Probably one of my favorite places in South America and the fifth largest city in Colombia, Cartagena de Indias it owes its name to the Spaniards, who named it after the original one located in Murcia, Spain!
To help you spend two days perfect in this delightful city, here are mine Favorite things to do and see in Cartagena.
Cartagena de Indias it's a city that strikes you almost instantly: its crumbling walls of yellow, red and blue, with wooden balconies from which cascades of flowers fall are perhaps the most photogenic that Massi and I have ever seen in South America.
The city has, undeniably and unequivocally, seen many changes over the past decade. Much of this is positive, however, Cartagena is also starting to fall victim to its success fueled by Instagram photos and word of mouth.
This is one of the reasons why I often hear from other travelers that they did not appreciate it as "too touristy".
Cartagena however is a destination that balances perfectly between being the inspiration of the dream creations of Garcia Marquez and the poster child for tourism opportunities in the "new Colombia" and for this reason it should never be missing things to see in Colombia, whether it's a one-month trip or a few days.
PRO tip: 2 days in my opinion are perfect for Cartagena de Indias. Consider spending a night in Playa Blanca or a couple of days on the Islas del Rosario too!
- 1 - Take a (FREE) tour of the Old Town
- 2 - Watch the sunset from the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
- 3 - Visit the Gold Museum
- 4 - Discover Street Art in the neighborhood of Gethsemane
- 5 - Visit the Naval Museum
- 6 - Spend a few hours at Bocagrande beach
- 7 - Take a tour of the places of Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- 8 - Visit Playa Blanca
- 9 - Visit the Islas del Rosario
- 10 - Take a tour to observe the phosphorescent plankton
- 11 - Visit the Mud Volcano
- 12 - Bazurto Market
- 13 - Discover Cartagena's dark past at the Palace of the Inquisition
- 14 - Party on a Chiva
- 15 - Try the local cuisine
- 16 - La Popa Convent
- 17 - Walk on the old city walls
- 18 - Museum of the Emeralds
- 19 - Church of San Pedro Claver
- 20 - Go scuba diving or snorkeling
1 - Take a (FREE) tour of the Old Town
Although Cartagena de Indias is too touristy for many travelers, it would be a huge mistake not to visit his Old Town, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
La Old City is everything inside the walled city (Ciudad Amurallada) and where you can find colonial buildings and historical places like Plaza Aduana, Clock Tower (the clock tower) and even the always fun Santo Domingo Square where you can find a Botero sculpture.
In my opinion, the best way to see the city is with a tour, which will take you through the most important attractions and streets while also telling their history: a simple, fun and cheap way to get to know Cartagena!
I participated in the free tour of one of the best agencies in Colombia booked at this link from Civitatis.
This 2-hour walking tour (free, although you will be asked for a tip later) runs every day twice a day and is a great way to see the city if you're on a budget.
The tour starts from the square in front of the clock and takes you through the narrow streets of the Old Town stopping at the most important monuments. Having participated I can only recommend it!
During the tour you will also be given a real lesson of champeta, a genre of music and dance born in the barrios of Cartagena or of sauce.
⇒ You can learn more about the FREE TOUR HERE
There are so many things to do and see in the Old Town some of which are listed in this article.
2 - Watch the sunset from the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Probably the most famous landmark to visit in the city of Cartagena is the Castle of San Felipe de Barajas.
Built in 1657 by African slaves to defend the city from pirates, watching the sunset from its top is sure to be one of the best moments in Cartagena.
FUN FACT: even though there have been numerous attempts, this fortress has never been breached!
Castle of San Felipe de Barajas. Address: Av. Pedro de Heredia at Carrera 17. Hours: every day from 8 to 18. From February to November, free admission on the last Sunday of the month. Prices: 18.000 pesos adults, 9.000 pesos children, free admission under 5 years.
3 - Visit the Gold Museum
In Colombia practically every city has its own gold museum (the one in Bogota is not to be missed) and Cartagena is no exception!
Il Zenú gold museum is a gold museum that exhibits gold works of art from the pre-Hispanic Zenu civilization that used to be in the region: visiting it will give you a glimpse of these ancient gold artifacts and a chance to learn a little about indigenous cultures who made them.
Above all, the museum is free.
4 - Discover Street Art in the neighborhood of Gethsemane
At first glance, the neighborhood Gethsemane it looks a bit, let's say, sloppy and decadent when compared to the Old Town.
Today, after a past where the area was famous for drug dealing, prostitution and crime, it is one of the must-see neighborhoods and the hipster enclave of Cartagena!
The whole neighborhood is littered with bars, cafes and graffiti and I assure you that the street art here is remarkable. Let's say that street art is a real ritual throughout Colombia. I have already told you about its importance in the Comuna 13 of Medellin (not to be missed). Gethsemane is the hub of street art in Cartagena - don't miss the graffiti at Sierpe Street o Trinity Square.
Its nightlife is also noteworthy when the neighborhood (which seems a bit asleep during the day) is filled with young people and backpackers who come from all over the world, when the clubs open with a thousand lights and the main square is filled with smoking stalls that they sell street food.
To make the most of this unique side of Cartagena, check out this one 3 hour free tour which takes you to admire the best street art and creative studios the city has to offer. One of the coolest things to do in Cartagena!
⇒ See here for the FREE Gethsemane tour
5 - Visit the Naval Museum
Il Naval Museum of the Caribbean, although no one mentions it it is in my opinion the best museum in Cartagena.
That means I have to include it on this list of what to do in Cartagena. You will appreciate much more the historical importance of the city and why the Spaniards invested so much in defending it.
Cartagena was attacked numerous times during the colonial era, by Francis Drake, the French privateer Baron de Pointis and others. In the last major attack, Cartagena's forces defeated the invasion led by Edward Vernon at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias.
The museum has some excellent exhibits with dioramas showing daily accounts of major battles. There are also models of the different forts and fortifications around the city.
Upstairs, you will learn about Cartagena's vital role in Colombia's independence and the history of its Navy. There are some great interactive models of a submarine and warship that are sure to be fun for children.
6 - Spend a few hours at Bocagrande beach
Big Mouth it is the main beach of Cartagena (in the photo you can see the distance).
Surely it is the most popular beach among the locals, but honestly it is ugly. At least I found it ugly and messed up. The good thing is that nearby you will find good, cheap and characteristic restaurants where you can stop for lunch.
Let's say that if you want to go to the beach in Cartagena for me you should go to Playa Blanca. But if you don't have enough time and you still want to take a dip in the sea, Bocagrande can be acceptable.
It is located in the new district and is therefore surrounded by skyscrapers and business hotels. On the other side you will find the cycle path which is very beautiful and worth a walk (there are very few bikes).
NOTE: beware of the beach vendors who can get quite pushy!
7 - Take a tour of the places of Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Did you know that Cartagena played an important role in the life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Here he studied for his university degree and here he began his career as a journalist.
COUNCIL: here you will find 10 books on Colombia which I recommend you read before leaving. Among these "100 years of solitude" is the masterpiece of "Gabo".
8 - Visit Playa Blanca
I will visit Playa Blanca in Cartagena is definitely another of the things to do here. It is located about 90 km, easy to reach and is the closest in Colombia to the classic Caribbean island: white sand, palm trees and crystal clear water.
Playa Blanca is always very crowded so if you have enough time, the best idea is to spend at least one night there: when all the daily tourists have gone, this little paradise will be all just for you!
You have so many ways to get there. The island of Baru is in fact connected to the mainland by a bridge:
- – shuttle bus -> you can book your transfer to Playa Blanca online on Tripadvisor at this link.
- - with a 1 day tour from Cartagena
- - By taxi
- - by bus + motorbike taxi
- - by motorboat
9 - Visit the Islas del Rosario
Playa Blanca is located in Isla Baru which is part of Rosario Islands (also called Corales Islas del Rosario), an archipelago located off the coast of Colombia, about 100 kilometers from Cartagena.
The islands are one of the 46 national natural parks of Colombia.
The Rosario Islands consist of 28 islands, all of which form a national park created to protect one of the most important coral reefs on the Colombian Caribbean coast. They have been protected since 1977.
Of course Playa Blanca isn't the only beach you can visit, there are many more to choose from. I have been 5 days in Pirate island (a small resort on a private island) and I assure you that it was one of the highlights of my trip to Colombia.
As far as I'm concerned, the one on the Islas del Rosario is one of the best day tours from fare to Cartagena!
Below you will find some day tours which in my opinion are really good:
Cartagena: Islas del Rosario with lunch and snorkeling: the best-selling tour of all and winner of the GetYourGuide Awards 2019
Cartagena: 1 day tour to 4 of the Rosario islands. A full day to discover the 4 most beautiful islands and beaches among the Islas del Rosario.
Excursion with snorkeling to Isla Cholón: although this tour has no reviews at the moment, Cholón Island it is a small paradise, particularly suitable for young travelers.
Day trip to Majagua Island from Cartagena: Also Majagua Island it is a little paradise. Here too there are very few reviews, so if you want to escape the hordes of tourists, I would absolutely take it into consideration.
Cartagena: private boat tour around the islands - although much more expensive (but good if you are in a group) a private boat tour gives you much more freedom. In my opinion the best way, if the price suits you.
10 - Take a tour to observe the phosphorescent plankton
This is one of the funniest things you can do in Cartagena, that is a tour to observe (and swim) in the phosphorescent plankton.
This brackish lake in the heart of Isla Grande is famous for the breathtaking and surreal spectacle of phosphorescent plankton which, on a dark, starless night, seems to glow with sparkling sparks with every touch of the water.
Swimming in the lake at night, watching small lights dance around your body is one of the most unique and memorable reasons to visit the Rosario Islands.
Unfortunately I have no photos and the few that I found on the web do not really correspond to reality. To really experience what it means you have to go there!
Here you find ⇒ More information on the Phosphorescent Plankton Tour
11 - Visit the Mud Volcano
A load of tourists + a mud-filled volcano = a pretty cool (and surprisingly fun!)
If you participate with the knowledge that this is a super tourist activity and you are ready to have fun and let yourself go, you will have a lot of fun filling yourself with mud at the Totumo volcano.
⇒ Here you will find more information on the tour to the Totumo Volcano
SPOILER NOTICETours include a mud massage.
12 - Bazurto Market
Anyone who follows this blog or who knows me personally, also knows that I have an almost perverse passion for local markets.
With its colorful fruits, smells and foods you've never seen in your life, it's the best way to explore local life in a new country! The Bazurto market it's a great example of life in Cartagena and also a cheap place if you want to try some local fruit from the Colombian Caribbean coast.
Just a 10 minute taxi ride from the Old Town or a 30 minute walk for those who enjoy walking, Bazurto Market is the place to go for a cheap meal and morning adventure!
NOTE: bring to the market only the indispensable necessities: it is not dangerous, but avoid finding your pockets empty because of someone malandrino!
13 - Discover Cartagena's dark past at the Palace of the Inquisition
The Spaniards are well aware of what the Inquisition was. The Inquisition was instituted by "Los Reyes Católicos" (the Catholic monarchs) as a way to punish all non-Catholic behavior.
The Spanish Inquisition evokes visions of witches, torture and religious persecution.
As an important seat of Spanish colonial power, Cartagena housed a palace of the Inquisition.
Today the Palacio de la Inquisición in Cartagena serves as both the museum of the Inquisition and the Historical Museum of Cartagena.
Here you will get to know and better understand how people were tried and then sent to torture until they admitted they were witches or traitors to the crown.
Inquisition Palace, current Historical Museum. Address: Plaza de Bolivar. Hours: Monday to Saturday from 9 to 18, Sunday and holidays from 10 to 16. Prices: 17.000 pesos adults, 14.000 pesos children, free admission under 5 years.
14 - Party on a Chiva
- chiva bus they are the local buses from Colombia that were used to take the farmers to the fields.
In the most remote areas you can still find some original ones (I took them in Salento to get to the waterfalls and the thermal baths of Santa Teresa)
But if you're traveling on fairly standard itineraries, probably the only way to try it will be in Cartagena on the chiva parties: these colorful wooden buses with blaring lights and music ply the streets at night to find the best places to go. party!
As the bus turns at night in the beautiful city of Cartagena, feel free to dance on the bus along the streets with the rum flowing and the music playing. Yes, the Chiva bus might be tacky, but with the right company, it can be absolutely exhilarating.
15 - Try the local cuisine
There are many restaurants in the Old City of Cartagena but keep in mind that they are often aimed at tourists, they are more expensive and you don't always find traditional dishes. In fact, many of them are more aimed at international cuisine than local ones.
For me the best choice is to dine in the small restaurants of Gethsemane!
Being right next to the ocean, it's no surprise that seafood and fish abound in this region, and one of the best places to try it is in La Cevicheria, the favorite fish spot of Anthony Bourdain a Cartagena!
Another place to consider is El Boliche Cebicheria (San Diego, Calle Cochera del Hobo 38-17): here I found the best ceviche in all of Cartagena.
PRO TIP: Cartagena can get really hot. Try the fruit popsicle Chocolate Pop-Bar (Archbishopric Street # 34 - 63)
To try one of the best Colombian coffees instead, award-winning, you have to go to Cafe San Alberto (Calle de Los Santos de Piedra Cra. 4 # 34-1 to 34-91)
French food is not something I would immediately consider when looking for a restaurant in Cartagena, but in reality what I am about to offer you is truly unique. Oh! La La it's one of the best places to eat in Cartagena for breakfast!
Among the local cuisine you should definitely try the traditional dish of fried fish, served with coconut rice and patacones (mashed fried plantain balls).
Other fish dishes to try:
- Seafood casserole (fish stew with coconut milk)
- Shrimp with Garlic (shrimp in garlic sauce)
- Seafood Rice (seafood rice)
- Steak a la Marinera (fish fillet in sauce with prawns, clams and squid)
A great way to not miss any of the must-try foods in Cartagena is take a street food tour like this where you can taste different types of traditional foods while learning about Cartagena culture from an expert local guide!
Taking part in a tour will allow you to discover the places where the locals go and to try some types of food that you would never have imagined: the lulo, the guanabana and the arequipe, some of the tastiest foods on the Colombian coast!
16 - La Popa Convent
This hill is the highest point in the city and is home to a convent founded in 1607 and fortified two centuries later.
To get there you need to take a taxi and from here you will get some beautiful views of Cartagena and its beaches and you can enter the chapel to see the image of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the courtyard full of flowers.
You will also see the statue of a priest who was murdered for trying to spread the gospel.
17 - Walk on the old city walls
Take a stroll along the walls of the Old City to see its well-preserved guns and lookouts.
There are several areas with steps to get on and off and you can go around the Old Town with a view of the sea on one side and the streets of the neighborhood on the other.
Watch the sunset here by grabbing a few beers from the street vendors and enjoying some magical and quite romantic moments too.
Or find out how beautiful the city is (especially at night) with a carriage ride around the city.
The rides last about an hour, are quite cheap, plus you can explore the city in a truly romantic way.
18 - Museum of the Emeralds
Colombia is known for its emeralds and in Cartagena you will find a museum dedicated to the precious stone and the jewels that are made of it.
Here you will learn all about how the stone is discovered and quarried and you will be able to observe one of the largest emeralds ever discovered in the country.
There are also exhibits detailing the goldsmithing techniques of indigenous cultures, as well as the ancient myths and legends surrounding gold and emeralds.
The museum is free, but of course it ends up in a jewelry store specializing in all types of emeralds: here whoever understands it could do some great deals.
19 - Church of San Pedro Claver
If you are planning to visit a church in Cartagena, do it here.
La San Pedro Claver Church it houses a museum with religious works of art from the colonial period, a lush courtyard with a baptismal font and the church where the remains of St. Peter Claver, the patron saint of slaves, who fought to make their conditions more humane, lie.
The outside of the church itself is beautiful, visible day and night from many parts of the city, and it's a great place to learn more about this part of the city's past.
Church of San Pedro Claver. Address: Plaza de San Pedro Claver. Hours: Monday to Friday from 9:30 to 12 and from 15 to 17. Prices: 9.000 pesos adults, 6000 pesos children.
20 - Go scuba diving or snorkeling
Cartagena is directly on the Caribbean Sea, so you'll have plenty of options to take a snorkeling tour.
If you just want to snorkel, head to the Rosario Islands Natural Park and its San Bernardo reef about an hour away by boat.
You may see things like lionfish, lobsters and moray eels as well as lots of corals.