Cartagena is a city full of unexpected delights for first-time visitors. From exploring busy colorful Plazas full of friendly locals to uncovering interesting historical sites. Unlike many historic cities that offer a glimpse of faded glory, Cartagena's walled city has been fabulously restored. This guide to the ultimate things to do in Cartagena is just what you need to help you kick-start your visit to this historic city.
Shop like a local at Mercado de Bazurto
Experience Cartagena like a local at this bustling, vibrant market. You'll find everything for sale here, from fresh fruit to cooked turtles. Cooking turtles is discouraged by authorities but considered a traditional meal in many indigenous communities. You'll revel in the sheer array of produce and food on offer here and you’ll be stunned by the prices too. Remember to be mindful of your belongings as you wander through the market and be prepared to feast on the most delicious local cuisine.
Explore the Plaza de Bolivar
Escape the Caribbean heat in the formerly known Plaza de Inquisición. This leafy plaza in front of the Palacio de la Inquisicion is surrounded by the most elegant colonial buildings. It's one of Cartagena's most alluring plazas. Here you’ll find a statue of Simón Bolívar standing in the middle of the square with park benches all around. Locals come to this plaza to sit and enjoy a few minutes of quiet in the shade or to feed the pigeons. It's not a busy park and instead more of a hidden gem in Cartagena so it’s the perfect place to explore on a hot sunny day.
Be in awe of Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandria
The cathedral is conveniently located across the street from the shady Plaza Bolivar. The building dates from 1612 and has recently been completely restored. During the day you’ll see artists are often set up near the cathedral selling their works of art which make a great souvenir. The cathedral is one of the most photographed buildings in the old town of Cartagena. At night, it looks like a scene from a fairy tale when the impressive spire is lit up. You can enjoy the view of the cathedral throughout the old city as you wander along the streets. If you are able to sneak a peek inside, you'll find towering arches supported by massive columns.
Palace of the Inquisition Cartagena Historical Museum
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/eliasroviello
This place provides a very in-depth overview of the Spanish Inquisition. Housed in a beautifully restored series of mansions dating from 1770. A numerical system guides you through various areas where the complete story is told in Spanish and English. One of the highlights of this attraction is the courtyard. Here you'll see some of the instruments used during the period, including a guillotine, and various other displays.
Explore the Tunnels of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Just a short drive from the walls of the city, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is regarded as one of the greatest forts the Spanish ever built in the new world. This unique triangular-shaped fort is home to a number of complex tunnels. The design of the tunnels allowed the Spanish to hear even the slightest noise. The tunnels are slightly confusing to navigate, but you can access them at several points. They also offer the perfect respite from a sunny hot day of exploring the best things to do in Cartagena.
Admire Iglesia de Santo Domingo
Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Convento_de_Santo_Domingo_(Cartagena)
Plaza Santo Domingo is largely dominated by the mighty Iglesia de Santo Domingo on one side which is said to be the oldest church in the city. Built in 1539 the original building succumbed to a fire but the church was rebuilt in its present location in 1552. Builders gave it a wide central nave and covered it with a heavy roof, but this was a mistake as the vault began to crack. Today, massive buttresses have been added to the walls to support the structure and prevent it from collapsing. You’ll also notice the bell tower is distinctly crooked too because of building issues. One of the most famous features in the square is the reclining female statue by Colombian sculptor, Fernando Botero. Remember to give the statue a rub for good luck as locals do.
Enjoy the views from Convento de la Popa
Built in the early 1600s on a hill known as Mount Popa, high above the city, Convento de la Popa offers an array of things to do. It’s visible from almost everywhere in Cartagena and at night it is beautifully lit. Originally a convent this building has been used for several purposes over the years, including barracks for Simon Bolivar. Today, the view alone is so worth a visit to this museum. It has a wonderful patio filled with colorful plants and several unique statues. Inside the convent, you’ll find a beautiful rendering of La Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of Cartagena. There is a small fee to enter the building but the view alone is so worth it.
Visit the Museo Naval del Caribe
Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MUSEO_NAVAL_DEL_CARIBE.JPG
Housed in a beautifully restored Jesuit school dating from 1612. You’ll find displays detailing 500 years of Cartagena's maritime history along with information on the Colombian navy and army. It features a grand collection of reconstructed cityscapes and boat models from throughout the centuries. Spend time exploring the interesting artifacts from sunken ships other hidden gems. All of the descriptions are in Spanish but there are video guides available in English.
Discover hidden gems in Museo del Oro Zenu
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/moonrat/29456322305
If you’re looking for free things to do in Cartagena, the Museo del Oro Zenu is the place to visit and easy to find, just off the famous Plaza Bolivar. This museum is dedicated to gold, silver and ceramics. Inside, you'll find over 500 gold pieces carved into fascinating shapes, including a golden jaguar and a delicate filigree butterfly. Other highlights include displays on body painting and textiles, and an exhibit focusing on the engineering expertise of the Zenu and how they built the vast network of canals over 2,500 years ago.
Magic Mud Volcano
Looking for an unusual thing to do in Cartagena? Take a short day trip out of the city to Colombia's famous mud volcano where you can wallow with locals in mushy warm mud, a visit here is almost a rite of passage for travelers. Take a walk up a long set of stairs to the top of the hill and then drop into the pool of mud and relax in the earth sludge with locals. You will be completely covered head to toe in warm mud but once you get out, locals are on hand to help scrub you down with water and towels. Your swimsuit may not be the same afterward, but it is such a unique thing to do in Cartagena and simply can’t be missed.
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