The Ultimate Travel Guide to Cartagena, Colombia
Headed to Cartagena and wondering what you can’t miss? Here is my go-to Jetset travel guide to a perfect vacation full of dancing, drinking, and eating your way through this coastal Colombian gem.
You’ll come to Cartagena for its tropical Caribbean vibes, but you’ll be blown away by the historic stone-walled old city, the colorful colonial architecture and the uniquely Colombian culture. Whether your idea of a vacation is sipping the world’s best coffee on a bougainvillea-laced balcony, heading to a tropical island just minutes off of the city, or salsa-dancing until 6am in one of Cartagena’s famous nightclubs (My favorites are La Movida, Alquimico, La Jugada, or Cafe Havana), Cartagena has a ton to offer everyone.
What to do in Cartagena
Explore Old Town
You can’t leave Cartagena without exploring the beautiful stone-walled Old City. Strategically located on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena was historically one of Colonial Spain’s most important ports. Stone fortresses and gigantic walls up to 30 meters thick and 11KM long line the city, which was so well protected after many pirates (most notably Sir Francis Drake) in the 16th Century attempted (and often succeeded) in sieges of the wealthy port city’s riches. Strolling the historic Old City is like stepping back in time and losing yourself in the romantic historic plazas and vibrant, colorful cobblestone streets.
Watch the sunset at Cafe del Mar
This touristy-but-amazing outdoor lounge and bar is perched up on Cartagena’s stone walls and offers an unbeatable sunset view that can’t be missed on any trip to Cartagena.
Take a day trip to Isla Barú
There are many islands accessible by boat from Cartagena, and a beach day to the islands is a popular day trip for locals and tourists alike. But I’ll let you in on a little secret that most people don’t realize — my favorite island off of Cartagena, Isla Barú, is even accessible by an easy 40-minute cab ride over a bridge! Sometimes, when you don’t want to worry about boat schedules and the like, an easy (and cheap!) cab ride out to the island is just what you want. Negotiate a rate with the cab driver ahead of time, and tell him you’d like him to wait there at Playa Blanca until you are all ready to go home (it should be around $50 for the entire day – which divided if you’re going with friends is not bad at all!)
Then, once you’re dropped at Playa Blanca, hop on a motorbike to take you to the end of the road where the beach is. There will be lots of locals offering to take you down to the end- it’s definitely worth the $1 ride versus a long walk! When you get to Playa blanca, get onto the beach and turn right and keep walking, as far as you can, to where there are much less people and a beauuutiful stretch of beach. My favorite place to post for the day is this beautiful colorful beach bar called The Wizard. If you’re early enough, you and your friends can reserve one of their hammock beach lounge areas, or just a few chairs where you can order frozen beach drinks and yummy bites all day long.
Isla Baru is anything but fancy… It’s less of a luxury island and more of a local, divey beach day getaway, but the water is gooorgeous, the beach bars are colorful and fun, and the vibe is bustling. It’s an awesome spot to explore for the day and get some sun.
There are two main areas to choose to stay in in Cartagena – the old city or the “new city”- the Miami-beach-like Bocagrande. They each have their pros and cons. From Bocagrande, you can step out of your hotel or Airbnb directly onto the beach, which is pretty ideal. But, that being said, the city beaches are nothing compared to the beaches outside of the city (like Baru), so I don’t think this is a strong enough pro to stay here over Old Town. The gorgeous stone-walled Old City is Cartagena’s principal attraction – and is where the best restaurants and cafes, and all the nightlife is, so if that’s where you’re going to be spending all of your time, it may not make sense to stay elsewhere. Old town is packed with colonial architecture, beautiful churches and plazas, delicious restaurants, and Cartagena’s famous colorful mansions with their overhanging balconies… It’s definitely where you want to be.
This boutique hotel from acclaimed Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi is set in a 250-year-old restored colonial mansion with original stone-walled rooms and private balconies. There are only 7 rooms, but 4 pools, creating an intimate atmosphere like none other in the city. Rates from $200-$300 per night. Look at how beautiful this hotel is – Tcherassi Hotel & Spa.
Composed of three beautiful white houses, repurposed into a beautiful boutique luxury hotel, Hotel Casa San Agustin has 20 rooms and 10 beautifully-decorated suites in traditional Colombian style, incorporating modern amenities while maintaining pristine colonial architecture and a beautifully authentic vibe of Cartagena’s rich history. Standard rooms are beautiful, but the premium rooms with private plunge pools or jacuzzis are worth the splurge. Rates from $400-$500 per night. Hotel Casa San Agustin.
This charming and tropical boutique hotel is decorated head-to-toe by young Colombian artists (the pictures don’t do it justice but CHECK OUT THIS PLACE!!!), so cool. Each room has vibrant and fun paintings of flamingoes, toucans, or other tropical touches. Each of the hotel’s eight bedrooms and 3 suites are individually styled, and their rooftop, open the public from 8am-1am, offers panoramic views of the walled city, two plunge pools, and a lot of icy cocktails. Their slogan “fancy doesn’t have to be boring” says it all – Townhouse is millennial luxury at its finest.
Rates are around $175/night for a standard double room. Book here.
If the Miami-like bocagrande is more your style, the Intercontinental offers 360 degree ocean views and a swoon-worthy ocean-facing infinity pool and a bar filled with delicious fruity cocktails that will have you wondering if you should ever leave your hotel.
Rates are around $125-$200/night. Book at Intercontinental Cartagena
This modern elegant hotel in the heart of Cartagena’s Plaza de Aduana offers fashionable rooms, a modern aesthetic and a pretty unbeatable rooftop. It’s a little oasis in the heart of the city. Rates from $200-$300 per night. Book at Sophia Hotel Cartagena
Where to eat in Cartagena
I hope you all like seafood, because Cartagena is ceviche central – and it is SO good.
La Cevicheria – this always busy seafood haven is located on an adorable cobblestone street and rose to fame thanks to Anthony Bourdain. Everyone will tell you to go there but what they won’t tell you is there’s a just-as-good-if-not-better cevicheria down the block called El Boliche. Head to either one and all your Caribbean ceviche dreams will come true.
Pizza en el Parque – if a casual pizza overlooking one of Cartagena’s parks is what you’re feeling, Pizza en el Parque serves up some delicious pies on a gorgeous balcony. It’s cute, casual, and delicious.
Juan Del Mar – This spacious restaurant & bar in the heart of old town is like a rite of Cartagena passage. The menu is full of Colombian delicassies, as well as some international and Italian favorites. Book a table on the upper terrace if you want to soak up the best view of the square (this is where Colombia’s president eats when he’s in town!) The restaurant is busy year round and features a live band 7 nights a week.
Pata Negra – for delicious tapas, yummy cocktails and a great ambiance, Pata Negra is your spot. Go with a group and order just about anything on the menu – they’re shared plates and you can’t go wrong – it’s all so, so good.
RPG Pizzeria Boutique – this adorable local pizzeria was my favorite meal in Cartagena! The location is right off of a main square, allowing for a quiet tucked away dinner. The menu features to-die-for thin crust pizzas, sandwiches, salads and more. Ask them if you can sit outside and they’ll set you up with an awesome people-watching spot on the cutest cobblestone street.
Know before you go
What to know before traveling to Cartagena:
Is it safe to travel to Colombia?
Yes, yes, and yes! Please don’t let fear of Colombia’s rocky past stop you from exploring this WONDERFUL country! Yes, Colombia was entrenched in a civil war up until the 1980’s, and I know that this is a main concern for many people who are wondering just how safe the country is today. But I want to say that I didn’t feel unsafe for a second in Cartagena. Of course, like anywhere, it’s important to stay aware and be smart about your surroundings, but I think that if you do so, you won’t feel unsafe, even if you’re traveling by yourself.
There is still a US government issued warning against travel to Colombia, which reads:
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali.
However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas. Despite significant decreases in overall crime in Colombia, continued vigilance is warranted due to an increase in recent months of violent crime, including crime resulting in the deaths of American citizens.
My travel philosophy has always been that dangerous crimes can happen anywhere. They happen every day in my home city of San Francisco, and crimes are commonplace in many of my favorite travel destinations. It’s not uncommon to hear news stories or read travel cautionary tales and feel extremely nervous about traveling to a certain place, but I am a big believer in not letting that fear of danger get in the way of seeing the world. While everyone’s travel experiences are different (and one negative experience or secondhand negative experience can forever skew your feelings toward a certain place), I think it is vitally important to see the world with an open mind, while staying optimistically cautious and aware, of course.
Do I need to know Spanish to travel in Colombia?
I’m not going to lie, it helps a TON to know at least a little Spanish when you’re traveling around Colombia. The thing is, tourism is relatively new to this country, so it’s not like everyone is used to all of the tourism and English speakers. But isn’t that what’s so cool about a Colombian vacation?! Cartagena, of all the destinations in Colombia, is by far the most developed for tourism and much easier to get around as a gringo (even if you don’t speak Spanish) than other destinations in the country. And, don’t worry, by the time you leave Colombia all of your high school Spanish will be flowing out of you like loco. Olé!
Can I drink the tap water in Cartagena?
On the coast of Colombia, it’s recommended to buy bottled water (it’s very cheap!) as opposed to drink from the tap. But, theoretically, the tap water is supposed to be fine, that’s just the tip I’ve heard from other travelers. You don’t have to worry about ice or vegetables or anything like that. In Medellin, on the other hand, which is inland and a big city, it’s perfectly okay to drink their (very good!) tap water, and I drink it every day when I’m there!
Will I need a power converter for traveling to Colombia?
If you’re traveling from the US, nope! Cartagena and all of Colombia uses the same power outlets as the USA. If you’re coming from Europe, however, you’ll want to bring a converter ( like this one )with you.
What season is best to travel to Cartagena?
Cartagena is wonderfully hot year-round. With May being the warmest month (average temperature around 85°F), and January being the “coolest” (averages around 80°F). The dryest months are December through April and the highest rainfall occurs in October. The high season for tourists is during Christmas and New Years (note that prices for accommodation and just about everything hikes about 3x around this time and it can be very difficult to find vacancies in hotels- after all, the whole country wants to flee to the beautiful coast for their vacation!).
Will I need a visa to travel to Colombia?
Nope! A Colombia tourist visa is not required for citizens of United States of America for a stay up to 90 days.
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Enjoy your trip! It’s one of my very favorite cities.
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Check out my post on 10 Things You Can’t Miss When Traveling to Colombia