×

18 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia

Written by Lana Law
Apr 9, 2019

Like walking in the pages of a history book, this fabulous city on Colombia's Caribbean coast brings to life another era. Unlike many historic cities, which offer a glimpse of faded glory, Cartagena's walled city has been fabulously restored.

It is a city full of unexpected delights for first-time visitors, where you can find exceptional dining experiences along with unique attractions and things to do by day and night. Plazas bustle with activity; horse-drawn carriages add to the atmosphere; and historical sites, like the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the Convento La Popa de la Galera, make for interesting sightseeing.

A street in the walled city | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Beyond the old city, Cartagena has many areas worth exploring, including Barrio Getsemani, where you can step away from some of the tourist scene of the walled city to enjoy a more local vibe, try some street food, and watch evening entertainment in Plaza de la Trinidad.

Cartagena is also a popular destination for kitesurfing, which can be found on the beaches just north of the city. And if you have more than a day or two, consider taking a day trip from Cartagena to see the famous Magic Mud Volcano or to the beautiful beaches of Islas del Rosario.

Explore the attractions and learn more with our list of top things to do in Cartagena.

1. Explore the Walled City

Cathedral in Cartagena | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Cartegana's charming walled city is Colombia's shining star. The stunning architecture, most of it meticulously restored, covers an extensive area in the historical center of the city. Narrow streets open onto restaurant-lined squares and inviting open spaces. Music fills the air in the evenings, as small bands set up in restaurants and roaming musicians take to the plazas like a scene from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

Since the early 2010s, the city has undergone extensive restoration of the historic buildings in the walled city, many of which previously sat empty. Restaurants and boutique hotels have been transformed into architectural masterpieces, with creative and inviting designs, where you can relax in quiet courtyards tucked away from the bustling streets, or dine in the open-air below huge palm trees. The result is a historic city transformed through its revitalization efforts into a destination that makes travelers want to linger.

If you are looking for things to do at night in the walled city, begin by watching the sunset over the ocean from the top of the walls, wander through Barrio San Diego and stop at Plaza San Diego, and make your way to Plaza de los Coches to watch the street performers in front of the Torre del Reloj.

Many travelers ask about the safety of Cartagena. The walled city is regarded as one of the safest areas of Colombia, and you are unlikely to experience any problems wandering around here in the day or even late into the evening. The streets have a relaxed feel, and police can be seen around this area of the city keeping an eye on activities.

The walled city is also the most popular place to stay, and you can find some incredibly beautiful luxury hotels in this area of Cartagena.

2. Take a Romantic Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride in Cartagena

Horse-drawn carriage in Cartagena | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Although it may seem cliché, a horse-drawn carriage ride through the colonial walled city is one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena. Horses seem to outnumber cars in the old city, and the clip-clock sound of horse hooves can be heard as you walk down almost any street.

Although empty carriages will stop for you anywhere in the city, the best place to start a tour is from Plaza de los Coches in front of the Torre del Reloj, which is the main gate with the iconic yellow clocktower. Horse carriages line up along one side of the square, and touts are quick to sell you a tour.

You can negotiate a price, but your negotiating will generally only save you about 15 to 20 percent off the starting price. Tours operate in the day and late into the evening, and run down all the most beautiful streets.

3. Wander the Streets & Plazas of Getsemani

Plazuela del Pozo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Just outside the walled city is the pleasant neighborhood of Getsemani. Like the walled city, this area is old and has similar characteristics, including the impressive architecture, wood balconies, and narrow streets and alleys. But Getsemani is more residential in nature, feels less touristy, and has a much more authentic Colombian feel. Some streets offer quiet retreats, while others are known for nightlife.

At Plaza de la Trinidad, the most popular square in Getsemani, you can find street vendors selling a variety of good foods, street performers, and tourists sitting on the steps of Iglesia de la Trinidad. This area comes to life after about 6pm. Surrounding the square are a number of small, casual restaurants with indoor and outdoor dining, although most are open-air.

Wander back from the square to see flag-covered streets, huge murals and graffiti covered walls, an umbrella covered alley, and people dragging their chairs out to the sidewalk to enjoy the warm evenings. Nearby is Plazuela del Pozo, where you can find a table in the evenings in the square and listen to a musician or small band.

Across the street from the waterfront, along Calle del Arsenal in Getsemani is where you will find music venues and more action later in the evening. Chiva buses, the colorfully painted, open-air tour buses playing music, which you can frequently see plying the streets, end their tours along here.

On the opposite side of the street, along the waterfront, is a lovely area with tables and chairs looking out over the water to the old city on the opposite shore. Food trucks set up here selling a full array of offerings, from pizza to sushi. This is another popular area in the evenings, where people come to relax.

4. Cartagena's Cathedral: Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandria

Cathedral at night | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandria is one of the most photographed buildings in the old town of Cartagena, particularly at night, when the impressive spire is lit up like a scene from a fairy tale. You can see it from throughout the old city as you wander along the streets.

The building dates from 1612 and has recently been completely restored. If you are able to sneak a peak inside, you'll find towering arches supported by massive columns.

The cathedral is across the street from the shady Plaza Bolivar. During the day, artists selling their works are often set up in the vicinity of the cathedral.

5. Navigate the Tunnels of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Tunnel at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Sitting on a hilltop just a short drive from the walls of the city, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is regarded as one of the greatest forts the Spanish ever built in the new world. It's complex tunnel system and overall design, triangular in shape, made it unique among Spanish forts.

The most impressive feature of the fort is the tunnel system. The design of the tunnels took into consideration acoustics, which allowed the Spanish to hear even the slightest noise created by anyone trying to approach. It also allowed for easy communication, with sound traveling great distances along the tunnels.

They are confusing to navigate, but you can access them at several points, meaning they do not feel particularly claustrophobic unless you choose to go deeper, into areas that have no exits. They also offer a cool break from the heat and pounding sun.

6. Watch Street Performances at Torre del Reloj & Plaza de los Coches

Plaza de los Coches | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Many people will arrive at the walled city through the Torre del Reloj, also referred to as the Puerta del Reloj or Boca del Puente, the grand gate to the old city. It's easy to identify by the huge yellow clocktower, which rises from the top of the gate. In front of the clocktower, particularly in the evenings, trinket sellers, musicians, mimes, and other performers set up here.

Just inside the wall, Plaza de los Coches is a large, triangular-shaped square, frequently filled with people milling about with no real purpose except to admire the centuries-old buildings and the line of horse-drawn carriages waiting to take tourists on a tour of the city. You can also get a taxi here if you are looking to go somewhere inside the gate. Along the main arcade behind the horses, vendors are set up selling an assortment of sweets and behind them are a few restaurants.

A statue of Don Pedro Heredia stands at one end of Plaza de los Coches. At the opposite end, yellow tables are set up each evening along the wall, which quickly fill with tourists. Restaurants along the square offer service to these tables. In the evenings, small bands of musicians wander the square with their percussion instruments and accordions, and will strike up a song for tourists who want to make a donation.

If you are visiting during the day, you may want to wander into the lush Parque del Centario across the street from the Torre del Reloj. Sloths live in the trees and often come down for a closer look at tourists, and you can also see monkeys, iguanas, squirrels, and a variety of birds. The park is free.

7. Dining in Cartagena

Dining outdoors in Cartagena | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Dining in the historic city center is, as a general rule, outstanding, and chefs make the meals here memorable. The restaurant designs and dining spaces are an attraction themselves, ranging from sophisticated to quirky. The assortment of restaurants is also impressive, featuring international cuisine from around the world and great Colombian food as well.

For tourists, one of the most popular things to do when it comes to dining in Cartagena is to eat at a restaurant on the city's historic wall, looking out to sea. Two locations offer this experience. On the ramparts across from the lavish Charleston Santa Teresa Hotel is El Baluarte, serving mainly tapas and appetizers. Tourists enjoy coming here for sunset. Later on, a band sets up in the early evening hours.

From here, if you continue walking along the wall, crossing over a small pedestrian bridge, which offers a fabulous view back over the city, you will eventually come to Café del Mar, another restaurant on the wall with extensive outdoor seating. This place has a hipper vibe and a more extensive menu. It's usually quite busy in the evenings.

For a more traditional Colombian experience, head to Mardeleva Restaurant, not to be confused with the Pizzeria Mar de Leva. All the food at Mardeleva is sourced from Colombia, and, while you can get a full range of dishes here, their main focus is on dishes from the sea. The restaurant has a beautiful open-air courtyard with a wonderful atmosphere, as well as a lovely indoor eating area with air conditioning. A local band plays in the courtyard most nights.

Mistura is another restaurant where you can expect exceptional food, and the restaurant itself is beautiful. This is a large restaurant but divided up into different areas, so each section feels intimate. They serve a wide selection of dishes.

Many restaurants don't open for the evening meal until 7pm and dining generally begins at 7:30. Reservations are a good idea, especially between Thursdays and Sundays. Swing by in the afternoon to reserve a table.

8. Relax at Plaza Bolivar

Plaza Bolivar | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

In front of the Palacio de la Inquisicion (Palace of the Inquisition) is the tree-lined Plaza Bolivar. Park benches surround an equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar, and huge trees provide relief from the sun. People come here to sit and enjoy a few minutes of quiet or feed the pigeons. It's not a busy park, but touts on the edge of the park try to sell tours to tourists passing by.

9. Try Street Food & Experience Plaza de la Trinidad at Night

Plaza de la Trinidad | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Even if you don't have time to fully explore Getsemani, it's worth walking by the Plaza de la Trinidad in the evening. For reasons that may seem incomprehensible at first, this square in front of the church is a magnet for locals and tourists. The church steps fill with people, and the plaza becomes a buzz of activity in the early evening. On any given night here, you might be able to spontaneously participate in a dance lesson, see fire twirlers or jugglers, or come across a unique act, like you won't see in other areas of the city.

One of the key attractions on the square is the street food. Vendors all around the plaza make mouth-watering food while you watch. You may want to check out all the options before deciding on what to eat. If you actually don't find something here to suit your taste, don't fear. Restaurants surround the square and line the roads leading off the plaza.

Plaza de la Trinidad is less than a 10-minute walk from the main gate of the walled city.

10. Soak Up the Atmosphere at Plaza Santo Domingo

Plaza Santo Domingo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Iglesia de Santo Domingo dominates one side of this plaza, but one of the most famous features of the square is the reclining female statue by Colombian sculptor, Fernando Botero. People rub the statue for good luck. Opposite the church are tables where you can always grab a meal and enjoy some shade. Street sellers approach travelers offering hats, jewelry, and tours.

11. Sanctuary of St. Peter Claver

Sanctuary of St. Peter Claver | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Sanctuary of St. Peter Claver is a wonderfully preserved church dating from 1580, housing the bones of Saint Peter Claver. The church is a cool and quiet escape from the daytime heat of Cartagena, but the square in front is also a popular gathering area in the evening.

Small metal sculptures are spread around the square, and restaurants set up tables after sunset. This area also offers a good view of the cathedral spire, and one of the most common photos of the cathedral, which you will frequently see online and in brochures, is taken from the edge of this square.

The church houses a small museum and a shady courtyard and garden. On display inside the church is an impressive collection of religious artwork.

12. Convento de la Popa

Convento La Popa de la Galera at sunset | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Visible from almost everywhere in Cartagena and lit up at night, Convento de la Popa is perched on a 150-meter hill known as Mt. Popa, high above the city. It was built in the early 1600s as a convent but has been used for several purposes over the years, including barracks. Simon Bolivar even set up here for a while. Today it is a museum.

It's worth a visit to see the stunning views out over Cartagena and the Caribbean Sea. Its wonderful patio is filled with colorful plants and several unique statues. Inside the convent is a beautiful rendering of La Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of Cartagena. There is a small fee to enter the building.

13. Museo del Oro Zenu

Pre-Colombian gold jewelry

The Museo del Oro Zenu is a free attraction in Cartagena and easy to find, just off the famous Plaza Bolivar. This is more than just a museum dedicated to this lustrous mineral; it also provides a fascinating look into the history of the indigenous Zenu people and the importance of gold in their lives.

Inside, you'll find over 500 gold pieces carved into fascinating shapes, including a golden jaguar and filigree butterfly. Other highlights include displays on body painting and textiles, and an exhibit focusing on the engineering expertise of the Zenu and how they built the vast network of canals over 2,500 years ago.

14. Magic Mud Volcano

Magic Mud Volcano

You can visit Colombia's famous mud volcano on a day trip from Cartagena. It's almost a right of passage for travelers to take a dip in the warm mud of this otherwise unassuming little mound.

After walking up a long set of stairs to the top of the so-called volcano, you can then drop into a pool of mud, usually filled wall to wall with other bathers. You will be completely covered head to toe in mud, but once you get out, locals are on hand to help scrub you down with water and towels to try to get the mud off, which is not an easy task! You can expect to smell the mud on you for the rest of the day, and your swimsuit may not be the same afterwards, so you may want to select one of your least favorite suits for this excursion.

Most visitors take an organized half-day trip from Cartagena to the Mud Volcano, which includes a quick stop at Manzanillo Beach. The mud volcano is about an hour drive from Cartagena, depending on traffic.

15. Day Trip to Playa Blanca and Islas del Rosario

Playa Blanca

Visiting the nearby islands and beaches is another popular thing to do when visiting Cartagena. The Islas del Rosario are home to beautiful beaches, including the most famous, Playa Blanca. This incredible white-sand beach lapped by the sparkling turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea is the postcard perfect beach. A couple of rustic restaurants line the beach.

Most people visit the islands and beaches as part of a day trip, which includes multiple stops, but you can also catch a boat shuttle and spend the day at Playa Blanca. Playa Blanca is accessible by road, and a bus tour is another option if you aren't up for a 45-minute boat ride. One of the most popular options is the Playa Blanca and Baru Island Day Trip from Cartagena, which takes about eight hours and includes lunch.

16. Kitesurf at Playa Manzanillo & Playa Boquilla

Kitesurfing at Playa Manzanillo | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Cartagena's consistent winds and position along the Caribbean make it a popular place for kitesurfing. The main beaches for kiting are Boquilla, and slightly farther out, Playa Manzanillo. Boquilla has a more developed infrastructure, with restaurants and accommodation for people who want to really spend all their time kiting. Playa Manzanillo is much less developed and as a result, sees far fewer kiters. Some people prefer the lack of congestion on the water and make this their base.

Pure Kite is the main kiting school on Manazanillo, and they provide daily shuttles from central Cartagena and offer a place for kitesurfers to store their equipment. They also offer lessons and rent equipment. Several operators can be found on Boquilla.

17. Palace of the Inquision / Museo de Historico de Cartagena de Indias

Palace of the Inquision | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Cartagena was the main headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition in all of South America. Housed in a beautifully restored series of mansions dating from 1770, the Palace of the Inquision / Museo de Historico de Cartagena de Indias provides a very in-depth overview of the Spanish Inquisition. A numerical system guides you through various rooms and courtyards where the complete story is told in Spanish and English, although not all plaques are translated to English.

Be sure to visit the courtyard to see some of the instruments used during the period, including a guillotine, and various other displays.

18. Museo Naval del Caribe

Museo Naval del Caribe | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Museo Naval del Caribe is housed in a beautifully restored Jesuit school dating from 1612. Displays detail 500 years of Cartagena's maritime history along with information on the Colombian navy and army. Throughout the two levels are finds from ships sunk in the harbor, including cannons, ship's bells, muskets, and other treasures. The descriptions are all in Spanish, but video guides in English are available.

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

Finding Accommodation in Cartagena: To learn more about neighborhoods and to help figure out where to base yourself in the city, see our article on Where to Stay in Cartagena: Best Areas & Hotels. This will give you a solid overview of the city and types of accommodation available. For a more detailed look at individual hotels, especially luxury hotels, see our piece on the Best Hotels in Cartagena.

Planning Your Trip to Colombia: There is much more to Colombia than just Cartagena. For a complete overview of the top sites and best places to visit, see our article on the Top Attractions in Colombia.

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

More on Colombia