Discover Cartagena like a local
Insider’s travel guide to Cartagena, Colombia
Are you visiting Colombia? Looking for some Cartagena travel tips? Want to explore Cartagena like a local? Meet our city insider, Portia Hart. Portia is co-founder of Townhouse, a boutique hotel and rooftop bar in Cartagena, as well as of a beach club located on one of the islands off Cartagena, Blue Apple Beach House.
The city is famous for its Ciudad Amurallada (clock tower), Playa Blanca on Baru Island and of course, for ceviche. But how does a local spend here time? We asked Portia to give us the low down including; how to get around Cartagena, where to stay, where to eat (including where to find the best vegetarian food in Cartagena), where to relax, where she thinks are the best bars in Cartagena, and more. Read on to find out more.
A bit about Cartagena:
How to get around in Cartagena: How do you best navigate your city?
On foot. Cartagena is tiny, and it’s so gorgeous you won’t want to be moving too fast in case you miss something.
What do you think Cartagena does better than other cities?
Apart from the year-round sunshine? The combination of an astonishingly beautiful and well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage sites set in a living, breathing city, with great restaurants, bars and social scene. This combined with the joie de vivre of the local people makes Cartagena one of the most immersive, enjoyable cities in the world.
Where is your favourite view of the city?
The view from our rooftop bar, Townhouse, next to Plaza Fernandez de Madrid. You can see every one of the main sites in Cartagena, plus the sunset. Of course, even more enjoyable with an award-winning cocktail in hand (my top tip is the Basil Fawlty)
Where is your favourite respite from city life?
I get out to the islands every single day (as that is where I run our beach club and hotel, Blue Apple Beach House). In just half an hour on a boat, you feel like you’re a world away from the bustle and heat of the city, with uninterrupted views out across the ocean, a cooling sea-breeze and as many fresh coconuts as you can drink.
What is your favourite building in Cartagena?
The historic walled city of Cartagena is a stunning example of colonial architecture. It’s difficult to choose one standout building, because the city ties together so perfectly.
Any etiquette tips for visitors?
Stop asking about Pablo Escobar. No, he really isn’t the most interesting thing about the country and yes, everyone really is bored of talking about it.
Where to stay in Cartagena
Where would you stay if you were visiting, and why?
I’d always choose to be in the Walled City or in neighbouring Getsemani (often referred to as the Brooklyn of Cartagena) as both are within walking distance from all the major sites, bars and restaurants. Plus, in these areas of the city, the hotels – all built in adapted colonial or republican palaces – are truly stunning architecturally.
Is there a local delicacy we should try?
Every region of Colombia has its specialities, and visitors from Bogota or the interior of the country won’t leave Cartagena without having had a whole fried fish with coconut rice and fried plantain. Cartagena is also known for its fried snacks – “Fritos” – (there is an annual festival dedicated to them). Not the healthiest, but wickedly delicious! Arepa de huevo con carne (a deep-fried egg with mince beef) is my favourite.
Where is Cartagena’s best kept dining secret?
The rooftop at Townhouse is known for its cocktails. What few visitors realise, is that the tapas are also excellent. As Townhouse doesn’t take reservations, but the kitchen is open from 8am – midnight without stopping, it’s a great option for anyone who doesn’t have a reservation or isn’t looking for a formal dining experience. All dishes are designed to be shared, there is a mix of Colombian, Spanish and American dishes, and a there is an excellent selection for vegetarians (the GM himself is veggie).
Which Cartagena restaurant is the best value for money?
Caffé Lunatico in Getsemani (Calle Espiritu Santu). Chef-Owner Maria Angelica Delgado trained with some of the world’s best in the Basque Country before returning home to her native Cartagena. She serves up Basque classic dishes and pintxos, made with Colombian ingredients and a local twist.
And the best to splurge?
Just next door to Lunatico, the recently opened Celele. Founded by two young chefs, Jaime and Sebastian, Celele is a showcase for Colombian Caribbean cuisine and ingredients that even many locals might not know. For 3 years prior to opening, Jaime and Sebastian scoured the whole Caribbean coastline, searching our weird and wonderful ingredients, and learning of long-held recipes from ‘abuelos’ in rural villages, before adapting them to modern tastes and techniques. Everything on your plate is sustainably and locally sourced. The creativity of the dishes and exquisite presentation put Celele on a truly international level.
Which bar in Cartagena is best value for money?
La Caponera, just outside the Torre de Reloj. The beers are about $1 each, and it is a favourite with local salsa pros.
And the best splurge?
With almost more awards than they have cocktails on the menu, El Baron has practically become a destination in its own right. Most people sit outside on the square, but to get a taste for the real magic, watch the bartenders at work from one of only 6 barstools inside. Small, and perfectly formed, everything on the menu here is great. The Gin Basil Smash is my favourite, and 30 cents from every cocktail sold goes to Green Apple, a local charity supported by bars and restaurants that creates jobs through recycling.
Which bar in Cartagena has the best atmosphere?
It’s difficult not to find great atmosphere in a lively city like Cartagena. I currently love our bar Members Only, for being the only place in the city to have live jazz, every day. Sometimes, living in a place as touristy as Cartagena, as a local you crave something international. We can’t all be dancing salsa all the time. So, Members Only, with its speakeasy-burlesque feel, has become a favourite haunt for locals looking for a brief escape. Of course, this also makes it the perfect stop for in-the-know tourists who want to get off the beaten track.
Which bar does Cartagena’s best cocktail?
I prefer a tequila or a mezcal to a cocktail, generally. But I think the Gin Basil Smash at El Baron would be my go-to if I only drank one cocktail for the rest of my life.
And the best wine list?
The wine scene still has some way to go in Colombia. Wine buffs beware! The shared bar between Carmen and Moshi has the most extensive list, and you can also sample dishes from both restaurants there. It’s one of my favourite mid-week hangouts.
And finally, where is the best place to party in Cartagena?
I live next door to Alquimico, so I’m at great danger of ‘popping in’ on my way home, any day of the week. This is probably the biggest bar in Cartagena, set over three floors with a great rooftop. I love the décor and the atmosphere – it’s my local so I know the bartenders and the DJs, and I can stop by for a mezcal and always feel comfortable. It’s the perfect place between bar and club. You can dance if you like, but also enjoy a conversation at the bar. You’ll find me here until closing.
Culture in Cartagena:
Who is your favourite local artist?
Diana Herrera – photographer and artist. Born and raised in Cartagena and her work really captures the spirit, colours and personality of the place.
Why do you love living in Cartagena?
We live where everyone else wants to come on holiday. Fabulous weather all year round, sea views whichever way you look, heritage architecture and an international social and dining scene. Yes, I miss going to the ballet and skiing, but that’s about the only thing Cartagena doesn’t offer!
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