Whatever type of vacation you’re looking for, you can probably find it in Cartagena. The 490-year-old port city in northwestern Colombia drips with history—yet it never feels past its prime. Quite the contrary actually, considering that tourism is on the rise and there’s a plethora of boutique hotels, restaurants, and clubs. With a Caribbean beachfront, a bustling downtown area, and the culturally decadent Old Town, you can experience the full breadth of travel wrapped up in one charming place. As you make your summer vacation plans, I can’t recommend Cartagena enough—particularly if you plan your visit for May or June, which the locals say is the best time to go. Here, find the must-see highlights in sights, sips, and more.
What to See
Within Cartagena proper, you’ll find the Old Town, a walled city that was once one of the largest shipping ports in the world. Today, it brims with folklore, as well as some of the finest culinary and cultural experiences. Spend an afternoon wandering the streets, visiting shops, and admiring the colonial architecture. If you notice that many of the blocks look similar, that’s on purpose: the centuries-old design was intended to confuse pirates and cause them to get lost (literally). Venture to Getsemani on the outskirts, which is now one of the hippest areas to be and is chock-full of murals and street art. I implore you look into walking tours of the city, as much of it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After all the years (and years, and years) of buying coffee pods, grounds, and beans labeled as Colombian, I finally got to try the stuff straight from the source. The coffee in Cartagena did, in fact, live up to all the hype. If you consider yourself a coffee snob or are looking to learn more about the artistry of the industry, you should definitely consider booking a coffee tasting during your stay (like the one at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara). You’ll sample different roasts from a variety of regions and even experiment with different methods of brewing and preparation. In case you’re not interested in a formal tasting, just be sure to get your morning cup of joe from different places each day. That’s close enough.
National Aviary of Colombia
You might not consider yourself a bird person, a birder, or an aviphile, but you should still check out Colombia’s National Aviary regardless. Located in Isla Baru, this wildlife sanctuary is the ultimate place to learn about the nation’s incredible biodiversity and natural preservation while peeping some spectacular species. Parrots, peacocks, toucans, and flamingos are just a few of the colorful winged creatures you’ll encounter.
Where to Eat
I always get particularly excited about the first real meal I eat in a new city (travel day meals don’t count!). For my first trip to South America, I figured I was in for a real gastronomic treat. Would my first lunch be fresh ceviche? A sizzling empanada? Some local delicacy I’d never heard of before? No, none of the above. My first meal was at Mistura…and I had sushi. Call me naive, but I wasn’t expecting to see a California roll on any menus in Cartagena. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint. In fact, it was one of the best sushi rolls I’ve ever had. Mistura fuses Colombian and Peruvian classics, plus some extra Asian flair, for a menu you’d never expect. Aside from the sushi, you can’t miss out on the crispy taco appetizer and quattro leches dessert.
You know a restaurant is really good when it’s highly regarded by locals and hotel staff alike. Candé is exactly the kind of restaurant you hope for when traveling: it balances a swanky dining experience with a menu of authentic home-cooked flavors similar to what you’d find at family dinner tables in the region. Did I mention the live entertainers who float through the different dining rooms, dancing and putting on a show while you chow down on fresh caught fish and homemade rum? Might be worth noting.
If it’s good enough for the list of Latin America’s 50 best restaurants, it’s definitely good enough for me. But there’s nothing pretentious about Celele, although you might expect that from such a well-renowned eatery. Its menu isn’t a far cry from any others I saw on my trip; it featured the usual Caribbean suspects, like banana leaf-wrapped fish filet, cassava bread, and goat stew. So, if it’s not innovative culinary dishes that make Celele a buzzy place to get a reservation, what is it? Just plain ol’ good quality eats, that’s what. This food must be cooked with extra love, and you sure can taste it.
Where to Drink
I know my way around a bar, that much is safe to say. But never had I ever had a cocktail from anywhere that ranks as one of the 50 Best Bars in the World (!) until I hailed a cab and found my way to Alquímico. Please believe me when I tell you it was 10:30 P.M. on a Tuesday, and this joint was jumping. The hotspot has charm, no doubt about it. There’s a certain alchemy of things working for it, if I may be so on the nose. The club is made up of three levels, each with their own ambiance. On the ground floor, you can expect the bass—and the fists—to be pumping. If you’re looking to dance the night away, godspeed. The second floor is considerably more relaxed, but with an open view of all the debauchery below, which makes for great people-watching. Lastly, and perhaps most popularly, there’s the rooftop. It isn’t open 365 days a year, but its atmosphere and views of the city make for an extremely special stop on any tour through Cartagena.
For those who are less into the club scene and more into the salsa scene, you absolutely cannot miss Café Havana. There’s live local music every night of the week, cheap beers and margaritas, and smiling faces ready to pull you up for a dance at every turn. What more could you want? This place is consistently lively every night of the week, rendering it perfect if your travels don’t align with the more party-centric weekend nights.
What is it about buildings that have atriums or indoor-outdoor combination spaces that make them so lovable? Between the food, drinks, and greenery at Carmen, there is so much to “ooh” and “ahh” at. Best of all, the restaurant is open during the day, too, so it’s a great choice if you’re looking to grab some cocktails and share some small plates post-beach. My recommendations include the sorbet and the ceviche (it was my favorite of the trip, and I sampled ceviche from everywhere I ate).
Where to Stay
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
You might be familiar with the Sofitel luxury hotel brand, but what you might not know about is its “Legend” class, a title strictly reserved for properties that are steeped in legacy and history. There are only six in the world, one of which is in Cartagena. Before becoming the breathtaking hotel it is today, the Santa Clara operated for over 400 years. It was a cloister convent, a military fortress, a jail, and even a hospital. From the original chapel flooring dating back to 1618 to genuine cannonballs that were unearthed during restoration, literal relics of the past are scattered throughout. Luckily, the hotel staff is as knowledgeable as they are welcoming. Request a storytelling tour—I promise you it’s worth it. And for anyone looking to go all out, head to the Botero suite (named after the famed Colombian artist and decorated by his daughter), which has previously hosted Mick Jagger, Shakira, Sofia Vergara, and the prince of Spain. Casual.
Sofitel Barú Casablanca Beach Resort
Just a few miles down the Caribbean coast, south of Cartagena, is Isla Barú. In the past, I’ve traveled 10 or more hours for this type of view—turquoise waters and luscious forests—but this was just a quick 20-minute trip by speed boat (or about 45 if you take the catamaran) from the heart of the city. With that level of convenience, I can’t fathom traveling to Cartagena and not tacking on a few extra days in Barú. At the recently opened Sofitel Barú Casablanca Beach Resort, every room has an ocean view. With a spa, five pools, seven bars, and three restaurants on the property, you don’t have to give a single thought to your itinerary. It. Is. Paradise.
Blue Apple Beach
Oh, let me count the ways I love Blue Apple. This converted private home, comprised of five rooms and five separate cabanas, is also located about 30 minutes from central Cartagena on the south shores of Tierra Bomba island. Its intimate setting and limited capacity makes it perfect for travelers looking for an I-live-here type of experience. Still, Blue Apple knows how to party—it’s actually inspired by party beach clubs like those in Ibiza, which shows when they bring in a DJ every weekend. All travelers are welcome to join in the fun and see what Blue Apple is all about, be it as a week-long stay or just a quick visit for Mai Tais at the restaurant bar. Perhaps most importantly, the hotel is mission-driven. As a solar-powered, zero-waste-certified B-corp involved in regenerative tourism practices AND as a living wage employer, it’s a booking you can feel good about.
Associate Fashion Commerce Editor
Meg is the Associate Fashion Commerce Editor at ELLE.com where she researches trends, tests products, and looks for answers to all your burning questions. She also co-writes a monthly column, Same Same But Different. Meg has previously written for Cosmopolitan and Town & Country. Her passions include travel, buffalo sauce, and sustainability. She will never stop hoping for a One Direction reunion tour.