Be warned: It’s difficult not to fall in love with Cartagena, Colombia. This white-hot Caribbean destination will entice you to start planning your return trip while you’re still there. What’s most lovable about Cartagena is that it has retained its colonial charm, especially inside the walled Old City, while embracing a new wave of stylish hotspots. Modern-day Cartagena can be best described as a picturesque port city with a one-of-a-kind cosmopolitan vibe, making it the perfect backdrop for some of the best travel photos you could possibly share on Instagram.
Cartagena’s resurgence as a global attraction has been in the making since 1984. That’s when the United Nations declared the Old City a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bringing in global funds to revitalize and preserve the city’s historical and cultural value dating back to the 16th century. The beautification aspect is most obvious in repainting of the colonial homes with vivid colors that live up to the Caribbean’s striking natural color schemes, like the dramatic ocean blues and bright orange sunsets.
The city’s makeover has been attracting world-class restaurants, exotic boutiques and swanky cocktail lounges, adding a new layer of splendor. The walled Old City is very walkable and safe even at night, so don’t be afraid to get lost. Just follow your instinct (or the sound of the horse-drawn carriage trotting on the cobblestone streets) to discover some of the most colorful colonial homes you’ll ever see, like the one above on Carrera 9 between Calle 37 and Calle 38.
If you want a little bit more direction, here’s a guide to all the Instagram-worthy hotspots and hidden gems in Cartagena.
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
The best luxury hotel in Cartagena, at least according to Colombiana Sofia Vergara, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara will certainly fulfill any jetsetter’s dream. The hotel boasts a majestic pool, a world-class spa, an authentic Fernando Botero painting in the presidential suite, a quaint courtyard full of palm trees, Lanvin bath products and access to a private island 45 minutes away.
El Barón Cocktail Lounge
Mixology is having a moment in Cartagena and there’s no better place to taste it than at El Barón in the Plaza de San Pedro Claver. This intimate and stylish cocktail draws its inspiration from a gentlemen clubhouse and would not be out of place in James Bond’s travel hit-list, if the secret agent preferred mojitos over martinis.
Casa de Gabriel García Márquez
It’s no surprise that Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author and father of magical realism, would choose to reside in Cartagena. He maintained a house and a garden in the Old City and would visit Cartagena often. Now, you can take an audio tour that brings the Gabo’s fiction to life in the city that so deeply inspired him.
Step inside the Hotel Ananda to discover one of the most buzzed-about restaurants in Cartagena’s vibrant culinary scene. Carmen is not afraid to experiment with traditional seafood dishes and Caribbean flavors. Plus, the presentation will certainly thrill Instagram foodies, using flavorful foams and colorful sauces. Try the reasonably-priced tasting menu, but make a reservation ahead of time, especially if you want to dine in the courtyard.
When Silvia Tcherassi, a fashion designer, decided to turn a colonial mansion into a boutique hotel the end-result was simply gorgeous. The upstairs of the luxe Tcherassi Hotel has only seven rooms, each individually designed and decorated, so expect an intimate stay akin to staying at a fabulous friend’s house. Downstairs, the Italian restaurant, cocktail lounge, beautiful courtyard and pulsating music draw more of a crowd – Cartagena’s it-crowd, that is.
This cutesy gelato shop will certainly appease your sweet tooth, serving traditional flavors as well as tropical ones to mix it up. Gelateria Paradiso the perfect way to cool off during a walk around Cartagena, a city that’s hot and humid pretty much all hours of the day year-round.
Casa Chiqui Boutique
Cater to your home décor obsession by visiting Casa Chiqui, a giant boutique featuring all your interior design staples. Peruse through the furniture, tapestries and exotic imports from all over the world, including metallic purses made from Mexican silver and silk scarves from Thailand. There are also plenty of Colombian-made artifacts, as well.
A three-year-old restaurant, Maria serves flavorful dishes that complement its vibrant atmosphere. Try the shrimp and chorizo risotto, a staff favorite, and for dessert the hibiscus flower gelatin served with tres leches ice cream.
Abaco Libros y Café
This cozy bookshop and coffee shop sure is tiny, which helps in bumping shoulders with fellow book lovers. The exposed brick walls are crammed with literary classics (Gabriel García Márquez included) as well as contemporary works, travel guides, postcards, and other thoughtful gifts for book lovers. Most of the books are in Spanish.
St. Dom Boutique
Cartagena may not yet have the reputation of resort towns like St. Barts or St. Tropez, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t dress just as fabulously. For all your resort and swimwear needs, check out St. Dom featuring the hottest designers and all the looks of the season.
Hipsters flock south of the Old City to the graffiti-covered Getsemani neighborhood to hang out in places like Demente, a no-frills bar housed in a roofless building. Walk past the portrait illustrations of Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson towards the large patio, where you can hang out in picnic tables and order a cold one or a wood-fire oven pizza.
Even though Cartagena is a coastal city, locals are not impressed by the city’s beaches. So, if you’re looking for a breathtaking beach vacation, take an hour-long ferry ride to the world-famous Rosario Islands. This collection of countless tiny islands with pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters are perfect for relaxing, swimming and snorkeling. One of the tiny island houses belonged to Botero.