Visiting Colombia’s Caribbean coast? Here’s how to plan your Cartagena itinerary. 

Cartagena is one of the most popular places in Colombia – and for good reason. 

As well as the azure ocean and guarantee of good weather, Cartagena oozes culture. 

This coastal city fuses Caribbean flavours and champeta beats with colonial architecture, making for a mélange that all the senses can appreciate. 

It might feel a little like sensory overload at times, but somehow Cartagena still forces you to unwind. However you feel when you arrive, you can be sure you’ll leave in higher spirits. 

After all, it’s hard not to feel incredible when you’re surrounded by good humoured locals, incredible fresh food and spontaneous street dancing!

Here’s how to plan your Cartagena itinerary and what you need to know to make the most of your time in this charming city. 

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What to do in Cartagena Colombia

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Cartagena Travel Guide

Before you start planning your Cartagena itinerary, you’ll want to have at least an idea of what you’re in for. 

Whether you’ve travelled Colombia before or not, here are some handy tips to help you make the most of your trip to Cartagena. 

(And if you just want to skip to the itinerary, feel free to keep scrolling!)

Is Cartagena worth visiting?

When I first arrived in the country, I regretted adding Cartagena to my Colombia itinerary – until I went there, that is.   

It wasn’t long after touching down in Cartagena that I realised how special this city is.

It’s the kind of city where you’ll smile constantly, learn lots and leave feeling both exhausted and refreshed. 

If you love history, food, beaches or architecture, Cartagena is well worth visiting. 


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The best time to visit Cartagena

Being near to the equator, Cartagena enjoys pretty steady temperatures all year around.  That means there isn’t really a bad time to visit!

December-March is the most popular time to visit Cartagena, and for good reason. It’s warm but not too humid, with minimal rainfall. 

The start of the year is also when Cartagena’s most popular festivals take place. 

If you want a more local experience with fewer tourists, though, you may want to consider booking your trip to Cartagena between August and November. 

This is the rainiest season and, because of this, fewer people visit during this time. 

Cartagena for solo travel

I travelled to Cartagena as a sole female traveller, and I absolutely loved it. 

It wasn’t always easy to travel solo in Colombia. But, of all the places I travelled in Colombia, Cartagena was the easiest to tackle as a solo traveller. 

Transport costs are cheap, it’s easy to meet other travellers and I generally felt safe walking around – even at night. In fact, it’s the only place in Colombia where I walked around alone at night! 

I met lots of other solo travellers in Cartagena, too. There’s no doubt that it was the most touristy place I travelled in Colombia, but it didn’t take away from the experience.

If anything, it was really nice to share the experience with other travellers. 

Street art in Getsemani in Cartagena Colombia

Cartagena/Colombia safety 

I’ll admit, I let other people’s opinions get to me before I travelled to Cartagena. 

I was told to stay away from the Getsemani neighbourhood, but I ended up spending most of my time there. 

While that may have been good advice several years ago, the area has clearly undergone extensive changes in the last couple of years. You can even take a tour to learn about them! 

Now, Getsemani has a cool, hipster kind of vibe and I felt really at home there. And, with plenty of other tourists around, I didn’t feel unsafe at all. 

RELATED READ: 9 Things to avoid in Colombia.

Is Cartagena expensive? 

Of all the places I visited during my trip to Colombia, Cartagena was easily the most expensive. 

And it’s no surprise, really – it also had the visibly highest number of tourists. 

That said, Cartagena was still a very affordable place to travel, even as a solo traveller. 

While restaurants were noticeably pricier than places like Medellin or Filandia, street food is still very affordable.

If you stick to the local spots and free walking tours – of which there are many! – you can travel Cartagena on a very tight budget.

Mural in Cartagena Colombia

How to dress in Cartagena

When you’re packing for Colombia, keep in mind that Cartagena is hot! It’s easily the most humid place I visited in Colombia and the heat lingers even at night. 

Despite that, I still decided to stick with jeans.

I wore jeans all over Colombia in an attempt to blend in with local life more, but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable wearing a dress or shorts in Cartagena. 

The large tourist presence in Cartagena makes it almost impossible to blend in. And, in all honesty, you really don’t need to. 

That said, I would still try to cover up. The sun in Cartagena is unforgiving and there’s very little shade to shelter under. 

You can’t go wrong with long, loose layers in the city, plus some shorts for an inevitable beach day (which we’ll get to soon!)

What to do in Cartagena 

Travellers tend to visit Cartagena for one of two main attractions: the food and the coast. 

I suggest you enjoy a little bit of both!

Fun things to do in Cartagena

Most travellers spend just a couple of days in Cartagena.

If you only have 2 days in Cartagena, you won’t be able to do everything. Even if you have 4 days in Cartagena or more, you won’t struggle to fill your Cartagena itinerary.

That said, you’ll be surprised at just how much you can fit in if you choose what to do in Cartagena ahead of your arrival.

Here are some of the best things to do in Cartagena however long you have. 

1 – Eat street food 

Cartagena is by far the best place to enjoy food in Colombia. The city has some of the most unique dishes in all of Colombia, and all of them are bursting with flavour. 

Even if you’re not a massive foodie, I highly recommend joining a food tour while you’re there. This one includes plenty of samples of local favourites, as well as the history and culture behind them.

Street food in Cartagena Colombia

2 – Go island hopping 

It was the blue waters of the Rosario Islands that put Cartagena on my Colombia bucket list, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. 

If you only have 2 days in Cartagena, it’s better to stay in the city and visit the islands on a day trip. However, if you have a little longer, it’s well worth spending a night or two on the Rosario Islands to get the full Caribbean experience.

Check into Eco Hotel Islabela for a luxurious yet eco-friendly stay. Or, if you’re on a budget,  spend a night at Eco Hotel Campo Verde for a rustic experience that won’t break the bank. 

3 – Visit San Felipe castle 

If you look out to the sea from Cartagena’s old town, you won’t be able to miss the fortress that overlooks the city. 

This fortress is the San Felipe de Barajas castle, a 14th century fort that is well worth a visit if you have an hour or two to spare. 

If you’re short on time, the most efficient way to visit the castle is on a tour. This city tour includes entrance to the San Felipe fort as well as a bilingual guide. 

READ NEXT: Planning a trip to Colombia – what you need to know.

4 – Soak up the street art 

Like Colombia’s other major cities, Cartagena has its fair share of street art. 

As well as being fun to see and photograph, Cartagena’s street art tells a lot about the city’s history, politics and culture. 

Once again, Getsemani is at the heart of Cartagena’s graffiti scene, so take some time to visit this unique neighbourhood. 

This walking tour is perfect for anyone who wants to have a more immersive experience because it includes the chance to meet some of the local artists and tour their studios. 

Street art in Cartagena Colombia

5 – Take a cooking class 

Food should be at the centre of any trip to Cartagena, and what better way to enjoy it than by learning to cook some popular dishes yourself? 

This cooking class includes several local dishes, including arepas – a Colombian staple – and coconut pineapple pie. 

Not only will you be able to learn about Cartagenan cuisine, but you’ll also be able to take your travels home with you and recreate your favourite dish at home.

6 – Learn to dance

When I think of my time in Cartagena, my mind instantly jumps to one particular memory: dancing champeta in the streets of Getsemani. 

Champeta – yes, that’s the dance Shakira did at the 2020 Superbowl – originates from Colombia’s caribbean coast, so why not take a lesson while you’re there?

This 3-hour class covers four of the most popular dances in Colombia and includes drinks to dampen those inhibitions. 

Learning to dance champeta in Cartagena Colombia

Other Cartagena Attractions

Although the options we’ve looked at so far are my favourite things to do in Cartagena, the city has lots more to offer. 

Here are some of the other attractions you might want to add to your Cartagena itinerary – especially if you have a little more time to explore.

There are also plenty of extra day trips you can take from Cartagena, but we’ll cover those in the next section!

The Old City 

It’s almost impossible to miss the old city of Cartagena and many of these other attractions will take you in and out of it. 

However, if you want to really get to know the city, set aside some time to simple wander the streets and explore. It’s much bigger than it looks!

Old City Cartagena Colombia

Cafe del Mar

Cartagena enjoys some incredible Caribbean sunsets, and Cafe del Mar boasts the best sunset views of all. 

If you don’t mind splashing around 43,000 COP (around $12 USD) on a drink, there’s nowhere better to watch the sunset after a long day of exploring.

If you’re on a budget, grab some beers from a local vendor instead and catch the sunset from the wall. You won’t have to look hard to find the best spot – it’s always packed with locals and tourists alike!

The Palace of the Inquisition

The Inquisition Palace is an impressive building that now hosts a museum. Inside, you’ll find a number of historical artefacts. 

Some of the artefacts are pretty grim – for example, torture devices used on victims during the inquisition – but it’s a must-visit for history lovers.

A white colonial building in Cartagena Colombia

The Emerald Museum

Another museum worth adding to your Cartagena itinerary, this dazzling museum is full of beautiful Colombian emeralds, as well as plenty of information on the history and extraction process. 

The museum is fairly small, but free to enter and well worth a visit. 

Mercado de Bazurto 

The Bazurto market is where Cartagena locals go to shop for fresh produce (so they can create the delicious local dishes!). 

If you want to immerse yourself in local life in Cartagena, the market is a must visit. It’s not somewhere I would recommend going alone, though, so make sure you book a guide for this one. 

This guided tour includes pick-up and drop off, as well as lunch in Ceci’s, a popular local restaurant that was praised by the late Anthony Bourdain. 

A street cart selling exotic fruit in Cartagena Colombia

An adaptable Cartagena Colombia itinerary

So, now you know what to do in Cartagena, here’s how I’d recommend planning your time. 

This Cartagena itinerary assumes you have two full days to explore and maximises those 48 hours.

If you have more than 2 days in Cartagena, you can easily extend it with the suggestions below. 

The best area to stay in Cartagena 

Before you do anything else, you’ll want to check in to your Cartagena accommodation. 

There’s no shortage of places to stay in Cartagena, but hostels and hotels do get booked up quickly.  For that reason, I’d recommend booking your Cartagena accommodation as soon as you know what dates you’ll be there. 

There are several neighbourhoods to choose between, but Getsemani is easily the best area to stay in Cartagena. It’s quirky, it’s fun and it has loads of great places to eat and drink. 

I stayed in a private room at Selina and it seemed to be the coveted place among most travellers I met. It was comfortable, spacious and even has a rooftop bar and pool!

If you’re on a tighter budget, Mi Llave is a comfortable hostel with an even more comfortable price. Plus, it’s inside a fun green and pink building!

There’s something for luxury lovers, too. GHL Hotel Armería Real is a modern hotel inside a colonial building – and one of the only hotels in the area.

Day 1: Explore the flavours of the Caribbean 

Since Cartagena is the best place to enjoy some Colombian food, that’s what we’re going to focus on today! 

Grab breakfast from a street vendor 

One of the best ways to acquaint yourself with Colombian culture is by trying the street foods. Colombian street food is tasty, unique and super friendly on the purse strings. 

You won’t need to wander for long before you find a stand selling arepas de huevo. If you’re struggling to find one, head to Plaza de los Coches. 

This popular breakfast snack is an arepa stuffed with egg and beef. If you don’t eat meat, you can ask for it without (sin carne). 

A Colombian breakfast consisting of arepas de choclo, scrmabled eggs a pastry
Arepas are great as part of a traditional Colombian breakfast

Experience local cooking

Aside from the street food, the best way to learn about Cartagena’s foodie scene is by visiting the Bazurto market. 

This tour includes hotel pick up and drop off, so you can enjoy the full local experience without needing to worry about logistics. 

Spend the rest of the morning meeting local vendors, learning about local market life and trying a range of snacks and herbs. 

Afterwards, you’ll have a chance to enjoy a traditional lunch at Ceci’s restaurant, before heading back to the city centre. 

Stop for a coffee at Cafe del Mural

It’s getting to the hottest part of the day now, so you’ll probably want to take some time to freshen up. 

Cafe del Mural opens at 3pm, and will be our next stop of the day. This quirky coffee roaster is situated in one of the city’s cutest streets and is also one of the best places to enjoy a coffee in Cartagena. 

The owner and his team do everything from roasting the beans to preparing the final cup, and there are heaps of options on offer. With everything from coffee infused gin to nitro cold brew on the menu, why not try something new while you’re here? 

Cafe del Mural in Cartagena Colombia

Learn to cook like a local

You may have had ceviche before – especially if you’ve travelled to Peru or Ecuador! – but Colombian ceviche is totally different. And that means you need to experience it. 

This casual cooking class (the 5pm one) will teach you how to make several types of Colombian ceviche, as well as teaching you about sourcing and using local ingredients. 

Experience the local nightlife

Cartagena isn’t just a great place to enjoy some authentic Colombian cuisine – it’s also a great place to try the local drinks. 

Since this is the Caribbean coast, it’ll come as no surprise that rum is a popular tipple here. And the best place to try a glass (or two) is at one of the small rum bars around town. 

Locals usually drink their rum neat or on the rocks, and I recommend you do, too. They sometimes take a small piece of chocolate powder before drinking, and it’s a totally different way to enjoy the spirit. 

If rum isn’t your thing, the other popular drink in Cartagena is quite different. Refajo is a Colombian cocktail made by mixing Colombiana cola with beer. Yes, really. 

I promise it isn’t as gross as it sounds – it’s actually pretty refreshing!

Rum tasting in Cartagena Colombia
The best place to drink rum is one of Getsemani’s tiny bars

Day 2: Head to the coast 

If you enjoyed too many refajos last night, you’ll be pleased to know that today will be pretty relaxing. 

Grab a street food breakfast again and pack your bag with sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, swimwear and a good book. We’re going to the beach (kind of)! 

Take a tour to the Rosario Islands

The Rosario Islands were what drew me to Cartagena, and they’re just as stunning in real life. Even if, like me, you’re not really a beach person, these unique islands are a must visit. 

Since the Rosario Islands are pretty exclusive, it’s only possible to visit on a guided tour.

That may or may not be music to your ears, but enjoy the chance to relax a little and soak up the surroundings either way. 

There are LOTS of really terrible tours to the Rosario Islands, so you won’t want to take any chances when choosing one. It might not seem like a big deal, but choosing the right tour operator will make a world of difference to your experience. Trust me – I learned the hard way. 

While there are plenty of beach tours, I would recommend one where you spend most of your time on the boat. Not only is it safer (beach theft isn’t uncommon) but you’ll get to see a little more. 

Most of the Rosario Islands are privately owned, so the only way to experience them is to stay there. Taking a catamaran tour like this one is a great way to enjoy them if you don’t have the time – or budget – to stay overnight. 

boat at islas de rosario colombia

Explore the city 

You should get back to the city around mid-afternoon.

That will give you just enough time to freshen up and spend some time exploring the city centre or the Getsemani neighbourhood before dinner. 

The early evening is a great time to wander the streets and soak up Cartagena’s unique atmosphere. It’s a little cooler, there’s more going on and you can end your exploration by watching sunset from the wall. 

Dinner at La Cocina de Pepina 

La Cocina de Pepina is one of the best restaurants in Cartagena and a highlight of my own trip. 

I arrived there at exactly 7pm, just as the restaurant was opening. I was seated straight away but it wasn’t long before a considerable queue had formed outside.

Little did I know it but it’s a popular restaurant! With only a handful of tables and such high demand, I recommend getting there for opening time. 

La Cocina de Pepina has a wonderful menu of local favourites. Now is a great time to try any local dishes you haven’t yet had chance to sample, or enjoy your favourite one last time. 

Fried fish and coconut rice in Cartagena Colombia

Experience Colombian music 

Music is an integral part of Colombian culture, and that’s especially true in Cartagena. 

There’s no better way to enjoy the music in Cartagena than by visiting some of the many salsa spots. 

This guided tour includes a local guide, transport and a beer at every stop, so you can get a taste of the different dance styles without worrying about safety or tourist traps. 

If you have more than 2 days in Cartagena 

If you have more than two days in Cartagena, there’s still plenty of fun that you can add to your Colombia itinerary. 

Here are some of the best ways to spend your time in Cartagena, whatever your travel style. 

If you’re a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marques, this guided literary tour is a must. 

Adventure lovers can easily get their fix in Cartagena’s waters. Jet skiing is a fun way to see the city from the sea. Or, if you’re seeking even more adrenaline, why not try flyboarding

For something a little more relaxing, it’s possible to hit the waters on a sea kayaking excursion or try your hand at stand up paddle boarding. This LED stand up paddle boarding experience also makes for a unique way to enjoy sunset. 

If you don’t fancy getting wet, you can also enjoy sunset from the comfort of a catamaran cruise. Or, for something a little more special, why not take a dinner cruise?  

Want to try more street food but worried about fitting it all in? This bike and bites tour will help you burn some calories as you go.

If you love travel photography, this tour with a local photographer will help you create photos that you can hang on your wall at home. 

For a fun Colombian night out, you need to experience a chiva bus – a type of local party bus. 

Street art in Cartagena Colombia

Day trips from Cartagena

If you want to explore more outside the city, here are some of the most unique day trips you can take:

The Totumo Volcano and the Pink Sea are two of the most popular tourist attractions near Cartagena. In this 2-in-1 trip, you can soak in the volcano mud before relaxing in the salty sea.

Tayrona National Park is a little further out of Cartagena, but worth the journey if you love nature. It’s a long day but you’ll see some beautiful places. Just make sure you have a relaxing day afterwards!

This tour includes transportation, lunch, tickets and a guide.

If you want to connect with nature, enjoy ecotourism in Colombia and see a different side of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, consider a day trip to Palenque

You’ll enjoy a day of horseback riding through different environments, with the chance to see some of the local flora and fauna. 

If you do decide to book any tours or excursions, I recommend getting in touch with your operator via Whatsapp in advance. Trust me – it will make everything much easier!

Check out this post for even more Colombia travel tips.