When Shikha texted me about cheap flights to Cartagena, I’ll admit I knew nothing about the city (or Colombia!) but the price was right and it was a close enough flight from San Francisco that we could easily make a long weekend of it… So I was in. Cartagena turned out to be SO MUCH FUN and one of my favorite trips I’ve taken recently – the city was a really interesting mix of Spanish / European influence in the architecture and street layout but with the vibrant colors of the Caribbean. Despite many worried texts from my mom, we never felt unsafe within the Old Town area and had an amazing four days exploring the city; I’m smitten with South America and already planning my next adventure to see more countries.
Some favorites from our time in Cartagena:
To Stay: I’m all about Airbnb when traveling and this trip was no exception – we stayed at an amazing Airbnb apartment in a really great location within the Old City. It was really centrally located which made it easy to pop back in throughout the day when we needed a little break from the heat. Our hosts were amazing and the apartment was really quiet and had a security guard so we felt extra safe and secure.
To Eat & Drink: Traveling with foodie friends is the absolute best because you know they’re also all about going all out with food during your trip! Shikha had planned out an insanely amazing Google Doc for us with top places to eat and drink while in Cartagena which made every meal we had incredible. An overall tip for going out in Colombia; the dinner and nightlife crowd starts late! Our first day we were the only diners during our dinner reservation and ended up as the first patrons in Bazurto Social Club at 10 PM so be prepared to get a late start to the evening ;)
Some of our favorites:
- Cafe San Alberto: We flew in on a redeye which meant that coffee was our #1 priority after checking into our Airbnb and we found ourselves at Cafe San Alberto and were blown away by how good the coffee was. Their ice lattes held their own against even the best coffee shop in San Francisco and we made several stops a day here during the trip to get our caffeine fix.
- Carmen: We went all out on our final night in Colombia and had the 7 course tasting menu dinner at Carmen and it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The restaurant’s design is stunning and atmosphere is really fun (we befriended the sweetest family from North Carolina sitting at the next table!) and the husband and wife chef/owner duo is actually from San Francisco! Do not miss for a really special meal in Cartagena.
- La Cevicheria: A seafood lover’s dream – they have a menu centered around bunch of different ceviche options and really great cocktails. Order a bunch to share for the table (and warning, the drinks are STRONG). If you sit outside, be prepared to be hustled by street vendors and performers, but they’re manageable with a “no gracias” upfront.
- El Barón: A small spot with great cocktails and outdoor seating on the plaza for people watching! They also take reservations if you’d like to ensure you have a table (although we were just fine on a Saturday night without one).
- La Paletteria: Cartagena is HOT which meant multiple trips each day to La Paletteria were necessary! Our friend Nichole recommended this place and we could not get enough of their ice pops – I tried a bunch of flavors over our trip and loved ’em all but do not miss the Limonada de Coco.
- Pastelería Mila: Another place that was so good that we had to go back more than once! Pastelería Mila is a really delicious bakery and breakfast spot – their banana bread is to die for and fresh juices are the perfect pick me up on a hot morning.
- Bazurto Social Club: A really fun bar with a mix of locals and tourists – I had several limonada de coco con ron and had a great time people watching everyone dancing once the DJ got started (and I lost Shikha to the dance party!)
To Do & See: You can’t go wrong just wandering around Cartagena’s beautiful streets within the Old Town area (so many colors!) but beyond that, a few things we did during our trip that I’d highly recommend:
- El Castillo de San Felipe: During the day on Friday we walked over to El Castillo de San Felipe to check out the fortress and get a great view of Cartagena from above. It was built by the Spanish during the colonial era to protect the city from attacks by both land and sea and is full of tunnels that lead to a protected castle area. If you plan on visiting during the day be sure to bring water and sunscreen – the fortress is in direct sun and it’s HOT climbing to the top!
- Sunset Drinks at Café del Mar: Throughout our trip we joked about the romantic getaway we were having and sunset drinks at Café del Mar was no exception since we were definitely the only non-couple there. Get there right at 5 PM when they open to snag a table near the wall and grab a mai tai or two for a great view of the sunset over the ocean.
- Isla Rosario: Although Cartagena is right on the ocean, the beaches within the city aren’t great however you can easily rent a boat for a day trip to one of the Isla Rosario. We booked through a friend of our Airbnb host’s travel agency and had a fantastic day on a private island resort on Coralina Island with the most gorgeous crystal clear waters and plenty of space to lounge around and relax. We also were able to hop on a boat to snorkel in a reef off the shore which had a ton of really beautiful coral and fish!
- Salsa Dancing at Cafe Havana: Let me preface this recommendation by admitting to you that I am not a very good dancer, however after a bottle of rosé I was feeling ready to get my salsa dance on so we headed to Cafe Havana. They had a live band and a bar packed with locals there to salsa dance and it was SO fun (at one point an older Colombian woman actually pulled me aside to try and give me some pointers 😜)
- People Watching at the Plazas: Cartagena is full of plaza areas with outdoor seating making them the perfect spot to take a break from exploring and do some people watching. There seemed to be a plaza around every corner within the Old Town and it was so nice to have little outdoor areas tucked away in between the buildings for everyone to enjoy.
Have you ever been to Cartagana? What were some of your favorites?