The fairytale like city of Cartagena sits on Colombia's Caribbean coast. It is a walled city, protected by a stone barrier built centuries ago when it was colonised by the Spanish. It is a place steeped in history and it is also Colombia's most colourful city.
Each building is painted a different vibrant hue from the one previous. Looking down the kaleidoscope of streets in Cartagena, is like looking into the eye of a rainbow. Purples and blues, pinks and greens, an array of colours for as far as the eye can see. Walking into the walled part of the city is like walking into a different world altogether. Lanterns line the streets as green ivy grows vertically up the side of dainty houses. Horse drawn carriages wait at the side of narrow roads.
It feels romantic and whimsical, and utterly charming.
If you are on a budget, then Cartagena probably isn't the city to be spending a lot of time in. Filled with fancy restaurants and quirky bars, you could easily spend weeks here attempting to eat and drink in all these enticing establishments but you would have built up a fair bill by the end of it!
Instead, here is a guide on how to see the best of Cartagena in 24 hours; where to sleep, what to eat, where to grab a sunset drink, what to do and where to find the best coffee in the whole city! This guide will show you how you can experience all the highlights of this pretty little city in a short period of time!
the best things to do in cartagena
TAKE A CITY WALKING TOUR
We know, it's 35 degrees outside, the city is walled which means there is almost no breeze and all you want to do is lie by a pool and try not to combust. We get it. We're Scottish and not designed for the heat either, but the walled city of Cartagena has such a fascinating history that you simply need to go out into the sun and learn all about it. Wander through the picturesque streets with a local who will tell you things you would never find in a guide book, and you will gain not only a greater understanding of Cartagena but of Colombia as a whole. We done a tour with Free Tour Cartagena, we would recommend taking the morning tour when its still relatively cool (by Cartagena standards). Our guide was fun and very informative, he let us try traditional Colombian sweets and even involved members of the public to add humour to the tour!
EXPLORE THE COLOURFUL STREETS GETSEMANI
After the tour, then its time to head to Getsemani. Getsemani is the boisterous and animated neighbour of Cartagena's old town. Its loud, colourful and uninhibited. Often referred to as Cartagena's "up and coming" area, it is full of friendly locals, street vendors and funky graffiti. Historically, this area was populated by freed slaves and even until 5 years ago, it wasn't a recommended destination for tourists. However, fast forward 5 years and its suddenly become somewhat bohemian, a cool little quarter of the city to have a drink in and absorb the infectious atmosphere.
STAY IN A BOUTIQUE HOTEL
Cartagena is brimming with boutique hotels that have managed to hold onto their colonial charm. With stunning original features, ornate patios and wrought-iron balconies, staying in one of these hotels really does make it feel like your living in a fairytale. We opted to stay in Hotel Boutique Casa Heredia, a stunning little hotel in the heart of the city. It was the perfect base for getting out and about to explore Cartagena.
VISIT CASTILLO DE SAN FELIPE DE BARAJAS
This fortress is often said to be the greatest fortress ever built by the Spanish, a complex labyrinth of tunnels intelligently designed. Today you can wander through some of these tunnels and revel at the formidable fortress which protected Cartagena for hundreds of years. A tour here is optional and costs 10,000 COP.
ENJOY A COFFEE AT EPOCA
Colombia produces some of the best coffee in the world, and nowhere can you enjoy it more than in this bustling little cafe with a staggering coffee menu. There are different types of beans and method used here, and you can even do a coffee tasting. Or, just relax and enjoy your coffee along with something delicious from their brunch menu. We actually heard about this place from a couple we met in Providencia who delightfully told us it was the best coffee they'd had in Colombia, and maybe even in the world!
TAKE IN A SUNSET AT CAFE DEL MAR
A renowned sunset spot in Cartagena, offering the best views of the horizon's colourful display at dusk. The music is good, the drinks are cold and the sunset is incredible. You should go early to get a good seat by the wall, however drinks here are a little pricier. If you are on a tight budget then you can simply sit on the wall near Cafe Del Mar and enjoy the views for free!
ENJOY DELICIOUS SEAFOOD
For dinner, then seafood is must! You can't visit the Caribbean coast and not take advantage of the incredible seafood on offer. Cartagena is brimming with great restautants but if seafood is what you are after then both Peru Fusion and La Cevicheria will satisfy your cravings. Peru Fusion specialises in Peruvian ceviche blended with Japanese sushi, which I know might sound a little strange but the dishes are simply delectable! La Cevicheria is a little more laid back and their ceviche menu has more option than you thought possible! Both great options.
DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY IN CAFE HAVANA
This lively Cuban bar is located in Getsemani, and is the perfect place to enjoy some live music and perhaps a little bit of salsa dancing. There is a door fee to get in, and the place is brimming with both locals and tourists alike. It's the closest you will get to a Cuban fiesta outside of Cuba itself.
And that's it! All the highlights from our trip to Cartagena, easily doable within 24 hours. Of course, if you have more time here then there are other things to see and do here. Playa Blanca is a beach 45 minutes away from the city by boat, and often people visit for the day. It is said to be one of Colombia's most beautiful beaches but we passed on it as we heard it had become very touristy (I'm imagining a Colombian Maya Bay). The streets of Cartagena themselves are so pretty, that its nice to simply meander along them with no itinerary and no where in particular to be.