Headed to Cartagena and wondering what you can’t miss? Here is my go-to Jetset travel guide to a perfect vacation full of dancing, drinking, and eating your way through this coastal Colombian gem.
¿What to do in Cartagena?
1. Explore Old Town
You can’t leave Cartagena without exploring the beautiful stone-walled Old City. Strategically located on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena was historically one of Colonial Spain’s most important ports. Stone fortresses and gigantic walls up to 30 meters thick and 11KM long line the city, which was so well protected after many pirates (most notably Sir Francis Drake) in the 16th Century attempted (and often succeeded) in sieges of the wealthy port city’s riches. Strolling the historic Old City is like stepping back in time and losing yourself in the romantic historic plazas and vibrant, colorful cobblestone streets.
2. Watch the sunset at Cafe del Mar
This touristy-but-amazing outdoor lounge and bar is perched up on Cartagena’s stone walls and offers an unbeatable sunset view that can’t be missed on any trip to Cartagena.
3. Take a day trip to Isla Barú
There are many islands accessible by boat from Cartagena, and a beach day to the islands is a popular day trip for locals and tourists alike. But I’ll let you in on a little secret that most people don’t realize — my favorite island off of Cartagena, Isla Barú, is even accessible by an easy 40-minute cab ride over a bridge! Sometimes, when you don’t want to worry about boat schedules and the like, an easy (and cheap!) cab ride out to the island is just what you want. Negotiate a rate with the cab driver ahead of time, and tell him you’d like him to wait there at Playa Blanca until you are all ready to go home (it should be around $50 for the entire day – which divided if you’re going with friends is not bad at all!)
Then, once you’re dropped at Playa Blanca, hop on a motorbike to take you to the end of the road where the beach is. There will be lots of locals offering to take you down to the end- it’s definitely worth the $1 ride versus a long walk! When you get to Playa blanca, get onto the beach and turn right and keep walking, as far as you can, to where there are much less people and a beauuutiful stretch of beach. My favorite place to post for the day is this beautiful colorful beach bar called The Wizard. If you’re early enough, you and your friends can reserve one of their hammock beach lounge areas, or just a few chairs where you can order frozen beach drinks and yummy bites all day long.
Isla Baru is anything but fancy… It’s less of a luxury island and more of a local, divey beach day getaway, but the water is gooorgeous, the beach bars are colorful and fun, and the vibe is bustling. It’s an awesome spot to explore for the day and get some sun.
Where to eat in Cartagena
hope you all like seafood, because Cartagena is ceviche central – and it is SO good.
La Cevicheria – this always busy seafood haven is located on an adorable cobblestone street and rose to fame thanks to Anthony Bourdain. Everyone will tell you to go there but what they won’t tell you is there’s a just-as-good-if-not-better cevicheria down the block called El Boliche. Head to either one and all your Caribbean ceviche dreams will come true.
Pizza en el Parque – if a casual pizza overlooking one of Cartagena’s parks is what you’re feeling, Pizza en el Parque serves up some delicious pies on a gorgeous balcony. It’s cute, casual, and delicious.
Juan Del Mar – This spacious restaurant & bar in the heart of old town is like a rite of Cartagena passage. The menu is full of Colombian delicassies, as well as some international and Italian favorites. Book a table on the upper terrace if you want to soak up the best view of the square (this is where Colombia’s president eats when he’s in town!) The restaurant is busy year round and features a live band 7 nights a week.
Pata Negra – for delicious tapas, yummy cocktails and a great ambiance, Pata Negra is your spot. Go with a group and order just about anything on the menu – they’re shared plates and you can’t go wrong – it’s all so, so good.
RPG Pizzeria Boutique – this adorable local pizzeria was my favorite meal in Cartagena! The location is right off of a main square, allowing for a quiet tucked away dinner. The menu features to-die-for thin crust pizzas, sandwiches, salads and more. Ask them if you can sit outside and they’ll set you up with an awesome people-watching spot on the cutest cobblestone street.
Know before you go
What to know before traveling to Cartagena:
Is it safe to travel to Colombia?
Yes, yes, and yes! Please don’t let fear of Colombia’s rocky past stop you from exploring this WONDERFUL country! Yes, Colombia was entrenched in a civil war up until the 1980’s, and I know that this is a main concern for many people who are wondering just how safe the country is today. But I want to say that I didn’t feel unsafe for a second in Cartagena. Of course, like anywhere, it’s important to stay aware and be smart about your surroundings, but I think that if you do so, you won’t feel unsafe, even if you’re traveling by yourself.
There is still a US government issued warning against travel to Colombia, which reads:
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali.
However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas. Despite significant decreases in overall crime in Colombia, continued vigilance is warranted due to an increase in recent months of violent crime, including crime resulting in the deaths of American citizens.
My travel philosophy has always been that dangerous crimes can happen anywhere. They happen every day in my home city of San Francisco, and crimes are commonplace in many of my favorite travel destinations. It’s not uncommon to hear news stories or read travel cautionary tales and feel extremely nervous about traveling to a certain place, but I am a big believer in not letting that fear of danger get in the way of seeing the world. While everyone’s travel experiences are different (and one negative experience or secondhand negative experience can forever skew your feelings toward a certain place), I think it is vitally important to see the world with an open mind, while staying optimistically cautious and aware, of course.
Do I need to know Spanish to travel in Colombia?
I’m not going to lie, it helps a TON to know at least a little Spanish when you’re traveling around Colombia. The thing is, tourism is relatively new to this country, so it’s not like everyone is used to all of the tourism and English speakers. But isn’t that what’s so cool about a Colombian vacation?! Cartagena, of all the destinations in Colombia, is by far the most developed for tourism and much easier to get around as a gringo (even if you don’t speak Spanish) than other destinations in the country. And, don’t worry, by the time you leave Colombia all of your high school Spanish will be flowing out of you like loco. Olé!
What season is best to travel to Cartagena?
Cartagena is wonderfully hot year-round. With May being the warmest month (average temperature around 85°F), and January being the “coolest” (averages around 80°F). The dryest months are December through April and the highest rainfall occurs in October. The high season for tourists is during Christmas and New Years (note that prices for accommodation and just about everything hikes about 3x around this time and it can be very difficult to find vacancies in hotels- after all, the whole country wants to flee to the beautiful coast for their vacation!).
Will I need a visa to travel to Colombia?
Nope! A Colombia tourist visa is not required for citizens of United States of America for a stay up to 90 days.