Cartagena is hot. And that’s in terms of both temps and popularity – the Colombian city has seen an influx of travellers in recent years, especially among those looking for something beyond the usual Caribbean holiday destinations (Saint Martin and Antigua, we love you, but we’re looking at you). Cartagena truly does have something for everyone, from hotels for leisurely poolside lounging to boat tours with island hopping to top-notch shopping and an up-and-coming art scene. But where to start? Here, we’ve created a first-timer’s guide to the port city that’s – shockingly – only a five-hour flight from New York City (that’s even closer than LA).
Stop 1 Hotel Casa San Agustin
Calle de la Universidad, 36-34
First up: where to stay. The walled city is preferable, with its colonial architecture and history. There, you’ll find Hotel Casa San Agustin, a boutique stay spread across three colonial-era buildings with a solarium, pool and spa. There’s also a restaurant, Alma, and a lobby bar that mixes such a mean cocktail, you’ll be tempted to never leave the premises. (Though, you know, we encourage doing that.)
Stop 2 El Pandequeso
Calle 34, 5-58
Before hitting Cartagena’s cobblestone streets, swing by El Pandequeso – a bakery that serves up quick (and cheap) bites. Try the pandebono, a Colombian cheese bread, and get ready to drift away into queso-filled carb heaven.
Stop 3 Donjuán or María
Calle del Colegio, 34-60
There are so many extraordinary restaurants in Cartagena that, honestly, it’s hard to go wrong. That being said, Donjuán in the historical centre stands out among them and serves a masterful jumbo shrimp risotto as well as grilled octopus. Be sure to make reservations – tables fill up fast here. Next door, sister restaurant María packs a punch with both décor (check out the pineapple chandeliers) and food, with a menu that changes every couple of months.
Stop 4 Alquímico
Calle del Colegio, 34-24
For delicious drinks and a fun atmosphere, Alquímico – located in a former shoe store—is your go-to spot. The bar covers three floors, plus there’s a rooftop. Go on the earlier side to snag a table because you’re going to want to settle in to sample from their extensive tequila and mezcal menu.
Stop 5 Café del Mar
Baluarte de Santo Domingo
Atop the old wall, Café del Mar is the ideal spot to watch the sun set with a cocktail in hand. Try to position yourself near the canon, if you can, but even if there’s not an open table, you can still squeeze in for the requisite ‘I’m in Colombia!’ Instagram shot.
Stop 6 Island boat tour
When heading to Cartagena, renting a boat to take you out to the islands is a must. If you have a big enough group, consider reserving a private vessel; otherwise, smaller parties can join a group boat. The Informed Nomad is an excellent resource for all your nautical booking needs.
Stop 7 Sunset boat tour
It’s a tourist play for sure, but a sunset boat tour (with drinks!) is a fun way to see the sun go down over the bay – it’s also a great prelude to a night out. Book with Sibarita del Mar and rum punches are included. Then again, too much punch and the sunset tour might be your night out.
Stop 8 Getsemaní
Historically a working-class neighbourhood, Getsemaní has undergone a massive cultural renaissance in the last decade. You’ll see street art all over this bohemian barrio, but Calle Sierpe is the area’s graffiti epicentre. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to La Cocina de Pepina (Calle 25, 10B-6) for ceviche and empanadas. Also, check out Demente (Carrera 10, 29-29), a tapas bar with a retractable roof for light bites and drinks under the stars.
Featured image is the Torre del Reloj in Cartagena’s Old Town; photo via Getty