Founded in 227 B.C. by the Carthaginian Hasdrubal the Fair, Cartagena, a vibrant port city on Spain’s southeast Mediterranean coast, has a long history with a plethora of monuments documenting the passing of many civilizations.
Being a rather small city, it’s easy to walk from one site to the other, starting with the remains of the Punic Walls, continuing on to the second largest Roman Theatre of the Iberian Peninsula, enjoying the splendor of Art Deco buildings, and finishing the day with a panoramic view of the city and port on board a harbor cruise. Additionally, lovers of all things maritime will be delighted by the Naval Museum and a model of the world’s first submarine, invented by Cartagena-born Isaac Peral and launched in 1888.
Tour the Roman Theatre
Cartagena presumes of the second largest Roman Theatre on the Iberian Peninsula. Dating back to the first century, it was opened in honor of the visit of Gaius Cesar, grandson of Emperor Augustus.
The theatre could accommodate more than 6,000 people. It’s accessed via a pink building a which also houses the Roman Theatre Museum. Over three floors, the museum has a huge collection of Roman statues and artifacts, then leading via a glass bridge into the theatre itself. Behind it and visible from the theatre’s top tier are the Cathedral of Cartagena and remains of a Byzantine Wall.
Understand Ancient History at the Punic Wall
Cartagena has made a great effort to explain the sometimes complicated history to visitors. The Punic Wall Interpretation Center protects the remains of Cartagena’s oldest part, the Punic Wall, under glass walkways, whilst a video explains the founding of Cartagena. It’s of particular historical value because there are very few Punic remains Spain. During excavations, the 16th century Hermitage of San Jose was discovered. What remains is the crypt of the monks, with bones and skulls resting in several stories of burial niches and a quite macabre depiction of the Dance of Death.
Marvel at Casa de la Fortuna
Cartagena lived through its heyday when it was part of the Roman Empire. The wealth of the citizens derived from trade and abundant silver mines in the surrounding countryside.
The Casa de la Fortuna is a well preserved Roman villa dating from the first century. Marvel at the floor mosaics and the colorful wall paintings, among them a swan which is the most famous image of the villa.
Furniture, tools, and mannequins dressed in the clothes of the times evoke a vivid image of how a rich Roman merchant lived. Only discovered in 2000, the villa originally extended to 2,200 square feet. At the rear of the house you can see part of a Roman road with huge stone slabs and remains of their advanced canalization.
Climb the Concepcion Hill
Dominating Cartagena’s skyline is the 13th century Castle of Concepcion on top of the hill of the same name. Before King Alfonso X of Castille conquered Cartagena from the Arabs in 1245, it was the site of a Roman temple and an Arab Alcazar.
Access is from sea level at the King Charles III rampart via a winding path through a landscaped park full of flowers, ponds, statues and peacocks. The castle often features exhibitions, most recently of splendid Renaissance costumes. Make your way down via a footbridge to the outside elevator, illuminated at night.
Discover Art Deco Along Calle Mayor
Calle Mayor is the main pedestrian shopping street of Cartagena and the site of many outstanding Art Deco buildings. At the beginning of the 20th century, the growing mining industry brought wealth to the city and with it richly decorated townhouses and public buildings.
Prime examples are the triangular Town Hall and the casino. Casinos in Spain are not for gambling, but rather they are the seat of a cultural society.
Pass by the former Grand Hotel, now a bank, and the pink and white Casa Aguirre which also houses the Museum of Regional Modern Art. Finally, take a break at Cartagena’s most traditional bar, La Tartana.
Ride the Waves on a Harbor Cruise
The natural, sheltered port of Cartagena is the main reason why so many civilizations fought over it. Enjoy the best view of the city from the sea with an entertaining harbor cruise. It leads past the cruise ship dock and commercial port into the open sea past two castles that guard the entrance to the port.
There are two options: a catamaran and or a closed boat with a sundeck. Both depart from the quay crossing Paseo Alfonso XII and down the steps. The tour in the boat lasts approximately an hour, while the catamaran trip is three hours and includes a stop at the recently refurbished castle Fuerte de la Navidad.
Learn about Cartagena’s Naval History
It’s not surprising that a city so closely connected to the sea has several venues dedicated to maritime history.
The Naval Museum, located in a fine 18th century building on the waterfront features a vast collection of tall ship models, naval uniforms, medals and the Peral submarine, which was built in the late 19th century by Spanish sailor Isaac Peral for the country's Navy.
Shiver at the Spanish Civil War Museum
The Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 through 1939, brought suffering and destruction to Cartagena too. Coming down in the lift from Concepcion Hill, turn left and enter the Spanish Civil War Museum, a former shelter for the citizens and a dramatic testimony to the hardship of this dark time in Spanish history.
Become a Moor or a Roman
Visitors in September are in for a treat as they're given the chance to relive history up close and personal. The biggest festival, called Moors and Christians, takes over the city for two weeks with re-enactments of the battles and thousands of "soldiers" and "civilians" in historical costumes taking part in plays and parades. Everybody wears a piece of fancy dress and clinks glasses in the Feria precinct (the football stadium) in one of the many tents.
Explore Underwater Archaeology at ARQUA
Further along the waterfront stands the modern building of ARQUA, which is the national center for maritime archaeology. A museum as well as a research facility for scientists, ARQUA’s most outstanding exhibit is a treasure of 14.5 tons of gold and silver coins recovered from the fregatte Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes that sunk in the early 19th century.