Things to do in Cartagena, Colombia, for First-Timers

If you are looking for things to do in Cartagena, Colombia, look no further! This epic guide will fill you in on all the best things to see, do, and eat while in the city. 

About Cartagena

colorful shop in Cartagena

Cartagena is a charming coastal city near the Caribbean Sea. This colonial town is colorful and romantic, packed with tons of history and plenty of friendly locals to make your stay absolutely magical. From beautiful beaches and street art to amazing food, this city really has it all. 

You can easily spend 2-3 days there, but you should try to plan a week. There is more than enough to keep you busy for seven days. 

Things to do in Cartagena

street scene in Cartagena

Explore Old Town

One of the best things to do in Cartagena is explore the Old Town. The walled city is lined with beautiful pastel colonial-era buildings and a maze of cobblestone streets. It’s where most tourists stay, especially within the Centro, San Diego, and Getsemani neighborhoods. 

The first thing to do is wander down the picturesque streets to take in all the colorful buildings. You’ll be hard-pressed not to snap photos of the flowers and sample the street vendors’ wares. Then you can do a self-guided walking tour. Wind your way through Calle Cochera del Hobo near Plaza San Diego or Calle Don Sancho for a great view of the impressive cathedral. 

To learn more about the city’s fascinating history, take a free walking tour or book with a company to learn about the Spanish influence and the multiple invasions the city had to stave off. Either way, a walking tour is definitely one of the best activities in Cartagena.

Another Cartagena must see is Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This fortress, built in 1639, is one of the most impressive fortifications constructed by the Spanish. You can explore the dark, dank passageways and experience how well-built it is. Pay special attention to how well sound travels, especially in the tunnels. The building was engineered this way to easily detect intruders. 

Search for Colorful Street Art

street art in Cartagena

One of the best things to see in Cartagena is the street art. Some of the best murals are located in Getsemani, just outside the walled city. 

Getsemani is the second oldest area and has a unique rough charm, unlike its polished neighbors Centro and San Diego. Historically, this area was home to free Black and Mulatto artisan workers and is considered the cradle of culture. 

The crumbling buildings, local homes, and children playing in the street have a certain charm. Take a graffiti tour to learn about the murals and have your guide point out all of the best Instagram spots. 

The most famous street is Callejón Angosto. There is plenty of art, amazing architecture, and a great spot to snap a few photos. 

Quirky Things to do in Cartagena

figure in the gold museum

For those of you looking to learn a little during your stay, why not visit the gold museum? Museo del Oro Zenú has tons of expert gold work from the Zenú people. Here, you’ll learn about the indigenous and how much gold was looted from the region to help build the city of Cartagena. 

El Totumo, or the Mud Volcano, is another spot to check out, especially if you enjoy doing quirky things on your travels. This small volcano is just outside the city and full of thick healing mud you can bathe in. It’s so thick, in fact, that even though the opening of the volcano is pretty deep, you can easily hop in without any worry of sinking past your shoulders.

After a soothing mud bath, the local ladies will scrub you down in the lake for a small tip. It’s optional but a great way to make you feel like you’re having a day at the spa.

Things to do in Cartagena at Night

Cartagena at night

If you are looking for things to do at night, have no fear! Plenty of options will keep you entertained well after the sun goes down. 

One of the most fun things in Cartagena is the sheer abundance of Salsa bars. This is the best way to experience the city’s nightlife and interact with the locals. 

Café Havana is one of the most famous. It is always packed with people dancing the night away to live Cuban salsa music. Donde Fidel is another famous spot with a fantastic sound system and incredible people watching.

In need of lessons? Head to Crazy Salsa and take a salsa lesson. Then you can put your new skills to the test. 

If you’re traveling with someone special, take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city. It is undoubtedly one of the most romantic things in Cartagena. Tours are fairly reasonable and typically last an hour. 

Don’t leave the city without hopping on a Chiva Party bus. These tacky yet, oh-so-fun buses are great for meeting new people and letting loose. Chivas are colorful, rustic buses equipped with music, dancing, and an open bar on board. Your hotel can help you arrange one and let you know what is available and included. 

As you can see, there is an abundance of things to do in Cartagena. There are so many must-sees and must-dos that they all didn’t fit on this list! Book yourself a stay for as long as possible and experience the magic and charm for yourself. 

Great day trips from Cartagena

beaches in Columbia

If you have the time or love the beach, there are several places to put on your bucket list near Cartagena. 

The first stop is the Rosario Islands—an archipelago of 27 islands in the Caribbean sea just off Cartagena. It’s filled with beautiful coral reefs full of marine life, making it the perfect spot to snorkel. 

It’s only an hour away from the city by boat, and upon arrival, you’ll be treated to stunning blue waters and powder-soft, white-sand beaches. Colonial-era pirates would hide out there and plan their attack on the city. And where the treasure ship San Jose sunk hundreds of years ago. 

Once you’re on the islands, you can indulge in an afternoon of fun in the sun and get your fill of divine seafood. Of course, you must try the fried fish plate served with coconut rice and patacones, a fried and mashed plantain. It is absolutely delicious!

Playa Blanca is another great day trip. It is only an hour and a half outside the city and definitely one of the best beaches in Cartagena. Its pristine cerulean waters and immaculate white sand are no secret though, so it can be a bit crowded. 

FAQ

When is Cartagena’s dry season?

The dry season is November through April. However, the best weather actually doesn’t begin until December. Luckily, it lasts through to April, and you can expect sunny skies and only a few rain showers now and then. Temperatures average around  27℃ (~80℉). The wet season runs from May through October. While you may have more rainfall, this could be a better time to travel as it won’t be so crowded. 

What is the best way to get around Cartagena?

It’s an extremely walkable city, so the best way to get from A to B is by foot! Uber is also available and is usually preferred to a street taxi.

What currency should I use?

The Colombian Peso (COP) is the legal tender all over Colombia. The best way to get pesos is at the ATM. This will help you avoid accidentally exchanging your currency for counterfeit bills, a problem in Cartagena.

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