Steeped in over 480 years of history and colonial charm, exploring the Colombian Caribbean city of Cartagena is a thrilling experience. However, with the stunning luxurious allure of the Caribbean within reach and a superb culinary and nightlife scene, expenses can quickly mount up. Fortunately, there’s plenty of things to see and do that won’t empty your pockets. From spectacular sunsets to exploring local markets and arty neighborhoods, here are ten of the best free things to do in Cartagena.
Wander around the historic Old Town
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Cartagena’s Old Town is famous for its exquisitely preserved colonial architecture enclosed by ancient fortified walls. Soak up the fairy-tale-like atmosphere by taking a leisurely meander through the cobbled streets, packed with centuries-old churches, leafy plazas and colorful homes boasting balconies draped with bougainvillea. Travelers interested in learning more about the city’s intriguing history and culture can join a free (but donation-based) walking tour. Free Tour Cartagena and Beyond Colombia are good options.
Take a walk along the colonial walls
Walking along Las Murallas, the imposing 4 km long stone fortifications that encircle the oldest section of the historic center, is must-do when visiting Cartagena. Built by the Spanish (along with thousands of African slaves) in the 1600s to defend the city against pirate attacks and invasions, this iconic structure offers unique and stunning vistas of the Old Town and beyond to crashing waves and boats at sea, the imposing Castillo San Felipe fortress and the skyscrapers of the modern neighborhood of Bocagrande.
Enjoy the sunset from atop the city walls
Every evening locals and tourists flock to the western sea-facing ramparts of the historic center to enjoy a quintessential Cartagena experience: watching the sunset over the Caribbean while a cool ocean breeze refreshes the sun-scorched land. Arrive just before 5:30 pm to find a spot, buy an ice-cold beer from a street vendor and get your camera ready as the sky changes color to welcome the night. Insider tip: if you sit near the popular, but oh so costly, Café del Mar, you can enjoy the outdoor lounge’s chilled out music, minus the exorbitant prices.
Watch traditional dances and people-watch at the Clock Tower
Once the main gateway to the inner walled Old Town, the Torre del Reloj, or Clock Tower, is one of Cartagena’s most famous landmarks and a popular meeting place for cartageneros (residents of Cartagena). In the late afternoon, head to Plaza de La Paz, the large square in front of the emblematic monument, where besides witnessing local life whirring by, you can watch talented street artists perform traditional music and dance from the Colombian coast, including mapalé, an exuberant style of dance with pure African roots, lead by fast-rhythm drumming. It’s free, but tips are welcomed.
Discover history at House Museum Rafael Nuñez
A National Monument since 1950, Casa de Rafael Núñez is where the former Colombian president, lawyer and composer of the national anthem, Rafael Núñez, lived and died. The beautiful white-and-green, two-story wooden mansion has maintained its 19th-century architecture and period furniture, including the personal belongings of Núñez and his second wife, Soledad Román. It’s free to enter, but you’ll need to pay for a guide. Be sure to visit the chapel across the street where you’ll find pretty stained glass windows as well as the former owners’ tombs.
Go door knocker-spotting
During the colonial era, it was common for homeowners to display their social status or profession by fastening a particular brass door knocker to their front entrance. While members of the army marked their abodes with a lion head, fisherman preferred sea creatures; residents belonging to high society opted for lizards. For a day of door-knocker spotting, head to the neighborhoods of San Diego and Matuna in the El Centro where you’ll find a splendid array of elaborate brass knockers, including modern ones that diverge from tradition.
Soak up the local vibe at Plaza de la Trinidad
Taking its name from the 17th-century Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad that stands on one side, the Plaza de la Trinidad is a convivial evening hangout in Getsemaní where you can witness an authentic cartagenero scene. Frequented by locals and travelers, the vibe is lively yet laid-back, and you’ll always find street performers such as musicians, jugglers and dancers who keep the public entertained until late. Every Sunday at 8 pm the plaza hosts a free Zumba class where you can learn to shake your hips to the hottest Latin beats. Skip the restaurants and bars lining the square and tuck into tasty street food at bargain prices.
Seek out street art in Getsemaní
Lying just outside the inner walled Old Town but still part of the historic centre, Getsemaní is a former red-light district that’s transformed into a burgeoning hipster neighborhood packed with trendy restaurants and bars, colourful houses and an ever-expanding collection of urban street art (expect excellent Instagram-worthy photo ops). Start your exploration with a stroll down the snaking Calle de la Sierpe, where vibrant murals depicting traditional Caribbean life and history have breathed new life into the crumbling stucco walls of old colonial buildings. You can wander around on your own or join a free art tour – tips are encouraged.
Keep it real at Bazurto Market
A sprawling, loud and often smelly labyrinth of stalls selling everything from meat, seafood and exotic produce to clothes and electronics, Bazurto Market is eye-opening, and a world apart from the enchanting colonial centre and shiny skyscrapers of Bocagrande. Located approximately 5 km outside the old city walls (reachable by taxi or a TransCaribe bus), a visit offers a unique opportunity to discover the real Cartagena: gritty yet energetic and friendly, chaotic yet authentic and photogenic. Closed shoes are recommended and always be careful with your belongings.
Bask on a beach
If you’re craving a suntan and aren’t able to visit the Rosario Islands or the white-sand Playa Blanca, head to one of the city beaches located in the neighbourhoods of Bocagrande or Castillogrande on the peninsula stretching south from the Old Town to catch some rays. Although they’re incomparable to the islands – the sand is dark, and the water isn’t turquoise – it’s still a great place to relax, read a book and hang out with locals.