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Cartagena is a city I never get sick of exploring. To be more specific, I’m talking about the old city of Cartagena or the old town of Cartagena. This stunning city is filled with history and the thick limestone walls that surround it are evidence of that.
Wandering the inside of the walls you can truly appreciate just how stunning the architecture was during the colonial period. But it’s not just the buildings, but the people that make this city so important. With the mix of three cultures (native, African, and European) there are plenty of new foods to try.
Without a doubt, you’ll love Cartagena and if it’s your first time here then you need to give yourself time to explore the old town of Cartagena! Don’t be fooled by its size, the old city may be small but there’s just so much to do here!
For me, I’d say 3 days is plenty and in that time, you’ll really get to know the old city and have time to live that laidback Caribbean lifestyle!
So, here are all the best things to do in the old city of Cartagena that made me leave a piece of my heart behind those walls!
16 Things to do in the Old City of Cartagena
1. Old City Walking Tour
To truly appreciate the walled city of Cartagena you need to learn about the history and unique mix of culture here. The best way to do that is on a guided tour in Cartagena.
There is a huge range of walking tours available including private tours and even a free walking tour. The free walking tour in Cartagena is a great option and I have done it myself. The tour lasts for around 3 hours and you’ll get a great introduction to the old part of Cartagena. But with that said, the tour is not very personal.
Instead, if you want a more personal tour there are some great value options for private tours. This exact tour includes a 3-hour guided walk in English for only $54 USD per person. The local guide that you go with will show you some of their personal favorite spots along with the obvious sights.
Regardless of what tour you choose, a guided walk around old town, Cartagena is a must and one of the best things to do in Cartagena!
Related Read: It’s like that a visit to Medellin falls somewhere into your Colombia plans so check out our Medellin Itinerary blog that is your cheat code to planning your trip!
2. Walk the Fort Wall at sunset
On any walking tour around the city, you’ll visit the fort wall. But on your own time, be sure to head back and take a nice stroll along the wall at sunset! This is the perfect time to enjoy a drink with the magnificent views of the sun setting over the ocean.
During this time you can also visit a few restaurants on the wall that serve beers and cocktails. The most popular place to visit is called Cafe del Mar. If you want to get a great seat here be sure to arrive a good hour before the sun begins to set as the line to get in can get long.
Alternatively, and the cheaper option, is to just buy a beer from one of the street vendors carrying around coolers filled with beers. These only cost 5,000 COP ($1 USD) and you’ll support a local.
The sunsets in the old city of Cartagena are magical and from the old fort wall, you get the perfect vantage point!
3. Eat at La Cevicheria
The funny thing about what I’m about to say is that I spent two months in Peru before this last visit to Cartagena. For those who don’t know, Peru is the capital of ceviche and it’s their national dish. However, the best ceviche I have ever had was at La Cevicheria in the old city of Cartagena. Crazy right?
Actually, it’s not. The reason? Well, ceviche was a dish invented by African slaves both in Peru and Colombia so although Peru is known for ceviche, the dish was consumed in Colombia too. There is a slight difference in the ceviche in Peru and Colombia and the main one is the use of coconut in the Colombian version which I love!
But anyway, back to La Cevicheria. This amazing restaurant is the most famous place to eat in Cartagena. They serve a huge range of seafood dishes but are most famous for their ceviche.
On a busy day, you won’t get a table for hours. Luckily, Bailey and I eat at weird times so we usually get in at around 3 pm no worries. However, if you plan on visiting during peak times either book ahead or come prepared for a long wait.
La Cevicheria is the best place to enjoy fresh seafood in Cartagena and the prices are very reasonable for the quality.
4. Shop til you drop
If you’re a self-confessed shopaholic then Cartagena is going to be a dream come true. The entire old city is filled with boutique shops, markets, and stalls. This is the place in Colombia to find yourself a really unique and interesting souvenir!
In fact, if you’re looking for a really special gift then head into one of the many emerald jewelry stores. Here you can get top-quality emeralds for really great prices. Emeralds are the stone of Colombia and the country produces some of the finest emeralds in the world.
Of course, don’t buy emeralds off the streets as you’ll likely end up with a fake stone, but in the shops, you can trust you’ll get a real stone.
Another cool place we found to shop was Casa Abba. Casa Abba was a hole in the wall that we found while wandering the old city of Cartagena. This boutique shopping plaza is filled with awesome crafts and locally made clothing. You can find everything from high-quality jewelry to clothing here!
5. Enjoy Colombian street food
Cartagena is the home of interesting and delicious Colombian street food. At the many small vendors and street stalls, you can find a range of treats to satisfy your appetite. Of course, be on the lookout for some classics such as empanadas, but don’t be shy to try some other not-so-well-known foods.
Some I recommend include shrimp cocktails, egg arepas, and my personal favorite, Cocada.
Cocadas are a sweet treat made with coconut that comes in a range of different flavors. You can get a pack of 10 with 5 flavors for 10,000 COP ($3 USD) so you can try a few. My favorite is plain coconut! You can find lots of these stalls selling Cocadas at Portal de Los Dulces in Cartagena’s walled city.
Food is such a big part of the culture here so be sure to get out of your comfort zone and try something new!
6. Explore Getsemani
Getsimani is definitely the party area of the old town of Cartagena and sits just outside the walled part of the city. However, this area is a really cool place to explore and the streets here have their own unique, but crazy charm.
If you want you can even join specific tours like this one to see around Getsemani so you can really get to know this interesting neighborhood.
Also, be sure to wander around and check out all the impressive street art. This can be found around Getsimani with 20 new murals added to the walls in 2020! You can join this street art tour or just wander around yourself.
If you came to Cartagena to party, then once the sun sets be sure to head out to all the trendy bars and nightclubs in Getsemani. This area gets crazy at night so be prepared for a big one!
If you want to actually learn how to dance as opposed to just watching you can take this specific dance class on a secret rooftop with a local. Over your 3-hour lesson, you’ll learn Champeta, the native dance genre of Cartagena, and also Salsa, Merengue, and Bachata! It costs $30 USD per person and begins at 5 pm.
7. Visit the Gold Museum
The Gold Museum in Cartagena (Museo del Oro Zenú) is a great free activity in the old town. The museum displays works from the native people of Colombia with plenty of ancient artifacts. Most of the artifacts were made by the Zenú people who inhabited this coastal area around Cartagena.
The museum has lots of English translations which is why I enjoyed my visit so much. You can really learn a lot about the history of the native people in the region. Overall, there are lots of impressive artifacts to see and if you are going to visit only one museum in Cartagena, make it the Gold Museum!
The museum is located in Bolivar Plaza and is open every day except for Mondays. It takes around 30 minutes to explore the museum.
Related Read: Is Tayrona National Park on your bucket list? Here is everything you need to know about visiting Tayrona National Park!
8. Have a coffee at Abaco Libros y Cafe
If you love reading and coffee then you simply must visit Abaco Libros y Café. This cute coffee shop and bookstore is a cool place to enjoy some quiet time escaping the hot and busy streets of Cartagena’s old city.
Although many of the books are in Spanish, there are some in English and it’s just an all-around cool place to pop in and enjoy a nice coffee. If you aren’t a coffee drinker then they also have a bar where you can get beers and cocktails.
The coffee shop is located in the old city within the wall and it’s definitely worth a look for any curious traveler or book lover!
9. Go on a cruise
Okay, so this doesn’t technically happen in the old city but the cruises do leave from here. This is easily one of the best experiences in Cartagena.
These cruises vary a lot from dinner and drinks to just the cruise, but regardless, you’ll get amazing views of the city from a perspective many don’t get to see.
Cruises typically leave at either 5 pm or 7:30 pm and last for around 2 hours.
This particular sunset cruise includes unlimited drinks for 1.5 hours and only costs $30 USD per person. At that price, you really can’t go wrong! It’s a small group tour so it is limited to 12 people which is nice to avoid feeling suffocated.
If you’re already spending sunset on the old city’s walls, then consider joining a dinner cruise afterward. These cruises leave a little later at 7:30 pm but are a unique way to enjoy a meal. This particular cruise costs $69 USD, is top-rated, and includes a 4-course dinner!
10. Enjoy a food tour
I honestly believe the best way to get to know a place is through the food. Well, Cartagena is no different and on a food tour through the streets of the old city, you’ll really get to know the place and its influences.
If you’re looking for a great tour then this 2.5-hour street food tour is my recommendation. On the tour, you’ll try over 10 different street foods from 6 different locations and learn all about the history and culture of Cartagena.
Alternatively, I also recommend this ceviche food tour. I mean, if you love seafood then this is the tour for you! Plus you won’t have to try and determine which ceviche restaurant you’ll love most as you can find out for yourself after trying 5 different ceviche dishes from 3 different restaurants.
Afterward, I’m sure you will have an overly full stomach but will have also gleaned info on how the influence of different cultures has impacted the foods in Cartagena.
11. Visit the Naval Museum
The Naval Museum is a very interesting place to visit in Cartagena’s old city. Since Cartagena is a port city, the city has a long history of fierce navy battles and sunken ships. At the navy museum, you can learn all about this and more.
There’s just one catch – it’s all in Spanish!
So, if you’re still interested you’ll need to get a guide. With a guide, you’ll not only be able to learn about the history that’s plastered on the walls of the museum but also get more insight into just how important Cartagena was for the navies of the world back then.
Entrance to the museum is 18,000 COP ($3.75 USD) per person and a guide costs 20,000 COP ($4.20 USD) per group. This isn’t the cheapest activity in the old town of Cartagena but the museum is worth it in my opinion!
If you were planning on going to some of the other museums anyways you could take a more convenient option and go on this Cartagena museum tour where the Naval Museum is one of the stops along with the Gold Museum, Cartagena Historical Museum, and the Sanctuary of Saint Peter Claver. For $90 USD it includes admission to each museum and your guide will point out and discuss all of the main sections of each place.
12. Take photos of the beautiful streets
One of my favorite things to do in the old city of Cartagena is to explore the streets with my camera or phone in hand. Just before the sun begins to set is the best time as many people head home to get ready for dinner, so the streets are quiet.
During this time you can explore the back alleys and main streets and snap some magical photos to take home with you and maybe even print. If you’re not sure where to go you can join photography tours around the city and have a photographer guide you. However, you can honestly find some amazing places on your own!
13. Enjoy the most awarded coffee in Colombia
San Alberto is the most awarded coffee in Colombia and in the old city of Cartagena, you can enjoy this amazing coffee however you like it. This small coffee shop is tucked away almost out of sight. But the minute you open the door and smell the aromas, you’ll know you’re at the right place.
The staff here speak very good English and explain the coffee, let you smell some beans, and let you know how you can have it prepared. I’m a self-confessed coffee snob and I loved this coffee!
The best part is that all of the coffee is organic and you can purchase take-home packs. I mean, what better way to bring a part of Colombia home with you than its most-awarded coffee!?
Trying local coffee is one of the best things to do in Colombia, after all. So you might as well get your fix right here in Cartagena!
Related Read: Looking for a city escape? Check out our guide to Costeño Beach, Colombia so you can plan some quality relaxation time.
14. Shop for artwork
Cartagena is a stunning city so it’s no wonder paintings of the city are so popular. The best part is that you can pick up a great local painting for dirt cheap on the streets around the old city.
These paintings can come framed or unframed and are easy to transport back home. There is a range of styles and some blew me away!
Look for the vendors during the day and have a shop around. There are some magnificent pieces of art at amazing prices. Just remember you’ll have to barter for every piece!
15. Explore Castillo de San Felip
Last but certainly not least is Castillo de San Felipe. This castle/fortress is almost 500 years old and was built by the Spanish in 1536. Wandering the castle is easily one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena.
You can explore Castillo de San Felipe on your own or hire a guide from the entrance for around 20,000 COP ($4.20 USD). Personally, I’d get the guide as there is a lot to know about the history of this place and the battles fought here.
Entrance to the castle is $25,000 COP ($5.20 USD) and it can take well over an hour to explore the place. Also, head to the highest points and check out the amazing views!
16. Day trip to the Rosario Islands
Once you’ve fully explored all that Old Town, Cartagena has to offer a great way to relax for the day it to head out to the Rosario Islands!
This particular cruise is perfect for those who love spending a lot of time swimming. It departs from the bay and will anchor up near both Isla Grande and Isla Bela (you will not go on them). In these spots you can decide if you want to swim or snorkel – all equipment is provided to you on board. However, these areas are not the best to see much sea life.
Lunch and drinks will also be served. There is a bar on board so you can drink all day!
Note: Because the areas for snorkeling are in reefs you may not be allowed to do so if the weather causes poor visibility. For that reason try to go on a clear day.
Travel Insurance is more important than ever right now!
If you’re traveling during these uncertain times, be sure that you have travel insurance!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance when we are going on longer trips. They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!) and even have coverage in case you get that dreaded c-word. The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!)
It’s safe to say that travel insurance has saved us thousands over the years!
Where to Stay in the Old Town of Cartagena
República Hostel Cartagena (Budget)
For budget options in the old city, you can’t beat Republica Hostel. The hostel is perfectly located, clean, and comfortable. They offer cheap dorm rooms and more expensive privates with breakfast included. The 8 bunk rooms are tight but the 6 bunk seem to be not so claustrophobic. They do have wifi but it can sometimes be spotty.
Casa Gastelbondo (Mid Range)
If you’ve got a little bit more to spend then you can really get yourself something nice in the old town of Cartagena. Casa Gastelbondo is only slightly more expensive than Republica for private rooms but there is no comparison. Two pools, breakfast included, huge rooms, and freshly renovated building… need I say more?!
You can check availability and prices here on Booking.com.
Charleston Santa Teresa (Budget Luxury)
You can’t miss this hotel and it’s one of the most photographed in Cartagena. For one, it’s bright yellow and sits just near the ramp to the best sunset spot on the wall in Cartagena. With a rooftop pool, amazing views, bar, gym, and restaurant it has everything you need for a luxury stay!
You can check availability and prices here on Booking.com.
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara (Luxury)
If you came to Cartagena for a luxury stay then this hotel is perfect. Here you can get a basic king room all the way up to their king suite with a terrace and sea view. The location is perfect, rooms are stunning, and it has a superb rating!
You can check availability and prices here on Booking.com.
Related Read: This gorgeous country has so many different areas to explore. If you don’t know where to start you can read our Colombia travel guide that will make planning your trip a lot easier.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks so much for taking the time to read our guide to all of the best things to do in the old town of Cartagena, Colombia!
The old town of Cartagena is truly a magical place just waiting to be explored. Be sure to enjoy your time here and live that Caribbean lifestyle! If you have any questions about this post or Colombia, leave them below in the comments!
Also, if you liked this travel guide be sure to jump over and check out all of our other Colombia travel guides or these related articles below!