Busy, warm and wonderfully colorful, the Caribbean city of Cartagena is a must visit place in Colombia. It’s hard not to fall in love with Cartagena with its pastel colored homes, balconies adorned with cascading bougainvillea and so much culture and history every where you look! This post covers top things to do in Cartagena and also includes a quick travel guide with important things to know.
Top Things to Do in Cartagena
I am going to break this post down by things to do in the various neighborhoods in Cartagena.
Locally known as Ciudad Amurallada, this historical center of Cartagena is surrounded by 11 kilometer of stone walls together with fortifications and bastions. The Walled City is truly one of the most prettiest and colorful places I have seen.
Torre del Reloj
A clock tower and gate that proudly welcomes visitors to the city. To this date this gate is one of the main entryways into the Walled City.
Plaza de los Coches
Plaza de los Coches is the first place you will walk by as you make your way in to the Walled City through Torre del Reloj. Back in the day this square was used as a part of the slave trade. However, despite it’s dark past, today this lively square, with it’s colonial balconies and colorful facades is a good place to start your Cartagena Walled City tour.
Walk the Fortifications
These 400+ year, 11 kilometer fortifications are a great place to get some awesome views of the Caribbean sea but go early in the morning or late in the evening just before sunset to avoid getting burnt in the sun.
Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandria
Dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, this cathedral is the episcopal see of the Archbishop of Cartagena and is one of the oldest episcopal sees in the Americas. The Cathedral is also perhaps one of the most famous landmarks in the city with its towering belfry commanding the sky line of the Walled City.
This square with its statue of Simón Bolívar standing proudly in middle of it is very busy during the day or even late at night. Located next to the Cathedral and the Palace of the Inquisition, this green and shady plaza offers respite from the Caribbean sun.
Church of Santa Domingo
Known to be the oldest church in the city. Perhaps what is more interesting that the church is the plaza right outside it which comes alive at night.
Plaza San Diego
A charming park with lots of shady trees in the center. Although relatively quiet during the day, it comes alive in the night time where lots of people gather to eat, drink and hang out.
The Church and Sanctuary of St. Peter Claver
Located at Plaza de San Pedro Claver (which is named after the church and sanctuary), this colonial style church and sanctuary are definitely worth a visit. At the alter of the church lies the remains of Saint Peter Claver, who died in 1654 in Cartagena.
Palace of the Inquision
Previously the seat of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and now a museum showcasing historical artifacts back from time, including torture equipment used on people during the inquisition.
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a 16 minute walk from the Walled City (Closer to Getsemani). This fortress was built by the Spanish during the colonial era in the 1500s with the purpose of defending Cartagena against pirates attempting to capture treasures destined for Spain.
Walk Through the Pretty Roads
This road is an absolute dream for instagrammers! The mix of bright and pastel colored houses that line this street is the perfect place to capture photos for your next instragram post! The particular section I am talking about is between Hotel Boutique Callecitas de Cartagena and the restaurant Gokela San Diego. The 2 streets that run perpendicular to Carrera 9 , Calle 38 and Calle de la Tablada also have some pretty houses with colorful facades and doors.
Another colorful street packed with vividly colored houses and colonial balconies with flora cascading from above.
Calle de la Iglesia and Calle de Don Sanchos
Calle de la Iglesia is the road the Cathedral is on while Calle de Don Sanchos is the road after the first intersection on that same road the Cathedral is as you walk towards the sea. Together these two roads make up one of the most photographed streets in all of Cartegena.
Pro Tip – The Caribbean sun is extremely unforgiving and casts harsh shadows and highlights on buildings. The best time to capture pictures is early morning or around 4 PM when the sun is much more subdued.
Sunset from a Rooftop Bar
If you really want to get that famous shot of Cartagena during sunset, then head over to Hotel Movich. The views from the rooftop at this hotel are absolutely spectacular! You can see the walled city, harbor and trendy Bocagrande all from this rooftop. Head over a little early (the roof top can get full closer to sunset), grab a drink and watch the sun put on a magnificent show.
Sunset from the Old Fortifications
Another really great place to see the sunset is from the old fortifications. You have 2 choices here. One is free and one is not. The free option is to show up a little early and get a nice spot along the walls without any obstructions. The not so free option is to grab a table at Café Del Mar. They only open at 4:30 PM and there is usually a line to get in, so show up a little early. Once in order a drink and/or food and enjoy the view. I read that the food was good but not great so I just got a cocktail instead.
If the Walled City is famous for it’s colorful houses and balconies, then Getsemani should be known for it’s colorful streets. Everywhere you look in Getsemani, you will see streets filled with colorful flags, umbrellas and the most amazing street art.
Plaza de la Trinidad
The main square of Getsemani which comes out alive at night with food vendors, street performers and locals.
Callejon Angost (Calle 27)
One of the two main umbrella streets.
Calle de la Magdalena
The other main umbrella street.
There are so many murals and street art in Getsemani that you won’t miss it! Just keep your eyes open and enjoy the free art. Honestly some of the best murals I’ve seen!
Other Colorful Roads
Calle de san Juan
Calle de la Sierpe
Rosario Islands is an archipelago of smaller islands off the coast of Colombia. Most of the islands are privately owned but can still be visited. These islands are about 100 kilometers or a 45 minute speed minute boat ride from Cartagena. You will find many tour companies offering to take you to Rosario Islands but my recommendation is to get a private boat tour where you can decide where to go and what to do. You can easily find a private tour for about $400-500 USD and since these boats can accommodate about 8-10 people, the cost may actually end up being lower than the bigger organized tours. If this is not an option then Viatour and GetYourGuide both have organized tours but with most of these tours you may not get a lot of time to do what you want.
I skipped Playa Blanca because I heard it could get very crowded and frankly a crowded beach is just not my thing. However, you may find it is worth to visit.
Travel Guide & Important Things to Know
How Long to Stay in Cartagena
This really depends on your pace but I would say 5 days is more than enough to see everything on this list.
Where to Stay
You have 2 options here; the Walled City or Getsemani. My personal recommendation is to stay in the Walled City because there’s definitely a lot more to do in there. Although, Getsemani is more geared towards budget friendly and hostel accommodation if that is what you are looking for.
Where I stayed
This hotel is located right next to Plaza Fernandez de Madrid which is buzzing with energy any time of the day. The staff were super friendly and my room was nice and spacious. This hotel is a 5 minute walk to the clock tower and ideally located for all the attractions on this list.
A 4 star hotel right near all the action! 2 things I loved about this hotel was the roof top bar with the most amazing views and their restaurant downstairs which is one of the top rated restaurants in all of Cartagena.
The Walled City and adjoining Getsemani are both super easy to get to and from and very walkable. Almost everything is located within a 5-10 minutes walk from anywhere in the city. Taxis and Ubers are available for airport runs or if you need them.
Getting a local sim is always my preferred choice rather than activating roaming. It’s almost always so much cheaper too. A Claro sim costs around $7 USD for reference and can be bought in the city.
Colombian Pesos or COP is the main currency of Colombia. Most restaurants, hotels and places to shop will take credit cards but you may need cash for smaller vendors (especially street vendors), and taxis. One of my biggest travel tips is to use a local ATM to withdraw local currency. In Colombia, Colpatria bank lets you withdraw up to 900K pesos in one go and does not charge any fees (your bank in your home country might but at least you are not getting double charged).
So many people asked me this questions when I said I’m going to Cartagena so I wanted to address it. As a solo female traveler, I never even once felt unsafe in Cartagena. The city is so busy that there are always so many people out and about at any time of the day and night. Not sure if it was because I went during Christmas time but there were so many police men and woman out on the streets as well.
When to Visit
Cartagena is warm throughout the year so the only factor is rain. December to April is usually the least rainy months.
When I Visited
I visited during Christmas in December and it was wonderfully festive!
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Interested in exploring more of South America? Check out my posts on Peru HERE or below