Cartagena is one of the world’s most stunning cities, but it has so much more to offer than its beauty. A three-day trip will provide plenty of time to peek behind the colonial walls and discover a trove of fascinating stories, natural wonders and delicious local food.
Founded in the 16th century, much of Cartagena’s stunning original architecture has been preserved, including the fortified walls which tell darker stories of piracy, slavery, inquisition and trade, as well those of culture, color and cuisine. Here’s how to spend 72 hours in the Colombian port city.
Fuel up! With tiled floors and wood-paneled ceilings, Epoca Café Arzobizpado is the perfect place to start your trip. Try one of the specialty coffees and the traditional calentao breakfast of rice, beans and pork. Although, if you want to ease into local flavors, the pancakes are also unbeatable.
A great way to enjoy a city as beautiful as Cartagena is to just get lost in it; take a couple of hours to wander the narrow streets of the Old City, which are overhung with balconies draped in bougainvillea. Make sure to also walk around the historic walls that surround the colonial center – they are a UNESCO World Heritage site and offer great views of the Caribbean. From there, swing past the La Gorda Gertrudis in Plaza Santo Domingo – a famous sculpture by much-loved Colombian artist Fernando Botero, whose work often explores ‘the beauty in volumes.’
As the weather heats up, make sure to stop in a café for a limonada de coco (lemonade made with fresh coconut milk) – it’s a great local taste and will help you stay refreshed in Cartagena’s humidity.
Grab lunch in one of Cartagena’s leafy plazas to enjoy local specialty seafood and to try some patacones (fried plantain patties) and carimañolas (yucca, often stuffed with cheese or meat).
Spend the afternoon exploring the city’s museums. They’re well-curated and air-conditioned, a relief after a morning of outdoor wandering. Museum options include The Naval Museum, which shows the history of pirate attacks and seaborne wars around the city; the Inquisition Palace, where the Spanish burnt women they believed to be witches at the stake; and the Zenú Museum, which explores the gilded cosmologies of Colombia’s ancient and indigenous coastal communities.
Watching a burnt-orange sunset over the sea is bound to be a spectacular memory from your trip. Head to Café del Mar to enjoy perfect views with a cocktail in hand. For something quieter (and cheaper), grab an Aguila (locally-brewed beer) from a vendor near the northern wall, and find a place to sit.
Once the sun has dipped below the horizon, head to Espiritu Santo in the heart of the old town – it offers traditional Cartagena cuisine, with local flavors and ingredients brought together in classic and delicious style. Try the bass sautéed in coconut sauce.
Walking tours are an unbeatable way to immerse yourself in the history of the city. Cartagena’s free walking tour is less than two hours long and has bilingual guides. There are a number of other options for smaller groups that can be booked at one of the numerous tour companies in Cartagena.
Not in the mood to walk? There are other tours offered by bus, bike or even Segway.
After your tour of choice, head to the ‘People’s Market’ – the Mercado Bazurto – to experience the local buzz, and pick up some fruits you may not have known existed. It is often recommended to book a tour which includes this spot to avoid getting lost in the labyrinthine passages of the marketplace.
Visit the home of Colombia’s beloved author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. If you feel inspired, head to café-bookshop Abaco and pick up a copy of his work; as well as great coffee, they’ve got a huge collection in English – and in Spanish if you’re feeling ambitious.
Continuing along literary lines, grab lunch at Bottega de Fitz & Co: each delicious dish is themed around a classic story, from ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ to Don Quixote, all accompanied by an infectiously energetic 1920s soundtrack.
The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is both a fascinating historical site and a great place for views of the city. Built in 1536, yet meticulously conserved, it was at the center of some of Cartagena’s greatest sieges and conflicts but is now known for its grand entrance and labyrinth of underground tunnels.
Watching a sunset at sea is a must-do in Cartagena. To fulfill this bucket list experience, check out this catamaran cruise that leaves from the marina next to the historical center, and sails past the whole of Cartagena’s beautiful coastline, from the historic old town to the modern skyscrapers of Bocagrande and, finally, into the open water. By this time, the ocean will be bathed in yellows and oranges and you’ll have a drink in hand.
On the way back from the cruise, hang out at the Plaza de la Trinidad, where street performers showcase traditional dances, drumming and music in the square under the Torre del Reloj, Cartagena’s oft-photographed clock tower.
From there, duck into the nearby wooden arches of the Portal de Los Dulces for an incredible array of traditional sweet treats – from coconut bites to alegria, a coastal specialty made with sugar cane reduction and a local grain called milla, sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Finish the night with more authentic Cartagena cuisine accompanied by local music and classic colonial architecture at Candé. With live performances of Colombian music every night to match their delicious selection of freshly caught seafood and organic wines, it is a lovely place to cap off the day with friends.
Morning and Afternoon
The beaches in Cartagena are nice, but just a short boat ride away is the ultimate Caribbean beach experience: white sand, sparkling clear turquoise water and shady coconut palms. There are a number of tours to the Islas Rosarios or to Punta Arenas. Most of these tours, which need to be booked a day or two in advance, will take you to a beach club for lunch and return mid-afternoon.
If you need to unwind after a day in the sun and sand, Cartagena is full of great spas tucked away in the historical center, some of which boast spectacular interiors and pampering rituals inspired by local ingredients and indigenous wisdom.
To cap off a great trip, head to the leafy courtyard of Carmen Restaurant. The food is local and authentically Caribbean, but with playful modern twists and deliciously creative details.
Onwards to Cartagena’s premier salsa spot, Café Havana, to enjoy a live salsa band and rum cocktails. Grab a table and watch some of the city’s best dancers, or give it a go yourself. The bar’s frenetic energy and classic salsa beats are a great way to round off a visit to this fascinating and beautiful city.