Guide to: Cartagena, Colombia

There was a time not that long ago that if you told your friends and family you were packing your bags for a holiday in Colombia, they might have thought you had a death wish. But the South American nation is doing a sterling job in shaking off its bloody reputation and narco heritage, and nowhere more so than the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena de Indias. With its colonial architecture, colourful facades and quaint cobblestone streets, Cartagena is single-handedly creating a Colombian Riviera, thanks to a heady proliferation of new boutiques, upmarket hotels, jumping salsa clubs and epic rooftop bars, all offset by a colonial history begging to be discovered. By day, immerse yourself in the local culture by exploring the Walled City, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where bougainvillea spills over the entrances of local artisan boutiques. Visit the iconic Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, an imposing fortress with a fascinating history, and watch the sun go down before ducking into the Getsemani neighbourhood, where live music fills the air, and vibrant street art adorns every corner.

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Eat Early

Early birds usually catch the worm, but when in Cartagena you’re more likely to catch yourself alone in deserted streets as the day begins at a pedestrian pace. Perfect chance to work on your intermittent fasting in that case, and hold out until brunch, when you most definitely need to head to La Esquina del Pandebono. It’s in the heart of the Walled City, so a great starting point for an urban hike. This cosy bakery is known for its delicious and freshly baked pan de bono, a traditional Colombian cheese bread, so stuff a few in your bag and get moving onto Abaco Café, where you can get a fix of strong coffee and Colombian literature. Besides serving stellar coffee, it’s also one of the best bookstores in the city. If cheese bread and coffee aren’t your thing, Café de la Mañana surely is. It’s a little oasis in the historic centre, with a plethora of healthy dishes with a latin twist (the fry-up isn’t half bad either).

Abaco Cafe
Abaco Bookstore

Eat Late

Dining out in Cartagena means immersing yourself in the vibrant, buzzy neighbourhood of Getsemani, which has developed exponentially since the ’90s. One of our good friends and contributors, Jane Moggio has seen the area evolve so much in recent years, and swears by a dinner at Celele for its contemporary twist on local flavours and historical dishes. Making the most of the culinary diversity of the region, stewed goat in coconut juice is a beautiful edible expression of the creativity of the city. Jane’s next tip is Harry Sasson’s Harry’s Bar in the lobby of the exquisite Santa Teresa Hotel for a non-negotiable cocktail and a plate or three of local langoustines. A trip to Cartagena would not be complete without a gastro pilgrimage to Restaurante Donjuan on Avenue Carlos Escallón, headed up by the culinary genius that is Juan Felipe Camacho. The seafood here is to die for, all sourced locally, and turned into mouthfuls of unadulterated pleasure. Finally, there’s La Vitrola, which according to Jane has become a sort of rite of passage for every tourist thanks to the convivial Cuban atmosphere and delectable cuisine. It’s a Cartagena institution for good reason.

Harry’s Bar


The nightlife in Cartagena has a distinctly Cuban flavour to it, and salsa fans will not be disappointed by the number of opportunities to gyrate their rum-lubricated hips to the sounds of son Cubano, mambo, and latin pop. One of the best places to do this is the Havana Club in Getsemani, situated right on the corner of the main drag, Media Luna. This place is a haven for salsa heads, and the steep door price simply reflects the quality of musicians that come and play there. Inside, it’s a dimly lit riot of Cuban flags suspended from the ceilings and pictures of salsa legends on the walls. It’s also a real sweat box when things get going. If you want a genuine experience, head there at the weekend when it’s packed out with locals. Doors open at 9pm, and while the band doesn’t often come on until 11, it’s a good idea to stake out a little space for yourself towards the back of the bar. For some upmarket swank, head over to La Movida where Cartagena’s beautiful people and high rollers come to let their hair down, eat exquisite tapas, and dance the night away on two floors playing rumba and house. It’s also home to one of the best rooftop bars in the city, with views of the San Pedro Church dome. For discerning cocktail lovers, Alquimico is a must-visit, voted the best bar in South America in 2022 by The World’s 50 Best Bars. Housed in what was once a derelict mansion, Alquímico is three very different floors of mixology magic. Virtually all of the unique ingredients, such as pine extract and citrus cordials come from the bar’s own farm in the coffee town of Filandia, equidistant between Cali and Medellin. The ground floor has a cool, busy vibe, the first floor is more sedate, serving up the classics, while the top floor has a cracking rooftop bar.

Havana Club, Getsemani
Havana Club, Getsemani


When we were thinking about shopping recommendations for Cartagena, we knew we had to pick the brains of Yasmin Sabet, the Colombian-Egyptian designer behind the accessories and homeware brand, Mola SASA, which works hand-in-hand with Colombian artisans to make a wider audience aware of their unique techniques. Her knowledge of Cartagena’s retail therapy is second-to-none. ‘On the Calle del Estanco del Tabaco you’ll find Artesanias de Colombia, which contains a wealth of stunning local artisanal crafts,’ she says. ‘It does an incredible job of celebrating the hugely talented artisans here, and you’ll be able to find some stunning textiles and decorative objects for your home. A stone’s throw away is Loto del Sur, which creates the most amazing natural soaps, scents, creams and oils. The smell of the store alone is enough to keep you in there. Casa Chiqui in Getsemani is brilliant for a selection of local items, especially their wonderful “mochilas” which are colourful handwoven bags that they source from different parts of the country. I love their textile collection as well, plus they also have clothing from around the world that is perfect for resortwear: think tunics and kaftans. St. Dom on Calle de Santo Domingo is a wonderful concept store of Colombian design only and it is beautifully curated. From ready-to-wear and crafts to books and design objects, it’s a really eclectic representation of modern Colombian design. For some of the more well-known Colombian brands, I would highly recommend Agua by Agua Bendita, which opened recently near the Hotel Santa Teresa. They have a lovely collection of dresses and bathing suits, as well as sarongs, most of which are handmade. Silvia Tcherassi is an icon of Colombian fashion and one of the country’s most globally recognised style exports, so a visit to her store on Plaza Santa Teresa  is a must. She was awarded one of France’s highest honors in 2004 – the Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2008 she opened her first Tcherassi Hotel + Spa in Cartagena (she initially trained as an interior designer before moving into fashion). Mercedes Salazar on Calle Ricaurte is another gem for fun jewellery and small accessories such as bags, while Cano Jewellery, which has been family-run since 1970, produces the most amazing jewellery inspired by pre-Columbian pieces. Think ornate gold chokers and Amazonian hoop earrings.’ 


For old-school charm and exceptional service, Casa San Agustin in the heart of the old town is Cartagena’s best known luxury hotel and still sets the bar for an elevated experience. It beautifully recreates a 17th century colonial aesthetic with original frescoes in the library and evocative wood-beamed ceilings in the 20 guest rooms and 11 suites. For a more intimate boutique vibe, the Hotel Quadrifolio riffs on the same colonial aesthetics, but with only eight deluxe suites, which makes your stay feel more like a private rental. It also has access to a private 38-foot boat, offering charters and fishing cruises. Bastion feels a touch more modern and corporate but not in a bad way. In fact the restaurant there, El Gobernador, is one of the finest in Cartagena, while the rooftop terrace and swimming pool have splendid views of the Caribbean Sea. Rumour has it that Four Seasons is planning a luxury hotel in Getsemani, reflecting the area’s up-and-coming status.

Casa San Agustin, Cartagena Old Town
Casa San Agustin, Cartagena Old Town


Bring a good pair of trainers with you because Cartagena is best seen by foot. In particular, one of the biggest draws of the city is its historic centre, and a great way to see it and understand its history is through a walking tour of the Walled City. Guruwalk has a number of highly rated tours, including a street art exploration of Getsemani. As much as the graffiti is eye-catching, just sitting outside a cafe and people watching here is captivating enough. Being on the Caribbean coast, beach culture naturally plays a big part in Cartagena life. With a number of beautiful islands to visit, we recommend a day and a night at Eteka Beach Club on Tierra Bomba (a 10-minute boat ride from the Cartagena port) in one of its charming rustic cottages. For the more adventurous, sign up for a sunset kayak tour at one of the many companies down at the marina. The waters are best around the island of Tierra Bomba, along the sandy beaches of Punta Arena and out to San Fernando Fort. 

Tierra Bomba Beach

Ryan Thompson is a UK-based menswear and lifestyle writer, whose work has appeared in, among others, the Financial TimesMr PorterThe Rake and Ape to Gentleman

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