Cartagena is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited and is definitely a solid favourite. With its colourful buildings, some rustic and others majestic, quaint cobblestone streets and the constant hustle and bustle of the locals, this is a place not to be missed! In fact I genuinely think Cartagena is going to become a massive destination in the next few months. I can already see the promotion it’s getting via social media so now seems like a good time to go before everyone descends!
This is my definitive guide to Cartagena so if you’re thinking of visiting, keep reading and go!How to get there
Cartagena is located in the north-west part of South America and is on the Caribbean coast. It has good weather most year round so is an ideal destination to visit at most times.
There are lots of flight options from London. I flew on Avianca which goes directly to Bogota (around 11 hours) and then, with a short, 1.5 hour flight, you get to Cartagena. This was the most convenient option which saved me travel time. For North American travellers, it seems a lot quicker and easier to visit and totally doable for a long weekend which makes me so envious! Where to stay
The heat can really wear you down in Cartagena so it’s always nice to be able to retreat to a nice hotel (preferably with a pool) and relax for a few hours in the afternoon.
In terms of best areas to stay, I’d suggest sticking to the following in order of preference 1) the old town (Centro and San Diego), 2) Getsemani or 3) Bocagrande. The old town is where you’ll probably spend most of your time so why not stay there too. It’s picture perfect, close to all the shops, attractions and restaurants. If you want to avoid the tourists, then Getsemani is a cool option and is akin to London’s Shoreditch – very trendy, full of street art, a younger crowd and a bit more lived in than the old town only 10 minutes away. This is where I stayed in two different hotels, Hotel Casa Lola and Hotel Capellan.
If you’re looking for a mid-range hotel, I would recommend Casa Lola. The staff were friendly, it had 2 rooftop pools and the hotel has an interesting, boutiquey vibe. Hotel Capellan is a lot more like a modern luxury hotel. The hotel itself is beautiful and the quality of the breakfast was great – I did however have one incident there which makes me less inclined to wholeheartedly recommend them. Nonetheless, do check them out as most reviews are overwhelmingly positive!Through my research, I came across a number of other really beautiful hotels that were contenders so I’ll list them here in case helpful. One of my biggest regrets was not staying at Casa Pombo in the old town. It has a stunning building and seems like an oasis in the old town – if I’m back, this place is going to be at the top of my list. Also check out Hotel Pestagua, Hotel LM, Tcherassi Hotel & Spa and Hotel Boutique Casa del Coliseo.
Boca Grande is the modern part of the city and looks a lot like Miami. There are lots of chain hotels here like the Hyatt, Intercontinental etc. There is also a beach which is better than the one close to the old town. It’s easy enough to get to the old town with a taxi so fine if you don’t mind that but I think it lacks a bit of character.
What to do
1) The old town – Cartagena’s main attraction is the historic old town with its beautiful architecture and the many squares, churches and historic city walls. It is easy to navigate but if you are interested in organised tours, check out Cartagena Connections. While exploring the old town, make sure you go to Plaza Bolivar (especially around 5:30pm when the square is taken over by very energetic dancers). Del Curato Street is where Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived. Check out San Pedro Claver and Santo Domingo Church. The famous Botero reclining lady statue is also found near the latter church. Santa Catalona de Alejandria Cathedral is the most iconic building of Cartagena as is the Torre del reloj. You can also hire a horse drawn carriage to explore the town if you’re getting a bit tired! You’ll mainly find that you will end up walking most places but taxis are cheap enough when it gets too hot so definitely make the most of them (and agree a price before you get in).2) Historic city walls – views of the city and ocean are best from the city walls. These are free to walk but avoid doing it during the afternoon as it gets really hot. Early morning or evening is best! Sunset on the walls is great. You can do this on a budget, bringing your own snacks/drinks and watching the sunset OR head to Cafe Del Mar for a drink.3) Getsemani – this area is full of amazing street art and is the hip part of Cartagena. I highly recommend spending a couple of hours here wandering the streets. For more information and pics of Getsemani, click here.4) Museums – If you’re trying to escape the heat, head to the Palace of Inquisiton, Modern Art Museum and the Gold Museum. These are by no means the best museums I’ve been to but it’s something to do while you’re here!5) Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – this is a fort that is a short taxi ride from Getsemani or the old town. You get good views of the city but go early to avoid the heat. 6) Day trips to the Rosario Islands or Baru – we booked an organised tour to Isla del Encanto. I personally didn’t like this (the beach was tiny without the white sand and turquoise water we expected!) but I think we were possibly unlucky in our choice of tour which included using the facilities of a resort. Just do a bit more research so you end up somewhere with nicer beaches – it might mean paying a bit more to book a private tour! We didn’t have time to go to Playa Blanca but this is another beach that is easier to reach from Cartagena. It gets very busy so avoid going on the weekend.
7) Other activities – you could hire a bike and explore the old town. There are also sunset cruises on offer so do check them out.
Where to shop
I came across some pretty cool boutiques in Cartagena, although these were all on a par with European prices. Check out St Dom, Casa Mulier and Silvia Tcherassi which have some great fashion pieces. Casa Chiqui is good for jewellery/textiles, Mercedes Salazaar for jewellery and Azula for some more affordable fashion.
For cheaper shopping, head to the ‘dungeons’ with lots of shops selling the classic touristy stuff but also some really pretty straw/basket style bags (very on trend!).Where to Eat
Cartagena has an impressive food scene. The food was the best I had in Colombia although definitely also the priciest. Cartagena is not a cheap city! Check out Maria which has a cool ambience and really good quality, fresh food. I loved the calamari and the Quinoa ceviche here. Thanks to Anthony Bourdain, La Cevicheria is a must visit. We ordered the shrimp ceviche and the seafood platter which was HUGE! This restaurant is VERY popular so go at less busy times (early or late lunch/early dinner). For steak, head to Marzola. The lamb steak was delicious as was the lemon chicken. For lunch, head to La Mulata and order the lemonada de coco and the fish. For brunch head to Cafe Epoca. For coffee and an air conditioned break, check out Abaco libros y cafe and La Presentation Café. The former is a cafe within a book shop (the juices here are very nice) whilst the latter has a very peaceful courtyard where you can relax (the iced latte was excellent here). For gelato, head to Gelateria Paradiso and try the Bocadillo flavour – so good!
What to wear
If you’ve not already guessed, it is hot, hot hot (!) in Cartagena. I would recommend taking loose fitting, floaty clothes and avoiding jeans completely. Dresses and skirts are perfect and comfortable walking shoes that allow your feet to breath (if that makes sense!). Both dresses in this post are from Red Herring, Debenhams and are on sale right now! Links here and here.Hope you found this travel guide helpful. Have you been to Cartagena? Leave a comment below!