Perched along Colombia’s golden Caribbean coastline, Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most enchanting cities – and, newly, it’s most popular. A vibrant mix of Spanish colonial history and the most exciting new development projects in the country, Cartagena is a beacon of everything Colombia has been and hopes to be.
Ready to walk Cartagena’s historic colonial walls and sample some of the best food in the country? We tapped local Cartagena travel guides and long-time expats to help us create a list of the 25 best things to do in Cartagena that you shouldn’t leave off your itinerary to what we consider to be one of our favorite cities in South America. Read on for all the details.
Best Things To Do in Cartagena Colombia
Looking for a quick summary of the very most important things to do in Cartagena, perhaps if you just have one short day in Cartagena? These are the absolute must-visit things to do in Cartagena, even if you don’t have time for the rest:
- Explore Old Town Cartagena
- Have a Drink at Cafe del Mar on Cartagena’s Old City Wall
- Sip Coffee at Award-Winning San Alberto
- Take a Day Trip to Isla Baru or the Rosario Islands
Cartagena’s Old City is unmissable, considered among Colombia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its incredibly well-preserved richness and history. There’s just no way you can skip it.
However, if you’re just not willing to skip out on Colombia’s beaches, a day trip to Isla Baru (home to Cartagena’s best beach – Playa Blanca) or the Rosario Islands. These picturesque beach destinations will have you feeling like you’ve booked a Caribbean island getaway but for just a fraction of the price.
Things To Do in Cartagena
1. Visit the Rosario Islands
Cartagena is located along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, known throughout South America for having some of the continent’s most impressive beaches. While the beaches within Cartagena proper are fine, head to the Rosario Islands just off the coast for some truly spectacular beachfront and laid-back spots that feel like the Caribbean of old.
Catch a speed boat from Cartagena to visit the Rosario Islands – an affordable beach destination that will make you question why anyone would want to visit an overbuilt and overcrowded Caribbean island ever again. Here, you’ll find a range of accommodation options, from laid-back hostels to charming, small boutique hotels and accommodations with a healthy dose of luxury.
There isn’t much to do here besides rest and relax, though the visit is certainly among one of the best things to do in Cartagena! Spend time snorkeling, diving, kayaking, paddleboarding, and basking on the white sand – you’ll quickly fall in love with this Caribbean island paradise that feels a world away from the buzz of Cartagena.
Where To Stay in the Rosario Islands
- El Hamaquero Hostel ($)
- Hotel IslaBela ($$)
- Hotel San Pedro de Majagua ($$ – $$$)
- Hotel Isla del Sol ($$$)
2. Take a Walking Tour of Cartagena’s Old City
Cartagena’s old Walled City is its greatest gem – UNESCO agrees, awarding the walled city as one of Colombia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You can’t visit this city without spending time exploring the historic center of Cartagena – more than just one of the best things to do in Cartagena, it’s truly essential to your visit.
- Best Private Walking Tour of Cartagena: Private Walking Tour of Historic Cartagena
- Best Small-Group Walking Tour of Cartagena: Small-Group Walking Tour, Cartagena’s Walled City
If you’re not the walking tour type, Cartagena’s historic center is an easy destination for a self-guided walking tour. Just make sure you hit some of the area’s most important attractions, including Monumento Torre del Reloj, Plaza de la Aduana, Palacio de la Inquisición, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, and the Convento & Iglesia de San Pedro Claver.
While the Old City isn’t always the best place to stay in Cartagena (though some of the best hotels in Cartagena are located in the Old City!), it is just bursting with charm. Check out our guide to where to stay in Cartagena for more recommendations for the best parts of Cartagena for visitors.
Where to Stay in the Cartagena Historic Center
3. Spot Street Art in Getsemaní
Getsemaní is undoubtedly Cartagena’s coolest neighborhood, home to the very best restaurants, bars, and hip hostels in the entire city.
Spend time exploring Getsemani during your visit to Cartagena, including checking out all the neighborhood’s beautiful street art. You’ll see plenty of it just by wandering the streets as you pop into shops and cafes along the way, or join a Getsemani walking tour (they’re very cheap, but very well done!) for the inside scoop.
Reviews and Bookings: Art + Walking Tour: Getsemaní District in Cartagena
Where To Stay in Getsemani
4. Visit the Totumo Mud Volcano
If you’re not looking for a beach excursion in Cartagena to spots like Playa Blanca in Isla Baru or the Rosario Islands, then visiting the nearby Totumo Mud Volcano should probably be at the top of your list of things to do in Cartagena if you’re looking to get out of the city.
The Totumo Mud Volcano is a naturally occurring mud volcano, with mud made with warm water mixed with volcanic ash. The ultra-dense mud is supposed to be highly healing and beneficial due to its mineral properties.
It’s located about an hour outside of Cartagena and about halfway up the coast between Cartagena and Barranquilla. This experience is touristy, sure, but it’s also quite fun, and one that I would definitely recommend!
A half-day trip to the Totumo Mud Volcano is really all you need to enjoy the experience – I recommend an experience that we did that was about four hours in length, which was more than enough time at the volcano without making the experience too long, giving you plenty of time in Cartagena later in the day.
Reviews and Bookings: Totumo Mud Volcano Half-Day Excursion
5. Swim With a Rooftop View at Movich Hotel
Cartagena is all about its rooftops, baby. For a flat city, you’ll be impressed with how many spectacular viewpoints you’ll find, with the most impressive spots being from the rooftops of countless restaurants, bars, and hotels like Movich Hotel.
Located in the heart of the Old City, Movich Hotel boasts an incredible rooftop pool deck with stunning views, especially of the beautiful domes of the Santuario de San Pedro Claver church just two blocks away. Just beyond, the soaring skyscrapers of Bocagrande loom in the distance.
Food and drinks here are spectacular as well – the mixed drink selection is particularly great – though a bit expensive, though it’s well worth it for the incredible ambiance. Highly, highly recommended!
6. Explore Bocagrande
Don’t make the mistake that many travelers to Cartagena make when visiting the city by sticking exclusively to the historic parts of Cartagena. The city’s newer neighborhoods, like upscale Bocagrande, are well worth a visit and represent another equally important side of Cartagena – they’re part of what makes Cartagena one of the best cities for travelers in Latin America.
Bocagrande is lined with beachfront and packed with restaurants, cafes, and upscale shopping. Plaza Bocagrande is even home to one of the most upscale shopping malls in all of Colombia.
Don’t have time to fully explore this neighborhood? Check out the views of the area’s skyscrapers from the Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa or the rooftops of the old city’s hotels, like our favorite at the Movich Hotel.
7. Visit Cartagenas Best Beach on Isla Baru
Cartagena’s nicest beach is undoubtled Playa Blanca, located on Isla Baru. Just a short drive from the center of Cartagena, Playa Blanca will wow you with an impeccable, long stretch of white sand and plenty of beach amenities, making it the perfect spot for a day trip.
While Isla Baru – Baru Island – is sometimes considered a part of the Rosario Islands, it’s technically not – this used to be a peninsula off the mainland, severed in the colonial era to make way for a canal. The Rosario Islands are only accessible by boat, while Isla Baru is still accessible to Cartagena by car.
Since Playa Blanca is easily accessible from Cartagena, it’s a very popular day trip destination, meaning that it can get busy in the mid-morning to mid-afternoon hours when buses of visitors come in from the city – this is especially true during the high travel season.
If you’d prefer to catch more tranquil shores, opt for an overnight instead of a day trip – you’ll get to enjoy the beach when all the day trippers leave. Plus, you can visit other parts of Isla Baru away from the main Playa Blanca strip and enjoy accommodations that have that ultimate laid-back feel of a hidden Caribbean gem.
Where To Stay in Isla Baru
8. Sail Through Bioluminescent Waters
Isla Baru is home to one of the world’s most spectacular biological phenomena – bioluminescent waters that put the evening stars to shame! Visiting this unique bioluminescent bay is easily one of the best things to do in Cartagena and a popular addition to Isla Baru day trips.
Book a full-day excursion from Cartagena to experience the bioluminescence with transport and guide included, as well as transport out onto the waters where the bioluminescent plankton live.
Alternatively, stay overnight in one of the many hotels in the Rosario Islands or Isla Baru – most hostels and hotels in the area know that this bioluminescent effect is at the top of visitors’ must-see lists, and they organize their own excursions for guests.
Reviews and Bookings: Isla Baru + Bioluminescent Bay Fall Day Adventure
9. Take a Class (or Dig In!) at Caffe Lunatico
Caffe Lunatico is a cute restaurant with great food and awesome views in the heart of Cartagena, but it also has much more! Caffe Lunatico offers a great array of gatherings and activities that offer so much richness to the travel experience and can be counted among some of the best things to do in Cartagena.
Try their Colombian craft beer tasting, with or without a delicious meal of ceviche on the side, or sign up for salsa classes, market tours, or a Colombian chocolate and rum tasting. The list goes on and on… if you’re looking for interactive experiences and memorable things to do in Cartagena, you’ll find it here.
Even if you only have time for a meal at Caffe Lunatico, it’s worth a visit. Standout dishes include everything from the fried eggplant for vegetarians (even non-veg eaters will love it!), as well as ceviche and fresh fish. The tapas are universally great!
10. Visit Abaco Bookshop & Cafe
Escape the heat of the day and enjoy ultimate cafe vibes at one of Cartagena’s most beautiful spots: Abaco Bookshop & Cafe. Floor-to-ceiling shelves with tomes in English and Spanish make it a charming spot, and the pastries and coffee make this a spot that any bookworm could easily spend the whole day enjoying.
11. Party in Cartagena
Cartagena has a little bit of everything, from culinary experiences and beach getaways to immense historical and cultural richness, but it is also a fantastic destination for partying!
Cafe del Mar, atop Cartagena’s walls, is an undoubtedly great place to start the night with a sunset drink, though you’ll want to take the party elsewhere as night falls. Donde Fidel, in the center of Cartagena’s historic area, is another long-time favorite pick for salsa lovers, while 51 Sky Bar in Bocagrande is a great option for drinks in the modern part of town (with great views!).
Looking for a true club experience? Cafe Havana is popular for salsa, while Mister Babilla is one of the most popular clubs in Colombia.
For a more interactive experience or a great way to get to know other travelers, try a small-group Cartagena salsa tour or Cartagena bar crawl – you’ll have a blast.
- Reviews and Bookings: Salsa Class + Salsa Bar Tour of Cartagena
- Reviews and Bookings: Cartagena Pub Crawl
12. Cowork at Selina
While Medellin might be the most popular destination for digital nomads in Colombia, Cartagena has plenty to offer for those looking for warmer climates and better proximity to beaches. Digital nomads in Cartagena can spend time coworking at Selina Cartagena, part of the Selina coworking and coliving group that has hubs all around Colombia and now throughout much of Latin America and the world.
Even if you just need to crack open your laptop for an hour or two, Selina Cartagena is a great place for it. Or, if you’re a short-term visitor in Cartagena, consider staying in Selina Cartagena either in their dorm rooms or beautiful private rooms. Its Getsemani location is perfect, and it’s known for its lovely design, fun rooftop, and gorgeous design.
Prospective digital nomads should consider that living in Cartagena can be more expensive than living in Medellin, and much more expensive than living in one of the many other cities in Colombia that offer what digital nomads are looking for. However, if you’re looking for big-city amenities, proximity to great travel spots, and more, consider settling for a month or two in this coastal capital.
13. Taste Rum
It just isn’t a trip to the Caribbean without tasting some rum! While Colombia may not have as much of a rum-making reputation as its nearby Caribbean islands like Cuba or the Dominican Republic, you’ll find some excellent local rums that make rum tasting one of the best things to do in Cartagena.
You’ll find a few local experiences that are really worthwhile in the city, including at a number of the city’s upscale bars and restaurants, though we recommend an experience with a real “rummelier” – the rum-equivalent of a sommelier, who can really go in-depth with information and details about the entire experience.
Reviews and Bookings: Colombia Rum Tasting Experience in Cartagena
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14. Visit Santa Cruz de la Popa
It’s easy enough to pick out just a few special spots in the historic heart of Cartagena that are truly worth highlighting, but if you’re looking for a different view of the city, visit the Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa, outside of the city’s historic heart.
This convent is perched on a hillside – the highest point in the city – just outside of the city’s historic heart, giving it some of the most spectacular views of the city. The vistas of Cartagena’s historic center and the soaring towers of the modern parts of the city.
It’s just a 15-minute drive outside of the historic heart of the city, but it feels like it’s a world away from all the throngs of tourists in the center of town. It’s well worth a visit!
15. Visit the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
There is perhaps no more important historical spot in Cartagena than the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This impressive fort is part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation and is among the most impressive examples of Spanish colonial fortresses in the Caribbean (after Santiago de Cuba) and offers stunning city views.
There is an entrance fee to visit, just around $6 USD in Colombian pesos, though it is well worth it to visit Cartagena’s most impressive landmark. Tour through the castle for about an hour; we recommend visiting as soon as it opens in the morning or just before closing to avoid the heat of the sun as much as possible.
16. Take a Gabriel Garcia Marquez City Tour
Colombian literature is known primarily for the works of its most famous author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This prolific writer wrote tomes you’d certainly recognize, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love In The Time of Cholera, and so many more.
Many places and experiences available in Cartagena directly correlate with the author’s work, so the Gabriel Garcia Marquez tours you’ll find in Cartagena are really interactive and truly unforgettable. Visit local spots, sample foods mentioned in his stories, and spot buildings and streets critical to the storylines of his most famous works on this unique, local tour.
A fellow travel writer whom I deeply respect called this Gabriel Garcia Marquez tour her favorite tour she has EVER taken, anywhere… and this is coming from someone who travels for a living. Even though she wasn’t too overly familiar with Garcia Marquez’s work, she found it to be an incredible experience.
Reviews and Bookings: Gabriel Garcia Marquez Tour of Cartagena
17. Eat Ceviche
Ceviche might be a Peruvian dish (though I am personally partial to the fresh-as-can-be ceviche you can get from beach shacks along Ecuador’s beaches like Canoa!), but visitors can’t leave Cartagena without trying this beloved dish.
From ultra-local hole-in-the-wall spots and market stalls to upscale restaurants and fine dining takes on the classic, you’ll find ceviche in Cartagena comes in every form. Here are the best places to eat ceviche in Cartagena:
18. Try Colombia’s Most-Awarded Coffee
San Alberto is known as the most awarded single-estate coffee in Colombia, a distinction that has led it to quickly expand its offering for travelers and locals alike looking to taste the very best cup in the world’s most famous coffee destination.
San Alberto has a number of cafes in Bogota and one in Quindio in Colombia’s Eje Cafetera (coffee-producing region), but Cafe San Alberto in Plaza Santo Domingo is the group’s beloved Cartagena outpost. Visit for breakfast, an afternoon pick-me-up, or a specialized coffee experience you won’t forget.
In addition to the cafe’s incredible coffee lineup and an array of sweet and savory pastries, the cafe also offers a number of interesting coffee experiences that coffee-loving travelers will love. Everything from coffee and rum pairings to molecular cupping experiences show off the incredible flavors of this special coffee.
19. Dine With a View at Fuerte del Pastelillo
There’s truly an endless list of fantastic places to eat in Cartagena, but I love to recommend Fuerte del Pastelillo to travelers looking for a particularly memorable dining experience for a special meal in Cartagena. Located directly on the waterfront and nestled among the marina, with a spectacular view of both modern Bocagrande and the old city, it’s a really memorable experience, especially if you’re here for sunset.
You really can’t go wrong with anything on the menu here, though the seafood dishes are particularly popular, and the ceviche is great. It’s on the pricier side, but the ambiance and quality of the meal is unbeatable.
20. Party at Cholon
There are a number of beach clubs around Cartagena where there’s always a party no matter what time of day, but the number one party spot in the area is Cholon.
Just a tiny private beach and bay near Isla Baru, Cholon is a destination for boats to pull up and get the party started. You’ll find that many of the day trips to Isla Baru and even the Rosario Islands include a stop at Cholon, considered one of Cartagena’s best party destinations.
There isn’t much to do here other than spend time on the boat and hop in the water for swimming, but the presence of so many boats and partiers makes it blast. Whether it sounds like your scene or not, Cholon is a happening spot that many include among the best things to do in Cartagena.
21. Walk the City Walls
Exploring the old town of Cartagena is a must, but there’s no better way to enjoy the most historic part of the city than taking a stroll along the city walls. Cartagena’s city walls are unique in that you can actually walk on top of them, meaning that they’re also the best place in the city for ocean views and a great view elevated above the streets.
Spend time walking as much of the wall as you can, though you’ll likely want to save this for either the early morning or later in the afternoon as the sun is starting to set, as there is no shade during the heat of the day.
If you’re visiting near dusk, make sure to stop at Cafe del Mar, perched on top of the wall, for a drink and small bites. It’s a bit overpriced due to its impeccable and special location, but the views and sunset ambiance are well worth it.
22. Take a Cartagena Food Tour
Cartagena might not be Colombia’s culinary capital, but the growing array of incredible restaurants drawn to the city by the tourism boom makes it an attractive place to try both some of Colombia’s most classic dishes and some delicious new flavors.
Visit some of Cartagena’s buzziest restaurants (El Artesanal, Erre de Ramon Freixa, or Inkanto are great fine dining options in town!) or take a food tour with a local to get the inside scoop on Cartagena’s food scene.
Food tours within the walled city of Cartagena and street food-specific food tours are both popular options. There’s some overlap, but they’re both quite distinct. Whichever you choose, make sure to go for it at the very beginning of your trip. You’ll get the very best local recommendations, and it will help you decipher menus for the rest of your trip!
- Reviews and Bookings: Comprehensive Cartagena Food Tour
- Reviews and Bookings: Cartagena Local Street Food Tour and Experience
23. Visit The San Bernardo Islands
If your dream time in Cartagena is spent at the beach, you’ll certainly want to spend time in Isla Baru or Rosario Islands, which are likely to be the top two beach spots you’ll hear about in Cartagena.
But wait, there’s more! The San Bernardo Islands, while further from Cartagena, are off-the-beaten-path gems visited mostly by locals and home to some of the very best beaches in Colombia. Even in comparison to the seemingly untouched Rosario Islands, the San Bernardo Islands feel like a total escape, which is certainly saying something!
To get to the San Bernardo Islands, head to the small beach town Rincón del Mar south of Cartagena, where you can catch regular boats to the islands. Or even better, take the once-daily speedboat from Cartagena. The distance from Cartagena means that you’ll definitely have to spend at least one night, but it’s well worth adding these paradise islands to your itinerary!
Where To Stay in San Bernardo Islands
24. Visit Cartagena’s Tierra Bomba Island
Just off the coast of the center of Cartagena, Tierra Bomba Island – Isla Tierra Bomba – is often an afterthought for visitors to Cartagena who head to Playa Blanca on Isla Baru or the Rosario Islands. However, this island is another one worth considering adding to your Cartagena itinerary.
Some of the best things to do in Cartagena for adventurous travelers can be found here. Take a mountain biking excursion across the island and visit some of its beaches. Alternatively, visit one of the beach clubs on the island for an exclusive day of rest and relaxation.
Tierra Bomba is also a popular stop on private sailing excursions near Cartagena for its natural beauty. The island is home to the old fort Fort San Fernando de Bocachica, which makes for a cool visit. It’s certainly not as well visited as the main fort in the Cartagena Old City walls, but it’s a cool colonial destination worth visiting if your itinerary allows for it!
25. Explore Cartagena’s Gold Museum
Bogota may be best known for its incredible gold museum, but the gold museum in Cartagena is no slouch. The Museo del Oro Zenú is home to over 600 pieces of gold, silver, and other pre-Columbian artifacts that will really impress you. Hundreds of pieces of golden jewelry and intricate gold masks, statues, and other relics are awe-inspiring.
Even if you’re generally not the museum-going type, this is a museum worth your time. You’ll love visiting this engaging musuem and will marvel at the many incredible displays of gold. It’s also one of the best things to do in Cartagena if you’re looking to get a picture of the rich pre-colonial era of Colombia’s history.
Bonus: Where to Next?
Cartagena is just one of many great cities in Colombia to explore. It’s also just the start of a journey exploring the coast of Colombia, which is bursting with both energy and beauty. Don’t make the mistake that so many travelers make and only visit Cartagena; instead, make this city the start of all there is to see in the area.
For those looking for the ultimate beach getaway, the Rosario Islands and Isla Baru are just the start – head to Tayrona National Park next. This protected beach area is home to the best beaches in Colombia, and with only a limited number of visitors each day, they feel special. Or, catch a flight to the island of San Andreas or a ferry to the San Bernardo Islands for a more off-the-beaten-path getaway.
More adventurous travelers should head onward to Santa Marta to start off on the Ciudad Perdida Trek. While Machu Picchu is fantastic, this still-off-the-beaten-path four-day trek through the mountains of Colombia to hidden ruins only has about a few hundred visitors each day; it feels like a whole different world
Headed on to other destinations in Colombia? Consider the big cities like Medellin or Bogota. Or, choose some of the charming smaller cities throughout the rest of Colombia, like Cali, Popayan, or Quindio in the heart of the Coffee Triangle in Colombia.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.