Cartagena, Colombia 2023: Best Places to Visit, Eat, & Relax

Cartagena, Colombia, is one of South America's oldest colonial cities with stunning Spanish architecture and charm. You'll fall in love with this tropical walled city as you stroll through the neighborhoods with beautiful houses and balconies dripping with flowering bougainvillea and painted in an array of vibrant colors. At every turn, you'll feel like you're walking in a postcard. The food scene is absolutely sensational, and you'll eat your fill of ceviche and seafood as this city sits on the Caribbean sea coastline. You can also soak in the South American culture through the decadent nightlife of cocktails and dancing, museum and historical excursions, market strolls and boutique shopping, and check out the nearby beaches and charter a boat to island hop and see Pablo Escobar's famous estate. This city is so enchanting and vibrant that you will feel like you're in a sexy movie that you never want to end!
colorful city street of Cartagena, Colombia

The essentials to know before you go to Cartagena. 

Best Time to Visit

It is best to travel to Cartagena, Colombia, between December through April, as this is the dry season. This tropical destination stays hot all year round and in the mid- 80-degree temperatures. These are also the summer months for this city and the most popular time to visit. Months outside this window are less crowded, but you run the chance of rain and heavy humidity in this already tropical climate.

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How to get there

top of an ornate colorful domed building at the end of a city street.

The main airport to fly into Cartagena is the Rafael Núñez International Airport (airport code CTG). It is slightly easier to get there from the East coast than the West, as there are direct flights from Montréal, Toronto, JFK, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. From the West Coast, you most likely will have to connect through Panama City, Miami, or Bogota (the country’s capital).

Regarding getting from the airport to your hotel, I always rely on my booked hotel to assist with transport. Having your hotel arrange transport is the easiest, best, and safest way to ensure that you will arrive at your hotel problem-free. Your hotel can assist with transportation back to the airport as well. 

Safety

Despite Colombia’s notorious drug trafficking reputation, Cartagena is relatively safe. The city thrives off of its tourist culture, and Cartagena generally was not compromised during the height of this infamous time. With that being said, I still recommend abiding by common sense etiquette and behavior. My general rules are:

  • Don’t go out alone at night.
  • Stick to populated areas after dark.
  • Stick to areas with women and children. If you are ever in doubt, do not allow yourself to be coerced by strangers.
Two female tourists with two indigenous women in traditional dress.

Money

The currency of Colombia is the Colombian Peso (COP). There are no cents; the coins come in $20, $50, $100, $200, and $500. The bills are $1.000, $2.000, $5.000, $10.000, $20.000, and $50.000. Always check the exchange rate before traveling and download an exchange rate converter on your phone.

I like XE Currency. A bank will give you the best exchange rate. When traveling, I either arrange to get the desired currency with my US bank. Or, I have my driver stop at a local bank when traveling from the airport to my hotel.

Most places in Cartagena accept credit cards, but I always recommend having some cash on you for tips, street vendors, food stalls, etc. 

Transportation

Cartagena is a very walkable city, and I encourage you to explore all the stunning Spanish colonial architecture and beauty. However, yellow taxis are the easiest and best way to get around the city if you require transport. When getting to your hotel, as the concierge, what the going rate is for a short taxi ride. This information will allow you to negotiate better on your own. 

Cost of Traveling

Traveling to Cartagena is very affordable from the US. You can choose to travel modestly or quit lavishly. Either way, both prices will be less than what you would pay for comparable hotels and restaurants in the United States.

colorful pink and purple flowers hanging over an ornate wooden doorway

What to wear and pack

Cartagena is a tropical city, so the weather is always quite hot. Generally, the temperature stays in the 80’s most of the year. Check the weather before you depart, but below are some of my travel essentials:

Woman standing besides a blue door against and purple wall on a colorful street in Cartagena, Colombia.

Daytime 

woman stanging under flags in a colorful town wearing a pink sundress and white sneakers

Nighttime

woman at night in a red dress against a red wall out on the town
a woman in a white short summer dress leaning on a spindled wall on a light street in the evening

Where to Stay

Whenever I travel, I scout out charming boutique hotels with all amenities. For my last trip there, I split my time between Casa San Agustin and Anandá Hotel Boutique by Cosmos. Both hotels are gorgeous and luxurious, and it’s nice to get a different feel when exploring a city.

The one MUST while booking for me in this destination is for the hotel to have a pool! Cartagena gets extremely hot while walking and exploring during the day, and having somewhere to chill out and cool down for a respite is a definite must.

Below are all outstanding choices, all with pools and spas for the ultimate gift of relaxation to yourself.

a photograph of a street with colorful walls and palm trees
  • Casa San Agustin: This is in a great location near the University. The hotel is chic while still maintaining its colonial heritage. The pool is outside on the ground level and is enchanting and relaxing.
  • Anadá Hotel Boutique by Cosmos: It is located near the Plaza Santo Domingo and is quite luxurious, with a rooftop pool and daybeds.
  • Bastión Luxury Hotel: This elegant hotel is in Cartagena’s old town. It has a rooftop terrace with a bar and pool and most ideal for sunset watching the sunset.
  • Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena: This hotel was a former monastery in the 17th century and is luxurious and grand. There are rooms with terraces looking over the garden and then some over the Caribbean, and it has a lavish large pool on the ground level.
  • Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa: This sophisticated hotel has everything you need to make your stay a complete dream. A bit bigger than the other hotels, it retains its charm through its architecture and history. There’s a palatial rooftop pool, daybeds, and spa for extra self-care.  

Where to Eat and Drink in Cartagena, Colombia

a very prettily plated seafood dish topped with fresh greens

Below are some of my favorite spots in the city! The food is fresh, flavorful, and exquisite. You must try all the local ceviches and seafood and taste your way through this colorful and enchanting city! I recommend booking some of the restaurants below in advance, as they fill up quickly in the busy season.

cooked crabs on a blue oblong plate with a dipping sauce

Dinners:

  • Carmen: I went here and had the tasting menu, which was incredible! The food is sensational, and the ambiance is stunning. The chefs are a husband and wife team that studied at Le Cordon Bleu and are passionate about local ingredients and flavor. Carmen was my favorite meal in the city and an absolute MUST!
  • Restaurante Celele by Proyecto Caribe Lab: It was voted one of the world’s 50 best restaurants in 2021! It has won multiple other awards for best restaurants in South America, and when you dine there, you will learn why.ill learn why. This is Colombian food at its finest!
  • Mar y Cielo: It’s festive and alive in a historic townhouse. The food is all local, and it’s a gem within the city.
  • Alma: This restaurant is located in the Casa San Agustin hotel. It is elegant Colombian fine dining with delicious food. It’s both a romantic and gourmet experience.
  • Restaurante Candé: You will have the ultimate Cartagena experience at this restaurant with a live music show, traditional dress, and dance.
  • Restaurante Donjuan: Local seafood is a specialty at this Caribbean restaurant with an elevated menu.
  • Marea: This beautiful eatery is on the waterfront. It’s romantic, has stunning views, and is run by one of Colombia’s most famous chefs (one of the Rausch brothers). It primarily focuses on fresh seafood caught daily.
  • Restaurante El Gobernador: This is another restaurant by the Rausch brothers in the Bastión Luxury Hotel. The food and atmosphere are elegant, sophisticated, and a gastronomic delight.
  • Cuzco Cocina Peruana: You will find perfected Peruvian food at this gem, and you can experience live music while dining in a lovely ambiance.
  • Harry’s Sasson Restaurant: This menu mixes Mediterranean and Caribbean flair to bring you one of the most elevated Colombian menus.
seafood dish plated on a red plate in a buttery looking sauce topped with fresh greens

Lunch: 

  • La Cevicherìa: This spot has become famous because it was one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite spots. I love going for lunch because it’s casual, and the ceviches are perfect light fair for the middle of the day while people watching. It can get very crowded, so go early and reserve a table! 
  • La Laguna Azul Cocktails: Despite the name, this unassuming and low-key restaurant is not where you get stellar libations. Instead, this restaurant is where you get seafood cocktails, a dish similar to ceviche with the addition of tomato juice and more lime.
  • Buena Vida MarMarisqueria y Rooftop: This hip and lively rooftop spot
  • Los Fritos de Dora: This is noted to be one of the best food stalls in town, with deliciously fried arepas, empanadas, yucca fries, and more. It’s also open until midnight if you need a snack after the bars.
  • Quero Arepa: This would be a deli with the best sandwiches in America. But instead of sandwiches, this casual restaurant specializes in delicious arepas. You can find a large selection here and you will love every bite!
  • Caffé Lunático: This small and hip café is located in the artsy district of Getsemaní and is a lovely spot to enjoy a delicious local meal.
  • Arepas Colombitalia: This food stall is a famous local spot open from 4 pm-11 pm. Crowds flock to this stall at all hours because it’s that good.
traditional food cooking on an outdoor patio with people eating
plate of shrimp, baked beans, lettuce and tomatoed, and bread

Coffee and Dessert

  • Café San Alberto: This place is known to have some of the best coffee in Cartagena. There are also two locations of this popular caffeine heaven.
  • Epoca Espresso Bar: There are two locations in Cartegena, and both capture the essence of strong and rich Colombian coffee. They also have light snacks and pastries if you need some nosh while sipping.
  • La Paletterìa: This popsicle spot is a place you may need to frequent daily, or at least I did. When strolling around a hot city, there is nothing better than an organic, fruity, icy treat.
  • Portal de Los Dulces: This has become a famous and iconic spot in Cartagena. A myriad of traditional Colombian sweets is spread out on carts in a square near the Plaza de Los Coches, near the Clock tower. 

Cocktails

a woman leaning on a blue wall drink a drink out of a coco nut using a straw
  • El Barón: Located in the plaza of San Pedro Claver, this sexy mixologist-driven bar is not to be missed!
  • Alquimico Bar: This is rated one of the 50 best bars in the world! It’s a three-floor bar serving craft cocktails, all with a different aesthetic. It also has an incredible rooftop.

Where to Shop

Produce market, hanging bananas, pineapples, mangos, lemons and other produce stacked and for sale
  • St. Dom Cartagena: This high-end luxury boutique represents some of Colombia’s best designers.
  • Lucy Jewelry: Cartagena is known for Emeralds, as they are thought to be some of the best in the world. This shop is a reputable and famous spot to pick up one for yourself.
  • Agua Bendita: The bathing suits and kaftans/coverups are a dream! The colors and aesthetic are vibrant and chic.
  • Chiqui House Boutique: I love this lavish interior design store. It’s chic and cool, as a famous Colombian socialite created it.
a fish stand with people shopping
  • Mercedes Salazar: You can not go wrong at this spot for buying inexpensive and colorful jewelry!
  • Azul: Fun bathing suits, prints, coverups, and Kaftans.
  • Silvia Tcherassi Boutique: Silvia is one of the most famous designers from Colombia and is known worldwide.
  • Loto del Sur: You must visit this high-end Colombian skincare brand is the ultimate in local self-care and luxury.
a street market, with garlic hanging, stacks of fruits and vegetables

Things to Do

  • Explore the Old City and walk the wall

The Centro Centro Amurallado is the Old Town. You can revel in the beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture.

  • Explore Getsemani

This artsy neighborhood is located right outside the city walls. It’s an excellent spot to explore art, bars, and cafes.

A woman in a hat and sunglasses eating soup and crackers in a cafe
  • Visit the grand castle of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Walking through this castle is a definite must while visiting Cartagena. It’s an iconic landmark, and you can walk up the walls and explore the underground passages while admiring the architecture’s exquisite beauty.

  • Visit the Gold Museum: Museo de Oro 

This small museum has a compressive display of the area’s treasured gold, artifacts, and pottery.

  • Stroll through the Mercado de Bazurto

This VERY RURAL market displays the city’s most authentic foods and crafts. If you want to immerse yourself in the most local culture of the town, this is it.

stacked plantains and fruit in the market
  • Charter a boat and explore the Rosario Islands

It’s best to speak with your hotel to arrange the best company that will suit your party size and needs.

  • Check out Playa Blanca Beach and nearby Tayrona National Park

Playa Banca, located on Baru Island, is considered one of the best beaches in Cartagena, with brilliant blue water and white sand. It’s about a 2-hour drive from the city center but only a 45-minute boat ride from the port. Consider arranging a day visit with your hotel and hiring a local guide to show you the best spots. The Tayrona National Park is nearby, where tourists flock to visit what is known as the “Lost City.”

  • Get MUDDY and visit the Totumo Mud Volcano

I did this with my sister, and we had an absolute blast! I recommend hiring a guide or car service to take you there.

A woman in a bathing suit covered in mud climbing a latter
two women covered in mud posing for a photo and smiling

My conclusion on Cartagena, Colombia

Cartegna, Colombia, is a colorful city of dreams rich in culture, architecture, and passion! You cannot go wrong when visiting this Caribbean gem, and you will most likely have the time of your life:) You’ll feel like you just stepped into the Spanish movie of your dreams and won’t want the film to end. Between the incredible food, the history, and the blooming flora and fauna dripping over the vibrant buildings, Cartagena is a beautiful cultural experience with so much to offer. It should definitely be at the top of your travel wish list

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About Sarah
Sarah blair

Adding a generous dose of enthusiasm, excitement, and creativity to the culinary world, Sarah began her career at the French Culinary Institute in NYC. Sarah has worked for the past decade as a Culinary Producer and Food Stylist.

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