It’s easy to see why the writer Gabriel García Márquez fell in love with the charming city of Cartagena (which we included in our Fodor's Go List 2014) on Colombia’s northern coast: The city’s vibrant UNESCO-protected Old Town, which evokes Florence and New Orleans, is perfect for leisurely stroll along its Spanish-built city walls. Expect colorful colonial architecture, narrow cobbled streets, horse-drawn carriages, magnificent cathedrals, leafy plazas, open-air cafes, and lush ornamental vines and flowers cascading off balconies. Fashionable, friendly locals include worldly chefs, stylish designers, and avant-garde artists who only add to the energetic, soulful Colombian culture. Here are five reasons to visit Cartagena now, before the sultry summer months arrive.
Dinner, Drinks, and Dancing
Cartagena’s gastronomic scene is all the rage these days; of course, it helps that it's built on access to fresh seafood, meat, and Columbian staples such as coconut rice and salty-sweet crispy plantains. Start at chef Juan Felipe Camacho’s airy, stylish Don Juan; next door, chef Alejandro Ramirez oversees Maria, a lively seafood-focused sibling with handcrafted cocktails. For something light, cozy Cande is perfect for fresh ceviche, crabmeat-stuffed eggplant, and a crisp white wine. The luxe Marea by Rausch from chefs/brothers Jorge and Mark Rausch specializes in raw seafood with stellar night views of the Old City. Elsewhere, sophisticated mainstay La Vitrola is a dressy spot for both locals and tourists, while the multi-story Frank & Frank (Calle del Colegio No 34-25, +57 56686124) is where the hip set meets. In the emerging Getsemani neighborhood, don’t miss moody Demente (Plaza de la Trinidad, +57 56604226), with delicious tapas and mojitos made with local Dictador rum. Sunset is great time to relax with a Club Colombia beer at Café Del Mar (Baluarte de Santo Domingo, +57 56646515). Later, kick up your heels at the legendary Café Havana, where authentic charm and pulsating salsa converge.
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The brand-new, chic concept store St. Dom (3370 Calle Santo Domingo), is a clean, mod space offering pieces made by Colombian designers. Expect a well-curated blend of unique jewelry from Claudia Trejos, upscale clothing, and sophisticated housewares in bright patterns. The boho Colombia beachwear outfitter Ondade Mar has design-savvy swimsuits and cool leather shoes. Fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi also has a boutique at the still-popular Tcherassi Hotel, with a collection of bold clothing, textured purses, and beaded jewelry. The small, smart selection of housewares at Agua is great for unique leather goodies, while the expansive Casa Chiqui houses interior collections from around the world, including tapestries from Colombian artist Jorge Lizarazo. For souvernirs, many shops carry Panama hats and sombreros, but be sure to compare prices before buying.
Strolling Through the Old City
Most of your time should be spent getting lost in the Old City, as Cartagena is superbly manageable. Part of the fun is not having a set plan and simply wandering around the historic inner-walled districts of El Centro and San Diego. The clock tower, Puerta del Reloj, is the symbol of the city. Step back in time inside the visually stunning Heredia Theatre (Carrera 11 #5-60), made of Portuguese wood, and featuring a marble staircase and spectacular hand-painted ceiling and stage curtain by Colombian artist Enrique Grau. Art aficionados should visit the compact Museo del Arte Moderno (Plaza de la Aduana, +57 56645815) with a focus on native contemporary artists, while NH Gallery showcases works by emerging artists. Your only obligatory taxi ride should be a visit to the sprawling, 18th-century Spanish complex Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which offers expansive views of the city.
A Day At the Beach
Depart early for a one-hour jaunt to the white-sand beaches and azure Caribbean waters of Islas des Rosario, a beautiful archipelago made up of 27 tiny islands. After a mid-morning scuba dive or snorkel session, head to the beaches where locals hawk freshly caught seafood and colorful jewelry. Before you head back to Cartagena, find an outside table at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua and order a coastal lunch of local fried red snapper. If you’re not an adventurous sea-dweller or have young children, consider spending the night at the hotel and boat back to Cartagena in the calmer morning waters.
Cartagena is ideal for intimate, centrallylocated boutique retreats. The chic, 31-room Casa St. Agustin (on our 2013 Award List) is a lush haven of wood-beamed ceilings, hand-painted tiles, and tropical fabrics housed in a 17th-century mansion. Or try the 12-room Casablanca B&B, a dreamy, whitewashed haven of restored colonial style with a rooftop pool. For a resort feel, Santa Clara (another Fodor’s 2013 Award List winner) is a former monastery with French inspiration and a lovely courtyard with a friendly toucan.
Kate Donnelly is a freelance writer based in New York. She’s the founder of the creative collaborative, From Your Desks. She’s a Contributing Editor at Fathom and her work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Forbes, The Huffington Post and Refinery 29. She travels for the food. Follow Kate on Twitter @k8bdonnelly.