An ever-increasing security situation has led to ever-increasing visitors to Colombia. Medellín and its remarkable turnaround story from Pablo Escobar’s hometown to one of the safest and most modern cities in Latin America have become popular destinations.
However, visitors to Colombia would be remiss to not also include a visit to the country’s best-known international destination, the historic colonial city of Cartagena, often included in the itinerary of several South American tours. Set on the Caribbean Sea, it also offers year-round warm weather and gorgeous nearby beaches.
It is also within a day’s travel of some other nice destinations, such as the beautiful mountain town of Minca, making it a great gateway to seeing more of Colombia’s Caribbean.
3 days is just about the perfect amount of time spent in Cartagena. It’s enough time to see all the main sites and enjoy a day at the beach, and it will leave you time to see some of those other destinations. Read on to see the best way to spend 3 days in Cartagena in this cool and easy Cartagena 3-day itinerary.
3 Days In Cartagena – A Step-By-Step Itinerary
Day 1 – Get to Know Cartagena
In this first day, you’ll get to learn about Cartagena’s history and explore its historic colonial streets.
Visit the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas Fortress
This fortress, located just outside the Walled City of central Cartagena, is the largest the Spanish built on the South American mainland. You’ll certainly notice it is an imposing structure, and it and the city’s walls are why the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I strongly recommend that you do this first thing in the morning. That’s likely to be the least crowded time, and while it is never cool in Cartagena, it will be much more comfortable than the overpowering sun of the afternoon. Still, be sure to take along sunscreen and water to stay hydrated.
You can get some great views of the colonial city and the bay from atop the fort. Be sure to pass through the tunnels that connect different sections, and you can learn more about the fort’s history and its role in the defeat of an English attack by Edward Vernon in 1741 in a short animated film.
Explore the Walled City
From the Castillo, you can easily hop a short taxi ride or take about a 15-minute walk to reach the heart of Cartagena, the Walled City or Centro.
I recommend starting your exploration of the walled city at the statue of the India Catalina, an indigenous woman who served as translator during the conquest of the area by the Spanish and is a popular symbol of the city. The stature is located in a large plaza overlooking the lagoon just outside the Walled City.
From there, head diagonal right to enter the old city. If you didn’t have breakfast or want a snack, I highly recommend you sample an arepa de huevo from the curbside fry cooks and vendors you’ll see or from the nearby Donde Magola. It is Cartagena’s premier street food. If you’re not hungry, don’t worry, you can always try one later in the day or in the evening.
You’ll want to spend some time just walking around and taking in the colonial beauty of the city. If you entered from the India Catalina like suggested above, you can continue along the section of wall to your right and you’ll go by Cartagena’s newest shopping mall, the Serrezuela, built to look like a former bull ring and theater. A bit further on, you’ll come to a corner of the wall, where you’ll see Las Bovedas, the former barracks that today hold souvenir shops. You can get a great view atop the wall here as well.
From there head inwards to walk the streets of the Old Town. Notable places you’ll want to see are the Plaza San Diego, the Parque Fernadez de Madrid, the Plaza Santo Domingo, and the Parque Bolívar. Also, be sure to marvel at the ivy and rose covered balconies and big colonial doorways.
On either side of the Parque Bolívar, you’ll find the Gold Museum, which is free to enter and exhibits examples of the pre-colonial gold designs made by Colombia’s indigenous peoples, and the Palacio de la Inquisición, which doubles as a historic museum and museum of the Spanish Inquisition. There you’ll find exhibits on the city’s history as well as some examples of torture devices. Both museums are worth visiting.
Where to Have Lunch in the Walled City
By this point, you should have worked up an appetite. There is no shortage of great restaurants inside the Walled City. A few standouts are La Mulata, La Perla, El Bistro, and El Espiritu Santo. All serve up traditional Cartagena favorites.
For some alternative options, you could check out La Cevicheria, made famous after the late Anthony Bourdain visited it or the Argentine grill with an eat vibe at Marzola, both located just off the Plaza San Diego.
Tour the San Pedro Claver Church
Cartagena’s neatest colonial era church is the San Pedro Claver Church. The church is named after the Jesuit priest who spent much of his life preaching there. Pedro Claver was especially known for preaching to slaves and advocating for humane treatment of them. He was later canonized by the Catholic Church and is often referred to as the patron saint of human rights.
In addition to seeing the inside of the sanctuary, there are some neat examples of religious relics and art on display inside the museum. You can also see Pedro Claver’s simple living quarters, and even his remains are housed under the altar in the sanctuary itself.
Learn More about the City’s History at the Naval Museum
Around the backside of the church, you’ll find the Museo Naval del Caribe. This is the best historical museum in the city. If you are more pressed for time or just not that big a fan of museums, I would encourage you to do this one over the better known Inquisition Museum.
There are exhibits here on the colonial era, including the different attacks on the city, the best known by Francis Drake and Edward Vernon. The models and maps help put into context what you saw in the morning at the Castillo San Felipe.
You’ll also get to learn more about the independence era and the important role Cartagena played in it. Finally, there are exhibits on the modern Colombian navy, and some neat interactive models of a submarine and battleship that kids, in particular will like.
Just outside the museum, you can also see the Parque Marina, one of the prettier green spaces in the Centro. You can also marvel at the former Santa Teresa convent, now the Hotel Charleston. The restaurant inside has some amazing crab nachos if you have worked up another appetite for a snack or want to make a note to come back another day.
Catch the Sunset and Enjoy a Drink with the View from the Roof of Hotel Movich
The Hotel Movich, about a block away from the Parque Bolívar has one of, if not the best, views in the city. You can see much of the Walled City with the bay and the modern towers of Bocagrande in the background.
You’ll want to get here by around 5 or just before to make sure you get a good seat and don’t miss the sun going down. Drinks and appetizers are good. Occasionally, the bar is closed due to private events at the hotel. If that happens feel free to swap this with the sunset recommendation for day 3 below.
Have Dinner at Alma
Alma is one of Cartagena’s finest restaurants. You will want to make sure you make a reservation. The colonial décor is nice, and the food is absolutely amazing. I recommend trying the lobster empanadas for an appetizer and the seafood stew in a coconut milk-based sauce known as cazuela de mariscos. The steak, seafood pasta, and shrimp risotto are all also terrific. You won’t go wrong here!
For an alternative but similar, fine dining experience consider Marea by Rausch or Candé. If you’re on a tighter budget, consider trying one of the other options listed above for lunch.
Have a Beer at Donde Fidel
Donde Fidel is practically a Cartagena institution. This long running, local salsa spot is on the corner near the Clocktower, below the Hard Rock Café. Inside, it gets quite crowded and the salsa gets turned up loud. However, the tables outside are great to enjoy a cold beer, some fresh air, and some people watching.
Other places downtown for a relaxed drink include the Clock Pub, Beer Lovers if you’re a fan of craft beer, and the outside tables at the Parque Fernandez de Madrid. Or if you’re more of a cocktail drinker, check out the interesting concoctions at El Arsenal Rum Box, Alquimico, or the rooftop bar at Hotel Townhouse.
This is where you first day in Cartagena ends. After a long day, you’ll want to hit the hay before too late, and because you have another big day tomorrow.
Day 2 – Beaching It
No trip to a Caribbean destination is complete without a day at the beach! The beaches in Cartagena proper are decent, and if you only have 2 days, for example, you could opt to spend only half a day at the beach in town.
However, the nicest beaches are outside the city itself. If you have three days in Cartagena, you can afford the day to get the most out of the beaches. Below are 3 options for a beach day at the best beaches near Cartagena.
Beach Day Option 1: The Rosario Islands
This is my top choice. This cluster of small islands lies about a 90-minute boat ride away from Cartagena is part of a larger chain that includes the even more beautiful San Bernardo Islands several hours to the south. The islands are very pretty and are surrounded by crystal clear, Caribbean water.
There are a few different ways to do the islands. The best, if you can manage it is to rent a private boat for the day. This is most cost effective if you are a group of 7 or more. Those looking for more of a booze cruise type of experience will want to go to the party island spot known as Cholón. Companies offering rentals can arrange the perfect plan for you. Two companies that offer this service are Botes de la Bahía and Boating Cartagena.
A second option is to do a day pass at one of the resorts in the islands. These usually include boat transportation there and back, lunch, and access to the pool in addition to the beach area. You could of course always opt to spend a night too! Some of the well-known resorts in the islands include Coco Liso, Isla del Sol, Isla del Encanto, and Bora Bora Beach Club.
Finally, you could opt to do a group day tour. These tours can be bought from vendors on the street or any travel agency in town. Your hotel also likely has a contact to arrange one.
These tours follow a pretty standard route out to the islands for a stop at the Aquarium. There you can pay to see the Aquarium, it has a dolphin show, rent gear to go snorkeling, or hang out on the beach. Then you’ll head to Playa Blanca on the nearby Island of Barú for lunch and an afternoon lounging on this white sand beach.
Beach Day Option 2: Playa Blanca
You can also choose to just head to Playa Blanca for the day. This long stretch of beach is well known and has long been considered one of the prettiest in Colombia.
You can reach the beach by booking a tour that goes by bus or boat, by taking the very convenient Playa Blanca Shuttle from Hostel Mamallena, by hiring a taxi, or by using public transportation to reach the town of Pasacaballos before taking a collective 4×4 out to the beach.
The Colombian National Aviary is also located near Playa Blanca. Some tours include the morning at the aviary and the afternoon at the beach. The aviary is very well done and contains lots of bird species, so if that interests you then ask about one of those tours.
Beach Day Option 3: Tierra Bomba
This is the closest beach outside the city. The island of Tierra Bomba is located at the entrance to Cartagena’s bay, and it is only about a 10-minute boat ride away. There are a number of nice little beach spots on the island. It isn’t quite as pretty here as Playa Blanca or the islands, but it’s still a good way to spend the day at the beach if you can’t do one of the above options.
You can get to Tierra Bomba by taking a boat from the beach behind the hospital in Bocagrande. Many of the hotels on the island offer day passes as well. Some of these include Fenix Beach, Palmarito Beach, Namaste, and Bomba Beach. Like with the resorts in the Rosario Islands, you could always decide to spend a night here too.
Regardless of which beach option you choose, you are likely to encounter at least some vendors, usually of oysters, bracelets, sweets, and massages. If you’re interested then take a look and know prices are usually negotiable. If you’re not, give your firmest “No, gracias” and beware that some can be very insistent.
Have Dinner at Club de Pesca
After a day at the beach, you’ll want to head back to your hotel, get a shower, and maybe relax a bit. That’s before heading to the awesome Club de Pesca for dinner.
Located on the site of a small colonial era fort, Club de Pesca has some of the very best seafood in town. It also has a beautiful location right on the bay. Be sure to treat yourself to their coconut pie for dessert. It is amazing.
Day 3: Concluding Your Trip and Seeing Getsemaní
For the last day of this 3 day Cartagena itinerary, the day is a little less full in case you missed something from Day 1 and want to see it today, or you are worn out from a day in the sun at the beach or partying on a boat and want to get a later start.
Have Breakfast/Brunch at Café Epoca
Epoca has two locations inside the walled city. They have a nice menu and often have specials on mimosas. You can also get some of the world famous Colombian coffee prepared in a variety of different methods. Some of them look like something out of a chemistry lab.
Check Out the Trendy Neighborhood of Getsemaní
If you head out of the Walled City from the Clocktower, you’ll cross over into the equally historic district of Getsemaní. This was the home of freed slaves and artisans during the colonial era and is often considered to be center of Cartagena’s culture.
You’ll see more neat and colorful, colonial architecture here. You can also see some neat street art. A number of the streets have colorful umbrellas or flags over them, including the famous Callejón Angosto. You’ll be able to get some very memorable photos here.
There are a ton of cafes and restaurants here to stop in for lunch. Or, you could opt to head back in to the Walled City before doing the next thing on our list.
Pick Up Some Souvenirs
You don’t want to go home empty handed! The best spots to get souvenirs are at the shops in Las Bovedas, or at the store about a block away from the Clocktower, caddy corner from the Governor’s Office and Cathedral.
Around the holidays, there are often also artisan markets set up around the Clocktower, in the Parque Marina, or in the Parque Centenario, in between the Walled City and Getsemaní. These are a great chance to get unique souvenirs and support smaller, local businesses.
For another unique gift, check out the Portal de los Dulces, under the archways of the buildings inside the Clocktower. Here, you can sample artisan-made sweets like the coconut patties known as a cocada. They sell small packs to take home. If you want more sweet souvenirs, check out the ChocoMuseo, which sells all sorts of chocolate things. Their make your own chocolate workshops are also a great activity for families and kids.
Catch the Sunset at Café del Mar
This is one of the most iconic places in the city. Café del Mar sits atop the wall behind the Plaza de Santo Domingo. This is actually the oldest section of the wall and it has a direct view to the sunset over the Caribbean.
You’ll want to make sure you get here a tad early or make a reservation as the prime seats right on the wall get filled up quick. Enjoy a drink or two here as the sun goes down on your last day in Cartagena.
Hang Out in the Plaza de la Trinidad
For the evening, you’re heading back to Getsemaní. The Plaza de la Trinidad becomes a popular hangout spot for locals and visitors alike in the evening. You can get cheap road beers from the tienda on the corner or enjoy any of the small bars and cafés around the plaza.
For dinner, try the street food stalls in the plaza. I recommend a patacon con todo, one of the fried plantain patties smothered in meats and cheese. You could also opt for one of the restaurants around the plaza. Palenqueras serves up local favorites, Demente has a neat beer garden and great brick oven style pizzas, Café de la Trinidad has a nice variety, los Taquillos de María have great grilled burritos, Chachara has a bar and grill menu, and Di Silvio has great pastas and pizzas.
Get Your Dance On
No trip is complete to Cartagena without going out dancing either. You could of course tag on a bit of dancing to either or both of your first two evenings in Colombia too, but you definitely want to make sure you get a taste of the nightlife in the city.
I recommend that you head to Bazurto Social Club to get your groove on to the local music Champeta. Champeta mixes African rhythms with Latino culture and is unique to Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Bazurto usually has live music, and they have little dance tutorials throughout the night. It also usually has a nice mix of tourists and locals.
For salsa, check out Club Havana, also in Getsemaní. This is where Hillary Clinton went out dancing in Cartagena. For a more crossover mix of pop and house music, check out Mister Babilla.
Cartagena Trip Planning
And that wraps up this 3-day itinerary for Cartagena, Colombia. It gives you a mix of history, culture, beaching it, great food, and even some partying. It should be more than enough to fill your days and leave you with some great memories.
A few other tips before planning your trips to keep in mind are to make sure you pack for the warm weather, if you’re coming from Europe, bring along a travel currency adaptor, and be sure to verify taxi prices when you get in. You’ll also want of have plenty of sunscreen and know that around major holidays like Christmas and Easter, the city can get quite crowded.
As far as safety goes, Cartagena is very safe, and there are usually plenty of police around the tourist areas. Be aware of what and who are around you, especially late at night, and avoid carrying lots of cash or fancy jewelry, and you should be just fine.
For where to stay, I strongly recommend staying inside the Walled City or Getsemaní. Bocagrande or the boutique hotels just outside the wall in Cabrero can also be good options.
Now, you have all you need to plan your 3 days in Cartagena. I hope you have a terrific time!
Author bio: Adam McConnaughhay has lived in Cartagena since 2011. He works as a school teacher and writes about Cartagena and other destinations in Colombia at CartagenaExplorer.com.
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