15 Best Things to Do in Popayán (Colombia)

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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While many tourists overlook Popayán, this peaceful, charming city is filled with well-preserved colonial architecture and history to explore. The narrow cobblestone streets are a pleasure to walk around, the central plaza is lovely, and the range of gastronomy is pretty incredible for a town of its size.

The historic whitewashed buildings of the center give it the nickname “The White City,” and it’s also the religious capital of Colombia, coming alive during Semana Santa with processions in the streets. There are viewpoints on the edge of town, a nearby indigenous market, and several quality museums you can visit. Popayán also sits within reach of a natural park where you can climb a volcano, soak in hot springs, and spot the Andean condor.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Popayán:

1. Parque Caldas

Parque Caldas, PopayanSource: Matyas Rehak / shutterstock
Parque Caldas

This leafy main square sits right next to the town’s cathedral and the clock tower in the historic center of Popayán.

Stroll around and you’ll find locals relaxing alongside shoe-shining men and street food vendors selling snacks and cold drinks.

The park dates back to 1537, so it’s filled with colonial history, as well as monuments, flowers, trees, and pigeons.

Grab a cup of fruit covered in sweetened condensed milk or a coffee from the nearby Juan Valdez and take a seat to watch the occasional street performer.

Sometimes you’ll find tents along the outer edge of the square with locals selling crafts, souvenirs, and accessories too.

2. Puente Del Humilladero

Puente Del HumilladeroSource: Reporte Grafico / shutterstock
Puente Del Humilladero

The iconic arched bridge of Popayán was built in 1873 from a mix of cement which included the ox blood and other superstitious components.

The belief was that the blood of a strong animal would keep the bridge strong.

Before its construction, the locals struggled to climb the steep road from the poorer neighborhoods to the main square with their heavy loads.

After walking across this important piece of architecture, check out the gardens next to it – La Arcada De La Herrería.

It’s a nice place to stroll, picnic, and catch the occasional cultural event.

3. Catedral Nuestra Señora de La Asunción and Torre del Reloj

Catedral Nuestra Señora de La AsunciónSource: Novide / shutterstock
Catedral Nuestra Señora de La Asunción

While you spend some time in the adjacent Parque Caldas, you may as well have a wander into the cathedral and take a look at the clocktower.

The original adobe church constructed here was destroyed by an earthquake in 1566 and hit by yet another in 1983. The French-inspired interior of this stark white church is rather simple with its domed ceilings and airy, light feel.

The Torre del Reloj, or clock tower, next door was built in the late 1600s.

It has a one-handed clock that doesn’t always seem to work.

4. Visit the Silvia Indigenous Market

Silvia Indigenous MarketSource: Barna Tanko / shutterstock
Silvia Indigenous Market

A small town about an hour and a half bus ride away, Silvia holds a fabulous indigenous market every Tuesday where you can buy traditional foods and watch the locals trade.

Not too touristy and still very authentic, the Guambiano community brings produce, textiles, and farm supplies into town for sale (rather than your typical souvenirs and trinkets). You’ll see them in the traditional Andean dress of black hats and bright blue shawls hauling fruits and vegetables around the market.

There’s also meat for sale and stalls selling quick meals like hot chocolate, cheese, and fried dough for breakfast.

5. Hike to the Viewpoints Around Town

View from Morro de TulcánSource: Antoine Barthelemy / shutterstock
View From Morro De Tulcán

For panoramic views of Popayán and the surrounding valleys, hike up the trail to Cerro de las Tres Cruces or the Hill of the Three Crosses.

Along the way you can try some typical regional snacks like empanadas and sugarcane juice.

You can also climb the nearby Morro de Tulcán, the former site of an ancient pyramid and now home to a statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, the city’s founder.

Don’t miss the striking sunsets here – there’s plenty of police presence to keep it safe at night – because it’s a must-do activity while in Popayán!

6. Explore the City’s Gastronomic Offerings

Popoyan GastronomySource: Angel Mato / shutterstock
Popoyan Gastronomy

In 2005, Popayán was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, so you should check out its culinary offerings which have roots in the indigenous, African, and Spanish cultures.

Search for authentic, local meals at the Mercado Bolívar where you can grab a plastic chair, take a look at the offerings, and try some tamales or caldo with seafood and rice.

Mora Castilla is a restaurant in town serving the traditional cuisine – order the empanadas de Pipián, which are filled with a mix of potatoes and meat.

There’s also an array of great coffee shops where young locals socialize and tons of international restaurants from French to Italian to Mexican.

7. Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte Religioso

Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte ReligiosoSource: Roarboleda / Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 4.0
Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte Religioso

If you’re into religious art (or even if you’re not), this museum has an impressive collection of works displayed in a lovely 18th-century colonial residence.

Take a tour or browse by yourself to view its paintings, sculptures, furniture, and especially all the gold and silver treasures.

The entrance fee is around $2 USD and it’s a great place to wander the halls filled with artwork, jewelry, and religious relics from as far back as the 16th century.

If you’re here around Easter, this is a must-visit because they take the highly sacred pieces out of the vaults to put on display.

8. Museo de Historia Natural

Museo de Historia Natural, PopayanSource: tacowitte / Flickr | CC BY
Museo de Historia Natural

One of the best museums in Popayán, the most unique thing about this place is its ridiculously large collection of taxidermy.

We’re talking three floors of stuffed critters, which include mammals, reptiles, insects, and a huge collection of birds! You can learn about endangered species like the Andean condor and view the region’s most important rocks and minerals.

There’s also a section filled with archeological finds like fossils and pottery, as well as information about the history of the area, including sites like the Morro de Tulcán pyramid.

It’s run by the Universidad del Cauca, and while the collection is great, entry is still cheap.

9. Yambitará Hacienda

Yambitará HaciendaSource: www.booking.com
Yambitará Hacienda

For a look back in time, visit this old colonial hacienda on the edge of Popayán.

A lush oasis surrounded by gardens, ancient trees, and native flora and fauna, guests can stay in this old home which dates back hundreds of years.

The casona and finca used to be located outside the city, but the town’s growth has nearly reached the property nowadays.

Still it remains a quiet, tranquil place to spend the night or just explore the grounds – the hosts are lovely! Make the 30-minute walk to the gorgeous waterfall after you wander the well-maintained interior with its charming decor that takes you back to the town’s golden age.

10. Parque Natural De Puracé

Parque Natural De PuracéSource: Guillermo Ossa / shutterstock
Parque Natural De Puracé

For a chance to spot the famous Andean condor and climb a volcano, head out to the Indigenous Reserve of Puracé.

With the help of a guide, you can visit a condor feeding site to hopefully catch a glimpse of one of these great birds of prey.

Only about 600 of them are left in the wild and three of them live in this park.

If the weather holds up and you plan ahead, you can climb the still-considered-active Volcan Puracé.

With the help of an indigenous guide, a few hours to spare, warm clothes, and waterproof gear, you can make it to the crater summit which lies at just over 15,000 feet (4,646 meters).

11. Coconuco Thermal Pools

Hot SpringsSource: Tom Wang / shutterstock
Hot Springs

For a relaxing soak in natural hot springs, head out to the village of Coconuco about an hour outside of Popayán where, for a small fee, you can spend the day and take a dip.

It’s not fancy, but you can bathe together with friendly Colombians in these hot sulphuric pools – you might notice the eggy smell! Aguas Tibias is surrounded by beautiful nature, plus there’s a waterslide and mud spring.

Agua Hirviendo is a little hotter but more basic, with a waterslide and many locals who come out on weekends.

There are restaurants around and on a weekday you might even have the place to yourself! Head to the springs by public bus (plus a jeep or moto-taxi ride), join a bike tour that visits, or sign up to go with a hostel group.

12. Pueblito Patojo

Pueblito PatojoSource: Fotos593 / shutterstock
Pueblito Patojo

A fun model of the town of Popayán with all of the important and historic buildings in miniature, this is a nice area for a stroll and a few photographs.

You can sample some of the typical local foods from vendors here – try the empanadas de Pipián and tamales – or purchase handicrafts from the artisans who set up nearby.

It’s also the site of the tourist office and a coffee shop where you can hang out.

Pueblito Patojo is the perfect place to stop off on your way to the Morro de Tulcán for sunset.

13. Free Walking Tour

Walk around PopayanSource: Fotos593 / shutterstock
Walk Around Popayan

If you’re only here for a little while and want to learn all about the history of Popayán and its most important sites, be sure to check out the free walking tour with Get Up and Go Colombia.

They meet every day near the Parque Caldas and take groups around to places like the Puente Del Humilladero and the historic White City.

Their enthusiastic guides will give you insider information about the town, tell you stories, and take you to try local food.

On Sundays, they also include a hike up to a viewpoint surrounding the city.

It’s a great way to meet other travelers and if you do the evening tour, it might just include an awesome sunset.

14. See the Churches

Iglesia de San FranciscoSource: Fotos593 / shutterstock
Iglesia de San Francisco

Since Popayán is one of the religious capitals of Colombia, have a peek at the most famous churches in town.

After you’ve seen the cathedral on the main square, check out the Iglesia de San Francisco, the town’s most beautiful and largest colonial church.

It has eight altars, but most importantly, it’s home to two mummies which you can see when tour guides are available.

There’s also the smaller Iglesia La Ermita which is the oldest in town, Iglesia de Santo Domingo with its bell tower and a bustling school nearby, Iglesia de San Jose which isn’t painted white (shocker!), and the Iglesia de Belen that sits on a nice overlook of the city

15. Holy Week Processions

Semana Santa, PopayanSource: Jess Kraft / shutterstock
Semana Santa

While this attraction is only doable if you’re here during Semana Santa, it’s one of the things that Popayán is most famous for.

These moving religious processions have been held in the city every year since the 16th century! Local schools create artwork and wooden carvings to be carried around the city for two kilometers in a path the shape of a cross.

Faithful crowds flock to see the models depicting the story of Christ and the crucifixion.

On the Tuesday through Saturday of Easter Week, everyone stands in the street with candles as the processions start in the evenings.

If you want to be here for this spectacle, be sure to book your accommodation early.

15 Best Things to Do in Popayán (Colombia):

  • Parque Caldas
  • Puente Del Humilladero
  • Catedral Nuestra Señora de La Asunción and Torre del Reloj
  • Visit the Silvia Indigenous Market
  • Hike to the Viewpoints Around Town
  • Explore the City’s Gastronomic Offerings
  • Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte Religioso
  • Museo de Historia Natural
  • Yambitará Hacienda
  • Parque Natural De Puracé
  • Coconuco Thermal Pools
  • Pueblito Patojo
  • Free Walking Tour
  • See the Churches
  • Holy Week Processions