Cartagena is … dreamy.
It’s one of those few places where just about anyone can find something to love. Whether you’re a foodie, history buff (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site), partier, avid shopper or sun worshipper, this city covers all the bases.
Bugsy and I had been talking about traveling to Colombia for years, but like most Americans, we had some reservations. No one can deny that the country has suffered from some tumultuous times – civil war, drugs, violence – but Cartagena seems to have somehow gotten through it gloriously and unscathed.
Earlier this summer, when we started bouncing around destinations to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, we wanted to go somewhere that would work on a limited budget (after last year’s unbridled wedding spending) and could be enjoyed in a relatively short period of time, but would still be culturally significant, while relaxing (fingers-crossed beachy?) and romantic (I know, we had some lofty goals). Cartagena came to mind. A few friends and family had recently traveled there and loved it, the USD dollar to Colombia peso exchange rate is amazing and JetBlue offers a direct flight from JFK (score). Less than 5 hours from NYC, we had to take a chance and we were so happy we did.
Here is MY guide to Cartagena, Colombia
Two Neighborhoods to know:
- Old City: The historic center located within the walls, where the majority of boutique hotels, high-end restaurants, shops and sites are located.
- Getsemaní: Just outside the historic center, this neighborhood, which was once a dangerous place, is undergoing a renaissance and quickly becoming the “hip” place to be.
stay + relax:
There are endless options for places to stay throughout the city, ranging from budget hostels to high-end mega hotels, but there’s nothing like staying in the Old City at one of the many boutique hotels, which are all housed in the most gorgeously renovated and refurbished colonial mansions. With grand entryways, garden oases and rooftop pools, these hotels really are magical and the service is impeccable.
- Charleston Santa Teresa Cartagena: Known to be the nicest hotel in the Old City, stay here if you’re ready to splurge. Centro Plaza de Santa Teresa Cra 3a 31-23.
- Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara: This hotel is famous for all the right reasons – absolutely gorgeous interiors, amazing cocktails and a courtyard to die for. Even if you don’t stay, stop in for a drink. Cr 8 No 39-29, Calle del Tomo.
- Hotel Ananda Boutique Hotel: We stayed at this beautiful boutique hotel and could not have been happier. With a huge duplex apartment to call our own, super warm and helpful staff and the sexiest rooftop, this hotel offers incredible value for the price. Calle del Cuartel, No. 36 77.
eat + drink:
- Club De Pesca: Located in Manga inside an old fort with the most incredible views of the bay and marinas, come here for the most delicious seafood fare.
- La Vitrola: Considered the best and most exclusive restaurant in the Old City, the Cuban fusion flare is amazing and so is the environment. With a live salsa band playing while you eat and copious amounts of people watching, what’s not to like. Have your hotel make the reservation. Calle Baloco.
- Carmen: Located inside the Hotel Ananda Boutique with both an outdoor garden or inside seating option, this place is a true culinary delight. Considered one of the best new restaurants, it’s a must try for upscale Latin fare.
- Restaurante Don Juan: Located in the Old City with the loveliest modern décor, this upscale establishment offers some of the best food in the city. Open only for dinner. 34-60 Local 1, Cra 6.
- Demente: Cute tapas and beer joint in the Getsamani, it’s a great spot for casual bites and people watching before heading out for the night. Plaza de la Trinidad, No. 10-19.
see + do:
- Walk the Walls: Near sunset, climb the wall and walk around the entire perimeter for amazing views of both inside and outside of the walls. And, don’t forget to stop for a drink or paleta ice pop) and perch to take it all in.
- Castillo San Felipe de Barajas: A must see fortress built by the Spanish in the mid 1600’s for protection against pirates. You can walk both the outside and inner tunnels and stop at the very top for a snack or paleta to cool off. Located outside of the walls and in a not-so fab area, take a cab to and from.
- Convento La Popa de Galeria: About a 20 minute drive from the Old City and up a winding (and treacherous road), negotiate a cabbie (about $30) to take you all the way to the top and wait. There isn’t very much to see once there, but the view is spectacular and can’t be seen anywhere else.
- Las Bovedas: Originally built as dungeons, shops are now housed within these beautiful burnt orange arches.
- Churches: Like any post-colonial Catholic city, the churches are always fun to see. Check out the Cathedral de San Pedro Claver or St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral.
- Museums: For museum junkies, you’ll likely be left disappointed. The city’s museums are not particularly interesting or well-kept. But, the Museo de la Inquisicion and Museo de Oro are popular options.
The Old City has innumerable shops – from souvenirs, to the famed mochila bags, to high-end designer shops. There are tons of stores and boutiques that all have their own personality.
- Ketty Tinoco: Upscale boutque that sells classic guayaberas, linen slacks and lacy dresses. Calle Baloco, Edificio Piñeres Local 1
- Casa Chiqui: An interior decorator’s dream. If you love textiles, rugs, ceramics and jewelry as much as I do, then you’ll absolutely love this place. Calle de Universidad 36-127.
- St. Dom: A shop that showcases Colombian high-end brands. Calle Santo Domingo 33-70.
- Street Vendors: Don’t forget to look down while strolling through the streets for great finds. From sandals to panama hats to jewelry, items are being sold everywhere. But, don’t forget to haggle, never pay the asking price.
sun + Sand:
The city has beaches and there are huge beach resorts in the Bocagrande area, but settling for these shores would be a mistake. Instead, you’ll have to travel a bit to get to the best beaches, but don’t be alarmed or deterred because the travel is easy, fun and totally worth it.
- Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario): The Rosario Islands National Park is an archipelago about an hour’s boat ride offshore. Most hotels will arrange day trips for a set fee (approx. $45/person) that includes direct transport from your hotel to the pier at Muelle Turistico to catch a boat to a private island (there are many), lunch while on the island and boat transport back to the city around 4:00PM. While in Cartagena, we took two day trips to different locations, Isla del Encanto (which was the better of the two) and Isla del Sol.
- Isla Barú: Head to Playa Blanca, the most gorgeous stretch of white sand. Unlike the Rosario Islands options, this beach is public (so expect crowds) and can be reached by a 45 minute boat ride (approx. $35/person) or car ride (to be negotiated with your taxi driver). At the entrance to the docks at Muelle Turistico, be ready for various tour company agents competing for passengers. The boat returns at about 4:00PM.
Isla del Sol, Islas del Rosario
snacks + Treats:
- La Paletteria: There may be lines, but a glass case contains dozens of paletas (ice pops) in endless flavors. Calle Santo Domingo, No. 3-88.
- Swikar: Sells colorful hard candies. Onlookers can watch the caramelo makers shape sugar syrup into delightful little strawberries, watermelon wedges and orange slices. Calle Santo Domingo, No. 3-30.
- Gelateria Paradiso: Think gelato with tropical flare like passion fruit or coconut. Calle de la Estrella and Calle el Cuartel.
- Pan de Queso: Bakeries that sell the most delightful sweet cheese filled bread, among other pastries.
- Abaco Libreria & Café: A truly unique place that falls into a category of it’s own, Abaco serves coffee and cocktails in a bookstore setting, which also hosts poetry readings. Esquina Calles de la Iglesia and Calle de la Mantilla 3-86.
Drink + Dance:
- Café Havana: Cuban Salsa club with a live band that stays open well past 4:00AM. Calle de la Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero.
- Mister Babilla: Located in Getsemani, if you’re looking to dance on tables and bars, this is your place. They play a range of music from Latin to Top 40’s and goes way into the night. Avenida de Arsenal.
- Babar: If you’re looking for an American styled club, a Miami-esque experience, check this place out which plays a mix of Latin and House.
- Any Plaza: All the plazas in the Old City (Plaza Santo Domingo) and Getsemani (Plaza de la Trinidad) are surrounded by restaurants and bars with music that pours into the streets. And, there’s no prohibition against drinking in the streets, so you can find or start your own party on almost any street corner or cubby hole.
- Chiva Bus: An actual rolling party, buses can be arranged by your hotel and will take you to a number of fun spots to load up on more booze.
This city was and is palatably romantic – whether it’s due to the hum of salsa in the air, brightly colored balconies, flowered trellises or glowing fortress walls – I can’t wait to go back. Happy Travels.
LOVE – MY.
P.S. Don’t miss my Cartagena Outfit Diary series to see what I wore while in this gorgeous city.