Sun-washed colonial splendor and a sultry Caribbean vibe meet modern art, luxe hotels, and some of Latin America’s best ceviche. Colin Barraclough hits Colombia’s most happening city.
Lay of the Land
Bocagrande: This narrow peninsula south of the old town draws visitors for its high-rise hotels and Caribbean beaches.
El Centro: Largely unchanged since the 1600s, the heart of Cartagena is filled with palaces, churches, and mansions painted in pastel colors.
Getsemaní: Cartagena’s emerging cultural quarter is popular with backpackers and street artists—and can be dodgy at night. Still, cool galleries and hotels have been opening in recent years.
San Diego: A quiet area of the old town, San Diego is known for its winding lanes, tile-roofed houses, and Las Bóvedas, a shopping arcade lined with stores from local artisans.
Getting Around: Cartagena is a walking city, but taxis are easy to hail and a safe, affordable option for going longer distances.
Our picks of Cartagena’s hotels, both classic and new.
Hotel Boutique Casa Pestagua: It’s the immense scale that hits you upon entering this high-ceilinged palacio, one of three originally owned by the 18th-century Count of Pestagua. With louvered window shutters, a muted palette, and heat-resistant coralina stone flooring, the 11 rooms are designed for Cartagena’s steamy climate. We love the generous breakfast of tropical fruit, stuffed yuca fritters, and arepas served in the palm-filled courtyard. $$$
Charleston Santa Teresa Cartagena: While most hotels in the old town open onto narrow streets, the Charleston commands uninterrupted views over the 16th-century ramparts to the Caribbean Sea, with an open-air bar that spills out onto a large plaza. A new restaurant run by chef Harry Sasson, owner of Bogotá’s Club Colombia and Harry’s Bar, opened in November and has already become a local hot spot. $$
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara: The restored Santa Clara is carved from the shell of a 17th-century convent in the quiet neighborhood of San Diego. You’ll still find a chapel nave and confessional windows, along with an elaborate wrought-iron entrance gate and a crypt inside the perennially packed bar. Upstairs, there’s an easy tropical feel in both the suites of the Colonial wing and the 106 minimalist rooms in the contemporary wing. $$$
Casa San Agustin: Hidden among the houses of the old town, the 30-room Casa San Agustin was created by merging three smaller properties. An L-shaped pool passes pleasingly through the cutout wall of a former aqueduct, and rooms are tucked into a maze of alcoves, turrets, and mezzanines. Each is furnished with tables made of Congolese wenge wood and has a bathroom with intricate Mexican tiling. Room to book: 102, with a private plunge pool. $$$
Hotel Pricing Key
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000
Standout boutiques with Colombian flavor.
For sparkle and cut, Colombian emeralds rank among the world’s finest. At Lucy Jewelry, owner Lucy Sanchez has been matching each of her clients with a unique stone set in gold or sterling for 26 years.
If you want to fit in with the locals on the beach, head to Love Me Wappa (35-15 Calle del Porvenir; 57-313/877-6259), in El Centro, for flirty bikinis and chic one-pieces in colorful prints and patterns.
Edgar Gómez Estévez has made guayabera shirts for both local caballeros and those who are visiting, Bill Gates among them. His cut and fabrics are several notches above any others you’ll find in town; pick up one of his bespoke creations at Ego (10-92 Calle de Portobello; 57-5/668-6016).
Barranquilla-born designer Silvia Tcherassi, who has shops in Bogotá and Cali, creates ankle-length dresses and delicate camisas in bright, billowy silk that will work just as well back home.
Anticuario Olano (3-90 Calle de las Damas; 57-316/528-5548) is an antiques collector’s dream. The shelves are lined with statuary, from bronze figurines forged in Paris to life-size saint sculptures, along with offbeat treasures like colonial musket balls.
See + Do
The essential stops for culture hounds.
At Cartagena’s light-filled NH Galería, gallerist Nohra Haime showcases contemporary talent from Colombia and beyond. A highlight: native pop artist Nadín Ospina’s pre-Columbian-style Bart Simpson statue.
The extensive, pedestrian-friendly Las Murallas are walls that were built in response to Francis Drake’s siege of Cartagena in 1586.
An impressive collection of paintings and works by sculptor Enrique Grau fills the intimate Museo de Arte Moderno (off Plaza de la Aduana; 57-5/664-5815).
Teatro Adolfo Mejía (38-10 Plaza de la Merced; 57-5/664-6023) hosts homegrown and international concerts and festivals, and has an ornate gold-leaf interior and top-notch acoustics.
In Getsemaní, Centro Cultural Ciudad Móvil is a grassroots cultural center that attracts locals for salsa dancing and live Afro-Colombian mapalé rhythms.
Where Cartagenans are dining out now.
El Gobernador by Rausch: Since unveiling his awardwinning Criterión in Bogotá in 2004, London-trained Jorge Rausch has built a restaurant empire stretching to Costa Rica. El Gobernador, his seventh, opened last June with a wood- framed dining room where the chef gives French culinary traditions a Colombian twist: suckling pig paired with sweet potato, and tiger prawns on enyucado, a yuca-and-anise specialty from the Caribbean coast. $$
El Boliche Cebichería: At this tiny, stylish restaurant on a San Diego backstreet, only a handful of diners at a time get to sample the excellent Colombian-style ceviche from gifted chef Oscar Colmenares. He transforms freshly caught octopus, squid, and conch by marinating them in tamarind sauce or coconut milk with cilantro. 38-17 Calle Cochera del Hobo; 57-5/660-0074. $$
María: The jazzed-up jungle look inside María—white wicker chairs, giant cordyline plants, strangely hypnotic tiger-motif tapestries— is a draw in itself. But it’s worth staying for Alejandro Ramírez’s salmon poached in orange and coconut milk, or snook tiradito with fennel and grapefruit. $$
La Vitrola: This Cuban-themed landmark feels straight out of Old Havana, complete with whirring ceiling fans and bolero crooners. It’s surprisingly formal for laid-back Cartagena: expect uniformed staff, sophisticated Caribbean cooking (grilled grouper with chili) and a farreaching wine list. 2-01 Calle Baloco; 57-5/660-0711. $$$
Restaurante La Casa de Socorro: Color runs riot in this local institution, where even the waiters’ garb is a patriotic yellow, red, and blue. Regulars range from blue-collar workers to pearl-garlanded senoras, along with a whole telenovela’s worth of Colombian celebrities. Diners pack the place around 8 p.m. for hearty seafood soup and herb- crusted fish straight from the grill. 8B-112 Calle Larga; 57-5/664-4658. $$$
Restaurant Pricing Key
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150
Three insiders share their favorite places in the city.
“I’m always on the lookout for boliches, little hidden gems with authentic cooking. At Andante Allegro Vivace, in El Centro, the Italian owner still makes pasta every morning using her mamá’s recipes. Nearby, Ábaco Libros y Café is the place for top-notch Colombian coffee; it also has an excellent collection of English- and Spanish-language books. At night, I love Quiebra Canto, a two-story salsa disco filled with locals dancing until the early morning.”
Juan Felipe Camacho Gómez
Chef, Restaurante Donjuán
“As a chef, I’m a stickler for freshness. You can’t beat the seafood on the Isla de Barú, a short boat ride from the city center: the fish is caught daily, and you eat it right on the beach. In the city, Erre de Ramón Freixa is a must for dinner; Catalan chef Ramón Freixa serves outstanding tapas. I’m also a regular at La Bodega de la Iglesia, a lovely wine bar in El Centro. For gifts, don’t miss the small boutique Agua (4-29 Calle de Ayos), which sells beautiful regionally made crafts.”
Owner, La Cevichería and Bazurto Social Club
“Mía Concept (34-49 Calle del Arzobispado; 57-301/790-9099) is one of the city’s best design boutiques, packed with decorative housewares and clothing by up-and-coming designers. The raucous, no-holdsbarred Mercado de Bazurto (Avda. Pedro de Heredia) has great music stores specializing in champeta, which matches soukous dance rhythms from Africa with Spanish lyrics. You’ll also find endless food stands where you can sample regional delicacies: try the fried fish with coconut rice and avocado salad.”
Need a break from the city? Three reasons to leave town.
Just south of Cartagena, Playa Blanca, on the Isla de Barú, is reachable only by boat (arrange through your hotel). If you can’t bear to leave, check in to the chic Agua Barú.
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, five hours east of the city. Take a guided tour of his re-created house turned museum (6-35 Carrera 5; 57-5/425-6588).
Revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar died at Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, in the city of Santa Marta. You can visit the 17th-century estate, which is decorated with period furnishings.