La Candelaria

Blissfully alive and chock-full of key things to see, La Candelaria is Bogotá's colonial barrio, with a mix of carefully restored 300-year-old houses, some rather dilapidated ones, and still more marking more modern eras.

The usual place to start discovering Bogotá is Plaza de Bolívar, marked by a bronze statue of Simón Bolívar (cast in 1846 by Italian artist Pietro Tenerani). It was the city's first public monument. The square has changed considerably over the centuries and is no longer lined by colonial buildings; only the Capilla del Sagrario dates from the Spanish era. Other buildings are more recent and feature different architectural styles.

Some of La Candelaria's most popular sights, as well as the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, are within a couple of blocks east of the plaza. The slightly confusing web of museums run by the Banco de la República, including the Museo Botero, Casa de Moneda, the Colección de Arte and the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República, are essentially one massive and labyrinthine interconnected museum complex and form what is easily one of Bogotá's top attractions. Plan ahead: last admission to the complex is 30 minutes before closing.

Green People Watching From Above

While walking around La Candelaria – while keeping an eye out for fresh dog feces and missing pothole covers at street level – look up for a unique art project that peers down from rooftops, window ledges and balconies. Assembled in the past decade from recycled materials, the artworks – green figures representing the area's comuneros (commoners) – come from local artist Jorge Olavé.

Note the guy watching over Plaza de Bolívar from atop the Casa de Comuneros' southwestern corner – he's got the best seat in town.

City Center

Bogotá's scrappy business center – busiest along Calle 19 and Carrera 7 – is easiest to deal with on Sunday, when Ciclovía shuts down Carrera 7 for cyclists and pedestrians (a permanent pedestrianization between Plaza de Bolívar and Calle 26 was being completed in early 2018), and the Mercado de San Alejo flea market is in force. Some of the district's most visited parts (notably the Museo del Oro) cluster near La Candelaria by Av Jiménez.

Cerro de Monserrate

Bogotá's proud symbol – and convenient point of reference – is the white-church-topped 3150m Monserrate peak. It flanks the city's east, about 1.5km from La Candelaria, and is visible from most parts across the Sabana de Bogotá (Bogotá Savannah; sometimes called 'the valley'). The top has gorgeous views of the capital's 1700-sq-km sprawl. On a clear day you can even spot the symmetrical cone of Nevado del Tolima, part of the Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Los Nevados volcanic range in the Cordillera Central, 135km west.

The church up top is a major mecca for pilgrims, due to its altar statue of the Señor Caído (Fallen Christ), dating from the 1650s, to which many miracles have been attributed. The church was erected after the original chapel was destroyed by an earthquake in 1917. You'll also find two restaurants (Santa Clara and San Isidro) and a cafe – make a day of it.

The steep 1500-step hike – past snack stands – to the top (60 to 90 minutes' walk) is open from 5am (closed Tuesday). It's a popular weekend jaunt for bogotanos; on weekdays it used to be dangerous, as thefts occurred all too regularly, but an increase in police presence in recent years has curbed that considerably. If you're traveling solo or don't feel like walking, the regular teleférico (cable car) and funicular alternate schedules up the mountain from Monserrate Station. Generally, the funicular goes before noon (3pm on Saturday), the cable car after.

The funicular base station is a 20-minute walk up from the Iglesia de las Aguas (along the brick walkways with the fountains – up past the Universidad de los Andes), at the northeastern edge of La Candelaria. Safety along this route has also improved, although you're still best advised to make the trip at weekends, particularly in the morning, when many pilgrims are about.

Centro Internacional

Offices look over Carrera 7 in this busy pocket of the city, where you'll find a few attractions and lots of business meetings.

Worth a Trip: Zipaquirá

Far and away the most popular day trip from Bogotá is to head 50km north of the city to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. This underground cathedral carved out of salt is one of only three such structures in the world (the other two are in Poland).

In the mountains about 500m southwest of Zipaquirá there are two salt cathedrals: the first opened in 1954 and was closed in 1992 for safety reasons, but you can visit its stunning replacement. Between 1991 and 1995, around 250,000 tons of salt were cleared away to carve out the moody, ethereal underground sanctuary, hailed as one of Colombia's greatest architectural achievements. You'll descend to 180m below ground through 14 small chapels representing the Stations of the Cross – Jesus' last journey – each an evocatively lit triumph of both symbolism and mining. But nothing prepares you for the trail's culmination in the main nave, where a mammoth cross (the world's largest in an underground church) is illuminated from the base up. The tradition of mixing religion with salt has logical roots: work in the mines was dangerous, so altars were made.

All visitors must join regularly departing groups on hour-long tours – you can leave the tour once you're inside if you want. The 75m-long mine can accommodate 8400 people and holds services on (very busy) Sundays at noon. In addition to the Salt Cathedral, there are a Brine Museum and other minor attractions on the premises. Zipaquirá's main plaza is lined with cafes and has a lovely church worth peeking into.

To reach Zipaquirá, hop on a frequent bus from the Portal del Norte TransMilenio station at Calle 170, which is about a 45-minute ride from the city center. From here, buses to Zipaquirá (COP$5400, 45 minutes) leave every four minutes or so until 11:30pm from Portal's Buses Intermunicipales platform. You can also catch an hourly direct bus from módulo 3 (red) at Bogotá's bus station (COP$5400, 1½ hours). Alternatively, take the Turistren, which runs Saturday and Sunday from Bogotá to Zipaquirá. The train departs Bogotá's main train station, Sabana Station, at 8:15am, stops briefly at Usaquén Station at 9:05am and reaches Zipaquirá at 11:05am.

From Zipaquirá it's possible to catch a few daily buses on to Villa de Leyva.

A round-trip taxi from Bogotá should run between COP$140,000 and COP$160,000 including around 2½ hours' waiting time; one way in an off-peak UberX runs COP$75,000 or so.

About 15km northeast of Zipaquirá, the town of Nemocón is also home to a smaller (and less touristy) salt mine that can be visited daily. This one has been in use for 400 years and once served as the town hall. Head there by taxi.