Dec 2, 2021
8 min read
A City Guide to Cartagena
With cobblestone streets and colorful mansions, it’s hard not to be immediately charmed as soon as you set foot in Cartagena. The palm-lined plazas that fill the walled city are humming with people 24/7; eat world-class arepas, catch a salsa party, dodge the tourist traps, and you’ll leave content.
Cartagena is one of our favorite places to explore hotels, with an array of individual, boutique lodgings, housed in old mansions. Though many may tell you to stick within the limits of the old city – and there is privacy and beautiful residences to be found there – we usually opt for Getsemani as our base. It’s very easy to imagine yourself at the center of a Gabriel García Mírquez novel when you’re there (at least, as long as the Out Of Office is switched on).
Between the scenery, short boat trips to stunning beaches, great dancing, and the fact that it’s a direct (and relatively painless) flight from most major cities in the US, Cartagena is one of our go-to getaways.
Where to stay in Cartagena
One of our top picks, Casa Don Sancho is a renovated townhouse on the edge of the walled city. We love the location – away from most of the crowds, but still in old town – and the six bedrooms are spread across three beautifully designed floors. Bright rooms and neutral colors give this place a peaceful energy among the buzz of Cartagena. Head up to the rooftop patio for sunset.
Hotel Capellán sits in our neighborhood of choice. The minute you walk in, you’ll relax into the Caribbean-inspired design – beautiful fountains, white cushioned chairs, and dark wood accents. The rooms are bright and airy, and the rooftop pool is second to none. They also have a pretty good spa, if you are looking to indulge.
Also located in Getsemani, Casa Lola is a great, price-conscious choice. It’s sweet, has a fantastic rooftop pool and bar, and is just down the street from Cafe Havana, so you can dance your way home in about two minutes.
Casa de Alba
Right next to Bolivar Park, Casa de Alba is an old mansion in the Cartagena’s historic center. With an outdoor pool and courtyard garden, it’s as good for larger groups as it is for a romantic getaway. We love the individual decor of each room, ranging from stunning canopy beds to a set of perfectly placed twins. Upstairs, on the roof, there’s a second pool with A+ views.
When on a budget, Casa Venita is one of our favorite places to stay. Rooms range from hostel-style, to queen and king-sized. The cafe serves delicious acai bowls – so go for the “breakfast included” option.
Where to eat in Cartagena
We love this restaurant for a few reasons. Firstly, the location right on Plaza de la Trinidad, which gives way to pretty spectacular people watching. Secondly, the tapas-style menu. And, thirdly, the really good cocktails that will start your night off in the best way.
Mila is located in the center of the old town and does a great morning pastry and a coffee. Swing by early, before spending the day exploring in the sun.
This place was started by two young locals, who wanted to create a great cocktail bar serving quality drinks without the American price tag. Enter Bonche. You’ll meet young locals and visitors alike – order a burger and embrace the conversation.
On the corner of Carrera 11 and Calle 38 is our favorite arepa stand. Come here in the morning to get a ham, cheese, or veggie arepa freshly made – a true Cartagena staple.
Where to drink in Cartagena
This upscale cocktail bar will feel very familiar to those traveling from America or Europe. Though it’s rather small, the romantic decor and great drinks make you feel like you could stay for hours. The bartenders are half the reason to love it here – and they also serve small bites.
This three-floor bar looks like something out of a 1920s novel. Once a warehouse, the owner has since renovated, preserving the integrity of the original architecture with beautiful attention to detail. The first floor gets fairly crowded; the second is more relaxed, with blue velvet chairs and tiled floors; and the rooftop patio is the place to go for great tunes and a dance. Order anything with mezcal.
This could technically be put in our “Where to dance” category, but as it serves excellent wine, and there are so many incredible salsa clubs already, we are leaving it right here. While it’s relatively expensive and geared towards well-heeled tourists, the art deco design and crowded basement make for a fun experience.
Beer Lovers pours some of Colombia’s best brews. They serve more than just what this country has to offer, but we recommend sitting at the bar and trying what’s local on tap.
Where to dance
A Getsemani club classic (alongside Cafe Havana and Bazurto, before it sadly closed). Quiebra Canto is geared more towards the experienced salsa dancers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good time for everyone.
In any other country this bar wouldn’t be anything special. In Cartagena, where beautiful cocktail bars are easily found, this straight-forward establishment is a breath of fresh air. Be prepared to find loads of tourists; also be prepared to dance your heart out.
Where to get coffee in Cartagena
A recommendation from Cartagena native,Ernesto Roman
, Cafe de la Mañana is a perfect place for a morning or afternoon break. Get a $6 breakfast of eggs, bread, fruit, and juice or a mimosa – along with your coffee – and stay a while. Laptops welcome.
On a quiet street in Getsemani, this adorable cafe takes pride in the coffee they serve. Though Colombia is a huge exporter of beans, it doesn’t usually keep much of the high-quality stuff within its borders. This place, however, is on a mission to showcase the true beauty of Colombian coffee, serving some of the best cups in town. Take a seat outside and admire the street art while you drink.
Beiyu Cafe in Getsemani is good for a smoothie or juice. It has great A.C. (which is important in the summer months) and reliable wifi, so it’s a solid choice while you catch up on emails.
Our favorite place for iced coffee isEpoca
. We get the blended version and call it a day, but there are so many options to choose from. Make sure to check hours, as it opens a bit later than most.
What to do in Cartagena
Rosario Islands (or Islas del Rosario) is technically a national park, about an hour’s boat ride away from Cartagena port. Swim in the crystal Caribbean waters, relax on the stunning sandy beaches, and maybe book into one of the hotels here for a night (although, it’s a totally doable day trip).
Walled city walk
Built in the 1500s, Cartagena’s historic walls run 4km around the old town. Previously used to protect the city from pirates, you can now take a romantic stroll along the walls, or come here to catch the sunset.
Another beach getaway that’s closer than Islas del Rosario, Tierra Bomba is easily accessed via boat. If you decide to stay here, we recommendBlue Apple Beach House
. You can also pay for a day-pass to the hotel, but we think you might as well stay a night or two.
Las Bóvedas is a series of 23 vaults built into the walls, originally used to store weapons – or anything else the Spanish wanted to hide. Later, these same vaults were used as prison cells during the Civil War. Today, they’re used as markets stalls, where you’ll find local goods and souvenirs to take home.
Where to get a hit of culture
Just outside Cartagena sits this 15th-century fortress, overlooking the city. In short, you can tell that the conquers of this land weren’t messing around. Make sure to come here on a sunny day, because it can take good few hours to walk around the well-preserved site.
Exhibiting a fantastic collection of gold pottery, Museo del Oro Zenú showcases the pre-colonial works, with a strong focus on the indigenous Zenú culture. Definitely one of our favorite museums in town.
Technically Cali is the salsa capital of Colombia. That said, Cartagena is still a great place to take classes. Check outCrazy Salsa
to learn some moves, then head to Cafe Havana or Quiebra Canto to try out your new skills.
Colombia has incredible street art. Within Cartagena, the best place to see it is within the Getsemani neighborhood. Walk around the winding streets and you’ll discover gorgeous murals everywhere.
Where to shop
With over 100 Colombian and international designers, St. Dom has something for everyone. A fashion concept store that has a great range, from sunglasses to dresses that will make a great addition to your vacation closet.
With stores in Miami, Madrid, and Cartagena, the queen of Colombian chic Silvia Tcherassi is a household name here (and a hotel owner, too). If you need a dress for a wedding, party, or any special occasion, you’ll likely find it here.
For excellent homewares and antiqeus, come to El Arcón. It’s also one of the only places we found where you could buy the famed door knockers you see throughout the city.
Where to work
Though we wouldn’t recommend staying here, Selina Hostel is a popular place for young people working remotely. That being the case, they are set up with great facilities (and fast wifi). They have decent food and you will inevitably meet someone who knows someone who knows someone you used to work with.
A large space with great wifi and lots of outlets: three things you’d assume wouldn’t be hard to find in a place like Cartagena, but somehow they are. This cafe is a diamond in the rough, and a true gift when we need to power through some work.
Part bookstore, part coffee shop, Abacus is absolutely adorable. The wifi isn’t super reliable, but that doesn’t seem to matter much when you’re surrounded by tall shelves housing hundreds of books – it’s the digital nomad set up of dreams. Come here for good coffee and solitude when you need to focus (but, also make it cute for Instagram).
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