Cartagena highlights

Known for its brightly painted buildings, cobbled streets and Caribbean coastal location, Cartagena has a rich history and plenty of places to explore. Here are the five essentials for your first visit. 


Wander through the rainbow-hued streets of the Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City) to get a taste of Cartagena’s heritage. The historic Spanish colonial buildings here are so heavily protected that residents need to ask permission to paint their houses a different colour. Pay close attention to the knockers on the doors to see who lived there: fish or other sea creatures meant a member of the sea merchant community, lions were for the military, lizards for high society and hands for the clergy.


Explore the behemoth of Spanish colonial fortresses, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, 40 metres up on San Lázaro hill. Built over the course of 150 years spanning the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the biggest fort in South America – basically, you can’t miss it. Be sure to explore the spooky, complex warren of tunnels underneath, built so noise travelled along them, which made it easy to communicate inside – and to hear any invaders.


For a taste of regional-meets-experimental Colombian cuisine, try Celele Proyecto Caribe Lab. Its two accomplished chefs travelled the Caribbean coast in search of authentic indigenous food, and brought back with them a host of innovative cooking methods and flavours. The result? Sundried shrimp rice with goat stewed in coconut milk from La Guajira, and San Andrés Island style crab empanadas with pineapple hot sauce. All served in an upscale, atmospheric space. Don’t miss the Caribbean-inspired cocktails either, with their daring flavour combinations – a Chivato combines Campari with a cane sugar syrup liquor from La Guajira and mole bitters, while the Bebedizo is tequila-based with sour guava and plantain vinegar shrub.


Getsemani is Cartagena’s buzzy party district. Follow the locals to Holy Trinity Square for a weekend street beer while you soak up the atmosphere – and the Caribbean evening warmth. Or if you’re in the mood for a dance, head to Café Havana for its Cuban flag bunting, 1950s iconography, stacks of Havana Club bottles and twinkly fairy lights. Sink a Mojito before dancing to hip-winding live rhythms from the salsa band – or, if you’re not a dancer, it’s still a fantastic spot to people-watch. It’s popular with both locals and visitors.


Upscale colonial-style Hotel Casa San Agustín is set across three restored 17th-century houses in Cartagena’s Old Town. Its focal point is an aquamarine mosaic-tiled pool in the centre courtyard, lined with skinny palms and intersecting an original wall, plus there’s a solarium on the roof for catching afternoon rays. Rooms are filled with luxe touches, such as Ortigia products and pillow menus, while design highlights include original frescoes and centuries-old wooden beams, punctuated with intricately-patterned Spanish-meets-Moroccan-style tiles. 

Written by journalist Clare Vooght

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