Enigmatic and engaging, Bogotá has been slowly stepping out of the shadows cast by its reputation for drugs and crime. Now, with increased safety, the city makes a compelling destination for visitors wanting a taste of Colombia’s historic past and cosmopolitan future.
The colonial heart of the capital, La Candelaria is filled with 300-year-old houses in various states of repair (some of the weathered ones are the most fascinating), numerous churches and several key museums. The best place to start a rewarding wander is Plaza de Bolívar, a large square that has evolved much over the centuries. Dominating gazes here is the Catedral Pimada, Bogotá’s largest church – it reputedly sits on the site of the first mass held after the city’s founding in 1538. Finished in 1823, it is the latest of several Catholic buildings here. Other sites of note in the square include the Capitolio Nacional (the neoclassical seat of congress), the modern Palacio de Justicia and a bronze statue of Simón Bolívar (Bogotá’s first public monument).
Just a block away from the square is the incredibly ornate Iglesia Museo de Santa Clara, which was completed in 1674 and is now run as a museum. A short stroll east leads to another museum, Museo Botero – unsurprisingly, it is dedicated to Colombia's most celebrated artist, Fernando Botero, though it also holds great works by Monet, Renoir, Dalí and Picasso.
Residing within the walls of the area's captivating colonial buildings are also numerous hotels, restaurants and bars, so La Candelaria makes a great base while exploring Bogotá.
The walls of Bogotá are adorned with hundreds of incredible pieces of street art, ranging from DJ Lu's tiny stencils of AK-47s shooting roses to Guache's massive detailed murals of indigenous peoples of South America. One reason for the quality of the graffiti is that artists are now free to take their time as they know they won't be arrested for practicing their art. This didn't used to be the case, but the controversial death of a young graffiti artist who was shot by police in 2011 transformed Bogotá's tolerance of the art form. The mayor even changed his attitude – graffiti was no longer a crime, but a celebration of cultural and artistic expression.
There is no better way to gain an understanding and appreciation of the street art than by joining the now twice daily (10am and 2pm) Bogotá Graffiti Tour. Started by an Australian street artist and Canadian graffiti writer, the 2½-hour walking tour's goal is to promote both local artists and the city's prolific urban art to an international audience. Participants often have a chance to meet some of the artists and watch them work.
Museo del Oro
As stunning as they are storied, the 55,000 or so pieces of sculpted gold from Colombia's major pre-Hispanic cultures in this museum are truly a sight to behold. The minimal backdrops, with descriptions in both English and Spanish, let each historic piece shine, and make the Museo del Oro one of the most enthralling museums on the entire continent. Free one-hour tours twice daily provide even more insight into the cultural significance of the ancient treasures, whether they be masks, warriors or mythical creatures.
Cerro de Monserrate
There is no better way to take in a view of the city than from Monserrate, a mountain whose summit sits just 1.5km east of La Candelaria. Long a religious pilgrimage point, the mountain's top is adorned with Cerro de Monserrate, a church that contains an almost 400-year-old altar statue of the Señor Caído (Fallen Christ).
There are three ways to reach the church from the city: a cableway, a funicular and a footpath. Your legs and lungs won't love you for it, well not immediately anyway (due to the 1000 steps and the 512m rise in elevation up to 3152m), but the most rewarding way is the latter. The vista will immediately vanquish whatever breath you have left.
Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao
This cavernous and authentic local food market is bursting at the seams with oodles of varieties of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. There are also various stalls selling hot food, including arepa, which is a rather delicious Colombian pancake filled with melted cheese. Early on Friday and Sunday mornings the parking lot is dominated by bursts of color and fragrance, with flower sellers taking center stage.
Bonus: Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá
Although there is plenty to keep visitors occupied in the capital, a trip to Bogotá would be amiss without a little detour to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. Located some 50km north of the capital, just outside the rather quaint and picturesque village of Zipaquirá, this underground Christian complex is astounding, both in terms of beauty and engineering.
Visitors descend into underground tunnels, which lead them almost 200m below ground level and past 14 small chapels. Each of these stark rock chambers is adorned with a large rock cross and lit with ever changing mood lights – the chapels are meant to represent the Stations of the Cross from Jesus' day of crucifixion. The cathedral itself, which marks the culmination of the tour, is beyond comprehension. The 75m-long nave, dominated by the world's largest underground cross, can hold up to 8400 people during service.
Matt Phillips traveled to Colombia with G Adventures (gadventures.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.