Immerse yourself in the rich history and vibrant energy of Cartagena, Colombia, one of South America’s treasures, situated on the Caribbean coast and known as “The Jewel of the Indies.” From the historic walled Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to a vibrant culinary scene, there are plenty of interesting things to do in Cartagena.
Filled with romance, a spectrum of colors, historical points of interest, and authentic culture, Cartagena is a delight to explore. Whether you’re interested in discovering the city through its cuisine or spending the afternoon wandering around an old Spanish fortress, this South American city seems to have it all.
The nearby Rosario islands provide an idyllic escape for those looking to bask in the sun for part of the day, soaking up the Caribbean sun on a beautiful beach.
Here are the 12 best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia.
Stroll the Old Town
One of the best places to visit in South America, Cartagena’s bustling old town is a picturesque portal to the past with pastel-colored colonial architecture, horse-drawn carriages, historical points of interest, “palenqueras” (fruit sellers), and cobblestone streets.
Stroll the narrow lanes lined with restaurants and shops and browse for gifts and souvenirs. Make sure to stop at the voluptuous “Fat Gertrude” statue in the center of Old Town where it’s believed that touching the famous monument’s chest will give you good luck.
Admire the street art in the Getsemani neighborhood, a vibrant area of the Old Town located just outside the walls. This is a great spot for photographing brightly painted murals and graffiti art.
While you’re wandering this laid-back section of the city, relax in Plaza de la Trinidad, the main square, where people-watching is a favorite activity.
After exploring, take a seat at the popular La Cevicheria restaurant and enjoy a memorable meal of fresh seafood. Cap off your time in Old Town with a visit to Plaza Bolivar.
This is where you can experience the heart and soul of Cartagena; local dancers and musicians entertain to the delight of onlookers with traditional music and performances.
Explore the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Perched atop the hill of San Lazaro, this 16th-century fortress is considered the “guardian of Cartagena” and is one of the most famous sights in the city. Visiting this historical landmark is one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena. Despite several attempts to take it over, the strong fortress has never been breached.
Whether you embark on a self-guided audio tour with headsets or venture the grounds with a guide, it’s sure to be a memorable and educational experience.
Venture into some of the famous tunnels in the complex network of the passageways that run through the grounds and were used for evacuation routes and to move provisions.
Walk through these dark passageways, notorious for their clever acoustics which allowed soldiers to hear even the slightest sound of an enemy walking.
After touring the interior, take in the views from the chunky outside walls; the entire structure is breath-taking and makes for excellent photo opportunities.
Taste Authentic Colombian Coffee
Known as one of the best places for high-quality and delicious coffee, Colombia is one of the top producers in the world. Embracing the café culture and tasting coffee while visiting Cartagena is a must.
That’s not all though; the coffee experience extends past sipping a cup, to learning about production and proper tasting methods, too. Participate in the fun “Coffee Baptism,” a guided tour and tasting led by an expert on this history and process.
If you’d like to do further tasting of some of the coffee at the local cafés, make a stop in Abaco Libros y Café, a bookshop and café in one, or the atmospheric Juan Valdez Café.
Join a Food Tour
Cartagena is known for its eclectic culinary scene and joining a food tour is the best way to experience all the flavors of this South American city while also learning about the culture. Street food is at the heart of Cartagena’s gastronomy, and tasting it is an excellent way to immerse yourself in local culture.
Visit street food carts throughout the city selling typical items such as arepas, exotic fruits like mangosteen and maracuyá (passion fruit), empanadas, and queso costeño, a salty cheese.
Try sweet South American food such as cocadas, a coconut delight, or enyucado, a cassava cheesecake that’s sure to please. Wash it all down with a glass of Tinto, the famous wine. One thing is for sure, you won’t leave any food tour in Cartagena still hungry.
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Cruise Cartagena Bay
Enjoy a different vantage point of Cartagena while on a boat cruise through the bay. Picturesque scenery awaits as you glide through the Caribbean, viewing the beautiful city from the water.
Snap photos, bask in the sun, and enjoy a narrated tour with facts and stories surrounding Spanish colonial history within the walled city.
You’ll spot the famous Castillo de San Felipe Baraja, a fortress built for protection against pirates and warships, as well as the Manzanillo Fort, a structure that served as a guard and staging ground for supplies to the Inner Bay.
Cruise by the city’s beaches along the Bocagrande peninsula and the contrasting architecture of old and new buildings that make up the Cartagena skyline.
Relax on a Private Island
Indulge in a quick escape from the city with a day trip to the nearby Rosario Islands, a Caribbean paradise made up of 27 small islets just off the shores of Cartagena.
The scenic ride to these islands is the perfect time to relax and observe the beautiful surroundings before reaching the protected waters where swimming, boating, snorkeling, and lounging are the order of the day.
Dip into the crystal clear waters and swim beneath the surface with your mask and fins, where you’ll have the chance to view rich marine life and colorful corals.
More than 1,000 species of aquatic plants and animals inhabit these pristine waters. Keep an eye out for angelfish, trumpetfish, pufferfish, and even sea turtles, gracefully drifting through the sea.
Shop in Las Bóvedas Artisan Center
Translated to “The Vaults,” Las Bovedas was a former 18th-century munition storage facility, before being used as a dungeon. Eventually, it was transformed into an artisan market. The market is a historical and architectural point of interest in the Old City, built right into the wall.
Venture through the arched entrances to browse the artisan stalls where you can shop for trinkets, crafts, regional items such as coffee and chocolate, and souvenirs.
If you’re in search of local art pieces, keep an eye out for Tienda Escuelas Taller, a shop where you can choose from wall art and sculptures.
Additionally, Caña Flecha products are another fantastic option for purchasing local Colombian items; the colorful patterns of these artisan products are made from palm fronds and dyed with natural coloring to create purses, hats, and jewelry.
Visit the National Aviary
Colombia’s National Aviary is located approximately half an hour south of Cartagena and provides a glimpse of the country’s diverse wildlife. This sprawling facility is host to a wide array of exotic birds, from flamingos to macaws, with a total of 138 different species.
The grounds serve as a sanctuary for the many varieties of birds, who are free to leave as they like. Marvel at the vibrant parrots, take photos of magnificent peacocks, and greet the iguanas. Touring the aviary is a treat for anyone interested in wildlife, native flora and fauna, and nature.
Tour the Zenú Gold Museum
Located by Plaza Bolivar, the Zenu Gold Museum is a historical portal to the ancient Zenu culture of this region. This small museum features a collection of gold and silver jewelry, pottery, and artifacts from the Zenu community who lived in the Cartagena region before the Spanish conquest, more than two thousand years ago.
Admire the craftsmanship and intricate detail of the many pieces on display, relics from ancient times, carefully labeled with details about the time period and styles as they evolved over the years.
Sip a Cocktail at Café del Mar
Order a refreshing cocktail at one of Cartagena’s most popular restaurants, perched in an elevated waterfront location along the walls of the Old City, overlooking the city and the sea. With live music, sweeping views, and delicious drinks, this is a great place to dine and take in the view.
The vantage point from Café del Mar is thanks to its location on Baluarte Santo Domingo, the western edge of the city’s 17th-century fortifications, where 360-degree views await. Try the caipiroska (vodka and fresh lime over crushed ice) or the sangria, and enjoy the surrounding scenery.
Tour the Palace of the Inquisition
Learn about Cartagena’s dark period of history during the Spanish Inquisition with a visit to the Palace of the Inquisition.
Housed in a significant colonial architectural structure built in the 18th century with baroque details and wooden balconies, this museum features gory exhibits that detail punishment for suspected crimes against the Catholic Church during that era, among them witchcraft and magic.
Tour through the prison grounds, viewing the areas where victims waited for their judgments, torture devices such as “the rack” that were used to force confessions, and the courtyard where public executions were held until the court was closed in 1821. Here, you can see a model guillotine as well as colonial-era cannons on display.
The Palace of the Inquisition is in the downstairs portion of the structure, with the Cartagena Historical Museum residing upstairs with exhibits detailing the history of the city. It’s possible to extend your visit by touring both.
Admire the Architecture of the Sanctuary of San Pedro Claver
Step back in time with a visit to one of the most striking pieces of Spanish colonial architecture in Cartagena, built by the Jesuits.
Home to the largest collection of religious art on the Colombian coast, this 16th-century building pays homage to Saint Pedro Claver, who dedicated his life to the advocation and protection of African slaves. He was deemed the Patron Saint of Human Rights for his life’s work.
Situated within the walls of the Old City, the building was initially constructed as a school and a church. Now, while the church is still in use, the other half of the building is a museum with religious, African Caribbean, and pre-Columbian art pieces.
The spacious courtyard is filled with beautiful trees and paintings and is a shared space between the working church and museum.
Inside the church, it’s possible to pay homage to the remains of Saint Pedro Claver, encased in glass at the base of the altar, which is carved from Italian marble. Climbing the stairs to the third floor will allow you to step onto the balcony and observe the church from various perspectives, too.
Embrace the energy, history, and culture of Cartagena, a historic gem of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Tour the Old City, lounge beachside, explore museums, or graze your way through local cuisine. Whatever you choose to do, it’s sure to be a memorable trip.
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