The 10 best things to do in Cartagena in Colombia

The best things to do in Cartagena in Colombia include beautiful sunsets, historic fortresses, colorful streets, free museums and impressive monuments. The Caribean town of Cartagena de Indias is one of Colombia’s most popular destinations. The colorful fortified city on the Caribbean north coast is known for its charming streets with colonial buildings, historic fortresses and city walls and its tropical atmosphere. We have never heard of travelers exploring Colombia skipping this coastal town. A visit to Cartagena is an absolute must for any Colombia travel itinerary. Continue reading for the best things to do in Cartagena, including where to stay and the best districts.

Cartagena Colombia

How to get to Cartagena in Colombia

Cartagena is located in the far north of Colombia on the Caribbean north coast.

Good to know: Spain also has a coastal city called Cartagena. When researching hotels, flights or information, make sure you have the right Cartagena in Colombia.

The well-known cities of Medellín and Bogotá aren’t near Cartagena, but they do have direct connections to the Caribbean city with (night) buses and domestic flights. Since Cartagena has an international airport, you can also choose to arrive in Colombia at this destination. Then book a domestic flight to bridge the longer distances to other Colombian destinations.

Near Cartagena are many other Caribbean destinations to visit. The popular Tayrona National Park and the jungle of the famous Lost City Trek are both around the corner. The jungle destination Minca and the hippie beach village Palomino are also in this northern part of Colombia. Cartagena is therefore almost always easy to fit into your Colombia itinerary. If you travel from Cartagena to one of the other northern destinations – or vice versa – you will probably travel via the central city of Santa Marta, where you can change buses.

Cartagena Colombia

Where to stay in Cartagena

The best areas to stay in Cartagena are all in the touristic part of the city, where you can choose between three lovely districts: Centro, San Diego and Getsemani. The neighborhoods are right next to each other and almost all within the old walled town. Wherever you choose to stay, you can easily reach the interesting sights and great restaurants in the areas next to it. The Centro Histórico has most of the historic sights and is known for its colonial buildings. You’ll find the same charming cityscape in San Diego right next to it. Our favorite area to stay however is the upcoming working-class neighborhood of Getsmani, where the hotels and hostels are somewhat cheaper and the streetscape is less polished.

The best hostels and hotels in Cartagena:

#1 Hotel Boutique Casona del Colegio (Centro) for a wonderful hotel with very high review ratings. The hotel is housed in a beautiful colonial building and combines authentic architecture with modern luxury. There is a garden, terrace, rooftop infinity pool and bar.

#2 Amarla Boutique Hotel Cartagena (Centro) for an adults-only boutique hotel with a rooftop outdoor pool, bar, garden and beautifully decorated rooms. The hotel is very centrally located within walking distance of all the sights in Centro.

#3 Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena (San Diego) for a hotel in a former convent from the seventeenth century. The hotel offers rooms with balconies that overlook the exotic hotel garden or the Caribbean Sea. There is an outdoor pool, spa, bar and two restaurants.

#4 Viajero Hostel Cartagena (San Diego) for a popular hostel with rave reviews and a central location in San Diego. There are both private and dormitory rooms. The hotel offers a sun terrace, an extensive breakfast buffet and a small swimming pool.

#5 Casa Jaguar Hotel Boutique (Getsemani) for a particularly beautiful and stylish hotel not far from the colorful Calle de Las Sombrillas. It has an outdoor swimming pool, a garden, a restaurant and a bar. The enthusiastic reviews praise the beautiful interior, the staff and the extensive breakfast.

#6 Casa Zahri Boutique Hostel (Getsemani) for one of the best hostels in Cartagena. There is an outdoor swimming pool, a garden, a shared lounge, a terrace and a bar. The stylish decor and details make this hotel a beautiful place to stay.

Cartagena Colombia

The 10 best things to do in Cartagena

The northern city Cartagena offers a completely different atmosphere than you are used to in the big cities of Colombia. The heat, the slow pace, the colonial buildings with authentic balconies, the many colors and the tropical atmospheres characterize Cartagena. Take advantage of the early morning coolness to explore the city before it gets too hot to be active and you rather sit down on a terrace with a cold drink or at your hotel pool. These are the 10 best things to do in Cartagena when exploring town!

#1 The colorful streets of the historic city

Cartagena is the most beautiful city in Colombia. The tropical coastal city has lovely colonial architecture and the most colorful houses. The best attraction of Cartagena is the old town within the city walls.

Although Cartagena has many skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, the old city still has the colorful low-rise buildings you might have seen in photos of the charming streets. You can find this old part within the historic city walls, so the Centro Histórico and San Diego districts. This part of Cartagena dates back to the sixteenth century, when the old fortress city was founded and flourished into an important port city. Typical of Cartagena is its construction as a military fortress, whose origins date back to the sixteenth century and whose fortresses, gates and structures are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Many of Cartagena’s sights revolve around its origins as an ancient fortified city.

The colonial buildings from the old days, pastel-colored houses, narrow streets, cozy squares and beautiful churches make the walled town of Cartagena a photogenic sight. Don’t make a rigid plan to explore the city, but just wander through the maze of the most colorful streets in the old town. Sit down on a terrace and enjoy the beautiful street scene. Get lost and be guided by the smell of coffee and ice cream.

A number of sights in the old town that you shouldn’t miss? The colorful street Calle de Los Siete Infantes, the yellow bell tower Torre del Reloj, the cozy square Plaza Santo Domingo, the San Pedro Claver Church (Saint Peter Claver Church), the Palace of the Inquisition, the square Plaza Bolivar and the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría.

Cartagena Colombia

#2 The sunset from the city wall

Cartagena has the perfect sunset night after night. You can watch the sun set beautifully in the Caribbean Sea from the ramparts. Everyone will recommend you to go to the popular Café del Mar on the city walls, but we don’t agree. The prices are very high, it is super busy and in our opinion not particularly attractive. Instead, find a seat elsewhere on the ramparts and bring your own drinks for a much nicer – and cheaper – sunset experience.

sunset Cartagena Colombia

#3 Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

On the other side of the river from the walled city, you’ll find Cartagena’s ancient fortress Castillo de San Felipe. It is one of the ancient fortresses that defended the city for centuries and it is now part of the military fortifications on the UNESCO World Heritage List. You can easily walk there from the old town. Preferably do this in the morning or late afternoon, as it can get quite hot in the afternoon.

San Felipe is one of the most interesting historical sites in Cartagena. The fortress dates from the sixteenth century and was once built to defend the city against invaders. In one of the rooms, a film is shown about the history of the Castillo and thus of Cartagena itself. We recommend to take some time to watch it if you want to know more about the city. The view from the towers and castle walls over the city is beautiful. And don’t forget to explore the underground passages!

Castillo Felipe | Cartagena Colombia | Colombia | The Orange Backpack
Castillo Felipe | Cartagena Colombia

#4 The free museums of Cartagena

Most museums in Cartagena are free to visit. And they have air conditioning. So if the afternoon heat is too much for you, if you want to avoid the crowds or if you fancy history and culture: pop into one of the museums. We recommend visiting the Museum del Oro (Gold Museum) which explains to its visitors the history of native Colombia through historic golden objects. It is a smaller version of the main Gold Museum in Bogotá, which we definitely recommend to visit as well.

We also visited the Museum of Modern Art Cartagena for free. During our visit, we saw an interesting exhibition with a political touch. The museum is located in the main square behind the yellow city gate to the old town, so you will probably walk past it anyway. Admission is free on Tuesdays.

Cartagena Colombia

#5 The colorful neighborhood of San Diego

The San Diego district is also part of the historic center of Cartagena. El Centro is the main city center receiving many visitors, but San Diego is a lot more peaceful. The district is also located within the walled city and is characterized by squares, colorful streets, facades full of flowers and colonial monuments. But then just a little quieter and with a more charming and authentic atmosphere then El Centro.

San Diego, on the other hand, does not have the sights El Centro does. There are no specific places to visit, so you explore the neighborhood mainly by strolling around the lovely streets. The one attraction you can find in San Diego is located on the northern edge of the area: the old prison Las Bovédas in the city walls which is now filled with souvenir shops.

Cartagena Colombia

#6 The upcoming working-class neighborhood of Getsemani

Next to El Centro and San Diego is the former working-class neighborhood Gethsemani. This district is less beautiful and touristy, but therefore also a lot quieter and cheaper. For that reason it is a base for many travelers visiting Cartagena in Colombia. But even if you stay in the more popular neighborhoods Centro or San Diego, we recommend exploring Getsemani.

The neighborhood may not charm you with its pastel-colored colonial buildings, though the walls are just as colorful because of the local street art. You will find beautiful murals and graffiti scattered throughout this former working-class neighborhood that is now slowly being taken over by tourism. Getsemani is known for its hip restaurants, nightlife and delicious street food. The heart of the district is the square Plaza de la Trinidad. Both there and on the street Calle San Andres you will find most of Getsemani’s nightlife. Calle San Andres has great bars, but Plaza de la Trinidad comes alive in the evening with street food and live music. Don’t miss Calle de Las Sombrillas – the street of the colorful umbrellas – for your new Instagram profile picture.

Cartagena Colombia
Street art Cartegana

#7 The old city walls

The old center and San Diego are walled by a long city wall – Las Murallas – along the coast. It is a beautiful place to watch the sunset, but you can also take a nice walk along the edges of the old town on top of the ramparts. The city walls offer a beautiful view of the ocean and the city. Descend from the city wall at La Bóvedas, where souvenir shops are located in an old prison in the city wall.

Tip: don’t take a picture of the traditionally dressed ladies at La Bóvedas unless you’re willing to pay for it. It’s their job.

 Cartagena Colombia

#8 Souvenir shopping in Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias is visited by many tourists, so the city has many souvenir shops and stalls. If you’re looking for a nice souvenir, you’ve come to the right city! The best place to rummage through the souvenirs is at the city wall near the old prison La Bóvedas, which we mentioned earlier.

Cartagena Colombia

#9 Abacalibro, the most beautiful bookstore in Colombia

You can have the best coffee break in Cartagena at Abacalibro, where books and coffee are combined under one roof. The bookshop with its coffee bar can be found in the old center and you will probably walk past it at some point. Then make sure to stop by to browse through the books and enjoy a coffee or chai latte inside or on the small terrace outside. The great atmosphere, delicious coffee and air conditioning inside make Abacalibro a place not to miss in Cartagena.

Rosario Islands Colombia

#10 The Cartagena beach: Playa Blanca or the Rosario Islands

Although Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast, you’ll have to go outside the city for the best beaches. Northeast of the San Diego district, Cartagena itself has the Marbella beach, but it is not very beautiful or interesting to visit. If you want to spend a day at the beach, we recommend that you visit one of the beaches south of Cartagena.

One of the most famous beaches near Cartagena is Playa Blanca on Isla Baru. The Baru Islands are a popular and somewhat touristy place to visit from Cartagena. But if you come as early as possible, it is not too busy yet and it makes a great place to laze on the beach. In the city, you will find many organizations offering day trips to this popular beach. From Cartagena you go by speedboat to Playa Blanca, which is not only practical and fast, but also a great experience.

Much more idyllic and iconic are the Rosario Islands. The paradise archipelago consists of 27 beautiful islands, of which Isla Grande is the largest and most famous. Unlike Isla Baru, the beaches of the Islas Del Rosario are as beautiful as you would expect from the Caribbean and it is also less touristy here. It is the perfect place to do nothing and enjoy the beach and the sea. But you’re also in the right place for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, cycling and hiking in a beautiful location. You can visit the Rosario Islands with a day trip from Cartagena, but you can also stay one or more days to fully enjoy the island life. We can highly recommend staying at the popular Hotel IslaBela with beautiful A-shaped wooden cabins on the water.

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