Cartagena is arguably Colombia's most picture perfect city, filled with candy colored houses, excellent restaurants, and night life galore. I spent a week exploring the city while studying Spanish for a week — here's the lowdown on where I went, ate, drank, and stayed.
Where I visited
On our first day in town, we made a reservation to head to a beach we'd heard was gorgeous (Gente de Mar) and hopped in a cab to get to the nearest beach possible in the meantime. Unfortunately, our trip to Gente de Mar couldn't happen the next day (I think there were no more boats left?) so at least we had a little time to chillax at the water before we spent the week in class. I've heard Gente de Mar is amazing, so I'd try to get there before picking Bocagrande, but if you're looking for the quickest beach access outside the old city, Bocagrande is still an OK bet.
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
The Spanish built Castillo sits just outside the old city of Cartagena and is an easy taxi away (or slightly long walk if you don't mind a lot of sun and crossing a couple roads with fast moving traffic). My friend and I headed here directly from Bocagrande and wandered around for a while nerding out on history (well, I nerded out while my friend patiently indulged my enthusiasm). The coolest thing here are the tunnels built underneath the Castillo which made it impregnable to outside forces.
Palacio de la Inquisición
This museum and building is well worth a visit, although some knowledge of Spanish will be helpful as only about a third of the signs are translated into English. Still, a beautiful view from the second and third floor of the park outside (and the Catedral looming over the city), as well as the opportunity to see the torture devices and guillotine and rope used for executing offenders during a not-so-nice era of the Catholic Church's history.
Museo de Arte Moderno
Our Spanish school offered a free tour (led in Spanish) to the Museo de Arte Moderno, which I thought would be fun to participate in. This art museum is small, and while listening to a guide speak in Spanish for two hours certainly helped my listening comprehension, I think I might have gotten more out of the experience with some help understanding why the paintings were meaningful to Colombian history and culture. However, if you have a couple hours to kill in Cartagena and are looking for a good way to get out of the sun and heat, this is a good bet — the building was the Spanish army's armory, so at the very least it is interesting from an architectural perspective.
Where I ate and drank
Cartagena has no shortage of great places to eat and drink, although the prices certainly reflect its appeal to the upscale nature of its tourists. Since we were staying and studying in Getsemaní, we ate a great deal more in our neighborhood than in the historical center of the old city, which was fine by me as the restaurants all seemed way more interesting and were less expensive.
Oh La La
My friend and I stumbled upon this place on our first night wandering the historical center of Cartagena and had a delicious French meal, with the highlights being octopus and an interesting take on shepherd's pie.
Bistrot Oh La La
From the same owners of Oh La La is Bistrot Oh La La in Getsemaní, serving fresh sandwiches, salads and smaller dishes during the day.
Popped in here for a refreshing iced coffee one afternoon. Seems like a nice place to grab a drink, didn't eat here though so have no idea about the food. On the border of Getsemaní heading towards the centro of the old city.
A lovely little café in Getsemaní featuring healthy sandwiches, wraps, salads, smoothies and freshly made juices, as well as great coffee (also sold by the pound for those looking for a nice gift to bring back home). I ate here three times during my week in Cartagena and enjoyed every meal thoroughly.
This restaurant was recommended to my friend and I and it did not disappoint! I can't remember what we ordered, but it's located on a hip street in the hip barrio of Getsemaní and was reasonably priced — what more do you need?
Pizza Basilica had the advantage of being around the corner from our hotel in Getsemaní, which means we had two means there and even ordered the same pizza twice, too. Fresh, thin crust pizzas with even fresher toppings (in our case, prosciutto and arugula) and tasty salad with a plethora of ripe vegetables.
Plaza de la Trinand
Not a restaurant per se, but budget seekers should make their way to the Plaza de la Trinidad in the heart of Getsemaní to grab a bite to eat from one of the food carts that sets up shop at dusk. We had incredible hamburguesas topped with teeny tiny fried potatoes, lettuce and tomato and some kind of special sauce that made the whole thing magic. (As did the price, as it was a meager 6,000 pesos.) Also in the square you'll find a food cart making waffles and a tiny store that sells ice cream popscicles. You can enjoy your food in the busy square, filled with locals, hipsters, hippies, expats, tourists, musicians and every other kind of person under the sun — we even caught a zumba class in action on Friday night. Worth checking out, especially if you're looking for a meal on the cheap that's filled with local flavor.
An American-y restaurant serving up hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as some other stick-to-your-ribs grub. But the atmosphere is thankfully more upscale than your local suburban chain, and the hot dogs were, too.
Di Silvio Trattoria
When you want a break from local plates of meat, rice, plantains and salad, make your way to Getsemaní's Di Silvio for delicious pasta, pizza and one of the most out-of-this-world lasagnas I've ever tasted.
Located on the second floor of an old building looking out at the Plaza de San Diego in the old city of Cartagena is El Balcón, a tropical-inspired bar serving delicious Caribbean drinks (hola, mojitos!) in a charming setting. Get there for their 2-for-1 happy hour — at the normal "just like home" prices, it's worth it.
Yes, it's touristy. But, there's a live band playing salsa music and there's dancing anywhere there's room. It's crowded, it's hot, and it's honestly a lot of fun.
Looking out at the old city from the barrio of Getsamaní, Quiebra Canto is a nice mix of gringo backpackers and locals who come to dance salsa into the wee hours of the night.
Where I studied
I took a five day, intensive Spanish class at Nueva Lenuga, combined with 5 hours of dance class learning salsa and bachata! The classes were great (3 hours of grammar, 1 hour of conversation, all taught completely in Spanish), and I miraculously was placed in an intermediate level that was definitely challenging, despite resuming a weekly Spanish class in San Francisco two months before. I would highly recommend Nueva Lengua to anyone looking for a good Spanish language school in Colombia, although real Spanish language aficionados might prefer the Medellin location as the accent is meant to be one of the clearest in the world (more so than even Spain!) and if I had studied in Cartagena for more than a week, I might have found myself a bit bored with the city. The school allows you to study in its 3 locations (including also Bogota), so if you wanted to study for longer, you might opt to attend a week or two in different places while traveling through Colombia.
Where I stayed
Casa Blanca Hotel Boutique
This is a lovely little hotel in Getsemaní, which had the added advantage of being literally a minute's walk from Nueva Lengua. My room, while small, had everything I needed to be comfortable for the week: a good bed, a small desk, small closet (conveniently designed in such a way that it was set back a bit from the bedroom itself), and great shower. There was also a very filling breakfast included as well as a terrace on the top floor that was the perfect setting for having a sunset beer. The downside was there was a fair amount of street noise that's audible inside the room and while most of the staff was unbelievably kind and helpful, the woman running the joint was the most no-nonsense, severe person I've yet encountered in the hospitality industry. Example? My room cost $42 when I booked on booking.com, but when I wanted to reserve for an additional 5 nights during the week, was told the price would be raised to $52. That's the first time that's ever happened. But, despite a few nuisances, it was a fabulous place to stay, as convenient as could be for studying and for exploring Cartagena in general.