Cartagena, often called the “Jewel of the Indies,” is a captivating coastal city in Colombia, renowned for its colonial architecture, vibrant culture, and tropical allure. For those pondering things to do in Cartagena, strolling through the walled Old Town with its cobbled streets, flower-draped balconies, and historic plazas, and exploring the imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a fortress offering panoramic views of the city, are top activities.
Once overlooked, the city’s Getsemaní neighborhood has transformed into a lively area brimming with street art, music, and local festivities. Nearby, the Rosario Islands beckon travelers with their crystal-clear waters, coral reefs, and pristine beaches, offering a slice of Caribbean paradise.
Beyond its colonial charm and coastal beauty, Cartagena is a melting pot of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous cultures, reflected in its cuisine, dance, and festivals. Cartagena’s blend of historical significance, cultural vibrancy, and tropical splendor makes it a standout destination for those seeking the best places to visit in Colombia.
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Attractions & Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia
1. Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City)
The historic heart of Cartagena, the Walled City, is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, colonial-era architecture, and bustling plazas. This UNESCO World Heritage site offers a glimpse into the city’s rich past, from the Spanish colonial period to the days of pirates and corsairs.
Travel Tip: While the Walled City is beautiful at any time, early morning or late afternoon visits allow you to avoid the heat and crowds. Wear comfortable walking shoes, as the cobblestone streets can be uneven.
2. Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Overlooking the city, this imposing fortress is a testament to Cartagena’s strategic importance in the colonial era. With its intricate network of tunnels and fortifications, the castle offers insight into military architecture and strategy.
Travel Tip: The climb up can be pretty steep and hot, so visiting during the cooler parts of the day is a good idea. Don’t forget to carry water; consider hiring a guide to delve deeper into the fortress’s history.
3. Playa Blanca
Playa Blanca is located on the nearby Barú Island, renowned for its pristine white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. It’s a slice of Caribbean paradise perfect for sunbathing, snorkeling, and sampling fresh seafood.
Travel Tip: To avoid the daily crowds, consider staying overnight. Be cautious of vendors, as they can be persistent, and always negotiate prices before making any purchases.
4. Rosario Islands
This idyllic archipelago, situated off the coast of Cartagena, is famous for its vibrant coral reefs, crystal-clear waters, and diverse marine life. The islands are A protected national park haven for snorkeling, diving, and relaxing on the beach.
Travel Tip: Take care of the environment using biodegradable sunscreen and avoiding touching the coral. It’s also a good idea to book tours and accommodations in advance, as the islands can get busy during peak season.
5. Convento de la Popa
Perched on the highest point in Cartagena, this historic convent offers panoramic views of the city and the Caribbean Sea. The convent also houses a beautiful chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria, Cartagena’s patron saint.
Travel Tip: While the view is worth the trip, visiting the convent via an organized tour or reliable taxi is recommended due to its remote location and occasional safety concerns.
6. Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of the Inquisition)
A grim reminder of Cartagena’s colonial history, this grand colonial building once served as the headquarters for the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Today, it’s a museum showcasing the history of the Inquisition and various torture devices used during that period.
Travel Tip: The content in the museum can be pretty graphic, so it may not be suitable for younger children or sensitive visitors. The museum also offers insights into Cartagena’s broader history, so it’s worth a visit even if you skip some exhibits.
Once a downtrodden area, Getsemaní has transformed into a vibrant and bohemian neighborhood. It’s renowned for its colorful street art, lively plazas, and cultural events, embodying the spirit of Cartagena’s younger generation while retaining its historic charm.
Travel Tip: Wander during the day to admire the street art, but stick around in the evening when the area comes alive with music and local events. It’s an excellent opportunity to mingle with locals and experience the city’s nightlife.
8. Museo del Oro y Arqueología (Gold and Archaeology Museum)
This museum houses a remarkable collection of gold artifacts and pottery from the Zenu people, indigenous inhabitants of the region. Through its exhibits, visitors can delve into the area’s rich pre-Hispanic culture and history.
Travel Tip: The museum is compact, making it a perfect stop for those on a tight schedule. It’s also air-conditioned, offering a pleasant respite from Cartagena’s midday heat.
9. Plaza Santo Domingo
Located within the Walled City, Plaza Santo Domingo is one of Cartagena’s most iconic squares. Flanked by the church of Santo Domingo and filled with street performers, artists, and vendors, it’s a hive of activity and a perfect spot for people-watching.
Travel Tip: There are numerous restaurants and cafes around the plaza, but be aware that prices can be higher due to the touristy nature of the area. To enjoy a meal here, check a quick price at a few establishments before settling in.
10. Muelle de los Pegasos (Pegasus Pier)
This picturesque pier, marked by the statues of two Pegasus, serves as a gateway to many boat tours and excursions to nearby islands. The area is also ideal for evening strolls, offering a view of the illuminated cityscape and sea.
Travel Tip: If you’re considering taking a boat tour or visiting the nearby islands, booking in advance through reputable operators is best. Be cautious of aggressive vendors and always negotiate the prices beforehand.
11. Las Bóvedas (The Vaults)
Once serving as dungeons during the colonial era, these vaulted chambers have been repurposed into a bustling marketplace. Here, you can find a variety of Colombian handicrafts, souvenirs, and artisanal goods.
Travel Tip: While many vendors offer unique and quality items, it’s still essential to haggle to get a good deal. Additionally, visit during the morning or late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, as the area can get quite warm.
FAQ About Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia
What are the top attractions to visit in Cartagena?
Cartagena’s top attractions include the historic Walled City, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the Clock Tower Gate, and the Palace of the Inquisition.
Is it safe to walk around the Walled City at night?
Yes, the Walled City is generally safe for tourists to walk around at night. However, as with any travel destination, it’s always a good idea to stay aware of your surroundings and avoid poorly lit areas.
Are there any beaches near Cartagena worth visiting?
Absolutely! Some famous beaches near Cartagena include Playa Blanca, Bocagrande, and the Rosario Islands, a short boat ride away.
Can I take a day trip to the Rosario Islands from Cartagena?
Yes, many tour operators in Cartagena offer day trips to the Rosario Islands. It’s a great way to experience the beautiful beaches and crystal-clear waters.
What local dishes should I try while in Cartagena?
Some must-try local dishes include “arepas de huevo” (egg-filled corn cakes), “ceviche Cartagenero”, and “postre de natas” (a creamy dessert).
Are there any cultural events or festivals in Cartagena that I should be aware of?
Cartagena hosts several cultural events throughout the year, including the Cartagena International Film Festival and the Cartagena Music Festival. It’s a good idea to check the local calendar for any events during your visit.
Is it worth visiting the Totumo Mud Volcano near Cartagena?
The Totumo Mud Volcano is a unique experience where visitors can take a mud bath in a natural volcano. It’s a fun and relaxing activity, trendy among tourists.
How can I learn more about the history of Cartagena?
Consider taking a guided walking tour of the city or visiting some museums, such as the Naval Museum of the Caribbean or the Gold Museum. These will provide insights into Cartagena’s rich history and heritage.