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20 Things to Do in Cartagena

The walls that once made Cartagena impregnable from constant pirate onslaughts now drive people to visit in droves. This Colombian city's rich history is rife with conflict that required it to go to such extreme lengths to protect itself. Now, the thriving tourist destination is filled with captivating Caribbean charm, effortlessly honoring its extensive historical heritage with a vibrant spirit. Beyond the ancient walls, colorful architecture and lively streets welcome visitors daily and inspire both adventure and relaxation.


01 Explore the Historic Walled City

Old historic sanctuary in the walled city of Cartagena, Colombia

The Walled City of Old Cartagena is a historic destination that's so important to the local culture that it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walls took nearly two centuries to erect, with construction completed in 1796 and they remain today. They were initially built to defend the city from pirate attacks. Today, they're a wonderful tourist attraction located in the Historical Center where you'll find stunning colonial architecture along cobblestone streets.


02 Visit Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo de San Felipe and colombian flag - Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Part of the Historical Center includes the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a 17th-century fortress that highlights the city's ancient defense systems. This fortress was one of the best built by Spaniards in their colonies.

Its impressive defenses were never stormed, and not for a lack of trying. Several tunnels with strategic connecting points allowed for streamlined distribution of provisions and evacuation as needed. With its expert construction, all noise reverberated throughout to alarm guards if someone was approaching.

Many tunnels are open to visitors with audio tours in both English and Spanish. From its exterior, you'll have breathtaking panoramic views of the city.


03 Stroll Through Getsemani

Colombia, Scenic colorful streets of Cartagena in historic Getsemani district near Walled City (Ciudad Amurallada)

Getsemani encompasses the vibrant culture through awe-inspiring street art along Spanish colonial architecture. While historically, this area wasn't particularly safe, it's undergone a recent revival that has transformed it into a true cultural attraction.

Cafes along the streets offer quick refreshments between touring the art Beware—Colombian coffee tends to be quite potent. A vibrant nightlife features lively bars with delicious drinks and amazing street food.


04 Relax on Playa Blanca

View on paradies beach of Playa Blanca on Island Baru by Cartagena in Colombia

The idyllic Playa Blanca on Baru Island requires you to take a 45-minute water taxi ride across gorgeous waters. Once you're there, you'll find yourself surrounded by shimmering white sands.

With crystal-clear waters and a wonderful atmosphere, it's a picturesque setting for a day of sunbathing and swimming. Enjoy the sound of the sea gently washing ashore, and let your worries slip away with the waves.


05 Enjoy Local Cuisine

Roasted fish and potatoes, served on wooden tray. overhead, horizontal - image

Every vacation is made all the more enjoyable by phenomenal local cuisine. Exploring the flavors of the world is a culinary journey as amazing as the sights you'll see. In Cartagena, fresh seafood is a local staple thanks to its close proximity to the ocean. Mojarra is the most popular, and it's quite the experience. Most of the time, the whole fish is prepared and presented to you, leaving you free to dig in and leave the bones behind.

Arepas de queso, which stuff cheese into fresh corn dough and then get grilled, can be found served all over the city. You'll find vendors along the street in the evening, serving them alongside chorizo.


06 Sunset Watching at Café del Mar

Cartagena de Indias; Colombia; 11 07 2023: The Restaurant Café del Mar located in the bastion of the walled city at the sunset WILLIAM RG/Shutterstock

Café del Mar's prime location overlooking the Caribbean Sea makes it a must-visit if you want to see the most mindblowing tropical sunsets of your life. This alfresco eatery is on the westernmost point of Cartagena's walls and features 360-degree panoramic views of the sea and city. The dishes and drinks here are just as wonderful as the views.


07 Tour the Rosario Islands

Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario) in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, aerial view.

During your stay, take a day trip to tour through the Rosario Islands. It's a series of 28 islands and reefs forming an extensive archipelago. It's engulfed by the only underwater National Park in Colombia, and you can explore it while snorkeling or scuba diving.

If you have time, consider spending a night or two on the islands. Catamaran tours, endless beaches and tropical drinks can be found throughout along with some of the most serene sea views with the bright Caribbean waters sparkling in the sun.


08 Experience the Nightlife

Nightlife in Cartagena is more than drinking or visiting bars. While the local bars and clubs play a big part in the experience, they're just the setting. Dancing and enjoying local music are as much a part of the evenings as the rest.

To truly immerse yourself in the culture, find a salsa bar. You'll dance the night away with the locals. More upscale clubs can be found in the popular areas, offering trendy rooftop settings for all-night parties.


09 Take a Historical Walking Tour

Columbia, Unesco site, colorful Cartagena Walled City Cuidad Amurrallada in historic city center.

Cartagena's centuries-long history makes it a prime destination for people interested in learning more about the past. Ancient architecture weaves tales of pirate attacks and sieges.

If you take a historical walking tour, a friendly guide will take you through the most iconic landmarks in Cartagena, explaining their significance and putting the significant defenses the city has in context.


10 Visit Museo del Oro Zenú

Discover the indigenous Zenú culture at the Museu del Oro Zenú. The museum is built to mimic Bogotá's Museu del Oro (Gold Museum) but on a much smaller scale. It emphasizes Colombian culture prior to Spanis colonialism, where over 900 objects and collections of gold, silver and ceramics are on display.


11 Ocenario on Islas del Rosario

On the Islas del Rosario, the Oceanario provides a distinctive opportunity to explore local wildlife. This conservation center houses more than 1,400 animals, including 140 marine species native to the Colombian shores. Whether watching dolphins dance in the turquoise waters or seeing sharks in a feeding frenzy, it's a unique chance to interact with and observe marine life in enclosures that mimic their natural habitats. Centralized on education and conservation, this destination brings smiles to families and marine enthusiasts alike.


12 Tour the Emerald Museum

In the heart of Cartagena, you'll discover the Emerald Museum, dedicated entirely to emerald mining and crafting. These shimmering green gems are integral to Colombia's heritage and economy, with upwards of 90% of the world's supply originating from this country.

The museum showcases the history and techniques behind this precious gem. Interactive exhibits grant you the chance to handle both raw and cut emeralds while discovering techniques that bring out their beauty.


13 Sunset Cruise in Cartagena

Watching a dolphins from cruise boat Zbynek Pospisil / Getty Images

Cartagena's seaside location makes it the prime departure point for sunset cruises through the Caribbean. As the sky explodes with color and the sun falls beyond the horizon, you'll enjoy it in style with good drinks and food.

Be sure to look back at the city skyline for a whole new perspective.


14 Learn about the Spanish Inquisition at the Palace of the Inquisition

Within the Historic District of Cartagena, the Palace of the Inquisition looms overhead, serving as both a historical landmark and a stark reminder of the region's past as a colony. This stunning piece of architecture features a blend of Spanish Colonial and Baroque elements, but despite its beauty, it holds a sinister history.

The building originally hosted the Sentencing Tribunal of the Holy Office, where crimes pertaining to faith would be tried and punished. Exhibits feature some of the darkest parts of the Spanish Inquisition, including instruments of torture and original documents.


15 Cafe Havana

If you're looking for recommendations for salsa night, head to Cafe Havana. You'll get live salsa music and dancing on full display. Live bands serenade the crowd and invite nonstop dancing throughout the weekend.

You'll find this local favorite in the Getsemani neighborhood. It serves up amazing cocktails if you need a little liquid courage to work up the nerves to dance.


16 Journey Through the Mangroves

A view from Cartagena's Mangrove Swamp, Colombia

The mangrove forests surrounding Cartagena are just as stunning as the beaches, and when you choose one of several guided eco-tours through the area, you're in for a real treat. These unique ecosystems look like ancient forests, with gnarled roots and branches covered with verdant foliage and shaded natural waterways. Within them, a whole host of native species, from birds to fish, can be spotted.

Hop aboard a private canoe with a guide prepared to gently guide your journey through the mangroves. Your guide will be well-versed in the species and how to spot them.


17 Coffee Workshop in Cartagena

Whether you're an avid coffee drinker or you just want to get to know the local culture, coffee workshops in Cartagena offer the opportunity to delve deep into the rich flavors of some of the world's most famous coffees.

Workshops cover a range of topics, such as how to brew the best drinks. Many take you on tours of surrounding cafes and introduce you to local baristas. Their passion for their craft exudes in their excitement as they discuss their best techniques.


18 Explore Bocagrande and Castillogrande

View of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Cartagena's stunning historic areas contrast beautifully with the urban paradises of Bocagrande and Castillogrande. These two neighborhoods are known for a whole host of upscale amenities, including shopping centers, fine dining, beachfront resorts, and extensive nightlife attractions. If you'd like a little more hustle and bustle in your Colombian vacation, these areas are for you.


19 Visit Convento de la Popa

Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa - Cerro de la popa (Cartagena, Colombia)

Atop the highest hill in Cartagena, the Convento de la Popa offers both stunning scenery and historical significance. Originally inspired in the early 1600s by Friar Alonso de la Cruz Paredes's dream of the Virgin Mary urging him to construct the convent in that location, it brought Christianity to the land. From the building, beautiful views of the Caribbean Sea stretch on the horizon.

Within the building's ornate architecture, several religious artifacts await your discovery. Most notably, the statue of the Virgin of Candelaria sits alongside extensive gilded altars.


20 Discover the Palenque de San Basilio

Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia; 11- 11- 2021: Native women of San Basilio de Palenque with their brightly colored dresses dance in the plaza.

The Palenque de San Basilio is a small village of around 3,500 people at the foothills of the Montes de María. It represents the first free African slave settlement in the Americas, where culture erupts in all the best ways. With a Creole language and mesmerizing music and traditions, it's persevered over the centuries and now attracts tourists year-round. Depending on the timing, your visit may include catching a glimpse of some of the vibrant traditions, leisure activities, and amazing traditional cuisine. The area's particularly well known for sweets, like coconut cake and tamarind balls.


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