A few days into my trip to Cartagena, I decided to grab breakfast from a street food cart. After all, Cartagena is famous for it’s arepas, and I figured I could tell which street cart was the best just by looking at how many people were ordering food from it.
I found one that looked popular, and I ordered an arepa con huevo (arepa with egg). I paid for my arepa, took it in my hand, folded back the sheet of craft paper they use to catch the extra oil from the fryer and took a few bites. It was delicious, but then I noticed that part of the egg was brown. It must have gone bad, I thought. I hesitated for a few minutes, and then I threw the rest of it out in a trash can on a street corner, trying to be discreet so that no one would see me wasting food.
The last thing I wanted was to get sick.
A few days later––and a few arepas later––I learned that the brown was actually meat; arepa con huevo y carne. I had wasted a perfectly good arepa from one of the best food carts in the city (at least my instinct about the cart was right).
While my initial foray into the Cartegena food scene was a little clumsy, I managed to discover some of the best food in the city (actually, the best food I had during my whole month in Colombia). So if you travel to Cartagena, here are the restaurants you can’t miss, sorted by breakfast, lunch, coffee and dinner.
Try Classic Colombian Bread at La Esquina del Pan de Bono
Known for having the best pan de bono in the city, this tiny bakery on the corner of a busy street in the historic center was my breakfast spot nearly every day while I was in Cartagena. They sell a range of colombian bread and pastries, both sweet and salty. It’s great for people watching; on the weekdays, locals flood in and out as they rush to work.
If you ask them to heat your pastry up before they give it to you, it will taste like it just came out of the oven. They also serve fresh fruit and vegetable juices.
Have an Arepa at Dorotea
When I walked into this restaurant, my heart sank a little. I had heard they have the best arepas in the city, but it was completely empty, and it looked like a hotel dining area. I thought, “This is one of those places that tourists go to and think is great, but it’s actually really bad.” Luckily, I was wrong! Dorotea serves delicious arepas—they’re crispier than the others I tried from street carts.
If you’re on the hunt for the best arepa in Cartagena, Dorotea deserves to be in the running.
Grab Breakfast from a Street Cart
Cartagena has no shortage of wonderful restaurants to try, but some of the best food can be found on the streets. In the early morning (and again in the late afternoon), street carts set up shop, serving arepas, pan de bono, other fried goodies and tinto (black coffee). There’s a great collection of carts just down the street from La Esquina del Pan de Bono, and Getsemani’s Plaza de la Trinidad is full of street food.
If you really want to experience the best street food Cartagena has to offer, I recommend this street food tour with Cartagena Connections—Kristy, the founder, will take you on a two-hour journey through the historic center and Getsemani neighborhoods and show you all the best places to try Cartagena street food staples.
Dessert and Coffee
Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at Ely
Ceviche, arepas, pan de bono—these culinary staples of Cartagena are great, but sometimes you just need something sweet. That’s where Ely comes in. When you walk inside Ely, it’s as if you’ve entered 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.
I stared at the desert case for about ten minutes trying to pick out a treat, finally deciding that I couldn’t decide and ordering the carrot cake and a brownie. Both were delicious. The red velvet cake and the oreo cook also looked swoon-worthy.
Eat Grilled Fish at Restaurante La Mulata
This lunch spot served one of my favorite meals in Cartagena. Here 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).
Try the Ceviche at La Laguna Azul
La Laguna Azul is tucked away in a small glass building across from the entrance to the Centro Comercial Getsemani, a shopping center with stalls that fill every possible need, from lingerie to local independent designers.
They serve enormous plates of fresh ceviche with avocado. If you weren’t on the lookout for this lunch spot you’d probably miss it; they have just two or three tables inside a stripped-down interior. But don’t be fooled by its simplistic exterior; the food is incredible.
Feel Getsemani’s Vibrant Energy at Café Lunatico
Just a few steps from one of the busiest streets in Getsemani, Café Lunatico is a destination for travelers and hip locals alike. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner; at lunch, they have a menú del día (an affordable pre-fixed menu). If you stop in between meals, you can sip coffee or an agua del día and watch the artsy, hipster patrons.
People Watch at Bistrot
Bistrot, which is in the historic center, serves delicious plates based around meat, rice and vegetables and accompanied by fresh agua del día (the flavored water of the day).
Sip Coffee at Café del Mural
Colombia turned me into a coffee drinker, and this place played no small part. It’s tucked away on a quiet, graffitied street in the Getsemani neighborhood. The owner takes pride in roasting much of the coffee by hand, and it’s all served in artisanal cups from Colombia and Mexico. They also have great wifi.
Enjoy a Book at Ábaco
Ábaco, the city’s most well-known bookstore, is a book-lover’s dream. The shelves are bursting with books, and more are piled high on the ledge of the register. It’s a quiet, tranquil place to go to escape the afternoon heat and have a coffee with a friend (or just read by yourself).
Try Fresh, Creative Takes on Traditional Colombian Cuisine at Cocina de Pepina
Cocina de Pepina is one of the most popular restaurants for dinner in Cartagena. They serve creative takes on traditional Colombian dishes. I had a fried banana dish and a shrimp avocado ceviche. This place fills up, so call ahead to make a reservation.
Grab Pizza and a Beer at Demente
This is a popular dinner spot right off the Plaza de la Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood. It serves pizza, salads and artisanal beer and has a nice outdoor area.
Eat Some Greens at La Mala Gana
Sometimes, when you’re traveling and trying a bunch of new, amazing (and usually heavy) dishes, you just want a salad. A big, leafy-green salad. I stumbled into La Mala Gana one night when I wasn’t sure where to have dinner, and I wound up with an enormous, fresh salad topped with grilled shrimp. The restaurant has a cute, romantic terrace where you can eat at night and gaze at the moon.
Try the Darling of the Cartagena Food Scene: La Vitrola
Full disclosure: I didn’t have the chance to try La Vitrola. But I included it in this guide because it’s one of Cartagena’s most popular restaurants, known for its vintage Cuban-themed interior, live jazz music and killer seafood. It’s also known for filling up fast, so call a few weeks ahead to book a reservation (or go at lunch, when it’s less crowded).