Cartagena, Colombia is something out of a beautiful, romantic film. It’s the type of place that a travel romcom would be set, with vibrant colorful streets, and gorgeous republic houses. Located on Colombia’s coast, Cartagena serves as a base for many to explore Colombia’s nearby islands. The city itself, however, has its own lively, tropical culture. As arguably Colombia’s most touristy destination, I was preparing to be underwhelmed. Instead, over three days, I found myself wrapped up in Cartagena’s best creative restaurants, unique stores, and iconic rainbow streets. The truth? I’m already counting down the days until I can go back.
If you’re planning a Cartagena trip itinerary, look no further for Cartagena’s best things to do, top restaurants, where to stay in Cartagena and safety in Cartagena.
HOW TO GET TO CARTAGENA
INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS TO CARTAGENA
Several major US airlines including JetBlue and Delta do fly to Cartagena. Keep in mind that because the airport is very small, flights to Cartagena from the United States tend to sell out quickly and be slightly more expensive than flights to other cities in Colombia. As the Rafael Nuñez International Airport is only a few gates, food options are limited. If you have dietary restrictions, you may want to consider packing a few snacks on your way back to the United States.
If you’re planning on visiting other cities in Colombia, I recommend flying into Bogotá first, rather than Cartagena. International flights to Bogotá are typically less expensive, and as Colombia’s main connection hub, the airport is much larger and more robust.
DOMESTIC FLIGHTS TO CARTAGENA
Flying to Cartagena within Colombia is inexpensive and easy. Expect to pay $30-80 roundtrip for a flight to Cartagena from Bogotá or Medellín. Avianca is the national carrier of Colombia, and operates several flights to Cartagena. I flew Avianca between every city I visited in Colombia. Their flights are generally on time and reliable. I learned the hard way that Avianca’s check-in policy is different than listed on their website and in their emails. Online, Avianca’s bag drop cutoff is listed as being 30-45 minutes before departure (it was listed differently between their website and their emails). When we arrived at the airport in Bogota, we were told that bag drop closed over an hour before our flight time.
TRANSPORTATION IN CARTAGENA
Does Uber exist in Cartagena? Yes, it does! Uber exists in Colombia’s major cities. Until recently, Uber was illegal in Colombia. Even though it’s allowed to operate now, there’s still a lot of tension between Uber drivers and taxi drivers. As a result, your Uber driver will likely ask you to sit in the passenger seat to avoid harassment. This is completely normal.
Colombia also has its own taxi hail app called Cabify. I wasn’t successful in trying to use this app as I called it in a city that was considered out of range, however it is usable in Cartagena. Keep in mind that user reviews for Cabify have cited issues with payment scams from hailed drivers in the past. Even though Uber is sometimes incrementally more expensive, I did like using it for peace of mind.
Do not hail a taxi from the street in Colombia, ever. The only exception is in small towns not serviced by Uber or Cabify. Doing so might result in being scammed, or worse, kidnapped.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT CARTAGENA?
The best time to visit Cartagena is December to April. As Cartagena is tropical and coastal, there is a rainy and dry season. By December, temperatures drop to mid-80s, and rain slows down. If you’re visiting in December, I recommend visiting towards the end of the month. I visited at the end of November, and Cartagena was still experiencing a considerable amount of rain, with temperatures in the 90s.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN CARTAGENA
I’m of the mindset that you don’t come to Cartagena for the landmarks, you come for the vibes. It’s definitely a wandering city, filled with picturesque corners and winding streets in Old Town and Getsmani. However, there are definitely some unmissable things to do in Cartagena. I loved sitting in Centenario Park, watching the monkeys in the trees, and walking the wall at sunset for one of the city’s prettiest views.
WALK THE WALL
Old Town Cartagena is known as “The Walled City” because well, there’s a literal wall. As a result, this is going to be one of the most popular suggestions for things to do in Cartagena. Walking the wall at sunset is a great way to see one of the best views in the city. Keep in mind that it does get busy, especially during peak tourism months.
STROLL OLD TOWN CARTAGENA
Old Town Cartagena and Getsmani are really where the best wandering in Cartagena is to be done. In the Old Town, you can find the city’s best coffee roaster, Cafe San Alberto, as well as a plethora of interesting restaurants and stores. While you’re in the Old Town, make sure that you buy a cup of fresh limonada from a street vendor. This tart limeade is inexpensive, and the perfect refreshment for a steamy day.
CHECK OUT STREET ART IN GETSMANI
Getsmani is the trendy, artsy sister of Cartagena’s Old Town. Located just across the park, this neighborhood is home to some of Cartagena’s most popular nightlife. Be sure to stop by Getsmani’s umbrella road for a photo op, and pick up an arepa from Arepas Colombitalia nearby. As Getsmani is full of street art, be sure to spend an hour or two walking the neighborhood.
TAKE SALSA FOR A SPIN AT CAFE HAVANA
Located in Getsmani, Cafe Havana is an essential nightlife spot in Cartagena. This unassuming cafe is home to Cartagena’s best salsa dancing. Unfortunately it only just reopened on the last night of my trip so I missed this one, but I’ll certainly be visiting when I’m back. I’m told that if you don’t know how to salsa, no worries. The salsa scene here is always willing to teach.
TAKE A DAY TRIP FROM CARTAGENA
If you’re looking for beautiful blue water beaches in Cartagena, you might find yourself a bit disappointed. Beaches in Cartagena don’t have the best reputation for cleanliness or safety. Instead, consider taking a day trip to one of the nearby islands. Although Blue Apple Beach is overwhelmingly popular, there are many smaller islands in Cartagena with less foot traffic that are just as accessible with some planning. Expect to spend at least 45 minutes to an hour reaching these islands by boat. Click here for island day trip tour options in Cartagena.
GO MONKEY WATCHING IN CENTENARIO PARK
Cartagena has a beautiful public park filled with lush greenery and wildlife. In this park, you’ll find several small monkeys swinging from tree to tree! As someone who only ever saw monkeys in zoos growing up, it was exciting to sit and watch monkeys in the wild. You’ll need to look closely to spot the monkeys (we almost didn’t notice them!), but when you do, you’ll be spotting them everywhere.
BEST RESTAURANTS AND BARS IN CARTAGENA
Cartagena’s culinary scene is teeming with flavor. From innovative fine dining such as Carmen, to delectable street food at Arepas Colombitalia, and craft cocktails with local indigenous liquors at Alquimico, there’s something for everyone.
Carmen is easily one of the best restaurants in Colombia. With locations in both Medellín and Cartagena, this innovative restaurant has become a staple of the Colombian fine dining scene.
I was thoroughly impressed with everything I ate, and loved that Carmen was so considerate as to give me a vegetarian amuse bouche instead of their standard meat offering when I ordered a vegetarian plate. I ordered the cauliflower steak as well as the limonada de coco, and loved both. My friend went for the lamb, which he still talks about to this day. If you’re going out for one nice meal in Cartagena, make it this one.
Located in the beautiful Casa San Agustin hotel, Alma is an elegant fine dining restaurant. Although all around I felt like Alma didn’t necessarily impress in the same way Carmen did, I was still shocked by how much I loved my chickpea bowl there. I’m still thinking about the warm, rich flavor. Alma definitely has less of a casual vibe than Carmen, and Casa San Agustin’s republic architecture makes it the perfect location for a romantic meal. As both Alma and Carmen are very popular, I’d recommend calling ahead and making reservations if you’re interested in dining at either.
Dubbed Anthony Bourdain’s favorite restaurant in Cartagena, this seafood spot is never without a crowd. Cartagena’s coastal location makes way for fantastic ceviche for those who eat fish. Unfortunately, vegetarians like myself will have difficulty eating here. Unlike many of the most popular restaurants in Colombia, La Cevicheria is available on popular food delivery app, Rappi, for those looking to stay in and beat the crowds.
Arepas Colombitalia is open during the day, but especially becomes popular late at night with the bar crowd. If you’re visiting early evening or later, expect to wait in a short line. I promise it’s well worth it.
Before going to Cartagena, I couldn’t resist searching “best arepas in Cartagena” (what can I say? Arepas are a justifiable weakness). As street food, they’re also really affordable (expect to pay the equivalent of $2-$6 USD). Search results told me that was Quiero Arepa. Search lied. My first night in Cartagena I tried Quiero Arepa, then a few days later, I tried Arepas Colombitalia after noticing it on the next block over from my hotel, and recognizing it from my arepa search results. I can say definitively that Arepas Colombitalia charcoal grilled arepas had me completely forgetting about Quiero Arepa.
Rated one of the 50 best bars in the world by World’s Best, Alquimico’s praise is well deserved. Located in an old palace and featuring an outdoor rooftop, Alquimico is three floors of truly unique craft cocktails. With a different menu on each floor, Alquimico plays off different aspects of Colombia’s floral and fauna. Not only does Alquimico include cocktails with popular local Colombian spirits, such as Aguardiente, it also works with Colombia’s indigenous people to include hard to find indigenous liquor that you won’t find in other bars in the country.
If you prefer craft beer to craft cocktails, Beer Lover Cartagena is the spot for you. Beer Lovers features the best craft beer from all over Colombia. If you’re like me, and beer isn’t your favorite, you’re not out of luck. The bar also features a menu of basic classic cocktails given a tropical twist with local fruit. Beer Lovers is in Getsmani, just across the street from Arepas Colombitalia, making them a great late night duo.
CAFE SAN ALBERTO
Looking for the best coffee in Cartagena? Look no further. It’s no secret that Colombia is home to some of the world’s best coffee, and Cafe San Alberto is no exception. This coffee store has a reputation for roasting some of the best beans in all of Colombia. Cafe San Alberto has a large location in Cartagena’s Plaza de Santo Domingo, as well as a smaller, cozier location just a block away.
AREPA DE HUEVO
Arepa de huevo isn’t a restaurant, it’s a breakfast arepa local to Cartagena. Before noon, you’ll find tons of street vendors selling arepa de huevo for only a couple dollars. To my disappointment, they aren’t vegetarian, but that didn’t stop me from taking out the meat and falling in love with it nonetheless. Some restaurants in Cartagena offer arepa de huevo on their breakfast menus, making it much easier to order sans meat. This local dish is definitely one not to be missed.
LIMONADA DE COCO
Limonada de coco is again, not a restaurant, but a local beverage in Cartagena. This non-alcoholic coconut limeade is frothy, sweet, and all things wonderful. Unlike the name suggests, it isn’t a lemonade, but rather a lime-coconut frothy blended drink, almost similar in consistency to an Orange Julius. Most restaurants in Cartagena will offer this on their beverage menu.
WHERE TO SHOP IN CARTAGENA
One of the things I loved most about Cartagena’s Old Town is how it was full of amazing Colombian designers, rather than the usual global luxury houses. World renowned luxury labels such as Agua Bendita and Silvia Tcherassi rub shoulders with emerging Colombian talent here. Even better, prices on established luxury labels such as Agua Bendita and Silvia Tcherassi are much better in Colombia than they are when purchasing internationally, as you don’t pay import. If you’re a seamstress yourself, head to Cartagena’s equivalent of New York’s garment district in the Old Town, where you’ll find silk by the meter for a steal. The shopping scene in Cartagena, and in Colombia as a whole, is a true testament to the talent and unique flair of Colombian designers.
St. Dom is easily one of my new favorite luxury boutiques in the world. This expansive boutique features some of the best that the Colombian design scene has to offer, from globally established names such as Johanna Ortiz, to emerging local labels such as TDL Swim. I could have spent hours combing through racks and trying on absolutely everything. Don’t let the boutique’s luxury focus fool you — some pieces could be found as affordable as $40.
One of my favorite clothing labels all around, a stop at Agua Bendita is a must when in Colombia. Their Cartagena boutique features both their signature Agua Bendita swimwear collection, as well as their more recent luxury ready to wear line, Agua by Agua Bendita.
Silvia Tcherassi is perhaps one of the most recognizable names in Colombian fashion. Originally from Baranquilla, Silvia Tcherassi is now a globally recognized name in luxury womenswear. Her boutique in Cartagena is small, but boasts vibrant color, and flattering silhouettes. Even better, prices in Colombia are considerably lower than shopping from the United States.
I stumbled upon Vicky Tcherassi when wandering Old Town Cartagena, and I’m glad I did. Vicky Tcherassi’s pieces are bright, feminine, and trendy. Compared to Cartagena’s luxury boutiques, prices are also much more affordable.
Azulu is a staple name in Cartagena for women’s resort wear. Although I didn’t love Azulu quite as much as some of Cartagena’s other boutiques, their unique coffee print won me over. Explore their coffee printed pieces as a tasteful souvenir with a nod to what Colombia’s best known for.
Mercedes Salazar is home to novelty statement jewelry that you won’t see anywhere else. I was instantly drawn to the metal monkey earrings. I can definitively say that Mercedes Salazar’s pieces were unlike anything I’d seen before, in the best way possible.
No shopping guide in Colombia would be complete without at least one emerald jeweler. Colombian emeralds are considered to be some of the best in the world. If you’re an emerald or fine jewelry lover, you’ll love that you can find stunning emeralds in Cartagena and Bogotá for fantastic prices. Lucy Jewelry was my favorite jewelry store that I shopped in Colombian — although their prices were a little higher than others, their emeralds were truly stunning and staff was friendly and attentive.
Casa Chiqui House Boutique is home to eccentric home goods and accessories from around the world. Although the boutique carries several local Colombian designers, it also stocks finds from as far away as Indonesia. The metal box bags by Colombian brand, Magnetic Midnight, below, were my favorite! Prices here can range from very affordable, to a little steep, but regardless, it’s fun to go just to explore.
LOTO DEL SUR
Loto del Sur is one of my favorite stores in all of Cartagena. This Colombian skincare brand utilizes tropical ingredients for high quality products that smell amazing. You can find Loto del Sur in Bogotá, Medellín, and Pereira, also. Wherever you are, it’s worth the stop. Word to the wise: pick up a couple bottles of their hand cream.
I wandered across a street of fabric stores in Cartagena by complete chance, and wow, I’m so glad I did. A concentration of fabric stores are on Calle Primera de Badillo, between Calle 35 and Calle 39. Colombia is home to a robust apparel and textile manufacturing industry, and as a result, it’s easy to get high quality textiles at an affordable price. I purchased several yards of beautiful silk for just under $7 a yard — a third of the price that I would pay in New York.
CARTAGENA FREE WALKING TOUR
Before you pay for a walking tour of Cartagena, you should know that Colombia’s major tourist cities all offer free walking tours! Of course, a tip for your guide is expected, but it’s a small price to pay for an in-depth tour. There are a couple tour operators with free walking tours in Cartagena, however the tours tend to be very similar and last 1.5 to 2 hours. Both tour operators offer tours in both Spanish and English.
WHERE TO STAY IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
The best neighborhood to stay in Cartagena is the Old Town. This will allow you to easily walk to Cartagena’s best things to do and restaurants from your hotel. Getsmani is also a fun neighborhood to stay in, especially if you’re looking to stay in a trendier neighborhood. Getsmani is an easy walk from the Old Town, especially if you’re staying near the edge of the neighborhood.
Avoid staying in Bocagrande. Although this neighborhood can be appealing for its modern resorts and inexpensive AirBnBs, part of Cartagena’s charm is its stunning, boutique hotels in republic houses that exist in the Old Town and Getsmani. Staying in Bocagrande will also likely require an Uber to get to the Old Town or Getsmani.
While in Cartagena, I stayed at Casa Lola in Getsmani. Although this hotel is stunning and I wanted to love it, unfortunately between loud music, power outages, and cold shower water, it wasn’t the best experience. The best hotel to stay at in Cartagena is Casa San Augustin. This exceptional luxury boutique hotel is in the heart of the Walled City, features a fantastic restaurant, Alma, and beautiful colonial architecture. To explore Casa San Augustin, click here.
Casa San Augustin (left), Casa Lola (right)
SAFETY IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
Safety in Colombia can be a controversial subject. I’ve found that safety in Colombia varies greatly by city and region. Cartagena, however, in the tourist areas of Old Town, Getsmani, and Bocagrande, is very safe. Even late at night, I was comfortable walking around. There were typically people out at bars and restaurants past midnight, and things do stay open late in Cartagena. Police presence also noticeably increased in the Old Town around sunset. Of all the cities I visited in Colombia, Cartagena is absolutely where I felt safest. Solo travelers should have little issue here, however it is of course important to stay alert and take normal precautions in any city.
Colombia is truly one of the most special places I’ve ever been. From the food to the culture to the people, it was nothing short of incredible. Cartagena is a gem, a colonial beach town that still places Colombia’s flavors and local talent front and center, unlike other tourist beach towns I’ve traveled to. The colorful republic houses and overgrown bougainvillea at every turn give the city a feeling of tropical romance, that you’ll dream about from home.
WHAT TO WEAR IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
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