Things to do in Cartagena Colombia

by Kelly

Things to do in Cartagena Colombia! Cartagena is located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and has a really relaxed vibe. It is now firmly one of our favourite cities and we can’t wait to return!

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Where to stay in Cartagena

There are lots of incredible options to stay in Cartagena, you first need to choose if you want to be inside the city walls and pay a slightly higher price or there are some great stays just outside in Getsemani! Either way, these are our picks for both areas. We stayed in Getsemani at Casa Mamá Waldy New which we loved!

Best budget hotels in Cartagena

Casa Mamá Waldy New – great budget hotel in Getsemani

Best midrange hotels in Cartagena

Hotel Casa Cytia – Beautiful and clean, great location and service.

Hotel Casa Mara By Akel Hotels – clean lovely rooms, great location and service.

Amarla Boutique Hotel Cartagena – stunning hotel, incredible views from the rooftop, beautiful rooms and service.

Best luxury hotels in Cartagena

Casa Claver Loft Boutique Hotel – the most stunning views from the roof top, excellent breakfast, right in the centre of town just perfect!

Casa Cascabel 1608 By SOHO – we stayed nearby and definitely would stay here next visit, the hotel looks great

Do you need a car for Cartagena?

Not at all, Cartagena is a walkable city and there are loads of tours that take you out to attractions further out of town. You can get a taxi from the airport to your accommodation or prebook a transfer here.

Best Things to do in Cartagena Colombia

There is so much to do in Cartagena, you can easily fill up a week or more enjoying the many sights and activities.

Museums in Cartagena

Inquisition Palace

One of the more unique museums in Cartagena the Inquisition Museum is home to artefacts and history around the Spanish Inquisition. The building is one of the finest in Cartagena but be warned there are some displays of torture equipment used on victims during the inquisition. Entry is 24,000COP.

Naval museum

The Naval Museum is one of the biggest museums in Cartagena and full of interesting Colombian Navy information, history and that of the region. Many people come here thinking it will be a quick visit and then stay for longer than expected! Entry is 25,000 COP.

Museo de Arte Moderno Cartagena

 Modern Art Museum with lots of Latin American Artists showcased. Entry 10,000COP

Abaco Libro coffeee and book shop

The best coffee shop in town which is located in a cute book shop. Head in escape the heat with a coffee and play cards, chess, dominoes or read while you enjoy the ambiance.

Rum and Chocolate tasting

Rum is the drink of choice in Colombia, you have to do a rum and chocolate tasting in Cartagena to appreciate this drink! Here the rum is perfectly paired with the chocolate and the experience is excellent!

Cafe Havana

An institution in the middle of Getsemani. It is a real Colombian experience. A bar with live salsa music, sit back with a drink and watch people dancing it up. Join in on the floor and practice or learn some moves, the music goes in to the night. There is a cover charge of 60,000 COP to get in. Alternatively this fun party bus is a lot of fun and does a great night tour!

Playa Blanca (Baru Islands)

Isla Baru is one of the islands off the coast of Cartagena. Not as luxurious as the Rosario Islands it does have an upbeat atmosphere that’s pretty infectious. It is easy to take day trips here from Cartagena, just a 45 minute boat ride and then a day lying on a beach. There are restaurants and drink stalls here as well as sunbeds. Just watch out for the massage ladies who will come up to massage you without asking and expect payment. The best tours to get here are:

Excursion to Cholon & Baru by bus and boat+lunch– We take a boat to Cholon Island where you can swim or enjoy the experience on the island and a typical Caribbean lunch. This tour is the most economical to Cholon de Cartagena.

Rosario Islands

The Rosario Islands are the prettiest of Cartagena, a group of islands that are close to Cartagena. The islands here are beautiful. The beaches have perfectly white sand and water that is incredibly clear and blue. There are some stunning beach clubs on these islands that are so luxurious and just create the most beautiful day! There are some excellent tours to get you there, these are the best:

Cartagena: 5 Islands and 5 Beach Clubs Tour with Lunch – Get ready for fun in the sun and discover the islands near Cartagena on this full-day island-hopping excursion. Swim, lounge, and explore Rosario, Isla Grande, Isla Marina, Cholon, and Baru.

Cartagena: Rosario Islands Catamaran with Lunch and Snorkel – Savor an unforgettable day aboard a catamaran as you sail to the Rosario Islands from Cartagena. Embark on a snorkeling adventure through a breathtaking coral reef and enjoy lunch with drinks.

Cartagena: Isla Baru Beach Club at Playa Blanca – Relax at the VIP beach club at Playa Blanca on this trip from Cartagena. Refresh your mind, body, and soul at this natural beach club and snorkel or swim in crystal-clear waters.

Coffee Workshop

If you are visiting Colombia you have to take a coffee workshop or tasting! We visited a coffee farm in Jardin but there are some amazing tours you can do right from Cartagena. These are the best coffee experiences in Cartagena:

From Seed to Cup: Colombian Specialty Coffee Tasting– the most sublime tasting of Colombian specialty coffee. Learn to distinguish it and to taste a smooth coffee with the highest quality in the world.

Tequila and mezcal tasting

We loved this tasting right in the centre of Cartagena! The restaurant is excellent and we learnt…and tasted a lot! Check out our tequila tasting review here.

Castle of San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe is the larger fort to visit and one of the most important.

Sunset Cruise

Taking a sunset cruise is a must in Cartagena! Once you have seen the incredible sunset from the walls you have to see it on the water. This is the best Cartagena sunset cruise!

Free things to do in Cartagena Colombia

There are loads of things to do in Cartagena, Colombia and not all of them are expensive. In fact, you can spend a few days doing free or very cheap activities.

Walk the colourful centre of Cartagena, inside the walls.

Inside the city walls lie so many colourful streets I couldn’t name them all. My favourite neighbourhood is Candlearia which is full of stunning houses and shops, all pretty colours with balconies overflowing with flowers. You will find pretty doors with unusual knockers, parks and great coffee shops and restaurants. This is where you will see lots of life and vibrancy. Make sure to check out the pretty yellow clock tower in the main entry area. I could spend a few days just soaking it up. One tip, please stay away from the horse drawn carriages. While it does look romantic the horses are not treated well.

Door Knockers

While walking the gorgeous streets look out for the unique and pretty door knockers. These are all really old and were used to show what type of person lived in these houses. Each has a meaning, if you see an owl it was a wise person or a teacher, a lizard was royalty, a lion was a strong person, a mermaid a sailor and a hand a priest. We loved finding them as we wandered the streets.

Visit the ‘La India’ statue

La India Catalina was an indigenous woman who  is the symbol of Cartagena. The monument was built by sculptor Eladio Gil Zambrano in 1974. the statue is located on the edge of the Lago del Cabrero the square across from the Naval Museum. Her image is an icon for Cartagena, with small-scale replicas of the sculpture sold by vendors and  even used as awards, similar to the Oscars figurine, at the annual Cartagena Film Festival. 

Her story goes that she was kidnapped by Spanish forces in 1509 when she was a little girl and educated in Spanish schools. She then accompanied conquistador Pedro de Heredia, the main colonizer of Cartagena and Colombia’s Caribbean coast, on his conquests. Catalina acted  as his personal interpreter and translator, much the same way as Pocohanras did in the USA, she helped to stop more bloodshed and violence against native communities than already was happening.

La Serrezuela 

La Serrezuela is a lesser known free activity in Cartagena, it is a historic bullfighting ring that has been turned into a high end shopping mall. While the mall is packed with boutiques, yet above you the ancient all-wood arena has been preserved and restored.  You can explore the arena by just entering the shopping mall and taking the escalators to the top floor. You’ll walk into the arena with its wooden stands and open roof with the sun streaming through. This is the perfect place to come when you need a reprieve from the heat of Cartagena. Find a spot to sit, soak up the air conditioning. You can also access free wifi and free toilets here. Grab a coffee and unwind or go for some retail therapy, don’t miss the large store on the ground floor which houses all of Colombias best brands.

Watch the sunset from the city walls

The sunsets over Cartagena are a magical experience and it is completely free to enjoy them. The most popular spot is at Cafe Del Mar, an expensive bar and restaurant that gets full by approx 4pm. Check out the menu to see if it’s in your budget and arrive by 3.30pm to secure a table. Alternatively if not do what we did and head to the local supermarket to buy snacks and drinks. You can sit right on the old city walls and enjoy the same sunset for nothing. If you want more drinks there are vendors selling cold beers walking the walls, they’ll come find you!

Watch a Colombian Wedding

If you are lucky you will get to watch a Colombian wedding, these are really beautiful! If you see a group forming outside of the churches wait there and you will see a spectacle of dancers and drummers welcoming the new bride and groom before the whole wedding party walks down the street! It was such a gorgeous and spectacular moment, if we ever get married I want it to be in Cartagena!

The statue of Saint Peter Claver and museum

This statue is very important in the history of Cartagena. The priest Saint Peter Claver was one of the first in Cartagena and came to work with the people. Instead he began helping the African slaves that had been left injured in the streets. He met and befriended a slave who  learnt Spanish and together they helped those who were suffering. You’ll find the museum behind the statue (there is a fee to enter here) and the church (free) both named after him.

Walk the streets of Manga

Cartagena is full of beautiful examples of architecture and the area of Manga is where you’ll find some very beautiful historic buildings.  developed during the early 19th century, Manga has Republican-era mansions, which sport large columned porches resembling plantation homes. Many are national historical landmarks, the best being Casa Velez Pombo, a private school, and Casa Roman. Located across the Getsemani bridge, it’s easy to walk around.

Find the sloth in Centenario Park

This was so unexpected, we stayed in Getsemami and walked through this park everyday. It is small and peaceful and you’ll find a sloth up in the trees! We stumbled on it one day while walking through, a local man showed us where it was. Rescued and released in the park years ago you will find the local men there keeping an eye on them and helping tourists to see them.

Visit the French Alliance 

A little more unusual but across from the leafy Plaza Fernando de Madrid in barrio San Diego is the Cartagena branch of the Alianza Française. This is a cultural centre

located all over the world, funded by the French government to act as ambassadors of French culture. They regularly have free events, such as  film screenings and performances. Their events calendar can be found on their Instagram site here. Sadly we were there just after and before their next events so didn’t get to participate but would definitely check it out next trip!

Fort of Las Tenazas

If you’re on a budget head to Fort of Las Tenazas which is free to visit. This is a heavily fortified section of the Old Town’s walls located at the far eastern edge of the city. Walk through to view the walls from the outside to imagine how hard it would have been trying to attack the city. From the walls you find beautiful Caribbean Sea views, take in the original cannons used to defend the city and explore a tunnel that was used to stop access from the outside.

Las Bovedas

Las Bovedas is a series of storage vaults built into the walls of the Old Town. Once used as prison cells during the Colombian civil wars of the 19th century they were also used as storage for ammunition and now house souvenir markets with some excellent pricing! Located on the east end of the walls, near the Fort of Las Tenazas, you can shop or just visit them for free. The 23 different bombproof vaults are fronted by a series of 47 porticos, all built in the late 18th century. Make sure to walk into the store even if you’re not planning to buy as in the back you’ll see the windows and slits that were once used for ventilation.

They are all worth popping into not only to check out the history but to do a little shopping! My picks were:

  • Shop 1 and 3 cheap pendants
  • Shop 15 cheapest earrings 60-68000
  • Shop 22 cheap bags 

Museo Del pro Zuni gold museum

The gold museum in the centre of Cartagena is a must visit. Completely free and very informative it also offers an escape from the heat. You’ll be shown a room to watch a video on the history of the people before moving to the upstairs display of historic Pre-Colombian pieces of art and jewellery. Take your time to read the information, presented in both Spanish and English, to understand the significance of the pieces. There’s another small room to watch a movie on this history of jewellery making in Colombia and free wifi and toilets in the building.

There is a shop selling high quality replica pieces, books and souvenirs however you do not have to enter. The museum is free, but closed Mondays.

Watch the dancers in Plaza Bolívar

Every afternoon there are dancers in this leafy and comfortable square. We came here daily to enjoy the cool breeze and people watch with a beer or ice cream. The groups are here everyday performing different dancers. It is taken very seriously and they put on a huge show with drumming, costumes and on occasion even fire. Although it is free throw a little tip in their hat when it comes around as they put in a huge effort. Loads of people come to see and leave once it’s finished so it’s not a must tip situation, but it is expected if you take photos or video.

Visit all the churches

Churches are always a must visit, they’re usually the paces where you’ll find early example of the architecture. Free to visit, the first has to be the Cathedral de Santa Catalina, which sports a pretty tower that is emblematic of the city skyline. Visit the Church of Santo Domingo, a medieval-style monastery that was built in the 1600s. After this there’s  the church now converted into the Teatro and the Jesuit church near Botteros sculpture.

Touch Botero’s Gertrudis for Luck

Fernando Botero’s statues are famous in Colombia and many are found in Medellin there is also a famous statue of a reclining nude woman, named La Gorda Gertrudis. You’ll find it in Plaza Santo Domingo in the heart of the Old Town of Cartagena. Pose for a photo touching her which is meant to bring luck.

Check out the beach

There are loads of islands around Cartagena to visit but if you want to spend time on a beach you can visit the sand beaches of Bocagrande which are a 20-minute walk from the city centre. There will be the same vendors as in the city selling everything but you don’t have to buy. Just head down for a swim with a towel and enjoy your afternoon.

Street art of Getsemani

Getsemani is the bohemian district in Cartagena , with a laid-back vibe, nice bars, hostels and street art scene. The streets of Getsemani are like an outdoor art gallery. Walk the area (early morning if you want to avoid crowds in your pictures) and enjoy the beautiful images of people, birds and history. You can take a street art tour if you want to understand it further as well.

Free walking tour of Cartagena 

While not totally free as a tip of about 55,000COP is expected at the end (or what you can. Some people give less and some more but the beauty of it is that the tour guides just accept it and don’t count out in front of you. If you can’t afford this much anthem anything to show your appreciation for their time and knowledge is acceptable.

We did a walking tour with Cartagena Free Walking Tours and it was excellent. We learnt the history of the city and saw key locations to illustrate it. Our tour guide was genuinely one of the best we’ve had. His experience, friendly nature and genuine enthusiasm for his city shines through. Ask to book a tour with Edgar and we are sure you will be happy with it. He even gave out little souvenirs as prizes for getting questions right. Hint…the most famous author in Colombia is Marquis! Insiders tip: he let us know that in Cartagena the locals often change words and use slang (much like Australians!) Make sure to give him a big ‘balle mi’ from Passport Nomads, it is the local way to say ‘mi amigo’ or ‘my friend’!

Alternatively there are great walking tours you can book, this shared walking tour and private walking tour take the guess work out of tipping as the cost is already included.

Watch the Planeque women

Please note I said ‘watch’ as if you take photos and videos of the beautiful women it will require a tip. These women are dressed up in either the Colombian or Cartagena flag colours and carry bowls of fruit on their heads. They have been doing this for years actually selling the fruit before being tipped for photo’s by tourists. Realising they could make more money by taking pictures they stopped selling fruit and started asking tourists for photos. They are incredibly elegant and usually it is the older women in the family as the younger are raising their children.

If you do decide to take a photo then we did see one woman who was insulted by a 5,000COP tip,  I would suggest more than this as a starting point. 

Getsemami at night

This district is a LOT of fun come evenings. Spending a night here is a must, head down around 6pm to watch the night come alive. In the main square at the church you will find street performers and street food carts surrounding the edges, the best are Champos Burgers for their burgers, hot dogs or chips stack or the arepas at Arepas cart. Then head down for cocktails! The street to the left of the church is full of little road side (literally) cocktail street stalls. We loved coming here every night!

Frios Pizza

Mike stumbled across Frios Pizza which sells pizza by the slice and loved it. A great place for a quick bite on the go! Loads of locals stop in here to grab a couple of slices through out the day as well, at 8,000COP for a slice and a soft drink you can’t go past it!

Best Bakery

In the old city of Cartagena you will find a great bakery that Mike just loved for a quick breakfast or snacks on the go, it is Pandequeso. You can even watch the bakers upstairs.

Best souvenirs in Cartagena

There are so many great options for souvenirs in Cartagena. From hats, bags, unique jewellery there is something for everyone. We loved the colourful fans and bags but it is also really well known for emeralds and you will find loads of shops selling them. There is also jewellery available that are remakes of the ancient Pre Colombian styles, you find the best prices at La Bovelas.

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