If tropical weather and white sand beaches top your list of vacation must-haves, you’ll likely find things to do in Cartagena. Add in bold-colored buildings, a thriving art scene, prime coastal cuisine, and a city steeped in Latin American history, you should consider Cartagena, Colombia a top tier choice.
For those who haven’t done much adventuresome traveling outside the contiguous United States, you may be wondering if travel to Colombia is safe. Cartagena actually has a relatively low level of crime, and according the US State Department, violent crimes against tourists are virtually unreported. Just as you would when traveling to any foreign destination on a vacation, be aware of your surroundings and the belongings you keep on your person.
Things To Do In Cartagena:
Walled City Walking Tour
A walking tour of the Walled City, or Ciudad Amurallada, is a prime way to experience so much of Cartagena in a short period of time. You’ll learn about the history during the slave trade and foreign wars, unique architecture, cultural traditions, and much more of this very popular area. Many vendors sell souvenirs for your shopping needs here. Walking tours are complimentary and generally operate on a tipping basis, departing from Plaza Santa Teresa or the Clock Tower Monument. Many of the historical sites listed below fall within the Walled City. This is one of the top things to do in Cartagena.
Nine Fine Historical Sites
For many top destinations across the world, you’ll find churches, statues, and other historic buildings as popular tourist attractions. Cartagena is no exception, and the discernible Catholic influence that is palpable in many Latin American cities is very present here. You can see Cartagena, with its many cultural sights ranking high in popularity, by visiting some or all of these nine notable locations:
Clock Tower Monument
A central location and popular landmark for photographs in Cartagena, this Torre del Reloj is the gateway to La Plaza Aduana. With its historic Old World European feel, yet unique South American style, this is a very lively, distinctively Colombian stop on your tour of Cartagena. You’ll find vendors selling souvenirs within the arches of the building.
Los Zapatos Viejos
Located nearby the San Felipe Castle, the “Old Boots” honor poet Luis Carlos Lopez. Take a brief break from your travels for a fun photo opportunity at this very unique monument.
This expansive cathedral, built in the early 1600s, dominates the Cartagena skyline with dramatic, detailed architecture. The outside of the castle is lit up at night, making for beautiful photographs at a nearby bar or restaurant.
Palace of Inquisition
Built in 1770, this central location to the Spanish Conquest of the Monarchy is now a museum serving a great history on Cartagena. While most exhibits are in Spanish, an audio tour or guide will provide English translations. Courtyards and gardens round out your experience and give time to reflect on the cruel torture imposed by the Spanish Inquisition.
Iglesia de San Pedro Clavar
A historic, small museum with religious relics is housed in a beautiful, functioning church. This holy space is named after St. Peter Claver, who devoted his life to redeeming black slaves, an important part of the history of Cartagena.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Built in the 16th century, this historic fortress has scenic views over the water and city as it sits on San Lázaro. Easily the most popular attraction in Cartagena, one can spend hours wandering the tunnels underground. Enlist a tour guide to share details with you about the historic battles fought during the Spanish Colonial era. Plan your visit for the early morning and avoid the hot sun in the afternoon.
*Pro Tip: This is a great place to get photos with Colombian women dressed up. They charge $2 per person, per photo. In addition, you can find a lot of shopping here – come willing to negotiate.
Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa
A courtyard of beautiful flowers lines the way to this convent that shares great history of Cartagena. The monastery is roughly 20 minutes from the central Old Town city, situated on a hilltop that overlooks an expansive, panoramic landscape and is worth a visit for some of the best views in the city.
What was once a stark prison for criminals is now a bustling, diverse, colorful shopping marketplace. Souvenir shops are built into cells in this historic prison, selling everything from kitschy magnets and shot glasses to traditional handbags and local artwork. Find something to take back home for those who didn’t join you on your trip to South America at this beautiful space. You could also send them a quick picture: Las Bóvedas itself is a great photo op, with its beautiful deep yellow building and architecturally striking arches.
Get Wonderfully Lost In The Colorful Facades
One of the best things to do in Cartagena is browse the streets of colorful facades. The Walled City is one of the most colorful in the world and you can’t help but snap tons of photos of these beauties.
Latin American Art
Cartagena Museo del Arte Moderno
Located within the thriving San Pedro Claver Square, this modern art museum is housed in a remarkable, historic 17th century former customs house. This small museum feels more like a private gallery and focuses distinctly on Colombian artists and their works, notably its founders Enrique Grau, Alejandro Obregón, Cecilia Porras, and Hernando Lemaitre. You’ll take in dramatic sculptures, huge canvases, graphic works, and much more.
Museo del Oro Zenú
Gold, silver, and ceramic relics, ancient jewelry, and other artifacts are on display at this small museum of the Zenú (pre-Colombian) people. Exhibits are translated in English and admission is free.
Things To Do In Cartagena: Local Cuisine
Fresh seafood is the name of the game in this coastal city of South America, and a tropical, citrus-infused ceviche is one of the greatest ways to enjoy the flavor and freshness of locally caught fish. La Cevicheria is a casual destination to enjoy ceviche al fresco, and you’ll notice shrimp, lobster, and squid are quite popular here. This local gem rose to fame after Anthony Bourdain (may he Rest In Peace!) visited it several years ago.
Central and South America is known for climates and regions prime for cultivating coffee, and Cartagena is full of wonderful, World Class coffee shops to enjoy the local offerings. One centrally located coffee shop is within a remarkable bookstore, Abaco Libros y Café. With books are available in English and Spanish, you can refresh yourself after a few hours of walking around and taking in Walled City’s sites by caffeinating with a beverage and a new book. Visit one of Cartagena’s many cafes to sit back, savor an expertly crafted coffee drink, and enjoy the atmosphere of this friendly city.
A popular destination with delicious food and sensational libations, Café del Mar has highly coveted seats for diners to view the elusive Cartagena sunsets over the Caribbean Sea. You’ll find plenty more local seafood options here, and entrees are served with traditional rice and delicious yucca. Café del Mar has a thriving nightlife scene, and you’ll find exciting DJs as well as many salsa dancers flocking to this hotspot – and the drinks are kept flowing until 3am nightly.
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Tourists visit Cartagena for a tranquil beach retreat, and you’ll find much more than that in this colorful, vibrant city. Playa Blanca is a beautiful, palm-tree lined strip of white sand set against gentle Caribbean waves. Nearby La Boquilla Beach is also worth a visit, while less touristy Manzanillo del Mar, Marbella, and Crespo are all not too far from the Old Town Cartagena city center. Be sure you grab a refreshing cocktail, take a dip in the water, and cool off from the tropical heat of Colombia by scheduling some beach time in your trip.
Tours and More in Cartagena
Visiting a foreign city can be intimidating for some, but there are many tour companies available in Cartagena, giving you the ability to travel with a group and hear from an English-speaking guide to experience the best of the coastal city. If you’ve seen volcanoes in other parts of the world, this brief hike up to the Totumo Mud Volcano might underwhelm you, but the healing mud bath at the top is a relaxing, rewarding treat.
Curated food tours highlight the cultural mix of African, Spanish and indigenous Colombian heritages that influence the coastal cuisine you’ll try, including empanadas, ceviche, tortillas, and much more.
There’s even a speedboat adventure cruise to Rosario Islands for snorkeling in the coral reefs. The vibrant nightlife in Cartagena may even convince you and your partner to take salsa-dancing lessons! With many options depending on what you desire out of your trip to Colombia, there are endless possibility to explore within and around the Old Town city center of Cartagena.
An easily accessible destination, Cartagena has so much to offer travelers visiting the seaside city in South America. You’ll find many Instagram-worthy moments in this vibrant, colorful city with stunning views. Whether you have art, history, architecture, food, dancing, or shopping on your mind, you’ll find it all in this culturally rich, up-and-coming locale in Colombia.
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