Cartagena has been a popular Caribbean cruise port for years, but it is becoming a destination in its own right—and a perfect place to get a taste of Colombia in one stop. History comes alive for travelers who can experience everything from sleeping in a former convent to dining in a former jail. But with shiny new condos, lively nightlife, and designer spas, Cartagena is by no means stuck in the past.
Where to Stay
The premiere Cartagena lodging option is undoubtedly the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara, a converted 17th-century convent with a stunning courtyard and top-notch service. For a modern hotel in the newer Boca Grande neighborhood, consider the Hilton Cartagena.
What to Do
Las Cartegena de Indias is one of Colombia’s safest metropolises today, but the 11-mile wall of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (Fortress of St. Phillip) is a reminder of past invaders and pirates. Take a cab or join a day tour that includes Cerro de la Popa monastery, also a small museum, and offers a bird’s-eye view of the city. And while exploring downtown, keep your eyes open for more modern additions—especially the distinctive curvy figures carved by Colombia’s favorite sculptor, Fernando Botero.
A fun way to explore the Historic Center and Plaza Santo Domingo by walking in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera with a self-paced audio walking tour (3 hrs., 65k pesos). The Colombian novelist’s magical realism story was grounded in some very real locations that can still be seen today.
Inspired by pre-Colombian riches? Spend a few hours in the must-see Museo del Oro y Archeologico (Gold and Archeological Museum). Numerous shops nearby sell gold, emeralds, and other gems; you can also find traditional handicrafts along the arched street of Las Bovedas, or get edible souvenirs at the Portal de los Dulces (Sweets Street), both in the Old City. After a long day of browsing and bargaining, book a massage or facial at the newly-opened Spa at the Tcherassi Hotel.
For the best nightlife, up-and-coming Getsemaní has all the hot spots, like Havana Café (at the corner of Calle Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero).
Where to Eat
The Old City is where to spend your days, but at night take a cab to one of the surrounding neighborhoods. Our pick for a dinner reservation? Try Club de Pesca, a harbor fort turned seafood restaurant in the mostly residential Manga neighborhood.
There are some fantastic side trips from Cartagena, including choosing one of the area’s beaches for a day of relaxation or taking a quick jaunt to the coastal town of Santa Marta. For an overnight, consider exploring where the mountains meet the sea at Parque Naciional Tayrona (Tayrona National Park).
If You Go
Just a two hour flight from Miami, this tropical location has year-round temperatures around 82’F and a brief rainy season in October. While the country’s drug violence never reached Cartagena, visitors should beware of pickpockets and take other typical of city travel precautions.