Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a city on the northern coast of Colombia known for its stunning architecture, rich history, vibrant culture, and delicious food. As a top tourist destination in the country, it has been attracting visitors from all over the world for decades. In this article, we will explore the best places to visit in Cartagena, its fascinating history and culture, the delicious food that makes the city a gastronomical paradise and some tips to make the most of your trip.
Cartagena – History
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish conquistadors who used it as a strategic port for trading gold and other riches from the New World. The city quickly became an important economic hub, attracting settlers from all over Europe, Africa and Asia. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Cartagena was frequently attacked by pirates and privateers, including Sir Francis Drake and the French Admiral Jean-Baptiste du Casse, who tried to plunder the city’s riches.
Despite these challenges, Cartagena flourished as a center of culture and arts during the colonial period. The city’s architecture, a mix of Spanish, African, and indigenous styles, is a testament to its multicultural heritage. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cartagena became an important industrial and commercial center, attracting even more migrants from around the world.
Popular Tourist Destinations
- Old Town: The Old Town of Cartagena, also known as the Walled City, is the heart of the city’s tourism. It’s a maze of narrow streets, colorful houses, and historic buildings, including churches, museums and palaces. The most famous landmarks in Old Town are the Clock Tower and San Felipe Castle, which offer stunning views of the city and sea. You can also find shops and restaurants, as well as street performers and musicians. Of note, I love the walled city, but beware, there are many locals who will ask for money and offer different services and trinkets. It’s not the best place to visit if you want to relax and be left alone for a few hours. However, if you want to see some beautiful architecture and vibrant colors, spend an afternoon exploring the walled city, it’s worth it!
- Getsemani: Getsemani is a neighborhood just outside the walls of the Old Town that has become a trendy spot for backpackers and artists. It’s known for its street art, live music and bustling nightlife. The main square of Getsemani, Plaza de la Trinidad, is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike. You can also find cheap hostels, cafes and bars in the area.
- Rosario Islands: The Rosario Islands, a group of small islands off the coast of Cartagena, offer a paradise of white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and coral reefs. Visitors can enjoy snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, and sunbathing, as well as fresh seafood and tropical cocktails. You can take a day trip or stay overnight in one of the hotels or resorts. The Rosario Islands truly are a beach-goers paradise.
- Bocagrande: Bocagrande is a modern neighborhood on the beachfront, known for its high-rise hotels, shopping centers, and restaurants. It’s a popular spot for tourists who want to enjoy the beach and the city’s amenities. You will also find casinos and nightclubs in the area.
Culture and Food
Cartagena has a vibrant and diverse culture that reflects its history and geography. The city is known for its music, dance, festivals, and traditions. Some of the most popular cultural events in Cartagena are the Carnival of Barranquilla, the Cartagena International Film Festival, and the Hay Festival, which bring together writers and intellectuals from around the world.
Music and dance are an essential part of Cartagena’s culture. The city is famous for its salsa and cumbia rhythms, which can be heard in the streets and clubs. You can also find traditional music such as champeta, bullerengue, and vallenato. You can enjoy live music and dance performances at venues such as Cafe Havana and Quiebra Canto.
Cartagena is also a gastronomical paradise, with a rich blend of African, indigenous, and Spanish influences. Some of the most famous dishes include ceviche, a seafood dish marinated in lime juice and herbs; arepas, which are corn cakes filled with meat or cheese; and sancocho, a hearty soup made with meat, vegetables, and plantains. You can find these dishes and more at local restaurants and street vendors all over Cartagena.
One of the best places to experience Cartagena’s food and culture is the Mercado de Bazurto, a bustling market where you can find fresh produce, seafood, meat, and spices. The market also offers a variety of street food and snacks, like empanadas, churros, and fried plantains.
Tips for Visitors
If you’re planning a trip to Cartagena, here are some tips to help make the most of your visit:
- Stay in the Old Town: The Old Town is the most charming and convenient area to stay in Cartagena. You can find a variety of hotels, hostels, and apartments within walking distance of the city’s main attractions.
- Explore on foot: Cartagena is a city best explored on foot. Walking around the Old Town and Getsemani is the best way to discover hidden gems, such as street art, hidden plazas, and local markets.
- Visit the museums: Cartagena has several museums that offer a glimpse into the city’s history and culture, such as the Palace of the Inquisition, the Gold Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.
- Try the street food: Cartagena’s street food is not only delicious but also affordable. You can find local snacks and meals at street vendors and food trucks throughout the city.
- Plan your trip around a festival: Cartagena has several festivals throughout the year that celebrate music, dance, and culture. The most famous is the Carnival of Barranquilla, held in February, which is one of the largest and most colorful carnivals in the world.
- Follow some simple safety guidelines: Colombia is much safer than it was 30 years ago and you shouldn’t let fear or anxiety stop you from visiting. Take a moment to review one of our previous articles “Staying safe in Colombia” as a refresher before traveling.
Cartagena is a city that offers a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. With its stunning architecture, vibrant culture, delicious food and white sand beaches, it’s no wonder why it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia. Whether you’re interested in history, art, music, the beach or food, there’s something for everyone. So, pack your bags, book your ticket, and get ready to explore this magical city, you won’t regret it!