Cartagena is Colombia’s shining star of the coast, with tropical weather all year round, easy access to a slew of islands surrounded by coral reef, as well as the famous Walled City, deemed a Unesco World Heritage site in the 1980s. The cobblestone streets and colonial architecture will have you thinking you’re in Europe, but the bright colors and vibrant latin culture will assure you that you are indeed in Colombia. I fell in love with this place for many reasons, so I decided to make a list of 11 awesome things to do in Cartagena so you can fall in love with it too!
11 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN CARTAGENA:
1. Watch the sunset from Cafe Del Mar
It’s simply not a visit to Cartagena without a sunset viewing from Cafe Del Mar. This seaside cocktail bar offers an open air setting with perfect views of both the ocean and the rest of the Walled City.
This is most certainly a touristic spot, as you won’t find too many locals here and the menu is a bit pricey, but honestly you’re there for the spectacular views. Sip on a piña colada as you admire hot-pink cotton candy skies, and feel the warm ocean breeze against your face.
2. Take yourself on a graffiti tour through Getsemani
Within just a few streets and alleyways, you can find hundreds and hundreds of different murals and works of streetart, each one brighter and more colorful than the last. An hour of wandering around the many lanes of Getsemani turned into three, as I stopped to observe as much of the impressive artwork as I could.
Although you can find streetart down just about every alley of Getsemani, I found, Calle De Las Maravillas, Calle De San Juan, and Calle Del Guerrero to be the most impressive.
I love how this neighborhood has embraced its bohemian culture and has created its own identity through the expression of streetart. It has such a colorful and lively feel to it, and became my favorite part of Cartagena
3. Wander your way through the Walled City
The best thing about the Walled City is that you don’t actually have to do anything in particular to enjoy it. Just wandering through the streets without a plan will keep you entertained. You’re bound to end up doing a little street side shopping, perusing the many colorful bags, shoes and hats sold on every corner, or stop for a few street eats from the many food vendors lining the avenues.
The colonial architecture and brightly colored buildings covered in vines and flowers down every street are sure to keep your eyeballs busy, but in case you’re searching for more, you’ll surely be entertained by one of the many impressive churches or lively plazas.
If you’re lucky, you may even see a wedding take place at San Pedro Claver! For alfresco dining, head to Plaza San Diego, and be entertained from first to last bite by dancers, singers, a Michael Jackson impersonator and all other sorts of street performance.
4. Go cafe hopping
I love figuring out the cafe culture in the different places I visit, and Cartagena was definitely a fun one to figure out. I visited many cafes during my trip, but narrowed it down to my top four.
Cafe Del Mural:
Tucked down a graffiti covered alley in Getsemani, there’s a cafe taking coffee to a whole new level. This little cafe is Cafe del Mural, and they are more of a coffee laboratory than a cafe and their baristas are more coffee mixologists, to be honest. They offer all sorts of infusions and unorthodox coffee mixtures, so I felt like it would be boring if I just got a regular old coffee.
I tried one of their coffee infused alcohol concoctions (think gin fizz but with coffee, a jager bomb but coffee replaces the jager) and let me tell you, it certainly was interesting! Aside from their wacky menu, the cafe itself is a really cute spot, with an outdoor area to chill in while admiring the art-filled laneway.
I was really feigning for a fresh fruit and yogurt bowl, but that’s not the easiest breakfast to find in Colombia. Typically you’ll find arepa, eggs, empanadas, different types of soups etc, and I’m happy to do as the locals do, but sometimes I can’t help it and just crave a healthy bowl!
I was first attracted to this cafe by its color palette, but then was convinced when I saw “homemade muesli” on the chalkboard menu I just about sprinted in! For 10,000 COP ($3.50 USD), they’ll serve you coffee (good coffee not instant like most places!) fresh juice, and a fruit and yogurt bowl with homemade granola. Yes. Please. In addition, the cafe was decorated with really cool artwork and there was a garden in the back. I’d definitely spend a morning in here while in the neighborhood!
This organic cafe works directly with nearby fincas to gather the freshest and most fair trade fruits, veggies and coffee beans in order to create a healthy dining experience for their customers. I enjoyed Beiyu‘s a fresh mango smoothie and a veggie-packed grilled wrap and was in heaven. (It’s not the easiest to find restaurants offering fresh veggies in Colombia, so when you find a place like this, it’s bliss!) I also loved the artistic and homey feel to this little cafe and easily spent the whole morning here. They call themselves a slow food experience, so they are very receptive to digital nomads and those looking to relax without rushing.
My favorite thing about Caffe Lunatico was its funky, imaginative decor. From the murals painted on the walls (both inside and outside), to the night sky painted on the ceiling, and globe lanterns to light the restaurant, I was really digging their unconventional style. I was also very impressed by their brunch menu and dove into a salmon, egg, and avocado dish on their homemade bread and it was delicious. I heard this is a nice place to come for tapas and drinks in the evening, but I only made it here for lunch.
For reprieve from the baking Cartagena heat, paired with really well made coffee, I’d suggest a stop at Epoca Cafe. They offer milk substitutes like almond and soy milk for those who need to steer clear of dairy (which is incredibly difficult in Colombia) and make an excellent iced latte.
In addition, they have really good wifi (very important for digital nomads) and excellent food. Their beet and feta salad was so good, I may have gone back for another…It’s rare that I go back to the same place twice while in a new city, but it was really that good!
5. Taste test the local pizza in Getsemani
Again, I know we’re not in Italy here, but Colombians seriously know how to make pizza. I stopped by two pizzerias during my time in Cartagena and was very impressed.
Di Silvio Trattoria:
Just a block down from Piazza De La Trinidad, a pizzeria by the name of Di Silvio Trattoria is hidden in a courtyard behind graffiti covered walls. With vines crawling up the cracked concrete walls and white lights twinkling in the darkness of the evening, I loved the ambiance of this place. They serve super thin crust, artesanal style pizzas with authentic Italian toppings like arugula, prosciutto and freshly shaved parmigiano reggiano.
Basilica Pizzería Café:
I loved Basilica Pizzería Café because it reminded me of a little street side cafe you could find in Rome. The mural of an old man leaning back in a rocking chair while reading the newspaper painted on the front of the cafe is what originally caught my attention, and the bistro style tables on the sidewalk was a perfect place to enjoy our candlelight dinner. The pizzas were fantastic as was the sangria. It’s a very casual place that could be enjoyed alone or with a group of friends, but I found it to be quite romantic (in a super casual way) and would suggest it as a perfect date night spot!
6. Live La Dulce Vida with Gelateria Tramonti, La Paletteria & Portal De Los Dulces
I’m not sure why Cartagena has the best sweets ever, but they do. Every night of my stay I was lured in by some form of sugary, chocolaty goodness that I simply could not resist.
There are shops all over Cartagena that are dedicated solely to popsicles. Not an ice cream shop that sells popsicles in addition to ice cream, I’m talking straight up popsicles-only shops. They call them paletterias, and although you can find them anywhere, the most popular one is in the Walled City named La Paletteria. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you can barely move inside the shop because it’s so packed! They have flavors ranging from nutella, banana split and decadent chocolate, to Colombian fruits like lulo, maracuya and granadilla.
I know gelato is an Italian thing, but these guys know what they’re doing, and let me tell you they are not messing around with presentation either. Things rarely taste as good as they look, but Gelateria Tramonti is an exception for sure. Oh, and you better believe I got the Cocoa Krispies flavor…
Portal De Los Dulces:
You know you’re in a city that loves desserts when they have a whole section of the main plaza dedicated to them. Portal de Los Dulces is a long corridor within Plaza De La Paz that is lined with wooden stalls selling little homemade sweets kept in hand-labeled glass jars. Most vendors sell the same types of dessert candies ranging in flavors from coconut and arequipe to guava and pineapple. It’s a famous little spot in the Walled City, and you simply can’t come to Cartagena without trying some of these sweet treats!
7. Get your Island fix with a trip to Isla Grande
I guess I always pictured Cartagena to be lined with beautiful white sand beaches, so I was very surprised to see that the closest beach was a 20 minute walk away, and white sand it surely did not have. But that’s okay, because there are plenty of tropical islands just a boat ride away.
I visited Isla Grande for a few days and it was a perfect way to disconnect from the rest of the world and just enjoy the paradise that surrounds you. Aside from lounging beachside, there’s snorkeling, kayaking through mangroves, biking and all sorts of other activities to keep you busy.
For more information about my trip, check out my recent post —> Isla Grande: The Perfect Weekend Getaway From Cartagena
8. Indulge in some local seafood at Restaurante Mulata
I think it’s a rule for whenever you’re on the coast to try local seafood, and Cartagena is no exception! Head to Restaurante Mulata for a taste of the local seafood flavor in a relaxed, casual dining atmosphere.
The waitstaff is super friendly and will help you decide on which delicious seafood creation to indulge in. We went for the octopus and the fish of the day and both certainly left an impression on us!
9. Spend your day in Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa’s rooftop pool
For an incredibly relaxing, luxurious day enjoying a rooftop pool and beautiful views of Cartagena, make your way to Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa. It’s the perfect place to celebrate an anniversary or relax with a few friends. Unfortunately, you must be a guest of the hotel to access the pool, but if you’re able to splurge on one night during your trip, I’d suggest this be it!
The staff is extremely attentive and will happily bring you anything upon request. We ordered bubbles & lobster both of which were very tasty.
They have all sorts of food and beverage options, and although on the pricier side, sipping wine as we watched the sun go down from an oceanfront rooftop terrace in Cartagena was simply oh so worth it to me!
10. Get a feel for the local scene at Plaza De La Trinidad
At night, Plaza De La Trinidad comes to life with the energy of the local crowd, street food vendors and live music. The crowd is an interesting mix of bohemian musicians donning dreadlocks and crystal necklaces, to parents and grandparents watching their kids dance to the live music.
I grabbed a Club Colombia from the corner tienda (82 cents US) and found a plastic chair to rest in and enjoy my surroundings. The live salsa band had the little kids dancing in the center of the plaza and even welcomed newlyweds as they walked out of the massive green doors of Trinidad Church for the first time as husband and wife! This was probably my favorite evening in Cartagena, as I felt like I got a small look at how locals spend their weekends here.
11. Get your salsa on at Cafe Havana
I’d like to say upfront that I never actually made it into Cafe Havana, but was tempted each and every time I walked by it! This world famous salsa club is habitually packed on the weekends and is usually hosting famous salsa musicians. Although I didn’t end up going in for a boogie, it looked incredibly fun, and I have made it my mission to go the next time I’m in Cartagena. If you’re looking to experience the local nightlife, I’d probably make this my top choice!
WHERE TO STAY
[In The Walled City}
My favorite part about Republica Hostel is the big open courtyard in the center, with lush greenery climbing up the walls and a massive family style dining table that definitely gives the space a welcoming feel. The color palette, decor, & furniture is all really bright and fun, which matches the energy.
They also have a pool on the main level, and although it doesn’t get too much sunlight, it’s a welcomed break from the hot-as-hell Cartagena sun. They also have a rooftop terrace that is perfect for sun-lovers and even have a second pool up there for guests to cool off.
I stayed in a pod-style 10 bed dorm with ensuite bathroom and it was spacious with a balcony and really cool street views. I like the pod-style dorm setup, as each bed has it’s own light, outlets, and shelf to store your things, making dorm style accommodation just a little bit more private.
I also thought the breakfast stood out among other hostels I’ve stayed with, as often when staying at a backpackers hostel, the “free” breakfast is usually toast and coffee. The breakfast was different both mornings, one morning was eggs, fresh fruit cup, juice and coffee, and the second morning was pancakes, fresh fruit cup, juice and coffee. I was honestly quite impressed by the variety.
Hotel Casa Baluarte
Hotel Casa Baluarte is located on one of the main avenues of the neighborhood, Calle Media Luna, and is right in the heart of all the action. The rooftop terrace is also an awesome selling point, with views of Castillo San Felipe and the colorful surrounding buildings of the neighborhood all around. Every morning breakfast is served up on the terrace and consists of fresh fruit salad, eggs made to order, toast or an arepa, as well as coffee and fruit juice. I loved starting my day up here with a yummy breakfast and beautiful views of the city.
My only comment is that I didn’t like that they closed the terrace off for the rest of the day after breakfast ends around 10am. It’s a shame it’s not kept open all day so guests can enjoy the views and maybe even catch a sunset from up there in the evening.
Our private room was clean, modern, and very cozy, and I was impressed by all of the details and amenities it offered like robes, a mini-bar, branded towels, complimentary toiletries, and a newly renovated bathroom with rain shower.
I should mention that there is no hot water, but it’s not really necessary in a place like Cartagena where the weather is blazing hot every single day. The room came with A/C which was a godsend after a day walking around in the incredible humidity. Overall, I really enjoyed my stay at Hotel Casa Baluarte, and liked the budget price without the feel of a budget hotel.
Hostal La Costena:
Just right across the street from Hotel Casa Baluarte, Hostal La Costena‘s location is also gold. Just down the street you will find the famed Cafe Havana salsa club, and just around the corner you’ll end up in the very lively Plaza De La Trinidad. You simply can’t get a better location if you want to be a part of the lively culture of this neighborhood!
From the main balcony you have perfect views of the bustling main avenue that is lined with lively bars & restaurants and is always jam packed with locals, vendors, travelers and plenty of taxis! Across the street is an incredibly colorful & beautiful mural of a famous Las Palenqueras woman. It’s the perfect place to put your feet up, enjoy a coffee, and people watch.
The hostel is small, but offers both private rooms with A/C and dorm rooms to fit any budget. Breakfast is not included, but can purchased for a mere COP 5,000. The staff was very friendly and very accommodating, although no one speaks English so there is a bit of a language barrier for English-only speakers. No reason to dismiss this place though, it’s awesome!
My Casa Nativa
If you’re looking to turn off from the rest of the world and relax in a relatively untouched slice of paradise, then My Casa Nativa is for you. It’s actually part of hostel community called Paraiso Secreto which is a complex of 7 very colorful hostels on Isla Grande that are all unique from each other.
The 7 hostels on this property all share the bar, restaurant, pools, activities desk, and the very quiet, secluded, private beach that I just mentioned.
I especially loved My Casa Nativa for the warm and chilled out staff, and for the private rooms that they offer. Emir was such a lovely host and made sure we had everything we needed for a comfortable stay. Our room was a private queen room with shutter style windows complete with a mosquito net to protect you from all of the creatures.
This is an eco hostel, so be prepared to come face to face with lots of bugs. They keep the windows and doors open 24/7 as to go with the laid back, island atmosphere. It’s perfect for anyone wanting to get in touch with nature! Be warned that there is no power for most of the day, and although they offer wifi when the power is turned back on, it’s a very weak signal – but why do you need electricity or wifi when you’re in paradise? Dorm rooms start at $20USD per night, with privates ranging from $60-$70USD.
Disclaimer: I received complimentary stays at the above establishments for my opinions, but all opinions are my own. I only recommend places I would stay myself!