12 Best Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia: Must-See Attractions

by Jem
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The first time I stepped into Cartagena, I was captivated by its vibrant colors, colonial charm, and the rhythmic beats of cumbia echoing through its cobblestone streets. From the historic walls of the Old City to the bustling markets of Getsemaní, every corner of Cartagena tells a story of its rich history and Caribbean soul. It’s time to find out the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia!

Cartagena offers more than its UNESCO World Heritage status and sun-drenched beaches. It’s a city where the past and present coexist harmoniously. The aroma of freshly cooked arepas mingles with the salty sea breeze, and every sunset over the Caribbean Sea feels like a live-painted masterpiece.

I’ve danced the night away in its lively plazas, explored the depths of its fortresses, and savored the flavors of its street food. Each adventure, be it a boat ride to the nearby Rosario Islands or a stroll through its art-filled streets, has left an indelible mark on my traveler’s heart.

For those eager to immerse themselves in the magic of this Caribbean jewel, I’ve curated a list of the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia. Drawing from my own journeys and insights from locals, this guide is your passport to experiencing Cartagena in all its glory. Let’s embark on this adventure! To help you make the most out of your next trip, here are my top 12 things to see and do in Cartagena.

The nicest places to visit in Cartagena right now
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Best Places to Visit in Cartagena

Ready to jump into all the coolest things to do in Cartagena? As noted above, there’s something for everyone at this captivating vacation spot in Columbia. So keep reading to discover all these unique Cartagena places to visit.

Are you looking to stroll through historic cobblestone streets, admire well-preserved colonial architecture, and savor delectable Colombian cuisine in vibrant plazas? Or would you prefer to explore nearby beaches, go island hopping, and immerse yourself in the lively local culture? Whatever you’re planning, these must-sees in Cartagena can accommodate your needs. Here’s all the best attractions in Cartagena that you should know about.

1. Cartagena’s Walled City

Cartagena’s heart and soul reside within its Walled City. Constructed in the 16th century, these walls were built to protect the city from pirate attacks. Now, they encircle a maze of colorful colonial buildings, lively plazas, and narrow cobblestone streets. As you wander, you’ll encounter street vendors selling fresh fruit, musicians playing traditional tunes, and locals going about their daily lives.

Among the best things to do in Cartagena is to take a leisurely walk atop these walls during sunset. The views of the Caribbean Sea on one side and the city’s historic skyline on the other are truly unmatched. The walls themselves are a testament to Cartagena’s strategic importance in the colonial era. However, the vibrant life within them showcases the city’s enduring spirit.

Dive into the local cafes for a taste of Colombian coffee or explore the boutique shops offering handmade crafts. And if history intrigues you, the numerous museums and churches within the Walled City provide a deep dive into Cartagena’s storied past. Whether you’re a history enthusiast or a foodie, the Walled City is a must-visit. It has something for everyone looking to soak in the local culture.

Cartagena's Walled City is where the town's soul and its core are located.
Cartagena’s Walled City is where the town’s soul and its core are located.

2. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Perched on the Hill of San Lázaro, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is a prominent landmark. It stands as a testament to Cartagena’s strategic importance during the colonial era. This massive fortress, built by the Spanish in the 17th century, once served as the city’s primary line of defense against pirate attacks and foreign invasions. Today, it’s one of Cartagena’s most iconic landmarks.

Visitors can explore the extensive network of tunnels, battlements, and ramparts, all of which offer a glimpse into the military engineering of the time. As you navigate the maze-like corridors, you’ll come across various exhibits detailing the fortress’s history and the battles it witnessed. Don’t forget to climb to the top; the panoramic views of Cartagena and the Caribbean Sea are simply breathtaking.

Beyond its historical significance, the Castillo is also a favorite spot for locals and tourists alike to relax and enjoy the sunset. With food vendors nearby selling traditional Colombian snacks and drinks, it’s the perfect place to unwind after a day of sightseeing. If you’re keen on understanding Cartagena’s past, a visit to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is essential. It showcases the city’s resilience and history.

It serves as evidence of the strategic significance of Cartagena throughout the time of colonization.
It serves as evidence of the strategic significance of Cartagena throughout the time of colonization.

3. Getsemaní

Once overshadowed by the more popular areas of Cartagena, Getsemaní has emerged as a vibrant hub for arts, culture, and nightlife. Located just outside the Walled City, this neighborhood retains a more authentic feel, with its narrow streets, colorful houses, and bustling plazas.

Getsemaní is a canvas of street art. As you stroll through its alleys, you’ll be greeted by murals that tell stories of the city’s history, its people, and their aspirations. These artworks are a testament to Cartagena’s thriving contemporary art scene and the local artists’ desire to voice their narratives.

By night, the neighborhood transforms. The Plaza de la Trinidad becomes a gathering spot where locals and tourists mingle. Street performers entertain with music and dance, while nearby cafes and bars fill with patrons eager to sample local dishes and cocktails.

Beyond the visual and auditory treats, Getsemaní also offers a sensory journey for food enthusiasts. The neighborhood is dotted with local eateries, offering everything from traditional Colombian fare to fusion dishes that blend local flavors with international influences. Street vendors serve up delicious snacks, from arepas to empanadas, capturing the essence of Cartagena’s culinary diversity.

For those looking to dive deep into Cartagena’s local scene, a visit to Getsemaní is essential. It offers a blend of history, art, and modern urban culture that’s hard to find elsewhere in the city.

Getsemaní has become a thriving center for entertainment, artistic endeavors, and industry.
Getsemaní has become a thriving center for entertainment, artistic endeavors, and industry.

4. Palenque

A short drive from Cartagena lies the village of Palenque, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a testament to the resilience and spirit of its Afro-Colombian inhabitants. Founded by escaped slaves in the 17th century, Palenque is recognized as the first free town in the Americas.

Among the unique things to do in Cartagena, a visit to Palenque offers a deep dive into a rich cultural tapestry. The village has preserved its African roots in its music, dance, language, and traditions. Palenquero, a unique Creole language blending Spanish and African dialects, can still be heard in the village’s streets.

Engage with the locals and learn about their ancestral practices, from traditional medicine to rhythmic drumming and dance. The women, donned in vibrant dresses, sell homemade sweets and crafts, offering a taste of their heritage.

Palenque is more than just a historical site; it’s a living, breathing community that stands as a symbol of resistance and cultural preservation. A trip here is not only educational but deeply moving, making it a must-visit when in Cartagena.

Palenque is proof of the fortitude and tenacity of its Afro-Colombian residents.
Palenque is proof of the fortitude and tenacity of its Afro-Colombian residents.

5. Rosario Islands

Just a boat ride away from the bustling streets of Cartagena, the Rosario Islands await, offering a slice of tropical paradise. Comprising 27 islands, this archipelago is part of a national park dedicated to protecting the rich marine life and delicate coral reefs.

Visitors often head to Playa Blanca, known for its pristine white sands and crystal-clear waters. It’s an ideal spot for sunbathing, snorkeling, or simply enjoying the Caribbean vibes. While the islands are a popular day-trip destination, consider staying overnight. The absence of crowds in the evening transforms the islands into a serene escape.

For those interested in marine life, the Oceanario offers a chance to see dolphins, sharks, and turtles. Dive enthusiasts will appreciate the vibrant underwater world, with several dive shops offering excursions to the surrounding reefs.

Beyond the popular spots, the Rosario Islands hold hidden gems waiting to be explored. Secluded beaches, accessible only by boat or a short hike, offer unparalleled privacy and tranquility. Mangrove tours provide a unique opportunity to navigate through the islands’ intricate waterways, witnessing a diverse ecosystem and birdlife.

Local eateries serve up fresh seafood, with ceviche being a must-try. As you lounge on the beach, sipping a coconut and taking in the views, you’ll understand why the Rosario Islands are a top pick for both locals and travelers.

A piece of tropical splendor is available on the Rosario Islands.
A piece of tropical splendor is available on the Rosario Islands.

6. Museo del Oro Zenu

Cartagena isn’t all about beaches and colonial architecture. For history enthusiasts, the Museo del Oro Zenu offers a fascinating glimpse into the region’s pre-colonial past. Located in a colonial-era mansion, this museum is dedicated to the indigenous Zenu people who once thrived in the region.

The displays are filled with intricate gold artifacts, pottery, and other relics. These items tell the story of the Zenu’s complex water management systems, their societal structures, and their spiritual beliefs. The craftsmanship of the gold pieces is evident. From intricate animal figures to ceremonial masks, they showcase the advanced metallurgical skills of the Zenu.

While the museum is smaller than its counterpart in Bogota, it’s unique. It offers a more focused look at the indigenous cultures of the Caribbean coast. Informative panels (available in both Spanish and English) provide context, making it easy for visitors to immerse themselves in the rich history.

After exploring the museum, take a moment to relax in the peaceful courtyard. It’s a quiet oasis in the heart of the city and a perfect spot to reflect on Cartagena’s layered history.

The intriguing look into the area's pre-colonial past provided by Museo del Oro Zenu is remarkable.
The intriguing look into the area’s pre-colonial past provided by Museo del Oro Zenu is remarkable.

7. La Popa Convent

High atop the highest hill in Cartagena sits La Popa Convent, a must-visit for anyone seeking a mix of history and panoramic city views. Originally built in the 17th century, this convent has seen its fair share of pirate attacks, renovations, and historical events.

Upon entering, you’re greeted by a beautiful courtyard and the statue of La Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of Cartagena. The convent’s interiors, with their colonial-era artifacts and religious art, offer a serene atmosphere, transporting visitors back in time.

But what truly sets La Popa apart is its vantage point. Step out onto the terrace, and you’re treated to a 360-degree view of Cartagena. From the modern Bocagrande skyscrapers to the historic Walled City, the entire cityscape is laid out before you.

Beyond the main attractions, La Popa Convent has its share of hidden gems. The on-site museum provides deeper insights into the convent’s history. It showcases manuscripts, liturgical objects, and personal belongings of the monks who once resided there. The gardens surrounding the convent are meticulously maintained, with native plants and flowers that bloom year-round.

For those compiling a list of Cartagena things to do, La Popa Convent is a blend of cultural immersion and scenic beauty. It’s a reminder of Cartagena’s rich tapestry of history, faith, and natural beauty.

Anyone looking for a blend of history and expansive city vistas must visit La Popa Convent.
Anyone looking for a blend of history and expansive city vistas must visit La Popa Convent.

8. Café Havana

If you’re looking to experience the vibrant nightlife of Cartagena, Café Havana is the place to be. Located in the heart of Getsemaní, this iconic spot has become synonymous with authentic salsa music and dance. With its retro décor, reminiscent of 1950s Cuba, and live bands playing every night, it’s a haven for both locals and tourists seeking a genuine Latin rhythm.

The moment you step inside, the infectious beats make it hard to resist the dance floor. Even if you’re not a seasoned salsa dancer, the energy of the place encourages everyone to give it a try. And if dancing isn’t your thing, you can always grab a mojito, sit back, and enjoy the live music.

Apart from the music and dance, Café Havana is also known for its impressive selection of rums. From local Colombian varieties to international favorites, there’s something for every palate.

In a city brimming with history and culture, Café Havana stands out as a testament to Cartagena’s love for music and celebration. It’s a must-visit for anyone looking to immerse themselves in the city’s lively spirit.

Discover Cartagena's thriving nightlife at Café Havana.
Discover Cartagena’s thriving nightlife at Café Havana.

9. Mercado de Bazurto

For a genuine taste of Cartagena, head to the bustling Mercado de Bazurto. This isn’t your typical tourist spot, but it’s a haven for food lovers and those looking to immerse themselves in local culture. Located just a short drive from the city center, this market is the beating heart of Cartagena’s culinary scene.

Here, you’ll find everything from fresh seafood caught in the nearby Caribbean waters. There are also exotic fruits that you’ve probably never heard of. Begin your food journey with a plate of arepas de huevo, a Cartagena specialty. These are fried corn cakes filled with eggs and meat, crispy on the outside and soft within.

Next, navigate your way to the fish section. There, you can sample ceviche made from the catch of the day, seasoned with lime and local spices. The vibrant colors and tantalizing aromas of the fruit stalls are hard to resist. Grab a refreshing lulada, a drink made from the native lulo fruit, known for its tangy flavor.

But beyond the food, it’s the atmosphere that makes Mercado de Bazurto special. The sounds of salsa music fill the air, vendors call out their wares, and locals haggle over prices. It’s chaotic, lively, and authentically Cartagena.

It's a sanctuary for foodies and tourists who want to get a taste of the native way of life.
It’s a sanctuary for foodies and tourists who want to get a taste of the native way of life.

10. El Totumo

One of the coolest things to do in Cartagena is to take a short trip out of the city to experience the unique mud baths of El Totumo. This isn’t a luxurious spa experience, but it’s one you won’t forget. El Totumo is a naturally occurring mud volcano, and locals swear by the therapeutic properties of its warm, dense mud.

Upon arriving, you’ll climb a wooden staircase to the top of the small volcano. Once there, you’ll descend into the mud pit, where you can float effortlessly, thanks to the mud’s high salt content. Locals claim the mud has healing properties and that it’s beneficial for skin and health. Whether or not that’s true, it’s undeniably fun to be covered head-to-toe in this natural mud mask.

After your mud bath, head to the nearby lagoon to wash off. Local women are often on hand to assist with a thorough scrub, ensuring you leave as clean as you came. This quirky adventure offers a mix of relaxation, laughter, and a touch of the bizarre, making it a must-visit when in the Cartagena region.

One of the best things to do in Cartagena, head outside the city and enjoy El Totumo's distinctive mud baths.
One of the best things to do in Cartagena, head outside the city and enjoy El Totumo’s distinctive mud baths.

11. San Pedro Claver Church and Convent

In the heart of Cartagena, the San Pedro Claver Church and Convent stands as a testament to the city’s rich history and deep-rooted faith. Built in the early 17th century, this stunning colonial-era structure is named after Saint Peter Claver. He was a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life to aiding and advocating for enslaved Africans brought to the Americas.

The church’s architecture is a blend of Spanish colonial and baroque styles, with intricate woodwork, beautiful altars, and religious art that captivates visitors. The courtyard, with its old trees and colonial architecture, offers a peaceful respite from the bustling city outside.

Adjacent to the church is a museum showcasing religious art, historical artifacts, and exhibits detailing the life and works of Saint Peter Claver. His remains are also housed within the church, making it a pilgrimage site for many.

Beyond its historical and religious significance, the San Pedro Claver Church and Convent also plays a role in Cartagena’s vibrant cultural scene. The venue often hosts classical music concerts, art exhibitions, and cultural events that celebrate its heritage and the city’s contemporary talents.

Visiting the San Pedro Claver Church and Convent offers not only a spiritual experience. It also provides a deep dive into Cartagena’s history, highlighting the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and the individuals who stood against it.

A symbol of the city's long history and steadfast faith is the San Pedro Claver Church and Convent.
A symbol of the city’s long history and steadfast faith is the San Pedro Claver Church and Convent.

12. Plaza Santo Domingo

Right in the heart of Cartagena, Plaza Santo Domingo is more than just a square. It’s a lively hub where the past and present converge. By day, the plaza buzzes with activity as vendors hawk their wares, from handmade crafts to delicious local snacks. Street performers entertain crowds. The laughter of children playing mingles with the chatter of locals catching up on the day’s news.

The plaza’s centerpiece is the Church of Santo Domingo, a stunning piece of colonial architecture with a history dating back to the 16th century. Its robust stone walls and ornate altar are a testament to the craftsmanship of the era.

As evening sets in, the plaza transforms. Restaurants and cafes set out tables, and the aroma of Colombian cuisine fills the air. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a meal, people-watch, and soak in the ambiance of Cartagena.

Among the best things to do in Cartagena, spending an evening at Plaza Santo Domingo, with its blend of history and vibrant modern life, is a must. It encapsulates the essence of the city in one delightful space.

A vibrant place in which historic and contemporary collide, visiting Plaza Santo Dominga i one of the best things to do in Cartagena.
A vibrant place in which historic and contemporary collide, visiting Plaza Santo Dominga i one of the best things to do in Cartagena.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Best Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia

Looking for more content on the top things to do in Cartagena, Colombia? Here are some popular questions (and answers) I get that will help you plan your trip to Cartagena:

What’s the best time to visit Cartagena?

Cartagena is a vibrant destination throughout the year. However, if you’re looking to experience the city at its finest, consider visiting during the dry season, which spans from December to April. This period sees less rainfall, making it ideal for outdoor activities and beach outings. On the flip side, the shoulder months, such as November and May, offer a respite from the peak tourist crowds while still providing enjoyable weather conditions.

Is Cartagena safe for tourists?

Cartagena, especially its main tourist hubs, is generally safe for visitors. That said, like any major city, it’s essential to remain vigilant. Stick to well-lit areas at night, avoid displaying expensive items openly, and always be aware of your surroundings. Engaging with local advice on areas to avoid can also provide an added layer of safety during your travels.

Can you drink tap water in Cartagena?

While the tap water in Cartagena undergoes treatment and is safe for locals, tourists are often advised to stick to bottled water. The reason isn’t necessarily contamination but rather the difference in mineral content and treatment processes, which might not sit well with everyone’s digestive system. To stay on the safe side, opt for bottled water during your stay.

Is Cartagena a walkable city?

es, Cartagena, especially the historic Old Town (known as the Walled City or “Ciudad Amurallada”), is a very walkable city. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Compact Layout: The Walled City, which is the most visited part of Cartagena, is compact and can be easily explored on foot. The narrow cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, and vibrant plazas are best experienced while walking.
  2. Pedestrian Zones: Many streets in the Walled City are pedestrian-only or have limited vehicle access, making it safer and more pleasant for visitors to stroll around.
  3. Landmarks and Attractions: Most of Cartagena’s key attractions, including churches, museums, and historic sites, are located within or near the Walled City, making it convenient for tourists to explore multiple sites in one day on foot.
  4. Vibrant Street Life: Walking through Cartagena allows visitors to immerse themselves in the city’s vibrant street life, with street performers, vendors selling local delicacies, and colorful colonial architecture adding to the charm.
  5. Safety: The Walled City is generally safe for tourists during the day. However, like any other city, it’s always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and avoid poorly lit areas at night.
  6. Heat and Humidity: While Cartagena is walkable, it’s worth noting that the city can be hot and humid. It’s advisable to wear comfortable shoes, carry water, and take breaks when needed.
The historical past and current peacefully coexist in this metropolis.
The historical past and current peacefully coexist in this metropolis.

What is Cartagena, Colombia best known for?

Cartagena is famous for its well-preserved colonial architecture, vibrant culture, and historic Walled City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city’s colorful streets, lively festivals, and coastal charm make it a top destination in Colombia.

Is it worth visiting Cartagena, Colombia?

Absolutely. Cartagena offers a unique blend of history, culture, and beachside relaxation. Its rich colonial past, combined with its modern-day vibrancy, ensures a memorable experience for every traveler.

What is the #1 tourist site in Cartagena?

The Walled City stands out as Cartagena’s top attraction. Its cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, and lively plazas offer a journey back in time, making it a must-visit for anyone in the city.

Is 3 days enough for Cartagena, Colombia?

Three days in Cartagena, Colombia, can provide a good introduction to the city and allow you to see many of its main attractions, but it might feel a bit rushed if you want to delve deeper into its history, culture, and surrounding areas. Here’s a suggested itinerary for a three-day visit:

1st Day: Explore the Walled City

  1. Morning: Start with a walking tour of the historic Walled City (Ciudad Amurallada). Visit the Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj) and Plaza de los Coches.
  2. Afternoon: Explore the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This fortress offers panoramic views of the city.
  3. Evening: Dine in one of the many restaurants in the Walled City and enjoy the vibrant nightlife.

2nd Day: Getzemaní and Bocagrande

  1. Morning: Explore the bohemian neighborhood of Getsemaní, known for its street art, colonial architecture, and Plaza de la Trinidad.
  2. Afternoon: Head to Bocagrande, Cartagena’s modern area, and relax on its beaches.
  3. Evening: Enjoy a sunset drink at Café del Mar, a popular bar located on the city walls.

3rd Day: Islands and Beaches

  1. Full Day: Take a day trip to the Rosario Islands, a group of beautiful Caribbean islands located about an hour from Cartagena. Enjoy snorkeling, swimming, and relaxing on the beach

Final Thoughts on Visiting Cartagena

Cartagena is more than just a destination; it’s an experience waiting to be unraveled. As you wander through its historic streets, you’re not just walking on cobblestones but on stories of pirates, colonialists, and revolutions. Every corner has a tale, every building a memory.

For the modern traveler, Cartagena offers a blend of the old and the new. From savoring local delicacies to dancing the night away in contemporary clubs, there’s something for everyone. And while the city’s landmarks are undoubtedly captivating, it’s the local interactions, the street vendors, the musicians, and the everyday scenes that truly make a visit memorable.

In essence, this South American gem isn’t just a stop on a traveler’s itinerary; it’s a chapter in their journey, one that leaves a lasting impression long after they’ve moved on.

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