Wondering what to do in Cartagena, Colombia? This relaxed 2-day itinerary introduces you to the highlights, delights, and beauty of the walled city of Cartagena.
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Good to Know: This guide to spending 2 days in Cartagena comes to us from Allison Browne from Dreamer at Heart about her trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site the “Port, Fortresses and Group of Monuments, Cartagena.”)
Why Go to the Walled City of Cartagena?
Cartagena, formerly Cartagena de Indias, is known as Colombia’s Caribbean gem. Not only will the colorful colonial architecture, dating back to the 16th and 17th-century, entice any traveler but the street vendors and palenqueras (ladies balancing fruit bowls on their heads) create a lively atmosphere in the Old Town.
History buffs will find themselves walking the circuitous streets of a strategically situated port city where once slave markets existed and pirate attacks took place.
If you love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, pack your bags and hit up the walled city of Cartagena and its fort, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. You won’t be disappointed.
What To Do in Cartagena: Day 1
Morning: Explore the Old Town
The best way to visit the walled city of Cartagena is to walk. Get lost in the narrow cobblestone streets. Stroll past colonial mansions where bougainvillea cascades from balconies and huge door knockers decorate the colorful doors.
Saunter past churches and find a leafy plaza to sit in.
Pick a café and enjoy a steaming cup of Colombian coffee, with beans that have been handpicked in the coffee triangle.
Cartagena is meant to be savored.
Some highlights that you will most certainly want to saunter by:
Puerta del Reloj (The Clock Tower)
The entrance to the Old Town is the 19th century Clock Tower. Its yellow facade and triple archway are the main entrance to the walled city of Cartagena. Lots of vendors are set up here and you will definitely be offered more than one hat! Return in the evening for performances by local dance troupes moving and shaking to lively Colombian music.
Plaza de los Coches
Once you pass through Puerta del Reloj, you will be in Plaza de los Coches. Colonial architecture and archways surround this wide plaza which boasts a statue of Cartagena’s founder, Pedro de Heredia. Be sure to check out the food tables of Colombian sweets. Which will you try?
You can’t miss Santa Catalina de Alejandría’s yellow tower above the terra cotta rooftops in Cartagena. It’s definitely worth peeking into this 16th-century Cathedral.
Convento and Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
San Pedro, a Spanish monk, spent his life ministering to the Africans in Cartagena. He was known as the “Apostle of the Blacks.” You can enter the church built in the 1580s or sit in the Plaza de San Pedro Claver in front of the church. If you have the time, visit the convent and courtyard.
Cost: COP$12000 ($3.90)
Plaza de Bolívar
This leafy plaza is a welcome respite from the heat. Find some shade, sit back, people watch and marvel at the colonial buildings surrounding the plaza.
Afternoon: The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
After rambling through the Old Town, grab lunch in Cartagena’s burgeoning food scene. Try Pezetarian. It’s a favorite restaurant and serves up ceviche, sushi, and salads.
Take a cab or an Uber and head on over to the fort. It is walking distance (about 25 minutes) but is not recommended in the heat.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, stands over Cartagena like a sentinel reminding modern-day visitors of its historical importance. This fort with its strong stone walls, intricate tunnels to explore and 68 cannons is definitely worth a visit.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was initially built atop San Lázaro Hill in the 1600s to protect the bustling Spanish port of Cartagena. Additions were made to the fortress over the years until it covered the entire hill and became Spain’s greatest fort ever built in the colonies.
One of Cartagena’s most important victories happened in 1741 when the British attacked. General Jenkins, who was leading the British, was quite sure of the imminent victory of this strategic port. However, when his men faced Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas they were badly defeated. Yellow fever may have also played a role in the defeat of the British soldiers but Spain was victorious and the fort proved to be invincible.
Don’t miss the animated historical movie. It is an entertaining explanation of the fort’s historical significance and the cool air-conditioned room is a welcome relief from the heat.
Entrance: COP$25 000 ($8.00)
Hours: 8 am – 6 pm
In the Area
Cartagena is a selfie-takers paradise. Aside from the choice of colonial doorways and bougainvillea as a background, try The Golden Shoes monument (Monumento a los Zapatos Viejos). This sculpture honors local poet Luis Carlos López. He wrote a poem to commemorate his city and compared the comfort he feels for his city to a pair of comfy shoes.
Selfie backdrop? Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas!
Evening: The Walled City of Cartagena
Sunset on the Wall
Take a late afternoon stroll along the fortified wall. It provides lovely views out to the Caribbean Sea and over the rooftops of the old town. It is a good reminder that Cartagena was a strategically located and significant port in the Spanish trade routes hundreds of years ago. Cartagena today is the second busiest port in Latin America.
Time your walk to sit atop the wall facing out to sea. The cool sea breezes are a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Have a sunset drink at Café del Mar and watch the blazing sun drop behind the horizon.
There are so many enticing choices for dinner. Wander. Stop into a bar for a drink. Enjoy the live music that wafts across the airwaves and the clip-clopping of the horses and buggies passing by.
Marzola Parrilla Argentina: a funky Argentinean restaurant serving juicy beef.
La Cevicheria: gets top recommendations, Anthony Bourdain ate there after all. The food is supposed to be amazing but you will wait in line to get a table.
La Pescadito Cevicheria: a delightful find seating only 15 people. Found on a quiet side street with outstanding food!
Treat yourself to a horse and buggy ride along the cobblestone streets and much later head to Café Havana in Getsamaní for salsa!
What to do in Cartagena: Day 2
Morning: Explore the Town or Visit a Museum
If strolling and uncovering new flower-laden streets and yet another church appeals to you, continue, camera in hand, and soak up all the Cartagenian charm you can!
Or, visit one of these Cartagena museums:
Palacio de la Inquisicion (The Palace of the Inquisition)
This building is where many people met a terrible end to their lives. Visit and see the equipment used in the Spanish Inquisition to elicit confessions from prisoners.
Open daily 9 am – 6 pm
Museo del Oro Zenú (Zenú Gold Museum)
Glittering gold! Stunning gold ancient artifacts deliver a serious WOW factor.
Free. Closed Mondays. Open 9 am – 5 pm
Walk outside the walled city of Cartagena, and across Parque del Centenario. Be sure to look for the resident sloths and iguanas.
Head towards the eclectic and authentic neighborhood of Gersemaní. It is not as polished as the Old Town but provides a flavor of Caribbean Colombia that will stick with you.
It’s time for lunch so find Calle San Andrés where the colored flags flap over top the narrow street. Columbitalia serves a wide variety of arepas (like pita bread) brimming with your choice of filling and grilled. Eat yours standing up or seated on the sidewalk’s edge. Alternately walk to Plaza de la Trinidad to enjoy your street food feast.
Stepping Stones, also on Calle San Andrés, is worth the delicious visit. This restaurant employs Afro-Colombian and indigenous Colombians to help break the cycle of poverty and lack of education.
Spend a couple of hours exploring Getsamaní. Like the Old Town, Getsamaní is filled with small streets, colorful buildings and blooming flowers. But, the vibe is different. See what you think. Wander the twisting streets looking for street art and local life. Sit in Plaza de la Trinidad in front of the church and watch Colombian life unfold. Go slow. Eat ice cream, drink a cold Colombian beer (ever tried Aguila?) or have a refreshing iced coffee at Café del Mural.
Getsamaní is hopping in the evening with both locals and tourists. Plaza de la Trinidad, just in front of the Iglesia de la Trinidad, simply comes alive with street performers and food trucks. It is a wonderful way to spend part of the evening.
Follow the street past the Iglesia de la Trinidad until you reach a small Plazoleta del Pozo. This plaza also buzzes. The two nights I was there it was rocking with live music. The pizza restaurant and bar serve the tables set out in the square. Pull up a chair and enjoy the hot night.
Alternate Itinerary for Day 2: Day Trips from Cartagena
Many day trips offered from Cartagena. These two come highly recommended.
The Rosario Islands
Take an hour-long boat ride to this archipelago of islands and enjoy relaxing on a Caribbean beach under a palm tree, kayaking in the mangroves and snorkeling.
Volcan de Lodo El Totumo
If you are keen on soaking in a naturally heated mud bath in an active volcano, then this is the trip for you!
Follow this itinerary of what to do in Cartagena and you will have a hard time pulling yourself away from this Caribbean jewel.
Frequently Asked Questions
These are the questions travelers most frequently have about visiting Cartagena.
How do I get to Cartagena?
Cartagena is a popular tourist spot now and many flights arrive and leave daily. The airport is quite close to the walled city of Cartagena and a taxi should cost no more than about COP$12000 – COP$15000. ($3.90 – $4.90). Cartagena is also easily accessed from all other areas of Colombia.
Is it safe in Cartagena?
I traveled as a solo female traveler and Cartagena felt very safe during the day and the evening. Take the usual precautions when traveling to avoid pickpockets and take a cab home in the evening if returning from Getsamaní.
How are the taxis in Cartagena?
There are so many little yellow cars zooming around and honking. Hello, Cartagena taxis. There are no meters in the cabs so decide on your fare before getting into the cab. Don’t be afraid to bargain, especially if you can speak Spanish.
What do I say to all the vendors?
You will be asked over and over again to buy a sunhat and many other items. Smile and say,“No gracias,” or “No quieres nada, gracias” (I don’t need anything). Politeness wins and I try to remind myself about how hard it would be to eke out a living being a street vendor.
How much does a picture cost of/ with the Palenqueras?
Don’t even try to sneak a picture of the Palenqueras (ladies in the bright dresses carrying the fruit on their heads). Approach them and ask how much they charge. You will probably pay COP$5000 ($1.60) but the price does vary.
Where else should I visit in Colombia?
Colombia is a large country with so much to be explored. Read more posts here to find out more about this biodiverse and fascinating country. One thing is for sure – add it to your bucket list!
About the Author
Alison Browne is the author of this post and writes her own travel blog Dreamer at Heart. She is a nomadic solo female traveler and recently returned from South America. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.