Things to do in Cartagena, Colombia
Welcome to Cartagena de Indias! Here the culture shifts—away from the modern buzz of cities like Bogota—into amazing tropical vibes and colonial buildings. The pace of life is slow because of its Caribbean coastal location and the temperatures, which are far hotter than in other parts of Colombia.
However, despite the heat, there are still plenty of incredible things to do in Cartagena, whether it’s learning about its Spanish colonial history or relaxing on the many beautiful beaches.
1. Playa Blanca (Baru Islands)
Isla Baru (Baru Island) is one of the closest of the many islands that sit off the coast of Cartagena. Although it’s not as tropical or luxurious as some of the other islands in the area (for example, the Rosario Islands), it’s got a lively atmosphere that’s hard to beat. People come here at the weekends to swim in the azure blue water, relax on the sandy beaches, and escape the city.
Visit here on a day trip as one of the top things to do in Cartagena! Jump on a speedboat from the city and enjoy a thrilling boat ride of 45 minutes over to the island, where you’ll see exceptional views of the Cartegena skyline. Once you’re there, visit Playa Blanca, where you can drink cocktails, relax on the sunbeds, or even rent a jetski.
It is a little touristy, and it can get hectic on the beach during the middle part of the day. Because of this, we recommend leaving as early as possible in the morning to enjoy the island at its quietest. Despite the crowds, it’s still a nice thing to do in Cartegena, especially if you have more time on your trip.
How to Get to Isla Baru
Reach Isla Baru by booking a boat to Playa Blanca. Tickets cost between 15 – 25 USD for a round trip. Many tours will also offer a drink, lunch, or sunbed for a higher price.
It is also possible to go by car or bus over the bridge that connects the island to the mainland.
Spend the night in Playa Blanca
However, if you want to experience the tranquility of Isla Baru, we recommend staying at one of the hotels on the island. After 4 PM, day trips return to Cartagena, meaning you get to enjoy a peaceful sunset from one of the most beautiful beaches in Colombia.
2. Getsemani Neighborhood
There is no better place to hang out during your time in Cartagena than Getsemani. This colorful, artsy neighborhood is home to some of the city’s best restaurants and cafes. Plus, it’s the cheapest neighborhood too, so you can enjoy delicious meals and stay in beautiful accommodation for a fraction of the price. It’s also directly next to the old walls of Cartagena, so it’s perfectly located.
Spend a few hours here and wander the cute streets, filled with brightly painted houses and decorated with street art, hanging umbrellas, and bunting.
3. Walls of Cartagena
The old walls are one of the top things to do in Cartagena and have great historical significance. Because of this, they are a designated UNESCO world heritage site within the city. The walls are built around the beautiful old city and act as a fortification for the city (they were built by the Spanish to defend against oncoming attacks).
These days, people come to the walls to climb up on top and see fantastic views over the new city. You’ll be able to see the skyscrapers light up at night; it’s unique to see how far the city has grown and developed from this spot!
Sunset on the Walls of Cartagena de Indias
Sunset is the prime time for tourists and locals alike! Everyone comes here in the early evening to find their spot, drink a few beers and watch the sun go down with friends.
There are also many excellent restaurants on top of the walls where you buy a cocktail or order some food. However, the prices are above average because of the location. For this reason, if you’re on a budget, we recommend bringing your own drinks or picnic. Enjoy this top thing to do in Cartagena while the fresh sea breeze cools you down.
4. Center of Cartagena
At the center of Cartagena (within the city walls), discover the more luxurious side of the city. Here you can discover beautiful historic buildings that house high-end hotels and fancy restaurants. The tropical vibe continues as all the homes are painted in warm, vibrant colors, with cute balconies and flowers.
The ambiance of the area is fantastic—a place with beautiful parks where green parrots sit in the trees and charming churches are around every corner. In fact, you could be mistaken for thinking you were walking around in a Southern European city.
The only thing that gives it away is the Colombian ladies, dressed in brightly-colored dresses, with fruit on their heads. Make sure to buy some beautiful-looking fruit for a very low price, or take a photo for a small payment of between 5000-10,000k.
Because of its fascinating maritime history, sailing is still one of the top things to do in Cartagena. There is a bustling harbor where many people still dock their boats, from cruise ships to fishing boats and catamarans.
If you’re wondering what to do in Cartagena, taking to the seas is a perfect idea! Join a sunset cruise, where you can enjoy epic views of the city’s skyline from the shimmering ocean. At night, you’ll have the bonus of seeing the city light up as it gets dark. Best of all, because of the notorious temperatures of Cartagena, being out on the water is the perfect place to be to escape the heat and enjoy the cool ocean breeze.
6. Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
The Castillo de San Felipe is a large and beautiful 16th-century castle in Cartagena, Colombia. It sits just across the bridge from Getsemani and is only a 10-minute walk away from the clock tower in the historic center. Most importantly, it’s also a UNESCO world heritage site, protected because of its importance in defending the city against past attacks.
If you have time, visiting Castillo de San Felipe is a nice thing to do in Cartagena, if not for the beautiful views over the city and the lovely garden.
7. Cafe Havana
In the middle of the Getsemani neighborhood, discover the real Colombian experience at Cafe Havana. This lively bar hosts a salsa dancing experience, where you can hear wonderful live salsa music and watch people moving in time to the rhythm. Even if you don’t fancy getting involved in the dancing, grab a Cuban cocktail and enjoy the show. You’re bound to leave with a smile on your face!
8. Rosario Islands
The Rosario Islands are the gem of Cartagena, a group of 28 islands that sit not too far off the coast. The scenery here is absolutely magic, just like the Caribbean landscapes you’d imagine! Discover the beautiful beaches with their pristine white sand and water that’s so clear you can see every pattern and color of the tropical sea life. Best of all, this picture-perfect paradise is just an hour boat ride away from the city!
You have a few options when visiting the Rosario Islands:
Option 1: Standard Boat Tour
Most boat tours to the Rosario Islands take a standard route around several islands, stopping for lunch on the beach and snorkeling. Because lots of tours follow this route, you will be sharing the beach with lots of other people and the other tourists on your boat (book your standard boat tour).
Option 2: Catamaran Day Trip
This is a beautiful experience on your trip to Cartagena, Colombia. You’ll float with the wind in the sails and only the quiet sounds of the breeze and waves. During the trip, you’ll enjoy a beautiful lunch on board and be able to jump into the water and snorkel. However, you will not actually set foot on the islands, only see them from a distance (book your Catamaran tour).
Option 3: Private Boat Tour
This is the best option for a day trip, although it is quite expensive. You’ll get to go off the beaten track, stopping at beautiful, remote islands with no crowds—bliss! (Book your private boat tour)
Option 4: Spend a Night on the Rosario Islands
This is a unique experience and easily one of the top things to do in Cartagena. There are very few hotels here, so it really feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Plus, it’s a chance to see the islands completely free of people once the boat tours leave (book Rosario Islands hotels).
9. Bike Tour
See all the best things to do in Cartagena by joining a fun, dynamic, and active bike tour. You’ll meet other travelers and be led by an experienced guide who can tell you lots of interesting facts and information about some of the most important sites. They’ll also be able to point out the hidden gems and secret spots that you might not know about otherwise, giving you the inside scoop on authentic Cartagena life.
Old city tours take between 1-2 hours. Alternatively, join a longer tour of up to 6 hours to visit some spots outside the city as well.
10. Coffee Workshop
Nothing quite says ‘Colombia’ like coffee! While visiting Cartagena, you won’t be short of fantastic coffee shops to enjoy a local cup of freshly brewed coffee. However, if you really want to understand what coffee culture in Colombia is all about, join a speciality coffee shop tour—a top thing to do in Cartagena!
During the tour, you’ll get to explore the old city, visit some of the best coffee shops in the area, sample different beans, and brews, and learn more about coffee from both the guide and the passionate shop owners. This is a great chance to really understand and appreciate the mighty Colombian coffee bean that has become famous worldwide.
Best Cafes and Restaurants in Cartagena
Food is an integral part of Colombian culture, and mealtimes are a special time to be together for both families and friends. Much like the rest of Colombia, Cartagena has some amazing places to eat. Even better, because it’s a port city, it’s known for its delicious seafood, with fresh and zingy dishes like ceviche on the menu. Some of our favorites in Cartagena de Indias were:
- Casa Della Pasta (Cozy Italian)
- Beiyu cafe (best breakfast and lunch)
- Libertario Coffee Roasters (Trendy cafe)
- Cancha Cevicheria (Peruvian)
- Ely Cafe (Delicious breakfast & cakes)
- El Bololó (Healthy bowls)
- Epoca Espresso Bar (Great coffee)
- Gelateria Paradiso
- Basilica Pizzería Café (Italian)
- Di Silvio Trattoria (Italian)
Where to Stay in Cartagena, Colombia
If you’re looking for the most picturesque and convenient place to stay in Cartagena, then look no further than the walled city. You can find a range of accommodations, from upscale boutique hotels in old colonial buildings to fun and vibrant hostels like Vijaero and Masaya.
If you want to find a place to stay that’s cheap but still convenient, choose the Gestsemani neighborhood, where you’ll find a bunch of great hostels (plus, it’s right next to the walled city!), or the neighboring district of Selina.
How to Visit Cartagena
Cartagena is a considerable distance from other major cities in Colombia. However, there are still lots of transport options.
Cartagena is in the very north of the country, whereas big cities like Bogota and Medellin are further south. Because of this, the bus journey takes a long time. For example, if you’re coming from Bogota, expect the journey to take 22-24 hours. Medellin to Cartagena is a little shorter and takes approximately 13 hours. However, buses are reasonably cheap (30-50 USD) and are better for the environment (top sustainable travel tip!)
The easiest option, especially if you’re on a tight time frame for your trip to Colombia, is to take a domestic flight to Cartagena’s local airport (Rafael Nunez Airport). Flights from Bogota and Medellin take between 1-1.5 hours and cost between 50-100 USD. There are also international flights arriving at this airport with American Airlines from the United States.
Getting Around Cartagena
Cartagena is a relatively small city, and the main sights (within the walled city and just outside) can all be reached on foot. If you want to journey outside the city, you can use the public bus. However, to travel safely, we always recommend being cautious when going outside the main tourist areas because there is less police presence.
How Much Does Cartagena Cost?
Because Cartagena is known as a vacation destination, it is wealthier and more popular than other destinations in Colombia. Because of this, prices are generally higher, and it’s not really known as a budget destination. However, you can still find reasonable hostels, although not as cheap as you might find in Bogota or Medellin.
Best Time to Visit Cartagena, Colombia
Because of its location, Cartagena is very sunny and hot all year round, so ideally, you want to stay in a hotel with a swimming pool and AC so you can cool down at the end of the day. It’s also a good idea to do most of your activities in the mornings or the late afternoon when the temperatures are cooler.
December – April is the primary dry season. Outside of this time can be very humid and rainy, making it really hard to sightsee and enjoy the things to do in Cartagena, like boat tours and island hopping.
Is Cartagena Safe?
Cartagena is one of the safest cities in the country. This is because it’s known as a cruise ship and vacation destination for global travelers and wealthy Colombians. However, as with all cities in Colombia, it’s always a good idea to exercise caution. In fact, there is a famous saying in Colombia, ‘no dar papaya’, meaning ‘don’t give papaya’. This doesn’t actually have anything to do with fruit; it simply means don’t allow someone to scam you.
- Leave your valuables locked up in your accommodation.
- Avoid carrying too much cash on you.
- Don’t put your phone in your pocket.
- Put a lock on your backpack.
- When you’re in restaurants or sitting down, put your foot or arm through your belongings so they can’t be swiped from underneath you.
- Stay in the city’s touristy areas. These are the safest places to be as there is a lot of police presence on the street.
- Avoid quiet, unlit roads.
Street Vendors in Cartagena, Colombia
The main thing to watch out for in Cartagena are pushy sellers, for example, people trying to sell you souvenirs or massages on the beach. One of the main annoyances is the young guys rapping on the streets. They’re very talented, but when they spot you, they’ll start rapping, expecting you to offer payment for the show. If you ignore them, they might follow you, so be direct and insist ‘no’.