatively flat.

For most of the best things to do in Cartagena, you’ll find yourself walking relatively short distances.

But for the few things that require transport, you’ll find a yellow cab on every corner. 

(or you could even enjoy a horse-drawn carriage in the stunning Old Town).

Riding a horse carriage through cartagena old town - one of the best things to do in cartagena

Safety in Cartagena

Even for the most cautious travellers, Cartagena is a relatively worry-free city.

Plenty of tourists can be found on the streets at any time of night and all areas are walkable.

A favourite Colombian phrase is “No dar Papaya“.

It translates roughly to “Don’t go around flaunting all that you have and inviting others to take it from you”.

The best tip to keeping yourself safe is to not flaunt your valuables.

Don’t portray wealth and you’ll fly under the radar everywhere you go.

For a real deep-dive into this topic check out our guide to travelling Colombia alone which takes an extensive look into safety while travelling Colombia.

Things to see in cartagena - the beautiful doors
wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

What is “The Walled City”?

Cartagena should nearly be considered two separate cities.

The Walled City (or the Old Town) and “The Real Cartagena” beyond the wall.

The Walled City is the UNESCO-Heritage Site portion of Cartagena literally surrounded by thick crumbling walls built in the 1700s.

Originally constructed to defend the city from an attack they now serve as a divider between the touristy part of town and outside “Las Murallas” where the locals actually reside.

To get the full Cartagena experience we suggest exploring both parts of town thoroughly.

There was a time not too long ago when locals lived inside the walled city. But following its UNESCO-Heritage status tourists came flocking. And with the tourists came a rise in the cost of living and housing. Soon the native Colombians were forced to live outside the wall. In the less expensive, less visited parts of town.

First, let’s take a look at what you can find within the city walls and then we’ll cover all that’s outside them.

The city walls, one of the top things to do in cartagena

Things to Do in Cartagena (inside The Walled City)

ACCOMODATION

Volunteer Hostel Cartagena

Your stay here makes a difference. WE LOVE THIS HOSTEL. Not only does a portion of their proceeds go directly to FEM (an organization supporting afro/indigenous communities in the area), but they give you the opportunity to take some unconventional tours of Cartagena. Tours designed to give you an inside look at the lesser visited parts of Cartagena.

Clean & Basic Dorms Start at $6.50.

Viajero Cartagena Hostel

Perfect for Solo Travelers looking to make friends. This lovely hostel offers cheap dorms, free breakfast, and a chill atmosphere. They were also voted the most popular hostel in Cartagena in 2019.

Dorms start at $11. Privates for $30.

Republica Hostel Cartagena

This is luxury. Pool, rooftop hot-tub, and stunning colonial architecture. Every detail of this hostel is perfectly crafted. With white lattice walls, turquoise accents, and lush plant life draping around the common room you’ll feel like you splurged on a boutique hotel.

Dorms Start at $14. Privates start at $80.

The Icon Capsule Hostel

The main highlight here is a breathtaking rooftop jacuzzi. Full breakfast is included and there is both a beautiful pool and a solarium. There are also two onsite restaurants for seafood and Turkish cuisine.

Dorms start at $15.

Hotels in cartagena

BEST THINGS TO DO AND SEE

1. Wander the Streets of the Old Town

Walk every street within the wall.

Colorful, lined with shops and restaurants, and scattered with ornate churches.

Spend an entire day getting beautifully lost.

These are probably the most picturesque streets in South America.

Maybe even the world.

Admiring the beautiful streets of cartagena colombia

2. Climb Atop Las Murallas.

The walls are thick and wide, perfect for walking. A bird’s eye view of the city at sunset with the ocean in the distance is good for the soul.

Walking the city walls, a top thing to do in cartagena colombia

3. Grab some Sweets at the Open-Air Market.

Just through the massive entrance gates, you’ll find stall after stall of Colombian sweets and snacks. Most I couldn’t identify. Walk through the vendors lounging in plastic chairs to escape the midday sun.

street food vendor in cartagena colombia

4. Visit the Zenú Gold Museum.

Housed inside a colonial mansion in Plaza de Bolivar this museum holds a huge collection of gold artifacts many of which were brought ashore by pirates. Not as large as it’s sister museum in Bogota but still worth a visit.

(If museums are your thing you can also check out the Palace of InquisitionPedro Claver’s HouseMuseo del Cacao, and Museo de Art Moderno).

Old Town cartagena colombia

BEST EATS

If there’s one particular dish that best captures the spirit of Cartagena, it’s Ceviche.

Most restaurants have their own variation and you’ll have to indulge at least once or twice during your stay.

The close proximity to the water and Afro-Caribbean influence means seafood and coconut rice are a given on any menu.

In the old city, street food outside of the basic arepas and fresh fruit is much less common.

Instead, the grandeur of westernized restaurants rules supreme.

You can dine on Italian, French, and Colombian fusion cuisine.

Or whatever strikes your fancy here.

Definitely try a Limonada de Coco. It replenishes your electrolytes after walking in the heat all day and is oh so tasty.

Limonada de coco, the best drink in cartagena colombia

La Cevicheria ($$$)

The most popular spot in the walled city. Mostly due to Anthony Bourdain’s stellar review on Parts Unknown in 2008. Although the once little known ceviche shop is now always brimming with tourists the high-quality seafood dishes have remained consistently good.

La Vitrola ($$$)

This restaurant gets points for atmosphere. Live music and impromptu salsa dancing make for a lively start to your evening. Definitely opt for the freshly caught fish.

Cafe Del Mar ($$$)

Known for it’s sunset views and cocktails this outdoor restaurant is always full. Get there early to steal a table with the best view of the water for sunset.

Mezcal Cafe ($$$)

Lining the main square this cafe/bar feels very hip New York City rather than Colombia. With small bites, stellar coffee, local beer, and tasty cocktails this cafe makes for a perfect midday pick me up.

Looking for a cheaper meal? Lunch is probably your best bet. Family-owned Colombian restaurants are scattered about the walled city. Look for those offering the “menu del dia“. A traditionally cooked protein served with some combination of rice, beans, arepa, soup, and fruit.

Things to do in Cartagena - eating the local fish

Things to Do in Cartagena (outside The Walled City)

ACCOMODATION

Life is Good Cartagena Hostel

A 4-story historic house renovated to keep its old school charm. Lots of homey exposed red brick and wooden accents. The hostel is equipt with an on-site bar, restaurant, and offers Colombian cooking classes.

Dorms start at $15.

Caza Del Pozo Boutique Hostel

Exquisite and eclectic. Colorful tiled walls line the jacuzzi, above-average breakfast is included, and it’s tucked into a perfect location. Right in the heart of Getsemani, this is the neighborhood to sleep in.

Dorms start at $15. Privates start at $66.

Mama Waldy Hostel

This simple hostel has a rooftop jacuzzi, decorative hanging chairs, and comfortable hangout area. It’s perfectly located and an easy walk from all Cartagena’s main attractions. The social environment here is great for solo travelers!

Dorms start at $7. Privates start at $31.

Hotels in Cartagena Colombia

BEST THINGS TO DO AND SEE

1. Check out the Street Art in Getsemani.

Cartagena’s hippest neighborhood. Equally as fun as the Walled City for wandering, you’ll find lots of colorful creative street art painted across the city. The rainbow flapping pennants draped over the main streets signal you have arrived.

Things to do in Cartagena: street art in getsemani

2. Spot Three-Toes Sloths at Parque del Centenario.

An unassuming park lined with vendors selling snacks and used books. But focus your gaze upwards and you’ll spot the local three-toed sloth family crawling through the treetops.

Things to do in Cartagena: Sloths in parque del centenario

3. Visit Plaza de la Trinidad for Sunset.

This is the local hangout. As the sun goes down, the people come out. Street food vendors serve hamburgers piled high with toppings, teens hawk cold beer from styrofoam coolers, and performers put on shows in the town square. Some are silly; like cross-dressing and dancing suggestively to Shakira. Others are highly choreographed dance routines. Either way sitting on the plaza steps and enjoying the show makes for one of the best things to do in Cartagena.

4. Salsa Dancing with Live Music at Club Havana.

Get your groove on at Cartagena’s most renowned salsa club. The $20 cover charge is steep but worth the live music played each evening. You’ll be transported to Havana, Cuba as the bar fills and Colombians strut their salsa moves, dancing through the crowds. On a budget? Donde Fidel is a cheaper salsa bar worth visiting.

Top Thing to do in cartagena: salsa dancing at cafe havana

5. Wander Mercado de Bazurto.

Maybe the most interesting place in all of Cartagena. This market is an overload to the senses. The smells of carved raw meat meld with the sweet freshly picked fruits and deep fried pig parts cooking on every corner. Come see where locals do their grocery shopping and get lost in the winding maze of outdoor stalls. A gritty authentic no-frills experience. Welcome to the “Real Cartagena”.

Things to do in Cartagena: Bazurto Market

6. Visit the Remnants of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.

A fortress strategically built to stave off attacks from the land and sea during the 1500s. A visit to the castle wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the underground tunnels.

Things to do in Cartagena: Castillo San Felipe

BEST EATS

Outside the city’s walls, the food gets substantially cheaper and more Colombian. You’re more likely to find yourself dining amongst the locals instead of alongside tourists.

El Cabildo Gastromar ($)

Open-air wooden tables with animal hyde chairs paired with famously cheap mojitos this restaurant was my personal favorite in Cartagena. The portions of meat are huge, delicious, and paired with piles of freshly tossed Caribbean spiced rice.

Colombitalia ($)

In the heart of the trendy hippy neighborhood of Getsemani, this little arepa stand can be easily identified by the constant line of hungry backpackers. Get the Colombian style arepa stuffed with chicken, jalapeno, corn, and all the good stuff.

Cafe Beiyu ($$)

Perch in the open-air window sill watching the world pass by with a single-source Colombian coffee in hand. Be sure to try some of the exotic smoothie bowls and fresh-pressed local fruit juices while you’re there.

La Mulata ($$)

Piles of tasty seafood served on whittled wooden plates. Main dishes were served with a warm soup of the day. The ceviche here was some of my favorite.

Restaurante Coroncoro ($)

Traditional Colombian cuisine done cheaply and extremely well. A favorite among the locals. This is a perfect place to try out the menu del dia.

Things to do in Cartagena: Eating Pargo Rojo
wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

Cartagena’s Beaches and Nearby Islands

If you’re looking for a beachy getaway Cartagena’s beaches are only so-so. 

Boca Grande resembles Miami with its long stretch of sand and rows of skyscrapers.

The beaches here are lined with resorts and always packed full of tourists in plastic chairs.

The currents can be strong and the water can be murky.

But if catching some sun rays is all you’re looking for it’s not all that bad.

The real magic happens on the nearby islands.

Rosario islands cartagena colombia

Just a short boat ride away is the RosarioTierra Bomba, or San Bernardo Islands.

Tierra Bomba is the closest island to Cartagena and much like Boca Grande’s beaches without all the towering buildings.

Isla Baru of the Rosario Islands is home to Playa Blanca.

The most popular day-trip from Cartagena.

Although the beach itself is beautiful, the popularity means it can get crowded.

The solution? 

Stay overnight on the island.

You’ll get the beaches to yourself in the morning and evening after the day-trip tourists have returned to Cartagena.

Best things to do in cartagena: sailing the rosario islands

The San Bernardo islands are the furthest away from mainland Colombia. Crystal clear blue waters, idyllic island hostels and plenty of empty white sand.

Day-trips to the closer islands are available from every roadside tour agency and hostel front desk. Or even better book an overnight at one of the island hostels. Most will arrange your transport to and from the Cartagena harbour.

Things to do in cartagena: beaches

ISLAND ACCOMMODATION

Casa en el Agua (San Bernardo Islands)

Sitting within the San Bernardo islands this hostel is an island in itself. Literally. A thatched-roof beach shack sitting out in the open ocean surrounded by calm Caribbean waters, colorful hammocks swaying from the second story, freshly caught lobster served up for dinner each night. This hostel is worth the 2.5-hour choppy boat ride to get there. It’s a lively party atmosphere great for solo travelers looking to make friends, and great for beach dwellers looking to swim, kayak, and lounge on the surrounding islands shores.

Dorm beds start at $31. Privates are available for $62. You can also opt to sleep in a hammock for $20. Beds and hammocks fill up far in advance so be sure to book ahead of time. Be aware that this hostel requires you also pay for your boat transfer which will be an additional $60 round trip.

Media Luna Hostel Barú (Isla Barú)

Basic accommodation in picturesque beach huts. Complete with the island-style thatched roofs and hammocks. Sitting on a quiet beach far from Playa Blanca it’s a perfect place to enjoy some private sunset views.

$16 for a bed in their 4-person dorms. Or a private room for $55.

wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

Wrapping Up (and why you should definitely visit Cartagena)!

Cartagena is vibrant, bold, and a world away from the rest of Colombia.

Even native Colombians come vacation here!

There is a reason for its recent rise in popularity as a global tourist hotspot.

And it completely lives up to the hype.

Using this ultimate guide of things to do in Cartagena you’ll get to glimpse not only the preserved beauty of Cartagena’s past but experience the reality of life in Cartagena today.

Colombia’s jewel of the Caribbean. 

Be sure to check out our guides on Things to Do in Medellin and Things to Do in Bogota before visiting Colombia!

Things to do in Cartagena: admire the colourful streets
wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

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