Cartagena is Colombia’s beloved jewel, celebrated for its colorful and historic past, nearby archipelago of tropical islands, and eclectic dining experiences. With the city at your disposal, there’s plenty to keep you occupied for days, possibly weeks. But where should you start? For a memorable and delicious— albeit jam-packed— 48-hour itinerary in Cartagena, follow below:
FRIDAY IN CARTAGENA
Dinner at La Mulata, 7:30 P.M.
Hidden along Calle Quero, a historical street strung with colorful lanterns, is La Mulata, a local favorite known for their budget-friendly Colombian seafood dishes. The restaurant’s decor is creative with artistic touches seen throughout the reasonably-expanded space. Try their ceviches and coconut lemonade. Note that portions tend to be on the smaller size— for Colombia— so order a few, just in case.
SATURDAY IN CARTAGENA
Tourist-free stroll, 6 A.M.
During the day, Cartagena can be obnoxiously overwhelming. Especially if it’s tourist season. It becomes difficult to escape the other travelers, take an unobstructed picture, or even dodge one of the thousands of Panama hat vendors hounding you. To best appreciate Cartagena in its unspoiled light, explore immediately after sunrise. This is before most hungover tourists wake from their stupor or tour buses unload. You will be amazed at the vast difference a few hours can make: old men hanging out on corners drinking coffee; residents hustling to work; the sunlight working awesome angles against the rainbow-hued buildings. Worth the grogginess, guaranteed.
Breakfast at Pasteleria Mila, 8 A.M.
Since the city wakes up slightly later, most restaurants don’t open for business until at least 10. Unless you’re grabbing street food, sit down for an indulgent breakfast at Cafe Mila. Though it’s known more for their decadent desserts— come back later!— the cafe’s breakfast platters offer a lovely infusion of French and Caribbean flavors. Try “rancheros divorciados” comprising two eggs atop a crunchy tortilla, bathed in sauces and cheese. Wash everything down with their signature coffee, elegantly prepared before you.
Free streetart tour, 10 A.M.
Cartagena is bursting with street art and most of it resides off the beaten grid. Get schooled in history, local legends, and of course art all at one by participating in the free streetart tour. It meets every day at the Plaza de Trinidad in Getsemani, a short walk from the walled city. The tour lasts for about two hours and is conducted entirely in English. It offers a perspective towards Cartagena, and Getsemani specifically, as told by the present graffiti paintings, taking you down hidden side streets and passageways. Just make sure to tip your guide at the end!
Lunch at Caffé Lunático, 12 P.M.
Located just a few minutes walk from Plaza de Trinidad is this eccentric-decorated cafe, specializing in Spanish tapas and Colombian infusions. For 15,000 pesos, you can get an awesome lunch deal that includes a soup or salad starter, main dish of the day with a juice, dessert or coffee. There’s also several vegetarian options, including a savory lentil and pumpkin burger. And since you just spent your last few hours learning about street art, make sure to look up. The ceiling mural was created by local street artist Andrés Molina.
Coffee break at Cafe del Mural, 2:30 P.M.
After stuffing yourself at Lunático, quickly drop by Cafe del Mural for a lift-me-up cup of experimental coffee. The cafe itself is tiny and unassuming from the outside, but owner David Arzayus is creating magic within its walls: coffee brewed with passion fruit, Indian spices, or rum. Some consider the coffee here to be Cartagena’s best, whether it’s the variety of beans or David’s mad scientific efforts in his laboratory (you can even help with the alchemy yourself). I mean, what’s not to love about coffee brewed in a popcorn machine?
Castillo San Felipe, 3 P.M.
Built in the mid-1600s, this monster of a fortress is walkable from the walled city and worth the sweaty climb up to its entrance. Its history is legendary— just 3,000 Spanish troupes, using the fortress as defense, managed to withstand a month-long siege against the English. These days, tourists can enjoy clamoring over its worn bunks and batteries, and more importantly, through its series of dark tunnels running crisscross below the surface. Note that despite being cave-like in nature, it’s just as humid as above ground. Entrance costs 25,000 pesos and an additional 12,000 for an English guide.
It’s a bit cliche watching sunset at Cafe del Mar, the go-to destination for first-timers in Cartagena. But there’s a reason why so many flock to this location despite the pricey and mediocre drinks. The setting: an open cafe on a historical city wall with an unobstructed view out into the Pacific, complete with occasional windsurfers. It’s hard to beat a sunset in such postcard-perfect conditions. Just make sure to arrive an hour before dusk or risk giving up prime real estate. If you are rebellious and want to stray off the beaten path, head to upscale Alma for a cocktail. Try their homemade sangria or potent pisco sour for a real kick to the start of the night. (Super cheap tip: pick up a craft beer from bottle shop The Beer Lovers and sit on the wall, free of charge).
Dinner in prison at Restaurante Interno, 7:30 P.M.
Prison food shouldn’t be this goddamn good. But at Interno, Cartagena’s newest and hottest restaurant, it truly is. The restaurant is run by female inmates inside San Diego’s women prison, all of whom have been trained by professional chefs. It is the hope of the program that these women will use their newly acquired cooking skills once they are rehabilitated. As for food, you can’t go wrong with the set menu but the Cartagena-style sliced beef reigns. We thanked our lucky stars our AirBnB host helped us reserve a table for dinner as we watched other sorry gringos being turned away.
Finish your night in classic Colombian fashion: dancing. Most tourists race toward the famous Cafe Havana to boogie, and for good reason! The music is fantastic— think Buena Vista Social Club— and the atmosphere lively. Despite the air conditioning, it’s not everyone’s favorite. Admission is rather steep as compared to most clubs, drinks are costly, and it’s often so packed that salsa dancing may lead to minor injuries. If you’re not feeling Cafe Havana, try Quiebracanto, another bar specializing in salsa, as well as son and reggae. The crowd may not be as rowdy, but the salsa tends to be a bit dirtier, and often spills out onto the second floor balcony.
SUNDAY IN CARTAGENA
Late breakfast at Beiyú, 10 A.M.
Head back over to Getsemani, walking through Parque Centenario on the way in order to try to spot the sloth in the trees. Yes, there’s a legit sloth hanging out in said park. Beiyú is a sweet little brunch spot serving up some mean coffee and slow-food concoctions. Owner Horacio Perez is all about fair trade and natural ingredients. Try the green omelette with nuts or açai bowl to compensate for the drinks last night.
Gringo-free beach, 12 P.M.
Every savvy tourist fears Playa Blanca, if only for the touts practically throwing themselves at you to buy a boat ticket there. While Blanca is obviously, full of blanca (i.e. white sand), the beach distractions make it for a very unrelaxing destination. Oil massage? Oil massage! OIL MASSAGEEEEEEE. Instead, head to a nearby beach preferred by locals. Punta Arena on Isla Tierra Bomba is located just a five-minute boat taxi ride across the water from Bocagrande. Here, you can truly enjoy the true Colombian beach experience: fish at the base price, impromptu dancing, and banana boats in the shape of sharks. The water may not be the clearest at times, but I take peace over Instagram.
Where are your favorite places in Cartagena? Add to the list! For more tips on Cartagena, read This is Cartagena, Style Caster, or Amuse. For another comprehensive 48-hour guide, check out this one on Bogotá.