9 Best Things To Do In Cartagena—What I Always Recommend

My list of the best things to do in Cartagena de Indias, after more than a dozen stays in this superb city.

🛑 Stop visiting Cartagena like every other tourist. Start discovering new experiences that will make your stay unforgettable.

Some travelers love Cartagena de Indias. Others hate it. Which group will you belong to?

I’ll be honest with you.

My first love affair with Cartagena in 2015 was not a complete success. I arrived as a backpacker, with just a few euros to buy beers—in short, I didn’t know what to do.

Then I came back regularly over the years, with friends and then my wife. I can now say that I truly enjoy Cartagena, and it’s all thanks to the list of the best things to do in this article.

Here’s what you’ll get if you read my guide c.a.r.e.f.u.l.l.y:

  • My favorite way to visit the Walled City and Getsemaní
  • 3 beautiful islands and how to enjoy them
  • A list of great bars and what you should never do when going out in Cartagena.
  • How to plan a romantic trip with your lover
  • What do I do when families are visiting Cartagena
  • Food specialties you can’t miss
  • What’s important to learn about Cartagena’s history

Ready to plan the perfect trip?

Let’s go!

👉 Want to know everything about Cartagena de Indias? To learn where the best places are and avoid tourist traps and beginner mistakes? Nothing could be easier. I put it all together in our guide to Cartagena de Indias.


Who are we 👋

Since 2015, Adrien, Alejandra, and I (Tom) have been helping travelers explore Colombia. Here, you will find everything you need to fall in love with this beautiful country easily.


Best Cartagena Experiences

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    Over 100 of our readers book their boats in Cartagena with Aymeric monthly. He works only with the best local captains, knows the best spots, and will quickly answer any questions you may have.

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    Cathy's agency specializes in community tourism, where you can get to know the locals. With her, you can organize guided tours of the city, explore the mangroves of La Boquilla or discover the village of San Basilio de Palenque.

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    Olinto is a nature lover who will help you discover a little-known ecosystem: a tropical dry forest. Join him to observe wildlife—monkeys—and combine your visit with a local cumbia concert.

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Over 100 of our readers book their boats in Cartagena with Aymeric monthly. He works only with the best local captains, knows the best spots, and will quickly answer any questions you may have.

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Cathy's agency specializes in community tourism, where you can get to know the locals. With her, you can organize guided tours of the city, explore the mangroves of La Boquilla or discover the village of San Basilio de Palenque.

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Romario is a Cartagena chef with excellent facilities to teach you how to cook local specialties, serve unusual cocktails and visit the Bazurto market.

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Olinto is a nature lover who will help you discover a little-known ecosystem: a tropical dry forest. Join him to observe wildlife—monkeys—and combine your visit with a local cumbia concert.

1# My favorite way to visit the Cartagena walled City

Best things to do in Cartagena

I love starting early, around 7 am, at the Clock Tower Gate. Here, you can feel the heart of El Centro beat. Wander past the Santuario de San Pedro Claver and Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría. Each step in Plaza Santo Domingo, Plaza de la Aduana, and Plaza Bolivar is a step back in time. Don’t forget to stroll along the historic walls – it’s a view you can’t miss.

Next, head to San Diego—the 2nd part of the historic city. It’s less about grand monuments here and more about the beauty in simplicity. The streets are a canvas of colors, with plants cascading over wooden balconies. Check out Iglesia de Santo Toribio and take a moment in Fernández Madrid Park and Plaza de San Diego.

Along the way, grab a fresh juice from street vendors – you won’t die, and it’s refreshing. Sit on a bench in the shade and watch the passers-by.

At this point, you’ll want something to eat something. La Brioche, Epoca, and Cafe de la Mañana are my go-to for breakfast.

Finally, enrich your morning with a touch of history at the Naval Museum (Cartagena’s history) and the Gold Museum (golden artifacts and explanations of indigenous tribes living there before the Spaniards).

Are you in a rush? Plan this private tour to visit all the main tourist attractions in 4 hours. You can also find some free city tours.

2# My favorite way to visit Getsemaní

Best things to do in Cartagena

Getsemaní, a historic neighborhood in Cartagena, stands as a vivid testament to Colombia’s struggle for independence and the enduring spirit of its people. Once a humble area for artisans and freed African slaves, it’s now a vibrant hub for artists, poets, and musicians, preserving its legacy of resistance and community.

I find myself drawn to Getsemaní’s dual personality. Mornings here are serene – a perfect time for a tranquil exploration. Starting around 8 am, I usually grab breakfast and a drink on Trinidad Square. The alleys come alive with colorful street art, each a canvas telling a story. Calle de la Sierpe and the iconic “umbrella street” of Calle de las Sombrillas are must-sees.

Evenings in Getsemaní offer a stark contrast. The neighborhood buzzes with energy. Street performers dazzle with their talents in Plaza de la Trinidad, where everything from salsa dancing to breakdancing unfolds. It’s a cultural spectacle that I never tire of witnessing, supporting the performers with small bills as a gesture of appreciation.

For a nightcap, Callejon Ancho becomes my go-to spot, offering an array of affordable cocktails—everyone is taking their speakers and plastic tables out into the streets.

It’s chaotic, noisy, fun. Welcome to Getsemani!

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Cartagena's culture and history with Cathy
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3# How to enjoy the Cartagena islands

Aleja Pelicano Island Cartagena

Best things to do in Cartagena

Exploring the islands near Cartagena is a journey of contrasting experiences, from tranquil sandy beaches to lively parties. Let me guide you through this vibrant world:

Cartagena Beaches

Firstly, let’s talk about the beaches in Cartagena. If you’re envisioning expansive, idyllic beaches within Cartagena, think again. The city’s beaches, like Bocagrande, though easily accessible, are often crowded and not the most serene. The true beach paradise lies beyond the city limits. For a proper beach day, heading out of the city is a must—direction the Rosario Islands!

Main Cartagena Islands to Visit

  1. Tierra Bomba: The closest island to Cartagena, known for its history and beach clubs. While its beaches aren’t the pristine white sands of Caribbean dreams, it’s a great spot for a quick escape, offering a decent mix of sun, Caribbean sea, and sand.
  2. Isla Barú: This island, especially Playa Blanca, is known for its beautiful beaches but has become a victim of over-tourism. It’s crowded, noisy, and not my recommendation for a peaceful day. Instead, seek out the southern tip’s upscale hotels for a more exclusive beach experience. The best tour for a complete and unique visit to Baru is this one.
  3. Isla Grande: My favorite among the Rosario Islands for its walkable landscape and diverse offerings, from beach clubs to kayaking through mangroves. Remember, the beaches here are more pebbly due to the island’s reef nature, so come prepared.
  4. Isla Cholon: Known as the party island. The atmosphere here is lively, with music and dancing, but be ready for crowds and higher prices for food and drinks. Looking to meet people? Go with this agency:

Boat Tours to the Islands

Boat rosario island with Ameryc Cartagena 7

If you’re looking to explore these islands, renting a private boat in Cartagena is an exhilarating and liberating way to do it. You have the freedom to create your itinerary, ensuring a bespoke experience tailored to your preferences.

This is the option I highly recommend for any group of 4 or more people wishing to enjoy the islands for the day.

Important Tips for Boat Rentals:

  • Preparation: Pack sun protection, plenty of water, and beach-appropriate attire. You’re also provided with a cooler and ice on board.
  • Boat Options: Choose from speedboats, yachts, catamarans, and sailboats, each offering a different experience.
  • Budgeting: Prices vary based on the season, boat type, and group size. Prioritize quality over cost to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip.
  • Booking with Aymeric: For a hassle-free experience, Aymeric is recommended for his local knowledge, English fluency, and direct connections with boat owners. Learn more about him here.

Don’t have the budget (or friends) to plan this experience?

A shared Cartagena boat tour is a cost-effective alternative for solo travelers or those on a tight budget.

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Over 100 of our readers book their boats in Cartagena with Aymeric monthly. He works only with the best local captains, knows the best spots, and will quickly answer any questions you may have.

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4# Enjoy Cartagena’s nightlife

Best things to do in Cartagena

Cartagena’s nightlife is a vibrant tapestry of experiences, ranging from upscale bars in El Centro to the bohemian vibes of the Getsemani neighborhood.

El Centro offers high-end drinking spots and classy restaurants, but be mindful of less friendly areas near the Clock Tower.

San Diego, with its quaint cafes and peaceful atmosphere, is perfect for upscale bar hopping.

Getsemaní, on the other hand, is a lively district with a bustling food culture, where both locals and tourists mingle in its many bars and clubs.

Bocagrande offers a more modern nightlife scene with attractions like the 51 Sky Bar.

For bar enthusiasts, I like to start my evening in Getsemani with a beer at Terraza Municipale or a cocktail at Plaza Trinidad. If I fancy a cocktail a little more out-of-the-ordinary, I focus more on the walled city, with bars like El Baron, Townhouse (rooftop), or El Alquímico.

Many restaurants have musicians playing in the evenings on weekends. It’s a great way to keep the evening going.

Next, I choose a salsa bar with live music. What better way to feel the beat? Café Havana is a little too crowded for my taste. I prefer La Tertulia or Quiebra Canto.

Club-goers have ample choices, too. Mister Babilla is a lively venue with crossover music, while La Jugada, in El Centro, offers an upscale club experience. You can also check out Casa Cruxada for an electro party.

Safety is paramount when enjoying Cartagena‘s nightlife. Be cautious of scopolamine, watch your drinks, and be careful when using apps like Tinder for meeting people. It’s also wise to double-check your bills at bars and nightclubs and to avoid walking alone late at night, especially in less populated areas

5# Plan a fairy tale with your lover

Best things to do in Cartagena

My wife, Alejandra, loves Cartagena.

With its luxurious colonial buildings, vibrant streets, and mild climate, it’s undoubtedly an excellent choice for a romantic getaway. Here’s how to make the most of it:

Stay in the Historic Center

Amarla Boutique Hotel Cartagena
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The most romantic area of Cartagena is its historic center.

Choose lovely boutique hotels away from the hustle of clubs and bars due to the general lack of soundproofing in the city.

Amarla is celebrated for its blend of luxury and history, ensuring personalized service and a perfect location for exploring iconic sites. Casa Del Arzobispado is admired for its historical charm, modern comfort, breathtaking colonial architecture, cozy rooms, and a quaint pool area for unwinding. Casa Pestagua stands out for its unique blend of Colonial, Republic, and Art Deco styles, offering intimate settings, beautiful pools, and a fantastic spa.

A boat trip to the Rosario islands

Boat rosario island with Ameryc Cartagena 10

Imagine taking a private boat out for cocktails on the paradise islands, swimming in the turquoise waters, and enjoying a seafood lunch on a white-sand beach. Aymeric makes it possible—more explanation in the previous section.

Watch the sunset

La Popa Cartagena

Around 5pm, find the perfect spot to admire the sunset.

The rooftop of Movich offers stunning views, and La Popa provides a panoramic vista of the beautiful city. While Café Del Mar on the city walls is another option, it might be too crowded for some tastes.

Another top-notch experience is to watch it from Cartagena’s Bay—you need to rent a boat for that or join this tour.

Dine in a Romantic Restaurant

Romantic restaurant 1621 Cartagena
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Afterward, choose a restaurant with a beautiful interior courtyard filled with vegetation and a romantic ambiance. Restaurants like Jardín Santa Clara, Alma, Restaurante 1621, and La Girolata are excellent choices. Remember to reserve in advance to secure a spot in these popular dining venues.

Photography Experience

Cartagena photography sesion (1)

Organize a photography experience in the fortified city of Cartagena to capture and cherish your memories forever. A private photography tour, lasting about 1 hour, is a fun and romantic way to keep memories and photos for life.

Combining these elements ensures a romantically memorable stay in Cartagena, perfect for honeymoons, anniversaries, or simply a special getaway.

6# Enjoy a family-friendly activity

Best things to do in Cartagena

Cartagena’s historic center and Getsemaní are a breeze to explore on foot, great for families. Less traffic, more fun. Don’t forget to check out Gelateria Paradiso—my favorite ice cream shop.

That’s enough for a full day in Cartagena. But if you’re staying longer, you’ll have to find new things to do.

I bet that endless beach time under the hot sun might not be every kid’s cup of tea.

Fortunately, there are a number of great day trips from Cartagena that allow you to get out into nature and observe the animals.

DAY TRIP TO La boquilla

La Boquilla Aleja

In La Boquilla, a fishing village 20 minutes from Cartagena, life’s different. Hop on a mangrove tour. Glide through ‘Tunnel of Love’, spot birds, and yes, try crab fishing. It’s real and raw, a slice of local life. You can plan this experience with Cathy or book it on Viator.

hike around Cartagena

Cotton Top Tamarin monkey Olinto (1)

Then there’s the monkey trail with Olinto—a friend who loves hiking around Cartagena. It’s a jungle out there, literally. Just an hour from Cartagena, you might spot the cheeky Cotton Top Tamarins in the tropical dry forest. Remember, it’s nature, not a guaranteed monkey meet-and-greet.

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Nature excursions around Cartagena with Olinto
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The National Aviary

Aviario bird Cartagena aleja (1)

Finally, visit the Aviario Nacional, 50 minutes from the city center. Over 1700 birds, 170 species. It’s a kaleidoscope of colors and feathers. More than just birdwatching, it’s about understanding these creatures and their world. Book this tour, as you’ll need private transportation to get there.

7# Discover Cartagena’s culinary scene

Best things to do in Cartagena

Eating well and discovering new flavors is one of my favorite parts of traveling. In Cartagena, you’ll have a taste of the Caribbean coast.

Caribbean Flavors

Trust me, the local flavors here are mind-blowing. You have to try the fried fish plate – crispy tilapia with coconut rice and patacones. Then there’s cazuela de mariscos, a creamy seafood stew that’s simply heavenly. And don’t even get me started on camarones al ajillo – shrimp in a buttery garlic sauce that’s out of this world. I also love looking for the best grilled octopus.

Cartagena Street Food

I’m all about diving into street food when I travel. In Cartagena, the street food is surprising. Arepas de huevo, stuffed with beef and egg, are a must-try. Then there’s the patacón con Costeño cheese, a loaded plantain treat.

Street food tours here? They’re a journey through the best of Cartagena’s flavors, from juicy kibbe to tangy mango biche.

Cooking Classes

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Cooking and cocktail classes with Chef Romario
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Ever wanted to cook like a local? In Cartagena, you can join cooking classes with chefs like Romario. From crafting mini-arepas to grilling fish wrapped in Bijao leaves, these classes are an explosion of flavors. Plus, making coconut pineapple pie? That’s a recipe you’ll want to take home.

If you like using Viator, you should book this excellent tour with Lunatico.

Visit the Bazurto Market

Bazurto Market is a chaotic maze, bursting with life. Navigating it with a local guide is an experience in itself—you won’t enjoy it on your own. I recommend you pair this visit with a cooking class. It’s a full-circle Cartagena culinary adventure. You can do it with Romario.

Find Epic Dining Spots

Cartagena’s restaurant scene is a fusion of history and flavor. Carmen Cartagena offers a fine dining experience with a Colombian twist. For a lively atmosphere, Candé integrates music, dance, and Cartagena’s culinary heritage. Agua de Leon is known for its sophisticated Colombian fusion. And if you’re craving something international, UMA Cantina Peruana and La Única are my go-to places for Peruvian and Mexican cuisines, respectively.

Where is my Colombian coffee

Did you know Colombia is famous for its coffee? In Cartagena, the coffee scene is just as rich. Café San Alberto and Epoca Espresso Bar are perfect spots for a post-lunch coffee break. These cafes not only serve excellent coffee but also immerse you in the charm of the city’s streets.

In Getsemani, I recommend Café Mural, a place with atypical decoration and a manager who loves coffee and old machines. He sometimes runs tours in the morning.

8# Learn Cartagena’s history

Bateria del Angel San Rafael Tierra Bomba (1)

Best things to do in Cartagena

Founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533, the port city of Cartagena was a hub of Spanish power, thriving on trade and military might. Its strategic bay made it a center for colonial trade and sadly, a major point for the slave trade. But this prosperity also made Cartagena a magnet for pirate attacks, leading to notorious sacks like that by Francis Drake in 1586. The city’s colonial architecture, while enchanting, is a stark reminder of its past, built upon the exploitation of indigenous and African peoples.

San Basilio de Palenque

Palenque walls local (1)

San Basilio de Palenque holds the distinction of being the first free town in the Americas, established by escaped slaves led by the African king Benkos Biohó. This village, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, has preserved its African roots through dance, music, language, and food. Its inhabitants have maintained their traditional customs, including a unique Spanish Creole language known as Palenquero, and traditional medicine practices. The town also celebrates its culture with an annual four-day music festival in October, showcasing the unique Palenquera culture.

You can get there on your own by bus (about 2 hours) and find a local guide on the spot, but I recommend that you go with an agency from Cartagena (like Cathy) – much easier and more interesting.

If you prefer using Viator, you can book this excellent tour.

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Cartagena's culture and history with Cathy
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Since 2015, Tomplanmytrip (us) looks for the best local agencies in Colombia and put you in direct contact with them.

Pros:
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Castillo San Felipe DE BARAJAS

San Felipe de Bajas Cartagena

This imposing fortress is the largest colonial Spanish fortification in South America. Initially built in the 17th century, it was expanded after attacks like Drake’s in 1586 and Pointis’ in 1697, culminating in its crucial role in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741.

Today, you can tour Castillo San Felipe, exploring its vast structure and tunnels, and learn about its strategic significance in protecting Cartagena.

9# Special events in Cartagena

Best things to do in Cartagena

Cartagena’s vibrant events showcase its rich history and arts. Here’s a quick look at the main happenings:

  • Independence Day in November: Celebrating liberation from Spanish rule, this festival in early November is a lively mix of parades, dance shows, and neighborhood festivities. The highlight is the Independence beauty pageant, where the Popular Queen of Cartagena is crowned, feeding into the national Miss Colombia contest.
  • The Hay Festival: Every January, Cartagena hosts this global cultural festival celebrating literature, arts, and journalism. Originating in Wales, the festival attracts international figures for talks and presentations, with a focus on youth engagement and free access for students.
  • Cartagena Music Festival: Scheduled usually for early January, the festival explores music and nature. Featuring international and Colombian compositions, it combines concerts with masterclasses and workshops, enriching the city’s musical scene.
  • Cartagena International Film Festival: Latin America’s oldest film festival, held in March, spotlights Colombian and Ibero-American cinema. It’s a hub for industry professionals and features a mobile cinema project, bringing films to underserved areas.

El Centro and San Diego are the two most prestigious and glamorous areas of the historic center.

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Q&A: Best things to do in Cartagena

Getsemani street Tom

Here are the most popular questions asked by our readers.

  1. What is Cartagena best known for?

    Cartagena is best known for its romantic historic center and the Rosario islands.

  2. What is the #1 tourist site in Cartagena?

    Cartagena’s first tourist attraction is El Centro, a district of the historic center just beyond the entrance or the Torre del Reloj.

  3. How many days in Cartagena is enough?

    I recommend staying 2 nights if you only want to visit the city of Cartagena and 4 nights if you also want to include the Rosario Islands.

  4. Is it worth visiting Cartagena, Colombia?

    Yes, it’s worth visiting Cartagena de Indias. However, I recommend that you come with a good budget to really enjoy it.

  5. Is Cartagena a walkable city?

    Yes, Cartagena is a walkable city. It’s only a 10-minute walk from Getsemani to the historic center. These are the only 2 areas where you’re likely to spend your day.

  6. Unique things to do in Cartagena?

    Unique things to do in Cartagena include tasting Colombian rum, taking a photo with the palenqueras, hiring a boat to discover the Rosario Islands, and strolling through the historic center.

  7. Free things to do in Cartagena, Colombia?

    Besides going to the beaches and strolling through the old town, you can visit the gold museum or look for monkeys in the Parque Centenario for free. There are also free walking tours, but don’t be cheap and let a tip.

  8. Things to do in Bocagrande, Cartagena?

    There’s not much to do in Bocagrande. You can go to the crowded beach or take an early evening stroll along the bay.

  9. Adventurous things to do in Cartagena, Colombia

    For a shot of adrenaline, you can kitesurf on La Boquilla beach, discover the marine life around the Rosario Islands, go paratriking, or drive like crazy on your ATV.

Where to stay in Cartagena, Colombia

Rooftop hotel Cartagena claver

Depending on the atmosphere you are looking for and your budget, there are different areas where you can book your hotel in Cartagena.

  • Travelers looking for luxury and romance will love El Centro and San Diego.
  • Those who have a smaller budget and would like a more authentic area will be happy to stay at Getsemaní.
  • Travelers who love big modern hotels with swimming pools and breakfast buffet should search their hotels in Laguito and Bocagrande.
  • Finally, beach lovers will be disappointed by Cartagena and should stay at least two nights on the Rosario Islands.

What to read next

Here are some popular articles to become a Cartagena de Indias expert.

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I have been traveling around Colombia and Mexico since 2015 to discover new experiences and help travelers make the right choices.

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