In just a few years, Cartagena’s culinary scene – with a boom in hip boutique hotels attracting ambitious world-class chefs – has exploded into life, and has even started to give Colombia’s foodie capital, Bogota, a run for its money. From hole-in-the-wall cebicherías to the world’s first restaurant operating out of a women’s prison, here are our favourite spots in the Old City.
Often missed because of its side-street location (and it’s really tiny!), El Boliche Cebichería is one of the walled city’s most precious hidden gems. With a focus on ethically sourced, local produce and traditional fishing methods, the beautifully presented and incredibly inventive ceviche here is as fresh as it gets. You’ll soon spot from the menu that owners Oscar Colmenares and Viviana Díaz really have a thing for tamarind, coconut and mango; a combination of flavours which may well just change your life.
While there may be finer dining options within the walled city, 1950s Cuban-style La Vitrola gets top marks for atmosphere – and even attracts top politicians, journalists and well-to-dos in search of Cartagena‘s best night out. No matter what day of the week it is, chances are you’ll find a six-man Cuban band getting the party started somewhere near the door. The menu is huge, ranging from fish carpaccio and lobster to steak and pastas. Be warned: impromptu salsa dancing halfway through your meal is inevitable.
With just a tiny door leading up to a small, attic-like second-floor dining room, French bistro Montmartre is yet another hidden gem of Cartagena’s walled city. With beautifully presented, classic dishes such as magret de canard, salmon tartare and the exquisite creme brulee, French owner and executive chef, Valerie Thuiller Espinosa, has brought truly authentic, yet unfussy French cuisine to Cartagena’s streets. The brilliant value, three-course set lunch menu – created according to that day’s fresh market ingredients – is an undisputed winner.
When you come across groups of tourists posing in front of a wacky-looking wall filled with wine bottles, vintage mirrors and miniature tables-and-chairs along Calle del Cuarto, you’ve reached Marzola. The inside – covered floor-to-ceiling with bottle caps, rusty machinery, Argentinian football shirts and old licence plates – is no less, erm, bold. But the crazy decor here isn’t what earnt Marzola a place in Cartagena’s top-rated restaurants; the perfectly grilled, succulent steaks – served on their own with just a little rock salt on a wooden board – are absolutely mind-blowing. Their side dishes, such as grilled peppers, papas criollas and spicy chimichurri salsas, are the perfect accompaniment.
With its pretty, open-air colonial courtyard, crystal chandeliers, and flickering candles, Alma is one of the most romantic restaurants in town. Its stripped-back menu, consisting of only four main courses and a handful of starters, is elegant yet unpretentious. Expect classic dishes such as slow-cooked lamb, ribeye steak with chimichurri salsa and a ceviche trio. Be sure to save room for dessert: their chocolate fondant served with white chocolate ice cream and toffee sauce is incredible.
Set up with the aim to help the rehabilitation of Cartagena’s female offenders, Interno is the world’s first restaurant inside a fully operating prison that is almost entirely run by inmates. Trained by a Bogota-born Michelin-starred chef, inmates prepare delicious Colombian-fusion style dishes, such as Posta Cartagenera, catch of the day with a ‘burnt’ coconut salsa and Carribean-style ceviches, and serve it in a colourful, chic open-air patio. It’s necessary to make reservations 24 hours in advance by calling up with your passport number, and you’ll need your passport with you when you arrive too.
Set in a flamboyant, arty dining room filled with psychedelic tiger paintings and pineapple chandeliers, it’s impossible to walk past Maria without giving her a second glance. But that’s not the only thing that has captured the imagination of visitors here since its opening in 2013. From cured salmon with a jalapeño infusion to sea bass with grilled bacon succotash, Restaurante Maria’s Gordon-Ramsay-trained chef, Alejandro Ramirez, is known for his bold, melt-in-your-mouth seafood inventions. The cocktails here, perfectly shaken and just as inventive, are pretty famous throughout town too.