The charm oozing from Cartagena is almost unparalleled.
Colorfully painted buildings, romantic balconies, and historic door knockers draped in flowers and vines.
It’s somewhere in between a fairytale and Disneyland, I keep thinking, is this even real?
Like a similar colonial other cities in Latin America such as Granada, Nicaragua and Antigua, Guatemala it is so fun to simply be in a place this lovely; to purely wander the streets without aim and picture how like was in the past. Established in 1533, Cartagena gushes a historic bewitching allure, every turn will captivate you.
It’s a city I’ve come back to again and again over the years; I’ve been to Cartagena four times!
Here are 13 things I highly recommend you do in Cartagena, Colombia.
one | walk the streets
Put your map down and give yourself free time to wander the streets turning left or right when you instinctively desire. Pop into any shops or cafes that call you. Buy a coconut water (bring your own reusable straw) or arepa con queso on the street when you desire.
two | Castillo San Fillipe
Only a 20-minute walk from the Walled City, and an even shorter walk from Getsemani, it wasn’t until my fourth time in Cartagena that I went to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Perched overlooking Cartagena, Castillo San Felipe has a storied history beginning in 1536 full of pirates, skirmishes, and full-blown attacks. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is even sometimes credited with the fact that Spanish is spoken in South America and not English… let that one sink it.
three | Sunset at Cafe Del Mar
Located on the far west side atop the old city wall, Cafe del Mar is the spot for sunset drinks. Pricey, you betcha. Hit and miss cocktails, absolutely - I switched to beer after my first cocktail. I still recommend watching the sunset here, just keep your expectations for any cocktail you order low. Get here well before sunset (two or three hours even depending on your group size). I arrived 2 hours before sunset and all of the tables along the wall with an unobstructed view of the ocean were taken. Stay for the live music just post-sunset - it’s a treat!
four | beach day
The beaches in Cartagena are not exactly postcard ready, however if you head about an hour away by boat you have many options for lovely beaches to spend the day at. The most famous beach is Playa Blanca on Isla Baru (which is not actually an island) with it’s fine white sand and turquoise waters, but expect major crowds. However, I really loved spending a few days on Isla Grande; kayaking, discovering bioluminescence, paddle boarding, snorkeling, and discovering a new beach every day. For a fancier beach voyage you can head to Bora Bora on Isla Grande or Fenix Beach Club on Tierra Bomba.
five | discover bioluminescence
Off the coast of Cartagena lies stunning bioluminescence. There’s actually two very, very different types! One is best to visit on the new moon for as little light as possible, the other - an incredibly rare type of bioluminescence - only shows up 1-3 days after the full moon!
six | go dancing
Nightlife is big in Cartagena… very big! It’s maybe the thing people do in Cartagena. For traditional salsa you can go to Crazy Salsa in the Walled City or Café Havana in Getsemani. On Wednesday night both locals and out-of-towners head to Media Luna, a hostel in Getsemani that’s been hosting a Wednesday night even for over a decade. There’s a cover for the live music, and if you’re like me and don’t love partying at a hostel, the bars right across the street also attract a crowd Wednesday nights.
seven | Torre del Reloj
This impressive clock tower is the historic main city gate. Locals know it as “boca del puente” or mouth of the bridge as the clock wasn’t added until 1874, more than 200 years after the fortress’ gate was created. This clock tower is considered to be one of the most beautiful and well-preserved in the world.
eight | Plaza Trinidad
After sunset head to Plaza Trinidad in Getsemani. The square fills with live acts like singing, dancing, and even a Michael Jackson impersonator. Tourists and locals gather here to talk, dance, relax, and drink a few Aguila beers before going clubbing.
nine | Bazurto market
Located outside of the city, this market is still incredible authentic, rugged, and traditional. Prepare to get lost, what a great thing that is! It’ll encourage you to ask the locals what’s around, what to try, where to go, etc.
ten | party on a chiva bus
A Chiva bus is a fun, colorful, open air bus that was traditionally used for transportation - shocking! Now you can take a chiva party bus around the city. They play music on the bus and it’s a fun way to see the city at night! They’ll bring liquor but feel free to bring your own too!
eleven | scope locations from Siempre Bruja
I’m learning Spanish, and one of the many, many ways I am learning is through watching Spanish shows on Netflix. Of course I started watching Siempre Bruja when it came out! It’s about a witch who time travels to modern day Cartagena. I had to find where there University is, it’s so gosh darn pretty in the television show and turns out I’d been there a few times as it’s next to one of my favorite cafes. So I had to go back again now that I’ve seen the show!
twelve | shop
Cartagena is a beautiful place to pick up souvenirs. I’m not talking about t-shirts or shot glasses that say Cartagena on it I’m talking about something beautiful and meaningful. Something and-made or thrifted. Something you can use or wear often for years and years to come. Nothing that’ll break or will loose it’s appeal in the next year. Perhaps a door knocker, an emerald (chances are you’ve seen Romancing the Stone, right?), or a traditional hat.
Visit Cartagena Colombia
Do you think Cartagena, Colombia just might be the perfect city your next great adventure?
At Sapphire & Elm Travel Co. I’m proud to have been to the destinations I plan trips to. I don’t plan my clients’ vacations based on vague, outdated, impersonal, or incomplete internet searches, but on personal experience and knowledge.
By traveling to the country ahead of my clients I am able to research and gather insight into the cities, activities, hotels, transportation, what to see, what to miss, and more. I do this in order to save my clients precious time, energy, money and hassle while you’re abroad.