Travelers come from all over the world to visit Cartagena’s walled city. Many gems are well hidden among this UNESCO world heritage site. I’m certain your friends missed some of them.
Fortunately, it won’t be your case.
I’ve wandered around Cartagena’s old town many times since 2015. And now, it’s your turn to learn from my travel experiences. Inside this practical guide, you’ll find:
- What to see and do in the walled city
- Where to eat and drink in the walled city
- Where are the best hotels
Cartagena, a world heritage site: 2 min
Believe me. Even if you’re in a hurry, you don’t want to miss this top-notch summary to visit the old town of Cartagena.
4 hours up to 1 day
Romantic vibes and upscale experiences
And don’t forget to read our guide to find the best Cartagena hotels.
What to see in the old city of Cartagena
The captivating architecture of this former Spanish colonial city has always attracted many people. Today, pirate attacks have given way to curious tourists. Still, I recommend that you be on your guard against getting your eyes poked out by a selfie stick.
Look for the Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj) to enter the walled city. You’ll arrive at the main Cartagena square: Plaza de Los Coches.
1# Las Plazas de Cartagena de indias
Plaza de Los Coches
Former slave market during the Spanish colonial era. Map.
Plaza de la Aduana
Place loaded with history and surrounded by magnificent colonial buildings. Map.
Plaza de Bolivar
Local street performers at dusk. Many benches to sit in the shade of the trees. Map.
Plaza Santo Domingo
Lively place in the evening, with singers and restaurant terraces. Map.
Plaza de Santa Teresa
The most photogenic square in Cartagena, especially from the top of the walls. Map.
Plaza San Pedro Claver
Emblematic place with a cathedral and several metal sculptures. Map.
Plaza Fernandez Madrid
Less frequented square, with some trees and bars. Perfect for a short break. Map.
Plaza San Diego
My favorite square, surrounded by colorful colonial houses and trees. Map.
The best way to enjoy these beautiful places is to stop and watch the locals. Also, be sure to go inside the churches and escape the heat for a few minutes.
2# Churches in Cartagena’s walled city
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
Lovely church built in Spanish Colonial style in the 16th century. Map.
Cathedral of Cartagena
Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Map.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
The oldest Cartagena church, with a dome and a Baroque style indoor. Map.
Iglesia de Santo Toribio
Small church with an unpretentious exterior. Get inside to appreciate it. Map.
3# Wander, drink, eat, rest. Repeat.
These beautiful national monuments are connected by colorful alleys, whose balconies of engraved wood and exotic flowers overlook the travelers.
Don’t be in a hurry. You will have about twenty streets to discover. Stroll alongside the colonial houses and let yourself be caught up in the atmosphere of the old town of Cartagena.
What to do in Cartagena’s walled city
Now that you know a little more about the place, it’s time to explain the fun things you can do in the walled city.
4# Walking tours in the old city
Cartagena has not had an easy life. Since its birth in the Spanish colonial world (1533), it has been envied by many European countries. To be discreet, it was customary to hire privateers to attack and ransack the city.
As a result, the Spaniards built many forts and walls to protect themselves —without too much success.
Then Cartagena made a revolution to be independent. Twice, in fact.
To understand the history of this Unesco world heritage city, I recommend you book a walking tour.
- Free walking tour: It’s a 2.5 h tour of the walled city. They are great local guides showing you around, and you give them a tip at the end. You need to book at least 1 day in advance. Book now.
- Shared walking tour: It’s an affordable 4-h tour that leads you to the different city attractions — thanks to an air-conditioned van. It might be handy if you’re in a rush. Book now.
- Private tour: Ideal if you want a personalized experience. This 4-hour tour gives you a great overview of the different areas and a chance to get to know the city better. Book now.
Don’t like to walk? It’s okay! I tested an accessible Cartagena bike tour.
5# The horse-drawn carriages of the old city
Let’s start with the criticisms.
Some locals mistreat their horses, you will get only a little information (in Spanish) and it looks soooo cheesy.
If you still want to do it, count around 120,000 COP per hour. You might be able to haggle down the price.
6# Take photos or be the star
Cartagena is the most photogenic city in Colombia. Once you take your camera out, it will be tough to stop.
It’s up to you to be patient and talented at taking pictures without the sweaty tourists around you. Trust me. It’s more complicated than you think.
You can get inside the walled city early in the morning (around 7 am). There will be few people, especially in the San Diego neighborhood. The only problem is that the light will not be present on the facades of the houses yet. So don’t hesitate to come back around 4-5 pm to get more mesmerizing shots.
- Photo shooting: If you come to Cartagena to celebrate an event (wedding, anniversary), you may want to make it special. Marina knows all the best spots! Ready to become a star? Book now.
- Las Palenqueras: These are the beautiful women (from Palenque) who wear flashy clothes in the colors of Colombia and Ethiopia. They stroll in Cartagena’s walled city to sell their fruits. And to take pictures with tourists. You’ll have to leave them a tip.
7# Take local classes and become a master
Traveling allows you to learn new things. At least, that’s how I see it.
Colombia is famous for its dancing and coffee. But did you know that rum and chocolate are also making their way?
These classes will allow you to experience firsthand the culture of Colombia and the Caribbean coast.
So, which are they?
- Skykichen: Choose between 4 culinary specialties of Colombia or Cartagena and get to work. It’s fun & delicious. Even cooking disasters should be able to succeed. You can also make cocktails! Contact them.
- San Alberto: With all the awards they have received in Colombia, San Alberto’s reputation is well established. They have a small shop in the old town where you can book one of their experiences and put your nose in the world of coffee. Contact them.
- Crazy Salsa: Come here to learn Salsa, Bachata, or Champeta. Crazy Salsa offers group or private classes for a reasonable price. Leave your fear at home and come dance on the floor. Contact them.
- El Barón: A renowned venue for cocktail lovers, El Barón sometimes offers rum tastings and cocktail classes. Their knowledge is limitless, as is their cellar. Good luck finding your way around afterward.
8# Where are the best museums in the old town
The city of Cartagena is not known for its museums. However, there are a few that might interest you.
Start with the Naval Museum. You’ll learn Cartagena’s History, from the famous pirate attacks (such as Francis Drake) to the fights for their independence. Later on, don’t hesitate to book a walking tour. I’m sure you will be able to imagine pirates climbing the walls while the guide answers your questions.
Palacio de la Inquisición might be another stop. The Inquisition practiced for many years the Witch Hunt in Cartagena. You can visit their old toys (aka torture machines) inside the museum. I wasn’t too impressed by this site. 1 h should be enough.
9# Watch the sunset from the city wall
It’s my favorite thing to do in Cartagena. Buy a beer from a street vendor, sit on the city walls and wait for the sun to disappear into the Caribbean sea. You can also have a drink at Cafe del Mar or book a sunset cruise.
Shopping in Cartagena’s walled city
The El Centro neighborhood (the southern part of the old city) is filled with boutique hotels and stores. Nobody seems to really live there. So, it looks a bit like Disneyland. Unreal.
But this will make the shopping addicts happy. From trendy swimsuits to local handicrafts, you’re bound to find a nice souvenir to buy.
10# Shiny emeralds in the walled city
Colombia produces gorgeous emeralds —well, it is the Pachama that does all the work.
The biggest mines are around Boyacá. Some are sent to the city of Cartagena. Tailors there are famous to create beautiful jewelry.
I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. I know that one of the most famous shops (Caribejewelry) has opened a small museum to explain the different steps necessary to obtain these precious gems.
Lucy Jewelry is another respectable shop where you can buy beautiful emeralds at a fair price.
11# Fashionable and colorful clothes
Cartagena is a city where people like to be seen. In the evening, you will see many couples dressed up. The women wear lovely, colorful, low-cut dresses. The men are in shirts and hats.
Backpackers still keep their flip-flops. Don’t worry. No one will stop you at the Clock Tower if you do.
All this excitement about looking good has attracted many designers. You will see their colorful creations in the display windows.
- Glory Ang Atelier: Casual luxury and touch of vintage.
- St. Dom: A harmonious mix of creations by young Colombian artists
- Silvia Tcherassi: World famous designer from the Caribbean Coast
- Beatriz Camacho: Beautiful creations for women inspired by nature and feelings.
12# Local handicrafts and souvenirs
You will be spoilt for choice.
First, there are the street vendors and those who display their products in the shadows of the colonial buildings. This is where you will get the cheapest souvenirs (although they are even less expensive in Getsemaní).
You will find small gadgets of little use, a collection of hats, paintings, and mochilas Wayúu. Don’t hesitate to bargain!
Travelers who prefer to have everything in one place should head to Las Bóvedas. It is the most famous place in the old town of Cartagena to buy souvenirs. There are more than a dozen stores – all more or less identical.
Another famous shopping spot is Portal de Los Dulces. It’s located in front of the Tower Gate. If you want to buy a gift for someone who has a sweet tooth, it will be there. There are tens of different Colombian candies.
Finally, don’t forget to check out the showcase stores in the alleys. Well-known shops such as Casachiqui offers beautiful handicrafts. I hope you have room in the bag.
Where to eat in Cartagena’s walled city
It’s all very well to visit and shop. But traveling is also about eating delicious food.
13# Try Cartagena street food
I know some of you are afraid to try Colombian street food. I wouldn’t recommend buying an old sausage on the side of the road. But here you’re in Cartagena. You should (i hope) be fine.
It won’t be hard to find a street seller in the historical center. Try at least:
- Arepa de huevo (arepa with eggs)
- Carimañolas (made of Yuca flour instead of corn and melted cheese)
- Patacón con Queso (plantains with cheese)
- Fruits and juices
Don’t know what to eat? I tested a delicious street food tour in Cartagena.
14# Cartagena best restaurants
Some of the best Colombian restaurants are in the walled city of Cartagena. You will find culinary specialties from all over the world.
I don’t want to overwhelm you with tons of options.
Here is the list of some of the best Cartagena restaurants to enjoy Colombian specialties and/or spend a romantic moment with your partner.
- Alma: Located in Casa San Agustín, Alma’s architecture and atmosphere will transport you to another time for an evening. Delicious seafood dishes.
- Candé: Ideal to spend a moment in a warm and festive atmosphere (there are live bands in the evening). Candé serves delicious specialties from Cartagena.
- Carmen: Excellent pick f you are in the mood for multi-course fine dining. They offer an untypical 7-course with wine pairing. Stay in their open-air backyard.
- El Boliche: Some locals state that this is where you can eat the best ceviche in Cartagena (less known than the Cevecheria).
- Kiosko La Mulata: A good alternative to the expensive restaurants of Cartagena. Come here to eat tasty Caribbean flavor meals.
Sometimes the service can be a little slow. It is like that on the Caribbean coast. Time is also something to be savored.
Also, you’ll need to book most of the good restaurants in advance, especially on weekends.
15# Find the tasty ice cream shops
Cartagena can be hot as hell. There are no pleasant beaches near the walled city.
To escape the heat, why not try these delicious homemade ice-creams?
- La Paletteria: A wide variety of homemade popsicles.
- Gelateria Paradiso: A colorful shop that reminds me of a small dollhouse. Fantastic ice creams.
Expert advice: Stay overnight in the Rosario islands if you want to wake up in a paradisiacal place.
Where to drink and party in Cartagena’s walled city
Let’s start with something that will give you lots of energy. I’m speaking about coffee.
16# Best coffee spots in the historical center
Excellent atmosphere with many different coffee beans. They pay special attention to the way they prepare and serve coffee beverages. Their coffee-based cocktails are a must-try. There are 2 shops.
Come here to drink a tasty coffee while listening to soft jazz-blues music. It’s a peaceful place with hundreds of famous books that you can buy.
Cafe San Alberto
The decoration is more classic, but this does not affect the quality of their coffees. Lots of exciting experiences for those who want to know more about coffee.
17# Multi-flavored cocktails and live music
Do you want to know my secret for a successful evening in the old city of Cartagena?
It starts with a walk at sunset when the subdued light illuminates the colorful facades of the houses. Afterward, this is the right time to find a small bar that plays good music.
- El Alquímico: They make surprising cocktails with amazon herbs, fermented red berries, banana, copoasu, and so on. Try to get a seat at their rooftop.
- El Barón: Another fantastic spot to get delicious (and more traditional) cocktails. You won’t regret it.
- Townhouse: Trendy hotel/bar for young and hype travelers. The rooftop is lovely, with a view of the roofs of Cartagena.
- Movitch: Rooftop bar with the best view of the old town, with a live Dj, and a pool. You can also decide to eat there.
- Cuban 1940: Good food and cocktails, along with a friendly Cuban atmosphere. They play live music in the evening, usually from Thursday to Sunday.
- Salsa Donde Fidel: Iconic salsa bar in the old city. The music inside is way too loud. Buy a beer and sit at a table outside. It’s a good spot to watch locals.
18# Best clubs in Cartagena old town
I prefer the nighttime is Getsemaní. Still, I know many locals who love going out in the old city of Cartagena.
Keep in mind 2 things; you must be well-dressed (no shorts or flip-flops) and be ready to spend a lot.
- Crazy Salsa: They organize Salsa parties from Thursday to Saturday night.
- La Movida: Vip hang out with 2 different atmospheres (crossover and electro).
- Eivissa: Trendy club on several floors and a rooftop.
- Bar Tu Candela: One of the oldest Cartagena nightclubs. Be ready to move your hips on Latin music.
Best old town’s hotels
Some of the most Colombian romantic hotels are in Cartagena.
The walled city is divided into 2 neighborhoods: El Centro & San Diego.
Read our article Where to stay in Cartagena to know the advantages and downsides of both districts.
To help you out, here is a shortlist of our favorite hotels in the old city.
Are you traveling on a tight budget? We listed our 8 favorite Cartagena Hostels.
Luxury hotel in El Centro
Beautiful colonial building with a courtyard pool. Top-notch Colombia’s hotel.
Mid-range hotel in el Centro
A boutique hotel with 3 rooms decorated with taste. The perfect place for discreet lovers.
Hostel in El Centro
Hostel with well-designed dorms (with air conditioning) and a good atmosphere.
Apartments in el Centro
Beautiful 16th-century house with high ceiling rooms, flowered courtyards, and stone arches.
Luxury hotel in San Diego
Another luxury Cartagena hotel with modern rooms and a fantastic rooftop pool.
Mid-range hotel in San Diego
With only 7 rooms, this former convent turned boutique hotel offers good value for money.
Hostel in San Diego
Nice private rooms & dorms. Various cozy chill-out areas to hang out and meet people.
Boutique hotel in San Diego
Colonial building from the 17th century that has preserved all its old charm. You’ll sleep like a baby.
Insider tips for visiting Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena is the most visited city in Colombia. This creates some pitfalls to avoid.
19# Be careful with Tinder, drugs, and prostitution
Some tourists come to Cartagena for the wrong reasons.
I do not judge. However, these vices attract bad people.
Some hot girls are paid to lure wealthy and horny tourists to their hotel rooms. They use a drug called Scopolamine. It turns you into an obedient zombie who gives out his credit card number.
If it’s too good to be true, there’s a catch.
Learn more about Cartagena safety here.
20# Face an army of street vendors
Street vendors are everywhere in Cartagena, especially in the old city. They are sometimes very annoying.
Remember that life in Colombia is difficult for those with little means. So keep smiling, say “No, gracias” and keep going.
Also. do not accept their free sample. It’s NEVER free.
21# Wake up early
By doing so, you’ll avoid the heat and the tourists.
Set your alarm, and head to the old city center around 7h30 am. All the stores will still be closed, and you’ll have the streets to yourself (well, almost).
22# San Diego is quieter
Many tourists and group tours stop in El Centro (the south part of the old city). Places, bars & hotels will be quieter in San Diego.
Cartagena’s walled city: the bottom line
The walled city of Cartagena is beautiful, and everyone wants to go there. Travelers with a large budget will be amazed at all the great things they can do and eat. Remember to take your time and avoid the peak hours and heat to make the most of it.
And what about Getsemaní?
This district was also part of the historical city of Cartagena. We will dedicate a special article about this neighborhood.
Continue to plan your trip to Cartagena
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