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Things to do in Cartagena: a colonial experience in Colombia

by Pilar Dujan | February 21, 2024
Enjoy the best things to do in Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias is a destination you can’t miss if you travel to Colombia. It has everything you could possibly need: beautiful sights, historical attractions, museums, lively nightlife, vibrant gastronomy and even stunning beaches.

Discover the main things to do in Cartagena for first-time travelers. And remember: you will need to apply for a Check Mig to be able to enter the country.

Things to do in Cartagena

Explore the Old Town

The Old Town of Cartagena

The first on the list of things to do in Cartagena is walking around the Old Town. Full of colors and as lively as it gets, here you will get a good idea of what colonial towns looked like. Explore its many churches, squares and mansions to soak in the beauty of Cartagena.

Inside the walled town, a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site, you’ll find some other important things to do in Cartagena:

  • Palacio de la Inquisición
  • Plaza de Bolívar 
  • Santuario de Pedro Claver
  • Puerta del Reloj

If you can, try to find room in a rooftop bar to see the sunset over the walls. Built to protect the city from pirates, these walls are emblematic and make for a beautiful scene, perfect to end a day of tourism. 

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe Castle)

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas or San Felipe Castle

This Spanish castle, definitely one of the essential things to do in Cartagena, is the largest fort in South America. It was built, rebuilt and expanded over centuries to protect Cartagena from foreign invasions and pirates, to much success: this imposing fortress was never breached. 

Located on top of the San Lázaro hill, you have to walk through the narrow tunnels to get the full experience and truly immerse yourself in the history of the castle. 

It’s another perfect spot to enjoy the sunset: you’ll get a 360º view from the top of the fort, so you should try to be there before the site closes at 18:00.

Walk through the Getsemaní neighborhood

Streets covered in umbrellas in Cartagena

Getsemaní is the artsiest and coolest neighborhood in Cartagena de Indias. It’s famous for its street art and the picture-perfect alleys covered in umbrellas of every color. 

You should start your stroll through Getsemaní during the day to enjoy all the sights, like Plaza de la Trinidad, but make sure you stay for the nighttime. That’s when Getsemaní comes to life and it becomes one big open-air bar. There are plenty of options to have a bite as well.

Museo del Oro Zenú (Zenú Gold Museum) 

The Museo del Oro is one of the free things to do in Cartagena, so it’s always a great option. It reopened last year after a renovation, and it’s like the younger sibling of the museum of the same name located in Bogota

This fascinating museum will let you immerse yourself in what life in the Caribbean was like 6000 years ago, millenia before the first Europeans arrived. The exhibit you can’t miss is the one that honors the name of the museum: a collection of objects made in gold and tumbaga, a gold and copper alloy. 

The museum is closed on Mondays. It’s open from 9:00 to 17:00 from Tuesday to Saturday. On Sundays it's open from 9:00 to 14:00. Don’t worry if you’re not a Spanish-speaker: the exhibits are also displayed in English, and you can enjoy the guides in English as well.

Get a taste of the local culture

Street vendors selling paintings in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

There’s one thing you should know about Colombia before traveling: street vendors abound. You’ll be able to purchase everything right on the street, from souvenirs to art or local fruits. Another tip? Buy from them! It’s the best way to get a feel of the authentic local gastronomy. The fruit is super fresh and delicious, and the food is really good as well. The most famous street food in Colombia is the arepa: you’ll find it everywhere, with many combinations of ingredients. Another local specialty, healthier than what you typically find, is mango biche: a snack made with sliced green mango, lime and salt. 

Another great way to see what Colombian life is all about is to go to a salsa club, or any club really. Colombians love to dance, and they’re great at it! You won’t have trouble finding a friendly local to teach you the proper way to dance salsa. Dancing is ingrained in the culture so it’s something you simply have to do.

Things to do in Cartagena: beachy day trips

Although it is a coastal town, going to the local beaches is not one of the recommended things to do in Cartagena. Thankfully, along the coast you will get dozens of offers of boats for hire, which will take you to some of the nearby beaches. They are some of the best beaches in Colombia. 


Going to Barú is one of the essential things to do in Cartagena. Since the local beaches are nothing to write home about, taking the 45-minute boat ride to Barú will let you enjoy the best the Caribbean has to offer

You can expect white sand, a turquoise-colored and totally calm sea and all the beers and drinks you could possibly want. 

If you can, book a night in one of the accommodations that line the coast of Barú. Although you won’t get a room, sleeping in a hammock is part of the Colombia travel experience. Waking up with the sunrise whilst listening to the sea is even more peaceful than it sounds.

And you will need peace: Barú can get very crowded during the day. You should walk away from the drop-off point as soon as you arrive to put some distance between the crowds and you. It will also help you find a place to stay: the farthest you get, the better.

You can rent a boat from Cartagena. It’s best to buy the ticket with at least one day of anticipation. 

Caribbean beaches in Baru and Islas del Rosario, Colombia

Rosario Islands

The visit to Islas del Rosario is another perfect excursion that has Cartagena as its starting point. Just like Barú, it’s also a short boat ride away.

These islands are as close to paradise as it gets. You can expect peace and quiet, and the sea is perfect for snorkeling (pack your gear!). The sea is also the most perfect shade of blue, with no waves to disturb you. Just float the day away amongst tiny, colorful fishes!

La Boquilla

La Boquilla is a coastal town located right outside Cartagena. If you have days to spare, one of the great things to do in Cartagena is to rent a boat to see the mangroves that border La Boquilla. Since it’s a fishing town, local fishermen are usually in charge of the boat tours as well. They always teach the tourists and show them their fishing techniques. All in all, it will be an educational and scenic boat ride. Besides, if you catch enough with the techniques learned, you’ll be able to enjoy some fresh seafood as soon as you’re back on land.