What to do, see and eat in Cartagena, Colombia
Forget what you think you know about Colombia, and discover the crown jewel of the Caribbean
I first traveled to Cartagena, Colombia in 2011. It was my first international trip with the man who would later become my husband, and an escape we squeezed in during our move from Austin to Dallas. Inspired by a 2008 NY Times 36 Hours in Cartagena article and the relatively cheap flights we found, we booked our trip.
We fell in love with the colorful, crumbling walled city. So much so, in fact, that we later got married there.
To the uninitiated, this may have seemed a strange choice. But to us, it made all the sense in the world. We loved the color, culture, and atmosphere of this beautiful, historic city. We knew how safe it was (it felt safer to us, actually than many cities in the US and Europe). It was an easy ten-minute drive from the closest airport, and a 2.5-hour Spirit or JetBlue flight from Miami.
And we delighted in bringing friends and family to a city they, too, would fall in love with, knowing that many of them otherwise would probably never have traveled to Colombia. Cartagena received rave reviews from all 35 of our wedding guests, and years later, my husband and I are still inspiring our friends and colleagues to visit.
One of our wedding guests actually became so enamored with Cartagena that he has been there something like 9 times since our wedding just 2 years ago. (The man's a bit obsessed.)
If you're considering a trip to Cartagena, please go. You will not be disappointed. Here's everything I recommend you do, see, and eat in Cartagena.
1. Stay in Centro or Getsemani
Centro is the walled historic center of Cartagena. Most everything you'll want to do is within these ancient borders.
Getsemani is located just outside of Centro, and a very short walk away. Getsemani is where you'll find more locals, fewer tourists, and a more laid-back, come-as-you-are vibe. You'll find that in Centro, too, but Getsemani is more of a true neighborhood where people actually live. It isn't built around tourism the way Centro is.
If it's your first visit to Cartagena, I would stay in Centro and make a point of visiting Getsemani.
I prefer to look on Booking.com when I visit Cartagena because they have the most options. Lots of hotels in Centro are mom-and-pop type places which is why they end up on Booking.com but not necessarily other booking sites.
The last hotel we stayed in was my favorite: Casa India Catalina.
One thing to keep in mind when booking a hotel: Cartagena is right on the equator. It gets really humid and hot. Get a hotel with a pool. That afternoon dip before you get ready for dinner really just cannot be overstated.
If you want to go for the luxury option, choose the Sofitel, which is a gorgeous converted convent. I recommend going there for a cocktail even if you don't stay there.
2. Go on a street food tour
On our first trip to Cartagena, we thought the food kind of sucked. We were on the tourist loop in terms of touristy restaurants, including overcooked beef, paella that just... isn't paella... blah, bland food.
We saw street food vendors but didn't know who to go to. We're generally adventurous, but street food can be hit or miss. Our first 1-2 times hitting up a street food vendor were more miss than hit. So we didn't venture out after that, and just thought, 'whatever, food's not why we came here anyway.'
Enter Cartagena Connections. This tour company is run by a very cool, very fun Australian named Kristy Ellis who has been living in Cartagena forever. I first found her online in hopes that she could help me with wedding planning. Originally, I was thinking we would just do a very simple rehearsal dinner-style wedding at a restaurant and nothing more... ha!
While we didn't end up working together on the wedding itself, we did book a street food tour for our wedding guests. And OH MY GOD. Y'all, this changed everything.
Do not wait, do not pass go, if you're going to Cartagena, just book a street food tour now with Kristy. And this is important: book it for your first or second day there. The earlier you go, the more delicious you make the rest of your trip.
The arepas were hands down the highlight of the tour. Served up over a tiny grill near a busy street corner, each arepa comes piping hot, moist and soft, and dripping with cheese. There are three kinds to try: arepa choclo (yellow, with cheese), arepa con queso (white corn with queso costeño) and arepa e huevo (twice fried with egg inside). The white ones are salty and the yellow ones are sweet. You want both.
These made such an impression on my husband and I that we went back to “arepas guy,” as we began to call him, multiple times over the course of our trip. So reliable is his post that we even later found him on Google Maps street view, captured for posterity just like we remember, casually flipping his glorious arepas.
As a tangy antidote to all that fried, cheesy and savory, I also loved the mango biche – unripe, crunchy mango, which is served in a plastic bag and doused in lime juice, salt and pepper. So refreshing on a hot Cartagena day.
We also tried a variety of exotic fruits with flavors and textures I would never have expected from a fruit.
The tour concluded in Getsemani with a boli, a frozen fruit popsicle sold from a neighbor’s living room window.
We got so much more than food from this tour. Despite having been to Cartagena twice before, it wasn’t until I took Kristy’s street food tour that I felt I really understood the history, customs and character of Cartagena from a local perspective - and Kristy’s enthusiasm for her adopted city is contagious.
Seriously, this is my #1 recommendation. Ignore everything else I tell you if you wish, but you must do a street food tour with Cartagena Connections.
3. head to the islands
There are a variety of snorkeling and island beach options just a short boat ride away from Cartagena. The beach just outside the historic city walls is not someplace you want to soak up some rays, unfortunately. Not the beachy vibe you'd probably be going for.
On our very first trip to Cartagena, we went to Islas Del Rosario and Playa Blanca. The beaches were gorgeous, but the snorkeling wasn't mind-blowing. On Playa Blanca, we experienced some incredible hospitality and friendliness from a random Colombian family on the same excursion as us, further cementing in my mind that Colombians are some of the absolute nicest, most warm and welcoming people on the planet.
If islands are on the agenda during your trip to Cartagena, Kristy can hook you up there as well.
4. eat ceviche & local dishes
El Boliche. I love ceviche, and have had very good ceviche in many places around the world, but El Boliche is the one I have dreams about. And damn if it ain't pretty, too.
It's a very small restaurant, so the reviews online tell you to come early to get a table. We went just after lunch, thinking we might be screwed, but we got the place to ourselves. Be strategic about when you come since they have so few tables - but definitely go.
Cande. We had our rehearsal dinner here but we went for a normal dinner to scope it out beforehand. Pretty delicious food, gorgeous ambience, highly recommend. Periodically throughout the night, dancers strut in and give impromptu performances, often wearing exotic costumes and animal masks. They also did this during the rehearsal dinner which we didn't expect but was an awesome, fun bonus.
La Cocina de Pepina - located in Getsemani, this simple and small restaurants serves up some of the most authentic, delicious food you will find in Cartagena.
5. go salsa dancing
My favorite place to go salsa dancing is right outside the big clocktower. It sits between Centro and Getsemani and it's called Quiebra Canto.
This place will go from dead to hopping in a matter of an hour. If you want a salsa place that the locals come to, this is your place. I have been here on 2 or 3 separate trips and each time it's so fun.
The last time we were there, it was during our wedding weekend, and took all the younger wedding guests there and they had a blast. If you show up when it's busy, you'll probably get an impromptu private salsa lesson from a Colombian dancer or two. Try to come on a weekend night and come late - people don't really even start showing up until after 11pm.
6. follow the music.
In terms of nightlife and bars, I often recommend Cafe del Mar. It's is a pricy outdoor bar perched atop the old colonial wall. It's got a great view of sunset, so I recommend checking it out once, but it's nothing to write home about otherwise.
Just go once, and from then on?
Follow your ears. Get out of the main squares with all the other tourists; wander the calles nearby within the old colonial center. Find the salsa music spilling out of random hole-in-the-wall bars you practically have to crouch to enter.
There, you will find your true Cartagena experience.*
*Brush up on your Spanish beforehand.
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