Cartagena is a charming city on the north Caribbean coast of Colombia. Home to a vibrant art scene, restaurants for any taste and budget, as well as accessible beaches and nearby islands, Cartagena should be on everyone's Colombia bucket list.
Cartagena is a popular launching point for many travellers to Colombia. Flights from around the globe connect via Bogota, but recently more routes are being launched into Cartagena direct. I'd suggest spending no more than 4 days in this city to really see and do all you need to.
Walk around Barrio Getsemani
Surrounding the Plaza de Trinidad, you have arguably the most hip and dynamic area of Cartagena. Getsemani is a pastel labyrinth of buzzing side streets decorated with street art, entertainers, cafes, shops and restaurants. Scents from arepa and fresh fruit stalls waft through the streets as friendly locals and tourists alike mingle, offering the perfect illustration of Colombian culture. Whether you're sitting parkside with a beer scoping out the monkeys hanging in the trees above, or sipping on a Cuba Libre at a charming patio, Getsemani is brimming with life and excitement from noon until the early hours of the morning.
Like a lot of Colombia, Getsemani had a troubled past due to drugs, violence and prostitution, but none of that would ever be apparent now. There was never a time I felt unsafe walking around, but regardless as with any city, as long as you keep your wits about you, you shouldn't run into any trouble.
The neighbourhood is rather tame during the day but really comes alive at night. The Media Luna area becomes a pedestrian-only avenue with street food vendors, bars, and salsa clubs. Cafe Havana is a well-known spot for dancing and mojitos (although, there is a 40k cover), and Clock Pub is an easy stop for live music and cheap beer (there is also a location in the walled city).
For eating out, Mar de la Antillas had a fun, ocean theme and great seafood, and Maria Bontia is a casual taco joint with cheap beers and great margaritas. For a nice ambiance and good Italian food, Da Silvia Trattoria is a great choice. Other than that, I don't have too much more in regards to eating suggestions in Getsemani. I spent more time eating in the Walled City while drinking and partying in Getsemani.
Walk around Centro/the Walled City
Like I mentioned above, for good eats you want to head into the Walled City. Since this area is more touristy, a night out here will come at a higher price tag, and you'll need to be vigilant to avoid the tourist traps. I also found an overwhelming amount of street vendors here trying to sell you on tours and random items.
Nonetheless, the Walled City is absolutely stunning and a must-see when in Colombia. Towering examples of preserved colonial architecture line its cobblestone streets, with sounds of live music and wafts of fresh flowers at nearly every corner.
For accommodation, I stayed in Getsemani because it's cheaper, but if you have a bit more money to spare, you can find some more luxury options here that are still reasonably priced in comparison to European cities, for example.
Some amazing restaurants I visited in the Walled City were San Valentin and Baruco. Since locals eat dinner a little later in Colombia, a great start to the night is to grab a sunset cocktail or Sangria at Cafe del Mar, and then head out to dinner afterwards. It's arguably one of the most popular spots in Cartagena to catch the sunset, so I'd suggest getting there early to beat the line and get a table/be served by sunset time.
Avoid: Horse Carriage Rides
In the Walled City, you'll see a number of horse-drawn carriages and be offered rides around the area. Please, please, please don't support this. The horses are overworked, underfed, and often collapse in the middle of the street due to dehydration, only to be forced to get back up and keep working. It's absolutely heartbreaking to witness, and I hope in time this service will become banned.
Shop at La Serrezuela
If shopping is your thing, Cartagena is home to a very unique shopping mall. The Serrezuela is an old theatre/bullfighting ring turned major cosmopolitan shopping center. Shops surround its center which has been preserved overtime to keep its characteristic appeal. To this day, it still offers shows and artistic events, so check it out online to see if any events are happening during your stay!
Visit one of the Islands
Cartagena has a privileged location along the Caribbean coast, so of course, there are a number of islands just a short boat trip away. There are two ways you can do this: a day trip, typically leaving from Bocagrande (we'll get to that later), or staying overnight. The day trip is the more fiscally viable option. For around 110k pesos, you can have a roundtrip boat fare, welcome drink(s), free lunch and your own cabana at one of the many beach clubs. It's best to book these through your hostel/hotel to avoid getting scammed, but you can also visit the tourism shops. I booked through a mutual friend's company, but I've heard to avoid booking through the street vendors as the chance of getting scammed is higher.
I visited Tierra Bomba on a private beach club called Amare, but I've also heard good things about the Rosario Islands. Apparently, Playa Blanca and Baru is super overcrowded from what I've heard from others. If I'm being honest, while it was nice to get out of the city for the day, I wasn't blown away by the water/beach quality. If you're looking for a quintessential beach holiday, I would stick to San Andres or more East towards Taganga/Palomino.
Avoid: City Beaches
That was a good segway actually. On the topic of beaches, I'd strongly suggest avoiding the city beaches around Bocagrande. Most city beaches are not the best, that's not new knowledge, but I just found it to be very crowded, monopolized by different beachside cafes trying to pressure you into buying things, as well as vendors aggressively trying to sell you something literally every 5 seconds. I have a friend who lives near Marros beach and has said it's much nicer if you want a beach day but need to stay on the mainland.
All and all, I think it's a common misconception that since Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast, that it's a beach destination, which I would not consider it so. Cartagena is a great jumping-off point to get a good feel of Colombia and enjoy the fantastic weather (if 35C celsius is what you're into, of course). Between Getsamani, the Walled City, and visiting the islands, I think that gets you a good introductory grasp of the city itself.