The Caribbean laps at your feet, salsa music plays in your ears and you’re wearing a Panama hat you just bought from a man selling them on the street…you know you’ve found yourself in the Colombian jewel that is Cartagena. Having the luxury to spend five days anywhere is thrilling, but spending five days in Cartagena gives you a real feel for this small, but packed walled city and beach town.
Cartagena oozes Colombian style and is chock-a-bloc filled with shops, restaurants and bars. Shopping in Cartagena is magical. Traditional, artisan products are on show everywhere, always reminding you where you are. Cartagena restaurants serve both traditional, mostly seafood, Colombian & Caribbean cuisine or fresh modern takes by now-famous Cartagenian chefs.
The bars are as cutting-edge as they are in London and, of course, there are dance clubs packing them in dancing salsa.
Things to do in Cartagena
Getting to the historic centre of Cartagena is super easy – the airport is only 15 minutes from town. There are bank machines at the airports, but we used the ones in town. Just be careful here, as you would at any ATM anywhere.
Shopping in Cartagena
You see the famed Mochila bags everywhere – on the streets and in the shops. I bought a few on the street as gifts for my goddaughters. Don’t be afraid to haggle as you would in any souk. If you want to basic ones, then get them on the street. More elaborately decorated ones are found in most of the boutiques, but no haggling there.
Chic Colombian Style
A few shops in tiny Cartagena are unmissable for the best of Colombian high fashion. St Dom is the one you just cannot miss. It rivals Corso Como in Milan as one of the coolest clothing shops in the world. Agua del Leon is lined with the prettiest handbands I’ve seen, as well as clothing, handbags, shoes and a La Hechicera rum bar in the back. There are also flagship stores from Mercedes Salazar, with her signature jewelry, and Martin Pescador, whose espadrilles for men were so chic that I almost bought a pair.
I don’t think anyone gets out of a bathing suit here – why would you when it’s always sunny and the sea is right there. Every clothing store sells bikinis, one pieces and cover-ups. My favorites were Onda da Mer, Touche, and the gorgeous Maaji – all Colombian designers.
A bit of everything
One shop is on everyone’s list – Casa Chiqui – all of Cartagena shopping in one spot. Once is not enough! I returned three or four times. Every part of the shop is filled to the brim with goodies from Colombia and abroad – sandals, Mochila bags, jewelry, as well as, items from Mexico, Southeast Asia and Marrakech. You’ll come home with everything in the store.
Traditional Colombian Style
If you are eager to not only shop, but also promote the development of art and handicrafts in Colombia, then head to Artesanías de Colombia. It has the most beautiful selection of traditional products that are still being made by local craftsmen. The shop in Bogota is one of the best in the city. Here it’s slightly smaller but has lovely hats, jewelry and, you guessed it, Mochila bags.
Eating in Cartagena
From fresh-caught seafood to homemade ice cream to the most modern of dishes in Colombia, eating in Cartagena takes you on whirlwind tour of its Caribbean and Latin American history in every meal.
Thanks to Tony Bourdain, you have to wait hours for a table to La Cevicheria. Still, there is a reason why we waited 40 minutes for a table. It might seem simple to combine freshly chopped seafood with lime and lemon juice, but in their hands, it’s otherworldly. Go for lunch and have a couple of local mojitos while you wait!!
Lunch in Getsemani
One of the best meals I had was in this tiny restaurant outside the walled city in the hippest section of Cartegena, Getsemani. Walkable from the old town, La Cucina de Pepina was opened by María Josefina Yances, the culinary researcher and expert in Caribbean cuisine. The plates appear simple, but the taste packs a punch and you won’t want it to end. We were there at the right time and didn’t have to wait, but, be warned, there are no reservations.
Dinner in Cartagena
So many restaurants in Cartagena line the streets, and you would probably have a great dinner in most of them. My favorite was Maria, colorful, fresh and young. Carmen was the modern one of the bunch. Each dish was constructed with a least ten ingredients and plated as if it were a work of art. Don’t worry, they taste as good as they look.
Don’t be shy to just try one of the many restaurants with live music. It is a bit touristy but who cares, you are a tourist. Where they might not be culinary treasures, they are fun and we weren’t disappointed with Candé, Mistura and Juan de la Mer.
Sweets in Cartagena
I am a huge fan of the popsicle (or ice lolly as the Brits call them) and was so excited to make La Paletteria my home for the five days I was in Cartagena. I tried local fruits, lulo and maracuya, and also the recognizable ones, pineapple, mango, and watermelon.
If you prefer your sweet stuff in a cup or cone, go right down the street to Gelateria Paradiso – the best in town!
Bars in Cartagena
The cocktail bars in Cartagena can rival the ones in London – creativity knows no bounds and the mixology scene has truly hit Colombia. Still, it would be remiss of me to not mention coffee in the country that invented it. Epoca Café has the best coffee in town which is saying a lot for Colombia! Really a day place to go for brunch, don’t forget to order a cocktail – their version of the Espresso Martini will wake you up and then rev you up! Ask for Julian and Nikol and tell them you heard their Lush Life podcast!
El Barón is a must for any cocktail lover. Sit outside and enjoy the sun while some of the best mixologists in the country are making your cocktail. Listen to the Lush Life podcast with one of the best, and the head honcho, Noah Matthias, and then pick whatever cocktail he advises.
The interior of the cocktail bar Alquimico looks like a mad-scientist’s lab. Big glass jars filled with colored liquid line the walls. You are literally seeing spirits being made while you sip. They are all in various stages of the process and the closer they get to the floor, the closer they are to being ready to drink. Every cocktail on their menu has a bit of something you see on the walls!
Night Clubs in Cartagena
Salsa dance clubs are all over the city and you can’t go wrong. Hit Detente in Getsemni, La Movida for contempary salsa and great mojitos, or the salsa club above Caponera café which has more traditional music and balconies that hang-over the streets, so everyone can see you get down.
Here are a few glamorous hotels I can recommend:
I would only do a tour of the Historic Centre – not the other parts since you will be spending most of your time there.
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