This sultry coastal gem has became a compulsory stop on the Latin American bucket list – and with good reason: balmy weather, killer mojitos, eye-popping architecture, the list goes on and on. Charlotte Steinway hits the streets.
There are plenty of stylish boutiques in Cartagena, but our top pick is Sofitel Legend Santa Clara – a sprawling, colonial-style hotel housed in a former convent, where every detail is meticulously arranged. After a glass of cold Colombian tea at check in, you'll be escorted through a palm tree dotted courtyard, past a gorgeous pool, to your airy room done up with works by Colombian artists like Ana Mercedes Hoyos. JS Tip: Don't miss the hot rock massage and hammam at the hotel spa.
You'll feel right at home at Casa del Coliseo, a 12-room abode hidden in a historic mansion. Book a guestroom with a street-facing balcony for prime people-watching and views of the city's stunning colonial architecture. There's no restaurant onsite, but the daily breakfast spread served off the lobby is so hearty, it'll take you through lunch.
If you prefer more contemporary digs, Colombian hotel chain Movich has light-filled guestrooms with streamlined furnishings and all the modern tech amenities you could want (free Wi-fi, iPod docks, LCD screens). What we love most? The rooftop pool, where you can watch the sun set, cocktail in hand, from a plush daybed or the Jacuzzi.
The game-changing Hotel Casa San Agustin upped the luxury ante when it first opened in 2010. Inside the 24-room stay, you'll find traditional lime-washed stucco with terra-cotta tiles, bougainvillea, swinging daybeds and hardwood Balinese carvings. Room to book: 102, with a private terrace and plunge pool.
Drink and Dine
Kick off the day with breakfast at Pasteleria Mila, an upscale bakery with a charming restaurant attached. It's hard to find a better egg and cheese than the hearty desayuno costeno. Wash it down with a glass of cold peppermint lemonade.
For a traditional Colombian lunch, La Mulata serves up local favorites like grilled shrimp with rice, carne asada with patacones (savory fried plantains) and thirst-quenching beverages like aguas frescas or coconut lemonade.
You can't go to Cartagena and not try the ceviche. We love hidden jewel El Boliche Cebichería, where Chef Oscar Colmenares works his magic in an open kitchen. Or head to the popular La Cevicheria on Calle Stuart for crowd pleasers like lobster ceviche, octopus with coconut rice and king prawns a la brava.
Cartagena's local street-food is a must; don't miss the colorful fruit stands or coconut purveyors – they'll serve up the freshest coconut water (right in its original form) for roughly $1 USD a pop.
Tables spill out into the street over dinner at Juan del Mar, a lively restaurant with a killer wine list. Order the octopus carpaccio, mixed seafood paella and fried whole snapper. JS tip: On weekends, there's live music by local acts.
The sleek La Perla lands on our list thanks to its mix of Peruvian and Colombian flavors, with crowdpleasers like Lomo Saltado, sea bass ceviche and suckling pig with polenta. Looking for the perfect cocktail to complement your meal? Try the chef favorite, Martini La Perla, made of basil, cucumber, lemon and Blue Curaçao.
There's no better spot for drinks than El Baron, a gem of a bar off of Plaza San Pedro. Enjoy a gin basil smash or lychee spritz overlooking the action on the plaza, or inside, at one of the romantic, dimly-lit tables.
It's hard to beat the vibe at La Vitrola – the old-school, Cuban style dining room feels like something out of 1950s Havana with swaying palm fronds, ceiling fans, marble floors and live music. Get a round of the house mojitos accompanied by the red snapper a la diabla and take in the scene.
If you’re into brightly-colored, hand-woven bags, you’ve come to the right place. Nearly every shop and street corner is packed with a (slightly) different selection of cross-body bags, and prices range from around $25 to $100 depending on the size and quality. Once you’ve decided on a pattern, don’t be afraid to haggle.
Emeralds dominate the jewelry scene in the city, as Colombia produces more of the gemstone than any other country. Get some of the highest quality stones, in sleeker-than-sleek settings at Lucy Jewelry.
Casa Chiqui is the go-to spot for home decor; it's the largest interiors store in the city and is stocked with goods from all over the globe. Think wood-carved tigers from Indonesia, intricate ceramic tableware from Mexico, and Balinese lamps.
Welcome to Cartagena's one-stop shop for designer Colombian brands. At St. Dom you'll find everything from high-end fashion to art and interior design. Bring home a tropical linen shirt from hip menswear line Juan Project.
Check Out the Bar Scene
You may never have to set foot in a bar to witness some of Cartagena’s best nightlife. Instead, grab a bottle of wine to enjoy al fresco at one of the city’s many open plazas — or better yet, head to the one of the stone walls surrounding the Old City and set up shop on a defunct cannon inlet while you watch the sunset.
If you do go the bar route, just inside of the fortress walls is Café del Mar a Caribbean-facing open air space with live music and incredible sunset views. It's touristy, but both the mojitos and views are on-point.
If you like mojitos, charge forth to Café Havana, the Cuban bar with nightly live music and salsa dancing. It's located just outside of El Centro, in the grittier, up-and-coming neighborhood of Getsemani, and made headlines when Hillary Clinton salsa danced here back in 2012.
Cartagena has its fair share of clubs and bars, but the hipster elite flock to La Movida, the multi-room bar and open-air courtyard known for its after hours scene. A well-suited local crowd mingles with in-the-know travelers most nights of the week; men should wear pants or risk being denied entry.
Go on a Walking Tour
‘Gram addicts will go crazy for Cartagena’s colorful buildings, abundant flowers and grand plazas. Spend an afternoon getting lost in the city's winding cobblestone streets and buzzing street corners.
Leave enough time to take in anchoring sights like the Catedral de Cartagena, a Spanish-style Catholic Basilica and the Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower), which served as the gateway to the walled city in the 1600s. If you'd rather have a local show you around, sign up for a tour with Kristy from Cartagena Connections; she'll give you the inside scoop on everything from hidden art galleries and shops to the finest local eats.
Check out the street art scene just outside El Centro's walls in Getsemani, a working-class neighborhood with a rich cultural heritage. Calle de la Sierpe was originally home to the 2010 Pedro Romero Vive Aqui street art project, and many murals from that time remain intact. Another highlight: the Face of Cartagena mural on Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad.
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Skip the city beaches and hop a boat for one of the surrounding islands.
Trips to the islands leave from Plaza de la Aduana between 8 and 9 am every morning (if you miss the window, your options begin to narrow, so do yourself a favor and get an early start). Round-trip boat rides will cost between $20 and $40, and often include food or lunch tickets. Word to the wise: come prepared with cash. Most of the islands don't have ATMs, and credit cards aren't an option.
Playa Blanca is the most famous island off of Cartagena, known for its white-sand beaches and backpacker vibe. It's gotten rather touristy over the years, so try to go mid-week to avoid the crowds – and be prepared to ward off vendors peddling their wares. The stretch of glittering shore is worth it, though.
The Rosario Islands are a common stopover before the guided Playa Blanca day trips, but shouldn't be overlooked as a destination. There's snorkeling, beach volleyball, stand-up paddle boarding, and even a local aquarium for wildlife-spotting.