Things to do in Cartagena; How to Make the Most out of Your Time.
Is Cartagena on your list of must-visit places during your trip to Colombia? If it’s not, it really should be. It’s the perfect entry point for Colombian culture, especially if you’re arriving from North or Central America.
Whether you want to hit the tourist trail or find a more local experience, we’ve got it covered with these suggestions for what to do in Cartagena. It’s a city we know you’ll fall in love with instantly.
Nestled on the Caribbean coast, the colonial-style historical centre is one of the most beautiful in the country. The preservation of both the colonial architecture of the walled city and the fortifications that surround the bay are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The centre of the city is where you’ll see both the buildings and fortifications. It’s both small enough and safe enough to walk around, day or night, camera in hand capturing unforgettable magical moments. But wear a hat to handle the heat – the temperature rarely dips below 25 degrees centigrade, even at night!
Cartagena is a city to stroll around, dipping into cafes, museums and bars when it gets too hot. You’ll find no shortage of places to explore, both in the centre and in nearby Getsemani. If you have just a few days in the city and you’re wondering what to do, choose one or two of our suggestions per day and you’ll never get bored (we promise!)
1. Explore the old historical city
We recommend you wander around either early or late in the day to take advantage of the best light for photos and to avoid the sweltering midday heat! Take a free walking tour on your first day to get oriented and learn about the city’s history. Then chill in a cafe or with the locals drinking tinto in beautiful squares, like Plaza de Bolivar or Parque Fernández de Madrid.
If you’re looking for some culture, head to the Modern Art Museum or NH Galeria. And if you want history, you’re in it as soon as you hit the streets. But also check out the Naval Museum or the Palace of the Inquisition and the city’s beautiful churches. If you want to try the street food, we highly recommend Cartagena Connections’ Street Food Tour, which takes you through both the old city and Getsemani.
2. See the sunset from the city walls
Cartagena’s historic centre is surrounded by impressive fortified walls, designed to protect the city from attacks and separate the rich (who lived inside the walls) from the poor (who lived outside). You’ll also see these fortifications if you venture further out of the centre. We’d suggest you go to Castillo San Felipe if you have a couple of hours free one morning.
By far the best and most romantic experience is to head to the west of the old city before sunset. Not only is it cooler than the sweltering heat of the day, it’s the perfect spot to see the sunset with locals and tourists alike. If you want a local experience, sit along the wall and buy a drink from a vendor. And if you can’t bear a sunset without a cocktail, head to Cafe del Mar for a lively experience or El Baluarte de San Francisco Javier, for a more refined affair!
3. Spend the evening in Getsemaní
If you’re staying in a hostel, chances are you’re staying in Getsemaní, a beautiful area set around plaza Trinidad. Here, locals bring chairs into the lanes outside their houses and music pours from every other window. Head to the square to see old men playing chess, kids playing football and some fantastic entertainers, while drinking a beer from the local store.
If you’re there on a Sunday evening, you’ll find the place packed full for the free zumba session. Be sure to link up with the local Couchsurfing group, who often meet in the plaza, before heading to a club for a night dancing salsa, rumba or champeta. There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants in this area. Just off the square, you’ll find Demente, which is a great place to try some tapas, before hitting the dance clubs (see below!).
Cartagena is never quiet. You’ll find music everywhere and there’s a style for everyone. You can’t come to this city without a night (or two!) of dancing – be it in the street, outside Donde Fidel, or in a salsa club like Crazy Salsa. Check out our post about the best places to dance salsa in Cartagena, and if you’re in Getsemani, be sure to go to Cafe Havana.
There’s also a new salsa bar called 1968 right across the street from Cafe Havana, which is well worth going to if you want to see professional salsa dancers on stage. They have two incredible shows a night. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for champeta, Bazurto Social Club is the place to be, while you’ll find more of a European dance music vibe at clubs in the historical centre like La Movida.
5. Relax at the beach
You have to take it slow in the daytime, because Cartagena is blisteringly hot all year round. Slap on some sunscreen and head to the beach. You’ll find some fun beach bars in Bocagrande, but the sea can be dangerous, so take note of the signs advising where you can and can’t swim.
Another option is to head out of the city, where the beaches are better, although you’ll need to take the day for this. We recommend a beach club like Fenix or Blue Apple, both on the nearby island of Tierra Bomba, if you’re looking to relax and dance. You can buy a day pass for either of these two spots, which includes your boat there and back. If you’re searching for those iconic Caribbean turquoise waters, take a boat or bus to Barú to Playa Blanca, or go on a trip to the gorgeous Rosario Islands.