Several years into a new tourism boom that has helped revitalize many towns, national parks, and cities in Colombia, we still can’t get enough of all that Colombia has to offer travelers. From unique historical destinations like Ciudad Perdida and La Candelaria in Bogotá to pristine beaches and tropical islands – and even the Amazon! – Colombia has so much to offer.
In our guide to the best cities in Colombia for travelers, you’ll find the must-visit spots that are putting Colombia on the map as a destination for all kinds of travel. Adventure travel, beach getaways, cultural tourism, and backpacking: you’ll find incredible opportunities for it all in these Colombian cities.
Best Cities in Colombia
From the most dangerous city in the world to one of Colombia’s most popular travel destinations, Medellin’s transportation in the past few decades has been nothing short of astonishing. This thriving metropolis is now a hotspot for digital nomads in Latin America, an obligatory stop on a South America backpacking itinerary, and a must for travelers in Colombia.
Medellin is packed with unique destinations and activities for visitors. From hikes through the surrounding mountains to markets, historic architecture, impressive museums, and trendy cafes and bars with pulsing nightlife, Medellin will keep you busy no matter your interest.
Transportation is easy and affordable with Medellin’s above-ground metro system and plenty of cheap taxis and rideshares. Taking public transport is even a popular thing to do in Medellin, as it connects to the city’s cable car system, which provides stunning views over the city in the valley.
Medellin is also an excellent base for exploring the nearby coffee triangle, just one of many great options for day trips in Medellin. You’ll also want to check out the nearby town of Guatapé, a must-visit town with colorful architecture, a beautiful lake, and the towering rock known as the Peñón de Guatapé. Climbing El Peñon is a must for a gorgeous view over the lake, and it is one of South America’s most famous landmarks.
If visiting a major metropolis like Medellin isn’t quite your travel style, consider traveling to Popayán for a much more relaxed city in Colombia. Known as Colombia’s white city for its beautiful and historic whitewashed architecture, Popayan is charming, laid back, and well-located for exploring the rest of southern Colombia.
Exploring the historic center of Popayán is the easiest way to get the lay of the land, and visitors will enjoy visiting the many beautiful churches, plazas, and other unique white buildings that give the city its famous nickname.
You can’t come to Popayán without digging into some delicious local eats. Popayán is recognized by UNESCO as a City of Gastronomy, a unique identifier celebrating Popayán’s important role in shaping Colombian cuisine. Try tamales and empanadas “de pipián,” containing a peanut and potato stew unique to the area. You also can’t go wrong with any of the barbequed meats or local sweets you’ll find in shops around the city.
Located in the heart of Colombia’s Zona Cafetera – the coffee-growing region! – a visit to Manizales and the surroundings is the best way to experience Colombian coffee up close and personal. Head to a coffee plantation or small farm and learn, smell, and taste your way through the region.
Even if you’re more excited about the surrounding of Manizales than the city itself, make sure to hit the city’s highlights, including the cable car and the impressive cathedral. The highlight is the view from the church’s spire, which gives an incredible perspective over the city and the mountains beyond the city limits.
Manizales is also next door to the Los Nevados National Park, home to some of South America’s most impressive volcanoes. It makes for a unique backdrop for the city.
While the Nevado del Ruiz, Nevado del Tolima, and Nevado de Santa Isabel volcanoes are challenging climbs, there is much more to a visit to the park. You’ll see unique flora and fauna, glaciers, wax palms in the Cócora Valley to the south, and frailejones found in páramo ecosystems in Colombia and Ecuador.
By far the most popular city in Colombia on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena is a much-loved travel destination visited by well over three million visitors every year. Best known for its beautiful walled city from its days as an important Spanish colonial port, the city has countless attractions that have drawn more and more visitors each year.
In Cartagena, you’ll want to take in all the historic buildings at the heart of Old Town, including churches, plazas, and more. Plus, explore the other neighborhoods in the walled city, like trendy Getsemani, with its abundance of street art, cafes, restaurants, boutique hotels, and hostels.
If you’re looking for Cartagena’s beaches, head to Isla Barú just 45 minutes from downtown Cartagena for the aptly-name white sand beach Playa Blanca. While complete with all the amenities you’d need for a perfect day at the beach, Playa Blanca can get busy at times, so if you’re looking for something a bit more private, head to the Rosario Islands, just a short speedboat ride away.
While Cartagena can get crowded during high travel season, especially when cruise ships pull into the port, its unique combination of history, modern luxuries, and pristine beaches makes it a worthwhile addition to your Colombia itinerary.
5. San Gil
Hidden among the mountains between Bogotá and Bucaramanga, San Gil is a small city best known as the adventure sports capital of Colombia. While its adventure sports land it squarely on the backpacking trail, adventurous travelers on any budget will find that San Gil has something for them.
Highlights of San Gil’s adventure sports offerings include multiple grades of whitewater rafting, canyoning, hiking, biking, paragliding, bungee jumping, and exploring the area’s many caves and waterfalls. It’s more than enough for a single trip! Regardless of your interest, this laidback town has so much to offer.
No matter where you’re traveling in Colombia, chances are you’ll stop in Bogotá, whether it’s on the way into the country or just passing through. However, don’t write off the capital city of Colombia for its size: this city has plenty to see and do that warrants spending a few days here, rather than just passing through.
You’ll love Bogotá’s historic neighborhood, La Candelaría, filled with charming architecture, cute cafes and restaurants, and cobblestone streets that feel like an escape from the hustle and bustle of the more modern parts of the city.
The famous Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) is a highlight of a visit to Colombia, even if you’re not a museum lover, and climbing Montserrate and taking in the views from the cable car or funicular is a must.
Bogotá is also a fantastic spot from which to explore the surrounding countryside, especially the famous small towns in the mountains that retain their historic charm, including Villa de Leyva, Jardin, Salento, and more. Make the journey from Bogotá to Medellin slowly, and by way of the coffee triangle, for an unforgettable trip through Colombia.
Several years ago, the area around Salento, Colombia was considered off-limits for travelers, a battleground for control by drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and guerrillas. However, in just a few years, Salento has been transformed into a travel hotspot, an obligatory stop near Manzinales, south of Medellin and west of Bogotá.
Located in Colombia’s coffee country, the draw of one of the world’s best cups is enough to bring many travelers to Salento. However, the stunning Valle de Córcora, one of the best places to hike in Colombia and famous for its towering wax palm trees, is the true attraction.
While Salento may be best known as the gateway to the Valle de Córcora, that doesn’t mean the city itself doesn’t have its own attractions. This tiny city is beautiful, with historic streets, colorful buildings, and great views. Make sure to hike up to the “mirador” that looks out directly over the town to take in its beauty among the surrounding mountainside.
Don’t skip the Valle de Córcora – that’s for sure! – but don’t write off Salento as just the nearest town to this unique destination in Colombia.
Located on the Caribbean Sea, Barranquilla is normally passed over by visitors headed to the more charming cities of Cartagena or Santa Marta.
While Barranquilla doesn’t seem to have as much to offer as its neighbors, Barranquilla can be a great place to visit for a few days if you’re looking to get off the tourist path. Expect delicious Caribbean food for cheap, great surfing, and plenty of opportunities to learn more about Colombian traditions and culture.
However, there is one time of year that Barranquilla is the place to be: Carnival. Barranquilla is best known for being the home of the best carnival celebration in Colombia.
Barranquilla is home to the second-largest carnival celebration in South America – after the famous carnival in Rio de Janeiro. This celebration is a big deal, and draws tons of visitors to the city.
While carnival is celebrated differently in countries around the world, at the celebration in Barranquilla, you can expect folkloric dance and music, parties, dancing, parades, incredible costumes, floats, and much more. Lasting for almost a week, Barranquilla’s carnival celebrations make a visit to Barranquilla at this time an unforgettable experience.
The most southern spot in all of Colombia, the small city of Leticia is hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest, bordering Peru and Brazil in this immense and vital ecosystem. While the city itself isn’t much more than a collection of a few main streets with tour providers, shops, and a few small hotels, this is Colombia’s gateway to the treasures of the Amazon.
From Leticia, head out on an excursion through the Amazon to some of the nearby protected areas, including Tanimboca National Reserve and Amacayacu National Park where you’ll find hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna. While you can organize day trips from Leticia upon arrival, most travelers opt for a multi-day excursion from Leticia, which includes accommodation at Amazon lodges.
Lake Tarapoto, not far from Leticia, is another favorite destination with travelers and an excellent place for spotting the legendary Amazon pink dolphins, manatees, and even piranhas.
10. Villa de Leyva
If you’re looking for the charm of Colombia’s historic pueblos, look no further than the tiny city of Villa de Leyva, among the most beautiful historic destinations in Colombia’s mountains. Located about three and a half hours north of Bogotá, the town of Villa de Leyva is a bit far for a day trip, but spend the night at one of the city’s historic hosterias or boutique hotels for the perfect mountain retreat.
The whitewashed architecture of Villa de Leyva, set against the lush mountainside and cobblestone streets will instantly impress. The city’s massive central square is a highlight, but the shops, cafes, and restaurants on every corner bring it to life. A popular weekend escape from Bogotá, try to visit during the week if you can for fewer crowds.
Can’t find time to visit Villa de Leyva but still want to visit Colombia’s magical pueblos? Consider Barichara, Filandia, Salento, or Jardin instead.
11. Santa Marta
Colombia’s lively northern city on the Caribbean, Santa Marta is a must for travelers. While the city offers plenty, from delicious food and cultural events to incredible beaches, Santa Marta is best known as the starting point for discovering several of the most popular destinations in Colombia.
Santa Marta is the first stop on your trip to Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona – Tayrona National Park – known for having some of the most pristine beaches in Colombia. Passes are limited each day but allow visitors to stay for as long as they like in the national park. Here you’ll find places to camp on the beach, tons of hiking trails through the jungle, coves, cliffs, and by beaches with crystal-clear water.
Santa Marta is also the starting point for guided treks to Ciudad Perdida – Colombia’s “lost city” hidden deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, only accessible by a 4-day trek. Move over, Machu Picchu: this destination is a favorite for trekkers from around the world, and only has about 200 visitors per day.
Further north, many travelers head to spots like Minca, Palomino, and even Punta Gallinas, the desert-like most northern point in South America with a stunning view of the Caribbean Sea. Plentiful and affordable buses from Santa Marta make all these destinations relatively easily accessible.
Don’t plan to visit Cali for major tourist attractions to cross off your bucket list; head to this city in Colombia near the Pacific coast for the experience, and get ready to enjoy delicious food, unforgettable parties, and a cultural experience.
Known as the world capital of salsa (despite salsa actually first developing in Cuba!), come to Cali if you’re looking to learn to dance, or just want to have a good time. Alongside studios across the city where you can take inexpensive group lessons, you’ll also find tons of salsa clubs like Tin Tin Deo and La Topa Tolondra.
Whether you want to become a professional dancer or just have a good time, you’re welcome here!
In addition to salsa, Cali is also home to a nice historic center, which brings plenty of charm to the city and is a must when visiting. Don’t skip the ornate Iglesia Ermita, gorgeous during the daytime but maybe even more impressive when illuminated at night.
Complete your trip to Cali by trying some of the unique foods typical to this region of Colombia, and, of course, the desserts. After all, Cali is located in the heart of Colombia’s sugarcane-producing region, meaning the city’s sweets are a point of pride.
Best Colombian Cities
Ditch the typical tourist path in Colombia and add some of the best cities in Colombia to your itinerary beyond just Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogotá. You’ll discover that Colombia is so much more than just its major attractions: its full of hidden gems, delicious food, and warm and resilient people.