Aptly nicknamed the ‘Jewel of the Indies’, Cartagena is one of the most enchanting and photogenic cities in South America. Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the city was once the largest port in the Americas and hints of the past can still be detected in the beautifully restored architecture of the colourful colonial buildings. There’s so much to do and see that you’ll be tempted to extend your stay, but for now we’ve crafted a jam-packed itinerary for 24 hours in Cartagena…
To make the most of your 24 hours in Cartagena, set your alarm bright and early to watch the sunrise over the city. The Walled City, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built in the 1600s as a fortification to stave off pirate attacks. Today, the bastions near the Baluarte de Santo Domingo fort provide the perfect look-out for sunrise viewing, and what better way to kick-start your visit than by watching the first rays of sunlight adorn the old city walls? Next, fuel the rest of your day with a well-deserved caffeine break. Colombia is renowned for its incredible coffee, and Juan Valdez Café or Café Epoca are good options. After your caffeine hit, don’t miss the chance to taste a traditional Colombian breakfast of savoury pastries. Pastelería Mila is a real winner with some seriously indulgent offerings such as pancakes with dulce de leche, sour cream and bacon.
A 20-minute walk from downtown Cartagena is Castillo San Felipe, the largest remaining Spanish colonial fortification on the continent. Head here for a history lesson and incredible views of the surrounding city. It’s time now to properly investigate the Walled City; there’s no shortage of charming cobblestone streets and vibrant facades to explore, but some highlights include the Teatro Adolfo Mejía, Plaza Santo Domingo, Plaza de la Aduana and of course the city’s iconic clocktower. Probably one of the most photographed views in Colombia, ensure your camera is fully charged to capture your own snapshot. There’s the option to book a guided walking tour – perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about these historic sites - or feel free to roam the streets of your own accord.
Once all of this walking has sufficiently stimulated your appetite, stop for a relaxed lunch at La Mulata. Serving authentic, fresh Colombian food (think coconut rice, fried fish and fresh fruit) this is the perfect spot to indulge in the local cuisine. Alternatively, pick up an Arepa de Huevo (corn cakes with an egg inside) on-the-go if you’re keen to continue with your tour.
Parque Bolívar is your next destination, where you’ll see the statue of Simón Bolívar hidden within the lush foliage. Located next to the park is the Palacio de la Inquisición, if you wish to continue your history lesson with a tour of the museum, and the Cartagena Gold Museum, which showcases examples of indigenous gold work. Art lovers should also explore nearby Iglesia San Pedro Claver and the Museo Naval del Caribe (tucked away behind the church) for an education on the city’s colonial past.
Head back to where you began your day, the old city walls, to watch the sunset with a cocktail in hand at Café del Mar or El Baluarte. For dinner, head to La Cevichería, a restaurant that is famed for its seafood, and for making an appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s travel and food series No Reservations. The restaurant supposedly serves the best ceviche in the city, and it really lives up to the hype. Another great option is Carmen, located in an intimate colonial house, which offers a contemporary take on traditional Colombian dishes. Try the tasting menu for a sophisticated culinary experience (and thank us later).
If you’re not ready to end the night just yet and want to fill your final hours with an authentic activity, there are a number of local salsa bars dotted around the Getsemani district, a ten-minute stroll from the walled city. Quiebra-Canto, 1968 Salsa Show or Café Havana on Calle Media Luna all have live music and salsa dancing, perfect for sitting back and soaking up the atmosphere (or joining in if you’re feeling brave). The Getsemani district is a vibrant and buzzy area of the city, filled with eclectic street art, and the area surrounding Plaza de la Trinidad comes alive in the evenings.
If you have 48 hours…
While it might be a stretch to fit a beach trip into your 24 hours in Cartagena, there are some note-worthy ones nearby, which are worth returning for. Take a 45-minute boat trip to the Rosario Islands, off the coast of Cartagena, and enjoy a day of snorkelling and swimming in the clear blue waters. A little further away is Playa Blanca, the region’s most famous beach, which is approximately an hour’s drive from the city.
Written by Luisa Watts