The city of Cartagena is the place to come in Colombia for some history served with a hefty helping of vibrancy. Known during the Spanish colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, the Caribbean city was founded in 1533 – something that you can certainly feel as you explore the streets, plazas and centuries-old buildings of its historic center.
The central parts of Cartagena come alive at night, with tourists, backpackers and locals positively drinking in the lively atmosphere in bars set in renovated – and sometimes unrenovated – heritage buildings.
Equal parts colorful and historical, the walled city and its surrounding areas make for a picturesque place to come for a trip. But it isn’t all about this relatively tiny center of town; make your way south, and you’ll find yourself in a decidedly modern side of Cartagena. Complete with skyscrapers and a long stretch of beach, in the area of Bocagrande, it is easy to see that Cartagena is the fifth largest city in Colombia.
Map of Cartagena
In the north, however, you will find a different culture to that of the center and its crumbling buildings. La Boquilla is home to an Afro-Caribbean community that help show that Cartagena – in fact, all of Colombia – isn’t just a Spanish speaking ex-colony: it’s a melting pot of languages and cultures that makes up this South American country.
With an airport to get you in and out of Cartegena, arriving and departing is a breeze. The center is so compact you can explore it all on foot, from the 500-year-old churches to the revitalized, graffitied lanes.
However, there are more places to base yourself on a trip to Cartegena than inside its old city walls, so here is a selection of other spots in the city that might be perfect for your trip.
The district of Centro is the historic walled city and center of Cartagena. Here is the place to come to explore the history of the town, with its many lanes and monuments jostling for space. For a start, there’s the 500-year-old Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, the colorful Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría dating back to 1577, and the beautiful baroque building that was once the Palace of the Inquisition.
You will also be able to join in the fun at lively squares like Plaza Santo Domingo, which is lined with terrace restaurants, features a fun Botero sculpture, and plays host to street performers and dancing by night. Speaking of which, the nightlife in this area is great, with many bars open till late – like the cocktail lounge of El Baron.
Staying in Centro means, for the most part, staying in beautiful old buildings. This ranges all the way from elegant hotels set in 17th-century edifices to boutique offerings in villas complete with pools in the courtyard, ranging from high-end to surprisingly affordable.
Where to Stay in Centro
- Bastión Luxury Hotel – The Bastión Luxury Hotel is luxury living at its very best. Located within a beautiful old colonial mansion, this modern hotel in the historic city center boasts a rooftop pool with an exclusive solarium for lazy sunny days. And that’s not the only allure of this glamorous 5-star hotel. With an elegance reminiscent of the colonial era, the luxury rooms and suites come with king-sized beds and complimentary Loto del Sur toiletries. When you’re in need of a little TLC, the lavish spa serves up pampering aromatherapy treatments using rejuvenating natural plant extracts.
- Casa Milat Hotel Boutique – You’ll have absolutely everything you could need at your fingertips at Casa Milat Hotel Boutique located just around the corner from San Felipe de Barajas Castle. With just 12 rooms, the hotel has an intimate and exclusive air, with personal attention given to each and every guest. Stay here, and you’ll have use of the hotel’s outdoor pool, sun terrace, and free bikes for cycling to nearby Marbella and Bocagrande beaches. With its couples’ suites and family rooms, the hotel can also be rented out entirely as a holiday home.
- Casa India Catalina – With its hammocks and hanging poolside plants within the walls of a Republican building, Casa India Catalina is an intimate paradise in the historic center. With a mix of modern and traditional, this homely retreat boasts archways, wooden beams, and brass chandeliers that showcase the timeless elegance of a bygone era. Spend your days reading a book next to the pool or get out and explore – the hotel is conveniently located within walking distance of Bolivar Park and the Gold Museum with its pre-Columbian relics.
Bocagrande, situated on a spit of land curving south of central Cartagena, is the modern face of the city. Here is where you will find upscale designer clothing stores, government buildings, high-rise hotels, and plenty of skyscrapers. For those wanting a more modern stay in Cartagena, this is it.
But it’s not just about the high-rises; Bocagrande is also known for its beach life, with many pockets of sun, sea, and sand to enjoy along its Caribbean coast. There are many restaurants, both local and international, found here too, as well as upscale hotels.
Laguito, a tiny area at the end of the peninsula, is named for its small lake (‘laguito’ in Spanish). Around it, as well as a selection of hotels which includes the Hilton, are places to eat and drink overlooking the water. This is a great spot for sunset; fans of a sundowner will have an uninterrupted view of the sun going down over the water from the Playas El Laguito.
Where to Stay in Bocagrande & Laguito
- Hyatt Regency Cartagena – Wake up to endless ocean views from your floor-to-ceiling windows at the oh-so-luxurious Hyatt Regency Cartagena. Situated in a high-rise overlooking Bocagrande Beach and the Caribbean Sea, this 5-star hotel is perfectly located for exploring the beaches and attractions in and around the historic center. After a busy day of sightseeing, make sure you’re back in time for sunset – the views from the infinity pool and two signature restaurants and bars are simply unbeatable!
- Oz Hotel – Tucked inside a modern five-story block just three minutes’ walk from Boca Grande Beach, the 4-star Oz Hotel has a glamorous boutique-y feel with chevron tiles, lush plants, and floor-to-ceiling glass. Stay here, and you’ll be perfectly placed for exploring San Felipe Castle, the Museum of Modern Art, and La Marina Park, and you’ll find restaurants and supermarkets within an easy 10-minute walk. But with a solarium and sixth-floor rooftop terrace with enviable city views, it’s easy to stay right here and while away the day with a cocktail from the on-site bar – we won’t judge!
- Hotel Or Cartagena – A stay at Hotel Or Cartagena shows you don’t need much to have everything you need. With a swimming pool, family rooms, and a hot tub just a short stroll from Cartagena de Indias Beach, this 3-star hotel is an idyllic retreat with free breakfast included. While we’re sure you’ll be tempted to laze on a sun lounger most of the day, if you are looking to explore, there are several beaches within walking distance, and the historic center with its many noteworthy attractions is just a short drive away.
Previously known as something of a rough area with a lot of crime, Getsemaní is certainly on the up – though some areas of this district are still not completely safe to wander around after dark. Today, Getsemaní is known for being the hipster-friendly side to Cartagena; historic buildings with colorful murals and graffiti have been turned into tourist attractions, such as the rainbow of colors and imagery on Calle de las Tortugas.
Here, you’ll find a wealth of bars, restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs, where you can rub shoulders with Cartagena’s fun-loving cool kids and backpackers alike. Getsemaní is also packed with a whole lot of places to stay, the majority of which are located in historic buildings. From sociable hostels to boutique offerings, there is something for everyone in this party-ready area of town.
Where to Stay in Getsemaní
- Hotel Capellán – A shabby chic hotel that’s more chic than shabby, the luxury boho-style Hotel Capellan has an air of exclusivity about it. With its colonial-style archways, exposed brick walls, landscaped bushes, and lazy-day hammocks, the hotel is an interesting mixture of the old and new. As a guest, you can enjoy the use of the extravagant spa, pool, hot tub, and rooftop terrace, where you can sip cocktails with a view of the sunset. Or simply relax and enjoy the privacy and space of your room or suite overlooking the city, pool, or garden.
- Hotel Boutique Casa Isabel – With its colorful murals, shabby chic décor, and velvet colonial furniture, the modern Hotel Boutique Casa Isabel is full of character. Inside the blue-painted and ivy-covered façade, each hotel room has its own personality and a private balcony or terrace with a stunning view – perhaps yours will overlook the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, the Convent of the Popa, or the historic city walls. Whichever room you choose, you’ll enjoy a complimentary breakfast and use of a luxurious hot tub and open-air sunset bar overlooking the San Lazaro Lagoon.
- Hotel San Felipe – Housed in a Spanish colonial-style building with colored glass windows, Hotel San Felipe itself is a historical city landmark on the edge of the lush Centenario Park. Inside, the renovated hotel has all the creature comforts you could need for a relaxing city break – comfortable family rooms, free Wi-Fi, and an on-site restaurant for a break from cooking. Some rooms come with private balconies overlooking the city and the iconic clock tower, so put in a request for the best view.
Just north of the walled city itself lies San Diego. There is something of a bohemian atmosphere infused into this part of town, helped by the fact that the Art College of Bellas Artes is located here. There are plenty of fun places for students to meet up in the area, giving it an energy all of its own.
San Diego is not short of sights, either. You will find parts of the old fortified walls of the city, the Cordon Amurallado, and the Las Bovedas Market – a cool shopping area that looks and feels like a cave, which is probably because it used to be a jail. There is also the Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a reconstruction of the Colombian writer’s house, where you can go to learn about his life and works.
This area is also full of good restaurants and is perfect for a sunset stroll along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Beach. The accommodation in San Diego includes lively hostels and relaxing hotels boasting terraces and pools.
Where to Stay in San Diego
- Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena – Each and every guest gets the VIP treatment at the stylish Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena. Located within a former 17th-century monastery built around a palm-fringed pool not far from Santo Domingo Square, the hotel blends colonial architecture with innovative French luxury. Stay here and you’re guaranteed personalized service, gourmet cuisine at two restaurants, a room with a view of the gardens or the Caribbean Sea, and unadulterated pampering at the on-site luxury spa.
- Hotel Don Pedro De Heredia – Tucked around a jungle-style pool, Hotel Don Pedro De Heredia boasts elegant colonial architecture and a laidback tropical atmosphere that lures you in. Each room has a rustic charm with antique wooden décor, colorful walls, and traditional beamed ceilings, with an American breakfast included for each day of your stay. The hotel’s rooftop sun terrace is the pride and joy of the property, offering sun loungers for relaxing while admiring the views of the city’s rooftops.
- Hotel Cartagena Royal Inn – Boasting a prime setting in the heart of the historic center with its charming restaurants and bars, Hotel Cartagena Royal Inn is easily recognized by its distinct orange and white painted facade. Located within walking distance of Cartagena’s Clock Tower, the hotel makes the most of its enviable views – a rooftop hot tub overlooking the city rooftops is the ultimate relaxation spot, and a continental breakfast with tropical fruits and Colombian coffee can be enjoyed daily on the open-air terrace.
Manga is an island set to the south of Getsemaní. This is a leafy, residential neighborhood filled with tree-lined streets and quiet parks, such as the Parque Pastelillo. An unfussy area of town, this is a quieter alternative to the center if you’re looking to spend a more chilled couple or family break to Cartagena.
It’s not an overly touristed part of town, because there aren’t a lot of sights. There is a marina where you can watch the yachts swaying in the sea, but it’s more about blending in with the local life of this low-key district.
Apartments and hotels in Manga are very affordable. Some even have small pools and sea views, so you get to spend a hassle-free, independent time in this cool city – all only a stone’s throw from the most historic parts anyway.
Where to Stay in Manga
- Hotel Casa Castel – Housed in an exposed brick building, Hotel Casa Castel is built in the traditional style in a residential neighborhood, close to local restaurants and bars, as well as conveniences like ATMs and supermarkets. The ideal holiday base, guests will have access to a panoramic rooftop terrace, an outdoor pool surrounded by plants and a fountain, and a dinner restaurant with lively evening entertainment. Apart from tasteful rooms with mosaic bathrooms, the rate includes a daily tropical breakfast with fresh fruit, eggs, and delicious homemade bread.
A relatively quiet area to the north of the center sandwiched between Santander Avenue and the Caribbean Sea, Marbella is known for its beach, the sandy Playa Marbella. It comes with parasols, sun loungers, and palm trees. This place is a popular spot – not just for soaking up the sun and paddling around in the surf, but also for beach volleyball. If you’re not up for a game, you’re free to watch.
There’s a pedestrian path running along the seafront here. It’s an excellent spot for watching local life and picnicking; there’s even a skate park here. From here, it’s a short taxi ride to the walled city itself, plus taxis are quite easy to flag down in Marbella.
Though not right next door to the airport, it’s close enough that getting to an early flight is easy, yet far enough that you don’t hear the planes. There is a selection of beachfront hotels to choose from in Marbella, some high rise chains and apartments.
Where to Stay in Marbella
- Casa Bustamante Hotel Boutique – Surrounded by swaying palms and pools, the 4-star Casa Bustamante Hotel Boutique is the perfect holiday base, less than 200 meters from Marbella Beach. Step inside the blue-painted 1900s heritage building with its pretty checker-block floor tiles, and you’ll find just six air-conditioned rooms with private patios, colorful wall art, and mosaicked en-suite bathrooms. When you’re up for exploring, the historic walled city and its fascinating attractions is less than a kilometer away.
- Ibis Cartagena Marbella – Set within a high-rise tower overlooking the Columbian coastline, the Ibis Cartagena Marbella is modern and arty with splashes of colorful decor, funky light fittings, and wall art throughout. Comfortable guest rooms would please the minimalist yet still have all the creature comforts you’d need, such as air-conditioning, towels, and a private bathroom. With an on-site bar and restaurant, you’d be forgiven for staying right here. But for those looking to sightsee, Cartagena’s Modern Art Museum, Bolivar Park and port are conveniently close by.
North of Marbella is the long island that is La Boquilla. Formerly a fishing village, and often described as such, La Boquilla is a 25-minute drive from Cartagena’s center and just a 5 minute drive to the airport.
La Boquilla is made up of two different areas: Morros, which is where you’ll find skyscrapers and luxury gated communities, and the original town of La Boquilla further to the north. There are a handful of modern chain hotels to stay in Morros overlooking the Caribbean, as well as small local hotels and homely inns for a more affordable stay.
Whilst high rise hotels and clean beaches are the norm for Morros, that’s not the case for the original La Boquilla. This older area is a patchwork of local authentic restaurants and busy fishermen bringing in the day’s catch; try out the delicious fried fish at one of these eateries. Back in Morros, enjoy strolls along the shore, sunning yourself on the beach, and having a cocktail from one of the mobile cocktail vendors!
Where to Stay in La Boquilla
- Hotel Las Americas Casa de Playa – A 5-star hotel perfectly tailored to families, the Hotel Las Americas Casa de Playa promises endless beachfront entertainment – from dance lessons to cooking classes. Parents can sit back and relax – or perhaps indulge at the spa or one of two on-site bars – while the kids enjoy the thrills and spills of this tropical resort: a mini-golf course, two pools complete with fun-filled waterslides, tennis courts, and a massive kids’ playground. In the evenings, there’s plenty of time for family bonding with a meal at one of the hotel’s two restaurants.
- Sonesta Hotel Cartagena – With direct access to the public beach and no less than three palm-dotted swimming pools, Sonesta Hotel Cartagena is the ideal holiday retreat. Located in a modern high-rise, the hotel offers chic-styled rooms and complimentary welcome cocktails. A daily buffet breakfast complete with fresh fruit and renowned Colombian coffee will lure you out of bed in the mornings so that you’re ready to explore – the San Felipe Castle and Cartagena’s Museum of Gold are just a short drive away.
Located in the northern part of Marbella, Crespo is very well located if you’re planning on flying into, or out of, the city. The Rafael Núñez International Airport is practically on the doorstep. While not packed with sights to see and things to do, staying in this area of town does mean that you will get a seriously convenient location.
There are a fair few restaurants to choose from here, meaning that you won’t be completely cut off by staying in this airport-friendly zone, but you’re still far enough away from the bustling center of town that you won’t be overrun by noise and late nights.
If you are interested in staying in this more modern part of Cartagena, you are going to find a number of affordable and mid-range apartments and hotels – mostly within striking distance of the airport.
Where to Stay in Crespo
- GHL Corales de Indias – The GHL Corales de Indias has an excellent reputation, and it’s not hard to see why – every single room comes with an amazing view of the ocean and an excellent breakfast. No day is the same here with an eventful calendar jam-packed with family movie nights, cooking classes, and arts and crafts lessons. If that’s not enough, there’s also a kids’ playground, an aqua play area, and a games room, which gives parents time off for unwinding at the spa and relaxing around the sea-facing pool.