Part of the magic of Cartagena lies in the fact that there’s something for every kind of traveler. It has killer shopping and top-tier restaurants for luxury travelers, boutique hotels and day trips to simple beaches for a more understated experience and an endless list of hostels (and delicious street food) for travelers on a budget.
Then, beyond the famous port-side neighborhoods (the historic old town, Getsemani, Boca Grande), there’s the Cartagena that most locals live every day, full of traffic and run-down buildings. The best way to experience Cartagena is to get to know each of these sides to the city. After all, Cartagena is one of those places where you’ll feel the urge to see as much as possible and wind up feeling like you’ve barely scratched the surface.
If you want to experience the best of what the city has to offer, here are my top 10 things to do in Cartagena.
1. See the Getsemani graffiti
You could easily spend hours walking through the hip, bohemian Getsemani neighborhood, which is full of charming colonial architecture, vibrant street life and colorful graffiti.
You’ll find graffiti scattered around the neighborhood, but most of the street art is centered in and around Plaza de la Trinidad, a popular public space where kids go to play and adults go to meet friends or grab a snack from a food cart.
Local artists have used graffiti to tell the story of a neighborhood undergoing intense gentrification, shed light on rising taxes that have threatened families’ livelihoods and explore the city’s connection to its rich history.
2. Go on a food tour
Tours can be hit or miss, but if you only do one while in Cartagena, I recommend the street food tour by Cartagena Connections. You’ll move quickly through the streets of the historic center and then Getsemani, trying the best street food in Cartagena, from arepas to fried potato balls (I forget the proper name), fruit paste with cheese and popsicles from a woman who sells them out of her home. In a city saturated with tourists (and expensive restaurants that cater to them), this tour offers an opportunity to see how the locals eat.http://www.cartagenaconnections.com/street-food-tour.html
3. Walk the Centro Histórico and San Diego neighborhoods
Cartagena is known for its beautiful, vibrant colonial architecture, and most of it is concentrated in the historic center and San Diego neighborhoods. Set aside a few hours one morning to wander around these two neighborhoods. You’ll pass elaborate doors; walls painted in bright pink, blue and white; food carts selling local snacks; tree-lined plazas; and famous churches.
4. Have lunch at La Mulata
This lunch spot served one of my favorite meals in Cartagena. You’ll find dishes like delicious fresh fish prepared with a pesto-like green sauce, not-too-sweet coconut rice and fried banana chips. And it’s great for people watching, with lots of hip, well-dressed patrons (both locals and travelers).
Check out my complete list of the best restaurants in Cartagena here.
5. Shop at St. Dom
When you step through St. Dom’s big sliding glass door and into the shop you might feel as if you’ve entered a sanctuary. The layout is pristine, with perfectly-placed bags, wallets, shoes and clothing racks. Everything seems to belong exactly where it is. Splashes of bright color (a neon pink bikini or a pastel yellow lace top) play off of crisp white and jet black pieces. You’ll find local, independent designers alongside more established brands.
6.People watch in Plaza de la Trinidad
Flanked by the Trinidad church, Plaza de la Trinidad is a popular public space in the hip, vibrant Getsemani neighborhood. In the mornings, locals grab breakfast from one of the food carts; a bit later on, you’ll see kids playing; and in the evening, travelers crowd around, beer in hand.
It’s also home to two famous pieces of street art: Getsemani’s giant multi-colored bird (pictured below), and a hipster version of La India Catalina, which decorates the doors of Demente, a popular tapas restaurant. I recommend going around 5pm, when the sun is less strong, and grabbing a seat on one of the benches.
7. Have a cocktail at El Barón
This speakeasy-style bar is the perfect spot for a pre-dinner cocktail (or you can just opt for the bar’s delicious tapas menu and a few more drinks). El Barón features a rotating, seasonal menu of cocktails, plus outdoor seating that overlooks a plaza.
8. Go salsa dancing at Café Havana and Quiebra Canto
If you’re a fan of salsa, you might find yourself a little speechless when you first walk into Café Havana. It’s like being transported to 1950’s Cuba; the walls are covered with images of salseros and famous musicians, and you’ll see patrons dancing with a mojito in hand.
There’s a live band Wednesday through Saturday. Once they start, don’t be surprised to find a line of people waiting to get in that wraps around the sidewalk.
If you want a little more space to dance (Café Havana can get really crowded), head down the street to Quiebra Canto, a small upstairs bar. It’s a mix of seasoned dancers and travelers trying their hand at salsa. When you’re ready for a break, order a drink at the bar and sit on one of the stools on the terrace that overlooks the street below.
9. Visit the Mercado Bazurto
For all their charm and vibrancy, Cartagena’s central, more touristy neighborhoods (Getsemani, San Diego, Boca Grande, the Historic Center) paint a glossy picture of daily life in this city. Many Cartageñens live in surrounding urban sprawl that feels far removed from the charming colonial architecture and glossy high-rises that travelers associate with Cartagena.
If you want to see another side of the city, go to the Mercado Bazurto, an enormous outdoor market with vendors that sell everything from kitchenware to artisanal goods, sneakers, clothes, vegetables and grains. Pickpocketing is a problem here, so be careful with your belongings.
10. Eat carrot cake at Ely
Walking into Ely feels like entering the mind of a young girl fantasizing about her wedding day. The glass case full of beautifully-decorated pastries; the light pink, cream, and gold color palette; and the elaborate wedding cakes transport you away from the busy city streets and into a serene, hyper-feminine world.
Opt for one of the bakery’s most famous desserts: a big slice of carrot cake or a brownie.