Cartagena is Colombia’s most famous international vacation destination. It’s a well-deserved title as the city has some amazing nearby beaches, year-round beach weather, plus lots of historic charm, culture, and great restaurants and nightlife.
Learn about some of the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia in this post.
1. Explore the Picturesque Rosario Islands
No visit to Cartagena is complete without at least spending a day in the gorgeous Rosario Islands. There are some great resorts, ecolodges, and hostels where you can spend a night or two as well but doing at least a day trip here is all but obligatory.
If you happen to be traveling in a group or can manage to put a group together, renting a private boat for the day to go to the islands is the absolute best way to do it.
You can hit some of the lesser traveled beaches, snorkel, or head to party spot Cholón for some boat dance parties. There are also some shared boats as well as a great Catamaran tour and lots of nice beach clubs and hotels that offer day passes.
For other nice beaches, you could opt to check out Playa Blanca, which has a gorgeous stretch of white sand beach. It’s long been on the backpacker and traveler list.
However, in recent years it’s become overcrowded so it’s best to plan to visit on the weekdays and head to the far end of the beach where there are fewer people.
The beaches of the island of Tierra Bomba just across the bay from town are also decent as are the beaches in the town itself. However, you’ll want to at least get a day to the nicer beaches in the Rosario Islands of Playa Blanca with their clear water and white sand.
2. Be Enchanted by the Historic Walled City
Known as the Centro Histórico, the Walled City of Cartagena is absolutely gorgeous. As you wander the narrow streets, be on the lookout for flower-covered balconies overhead and for the elaborate door knockers that once were a marker of colonial era social class.
You’ll find many of Cartagena’s best attractions, restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs, and shops inside the Walled City.
That makes it the best area for where to stay in Cartagena as well as you can easily walk everywhere, and there are some lovely boutique hotels in former mansions as well as more budget-friendly hotels and hostels.
Some of the highlights worth seeing inside the old city include the Naval Museum for exhibits on the city’s history, the Inquisition Palace Museum which has torture devices on display, and the Gold Museum with its neat examples of precolonial gold pieces made by Colombia’s indigenous peoples.
The San Pedro Claver Church is well worth a visit too. The architecture is lovely and there are some nice examples of art and exhibits on this saint of human rights’ life on display inside.
3. Explore the Colorful and Historic Neighborhood of Getsemaní
Just a short walk from the Walled City, you’ll find the equally historic and charming neighborhood of Getsemaní. During the colonial era, this neighborhood was home to the city’s artisan class, many of which were former slaves.
Their support for independence was crucial to Cartagena taking a leading role in Colombia’s independence, and this area is often considered to be where Cartagena’s unique culture originated.
Today, you can find lots of cool street art nestled among the pretty architecture here. Particularly neat is the Calle San Andres with its pretty colored flags overhead and the Callejón Angosto, with colorful umbrellas overhead.
Be sure to take some time to walk around here, take in, and get some great photos with all the pretty street art.
There are also plenty of great restaurants and cafes in Getsemaní. You’ll find many of them around the Plaza de la Trinidad, a great gathering place for visitors and locals in the evening. Nearby on Calle Media Luna and Calle El Arsenal, you’ll find lots of bars and nightclubs for getting your dance on in the evening as well.
4. Visit the Castillo San Felipe Fort
This massive fort was the largest built on mainland South America during the Spanish colonial era. The original fort here played a key role in Cartagena’s outnumbered defenders defeating a British invasion force led by Edward Vernon in 1741.
The fort was later expanded to cover the entire hill it sat upon. That gives it a unique shape that isn’t the normal square or rectangle of most forts built in this era. It also means it’s absolutely massive.
You can get some great views of the walled city and bay from atop the walls. Be sure to walk through the tunnels connecting the different sections too! It is best to try to get here early to beat both the crowds and the heat.
5. Appreciate the Gorgeous Caribbean Sunsets
There are some great spots to see the sunset in Cartagena. Probably the most famous is the iconic Café del Mar, located atop a section of the wall. It has a direct view of the sunset over the Caribbean and is a great place to go to enjoy a few drinks with the amazing view.
For another amazing view, head to the rooftop bar of Hotel Movich, open to the public. Here there is a panoramic view of the gorgeous church of San Pedro Claver framed with the backdrop of the bay and modern high-rises of Bocagrande behind it.
It’s the best view in the city and looks great at sunset time.
Some other good spots for sunset include 51 SkyBar and the rooftop bar at Townhouse, which has great drinks and food. Finally, doing a sunset cruise is a great way to get a unique perspective of the sun setting over the sea and see the city lit up in the early evening.
6. See a Salty Pink Sea
About an hour north of Cartagena, you’ll find the small town of Galerazamba. Here, there is a working sea salt mine that has become one of Cartagena’s more unique attractions.
The salty sea is the perfect environment for microorganisms that on a sunny day give the water a pink color.
It’s a really neat site and can be seen for much of the year. However, it’s worth double checking that the pink effect is active before you visit as the harvesting of the salt or rains can disrupt it.
7. Squish and Splash in a Mud Volcano
A great thing to combine with the Pink Sea is the nearby Mud Volcano of El Totumo. Probably the strangest thing to do in Cartagena is an actual real mud volcano. Climb up the stairs along its side and slide down into the mud in the crater.
The natural consistency keeps you from sinking more than about shoulder deep into the mud. It’s a bit of a strange, but certainly unique experience, and the mud is supposedly very good for your skin. Many tours to the Mud Volcano also include the Pink Sea.
8. Sample All the Great Food
There is plenty of great food to try in Cartagena. The seafood is great, not surprising given its coastal location.
You’ll want to try the traditional fried fish plate that includes a whole fish fried to crispy, golden perfection along with local traditional sides of coconut rice and patacones, fried patties made from mashed plantains. It’s the perfect meal for a day at the beach or on the islands and pairs perfectly with an ice cold beer.
Just about any other seafood dish is well worth trying in Cartagena too, most especially seafood rice or anything in the garlic sauce known as al ajillo. For a non-seafood dish, try posta negra, a piece of pork roast cooked in a sweet and savory sauce.
Some of the best restaurants in Cartagena include Club de Pesca, Alma, Carmen, Candé, and Buena Vida Marisquería. For great food at value prices, try La Mulata and El Espiritú Santo.
There are tons of other great options in the Walled City and Getsemaní. For a unique food experience, consider a tour to the Bazurto City Market.
You also have to try some of the street food in Cartagena. You’ll find your standard grilled, cheese-filled arepas and empanadas, but also some unique offerings. A must try is the arepa de huevo.
More similar to a corn empanada than most arepas, it is stuffed with egg and ground beef. It makes for a great, greasy breakfast, cheap dinner, or late-night snack.
Another street food unique to the Caribbean coast is the Carimañola, stuffed yuca fritters. Finally, if you have a big appetite, try a patacón con todo, a giant fried plantain covered with meats and cheese.
There you have 8 great things to do in Cartagena, Colombia.
Besides all these fun activities Cartagena also makes a great gateway to visit more of Colombia, from the city of eternal spring in Medellín, the mountains of the Andes, the Amazon, or the other lovely Caribbean beaches up the coast, there are lots to do and see in Colombia beyond these fun things to do in Cartagena.
About the Author
Adam McConnaughhay lived in Cartagena for over a decade and writes about it and other destinations he’s had the pleasure of visiting in Colombia at CartagenaExplorer.com