It was a key location for the early Spanish settlement in the Americas, and the city’s strategic location on the coast made it one of the most important ports in all of South America during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Cartagena served as Spain’s primary port for trade in the New World and as such, the military at the time built extensive (and impressive) fortifications around the city, totalling 13km, in order to defend its interests.
Today, Old town Cartagena is a declared Unesco World Heritage sight, so visitors can expect to soak up the history as well as the sun! If you are wondering where to go in Colombia, put Cartagena at the top of your list – there’s so much to see and so much to do, you won’t regret it!
What to do in Cartagena?
As a coastal colonial city, Cartagena has a lot to offer visitors from beautiful scenery and remarkable restaurants, to colourful architecture and a rich culture and history.
This fun and fascinating city boasts a vibrant energy combined with a laid-back charm typical of Caribbean coastal towns. The colourful buildings in this fortified city entice visitors to explore and there is no greater place to do so.
Here are some of our top tips for things to do in Cartagena.
Old Town Cartagena
The old city of Cartagena is the town’s primary attraction and what drives the most visitors year after year. The impeccably preserved colonial architecture is to be admired in the form of palaces, churches and mansions throughout the old walled city, with plenty of photo opportunities along the way.
Puerta del Reloj
The main gate to the Old City of Cartagena is decorated with a towering clock tower, which dominates the city skyline. The focal (and entry) point to the old town cannot be missed – not only for its height, but also for its bright yellow brick that makes for a great navigational tool if you lose yourself in the old city.
San Pedro Claver Church
A perfect example of colonial architecture, the San Pedro Claver church is Old Town Cartagena’s most visited. It is named for the Spanish-born monk who lived and died in the church in the early 1600’s and spent his life ministering to enslaved people brought from Africa.
It is a three storey building containing a museum which exhibits religious art, pre-Colombian ceramics and contemporary pieces from Afro-Caribbean artists. Visit the courtyard to see where Claver baptized thousands upon thousands of black slaves and in the church itself, view the remains of Claver which are encased within the High Alter.
Palace of the Inquisition
During the colonial period, Palacio de la Inquisición was an office for the Spanish Inquisition. The building has been preserved and today is a museum showcasing tools and methods that were used to enforce the power of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown.
Almost 1,000 people were investigated in the office between the 16-1800’s, using a variety of (some gruesome) techniques. Crimes against faith were judged here in the office, with certain crimes including magic and witchcraft being punishable by death, using the guillotine which remains on display in the museum courtyard.
San Felipe Castle
We’ve all heard of the Pirates of the Caribbean, but before the books and the movies were created, real-life pirates in the Caribbean seas posed a threat to Cartagena and its rich cargo trade.
Built to defend the vast loads of gold and silver, cacao and tobacco and African slaves to name but a few of Cartagena’s most valued commodities, San Felipe Castle is known as one of the greatest fortresses ever built by the Spanish. A network of tunnels connected points around the fortress to facilitate distribution and evacuation of goods and personnel and to internally communicate with allies. A tour is highly recommended to learn about the history and construction of the castle.
Cartagena’s Modern Art Museum
This museum does exactly what it says on the tin. Located in Old Town Cartagena, this museum showcases national and international art works in a well-maintained stone colonial building.
Teatro Adolfo Mejia
This impressive theatre was constructed by the same architect who created the Clock Tower which marks the entrance to Cartagena’s Old City. Even if you cannot catch a show, it is worth booking a tour of the building to see the stunning interior which has been beautifully refurbished.
Getsemaní is a hip, vibrant district located in the heart of Cartagena Old Town. Dazzlingly bright buildings are decorated with street art, demonstrating the vibrant creativity that lives in this exciting neighbourhood. Independent bars and restaurants line the animated streets and here is the place to be for cheaper eats and budget accommodations.
Just south of Getsemaní is the more upscale Boca Grande, complete with high-end restaurants and luxury all inclusive resorts.
El Portal de los Dulces
Known as “Sweets Street”, El Portal de los Dulces is an arcade located in the heart of the walled city of Cartagena. You’ll know you’re there because of the bright yellow buildings decorated with archways and the unmissable sweet smell of candy. Street vendors line the streets selling sweet treats out of glass candy jars – a feast for the eyes as much as the taste buds!