Once a highly prized port within the Spanish empire, modern day Cartagena bursts with color and charisma, tempting all who visit to live a little louder. Located on the Caribbean coast, the city keeps a year-round tropical climate making it a perfect beach getaway. A weekend in Cartagena is all you need to catch the highlights of this Colombian jewel.

Sunset over the rooftops of the old town in Cartagena
Cartagena is a mix of Old World and New © Starcevic / Getty Images

Remnants of colonial Spanish influence can be seen in the crumbling Walled City, which was built in the 1600s to deter pirates and has come to represent the heart of Cartagena, teeming with restaurants, shops, and nightlife.

Saturday: White sand beaches and live entertainment 

Baru Islands for Fun in the Sun

Plan for a quick breakfast because you’ll be heading out early for a day tour of Playa Blanca on the nearby Baru Islands. Cartagena is well set up for tourism and you’ll find plenty of tour operators at most hotels and in agencies throughout the Walled City.

A hand holding a cocktail inside a pineapple, with a beach in the background – a necessity for a weekend in Cartagena
Spend an afternoon with a beach-side pineapple cocktail © Danielle Dorsey / Lonely Planet

Most beach tours include a typical lunch of fried fish, rice and salad with a drink. You’ll have several hours to hang out by the beach and paddle in the lukewarm, crystalline waters of the Caribbean ocean. You’ll be approached often by people selling massages, fresh oysters and tons more. They might offer a ‘free’ sample, but be warned – they might demand payment afterwards. Boats and jet skis are easily rented at the shoreline.

The tour will end mid-afternoon and they’ll likely drop you off near the Clock Tower in the Walled City, which is a popular spot for booking tours and excursions. After dark, it’s where you’ll find street arepas (corn meal patties) being flipped on pop-up food carts and musicians tuning makeshift instruments while dancers twirl in the background.

Patrons watch the sunset from the sea wall in the Old Town neighborhood in Cartagena, Colombia.
The wall in the Old Town neighborhood is perfect for watching sunsets © Kris Davidson / Lonely Planet

Sunset views and live salsa

After you’ve changed into your evening attire, you’ll head back to the Walled City for an unmatched rooftop view of the sunset at El Baluarte. Happy hour runs from 5pm to midnight and a live band will serenade you as you watch the sun’s slow descent into the sea.

Next you’ll head to Crazy Salsa’s weekly Crazy Rumba dance lesson and party, which starts at 7pm and includes a live band. You might be spent after two hours of shaking your tail feathers, but if you can muster some Saturday spunk, walk to nearby Alquímico for cocktails on their rooftop bar and a couple rounds of billiards. The restaurant’s name translates to 'alchemy' and they’re well-known for their craft cocktail menu.

Sunday - Fortress and Graffiti Tour Plus More Salsa

Dessert for Breakfast and a Colombian Castle

Treat yourself to a traditional Colombian breakfast of savory pastries and coffee at Mila, an all-day bakery and dessert parlor near Cartagena’s historic cathedral in the Walled City. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the cultural hub of the city and where the most popular bars, restaurants and shops are found.

Afterwards, you can walk or grab a quick taxi to the Castillo San Felipe Fortress for a tour of the Unesco World Heritage site. The fortress was built in the mid-17th century when Cartagena was a popular target for pirates and political adversaries.

Developments in military technology rendered the fortress obsolete after Battles of Cartagena de India and the Colombian government acquired it as a national landmark in the late 19th century. Largely abandoned for more than a century, serious renovations to the property were undertaken in 1928. The fortress is open to visitors daily and has great views of the Walled City. By taking your tour directly after breakfast, you’ll beat most of the afternoon heat.

A blue sky over the remains of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress, a worthwhile stop during weekend in Cartagena
The Castillo San Felipe Fortress, a Unesco World Heritage Site © Alex Segre / Getty Images

Graffiti and cheap eats in Getsemani

Stroll over to the gritty yet charming neighborhood of Getsemani, which is practically indistinguishable from the nearby Walled City. You’ll know you’ve found it when you step onto streets that are decorated overhead with colorful streamers. Take in the street art, pose for silly pictures with the statues in Trinidad Square, and pause to catch your breath in this laidback corner of bustling Cartagena.

Getsemani is slightly off the tourist track so you’ll find cheaper eats and less busking from the locals. You can easily find a food or juice cart to get a quick meal on the go or groceries to make your own food at home. If you’re in the mood to sit down, you can do an inexpensive menu del dia or 'menu of the day' at one of the many mom-and-pop restaurants around Getsemani.

Locals gather in the late afternoon in the colorful streets of Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood, a perfect destination during a weekend in Cartagena
Locals gather in the late afternoon in the colorful streets of Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood © garytog / Getty Images

Souvenir shopping and more mojitos

After lunch you’ll cross the invisible border back into the Walled City and browse the artisan shops underneath the wall. Here you’ll find emerald jewelers, local artists selling their wares, as well as your usual souvenirs like t-shirts, magnets, and keychains.

Cartagena is a colorful and picturesque city and you’re sure to see other tourists stopping alongside colorful walls and alleyways for impromptu photoshoots. Some of the locals use this as an opportunity to make extra income and will charge tourists to take photos with them. It might sound like a scam, but you’ll understand the temptation when you see the gorgeous women in vibrant layered dresses with bowls of tropical fruit balanced expertly on their heads.

Cartagena runs hot and you’ll notice the city slows down around mid-afternoon when temperatures are at their highest. If you’re not in the mood for a siesta, cool off with 2-for-1 happy hour drinks at Cuba 1940.

Peruvian cuisine and famous salsa clubs

Cartagena offers plenty of options for fine dining and many restaurants take inspiration from the country’s southern neighbor of Peru. Cuzco offers an interesting fusion of Colombian and Peruvian dishes with plenty of seafood options to choose from. The high end restaurant’s arched brick entryways and exposed-wood ceilings will make you feel like you’re dining in a renovated tunnel within the city’s fortress. Like so many places around the Caribbean capital, Cuzco often hires a live band to entertain guests in the evenings.

No trip to Cartagena is complete without a sweaty night of salsa dancing. Café Havana is a favorite spot in Getsemani, where your cover comes with a drink ticket and bartenders are known for their heavy pours. Live bands play back-to-back salsa sets Monday through Saturday and everyday during the high season in December and January.

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