Cartagena is easily the most visited city in Colombia and once you visit you can see why. The famous walled city is filled with charming Spanish colonial buildings, year-round hot weather, gorgeous boutique hotels & hostels, and remote islands that you can visit for the day.
However, I honestly did not love Cartagena the first time I went. I found it to be too crowded with tourists, too expensive, and I was constantly harassed by people trying to sell tours and sunglasses. I decided to give it a second chance and I am glad I did! I learned from mistakes during my first trip, did a bit more research the second time, and found some hidden gems that will make you fall in love with the city as well.
Here is my guide on how to properly visit Cartagena, Colombia.
Things to know before you go
Getting there: If you’re coming from Bogotá, you need to fly. The budget airlines Wingo and Viva Colombia have direct flights as well as Avianca and Latam. Avianca is my personal favorite out of those options and you can typically snag a one-way flight for $30 USD. There are also tons of direct flights to Cartagena if you’re coming from the states.
When to go: If you want to avoid the crowds, don’t go to Cartagena on the weekend. This is what I learned between the first trip and the second trip because Cartagena is where Colombians go for a weekend getaway, especially if there is a holiday. If you have the flexibility to be there during the week it will make a huge difference in terms of overall crowdedness.
Cost of taxi from the airport to Cartagena: You’ll be glad to know that Uber does work in Cartagena so you can use the app to get a ride to and from the airport. Uber will cost approximately 18,000 pesos or a taxi will approximately 12,000 pesos. There is an electronic kiosk after you exit customs where you can enter the address of where you are staying and it will print off a ticket showing the correct price so you do not get ripped off.
Drinking water: The water luckily is drinkable on the mainland in Cartagena so you don’t need to worry about this making you sick. However, don’t drink the tap water if you’re staying on an island unless otherwise told it’s ok.
Cash and ATMs: Since Cartagena caters to tourists you will find plenty of spots to exchange money or use an ATM.
It’s HOT: Expect Cartagena to be hot & humid all year. The temperature never really varies and it will feel 32°C during the day and 24°C at night. There is very little rain from December to April and then May to November experiences the heaviest rainfall. However, it’s a tropical climate so it will normally only rain for about an hour and then the sun comes back out.
Other resources: LureCartagena.com is a valuable resource for the finding out the current hotspots on where to eat, stay, and what to do in Cartagena.
Where To Stay
There are a few main areas to stay within Cartagena including the historic walled city, the local and bohemian Getsemani neighborhood, and the modern high-rises in Bocagrande. Here are are a few of my top places
Townhouse ($$$): This boutique hotel boasts tropical style and one of the best rooftops you’ll find in Cartagena. The rooftop has two small lounge-style swimming pools with an amazing restaurant and cocktail bar as well. The location is also in the heart of the historic center with lots of action around.
Casa Lola ($$$): Casa Lola is set in the middle of the relaxed and local Getsemani neighborhood and features luxurious tropical decor, a rooftop pool, and amazing staff that cater to any of your needs. The hotel also has a delicious breakfast included.
Fenix Beach ($$): If you want an island escape that’s still close to the city of Cartagena, check out Fenix Beach. This boho-chic tropical oasis is only a 10-minute boat ride from Cartagena but feels a world away. The property has a pool, restaurant, basic accommodation, and lots of Instagramable photo spots.
Oceanfront Apartment ($$): Set just outside the walled historic center is this gorgeous 2-bedroom oceanfront apartment that can fit up to four guests. The unit has modern furniture, a fully equipped kitchen, and a social area with two swimming pools and a BBQ. The breathtaking ocean views are what really makes this place though!
Republica ($): Republica offers affordable and stylish accommodation in the center of Cartagena with shared dorms starting around US$12 / night and private rooms for US$70 / night. The property has two swimming pools, a restaurant, bar, and social activities each night.
What to do
Walk around the walled city: The highlight of Cartagena, and why most people visit, is to see the famous walled city. The charming and colorful streets are perfect for taking photos stopping in cute cafés & shops along the way. You can obviously wander around on your own, but joining a free walking tour is a great way to hit up some of the main sights efficiently.
Then explore Getsemani, the local side of Cartagena: Just outside the tourist crowded walls of Cartagena is Getsemani, a little neighborhood where local life and tourism collides. This neighborhood is filled with vibrant murals that are perfect photo opts, local street vendors, and cafés & restaurants that are much more affordable than the walled city. The heart of Getsemani is Plaza Trinidad and is where tourists and locals gather in the evenings to watch street performers. While in the plaza be sure to try some empanadas (you’ll see the massive cart full of them) and other street food.
Sail on a catamaran: If you want to spend a luxurious day on a catamaran you can join the sailing day trip offered by Bona Vida Catamaranes. They take you around the bay and Rosario Islands where you can enjoy lunch on the boat and snorkel. If you don’t have time for a full day of sailing, you can also enjoy a 2-hour sunset cruise.
Take a mud bath and visit the pink sea: Taking a mud bath inside of Colombia’s tiniest “volcano” is a quirky tourist activity in Cartagena to add to your bucket list. The tour offered by Backpackers Cartagena takes you to the Totumo Volcano for a mud bath, visits an indigenous village for lunch, and then ends the tour at the stunning pink sea which is another bucket list item.
Head to a beach club on Tierra Bomba: One of my favorite discoveries in Cartagena is the hidden gem of Tierra Bomba Island. This island is only a 10-minute boat ride from the city and offers several stylish beach clubs that make an easy escape from the city. I spent the day at the new Eteka Beach Club and we were literally the only people there that day. The day
Or swim in the turquoise waters of Playa Blanca: I have mixed feelings about Playa Blanca because it can feel overcrowded at times, but the white sand and turquoise waters are worth visiting if done right. If you go to Playa Blanca, ONLY go on a weekday to avoid the crowds and hang out at Nena Beach Club, the nicest option along a row of 100 beach bars. They do offer a day pass for 175K pesos which
Take a food tour of Mercado de Bazurto: If you want to get off the beaten path, a visit to Mercado de Bazurto is a must-do. You can visit the market on your own or go on a tour with a local insider to make sure you don’t miss out on the best food.
Enjoy a boozy brunch on a rooftop: Every Saturday from 11 am – 3 pm at the Townhouse Rooftop you can enjoy a tropical boozy brunch. The cost is 100K pesos and includes unlimited mimosas, Bloody Marys, beers, and juices as well as their special brunch menu.
Have a photographer take Instagram photos: This idea may sound kind of cheesy at first, but having a photographer take professional photos of you in Cartagena is one of the best souvenirs you can bring home from your trip. We wanted to get good photos to use on the blog so we signed up for the Cartagena Photo Walk & Coffee Airbnb Experience. Our photographer was Marlis and she took us to some great spots for photos that we wouldn’t have found ourselves.
Watch a live salsa show: Whether you know how to dance salsa, want to practice, or just sip on rum and watch – check out 1968 for a spectacular salsa show. They are open Wednesday – Saturday from 8 pm and typically host a salsa class at 8:30 pm and then the show starts around 9:30 pm. You should definitely make a reservation in advance and reviewers say to skip the food and only order drinks and watch the show. On Wednesday there is free cover but over days have a 20K peso entry fee.
Where To Eat
Interno: One of the most unique food experiences in Cartagena is at Interno, where you’ll be dining inside a women’s prison. The entire staff is made up of current inmates that cook and service
Bohemia: Bohemia is set within a charming courtyard of the El Marqués Hotel and is the perfect spot for a fine dining experience in Cartagena. The food is prepared by well-known chef Andrés Hoyos and he creates fusions of Colombian cuisine with international flavors with creative presentation.
Saint Roque: When I read the description of Saint Roque, a restaurant with a Dutch owner cooking up Indonesian food in Colombia, I was intrigued. The owner is actually half Indonesian and cooks traditional recipes from his mother. This was my first time having Indonesian food and everything we ordered had interesting flavors and spices that you don’t usually get to experience in Colombia. Besides the top-notch cuisine, the owner and staff provided excellent and friendly service and proceeds from the restaurant go to help a local orphanage.
Coffee & Cafes
Época: If you’re into third-wave coffee culture, then Época delivers. They have every brewing method available: Chemex, french press, espresso, cold brew, etc and the café itself is beautiful. This also makes a good spot for a quick breakfast or lunch.
Cafe Stepping Stone: I wish I had discovered Cafe Stepping Stone before my last day, but this ended up being the best breakfast in Cartagena. I love that this is a social enterprise cafe helping Colombia’s disadvantaged youth and they are also pet-friendly so my dog Riley was able to join our meal.
Café San Alberto: Another amazing spot to try advanced coffee brewing methods in Cartagena. The coffee comes from Buenavista, a small sustainable farm in the interior of Colombia. They have won several awards for their coffee production and one you try it you will see why!
Café del Mural: Over in the bohemian Getsemani neighborhood is Café del Mural, a hidden gem that is serious about the coffee they serve. They also offer a popular 2-hour coffee experience where you learn how to roast beans, develop tasting notes, and learn about various brewing methods.
Where to drink & dance
Townhouse: I was surprised to find that Cartagena does not actually have a lot of trendy rooftop bars. However, Town House is definitely worth stopping by for one of their craft cocktails or champagne drinks and has lots of great photo opt spots. They also have a boozy brunch every Saturday from 11 am – 3 pm for 100K pesos.
Bazurto Social Club: If you want to dance with the locals, Bazurto Social Club is known for throwing some of the best parties in Cartagena! It’s one of the few spots you can find live Latin music with an incredible dance vibe.
Selina: Selina also just opened a new rooftop bar at their venue and is perfect to pass by for an evening of cocktails or stay until it turns into a party later on.
La Movida: La Movida is one of the hotspots for partying in Cartagena and will have more of an “upper crust” crowd of Colombians here. Expect to pay an expensive 50K cover charge but have a packed and overall fun spot to party.
Where to Shop
Casa Abba: Casa Abba is an artisan flea market in the heart of the walled city. This was one of my favorite shopping spots I passed by because you have around 30 different booths to choose from and the items here tend to be more unique than you’ll find at other artisan markets in the city.
Martin Pescador: Martin
Ketty Tinoco: Linen is one of the best materials you can use to stay cool in the heat of Cartagena and Ketty Tinoco is well-known as the spot to go for unique linen-based clothing for men and women.
Selina: Outside of the Selina venue is a small clothing boutique with