Cartagena has a thriving dining scene | Courtesy of Doña Lola
Colombian cuisine extends far beyond the empanadas and arepas you’ll commonly find sold on the streets. Nowhere is this more clear than in the colonial city of Cartagena, where innovative chefs combine traditional Colombian and Caribbean flavors with Peruvian, Italian, Spanish, and Asian influences – making for an ever-evolving gastronomical scene that keeps local chefs on their toes.
Cocktail Bar, South American, $$$
Courtesy of Alquímico
Housed in an old shoe store, this three-story restaurant and bar leaves visitors feeling like they’ve stepped into the Colombian version of The Great Gatsby, complete with velvet carpets, grand white columns and suspender-clad waitstaff. Aside from refined aesthetics, the restaurant has a craft cocktail menu that features herbal and fruity infusions made in-house alongside a delicious tapas menu, with grilled octopus and spicy meatballs being two standout dishes. With a billiards table on the second floor and a rooftop where DJs often spin on weekend nights, it’s easy for time to slip away while dining at Alquimico.
With a location in downtown Cartagena as well as in Medellín, Carmen is quickly becoming a top player in Colombia’s competitive dining scene. The Cartagena location occupies a colonial house, with sleek modern furniture and a lush outdoor seating area that speaks to how well this restaurant blends contemporary and classical Colombian flavors. The restaurant excels at seafood, and the no me llamas cazuela dish is a particular highlight, with its mix of crab rice, local lobster, octopus, mussels, rock shrimp, white fish and sweet plantain bisque. Pair it with a wine from their award-winning list.
Colombia’s menu del dia (menu of the day) is a set daily menu that gives diners limited options between appetizers, main courses and desserts at an affordable price. A drink, usually fresh juice, is also included. These types of eateries are most commonly frequented during lunchtime, but La Mulata offers their set menu for dinner as well. They’re known for seafood dishes, quick service and reasonable prices in a casual yet stylish atmosphere.
Located in the heart of Cartagena’s main tourism zone, the Walled City, Mar Y Zielo is a gastrobar that borrows influences from chef Mariano Cerno’s homeland of Peru, with seafood-forward dishes that utilize local Colombian ingredients. Exquisitely decorated and complete with a stage for singers who woo diners throughout the evening, Mar Y Zielo also boasts a cocktail menu that successfully balances sugar and spice, with local flavors such as tamarind, cinnamon, pineapple and banana at the fore. The generous punch-sized portions are an ideal choice for groups, and are best enjoyed from the restaurant’s rooftop.
In Cartagena’s bohemian Getsemani neighborhood, which features graffitied alleyways and plenty of busking musicians eager to entertain, Caffe Lunatico is tucked away on a quiet street and provides a nice view of Plaza Trinidad, which serves as the center of the neighborhood’s nightlife. The menu features Spanish fusion food at affordable prices, and the chefs also offer cooking classes for those who want to mimic their enviable dishes. Caffe Lunatico has a fairly robust vegetarian menu, highlighted by a can’t-miss vegan ceviche that substitutes coconut, mango and edible flowers for fish.
Owned by ex-Olympic boxer Bonifacio Ávila, Kiosco El Bony is a favorite among locals, and perfect for those who want to escape the touristic confines of the Old City to dine on the beach of Bocagrande, another neighborhood best known for its towering glass apartment high-rises. We recommend you stop in for an early lunch to nab the best fish selections from the local catch-of-the-day. Be sure to bring cash as this beachside bar doesn’t accept credit cards.
Set in a well-kept colonial mansion with plentiful indoor and outdoor seating, Cuzco is the ideal option for those who want to celebrate a special occasion with a large group, or for someone hoping impress their date with high-end Peruvian cuisine. Thanks to their attentive service, which includes English-speaking waiters, Cuzco was awarded Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice in 2019 – the travel company’s highest recognition – which is given annually to the top one percent of businesses across select categories. Their menu features plenty of seafood and vegetarian options that infuse Peruvian and Colombian tastes, along with a bar menu that highlights South American wines.
Diners will enjoy exploring the grounds of Doña Lola, which is housed within the resplendent Hotel Casa Lola and antique art gallery in Getsemani. Nabbing a table in the courtyard or near the window acts as a sort of “dinner and a show” experience as people-watching along the cobblestone streets of Getsemani is always entertaining. The Caribbean cuisine is maybe the best part of dining here, but the live cellists and violinists round out the atmosphere, making for an unforgettable meal.
With an extensive mojito list and delicious tapas as well as large plates, Cuba 1940 aims to bring old Havana glamor to the colonial streets of Cartagena. Inspired by Cuban cuisine, It’s a great place to cleanse your palate if you’ve had your fill of Colombian food. After dinner you can dance off the plantains and pork with live Cuban music that lasts until the early morning hours. There’s also a small plunge pool located towards the back of the dining room that’s perfect for cooling off from the Cartagena heat.
Celele boasts a thoughtful menu that pays homage to the vast palate of Colombia’s Caribbean region, with local ingredients prepared in inventive ways. The restaurant is connected to the Caribe Lab Project – a two-year research initiative spearheaded by Celele’s head chefs Jaime Rodríguez and Sebastián Pinzón – which seeks to promote the unique food cultures and biodiversity of the region with exploratory trips where they trade knowledge with locals. The chefs demonstrate through Celele’s rotating seasonal menu that Colombian Caribbean cuisine is more than fried fish and plantains, demonstrating a delicious melding of Spanish, African, Syrian, Lebanese and indigenous influences. The five-course tasting menu is a great way to get familiar with Celele’s unique approach to Colombian Caribbean food. Make a reservation before you go, as this affordable eatery fills up quickly.