The city of Cartagena, known in the colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, is a port city founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain. The 5th biggest city in Colombia and located on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Coast Region, Cartagena boasts old world charm with its cobblestone streets and vibrant colonial buildings. In 1984, Cartagena’s “Walled City” and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Known as the “Jewel of the Indies”, Cartagena’s lively personality is the sum of its unique parts. The warmth of its inhabitants, the richness of its history and architecture, the dynamic culinary scene and spirited nightlife are all perfectly interwoven to create this enchanting city. The magic of Cartagena vibrates like the colors of its façades. It’s floral-covered balconies, horse-drawn carriages, and long winding alleyways make the city overflow with romanticism. Its monuments pay homage to the brave men and women who won freedom for their “heroic city” and rose like a phoenix from its turbulent past.
Cartagena is made up of several distinctly different neighborhoods. From the iconic Centro to the high rise buildings of Bocagrande, it’s safe to say that Cartagena offers something for everyone. The bohemian and casual San Diego district has a more relaxed vibe and contains some of the best restaurants in the city. Up-and-coming Getsemaní, with its street art and hipsters vibes, is still a little rough around the edges but has become a popular choice for young travelers and the artsy types. Castillogrande is less designed for visitors and most popular with wealthy local Colombians.
Cartagena’s tropical climate also makes it a popular beach destination, with boisterous Playa Blanca only a short drive away. Playa Blanca offers boat access to the white sand beaches of Isla de Barú and the Islas del Rosario, known for their snorkeling and coral reefs.
Transportation To and From Cartagena
There are several ways to get to Cartagena, Colombia:
Plane: Fly to Rafael Nuñez International Airport (CTG). International flights come from Fort Lauderdale (Spirit Airlines and jetBlue), Miami (American Airlines and Avianca), Atlanta (Delta), and New York (Avianca and jetBlue). Domestic flights from all over Colombia also have service to Cartagena. Once you arrive, keep in mind that a taxi ride should not be over 20,000 pesos to the walled city.
Bus: This is by far the cheapest option for transportation. Check with your hotel or hostel for more information on transportation by bus.
Shuttle Bus: These air-conditioned shuttle buses fit approximately 12 passengers and is a pleasant option for travel. I recommend for you to have your hotel or hostel to make the reservations for you because their websites don’t work well. Oftentimes, they can pick you up. The two companies are MarSol (45,000 pesos to Santa Marta) and Berlinas DelFonse.
Currency in Cartagena
The currency throughout Colombia is the Colombian Peso. While most establishments in Cartagena accept credit card, it is always good to have cash on hand as street vendors as well as mom and pop stores, only accept cash (or “plata”, in Spanish).
ATM’s: Servibanca (the ATM machines) allow you to take 780,000 pesos at once while CitiBank allows 1,000,000 – 1,200,000 pesos per transaction. Most restaurants and bars accept credit cards.
Where To Stay in Cartagena
While there are several beautiful hotels in Cartagena all over the city, I highly recommend staying within the Walled City. I recommend staying in the Walled City for a handful of reasons including walkability, access to bars and restaurants, and overall convenience. If you end up staying elsewhere in the city, you will likely spend whatever you think you’re saving on taxis going to the Walled City. Plus, once you see the charming balconies with colonial architecture, how can you not stay in one of these beautiful buildings? Here is a list of Cartagena hotels I recommend:
Movich Hotel Cartagena de Indias: This 5-star hotel is a magic combination of colonial architecture and contemporary decor in a great location within the walled city of Cartagena. Movich Hotel Cartagena de Indias is an effortless blend of bohemian style and sophistication. Whatever you do, make sure to watch one sunset from the rooftop terrace at the infinity pool or the sky bar.
Estancia de la Mantilla: Offering an outdoor pool and terrace, Estancia de La Mantilla located within the walled city, only 200 meters from Santo Domingo Park. This boutique hotel is tucked away in a quiet location with a beautiful pool and rooftop sun terrace. Every room at this hotel is air-conditioned, with a television, and a private bathroom. A yummy daily breakfast is included, as well as free toiletries and a hairdryer. The staff was incredibly friendly and most of them spoke English. I stayed at this hotel two nights and loved the property. My only qualm was that the wifi didn’t reach our bedroom. (I don’t know if that is consistent with all of the other bedrooms.)
La Passion Hotel: I have to admit it. I scoped out this hotel and it was only available for a few nights of our stay in Cartagena. However, I wanted to stay here so badly that I ended up stay at two places in Cartagena. This boutique hotel is pure #PinterestGoals. It’s pink walls and lush interior courtyard bring a romantic flair to the charming colonial building. The rooftop pool is spacious, with a row of cabanas along the upper deck. Breakfast is held daily at the restaurant on its rooftop. All I will say about that is, choice the passion fruit juice!
Townhouse Cartagena: This boutique hotel recently opened in December 2017. They offer eight individually styled bedrooms and three two-bedroom suites. All of the rooms at Townhouse Cartagena have a private bathroom, hot water, Nespresso machine, music dock, hi speed wifi and air conditioning. The rooftop offers panoramic views of the walled city and two plunge pools and is open to all from 8am – 1am.
Where To Eat in Cartagena
From homemade dulces to seafood caught minutes before it’s served, chefs and street carts in Colombia’s stunning colonial port town are merging the Caribbean and Latin American flavors in delicious ways. Reservations are recommended at most restaurants in Cartagena but if you don’t mind a wait, you should be fine.
La Perla: I had one of the best meals of my entire trip at this Peruvian restaurant. This place won’t break the band but still is upscale dining. It’s quaint ambiance pairs nicely with its delicious dishes. I ordered the tacu-tacu and the ceviche and enjoyed every last bite!
El Boliche Cebicheria: One of Cartagena’s most well-guarded culinary secrets, this Cartagena restaurant rivals is neighbor (La Cevicheria) with its ceviche dishes. It remains fairly untapped so be sure to go here before the secret gets out!
La Cevicheria: Bet you can’t guess what dish this restaurant specializes in! Fresh fish and tasty flavors, and great cocktails. La Cevicheria has the Anthony Bourdain endorsement and therefore, is eternally busy. Expect to wait for a table.
Alma: Alma’s open-air courtyard has a cozy yet sophisticated. The bar offers a great assortment of cocktails and on Fridays, locals, and visitors alike flock to the live music. The lobster empanadas and pork belly were heavenly!
Juan Del Mar: Juan Del Mar is located in the San Diego district of Cartagena within a restored colonial house that preserves its architecture. Juan Del Mar still has its original flooring and walls and is sprinkled with an eclectic decoration. Live music often happens here at night. I recommend the fried fish and coconut rice.
Other restaurants to try out include:
- Restaurante la Vitrola (reservations necessary)
- La Cocina Pepina
- Pata Negra
Where To Drink in Cartagena
If you’re looking for great cocktails and a fun environment, you will find there’s no shortage of places in Cartagena. But if you prefer great cocktails, a fun and environment AND a rooftop, then skip ahead to the next section.
El Baron: This quaint speakeasy on the Plaza San Pedro, is home to Cartagena’s standout mixologist, Noah Matthies. Cocktails here are a delicious blend of local infusions with a refined selection of spirits. Combined with the right tunes, El Baron is a staple, upscale “watering hole” for locals and visitors alike.
Cafe Havana: The ‘World Famous’ Cafe Havana has changed perceptions of the Getsemani district by luring a ritzy crowd off the beaten path. Here you can enjoy live salsa with a 12-piece band. Mojitos have never tasted better!
Best Rooftops of Cartagena
Who doesn’t love a good view? These rooftop bars are among the best in Cartagena. Great views, vibes, music, and drinks – what more can you ask for?
Movich Hotel: Movich Hotel’s rooftop terrace, sky bar, and the infinity pool is the coolest of cool. This rooftop offers sweeping views of the entire city, perhaps even the best I saw while in Cartagena.
Townhouse: Townhouse rooftop offers panoramic views of the walled city and two plunge pools. I’m obsessed with its neon “Bitch, Where’s My Champagne?” sign and the staff was super friendly. Townhouse rooftop is open to all from 8am – 1am.
Alquimico Bar: Alquimico takes their drinking seriously. With “alchemists” mixing the perfect “remedy”, and an assortment of infused rums to choose from, this Cartagena hot spot is a trendy spot. While they also have an impressive dinner menu, Alquimico’s rooftop bar is among the best in Cartagena.
Best Place to Watch the Sunset in Cartagena
Get your camera ready and go to these three places to watch the magical sunset in Cartagena.
Movich Hotel: They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but watching the sunset from this rooftop requires none. In my opinion, this is likely the best place in the entire city to watch the sunset. A painted sky with the Bocagrande high rises, not mention the city’s most iconic landmark, the Cartagena Cathedral, makes up its stunning backdrop.
Cafe Del Mar: Sitting pretty on the historic walls on Cartagena’s western tip, the Baluarte Santo Domingo was built to repair the damage done by Sir Francis Drake. Three centuries later, Café del Mar has weaved its way into Cartagena’s rich history as the undisputed spot to take in the sunset. The 17th-century fortifications, uninterrupted views of the sun sliding into the Caribbean and all-year-round breezes underpin the bar’s enduring appeal with an international crowd not scared off by the bar’s New York prices.
The Wall: The best thing about this option? It’s free! Grab a blanket and a beer and watch the sunset on the Caribbean ocean.
Top Things To Do in Cartagena
Free Tour Cartagena: This free walking tour through the walled city of Cartagena was 2 hours of entertaining local history. Our guide was Edgar, who was thoroughly knowledgeable about all things Cartagena and Colombia and had an impressive knack for remembering peoples names. I’m a big fan of free walking tours in every city I go to and Free Tour Cartagena was of incredible value. Tours begin daily at 10am and 4pm. Be sure to book ahead of time and don’t forget to tip your tour guide! I recommend tipping 10,000 – 20,000 pesos per person. Keep in mind, your tip is your guides only income for this tour so don’t be cheap!
Boat Trip to Rosario Islands, Baru, and Playa Blanca: This trip can be done in a day, just make sure you get up early. There’s an assortment of ways you can tour these areas. One is to do an organized day trip, another is to rent a private boat (most expensive), and the last is to take a bus to Playa Blanca (cheapest). Unless you speak Spanish well, I’d recommend the first two options.
San Felipe de Barajas Castle: Towering over the bay of Cartagena, this landmark has an impressive history, dating back to 1536. The castle has a long history of invasion by pirates, admirals, and barons, but stands proudly to this day.
Take in the Street Art in Getsemani
Wander the cobblestone streets of the Walled City. Take in key landmarks like:
- Cartagena Cathedral
- Sanctuary of Saint Peter Claver
- Plaza Santo Domingo
- Plaza de San Diego
- Torre del Reloj
Cartagena de Indias is hard to walk away from not wanting more. It’s colorful charm, dynamic culture, and impressive history make it one of Colombia’s top travel destinations!