Bogotá is Colombia's beating heart, an engaging and vibrant capital cradled by chilly Andean peaks and steeped in sophisticated urban cool. The city's cultural epicenter is La Candelaria, the cobbled historic downtown to which most travelers gravitate. Here, a potpourri of carefully preserved colonial buildings is home to museums, restaurants, hotels and bars, peppered amid 300-year-old houses, churches and convents. Nearly all of Bogotá's traditional attractions are here, radiating from Plaza de Bolívar, and Cerro de Monserrate is just east.
The city's working-class neighborhoods sit south and southwest, while in the ritzier north you'll find boutique hotels, and well-heeled locals piling into chic entertainment districts such as the Zona Rosa and Zona G. Here, rust-tinted sunsets dramatically bounce off the bricks of upper-class Bogotá's Andes-hugging residential buildings – a cinematic ceremony that begins the city's uproarious evenings.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bogotá.
Bogotá's most famous museum and one of the most fascinating in South America, the Gold Museum contains more than 55,000 pieces of gold and other materials from all of Colombia's major pre-Hispanic cultures. The collection is laid out in logical, thematic rooms over three floors; descriptions are in Spanish and English.
Even if you've never heard of Fernando Botero, you'll probably recognize some of his highly distinctive paintings of oversized (read: chubby) characters, including dodgy dictators, fleet-footed dancers, dogs and birds. Colombia’s most famous living artist is also a prolific sculptor and his curvaceous bronze statues display equally generous girth.
Built between 1557 and 1621, the Church of San Francisco is Bogotá's oldest surviving church. In the atmospherically dark interior, with its extravagant pews and steady trickle of praying pilgrims, your eye is immediately drawn to the gilded, U-shaped 17th-century altarpiece, the largest and most elaborate of its kind in the capital.
The usual place to start discovering Bogotá is the giant concrete Plaza de Bolívar, the heart of the original town. What it lacks in green foliage it makes up for in grandiosity. In the middle of the square is a bronze statue of Simón Bolívar (cast in 1846), the work of Italian artist Pietro Tenerani. This was the city's first public monument.
Most of Banco de la República's permanent art collection, which features 800 pieces by 250 different artists spread over 16 exhibition halls at two addresses, is reached via elaborate staircases within the same museum complex as Casa de Moneda and Museo Botero. The collection has been reorganized into five time periods spanning the 15th century to modern day, each separately curated. The collection's contemporary art exhibition is located inside Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango on Calle 12.
On the south side of Plaza de Bolívar, beyond the Capitolio Nacional and reached via Carreras 8 or 7, this is Colombia's neoclassical presidential building, where the country's leader lives and works. To visit, you'll need to email or go to the website and scroll down to 'Visitas Casa de Nariño' under 'Servicios a la Ciudadanía'. No permission is needed to watch the changing of the presidential guard – best seen from the east side – held at 3:30pm Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Housed in the expansive, Greek-cross-shaped building called El Panóptico (designed as a prison by English architect Thomas Reed in 1874), the Museo Nacional explores Colombia's past via archeology, history, ethnology and art. The collection is spread across 17 galleries that will eventually be themed by floor – the museum is undergoing a major modernization that will last through to 2023.
One of Bogotá's most richly decorated churches, the Santa Clara is also its oldest (along with Iglesia de San Francisco). Deconsecrated in 1968, it was acquired by the government and is now run as a museum, with paintings by some of Colombia's most revered baroque artists. The church was once part of an adjoining Franciscan convent that was demolished in the early 20th century.
This two-floor museum is run by military guys in fatigues, and features playful models sporting the history of military uniforms (note the 'antiterrorist' outfit and the insane diving suit); a Korean War room; and a courtyard of artillery and aircraft including a presidential helicopter.