Exploring the colourful seaside city of Cartagena, Colombia

Updated June 2023

Looking for a hidden gem to explore on your next vacation? Look no further than Cartagena! Nestled on the picturesque Caribbean coast of Colombia, this vibrant city offers a perfect blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. And yes, Cartagena is a good place to visit. In fact, it’s a great place!

With its charming cobblestone streets, colourful colonial architecture, and bustling local markets, Cartagena will transport you back in time. But this city is more than just a living museum; it also boasts stunning beaches, crystal-clear waters, and a vibrant nightlife scene. And yes, Colombia is safe for travel, even solo travel.

Colourful Cartagena
Colourful buildings and fun doorways are everywhere you look in Cartagena. And yes, I have a thing for doing handstands when I’m on vacation ;)

Is Cartagena a good place to visit? Yes, let us show you why!

Whether you’re a history buff, a beach lover, or a party animal, Cartagena has something for everyone. From exploring the ancient walls of the Old Town to sipping cocktails on the rooftop bars, you’ll never run out of things to do and see in this captivating city.

Cartagena isn’t a place that ends up on many people’s radar, but there are many reasons to visit Cartagena. Instead of simply telling you why you should go, I’m going to show you why you need to visit Cartagena.

The delicious cuisine of Cartagena

No visit to Cartagena is complete without indulging in the city’s mouthwatering cuisine. The local food scene is a melting pot of flavors, influenced by African, Spanish, and indigenous traditions. If you’re a foodie, Cartagena is a great place to visit.

Start your culinary journey with a traditional Colombian breakfast of arepas, a type of cornbread served with cheese, eggs, and avocado. For lunch, try the iconic dish of Cartagena, the cazuela de mariscos, a hearty seafood stew bursting with flavours.

Fresh ceviche makes Cartagena a good place for foodies to visit
If you love seafood, this is the place for you. My favourite dish to enjoy in Cartagena is the ceviche. It often comes in a coconut milk broth and tastes fresh and delicious.

In the evening, head to the Mercado de Bazurto, a bustling market where you can sample a variety of street food delicacies. From fried empanadas filled with meat or cheese to fresh ceviche made with locally caught fish, you’ll find a feast for your taste buds.

Don’t forget to wash it all down with a refreshing glass of coco loco, a cocktail made with coconut water, rum, and fresh fruit.

Plate of fresh seafood in Cartagena
The fresh and delicious seafood wasn’t just in restaurants, we were served these culinary delights while lounging poolside one afternoon.

The vibrant history and culture of Cartagena

Cartagena’s history dates back to the 16th century when it was founded by the Spanish conquistadors. The city quickly became an important port for trade, making it a target for pirates and rival European powers.

As a result, Cartagena built an impressive system of walls and fortifications to protect itself. Today, these ancient walls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-visit attraction in the city. Walking along the ramparts, you’ll be transported back in time, surrounded by the rich history and architectural marvels of the colonial era.

The old walled city in Cartagena makes it a great city to visit for history buffs
The old walled city is to one side, while modern skyscrapers line the beach in the background.

In addition to its fascinating history, Cartagena is also a city of vibrant culture. The Afro-Caribbean influence is evident in the music, dance, and cuisine of the region.

Palenqueras on the street in Cartagena
Palenqueras have become a colourful symbol of Cartagena and can be seen selling fruit everywhere in the city. They will pose with tourists for a small fee and I was more than willing to pay for this touristy photo-op. Worth the $10? I think so!

From the lively rhythms of salsa and reggaeton to the mouthwatering flavours of traditional Colombian dishes like arepas and bandeja paisa, Cartagena offers a sensory experience like no other. Don’t forget to indulge in a cup of freshly brewed Colombian coffee while exploring the city’s charming streets.

Street vendors selling fruit in Cartagena
Street vendors were everywhere selling fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as fruit juices. I love being able to purchase fresh street food when travelling.

The vibrant nightlife scene in Cartagena

When the sun sets, Cartagena comes alive with a vibrant nightlife scene. The city offers a wide range of options, from rooftop bars with panoramic views to lively salsa clubs where you can dance the night away. If you love the nightlife, then Cartagena is a fantastic place to visit.

One of the most popular spots is Café del Mar, located on top of the ancient city walls. Sip on a delicious cocktail while watching the sun dip below the horizon, and then dance under the stars to the rhythm of Latin music.

If you’re in the mood for live music, head to Getsemani, a hip neighbourhood known for its street art and bohemian vibe. Here, you’ll find plenty of bars and clubs offering live performances by local bands and DJs. Immerse yourself in the infectious energy of the city and dance to the beats of salsa, reggaeton, and champeta.

The rooftop bars in Cartagena make it a great city to visit
Smoking a hookah and drinking a Colombian beer one evening at one of our favourite rooftop bars in the city, overlooking the city centre inside the old walled city of Cartagena.

The beautiful beaches make Cartagena a great place to visit

Cartagena is blessed with some of the most beautiful beaches in South America. Whether you’re looking for a secluded spot to unwind or a lively beach to mingle with locals and fellow travellers, you’ll find it here.

Playa Blanca is a popular choice, with its powdery white sand and crystal-clear turquoise waters. Take a dip in the refreshing ocean, sunbathe on the beach, or indulge in a beachfront massage. It’s the perfect place to relax and recharge.

Two women in the water at Playa Blanca beach in Cartagena
My girlfriend and I enjoying the crystal clear, warm waters at Playa Blanca. This white sand beach is just 40 minutes outside of the city and is a popular tourist destination. Be warned that vendors will try and sell you their wares all day long. Swimming in the water was a welcome reprieve from their constant haggling.
Two people riding a seadoo
After many, many conversations with beach vendors, I finally caved and went for a seadoo ride. This local vendor had been haggling with me for hours to go for a ride. In the end, I’m glad I did! After all, tourism keeps places like Cartagena alive and if I’m going to spend money, it might as well be on a beach adventure.

If you prefer a more vibrant beach scene, head to Bocagrande. This bustling neighbourhood is known for its high-rise hotels, upscale restaurants, and lively beach clubs.

Join the locals in a game of beach volleyball, try your hand at water sports like jet skiing or parasailing, or simply soak up the sun with a refreshing cocktail in hand. Bocagrande offers a lively beach experience that is sure to leave you with lasting memories.

The top attractions to visit in Cartagena

Cartagena is home to a plethora of attractions that will captivate every traveller. One of the most iconic landmarks is the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a massive fortress that offers panoramic views of the city and the Caribbean Sea.

Inside the walls, you’ll find a maze of tunnels and chambers that once served as strategic military positions. Exploring the fortress is like stepping into a real-life history lesson.

Another must-visit attraction is the Old Town, also known as the Ciudad Amurallada. This well-preserved colonial neighbourhood is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true architectural gem. Lose yourself in the maze-like streets, admire the colourful facades, and soak up the lively atmosphere.

Colourful street art in Cartagena makes it a great city to visit
Vibrant street art is everywhere, lining the streets of Cartagena with colourful murals.

The Old Town is also home to numerous churches, such as the San Pedro Claver Church and the Santo Domingo Church, which showcase stunning Baroque architecture.

For art enthusiasts, the Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena is a must-see attraction to visit. This grand building houses a museum that tells the dark history of the Spanish Inquisition in Colombia.

Explore the chilling exhibits and learn about the persecution of those accused of heresy. It’s a sobering reminder of the city’s past.

Ornate lion doorknob in Cartagena
If you like unique doorways and doorknobs, you will love Cartagena. This is one of the many you will see around every corner.

Shopping in Cartagena

You may not have thought about going shopping when visiting the coastal city of Cartagena, but the shopping is incredible! From handmade straw purses to designer outfits, the shopping scene is varied and amazing.

I came home with several local, handmade necklaces, a purse and a dress. While I don’t tend to go shopping while on vacation, I couldn’t help myself here. If you were wondering if Cartagena is a good place to visit for shopping, yes it certainly is.

Two women shopping in Cartagena
While there are tons of tourist stops with straw purses, fedoras and knick-knacks, there is also a multitude of amazing stores full of local designers. I could have filled a second suitcase with amazing dresses from this city.

The best time to visit Cartagena

Cartagena enjoys a tropical climate, with warm temperatures year-round. The best time to visit Cartagena is during the dry season, which runs from December to April. We visited in early April and it was extremely hot and humid!

During this time, you can expect plenty of sunshine and minimal rainfall, making it perfect for exploring the city’s outdoor attractions and lounging on the beaches. However, keep in mind that this is also the peak tourist season, so expect larger crowds and higher prices.

If you prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting during the shoulder months of May and November. The weather is still pleasant, with fewer tourists and more affordable prices. Just be prepared for the occasional afternoon shower, as these months fall within the rainy season.

Woman walking down a colourful alley in Cartagena
Walking down colourful streets like this one is a common occurrence when exploring Cartagena.

Tips for traveling to Cartagena

Before embarking on your adventure to Cartagena, here are a few tips to ensure a smooth and enjoyable trip:

  1. Stay hydrated. Cartagena’s tropical climate can be hot and humid, so be sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  2. Wear sunscreen. Protect your skin from the strong Caribbean sun by wearing sunscreen with a high SPF.
  3. Dress appropriately. Cartagena is a conservative city, so it’s best to dress modestly, especially when visiting religious sites.
  4. Learn some Spanish. While many locals speak English, knowing a few basic Spanish phrases will go a long way in navigating the city and interacting with the locals.
  5. Be cautious with street food. While street food in Cartagena is delicious, be cautious about where you eat to avoid any potential stomach issues. Stick to busy stalls with high turnover.
  6. Take precautions against mosquitoes. Cartagena is located in a tropical region, so be sure to bring mosquito repellent to protect yourself from mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever.
Cartagena is a great place to visit with lots of colourful buildings

Accommodation options in Cartagena

Cartagena offers a wide range of accommodation options to suit every budget and preference. From luxury hotels in the heart of the Old Town to budget-friendly hostels in the hip neighbourhood of Getsemani, you’ll find something that fits your needs.

If you’re looking for a unique experience, consider staying in one of the many boutique hotels housed in beautifully restored colonial mansions. These charming properties offer personalized service and an authentic taste of Cartagena’s history. We stayed at an Airbnb in the old city for the first few days, and then another one in Bocagrande for the rest of our trip.

For those seeking a beachfront retreat, the neighbourhood of Bocagrande is home to numerous resorts and high-end hotels. Enjoy stunning ocean views, luxurious amenities, and easy access to the beach. The views from our 40th-story balcony were incredible!

If you prefer a more local experience, opt for a homestay or a vacation rental in the residential neighbourhoods of Manga or El Cabrero. You’ll get a glimpse into the daily life of the locals while still being within reach of the city’s attractions.

Cartagena is a good place to visit for ocean views.
The stunning views from our Airbnb, 40 stories up.

Conclusion – Is Cartagena a good place to visit?

Cartagena is a good place to visit. There are so many reasons to visit Cartagena and I hope I have given you a few. This city holds a special place in my heart and in fact, one of the first travel articles I published was Why Cartagena, Colombia Should be on Your Radar.

Cartagena is a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered. With its rich history, vibrant culture, stunning beaches, and lively nightlife, this Colombian city offers a unique and unforgettable experience for every traveller.

Whether you’re exploring the ancient walls of the Old Town, lounging on the white sandy beaches, or dancing the night away to the rhythm of salsa, Cartagena will leave you with memories to last a lifetime. So, pack your bags and embark on an adventure to this hidden gem on the Caribbean coast. You won’t be disappointed!

Cartagena, Colombia is a beautiful place filled with inviting and kind people, delicious food and more. Have you been? If you decide to visit, you may wish to also check out these day trips from Cartagena.

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