Essential Guide to Cartagena

On Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena is a vividly-painted walled city filled with 400-year-old houses. You could just spend your days there walking around, snapping photos of the historic center. Nobody would question that desire. But there’s so much more to do, from exploring the street art of the Getsemaní barrio to touring the Teatro Heredia and daytripping to Islas del Rosario. Some of Colombia’s best cocktails and finest seafood dishes are served in this port city. Don’t miss the sautéed snapper in coconut-shrimp sauce at Restaurante Donjuán.

calle san Augustin nº 6-14, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
The best way to enjoy Cartagena’s historic center is simply to get lost. Wander the narrow streets that flow past gaily colored edifices and into small, leafy parks or sprawling plazas. Stroll the city ramparts, the walls built starting in the 16th century to protect the city from foreign enemies and marauding pirates. Between the churches and gardens, you’ll find everything from emerald emporiums to local design boutiques to street vendors. The city’s dark history provides some stark contrast to the candy-hued and lively present, and should not be entirely ignored: Cartagena’s bloody past is revealed at the Palace of Inquisition museum and at some of the memorials at sites where locals sold African captives into slavery. Knowing a bit of what came before gives texture and context to a town that may otherwise seem like a touristy set piece.
Getsemani, Cartagena, Cartagena Province, Bolivar, Colombia
Once one of Cartagena’s seedier areas, Getsemaní has recently claimed its spot as the city’s hippest barrio. Walk its tiny streets, lined with quaint colonial architecture—some of which is adorned with beautiful graffiti. At night, the district comes to life: Musicians and street performers gather outside the church in the main square, while a very easy-on-the-eyes set mobs streetside tables at funky boîtes serving Colombian specialties and cocktails. The (slightly) cooler evening air revives them before they head into the area’s irresistible salsa bars for more perspiring.
Barrio Pie del Cerro, Avenida Antonio de Arévalo, Carrera 17, Cartagena de Indias, Bolívar, Colombia
A short walk from the city sits imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, covering almost the whole of San Lázaro Hill, 135 feet above sea level. The castillo bit is something of a misnomer, as the structure is not technically a castle but a fort; it happens to be one of the most impressive the Spanish ever built, resisting a number of land and sea attacks. Allegedly its tunnel system was engineered so that the slightest sound anywhere within it would reverberate a warning of approaching danger or attempted escape. Audio guides, available in English, Spanish, and other languages, recount the full story. The castle also happens to be one of the best spots in the city from which to watch the sunset.
Calle 37
If this building seems to radiate a celestial calm, that’s likely because it continues to serve as a working monastery. Founded in the early 17th century by the Augustinian order, the structure itself has undergone extensive renovations over the years, but its most distinguishing feature has never changed: its perch above the city. As the highest point in Cartagena, it rewards visitors with a panoramic view of all below. Gardens, a small museum and a shop round out the offerings here.
The spirit of the late Gabriel García Márquez—one of Colombia’s most beloved cultural figures, and certainly its most beloved writer—lives on in Colombia, and is felt palpably in Cartagena. Though the Nobel Prize–winning author lived in Mexico City for many years, he had a home in Cartagena, and it was one of the cities that inspired his novels and the magical-realist style in which they were written. A walking tour focuses on the city’s influence on the work of Gabo (to use his affectionate nickname), with a smart narrative recounting historical, cultural and literary references.
Cartagena, Cartagena Province, Bolivar, Colombia
Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena) contains a somewhat modest collection of about 300 works, most of which are paintings or sculptures donated by Colombian and other Latin American artists, including Enrique Grau and Oswaldo Vigas. The colonial-era building housing the museum is located within the walls of the historic part of the city; as such, it can easily be included in a morning’s or afternoon’s explorations, whether independent or guided.
The Andean condor is Colombia’s national bird, and it’s one among more than 130 avian species on display at the National Aviary (Aviario Nacional de Colombia) outside Cartagena. But the condor is the least impressive of the birds here—at least in the looks department. Keep an eye out for a glimpse of some more-colorful tropical beauties, such as scarlet macaws, and the more diminutive but equally vivid and gorgeous tángara primavera (blue-winged mountain tanager) and carriquí verdiamarillo (green jay).
Cl. del Colegio #34-24, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
The interior spaces as well as the incredible rooftop at an amazing former mansion in Cartagena’s historic center are the setting for the Colombian Caribbean’s most talented bartenders. The cocktails mixed here are magic potions that transform whiskey, vodka, gin, and rum into can’t-miss elixirs, always with a local lilt. The crowd—sophisticated locals and hip turistas looking for a break from pure tropicalismo—love the DJs who come here to spin jazz, funk, and hip-hop.
Calle 38 # 8-19, Calle del Santísimo, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Carmen lies at the crossroads where quality, creativity, and sustainability (plus every other big-city culinary trend) meet. The namesake proprietress, alongside musician husband Rob Pevitts (both San Francisco Cordon Bleu graduates), is the genius who imported the restaurant’s California-sybarite style to Cartagena. She also brought a passion for everything that comes from the sea, and even imported her father, who’s responsible for serving up crab, lobster, fish, and octopus in line with standards he picked up on his many travels in New York and Japan.
Av Carlos Escallon 34-01, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
The 19th-century residence that houses this restaurant by chef Juan Felipe Camacho presents a subtle maritime vibe. The gustatory offering highlights a little bit of everything, but seafood and local shellfish—in generous portions—are the stars of an unpretentious international menu that’s anchored by a celebrated dish of sautéed snapper in coconut-shrimp sauce. Also available: exquisite carnivore dishes like grilled beef shoulder with blood sausage and piquillo peppers.
la No. 36 44, Universidad de Cartagena, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Occupying three whitewashed colonial buildings sheltered from the bustling streets of Old Town Cartagena, Casa San Agustín sits on the site of a former aqueduct and channels its heritage with a swimming pool that tunnels through its stately remnants. Inside, common spaces feature a mix of Colombian art and artifacts with contemporary wicker furnishings and marble floors. The 20 rooms and 10 suites are cozy and a bit more polished than those found at other historic properties nearby: Units feature 200-year-old wood-beamed ceilings and iron canopy beds topped with Frette linens; some have patios with hot tubs or brick terraces with views of surrounding buildings. But there’s plenty of space to unwind throughout the property, namely a library with original frescoes and a lounge with a long wooden bar and ceiling-high wine cabinet. It’s a good idea to make reservations in advance for dinner at Alma, considered among the city’s best restaurants, where the upscale international cuisine includes fresh ceviche and dry-aged beef cured on-site.
3-86 Calle 36
In a city that inspired the most famous works by the winner of a Nobel Prize in literature, you’d be forgiven for expecting a place to buy novels on every corner. Cartagena’s book offerings are somewhat slim, but the best by far is Ábaco, a bookstore and café in the heart of the old part of the city. It draws local literati, but even if you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll find something here; there’s a small gift section, and, of course, Colombian coffee.
Cl. 35 #3-19, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Once the source of two-thirds of the world’s emerald supply, Colombia’s gem-mining industry remains active, and visitors to the country count jewelry among their most coveted souvenirs. While there are many shops where emeralds and Colombia’s famed gold filigree can be purchased, Lucy Jewelry is considered one of the most professional: They’ve been in business for more than three decades.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks