Old Town Cartagena is one of the most popular destinations in Colombia…and for good reason. It has the perfect trifecta of cute old town charm, a touch of urban grit and nearby beaches. This three day Cartagena itinerary offers the best of all that…plus a few offbeat offerings and practical tips to help you plan your trip.
Old Town Cartagena Itinerary in Three Days
Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, on the former site of an ingenious village. The city sits perched on the edge of the Caribbean in perfect alignment with the trade winds that blew Spanish trading ships east from Panama. There were riches washing up on Cartagena’s shores during the Spanish colonization of South America.
Because of its strategic position, Cartagena was attacked by the English (1656) then the French (1697) and then the English again (1741). Spain held on until 1811, when it was finally kicked out in a beef with Simon Bolivar.
No wonder the city needed walls.
Today the walled city of Cartagena is protecting its heritage with UNESCO status and a whole lot of colorful paint. And while most people visit expecting to see the Old Town Cartagena, there are also some modern surprises as well.
With three days in Cartagena, you can easily see it all and even have time for a day trip outside of the city.
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Where to Stay in Cartagena
The old town of Cartagena includes two areas: the walled city of Cartagena (which is probably what you are visualizing when you think of Cartagena) and the Getsemani neighborhood. Generally, the fancier hotels are within the walled area and the budget places are in Getsemani.
You don’t have to stay inside of the walls to enjoy Cartagena. Walking from Getsemani to the Plaza de los Coches is safe and it only takes about seven minutes. This itinerary suggests things to do in both neighborhoods.
Family run with a balcony: The Casa Córdoba Estrella Hotel is located smack in the middle of the walled city. They have a library (yes!), a junior suite with a balcony and a small pool (which you will want because it’s so dang hot in Cartagena). Check out reviews and book through Trip Advisor or Booking.com.
Day 1: Museums, Churches and Plazas
Spend the first of your three days in Cartagena getting to know the old town.
Start at the Plaza del los Coches. This is the grand entrance to the walled city, named so because the coaches used to come through the partal archway and gather on the plaza. While there, wander down the covered El Portal de los Dulces. The walkway is lined with vendors plying traditional Colombian sweets.
Next, stop into the Museo de Arte Moderno on the Plaza Aduana. There is so much history in Old Town Cartagena, that spending time looking at a modern take on Colombian culture is a nice palette cleanser. The museum was founded in 1960 and features primarily coastal artists. The entry fee is a steal at $2.25 USD.
Stop into the San Pedro Claver cathedral before heading over to the Palacio de la Inquisition. This building went up in 1771 and is exactly what the name sounds like; a palace where the Spanish Catholic clergy carried out their ethnic and religious cleansing. The original purpose for the building is quite dark, but the architecture itself is lovely with a quiet courtyard and several floors of exhibits. They have gathered actual torture devices and have exhibits on the Inquisition. But there are also interesting and more modern art exhibitions that explore the human condition.
The Palacio de la Inquisition fronts the Plaza de Bolivar, which is a shady spot for people watching and grabbing a snack from one of the food carts.
Be sure to take a free walking tour in the walled part of Cartagena. The tours run in the morning and again in the late afternoon, so just choose whichever time works for your arrival in Cartagena. The tours usually last about 2 hours and they are a great introduction to the history of the city. The tours don’t go into any of the buildings or museums, which is why I’m suggesting that you do them on your own.
If you are more into food than history, then consider taking this street food tour. It’s a 2.5 hour late afternoon tour that covers eight local snacks and two drinks.
Day 1: Evening
Every Cartagena itinerary includes sunset drinks on the wall. It’s one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena and totally worth it. The wall faces west and the sunset puts on a spectacular show. You have two options for doing sunset. For a budget option, just stake out a spot along the wall. You can buy a soda or inexpensive beer from any of the drinks entrepreneurs with coolers. The fancy cocktail option means going to Cafe del Mar. They have chairs, couches and a DJ– it’s quite a scene. We did both, because we like sunsets and are always thirsty.
After drinks, head over to the Plaza Santo Domingo. It’s a lovely little square presided over by an iconic Botero sculpture of a fat lady. There are a number of restaurants that ring the square. They are touristy, but they all have outdoor seating facing the square, so you can enjoy people watching while you eat. If you are into craft beer, then check out nearby Beer Lover’s for a good selection of local and international beers.
Day 2: Day Trip from Cartagena
You can actually pack a full Cartagena itinerary in a two days. But spending a third there means that you can do a day trip excursion to a nearby beach or attraction.
I chose to visit a wildlife conservation program that works with local communities to save the endangered Cottton-top Tamarin. This is not a public tour, but I do encourage you to read my article about the Cotton-tops because it will help you understand the fragility of Colombia’s forest habitat and how local communities are affected by development.
Two Cartagena day trips that I would recommend….and one that I don’t
- DO: Full day catamaran tour with lunch, snorkeling and a trip to Rosario Island. This tour is great if you want time in the water as well as on top of it. Book it here.
- DO: Beach club day at Playa Blanca. This is a good tour if you want to take a huge chill pill. It includes transportation, lunch and a day bed. Book it here.
- DON’T: The Totumo Volcano mud bath tour. Look, I’m up for doing weird stuff like visiting the sewer museum in Paris and snorkeling in Iceland. But, spending $25 to sit in some rank mud puddle with local “masseuses” playing grab ass with my bathing suit is nowhere on my bucket list. My friend over at Practical Wanderlust tried the volcano and reading her account was enough to convince me that life is too short and I’d rather spend it hanging out with monkeys.
Day 2: Evening
Head out into Getsemani for the evening.
If you are getting there from Old Town, wander down the northwest side of Parque Centenario and check out all of the book vendors. Cartagena is a very book-ish town. It was once home to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and they host the annual Hay Literary festival.
Before it get’s too dark, be sure to check out the murals in Getsemani. Cartagena doesn’t have the a street art scene like Bogota, but they do have some respectable murals and graffiti. I don’t know why other Cartagena itineraries ignore the street art, but I’m crackers for it and prioritize street art cities on most of my travels.
If you are the same, then look for the lovely FinDac murals on Carrera 11, near the Hostal Getsemani. You’ll also find graffiti and murals from artists like Erre, DJLU and Toxicomano on Calle 29 west of the Iglesia de la Santisima Trinid and down Calle de San Juan.
Now that you’ve worked up a thirst, there are a series of bars lining Carrerra 10. For a quick bite, I loved the arepas at the ColombItalia, which is a little food stand on the same strip as the bars. There is also a cluster of restaurants near the Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad church.
After you eat, hang out at the church plaza. On weekend nights, it’s really hopping with food and drink vendors and people of all ages hanging out.
Day 3: Castles and City Walls
Cartagena is a busy tourist town, especially when the cruise ships are in port. The old town can get clogged with people (and the vendors who serve them). The nice thing about spending 36 hours in Cartagena, is that it gives you the flexibility to see the city during its quieter moments. The best way to do that is to stroll the walled city early in the morning. Prioritize a later breakfast and get out by seven am for your stroll.
Just after dawn, the colorful buildings are infused with warm morning light and the flower boxes are overflowing…but the streets aren’t.
After breakfast, take a quick cab ride or a 20 minute walk over to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This fort provided the main defense of Cartagena starting in 1594. Every time one of the aforementioned attacks happened, the fortress was further expanded and fortified. The final phase happened in the late 1700’s with the installation of 62 canons, cisterns, sentry boxes and a series of tunnels designed to house explosives.
Of course, they finished completion just in time for independence, when they would no longer need the fortress. It subsequently fell into disrepair but was restored in 2012.
It’s easy enough to do a self-guided tour of the castle using their English-language brochure. Not only are the city views great, but I also encourage you to explore the creepy tunnels. The dark bastions reminded me of the fortified walls in Luxembourg City and Tallinn Estonia.
But wait, you aren’t done walking yet. Head back over to old town Cartagena and walk the full section of remaining city wall. The northernmost section (near Calle 40) has the Fuerte Las Tenazas, which is a small exhibit of fortification artifacts. Then head west and south along the full section, enjoying the water views.
And that’s it for Cartagena. Time to go to the airport and tackle the next stage of your Colombia itinerary.
Have an offbeat experience with a local using the AirBnB experiences. AirBnB’s has offerings that go beyond the obvious (which we are all about here at Wayfaring Views). Check out their Cartagena tours here.
Questions about How to Travel in Cartagena
You have questions? I have answers. Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions.
Should I get the Hop on Hop Off Bus in Cartagena?
Absolutely not. I’m not a fan of these buses because they are always more expensive and slower than just managing on your own. Everything on this Cartagena itinerary is walkable. Even if you have trouble walking, the HoHo bus won’t help you because it can’t navigate the narrow streets of Getsemani or the walled part of Cartagena.
How do I Get To and From the Airport?
The Cartagena airport is located an easy 15 minutes to the city center. You can stop at the taxi stand and they will print a ticket for you. The cost is $12,500 COP (about $4.00 USD). Around town, the taxis are safe and easy, but always pre-negotiate your rate before you set out.
Uber is technically illegal, but it works very well in all of Colombia. In fact, I would only take an Uber in Bogota, because they have a lot of issues with taxi scams there. But the taxis in Cartagena are OK.
Is Cartagena Safe?
Yes. The question of safety is very subjective, but I felt safe in Cartagena. Of course the usual cautions apply: don’t flash your cash, keep an eye on your bag, don’t wander about at 3am. But I felt fine walking around at night and didn’t feel the need to clutch my bag with whitened knuckles. I know more people who have been robbed in Paris than in Cartagena and I didn’t have weird guys trying to “guide” me into a tuk tuk like I experienced in Colombo Sri Lanka.
That said, the vendors run an aggressive negotiation scheme which can be exhausting. I have no time for that nonsense.
How do I Exchange Money in Cartagena?
ATMs are always the best way to exchange money and they are plentiful in Cartagena. I avoid the dodgy no-name ATMs and prefer to withdraw money from branded banks during business hours. That way, if the ATM eats my card, I can get it back. There are branches for BBVA and Bank of Bogota in Old Town near the Plaza de los Coches.
Cartagena is bright, light and full of an intriguing mix of both colonial history, beach attitude and a touch of modern grit. Spending three days there is the perfect amount of time to explore it fully.
Do More in Colombia
- Use my guide to pull together a full two week Colombia itinerary.
- See more street art in Bogota.
- Visit Colombia’s own Gilligans Island on San Andres island in the Caribbean.
- Get inspired to plan your trip with list of books set in Colombia.
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