Cartagena is an amazingly beautiful city located right on the Caribbean sea in Colombia. It’s known for being a well-preserved colonial city occupied by the Spanish and now serves as an important city for tourism and shipping. You’ll be delighted by the warm, Caribbean climate and the charming streets lined with colorful buildings and balconies. When you visit Colombia, Cartagena is a necessary stop–even if you only have one day! Cartagena is perfect for all sorts of visitors–the history buff, the in love couple, the bachelorette, or the family! There’s something for everyone and that is reflected in this itinerary. While I recommend a longer time, it’s still definitely possible to spend one day in Cartagena.
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Cartagena de Indias is a large city on the Caribbean sea. It serves as the capital of the Bolivar department of Colombia. Cartagena is one of the most visited cities in South America and for good reason! The city was founded in 1533 after the Spanish took over the area and became a center for both slave trading and the Inquisition. Cartagena has a long and storied history from the days in the 16th century to when it became independent of Spain in the 1800s to the fighting that occurred thereafter. In the past two centuries, Cartagena has served as an important port and continues to serve as a center for imports and exports for Colombia.
Even though Cartagena has undergone revitalization and major growth, what brings tourists from all over the world is the famed walled portion of the city. The “Old City” of Cartagena is a walled portion of the city built during colonization. Many of the buildings are preserved and restored to reflect the original beauty and history of Cartagena. Today, over 1 million people call Cartagena home and it sees over 3 million tourists each year!
Tips for visiting Cartagena
- The national language spoken is Spanish. I found that many people spoke English but several people also didn’t speak English. It will be helpful to know a few phrases in Spanish to get around.
- The currency used in Cartagena is the Colombian peso.
- To get around, you’ll want to use a metered and marked taxi. Taxis are pretty much everywhere in the city. While it is available, Uber is illegal in Colombia so just stay away if you don’t want to run into any issues.
- Most of the tourist sites are within walking distance.
- The water is potable for foreigners! I’ve seen some other blogs and websites say you shouldn’t drink the water if you’re not from Cartagena, but we didn’t have an issue with it. However, I will say it tastes very *beachy* so we tried to stick to bottled water where we could.
- There are many locals trying to make a buck and have creative ways of doing so. You’ll see people selling sunglasses, hats, bags, etc on the street. There are rappers coming up to you trying to rap in your face for a few coins. And plenty of people may come up to you and just flat out ask for money. Whether you choose to spend money this way is up to you–I just think it’s important to be aware of the different schemes out there. You can (and should) always haggle, too.
- There are women in beautifully colorful dresses carrying baskets of fruit on their heads in Cartagena. They are called palenqueras and there’s a good chance you’ve seen a picture of them on your Cartagena research. Just be aware that you ARE expected to tip them if you want to take a picture of or with them.
When to visit Cartagena
Cartagena is located in the northeast corner of Colombia right on the Caribbean sea. Its location allows it to have a rather moderate, tropical climate year-round. Which is great because it allows you to enjoy the sun and sand no matter what time of year you visit! While there are some months that have slightly more rain than others, you’re almost guaranteed to have wonderful weather at any time you choose to visit Cartagena.
What to do in Cartagena with only one day
Visiting for longer? Check out this complete 4-day Cartagena itinerary!
Walking tour of the old city
First things first: after breakfast (make sure you book with me to get free breakfast at your hotel!), head to Parque Centenario for a walking tour. I love doing a walking tour in a new city because it allows me to learn some more history and get the lay of the land. Parque Centenario is located in the center between the walled city and Getsemani and is where you’ll meet your tour guide. The walking tour with Beyond Colombia begins at 10 am and is a fantastic way to learn more about Cartagena and get a feel for the city. The tour is free but tipping is recommended and always appreciated. Be sure to pack your bag full of water and wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen! There’s little shade along the tour and it gets HOT.
Lunch at Alma
Afterwards, grab lunch at Alma. You will NOT regret it. It’s a bit pricey but one of the best meals we had on the trip! It’s located in the Casa San Agustin, which is arguably the most luxurious hotel in all of Cartagena! You’ll get a few peeks of their famous pool as well. Going at lunch means you most definitely won’t have a wait and it’s a nice respite from the heat.
Interested in staying at the best hotel in Cartagena? Make sure you book Casa San Agustin! Reach out to book your trip with me which ensures you’ll get some VIP perks you wouldn’t get anywhere else.
Following a leisurely lunch at Alma, walk or take a taxi to the San Felipe castle. San Felipe is a fort that was built back in 1536 by the Spanish colony. It is very touristy but is neat to see and has great views of the city. Again, the heat and sun is relentless. Bring plenty of water!
Getsemani + Parque Centenario
On your way back, walk through the Getsemani neighborhood to admire the graffiti and the cool vibes. Then take the BEST detour ever through Parque Centenario. This park is home to 8 sloths, 14 monkeys, and 2 sloths!!! Look up into the trees and wait for swooshing sounds to find them. You can also just find the crowds of people looking into the trees as a dead giveaway something is around 😉 The locals also love sharing about the animals and are quick to point them out and tell you about them!
Dinner at Celele
For dinner, walk to Celele in Getsemani for dinner. Oh my gosh, this was my FAVORITE meal of our entire 2 week trip in Colombia! Celele is rated as one of the top 50 restaurants in Latin America and for good reason. The Caribbean inspired menu is small and changed often so you’re sure to get a unique and fresh meal. Make reservations ahead of time because this place is popular. We got lucky and were able to make a reservation about a week out but I have a feeling this won’t be the case for long.
Drinks at Alquimico
You can’t leave Cartagena without grabbing a cocktail at the famous Alquimico. Alquimico is voted one of the top 10 bars in the WORLD with uniquely crafted cocktails. It’s a 3 story bar with each level hosting a different vibe. Go straight to the rooftop for a fun vibe and a live DJ!
What to pack for Cartagena
Given the warm climate, you’ll experience hot and humid weather year-round in Cartagena. But the heat and humidity was surprisingly welcomed after a chilly few weeks in the rest of Colombia! You’ll want to pack light and comfortable clothes.
I lived in sundresses while in Cartagena! Have a flowy maxi dress for nicer dinners and a couple of breezy dresses for hot days in the sun. Birkenstock sandals or a very comfortable, lightweight sneaker will be perfect for walking around. Don’t bother with anything heeled–the cobblestone streets and heels are a mix for disaster.
Final thoughts on one day in Cartagena
There’s truly so much to see and do in Cartagena, it’s hard to see in one day… but not impossible! Spending one day in Cartagena will make for a very busy day, but you can see many of the top spots in 24 hours. I recommend staying overnight so you can spend one day exploring the city and one day boating around the Rosario Islands. Pack your walking shoes and get ready to learn, explore, and eat all in one day. It’ll be so worth it! While it takes some serious planning, it’s definitely possible to enjoy just one day in Cartagena if it’s all you’ve got!