Cartagena, also known as Cartagena de Indias, is Colombia's fascinating Caribbean resort city and one of the country's most popular tourist destinations. History and nightlife, beaches and churches, and a colorful walled city and colonial architecture make Cartegena a living museum, perfect for honeymoons, family vacations, and adult adventures.
No matter your reason for visiting, you'll find plenty of things to do in Cartegena—from exploring the historic buildings of Centro Amurallado to touring the archeological and gold museum, the Museo de Oro y Arqueología, on Plaza Bolivar, there's no shortage of great attractions to discover during your stay.
Explore Centro Amurallado (Old Town)
Old Town is the heart of Cartagena. For centuries, the fortress there protected the walled city from pirates, storms, and other threats. Within the walls of this historic district, there are colonial buildings, churches, and plazas. One of the most popular squares is Plaza Bolivar, known as the heart of Old Town where you can lounge on one of the benches and watch dancers, performers, and live bands playing traditional Colombian music.
Accommodations and restaurants within this area, called El Centro, highlight the neighborhood's colonial origins. Also within the walled area is the section of Getsemani which is less expensive but worth a daytime stroll.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the huge fortress dominating the town. It was built by the Spanish during the colonial era in 1536 and originally called the Castillo de San Lázaro. In 1657 and again in 1763, the fortress was expanded to look how it does today. Visitors now can walk the battlements, stroll through underground passages, and marvel at the labor that went into building a fort that was never used defensively.
The Rosario Islands are an archipelago nestled in a national park just one hour south of the Bay of Cartagena. Here, you'll find clear waters and great diving spots. Some of the islands (such as Isla Grande) have mangrove tunnels you can kayak through, and others feature postcard Caribbean beaches with sugar-soft sand, turquoise waves, and a few palm trees.
Visit Bocagrande and El Laguito
Bocagrande and El Laguito are two areas located on an L-shaped peninsula facing the Caribbean near Cartagena. While the beaches are pretty bare, this region has become the site of fashionable hotels, restaurants, and shopping destinations for city-dwellers in Columbia. There are also fantastic clubs to dance all night, so expect a young, vibrant crowd no matter what time of year you visit.
Alternately called a convent and a monastery, this colonial complex is a great place to visit for a look at colonial religious life as well as superb views of the city, the Caribbean, and nearby islands from the highest point in the city.
The Convento de la Popa is a beautiful spot with flowered patios to catch the sunset over the gorgeous city skyline. It was once an additional fortress for the city and is now home to a museum and the chapel of the Virgen de la Candelaria, which is Cartagena's patron saint.
Playa Blanca is arguably the most famous beach in Cartagena and is home to bright blue water and golden sands. You'll find locals and tourists lounging in hammocks or cabanas, grabbing a snack and drink, and relaxing in the sunshine. The beach is located on Isla Baru (one of Colombia's Rosario Islands) and is an easy 45-minute shuttle or speedboat ride from the city.
Shop and enjoy art in what were once jail cells or storerooms for the fortresses. Built in the late 1700s, the 23 dungeons of Las Bovedas were built by the military during colonial times and then later used by the Spanish for storage. They eventually were turned into a jail before becoming souvenir shops.
There are plenty of choices in Bocagrande (at the center of town), El Centro, and Getsemani for tabernas, discos, and bars. All the nightlife spots are vibrant, with a lot of Caribbean and Colombian music. Just be cautious in Getsamani, where the party can get rowdy.
Check out Santa Marta
The oldest Hispanic town in Colombia, Santa Marta is a port that is used as the base camp for the hike to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) and a stopping point before moving onto Tayrona Beach. It is located on the Caribbean Coast among the Sierra Nevada, about four and a half hours north of Cartagena by car, making it the perfect day trip from the city.
Tayrona National Park is home to wild jungles, rugged coastlines, and exotic wildlife. Visitors are welcome to hike the many nature trails through the forest and along the coast, and after a thrilling hike to the Lost City, travelers can unwind on one of the beaches in the area.
With white sandy beaches alongside the jungle, there's an opportunity to camp in beautiful surroundings here as well. Cabo San Juan is the most popular strip of sand thanks to the calm, swimmable water and the two white-sand beaches that are surrounded with tranquil hammocks. Bring a tent and set up shop right by the ocean.
Tour the Museo de Oro y Arqueología
This Museo de Oro y Arqueología is an archeological and gold museum is located on Plaza Bolivar. Although much of the pre-Columbia gold collection is in Bogota, there is a healthy collection of gold artifacts and pottery from the Sinú culture.
Explore a Darker Past at Palacio de la Inquisicíon
If you're keen for more history and culture, head to the nearby Palacio de la Inquisicíon featuring colonial architecture. With a beautiful facade, the museum shows the darker side of history with displays of the instruments of torture from the Spanish Inquisition as well as pre-Columbian, colonial, and independence-era art.
Take a Dip in a Mud Volcano
To enjoy a truly unique cultural experience in Cartagena, head to El Totumo, a small volcano just outside the city filled with thick, bubbling mud. Locals and visitors alike come to this volcano basin to take a dip in the warm mud bath to relax their muscles and purify their skin. After relaxing in the mud, guests are scrubbed down by local workers in a nearby lake.
Discover Street Art in Getsamani
With a slew of newer hotels and restaurants, the lesser-known neighborhood of Getsemani is becoming a popular spot for locals and visitors alike to soak up the culture of Cartegena.
While the neighborhood still has a number of crumbling buildings and reports of petty crimes, it is also home to a thriving and vibrant graffiti art scene. Visitors can book a guided tour with Cartagena Connections or Streetart Cartagena to learn about the murals, artists, and historical movements these works of art represent.
Visit La Boquilla
Located just outside Cartagena, the small fishing village of La Boquilla is made up of smaller huts and local restaurants, a stark contrast to the larger historic buildings of the city next door. Stop by El Paraíso on the beach for some of the freshest seafood in the region and be sure to chat with the locals about where else to eat in the area—these hyper-local restaurants are often hidden among the beachfront shacks and poorer back streets of the town.