Cartagena is home to some of the best restaurants in Colombia, and there is something to suit every single budget, whether it’s high-end eateries serving the finest seafood money can buy, or local market stalls serving delicious stews from bubbling pots on a makeshift fire, everyone can enjoy amazing food in Cartagena. And that’s not even taking into account the incredible range of fresh fruit juices seemingly available on every street corner! Cartagena is truly a gastronome traveller’s paradise.
The iconic palenqueras – Afro-Colombian women in bright dresses selling fruit in Cartagena’s plazas – are internationally recognised as a symbol of the city. However, few people realise that they come from the UNESCO-recognised village of San Basilio de Palenque (located just an hour from the city), the first freed slave settlement in the Americas and the home of a completely unique language. Not only is Cartagena the home of wonderful art, literature, and architecture, it is also the place to visit to experience some truly unique culture.
Getsemani was once a haven for prostitutes and thieves. It sits alongside the Old City and shares much of its famous architecture, but for years it was considered a no-go zone for tourists. That has all changed, and Getsemani has turned into just about the coolest neighbourhood in Colombia. With a burgeoning street-art scene, plenty of hip bars and hostels, and the lovely Plaza Trinidad – which, every night, is full of locals, travellers, street performers and artists, all basking in the laid-back vibe – a visit to Getsemani is must for any traveller in Cartagena looking for an alternative to the Walled City.
Whether you are a professional photographer with thousands of dollars worth of lenses or simply an Instagram devotee with a nice line in filters and artistic angles, Cartagena is the city for you. It seems as if every street is just waiting to adorn a postcard, with beautiful pastel-coloured buildings, bougainvillaea plants cascading from old wooden balconies and old metal door knockers fashioned in the shape of sea monsters and lions. Cartagena must surely be one of the most photogenic cities in the world, making it the perfect place to visit for some truly memorable travel snaps.
Cartagena is located on the Colombian Caribbean coast and, as such, is surrounded by a series of stunning beaches and islands, a fact that is often overlooked by people in a rush to lavish praise upon the Walled City. There are nice city beaches in Bocagrande and La Boquilla neighbourhoods, but true sun-worshippers will want to jump on a boat and pay a visit to Playa Blanca, Isla Grande, Tierra Bomba or the Rosario Islands (also a national park) to bask in the warm sun of an idyllic Caribbean beach.
As the setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s great romantic novel Love in the Time of Cholera, Cartagena is the ideal city for weddings, honeymoons and romantic escapes. With myriad romantic boutique hotels, elegant bars and intimate restaurants, sometimes it feels as if the city is mocking the single! There are photo shoots going on all the time and, with high-end jewellery shops throughout the Old City, Cartagena would be the perfect place to pop the question, too. Sitting on the city walls at sunset, sipping cocktails at Cafe del Mar, it’s hard to think of a much more romantic city.
Cartagena has a fascinating and often unbelievable history: once the largest slave port in the Americas, the city was regularly invaded and besieged by pirates, and is home to some of the finest historical architecture in the country. San Felipe Castle is the best example of a Spanish fort in the Americas, and the old city walls are still home to the cannons that once kept Francis Drake at bay. In short, Cartagena oozes history from every colonial street corner, and a walk through the Walled City feels like a trip back in time.
From excellent street art and murals in Getsemani, to works by Cartagena’s finest artists at the Museum of Modern Art, Cartagena is a truly artistic and creative city. Art connoisseurs will love the wide range of gallery options available, particularly in the Old City, while even the less artistically inclined will surely be impressed by the wonderful statues and sculptures – including Fernando Botero’s famous Gertrudis statue – at every turn. With artists also selling paintings and drawings of Cartagena is most plazas, the city radiates an unusually artistic sensibility.
Cartagena offers a fascinating juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern. From the walls of the Old City, the tower blocks and hotel chains of Bocagrande are an ever-present reminder that the city, while famous for its history and former glories, is also a modern place. There aren’t many places where it is possible to enjoy high-end casinos and upscale wine bars on the same day as visiting 500-year-old Spanish castles and monasteries. The contrast between old and new in Cartagena can seem incongruous at first, but it is part of the city’s unique charm.
Cartagena’s fascinating mixture of different cultures has led to it being the home of some of the most important and exciting music in Colombia: the aforementioned Palenque village is the home of champeta and bambuco, and Cartagena’s salsa clubs are a thing of legend within Colombia. There are tour companies that will take visitors to explore the culture of champeta, before teaching them the dance; or the more confident can don their dancing shoes and head of to Bazurto Social Club, Donde Fidel Salsa Bar or Cafe Havana. With street dancers in the many squares of the Old City, and myriad live music venues, Cartagena is one of the best cities in the Americas to enjoy music and dancing.