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  • Cartagena-Colombia-church - The Church of St. Peter Claver is right next to old fortifications in Cartagena, Colombia.
  • Cartagena-Colombia-cannons - Cannons on the Old City wall in Cartagena, Colombia.
  • Cartagena-Colombia - Cartagena, Colombia, is a popular port on the Caribbean, due east of Panama.
  • Cartagena-Colombia-night - A nighttime shot in Cartagena, Colombia.

Cartagena, Colombia, travel guide: Top things to do & see

The vibe

Cartagena is the jewel of Colombia — a true vacation paradise on the shores of the Caribbean Sea that invites visitors to revel in its scenic and cultural charms. The city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site with colonial and modern architecture, international cultural festivals, and native and European culture permeating its cuisine, nightlife and shopping. It's divided into several regions, each with its own unique character.

If you're a cruise day-tripper, you'll most likely be spending the majority of your time in the downtown area, home to the Walled City, the Puerta del Reloj and the beautiful Plaza de San Pedro, as well as many museums and fine restaurants. The San Diego region of Cartagena is home to the Escuela de Bellas Artes (School of Fine Arts) as well as some superb vistas of the expansive Caribbean Sea. The Getsemaní neighborhood is the site of many picturesque churches, including the glorious Iglesia de la Tercera Orden.

Note: Don't confuse this Colombian outpost with its namesake in Spain. 

Cruise ships that call on Cartagena

Top reasons to go

  • The Museo del Oro specializes in the works and study of the Sinu, the original inhabitants of the Colombian coastal region.
  • Shopping in the Centro Comercial Bocagrande offers a wide variety of boutiques and shops that cater to the whole family.
  • Check out the Clock Tower building in Cartagena's historic old town surrounded by the city wall.
A nighttime shot in Cartagena, Colombia.
katiebordner / Creative CommonsA nighttime shot in Cartagena, Colombia.

Top things to do & see

Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia. Several years later, the Spanish empire decided to protect its new land from English, French, and Dutch pirates by constructing a walled fortress around the Old City. The remains of this fortress are still intact, though in the 1500s it did little to deter invaders. Attacks by the French and British followed. 

Today, tourism is the backbone of the local economy, though it has fallen off in recent years as travelers fret about political upheaval in Colombia. Yet throughout the turmoil, Cartagena has fared quite well, and the city is still a scenic and safe haven for international travelers. 

For history & culture buffs

  • The Museo del Oro (05-660-0778), in the Plaza de Bolívar, is a fascinating museum that specializes in the works and study of the Sinu, the original inhabitants of the Colombian coastal region. The museum specifically brings to light their great advancements in agriculture, social organization and metalworking. The Museo del Oro is open from 8:30 am to noon, and from 2 to 4 pm Monday through Friday.
  • If you are a veteran history buff and would like to study the colorful past of Cartagena in great detail, you will love a trip to the Archivo Histórica de Cartagena (05-664-7381), at Centro Carrera 3. The Archivo Histórica de Cartagena contains rare manuscripts and priceless photographs that take you back to Cartagena life during colonial times.
  • Biblioteca Bartólome Calvo Díaz, at Centro Calle de la Inquisición No. 3-44, was named after Bartólome Calvo Díaz, a writer and poet who lived in Cartagena. It is a world-class research library containing many fascinating books and manuscripts, as well as beautiful stained-glass artwork inside the impressive architectural structure.
  • Puerta del Reloj, at Avenida Venezuela, is a famous clock-tower gate that signifies the entrance into the Corralito de Piedra (Old City). It is a tremendously popular meeting place with locals and tourists alike, who come here to marvel at the beautiful 16th and 17th century architecture and shop among the throngs of craftsman and local merchant kiosks.

Nightlife

Cartagena has several casinos that cater to the card-playing tourist. Casino del Caribe (05-665-0573) is one of the finest in the city. Head to Centro Comercial Pierino, and revel in an array of slot machines, roulette wheels and poker tables.

If you would rather strut your stuff on the dance floor, be sure to visit Discoteca de La Marina. This disco is an elegant, upscale establishment featuring two dance floors, one playing live music nightly, the other featuring the best local DJs in action.

Shopping

Centro Comercial Bocagrande (05-665-0553) is a great shopping destination for the whole family. Featuring a wonderful assortment of men's, women's and children's clothes, in addition to boutiques, furniture and jewelry shops, and even a cinema, the Centro Comercial Bocagrande will surely fulfill your shopping desires.

If you're looking for a store specializing in fine jewelry, look no further than Joyería Nancy on Avenida San Martín No. 6-29. Joyería Nancy features beautifully designed jewelry known throughout Colombia for its wonderful attention to detail and craftsmanship.

Dining

From family-owned eateries to gourmet restaurants, a wealth of dining options awaits. Local dishes consist of a blend of European cuisine with aspects of Afro-centric and indigenous foods. Among the dishes available in Cartagena and throughout Colombia are fritangas, which consists mainly of grilled meats and sausages; tropical fruits, and arepa, a bread made with corn. Top dining venues include:

  • Juan del Mar in La Plaza de San Diego features excellent seafood dishes with a Thai twist.
  • Club de Pesca (05-660-5863) is known throughout the city for its charming ambience and delicious cuisine. Call ahead for reservations, as this popular restaurant can get quite crowded.
  • If the evening weather is blissful, which it often is, head to El Portón de Santo Domingo (05-664-8897), located on Calle Santo Domingo, for a romantic dinner outdoors amid the soft glow of candlelight and historic colonial cannons. Once again, be sure to call ahead for reservations.

Need to know

Language: Spanish

Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport.

Tipping: It's generally not the custom to tip in Colombia. In finer restaurants, wealthy people will tip about 10%. Some fine restaurants will add a service charge to the bill, so make sure to check your bill to avoid doubling the tip. 

Currency: Peso

Safety: Beware of street vendors who offer a very good exchange rate. After you have counted the money you will recognize that a small amount is missing, and after complaining, the vendor will put exactly that amount on top again. In the same move, they will take some big notes from the bottom. Most people won't count their money a second time and get ripped off. Also, be very careful when walking at night, especially in more desolate parts of the city.

Your take

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