I had planned to do very little in Cartagena.
To me, travelling does not necessarily mean I’m going on a relaxing vacay. Nearly every trip I’ve taken in the past 10 years has been packed with sightseeing, city-hopping, day trips, and multi-day excursions. I usually get overexcited about the fact that I’m in a new place, and so I want to squeeze in loads of activities.
This time was different. This time, Rob and I were in desperate need of a proper vacation – one where we could actually relax for a few days with no pressure to do anything but chill by the pool.
I really tried not to do much, but I couldn’t resist fitting in some sightseeing between all the eating and relaxing that we were doing. For a few hours each morning, we ended up leaving the comfort of our hotel to see what Cartagena was all about. Here are 10 things to do in Cartagena, Colombia!
Where we stayed:
We stayed at Casa Canabal in Getsemani. The place was really lovely, though I was under the impression that our Superior Room had a balcony and I found out on arrival that only 1 or 2 of the rooms have balconies, not all. We did not get one of those rooms, so be aware of that description error if you decide to book.
Aside from the balcony debacle, the hotel was great. We spent every day on the rooftop by the pool (which was small, but nice), and I even got a massage (something I literally never do!) at the spa. The location was perfect – it was more of a local neighbourhood than a touristy area, which was cheaper than staying within the walled city.
1. Photograph the fruit ladies
The fruit ladies (also known as Palenqueras) are one of the highlights of Cartagena. You will find them scattered throughout the old town, dressed in brightly coloured traditional Colombian clothing and selling tropical fruits.
Now, these fruit ladies have definitely cottoned-on to how photogenic they are to tourists, and so you won’t be able to get a photo of them up close without a tip. Most of them will also want you to buy some of their fruit, so if you speak Spanish, be sure to haggle a good price for some fruit and a photo.
I ended up agreeing to pay 4000 pesos as a tip for my 4-5 photos, though I must admit they weren’t particularly happy that I didn’t buy any of their fruit!
2. Walk along on the sea wall
The wall that surrounds the old town is one of the best features of Cartagena. This Colonial wall was actually built to keep the pirates (of the Caribbean!) out in the 16th century.
You can walk up to the top at various points and see some lovely views of the city streets and the ocean. We started our walk at Cafe del Mar, then walked south along the wall to Santa Teresa Square.
3. Explore the streets of El Centro
El Centro is the beating heart of Cartagena. It has gorgeous narrow streets, beautiful pastel buildings, and plenty of statues, monuments, and pretty plazas.
There’s a lot to see in El Centro, and if you want to get a narrative of the local history while you explore it, try a walking tour. We did one on our first morning and it was a great introduction to the city.
4. See the churches and cathedrals
There are so many pretty churches and cathedrals in Cartagena! While we were there, the Pope was coming to visit so all of the important religious buildings had been given repairs and a thorough clean to prepare for viewing by his holiness.
Some of the best ones to check out are Catedral de Santa Catalina, Despacho Parroquial, and Parroquia San Pedro Claver.
5. Visit the clock tower gate
In Plaza De La Paz, you’ll find the famous Clock Tower Gate (La Torre del Reloj) which was once the main entrance through the wall into the city.
The clock tower has an interesting history. When it was built, the city couldn’t afford to get a good clockmaster to set the correct times on each of the 4 sides, so it became known as the clock of four faces as each face showed a different time. Obviously this issue has since been corrected!
6. Visit the fortress
We visited the fortress (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas) one wet morning, and unfortunately it was closed due to the rain when we arrived. Deciding to wait it out, we hung around for 10 minutes and luckily the skies cleared and the fortress opened up again.
The fortress sits just outside of the walled city, and was built by the Spaniards during the 16th century to protect the city from possible invasions. It costs 25,000 pesos for visitors to enter.
The fortress was surprisingly fun. There was virtually no signage to tell us what the fortress was all about, but we were allowed to explore nearly every area inside. Treating it like a giant playground for adults, we climbed up to look out of the watch towers, and pretended to shoot cannonballs out over the ocean.
There was even a section where we could make our way through pitch black tunnels under the fortress. Even with our smartphone flashlights at full brightness, I only made it 5 minutes in before freaking out and running back outside!
7. Go to a museum
If you have some spare time and want to learn about the area’s history, there are a few museums in El Centro that you can check out.
We did the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Zenú) which displays the history of gold in Colombia. It was free to enter and a good way to spend an hour escaping the humidity in the air-conditioned building.
Another popular museum is the Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición). The museum is housed in an 18th century Colonial building, and is more of a general historical museum with some displays featuring information on the executions that once happened there.
8. Eat Colombian/Caribbean food
I wasn’t expecting much from the food in Cartagena, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a selection of local restaurants with amazing food options.
Many of the places we ate at served Colombian-style dishes with a Caribbean twist (usually rice based meals with salad and fish, or veggies for us vegetarians).
If you want to know where to find all the best restaurants, here’s my guide on where to eat in Cartagena!
9. Drink at a rooftop bar
My favourite moment in Cartagena was having a glass of wine at the rooftop bar atop the Movich Hotel (Movich Cartagena De Indias). Yes, I know the wine was terribly overpriced, but it didn’t matter – watching the sun set over the ocean was so mind-blowing that I didn’t care how much it cost.
Rob and I sat there for a good hour and a half while the colours of the sky changed from blue to orange to pink and purple. The views of old town Cartagena were also amazing from up here!
10. Go to Getsemani for nightlife
You don’t need to be into clubs and partying to enjoy the nightlife in Getsemani. This area is mostly known for its lively nighttime atmosphere. Here are some choices for your evening activities.
There are a few great bars in the area. Our favourite by far was Demente, which had killer mojitos and a great selection of tapas as well as a large outdoor seating area out the back.
You can also go to a salsa club such as Cafe Havana or Bazurto Social Club, though expect a cover charge and the salsa dancing to start late – usually after 10PM. Another option is to do a salsa class throughout the day!
One last thing you should definitely do is hang out in Holy Trinity Square. There will be all sorts of activities going on here. We saw an exercise dance class for women happening, as well as some teens break dancing. Lots of young people tend to sit around the square and drink beer. It’s a nice place to hang out and people-watch.