Unlike many historic cities that offer a glimpse of faded glory, Cartagena's walled city has been fabulously restored. From exploring bustling Plazas full of friendly locals to uncovering interesting historical sites like the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the Convento La Popa de la Galera. Cartagena is a city full of unexpected delights for first-time visitors, where you can find exceptional dining experiences along with unique attractions and so many things to do by day and night. This guide to the best attractions in Cartagena is just what you need to help you kickstart your visit to this historic city.
Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandria
The cathedral is conveniently located across the street from the shady Plaza Bolivar. The Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandria is one of the most photographed buildings in the old town of Cartagena, particularly at night, when the impressive spire is lit up like a scene from a fairy tale. You can enjoy the view of the cathedral throughout the old city as you wander along the streets. The building dates from 1612 and has recently been completely restored. If you are able to sneak a peek inside, you'll find towering arches supported by massive columns. During the day you’ll see artists are often set up near the cathedral selling their works of art which make a great souvenir.
Plaza de Bolivar
Formerly known as the Plaza de Inquisición, this leafy, shaded plaza is in front of the Palacio de la Inquisicion (Palace of the Inquisition) is surrounded by some of the city's most elegant balconied colonial buildings. It's one of Cartagena's most alluring plazas and offers a wonderful respite from the Caribbean heat. You’ll find a statue of the eponymous Simón Bolívar standing in the middle of the square with park benches surrounding it. 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.
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Palace of the Inquisition Cartagena Historical Museum
Housed in a beautifully restored series of mansions dating from 1770, the Palace of the Inquision and Museo de Historico de Cartagena de Indias provides a very in-depth overview of the Spanish Inquisition. A numerical system guides you through various rooms and courtyards where the complete story is told in Spanish and English, although not all plaques are translated to English. One of the highlights of this attraction is the courtyard, you’ll see some of the instruments used during the period, including a guillotine, and various other displays.
Tunnels of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Atop a hill, 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 that are its most impressive feature. The design of the tunnels took into consideration acoustics, which allowed the Spanish to hear even the slightest noise and allowed for easy communication. The tunnels are slightly confusing to navigate, but you can access them at several points, meaning they do not feel particularly claustrophobic unless you choose to go deeper, into areas that have no exits. They also offer the perfect respite from a sunny hot day of exploring the best things to do in Cartagena.
Plaza Santo Domingo
This plaza 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 and 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 it seems they weren't too good with calculations, as the vault began to crack afterward. 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 and popular attractions in Cartagena’s square, however, is the reclining female statue by Colombian sculptor, Fernando Botero. Remember to give the statue a rub for good luck as locals do.
Convento de la Popa
Convento de la Popa is perched on a 150-meter hill known as Mt. Popa, high above the city. It’s visible from almost everywhere in Cartagena and at night it is beautifully lit up. It was built in the early 1600s as a convent but has been used for several purposes over the years, including barracks. Simon Bolivar even set up here for a while. Today it is a museum and is so worth a visit to see the stunning views out over Cartagena and the Caribbean Sea. 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.
Magic Mud Volcano
This attraction in Cartagena is definitely one of the more unusual things to do in Cartagena. A short day trip out of the city will take you to Colombia's famous mud volcano. It's almost a right of passage for travelers to take a dip in the warm mud of this otherwise unassuming little mound. After walking up a long set of stairs to the top of the so-called volcano, you can then drop into a pool of mud, usually filled wall to wall with other bathers. You will be completely covered head to toe in mud, but once you get out, locals are on hand to help scrub you down with water and towels to try to get the mud off, which is not an easy task! You can expect to smell the mud on you for the rest of the day, and your swimsuit may not be the same afterwards, but it is such a unique attraction and simply can’t be missed.
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Museo Naval del Caribe
The Museo Naval del Caribe is 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, for the most part, a grand collection of reconstructed cityscapes and boat models from throughout the centuries, as well as all sorts of other interesting artifacts from sunken ships including cannons, ship bells, muskets, and other hidden gems. Although all of the descriptions are in Spanish there are video guides available in English.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/moonrat/29174375350
Museo del Oro Zenu
The Museo del Oro Zenu is a free attraction in Cartagena and easy to find, just off the famous Plaza Bolivar. This is more than just a museum dedicated to this lustrous mineral; it also provides a fascinating look into the history of the indigenous Zenu people and the importance of gold in their lives. 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.
Mercado de Bazurto
If you’re looking to really experience Cartagena like a local then the bustling, loud vibrant Mercado de Bazurto is a must-visit attraction in Cartagena. This food market sells everything from fresh fruit to cooked turtle (which is discouraged by authorities but considered a traditional meal in many indigenous communities). You are sure to revel in the sheer array of produce and food on offer at Mercado de Bazurto and you’ll be stunned by the prices too: expect a two-course lunch to set you back no more than about $2. Remember to be mindful of your belongings as you wander through the market and be prepared to feast on the most delicious local cuisine.
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