To get your bearings and to glimpse Bogota’s scale (it’s home to 8 million people and, in South America, only Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Buenos Aires are bigger), head up to Monserrate, a religious sanctuary set in the lush forested mountains overlooking the Colombian capital. A cable car and funicular railway offer the easiest routes up, but a refurbished footpath provides a rewarding, albeit lung-busting, way to the 3152-metre summit. Affording majestic views, the ascent takes about 90 minutes and is popular on Sundays when pilgrims flock to Mass at Monserrate’s 17th-century church. cerromonserrate.com.
Back down to earth (Bogota sits in an Andean basin 2600 metres above sea level), La Candelaria is the oldest, and most tourist-oriented, part of the city. Its sloping, cobbled streets are lined with bright colonial buildings adorned with wooden balconies. Many properties have been spruced up – helped by an influx of foreign investment (there are Italian, German, Australian, French and Israeli-owned restaurants, hotels and hostels here). A neighbourhood highlight is Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo, where Bogota was founded in 1538, over a citadel of the Muiscas (an indigenous tribe that dominated the central Colombian highlands). On weekday evenings, tourists and students gather by the little square’s tiled-roof chapel to listen to humorous folksy stories and music. They then sink beers and aguardiente (Colombian fire water) in hole-in-the-wall bars wedged down the nearby street-art-riddled alleys.
The sleek Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango offers half a dozen free cultural attractions. The best is the brilliant Botero Museum, which displays a horde donated by Colombia’s most decorated artist, Fernando Botero. As well as Picassos, Renoirs and Dalis, more than 100 of Botero’s own paintings and sculptures are on show. He’s renowned for his satirical, chubby depictions of people, from passionate couples to stern military figures. lablaa.org.
Plaza de Bolivar
Bogota’s heartbeat is named after Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of South America from Spanish rule in 1819. Fringed by a mishmash of architecture, including an imposing baroque cathedral, the vibrant plaza is dotted with pigeons, food vendors, entertainers, political protesters and old men in colourful, traditional outfits who will let you take a photo of them – and their llamas – for a small fee.
Gold, glorious gold
Well worth the 3000 pesos ($1.60) admission charge, Museo del Oro is a repository of the shiny, intricate, gilded indigenous loot that the gold-hungry Spanish didn’t make away with. It may also inspire a visit to Guatavita lagoon. Set amid pastoral countryside an hour north of Bogota, the lagoon spawned the legend of El Dorado – a mythical, hidden kingdom of gold that infatuated the Spanish. During ancient ceremonies, Muisca chiefs, covered in gold dust, would drop lavish gold objects into the water as offerings to their gods. banrep.gov.co/museo.
“Bogota’s Greenwich Village” is what some call this arty, gentrified district. Yet, with its quiet, tree-lined side streets, bohemian cafes, cosmopolitan restaurants and galleries, La Macarena feels a bit like Potts Point. Eye-catching eateries include Gaudi (Carrera 4, 27-54, restaurantegaudi.com), which looks as if it’s been plucked out of Barcelona, and La Jugueteria (Carrera 4A, 27-03, restaurantelajugueteria.com.co) with its wacky toy-house-like interior. Galeria MU (Carrera 4A, 26B-29, galeriamu.com) exhibits photography from Colombia and beyond.
Set in a former prison, Colombia’s National Museum (museonacional.gov.co) reveals the country’s fascinating pre-Hispanic past, the colonial era and myriad civil wars through a treasure trove of history and art, alongside fine temporary exhibitions (such as one about Colombia’s obsession with soccer). The museum neighbours Bogota’s Moorish-style bullfighting ring, where the hottest action takes place in January and February. However, Bogota’s new mayor, Gustavo Petro, wants to close the arena and turn it into an arts centre. A former member of M-19, a rebel guerilla group that sought to bring political change to Colombia, Petro’s latest controversial policy is to ban firearms from Bogota’s streets. Though crime rates have plummeted in recent years, Petro hopes his move will improve Bogota’s still-sketchy image and generate “a culture of tolerance and love”.
Across Bogota, you can snaffle decent three-course lunches from 5000 pesos ($2.60), plus 500-peso snacks, such as cheese arepas (corn patties). However, for upscale dining, head to leafy, prosperous Zona G (the Gourmet Zone), where you’ll find everything from French degustation (Criterion, Calle 69A, 5-75, hermanosrausch.com/criterion) to top-notch Peruvian dishes (Astrid y Gaston, Carrera 7, 67-64, astridygastonbogota.com), as well as traditional Bogota fare, such as ajiaco (a thick, filling soup with potatoes, chicken, avocado, herbs and rice).
Bogota features a quirky array of English-inspired architecture (think mock-Tudor mansions, Edwardian cul-de-sacs and Victorian terraces). One building houses El Ingles (Carrera 11, 69-40), an English pub serving fry-ups, roast dinners and a diet of live soccer to expats and Colombians. Bogota’s weather is as temperamental as England’s. While the city lies just 800 kilometres from the equator, daytime temperatures, year-round, hover in the low 20s. At night, temperatures dip to about 10 degrees. It’s the altitude, you see.
By day, affluent, attractive shoppers flock to Zona Rosa’s flashy US-style malls and chic clothing boutiques. By night, they pack the British and Irish-style pubs, hip bars, restaurants and glitzy discos of Bogota’s rumba (party) hub (between Calles 79-85 and Carreras 11-15). Andres DC (andrescarnederes.com) is a popular club with four themed floors (Hell, Earth, Purgatory and Heaven) and a pricey menu of cocktails and steaks. It’s a spin-off from a Colombian institution, Andres Carne de Res. Decorated with recycled junk collected from across the country, it’s in Chia, a 45-minute taxi ride north of Bogota.
Despite modern encroachments – an old country manor, the Hacienda Santa Barbara (haciendasantabarbara.com.co), is now a mall – Usaquen oozes an antiquated villagey charm, with tranquil, cobbled streets, swaths of bougainvillea, and family-run panaderias (bakeries) and restaurants. A top spot for brunch is Abasto (Carrera 6, 119B-52). La Mar (Calle 119B, 6-1) is good for seafood. On Sundays, flea markets with Botero replicas, handcrafts, second-hand books and bric-a-brac inject a hippie vibe (and plenty of incense) to Usaquen’s pavements.
Parque Metropolitano Simon Bolivar
Studded with amusement parks, playgrounds, botanical gardens, cycle lanes and a boating lake, Bogota’s biggest green lung is at its liveliest on the weekends, when Colombian families come to play and picnic. Major events and festivals are held here, including June’s free three-day Rock al Parque and the Bogota Carnival (August 5-6), the annual celebration of the city’s founding.
The up-and-coming Parkway district is home to the cool art-deco theatre Casa Ensamble (Carrera 24, 41-69, casaensamble.com), which hosts art exhibitions and witty plays; and La Trementina (Carrera 24, 37-42), a smart bookshop, gallery and cafe, with live music and poetry readings. A UNESCO World Book Capital, Bogota is proud of its literary leanings, with Rolos (the nickname for the city’s residents) claiming that the reason they produce so many good writers is because they’re often inside sheltering from the regular rainfall.
There are plenty of four- and five-star hotels in Bogota. The city’s increasing popularity, and improved security, inspired the Hilton to open a 245-room hotel in Zona G last November (Carrera 7, 72-41, hilton.com; rooms from $95). The 40-room Hotel Avia 93 (hotelavia93.com, from $208) is a minimalist, yet stylish, boutique option near Parque de las 93 (parque93.com), a green space edged by bars and restaurants frequented by beautiful people with designer handbags (and occasionally well-groomed pooches). In La Candelaria, the elegant Hotel de la Opera (hotelopera.com.co, rooms from $180) shoulders the historic Teatro Colon, where you can catch opera, ballet and classical music.
If you’re looking for a quickie (a nap, that is), try a love motel. They’re not as seedy as they sound. Spotlessly clean and amorously decorated, they’re popular with businessmen looking to rest between flights and young lovers seeking privacy. Most Colombians live with their parents until marriage so motels are an ideal place to let off steam. One cluster is on Calle 62, off Carrera 14. Amarte (amartesuite.com) offers six-hour stays from $16.
Colombia’s best-loved chains are dotted across Bogota. Juan Valdez (juanvaldez.com) serves coffee from beans grown in the Colombian countryside. Staffed (almost entirely, it’s said) by single mothers, Crepes & Waffles (crepesywaffles.com) rustles up tasty crepes and ice-cream, while the Bogota Beer Company (bogotabeercompany.com) is renowned for its artisan brews. Not quite as ubiquitous, Myriam Camhi (myriamcamhi.com) sells delicious cakes, including divine lemon pie and dulce de leche (caramel) cheesecake. One branch is at Calle 81, 8-8 – across the road from Brot (Calle 81, 7-93), an independent cafe serving fabulous French pastries.
Bogota’s yellow taxis are abundant and cheap. Even at 3am, a ride from Zona Rosa to La Candelaria will only cost 15,000 pesos. By day, try public transport (outside rush hour, anyway). The TransMilenio (transmilenio.gov.co) buses have their own lanes, skipping much of Bogota’s congestion. Colectivos (minibuses) cover a wider area and you get on and off where you please. They also attract roving buskers (think young rappers, foreign hippies singing Rolling Stones tunes and indigenous men playing Andean pipes).
On Sundays and public holidays, Bogota is transformed. Between 8am and 2pm, the Ciclovia closes many of the city’s busiest roads to vehicles, giving cyclists – and joggers, strollers and dog walkers – free rein. To join this festive community event, hire a bike from La Candelaria-based Bogota Bike Tours (bogotabiketours.com).
The Zipaquira cathedral is an extraordinary underground church chiselled into a salt mine. Everything in it – from the altar to its 14 chapels – is made from the white stuff. Most people bus it from Bogota to Zipaquira, where salt was mined in pre-Hispanic times. A classic steam train also makes the 50-kilometre journey (turistren.com.co).
Launch pad for more Colombian adventures
Bogota’s revamped El Dorado airport is Colombia’s cheap-flight hub, and choices abound: pristine Caribbean beaches, the verdant beauty (and coffee) of the Zona Cafetera, Cali’s salsatecas, and jungly Amazonia. Competition between LAN (lan.com) and Avianca (avianca.com) keeps domestic fares reasonably low. Most one-way flights cost between 100,000 and 150,000 pesos.
The official Colombia tourist website is colombia.travel.