One of the most gorgeous, romantic, and colorful cities in the world, Cartagena is packed with history, friendly Colombians, and of course, tourists. The walled city is made up of pastel colonial buildings lined with flowers, cobblestone streets, horse carriages, and plenty of restaurants and boutiques to satisfy all of its many visitors.
You can walk the city walls during sunset, explore the fortress that’s been protecting the city for hundreds of years, and try all of the area’s Caribbean cuisine, from fresh fish to exotic fruits. Between markets, day trips, shopping, and the nearby beaches and Rosario Islands, you’ll be marveling at Cartagena’s beauty for days on end.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cartagena:
1. Explore the Old City
Most tourists will stay in the old city of Cartagena, which includes the neighborhoods of Centro, San Diego, and Getsemani, and you should too.
Here you’ll be close to the most historical parts of the city and its picturesque streets, particularly within the walled city (La Ciudad Amurallada), an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You’ll find tons of colorful colonial architecture, flowers, artists, and people selling trinkets on the streets.
Be sure to check out the Torre del Reloj, the historically important and monument-filled Plaza Aduana, the vibrant Plaza Santo Domingo with its Botero statue, and the leafy green Plaza Bolivar that’s frequently filled with dancers and performers.
Suggested tour: Cartagena: 4-Hour Historic Tour Including Entry Fees
2. Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
This might be the most incredible fortress ever built by the Spanish in any of their colonies and it’s a landmark within the city of Cartagena.
Construction began in 1639, and it’s never been taken despite numerous attempts to attack the city.
There are tunnels within it specifically designed to allow even small sounds to travel well so that any intruders would be detected easily.
You can stroll through some of these dark passageways and make your way along the fort’s walls and battlements when you visit.
Grab a guide or one of the audio tour headsets to learn more about its history.
3. Street Food Tour
While you should definitely pick up some cheese-filled arepas and fresh lemonade from the food vendors in the plazas, you might want to sign up for a street food tour to taste even more local dishes.
With a guide you’ll get to try things from carts, alleyways, and shops you’d never find on your own.
Cartagena Connections will take you around town teaching you about the food and culture while picking up samples of exotic fruits, fried snacks like empanadas and buñuelos, queso costeño (local salty cheese), frozen treats, and tinto.
La Mesa tours is a little more expensive, and they’ll guide you to try patacónes, arepas filled with egg, and other coastal delicacies.
Suggested tour: Cartagena: Street Food Tour
4. Visit a Mud Volcano
El Totumo is a small volcano containing thick bubbling mud that you can bathe in and it’s located just outside of Cartagena.
You climb inside the hill-like vat where you’ll float in the mud and even have the option of getting a quick massage.
Give your camera or cell phones to the guy who takes photos of tourists covered in mud if you want a pic.
At the end of your skin-soothing mud bath, there are local ladies who’ll scrub you down in the lake.
Just remember, everyone expects a tip, but it’s all in good fun and totally worth it.
5. Islas del Rosario
A beautiful day trip while in Cartagena, the Islas del Rosario are 27 islands located in the crystal clear Caribbean waters just off the coast of the city.
They’re filled with coral reefs that serve as a natural habitat for tons of aqualife, and you can spend a day here boating, swimming, or snorkeling.
On land, they also have hotels, an aquarium, and a few hikes you can do.
Take the public boat to the bigger islands or take a private tour boat to see some of the smaller ones.
Whether you want white sand beaches, a festive atmosphere, or virgin stretches of shoreline, there’s an island for you.
Available tour: Rosario Islands Private Speedboat Tour from Cartagena
6. Mercado de Bazurto
It’s chaotic, smelly, vibrant, colorful, and totally authentic, so you should definitely visit the Mercado de Bazurto.
It’s the biggest wet market in town, and you can head here to see the locals at work slicing meat, scaling fish, cooking, repairing machinery, and plying their wares.
Grab a bite and a drink from one of the food stalls or try the exotic fruits on offer.
You’ll need to be careful with your possessions here and wear closed-toed shoes, but it’s a great way to see the true Cartagena.
Insider Tours and Cartagena Connections do tours here so that you can learn all about the market and be sure not miss any hidden gems.
7. Playa Blanca
Located on Isla Barú, you can take a boat or a car to perhaps the most popular white sand beach around Cartagena.
It can get packed during the day with locals, tourists, and beach vendors trying to sell you things, but stay for the night and you won’t regret it.
From fancy hotels to hostels to hammocks and tents directly on the beach, there’s a range of accommodations available.
The water is a brilliant blue, and during the evenings it calms down to become remarkably serene.
Grab a beer and some fried fish with coconut rice from one of the beach restaurants while you’re here.
Suggested trip: Playa Blanca Full-Day Trip from Cartagena
8. Sunset Drinks at Cafe del Mar
This restaurant is one of the most popular in the city because of it’s prime location.
It’s situated along the walls of the old city and it’s the perfect place to watch the sun go down while sitting outside overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
Of course, the prices here are higher than most in the city due to this amazing real estate, but the cocktails are great.
Get there early or book a table in advance because it gets crowded.
There’s a huge Colombian flag on the patio so the photo opps here can’t be beat, and there’s usually a breeze and some kind of live music to enjoy after a hot day in Cartagena.
9. Convento De La Popa
This hill is the highest point in the city, and it’s home to a convent so named because its shape resembles the poop deck of a ship.
Take a cab up the winding road (be sure to haggle on the price) to see this convent that was initially founded in 1607 and fortified two centuries later.
You’ll get the best views of Cartagena and its beaches from here, and you can enter the chapel to see the image of La Virgen de la Candelaria as well as the courtyard filled with flowers.
You’ll also observe the statue of a priest who was murdered for trying to spread the Gospel.
10. The Palace of the Inquisition
This interesting museum is housed in one of the loveliest colonial buildings in Cartagena, but it covers a dark time in history.
The Spanish Inquisition sent over representatives to punish heretics in the colonies for “crimes” such as witchcraft, magic, and blasphemy which were considered to be threats to the Catholic Church.
Visitors can inspect and read all about the macabre instruments of torture – like the strappado and “the rack” – that were used to extract confessions.
You can also see the prison where victims awaited their judgments and the courtyard where public executions took place.
Exhibits are available in English – like the questions to discern whether or not you were a witch – but guides are available too.
11. Hit the Salsa Bars
One essential Cartagena nighttime activity is salsa dancing in the old city.
Cafe Havana is a crowded bar with live Cuban salsa music and the place Hillary Clinton famously danced when she visited the city.
Donde Fidel has a fabulous sound system and it’s set right in the front of the picturesque clock tower of the walled city – it’s great for people-watching . Check out Quiebracanto for incredible music and views of the plaza below, or if you need lessons, head to Crazy Salsa.
Really, just stroll into any joint that looks hoppin’ around town and you’ll likely find a local who’ll show you the ropes.
12. Walk the City Walls or Ride in a Horse Drawn Carriage
Take a walk along the walls of the old city while in Cartagena to see its well-preserved canons and lookout posts.
There are several areas with steps to get up and down and you can navigate around the city with views of the sea on one side and neighborhood streets on the other.
Check out the sunset here by grabbing a couple of beers from the street vendors along the wall next to Cafe del Mar if the restaurant itself isn’t in your budget.
Or if you’re feeling traditional, check out how amazing the city looks (especially at night) with a horse carriage ride around town.
Rides last about an hour, they’re pretty cheap, plus you’ll get to explore the city in truly romantic way.
13. Street Art in Getsemani
This area of the city used to be a little less picturesque than its neighborhood counterparts of Centro and San Diego, but new hotels and restaurants are popping up every day.
Getsemani still retains its rough charm though, and you’ll see crumbling buildings, local homes, kids playing soccer, and an absolute ton of amazing street art here.
Take a graffiti tour to learn all about the meaning behind the murals, the artists, and the political and social movements they represent.
There are some truly beautiful works by skilled artists here, and Cartagena Connections or Streetart Cartagena can lead you to the best ones.
14. Ride the Chiva Party Bus
This might sound a little tacky (and it is) but lots of tourists visiting from Colombia and other parts of South America love taking part in this fun nighttime activity.
Hop on board a chiva or colorful, rustic party bus complete with music, dancing, and an open bar.
There might even be a live band playing as you drive around the city living it up and making stops until you’re finally dropped off at a nightclub.
Hostels and tour companies will arrange these for you – be sure to check exactly what’s included.
You’re sure to make friends, and they’re a great way to see the city all lit up at night and experience a quintessentially Colombian good time.
15. Bocagrande Beaches
If you can’t make it out to the Islas del Rosario or Playa Blanca then head to the beach in the city.
This neighborhood is filled with more tall apartment buildings and condos than pastel colonial homes, but it’s still worth a look.
It’s got the longest and most accessible beach in the city, and along the the main avenue you’ll find big hotel chains and casinos reminiscent of Miami.
The beach is a great place to relax if you’re capable of saying no to the constant vendors and women offering massages.
It’s not a picture-perfect Caribbean beach as the sand is dark, but the water is clear and there are plenty of restaurants where you can grab a bite or rent a beach chair.
16. Las Palenqueras and Exotic Fruits
In Colombia, you’ll find lots of interesting fruits that you won’t find at home, including lulo, maracuya, and granadilla.
Pick some up from streetside vendors or even better, grab a few cups of fruit from the colorfully dressed ladies selling them in the streets of the old city.
Known as palenqueras, these iconic women will accept a tip for a photograph or you can just buy some of their delicious mangos or pineapples, and they’ll let you snap a pic.
Originally from the village of San Basilio de Palenque, they’re known for their traditional Caribbean dresses as well as their ability to balance heavy bowls of fruit on their heads.
17. Museo de la Esmeralda
Colombia is known for its emeralds, and in Cartagena you’ll find a museum dedicated to the precious gemstone and the jewelry that’s made with it.
Learn all about how the stone is discovered and mined, and see one of the largest emeralds ever discovered in the country.
There are also exhibits detailing the goldsmithing techniques of indigenous cultures as well as the ancient myths and legends surrounding gold and emeralds.
There’s a chamber of beryls and gold too, and you can take a peek into a portion of the Caribe jewelry factory.
The museum is free, but of course it ends in a jewelry store specializing in all sorts of emeralds.
18. Santuario de San Pedro Claver
If you’re going to visit one church in Cartagena, make it this one.
The sanctuary contains a museum featuring religious artwork from the colonial period, a lush courtyard with a baptismal font, and the church where the remains of St. Peter Claver lie.
He was the patron saint of slaves, fighting to make their conditions more humane, working toward abolition, and baptizing them in colonial times.
The exterior of the church itself is beautiful, visible day or night from many parts of the city, and it’s a great place to learn more about this part of the city’s past.
19. Go Shopping
As a popular tourist town, Cartagena is filled with tons of shopping so you can take home whatever it is you’re looking for.
If you can’t find it on the streets, check out Las Bovedas, the little shops built into the walls of the city with alcoves and columns all around.
They house everything touristy, from cheap trinkets to clothing, original artwork, and hammocks.
You can find higher end boutiques and shops by local fashion designers like Silvia Tcherassi selling strappy sandals, bags, and dresses, as well as home decor shops like Casa Chiqui.
You’ll also be spoiled for choice when it comes to jewelry stores specializing in emeralds and gold pieces featuring indigenous designs and wild animals.
20. Visit La Boquilla and the Mangroves
La Boquilla is a little fishing village located on the outskirts of Cartagena where its poorer streets and shacks stand in stark contrast to Cartagena’s old city.
You’ll get an authentic glimpse at life here, meet a few friendly locals, and eat some of the freshest fish you’ve ever tried at one of the restaurants on the beach known as El Paraíso.
Be prepared to have lots of people try to entice you into their place of business! While the sand is dark, the beaches here are nearly deserted, so you’ll have plenty of room to yourself away from all the tourists.
If you want to visit the mangroves, take a tour in a canoe with a local through the tunnels of trees and hear about the local flora and fauna.
21. Museo del Oro Zenú
Just as Bogotá has its own famous gold museum, Cartagena has a smaller version.
You can learn about how ancient cultures made jewelry, how gold was mined, and how the local indigenous people throughout Colombia used gold hundreds of years ago.
There are artifacts on display from the Zenú tribe, including pottery and gold pieces.
These people were known for their symbols of fertility, gold breastplates, and gold ornaments depicting animals.
Those valuable pieces and their prevalent use of gold attracted the attention of the Spanish who all but killed them off shortly after arriving.
22. Upscale Dining in Cartagena
After you’ve checked off all the street food, visit some of the best restaurants in the city to taste some awesome seafood and local specialties.
La Cevicheria makes amazing ceviche with Peruvian influence and it’s always crowded (probably because Anthony Bourdain ate here). La Perla also makes delicately delicious plates of raw and cured fish, along with other stylish Andean cuisine.
Carmen serves up a mix of Colombian ingredients like plantains, yuca, lobster, and exquisite octopus with international twists and amazing technique.
Don Juan and La Mulata are also popular choices for seafood, meat, and local fare.
Don’t forget to have drinks outside at one of the restaurants in Santo Domingo before or after your meal.
23. Go Scuba Diving or Snorkeling
Located directly on the Caribbean Sea, you’ll have plenty of options for exploring what’s beneath the surface of these clear, blue waters.
If you just want to snorkel, head out to the natural park of the Rosario Islands and its San Bernardo reef about an hour away by boat.
There are also coral points and shipwrecks that you can Scuba dive just off the coast, and the colorful schools of fish, biodiversity, and underwater landscapes here are great.
You might see things like lionfish, lobsters, and moray eels in addition to healthy soft corals.
Diving Planet can arrange either snorkeling or diving trips, and Cartagena Divers gets great reviews if you want to get your Scuba certification while you’re in town.
24. Free Walking Tour of Cartagena
One of the best ways to get to know a city is to hear the story from a passionate local.
Free Tour Cartagena offers tours every day of the week by local guides (they’re the ones wearing the bright yellow shirts) who can tell you their personal stories alongside the history of Cartagena.
You’ll get to see the main sites of the walled city – including churches, plazas, and the home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez – and learn about some of the city’s quirks – like what the different colonial door knockers mean.
Be sure to book a spot online in advance. A tip is expected so to be honest it’s not really free.
Another option would be a $30 Private Tour with a Local Guide.
25. Take a Day Trip to San Basilio de Palenque
To see where those colorful palenqueras hail from, visit this village which is located just 35 miles (56 kilometers) from Cartagena.
One of the first towns in the Americas made up of escaped and freed slaves, it’s the birthplace of popular Colombian musicians and genres of music like champeta and palenque.
The language and customs here are unique, though tourism is slowly starting to become a part of their local economy.
You can take the bus here or organize a tour that’ll walk you through town, visit with locals, and teach you all about Palenque’s history, from slavery to present day social movements to insights into their clothing styles, folkloric dance, and cuisine.