Visiting Cartagena and looking for a list of the best things to do in Cartagena’s old city and neighboring Getsemani district? Well, we have you covered. From where to eat and where to stay in Cartagena, and the things not to miss, we have your complete travel guide to Cartagena just below.
Cartagena is historic, colorful, and will leave your memory card full of amazing photos. This former Spanish colony in the 1500s was defending itself from pirates and now, it’s one of the most popular destinations in Colombia as well as South America.
Whether you’re spending just one day here or 5 days in Cartagena, your days will be spent wandering in the tropical sunshine, eating delicious seafood, and trying to figure out which colorful house is your favorite.
Cartagena Travel Guide
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Where is Cartagena?
Located along the northern coastline of Colombia, Cartagena is a historic old town and port city. Founded in the 16th century, Cartagena’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its well-preserved Spanish-colonial architecture and deep history.
When planning your visit to Cartagena, understand that Cartagena has a new city and an old city. If you are looking to experience the old city, which is where the history and Instagram photos are from, you are going to want to stay in Centro (within the old walled city of Cartagena) or nearby the Getsemani neighborhood.
With Cartagena being nestled along the Caribbean coast, the old town makes for a great jumping-off point to explore the nearby islands of Isle de Baru and the Rosario’s, even allowing you the opportunity to stay on a floating island.
Check out our Colombia itinerary and trip planning guide!
How To Get To Cartagena
Depending on where you are coming from, more times than not, the quickest and easiest way to get to Cartagena is to fly into Cartagena’s airport, Rafael Núñez International Airport. Rafael Núñez International Airport is about a 15 to 20-minute uber/taxi ride to Centro (Cartagena’s old walled city) and Getsemani, two of the areas we recommend you stay in Cartagena.
Alternatively, bus travel is a well-oiled machine in Colombia, so traveling overland to Cartagena is totally doable and a cheaper option than flying. Just understand it can take all day to get to Cartagena depending on where you are coming from in Colombia.
Best Time of Year To Visit Cartagena
The best time to visit Cartagena is December to April. The tropical climate is warm to hot, sitting anywhere from the mid-80s to the high-90s. However, with all this great weather and low rainfall comes higher prices and more tourists. Specifically, December through January is considered Cartagena’s high season.
We visited during January and can attest to a lot of tourists, but we still found it manageable and not overwhelming. There are quiet places where you can find amazing little gems that give you some solace from the crowds.
Be sure to read our 18 things to know before visiting Cartagena
How Many Days In Cartagena?
One of the great things about Cartagena’s Old City (Centro) is it’s all walkable, allowing you to experience a lot of the must-see sights of Cartagena with your own two feet. So, while one day is short, seeing the highlights of Cartagena in one day is doable. However, we recommend you allow yourself at least 3 to 5 days in Cartagena to really experience this Spanish colonial town and its nearby Caribbean islands.
14 Things To Do In Cartagena & Getsemani
Before we jump into what to do in Cartagena and where to eat and stay, understand that located just outside the old city of Cartagena (Centro) lies the neighborhood of Getsemani. When visiting Cartagena’s old city, you should NOT miss Getsemani.
Getsemani is much more local and laid-back than Centro Cartagena, and they’re only minutes away from each other. With fantastic restaurants, bars, and street art, Getsemani is the hipper cousin to the more touristy old city of Cartagena.
You can experience both Getsemani and Cartagena (Centro) in one day or spend 3 to 5 days exploring both neighborhoods. Regardless of how much time you have for your Cartagena itinerary, the below list is some of the best things to do in Cartagena and its surrounding areas.
1. Wake Up Early & Explore The Old Walled City of Cartagena
Cartagena’s Centro (old city) is a party town, no doubt. People stay out late and to catch up on the fun they have the night before, sleep in. The same goes for the shop vendors. While they may not be out the night before partying (or they may, who knows!) shops tend to not open till around 8:30-9 am. This allows those early birds or photographers empty streets to enjoy during the early morning hours.
Wander around and take in the gorgeous colorful homes, vibe-acious doors, and beautiful flowers overhanging into the street. You essentially have the historic city to yourself for sunrise. It’s magic.
2. Watch Sunset From The Old City Wall Ramparts (Avoid Café del Mar)
Let’s jump to the end of the day, shall we? You woke up early for sunrise and experienced the quiet streets of Cartagena’s Old Walled City, so what to do for sunset?
Easy. Head to the west wall ramparts, near Cafe Del Mar if you need a GPS point. HOWEVER, we advise you not to dine or drink at Cafe Del Mar. It’s a nice restaurant that offers amazing views of the sunset, but it’s expensive. So if you are on a budget or just want something more local, avoid Cafe del Mar and find a spot on the Rampart walls behind and next to it instead. Same views, just free 🙂
Plop your butt down and wait for an approaching vendor to swing by to offer you ice cold beers. Buy a few and enjoy an epic sunset over the ocean as you sip on a cold Aguila Light.
3. Explore The Street Art of Getsemani
We love Getsemani. This neighborhood radiates a “vibe” that is hard to describe. But authentic, eclectic. and expressive are good words to start with. Dare we say it, but we think we actually liked Getsemani more than we did the old city of Cartagena. Bold statement, we know.
Getsemani is littered with fantastic murals that cover its walls. They’re beautiful and tell a story about the days past. You can wander around the neighborhood freely, or book a guided tour to learn more about Getsemani’s history and its street art.
Buy fresh juice (Jugo) from its many street vendors and have one of the best meals of your life at La Cocina De Pepina (get the soup!). And the Getsemani nightlife, well, we’ll get to that just below.
4. Eat at Getsemani’s Food Truck Scene & Watch The Sunset
As we were coming back from the Rosario Islands by boat one afternoon, we spotted a food truck park along the seawall. Spotting these food trucks was really sheer luck for us, and we are so glad it happened! Terraza Municipal is located within the Getsemani neighborhood and is home to several food trucks, a full bar, and endless seating for you to watch the sunset.
From fresh mojitos to pizza, and sushi, a chill atmosphere awaits you here. Really, Terraza Municipal is a great place to get away from the crowds of tourists and to experience a nice evening before heading out into Getsemani for more food, drinks, live music, or salsa dancing.
5. Expereince a Cartagena Tour
While wandering around and exploring a place on your own is great, sometimes booking a tour is better. Below is a list of some popular tours operating in and around the Old City of Cartagena.
- Enjoy A Free Walking Tour: We love a free walking tour! Why? The guides really work for their tips by ensuring they give you the best tour possible. Join a free walking tour to be taken to some of the best sights in the old city of Cartagena and learn a little about each place and the city you are in.
- Book A Food Tour: Who doesn’t love food?! This food tour will take you to sample some of Cartagena’s essential eats.
- Take a Sunset Cruise: End a day on an ocean sailing past Cartagena’s magnificent skyline and old city.
- Try A Cooking Class: One of our favorite tours to do is a cooking class! Not only do you get to learn about the culture through cuisine, but you also get to eat tasty meals while you do it! You can also do a Bazurto Market and cooking class combo tour too!
6. Visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the largest colonial Spanish fort in South America. Sitting atop of the 130-foot high San Lazaro Hill, construction on the fort finished in 1657 and allowed the Spanish to defend Cartagena against invaders and pirates looking to come and seize the city’s gold and treasures.
Today, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m for visitors to come and enjoy. You can walk the multi-level fort and explore its underground tunnels. Tickets costs $10,500 COP (about $3 USD) for kids ages 6 to 13 and $25,000 COP (about $8 USD) for adults.
7. Listen to Live Music and Salsa Dance The Night Away At Cafe Havana
One of our favorite things we did during our time in Cartagena’s old city and Getsemani was listening to live music and salsa dance at Cafe Havana! It was so fun and a memory we won’t forget. Being packed into a bar with a full 10-12 piece live band as the bar patrons filled every open space and salsa danced the night away!
There is an entry fee to get into Cafe Havana, about $10 USD, and the drinks are not much cheaper. Cafe Havana is definitely not a budget-friendly bar or night out, but it will be a night out you won’t soon forget!
If you want to partake in all the vibrant dancing in Cartagena, but don’t know the steps, you can book a dance class so you are more than ready to hit the floor!
8. Don’t Miss Cocktails at a Cartagena Rooftop Bar
When in Cartagena, enjoying a fresh mojito on a rooftop bar is hard to beat. Cartagena’s old city has a handful of some amazing rooftop bars that serve fresh hand-crafted cocktails, cold beers, and tasty food. A few of our favorite places you should check out are just below.
- Alquimico: This place is a gastronomic and cocktail institution in Cartagena and if you have to pick one of these places to enjoy, make this it. Be warned, a line will be wrapped around the block, so do your best to get there when they open, or close to it.
- Hotel Movich: This spot may be hit or miss depending on if they have an event going on, but if you are able to get up to the rooftop, you will be greeted with expansive views of the city, clear views of Santuario de San Pedro Claver, and the ocean.
- Buena Vida Marisquería: Outside of the food being amazing, Buena Vida’s rum and tequila selection are amazing as well. Listen to live music (reggae drums when we were there) as you sip Caribbean cocktails on plush bench seats with views of Cartagena’s old city rooftops.
- Mirador Gastro Bar: Sitting right above Plaza de Los Coches, you’ll have great views of vendors below and the Monumento Torre del Reloj (the main city gate and clock tower).
9. Stroll Through The Plazas of Cartagena’s Old Town
Of the many things to do, make sure to walk and see Cartagena’s quaint plazas that reside within its old city walls. In our opinion, the must-sees are listed just below
- Plaza de La Aduana: Largest and oldest square in the old city of Cartagena
- Plaza Santo Domingo: A plaza with cafes, Santo Domingo Church, and a Botero sculpture.
- Monumento Torre del Reloj: Ok, so technically not a plaza, but located in Plaza de Los Coches, Monumento Torre del Reloj is the main city gate and clock tower.
- Plaza de Los Coches: Located just behind the main entrance to the Old City with vendors and confectioners’ stalls.
- Plaza de Bolívar: A small shaded plaza in the heart of the old city.
- San Pedro Claver Plaza: A nice square with San Pedro Claver Church, the Modern Art Museum, and a few cafes.
10. Check Out a Cartagena Museum or Two
While we did not visit any museums during our time in Cartagena, we’re just not museum people, the below Cartagena museums are great for those history buffs and museum lovers or for anyone needing a break from that tropical Cartagena heat.
- Palace of the Inquisition Cartagena Historical Museum: Showcasing historical artifacts and the torturous acts committed during the Spanish Inquisition.
- Museo del Oro Zenú: Also known as the Gold Museum that features over 600+ pieces of gold, silver and pre-Columbian relics.
- Naval Museum: A military museum featuring exhibits from the Colonial era and current times.
11. Experience Plaza de la Trinidad At Night
When exploring Getsemani and all its authentic glory, make sure to visit Plaza de la Trinidad at dusk or after the sunsets. Why? This place comes alive with its vendors selling beer to locals dancing and enjoying the night as the music plays in the background.
12. Visit Bazurto Market
One of the most local experiences you can give yourself is a visit to Bazurto Market. The local and gritty Bazurto Market is the large market home to endless stalls selling fresh and local produce, fruits, and fresh meats.
If you’ve been to other local markets in South America or Asia, you know what you’re getting yourself into. If not, Bazurto Market can be overwhelming, so if you want to pay a visit, booking a guided tour may be of interest.
13. Drink Some Colombian Coffee
While you may not be in the coffee region of Colombia, you are in Colombia which is home to some of the best coffee in the world. If you’re a coffee-lover, you’re in for a treat! Just make sure to drink your fill of classic Colombian coffees and espressos! Below are some of our favorite coffee shops in Cartagena’s old city and Getsemani.
14. Get Something Sweet From Portal De Los Dulces
Under the covered archways of Plaza de Los Coches lies a row of vendors selling traditional Colombian sweets. Know as El Portal de Los Dulces (the portal of sweets), handmade sweets are on display in glass jars waiting for you to sample.
Best Day Trips From Cartagena
So while there are many things to do in Cartagena’s old city and neighboring Getsemani, there are also amazing things to do outside of the city as well! If you have 3 to 5 days in Cartagena, definitely consider taking one of the day trips listed below.
- Rosario Islands: Located an hour boat ride away is the Rosario Islands, Isle Grande being the largest and most popular. Spend your day swimming in Caribbean waters and relaxing on the beach.
- Playa Blanca & Isa Baru: Catch a ride overland to Playa Blanca one of the nicest beaches close to Cartagena, located on Isa Baru.
- El Totumo Mud Volcano: If you are looking for an earthy spa day, El Totumo is for you. Enjoy an all-natural mud bath in a volcano!
Tip: We visited Isle Grande of the Rosaria Islands and opted to stay two nights on the island, versus just a day trip. If you have the time and budget, check out Hotel San Pedro de Majagua.
Best Places To Eat in Cartagena & Getsemani
During our time in Cartagena, eating was one thing we did VERY well. Below are our favorite restaurants, bars, and nightlife spots in Cartagena’s old city and Getsemani. Oh, and it should be noted that there is a daily curfew from 3 am – 5 am (during COVID times at least). You’ll be able to party well into the early hours of the morning, just be sure to be home by 3 am.
- Cocina De Pepina: Rustic, classic Caribbean food that uses simple ingredients that will leave your taste buds wanting more
- Alquimico: A hip bar serving inventive cocktails and entrees
- El Arsenal The Rum Box: Known for its chocolate and rum pairings
- Restaurante Candé: Live music with upscale classic Colombian food
- La Cevichería: Anthony Bourdain ate here and the ceviche is dynamite
- Restaurante Celele: One of the best meals we had in Colombia. Celele is amazing and one of the top 50 restaurants in Latin America!
- Buena Vida Marisquería: Great cocktails, fun atmosphere, and really damn good food.
- Caffé Lunático: Great little café and bar for lunch
- La Palettería: Amazing fruit popsicles
- Beiyu: Fresh smoothies and juices
Outside of the above restaurants, Cartagena does have some staple dishes to try. Seafood, in general, is the king protein in Cartagena! You’re on the water after all. Fish with coconut rice and ceviche are the top two seafood dishes you must try, and while we don’t eat meat, Posta Negra is another essential Cartagena beef dish to try (so we’re told).
And don’t be afraid of street food! If you see vendors selling fresh juices (Jugo), Arepas (maize dough flatbread), Patacones (garlic fried plantains), and Empanadas give them a try!
Two great options are staying either within Cartagena’s walled city (Centro) or just outside it, in the Getsemani neighborhood. Both are only minutes from each other so whichever you choose, the other option is a short walk away to explore and enjoy.
What Not To Do In Cartagena
1. Avoid Cartagena’s Beaches.
Yes, Cartagena has beaches, buuut, they’re not that great. They’re crowded, the beaches are victims of pollution, and the water is far from clear. If you are wanting a relaxing beach day, we highly recommend you visit Isle de Baru or the Rosario Islands instead.
2. Skip The Horse Drawn Carriage Rides.
One of the more popular tourist attractions in Cartagena is horse-drawn carriage rides through the old city. While this may sound grand and all, be aware of the negative impacts tourism has on animals. It’s our recommendation that you skip the carriage ride and simply walk the city instead. Besides, the traffic in Cartagena is a nightmare, so you’re going to be stuck behind cars during your whole ride. Pretty miserable, right?
Is Cartagena Worth Visiting? And, Is Cartagena Expensive?
Of the places we visited during our time in Colombia, Cartagena was by far the most touristic and most expensive. But we do think it is 100% worth visiting. While Cartagena wasn’t our favorite place we visited in Colombia, by no means did we regret our time here.
For those who have visited Cartagena, you can’t deny the beauty of this city and its infectious atmosphere and draw it has. It’s a popular destination for good reason.
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– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)