Over the past few years Colombia has been one of the top destinations for travellers, often highlighted by the many things to do in Cartagena, a beautiful and historic Caribbean city. The city itself is colourful, safe, full of amazing food, and has a history relevant to the Spanish Conquest.
While many head to Cartagena for the warm Caribbean weather, there are so many different reason’s to stay and explore.
This port city which is surrounded by a pirate defensible wall, played a role in the Spanish conquest as it oversaw the exportation and importation of products to and from South America.
The history in Cartagena is rich, colourful, and was occasionally violent. Because of this interesting history, you’ll find a variety of museums, tours, and sites to see. The history and people of Cartagena had me so hooked that I ended up hanging around for an extra 2 months!
Culturally, the people of Cartagena give off that warm Caribbean vibe, coupled with some of the best music and dancing out there. The reputation for food and drink is unmatched in Colombia with street food and gastronomic tours available as just some of the many things to do in Cartagena.
Visit a beautiful white sand beach, sink into an active volcano, and eat your heart out. There are numerous things to do in Colombia, with a visit to Cartagena being a highlight.
Here’s my list of the top 21 things to do in Cartagena:
1. Take a Swim in the Crater of El Totumo volcano
Almost every tour company in Cartagena will offer you a tour to Colombia’s Magical Mud Volcano. They say that El Totumo is an active volcano which used to spew fire, lava and ashes until a local priest turned it into mud with holy water.
These days, visitors to Cartagena can take mud baths in the crater of this 15m volcano. They say it has healing properties, but who knows if that’s true or not.
The actual journey to El Totumo takes travellers through the sweeping landscape of the Santa Catalina district of Colombia. Once you arrive, there is a staircase that leads to the crater where visitors can climb into the volcano to experience what I would consider to be the oddest feeling ever.
The mud is not hot nor cold. It’s not thin, yet not thick…you feel weightless, as if you are floating in space. After a while this lack of bodily control gets a little creepy, so get out and head into the lake next door for a bath, often done by local Colombian women…just wait for it…they will have your clothes off and you will be sitting naked in the lake before you know it.
A tour to El Totumo costs just $45,000 Colombian Pesos, around $15 USD, so bring your bathing suits and a change of clothes, and enjoy the healing mud.
2. Spend the Day at Playa Blanca
This is one of Colombia’s very picturesque beaches and it is about a 1 hour drive from Cartagena. As this is one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena, many tour companies offer trips to Playa Blanca, however it is just as easy and cheaper to arrange a drop off and pick up time with a taxi driver (or Uber). They do it often so they know the drill.
Once you arrive at this beautiful white sandy beach with stunning turquoise water, you will be able to relax all day purchasing snacks, both food and drink, from the many vendors along the beach. Some locals will even offer massages to go with your perfect picturesque Colombian beach experience.
3. Party at Media Luna On Wednesday
Cartagena is synonymous with all things party. The city boasts a massive reputation for awesome night life, salsa dancing and the Colombian coast’s own, Champeta musica. Every Wednesday night, Media Luna Hostel, which is situated just outside the old city, opens up its rooftop patio and second floor to host a huge party for travellers.
All the travellers around Cartagena come to Media Luna to dance, drink and make friends with other adventurers. Even some of the locals attend this party. My best advice is to show up early because this party gets wild fast.
4. Walk Around the Instagrammable Old City of Cartagena
Every building within Cartagena’s walled city is like that of a Latin fairy-tale. The walls of the buildings are brightly coloured in reds, yellows, blues, and oranges. There are flowers laced through colonial architecture styled windows and doors, with cobblestone streets and statues in the squares…all these things create Cartagena’s instagrammable reputation.
It is easy to spend a day just walking through and taking pictures of Cartagena’s walled city. Enjoying the ambiance and character of the old city is one of my favourite things to do in Cartagena.
Stop for a coffee or juice from a local vendor, take pictures with the fruit ladies dressed in Caribbean garb, or just relax and enjoy beautiful Cartagena.
5. Visit Cartagena’s Gold Museum – The Museo del Oro Zenu
Colombia and gold museums go hand in hand. I mean it was technically, the location of folkloric El Dorado. The Museo del Oro in Cartagena is home to a fantastic collection of gold artifacts as well as sterling examples of pottery created by the ingenious Zenu people who inhabited the area prior to the Spanish conquest.
I say ingenious because of the advanced drainage systems they used to cultivate their land, something explained in detail at the museum.
Gold was important to the development of Cartagena. The city’s founding father, Pedro de Heredia, headed the first expedition up the River Sinú in search of gold – ravaging the Zenu people’s grave sites for gold.
This was so successful that with the indigenous labour and cultivation as well as with the gold, the city of Cartagena was able to financially prosper for decades. To help one understand its history, a visit to the gold museum is definitely one of the best things to do in Cartagena for free, yes there is no entrance fee and it’s open from 9:00am to 5:00pm.
6. Party on a Chiva Bus
Partying on a Chiva Bus is almost like a right of passage for travellers in South America and what better place to do it than in a city of music and dance such as Cartagena. A ride on a Chiva bus can be one of the funniest activities in Cartagena. These colourful wooden buses with party lights and loud music cruise the streets of Cartagena at night sourcing out the best places to party. When backpacking Colombia, this is a party highlight.
As the bus tours the beautiful city of Cartagena at night, feel free to dance in the bus along the streets with the rum flowing and the music blaring. Yes, the Chiva bus might be tacky, but with the right crowd it can be absolutely hilarious. Chiva buses can be booked through any tour company in the town or through your hotel or hostel at a cost of COP $55,000 ($19).
7. Visit the Palace of the Inquisition
Cartagena is a city full of history from the pre-Colombian times as shown in the Museo del Ozo, to the time of the inquisition as displayed here at the Palace of the Inquisition.
This 18th century building was the seat of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of Cartagena. If you are wandering around the Old City and looking for things to do in Cartagena, I recommend you head over to the Palace of the Inquisition for a history lesson.
As a major commercial port for Spain, the Palace of the Inquisition was used as a place to try Jews or other non Catholics coming into the city, as well as individuals who were believed guilty of crimes such as black magic.
Until 2015 the museum housed ancient torture devices used for these trials. Currently the building is considered one of Cartagena’s best examples of colonial and civil architecture. It is well maintained and worth the effort to see, open from 9:00am to 6:00pm and costing just COP $19,000 ($6.50).
8. Enjoy Dinner and Nightlife at Plaza la Trinidad
The Plaza la Trinidad is without a doubt one of my favourite night-time things to do in Cartagena. The plaza is surrounded by wonderful street food vendors, and I mean wonderful, as well as a selection of absolutely delicious restaurants. What I am trying to say is…this is my go to dining experience in Cartagena.
The people of the city, both gringos and locals alike, make their way to the plaza to experience what that particular night has to offer. Sometimes you’ll find a local game of football in the streets, occasionally there are street performers, and often there is music and dancing in the plaza.
The Plaza la Trinidad is one of the best places in Cartagena to hang out at night. It is fun for the whole family, for people of all walks of life, with cheap eats and drinks, and entertainment too.
9. Grab a Drink at Cafe del Mar
Cafe del Mar on the edge of the wall surrounding the Old City is one of the coolest places in Cartagena to grab a drink and enjoy the view. The bar is situated on the top of the far end of the ancient wall, complete with beautiful seating and the ‘in-crowd’.
The view from the bar looks out into the beautiful never-ending sea with a vista of history in front of you. Grab a drink, and enjoy the view at this perfectly placed Cartagena hot spot.
10. Visit the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
The architecture in Cartagena is forever impressive. The colours of the walled city and the civil colonial architecture of the Palace of the Inquisition are amazing and the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver is no less awesome.
The church is part of a set of buildings which also includes the Cloister of San Pedro Claver and an archaeological museum. The altar of the church holds the remains of Saint Peter Claver who died in Cartagena after devoting his life to evangelizing the black slaves of New Granada.
The architecture of the Church is as colourful as its history taking its style from the Jesuit era. The façade was carved from the stone of the Tierrabomba island, and the marble altar comes from Italy, a gift from Pope Leo XIII. The architecture evolved as the church passed hands, even adding a dome.
My art history background has me wanting to go on, but you will just have to go and see it for yourself! The Iglesias de San Pedro Claver is open from 8:00am to 8:00pm and costs just COP $12,000 ($4.10).
11. Take a Walk Along the Historic Walls
As a result of its location between the Sinú and Magdalena rivers, Cartagena de Indias, was historically one of the most important cities to both Colombia and Spain as a key port. Cartagena was the main port for things like export of Peruvian silver to Spain and the import of African slaves.
Due to the important role it played in trade, the city was built to be defensible against pirate attacks in the Caribbean as well as any other threat.
There is so much history in Cartagena as a result of its connection with Spain. To be able to walk along the ancient protective walls is one of the coolest things to do in Cartagena. Not only are they historically relevant to the city itself, but they also provide sweeping views of the land around Cartagena. A vista that gives one a bird’s eye view of the old city, and an appreciation for the size of the city. I would not miss this UNESCO moment.
12. Join a Street Food Tour
One of the best activities in Cartagena is without a doubt, a street food tour. Cartagena is famous for its delightful street food. It even brought the late Anthony Bourdain to the city. There are a variety of street food tours available which highlight the unique fruits, fried foods, drinks, and sweets native to Cartagena.
Get down with the locals and tour the street food of the old city and the Getsemani neighbourhood. Get ready to sample things such as the lulo, guanabana, and arequipe, some of the tastiest food on the Colombian coast in typical Colombian style.
13. Take a Tour of the Bazurto Market
The Bazurto Market is often described as a location for adventurous travellers only. This busy bustling market just 15 minutes away from Cartagena’s city centre is massive. It is chaotic. It is loud. It is extremely dirty and lacks the typical travelling tourist. Want to get down with the locals? Then this extremely large market full of dirty twists and turns is the place to go.
You can find everything from fresh fish and fruit, to spices and true Colombian culture in this chaotic market. However, if you are not comfortable taking on an experience like this alone, many tour agencies offer guided trips to the Bazurto Market, some of them in conjunction with the street food tour.
14. Go On a Walking Tour of the Old City (El Centro)
The city of Cartagena is full of history, restaurants, and markets and it is all jam-packed into a 100 square kilometre space, perfect for a walking tour!
Cartagena boasts a rich history including Spanish colonialism, pirates, slaves, Catholicism and the accompanying inquisition. Drugs, crime and the arts, both historic and current, offer a fascinating perspective on this South American country. Its history, as you might guess, makes for a great city tour which is why I am recommending this as one of the best activities in Cartagena.
Tours can last anywhere between 2 and 4 hours, depending what you book, giving an opportunity to take a detailed look at the history, the architecture, music, food and culture of Cartagena. A great way to start any visit to this relevant city. Click here for free walking tours in Cartagena.
15. Go Shopping on the Streets of the Walled City in Cartagena
One of my personal favourite ways to spend time in Cartagena is to shop for artisan crafts in the instagrammable streets of the walled city. Vendors line the streets of this beautiful town selling things like colourful mochila bags, prints and paintings, and various types of jewelry. You never know what kind of unique souvenir you can find while shopping for artisanal crafts in Cartagena. Oh yea, and don’t forget to bargain!
16. Visit the Puerta del Reloj
The clock tower is the main city gate to the historic centre and was once the original entrance to the fortified city. As far as things to see in Cartagena, the clock tower, having had its clock since the 18th century, is full of historical relevance. During the colonial period, a drawbridge which linked the walled city to the Getsemani neighbourhood was installed. The Getsemani neighbourhood is another fabulous walking area in Cartagena.
The bridge at the clock tower was built to serve as defence against enemy attack (pirates) on the city of Cartagena. However, today it is a place locals like to hang out to escape the Colombian sun. You can also climb to the top of the city wall and enjoy a stunning vista. It’s a beautiful example of fabulous colourful colonial architecture, so on your way into the old city for your food, drink and shopping, take a moment to check it out!
17. Visit the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Even though this is not Europe, I am pleased to say that one of the best things to do in Cartagena is visit its castle! Built by the Spanish in 1536 and expanded later in 1657, the castle is located on the Hill of San Lazaro, positioned perfectly to protect the city from the land and sea. It has had a tumultuous life as ownership – or at least occupancy – has passed back and forth between privateers and admirals.
As far as things to do in Cartagena, taking a tour of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas ranks high on my list as with the walled city tour. It provides significant insight into Cartagena’s colourful past. Sometimes these tours can be booked together as one.
One of the most interesting parts of the castle tour is discovering the many catacomb tunnels which run underneath the castle…a true fortress for battle. It’s also a great spot to watch sunset.
18. Go Shopping in the ‘Las Bóvedas’
In the old city of Cartagena, the Las Bóvedas were structures attached to the walls. Originally built as dungeons for prisoners during the civil wars in the 19th century, these structures were brutal prisons because at high tide the ocean water would enter the cells covering the poor prisoners within.
Today, the cells in the dungeons are one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena because they house shops and boutiques where traditional Colombian merchandise is sold. A great place to pick up some souvenirs, but as you walk through remember that these were once the home to prisoners of war.
19. Take a Ride to the Rosario Islands to Enjoy a Beach Day!
The Rosario Islands are the epitome of what you think of when considering a Caribbean beach destination. Bright blue clear waters on soft white sand with hundreds of fish swimming around your every step. Warm weather and local vendors serving drinks in coconuts…yes, that’s exactly what you will get out of a day on the Rosario Islands.
It takes just an hour to get the Rosario Islands from the docks of Cartagena, making it a totally accessible day trip and one of the coolest things to do in Cartagena.
The islands are a national park with a heavy focus on protecting the underwater environment. There is a oceanarium to visit or opportunities to scuba dive if you choose. Lunch time offers fresh sea food that will blow your mind. Enjoying the islands? There are a variety of accommodations on them at every level to extend your trip.
To get to the islands, you can always book a tour through any tourism agency in Cartagena, or make your way to the dock at La Muelle la Bogegita in Cartagena and grab one of the speed boats leaving at 8:00am and 10:00am and returning at 2:30pm for $40,000 Colombian pesos ($13.75) each way.
The boat trip takes one hour and a half and there is a COP $16,500 ($5.70) entry fee to get onto the islands (since they are in a National Park). Be careful not to leave during poor weather conditions, as the sea can be rough and this can extend your trip two to three hours each way.
20. Take a Walk Through the Getsemani Neighbourhood (take a street art tour)
What was once a quiet neighbourhood full of locals and youth hostels, Getsemani has become a go to location for night life, the arts, and a taste for the Colombian spirit. The neighbourhood is full of colourful homes and packed full of epic street art. You can take tours here which are similar to the food and historical tours.
The neighbourhood is full of awesome restaurants and cafes as well as salsa and champeta dance clubs. This is also the neighbourhood which is home to the Plaza de la Trinidad, a favourite night-time location. Take a walk through the beautiful streets of Getsemani, the trendiest neighbourhood in the city.
21. Stop at the Plaza Santo Domingo for a Meal
It is not a shock to know that Cartagena houses some absolutely fabulous eateries and the Plaza Santo Domingo is a great place to experience just that. Upon entering the Plaza you will feel as if you have been transported to the streets of Italy, right down to the street lights.
Tables cover the plaza all the way to the centre, owned by a variety of restaurants, the coloured table cloths are usually the best marker to determine which restaurant serves that table.
The plaza is home to a famous Botero statue, La Gorda Gertrudis, which many stop to take photos with. Street performers ply their trade in the plaza to entertain you while you dine. People and vendors walk the streets selling artisanal goods so souvenirs can be purchased here. An afternoon relaxing in the Plaza Santo Domingo is one of my favourite things to do in Cartagena.
Ready to Plan a Trip to Cartagena?!
Cartagena is one of the most vibrant cities in Colombia, which is saying a lot considering the vibrancy of the culture and people of this country. A city shrouded in political history, it acted as a gate to the world beyond South America, as well as a fortress to protect the country.
Cartagena has become a centre for the arts boasting fabulous music, dance, street art and of course historic gold art and artifacts. The vendors on the streets and within the Las Bóvedas cells provide visitors with a chance to take home traditional Colombian crafts at reasonable prices.
Cartagena is a foodie centre, home to one of the biggest and most authentic markets in Colombia. The city has a reputation for delicious street food, unique fruits, and fancy gastronomic locales.
The seaside city is safe, an important factor in Colombian travel. Nature surrounds Cartagena with beautiful Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands at its fingertips. One should not forget the magical mud volcano of El Totumo. With so many things to do in Cartagena, things to see, and activities to participate in…it is no wonder Cartagena remains one of the most well-loved tourist locations.
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