Located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Cartagena is a gorgeous city with a long history and vibrant culture. It’s also the most popular tourist destination in the country, thanks to its historic Old City and proximity to stunning beaches and islands.
Join us as we explore the Old City of Cartagena in the most recent episode of our “Streets, Beats & Eats” series. On a short trip, you can join the excellent free walking tour, check out a few local restaurants for amazing seafood, dance the night away, and maybe even catch a glimpse of the Pope.
The Old City of Cartagena
The Old City of Cartagena along with the city’s fortress were given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1984. Here’s how UNESCO describes the Old City in its listing:
“Cartagena is an eminent example of the military architecture of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the most extensive of the New World and one of the most complete.”
During the time of Spanish rule, Cartagena was a very important trade port. They exported pillaged treasure from the region and eventually imported slaves. Unfortunately for the Spanish, there were plenty of pirates out at sea who were eager to take that stolen silver off their hands. As such, the Spaniards had a city wall and a fortress built to help protect the city.
A major highlight of visiting Cartagena is simply wandering around the Old City. Walking along the cobblestone streets, you’ll pass by several cathedrals, monuments, and plazas. Colorful colonial homes are draped in bougainvilleas, making for some seriously Insta-worthy pictures.
The best way to explore the Old City of Cartagena is on one of the daily free walking tours. They depart at 10AM and 4PM every day and are offered in both English and Spanish. You’ll learn a ton about the city and its history from a passionate local guide and make some new traveler friends in the process. Just don’t be a cheap ass – these guys live off your tips, so $10 per person is a reasonable amount to give.
Find the best deals on hotels in Cartagena:
Eat, Drink & Be Merry
The Old City of Cartagena is packed full of amazing cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Whenever you get tired of sightseeing, you can easily find a place to hang out and grab a snack or drink.
Here are some of our favorite places where we ate, drank, and partied in the Old City of Cartagena:
- La Cevicheria: Whenever we visit a city that was on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, we go and eat where he did. The late, great travel host visited La Cevicheria on an episode of “No Reservations.” It’s a bit pricey and you may have to wait for a table, but it’s well worth it!
- Restaurante Fogon Costeño: If you’re looking for a cheap, local lunch, this is a great spot. We ended up here after the free walking tour and enjoyed some yummy seafood rice and ceviche for super cheap.
- Crepes & Waffles: I’m not usually one to go into a restaurant that’s known for things like crepes and waffles, but this place is different. It’s popular all over Colombia, and they have unique options for crepes such as salmon, avocado, and sour cream.
- Cafe del Mar: Located on the city wall, this cafe is famous for its cocktails and sunset views. They usually have live music as well. It’s kind of expensive, but if you don’t feel like splurging you can just grab street beers from one of the vendors with a cooler.
- KGB Bar: This has to be the coolest bar we went to in Cartagena. It’s full of Soviet-era kitsch, with one corner of the bar even looking like a submarine. It’s the perfect spot to start a night out in the Old City.
- Babar: If you want to go out and party, this is a solid choice. There’s an indoor room pumping out loud music and a more laid back vibe on the terrace.
One great part about visiting Cartagena is that you can hit the beach right in the city. The Bocagrande neighborhood is basically the New City of Cartagena, as it’s full of skyscrapers, luxury hotels and shopping malls. While it’s not the nicest beach in the world, it’s good enough for a day of sun and sand.
There are several small restaurants along the beach that have umbrellas and sun loungers. Order up some grilled fish and a few cold ones and enjoy a relaxing afternoon on la playa. You’ll also find roaming bands for hire if you feel like being serenaded.
We actually stayed in Bocagrande for the first couple of nights of our trip, as we found a great deal on Airbnb. This 1-bedroom apartment with an ocean view only cost us $55 a night and even has a rooftop pool.
While you’re in Bocagrande, we highly recommend you check out the excellent restaurant Guatilla. It’s a family-run place cooking up classic Costeño cuisine. Try their mote de queso, a thick, creamy cheese soup, or their coconut Caribbean rice full of fresh seafood. It might have been the best meal we had in our time in Cartagena!
Getting to Cartagena
For many, South America can seem like such a faraway destination. Flights to the region can be incredibly long and expensive, especially if you’re trying to get all the way to Chile or Argentina. At least for North Americans, Cartagena is so close you can visit for just a weekend.
There are direct flights to Cartagena from Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, Atlanta, and JFK. In high season, you can even fly here direct from Toronto and Montreal. Pretty awesome, eh? Of course, you can also get here from several cities in Latin America such as Lima, Panama City, and Bogota.
When we traveled there, we flew with Spirit from Atlanta with a quick layover in Ft. Lauderdale. It was a quick and easy trip, and our flights were only about $220 each one-way. Not bad for a flight to South America!
Thanks to its location and accessibility to the US, Cartagena is the perfect jump-off point for an extended adventure around South America. We started our 7-month backpacking trip around the continent there before settling down for a bit to try our hand at being digital nomads in Medellin. It was a nice little vacation before diving into work in the Spring City.
If you can fit it in, be sure to try and book a stay at the floating eco-hostel known as Casa en el Agua. It’s definitely the coolest hostel we’ve ever stayed in. You can read all about our experience here if you want to learn more.