A picturesque "magic city" that has inspired world literature, a walled colonial town known for its vast cultural capital and a busy seaside town with a burgeoning gastronomy, Cartagena is all that and so much more. Given the somewhat underwhelming welcome that some of the city's outer suburbs might offer, one is likely to find themselves pleasantly surprised by just how much the Colombian city has to offer! Walking tours of Old Town and the accompanying artsy quarters, endless restaurant hopping and relaxing beach days are all but a few highlights of this rather underrated vacation prospect.
But before you can start planning your long vacation days, you will need to find an ideal location to base yourself at. And that's where we step in. Here, we have listed some of the best neighbourhoods of Cartagena and what they might have in store for you traveller!
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The charming quarters of the old town make up a large part of El Centro, the go-to choice for travellers looking for a busy vacation. The neighborhood, contained in a walled city of sorts, has some of Cartagena's most recognisable landmarks. You can start your sightseeing tours from the 1800s-built Monumento Torre Del Reloj, a central gate featuring a bright golden clocktower; you can then find your way around the labyrinth of alleyways and cobblestone streets.
And the walking tours of the historic quarters give you the easy opportunity to marvel at other such colonial masterpieces as the Palace of Inquisition Cartagena Historical Museum, the Casa Del Marqués De Valdehoyos and Ciudad Amurallada. All of these are housed in majestic-looking mansions and are accompanied by extensive collections of exhibits and artefacts that will help you get to know the city a lot better.
The neighborhood's many plazas lend further character; most are centred around ornate centrepieces and stand right across from old-world churches and official buildings. They are also lined with shady trees and make for the perfect spots for middle-of-the-day stopovers. Talking of which, there's plenty of cafes and ice cream shops in the vicinity of El Centro that will lure you in with scents of freshly baked bread and several flavours of gelato. Indie boutiques also sell home-grown brands and souvenirs that serve as great reminders of your time in the picturesque city!
The neighborhood's status as a former administrative capital and contemporary tourism centre means easy access from all parts of the city. Avenida Venezuela runs along the southern border of El Centro and connects it to the major highways. Hotels are in plenty and among some of the best that Cartagena has to offer!
Lying just north of El Centro is the gastronomy capital of Cartagena, San Diego. The colourful Plaza del San Diego is the hub for all things gourmet; be it your casual trattorias with outdoor and rooftop seating, terraced cafes, take-out joints, cocktail bars, South American themed fine-dining restaurants, this place has it all. The streets here are just about as colourful and would qualify as some of the most photograph-worthy. The area can get busy during the evenings so make sure you arrive early to book your seat in the house.
Most of San Diego's northern border runs along the shoreline and offers unique opportunities of its own. While you will definitely enjoy spending time around the waterfront plazas and parks, gazing at the vast Caribbean sea, there's no experience that can quite match up to shopping at the Las Bóvedas Market. A historic site (which was first built as a dungeon, but has also been used as storehouses, garrisons and jail cells over the city's long history), the multi-cell structure today houses one of the city's most popular handicraft markets.
The neighborhood's proximity to El Centro solves a lot of the commuting issues that you could face elsewhere. If you do decide to get a hotel in the vicinity of San Diego, there's a good chance that you would still be in touching distance from all major city landmarks. A mansion used by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Nobel laureate who based his fictional town on Cartagena) also lies at a walking distance from Plaza San Diego and is a must-visit!
The compact neighborhood of Getsemani takes the gourmet options from San Diego and puts a laid back hipster spin on it. Vibrant mural and graffiti-laden streets lead up into equally immersive looking public squares; most of these are lined with pizza parlors and eateries that are popular with the younger population of the city. Home-grown eateries serving delicious Colombian cuisine are the other big draws of the intimate Getsemani quarters.
Closer to the waterfront, you will find several brewpubs and beer halls that make for great places for socialising. And apart from the burgeoning gastronomy, the other major aspect of the Getsemani is its street art. And it goes beyond the colourful graffiti (which has already become somewhat of an attraction on its own); such innovative exhibits as umbrella covered alleway of Callejón Angosto and inspired bronze sculptures only further the alternative vibe that has come to be attached to the neighborhood. In short, you will never get tired of roaming about the Getsemani streets!
The neighborhood lies a little south of El Centro and is fairly easy to reach. And given the attractive locale, you are likely to ditch the public transport and cabs in favour of walking from one attraction to the other. Try and find a nice boutique hotel or homestay by the side of the waterfront, which turns into a sight to behold during twilight hours.
Onto the famed Cartagena beaches then! The chic neighborhood of Bocagrande, lying at the southwestern tip of the peninsula is your one stop for all beachside activities. The eponymously named Playa de Bocagrande is a long strip of white sand, backed with a bustling avenue lined with seafood shacks, bars serving a wide range summertime cocktails, over-enthused street vendors and some of the city's biggest casinos.
Playa de Bocagrande can feel crowded during the summers, but you can still find space for your rental umbrellas and a relaxing day of sunbathing. However, if you're looking for other more proactive entertainment activities, you might want to look at some of the other nearby options. The likes of Playa El Laguito and Playa Castillo Grande offer outdoor biking trails, watersports and kayaking among other choices.
Bocagrande is also a popular destination for shopaholics as several city malls lie in the vicinity. The Bocagrande Square Mall, a central attraction of the neighborhood's central plaza houses international brands, restaurant chains and a movie theatre. To top it all off, the venue also offers sweeping views of the sea. Head along the Carrera 2 highway and you are bound to come across several home-grown fashion stores and boutiques that will draw you in with the impressive displays!
Carrera 2/Avenida San Martin is the major highway that connects Bocagrande to the central neighborhood (mainly El Centro). Accomodation wise, the neighborhood tilts towards the pricier side of the spectrum. You will find that some of the biggest names of the hospitality industry have set up shop in the vicinity, especially around the beachfront.
Another great neighborhood for an outdoorsy vacation is the fast-rising Marbella. Sandwiched between two vast water bodies (the Caribbean sea on the west and Lago de Carbrero on the east), it somewhat doubles on the perks that come along with serene-looking waterfronts. Besides the long running promenades and boardwalks, there's plenty of spaces that have been built for the sole purpose of providing proper room for morning walks and/or leisurely bike rides.
Businesses from across Cartagena, having realised the potential of the scenic setting have also come up with innovative ideas to promote tourism in the area. The western coast is especially big on these ideas: clubs and mixed-use spaces have come up around the waterfront and draws in a sizeable number of people, as does the vibrant "Cartagena" sign (which has quickly become one of the most photographed spots in the city). The small sandy Playa Marbella is unique in its quaint appeal; sans the street vendors and urban construction, it is one of the few places near the city's coast where you can enjoy a little quiet.
Marbella lies adjacent to the Cartagena airport, making it the right choice for in-transit travellers as well as the ones looking to stay close to the transport hub. The neighborhood is also still trying to find its footing, when compared to the other more mainstream parts of the city. And as a result of that, Marbella remains one of the most affordable parts of the city; finding a reasonably priced hotel and/or resort around here should not be any trouble at all!
And for the last neighborhood on the list, we bring to you the family-friendly Manga. Situated a little outside the traditional city centre that travellers look to for a quick escape from the big crowds. Among the major perks of being situated across the waterfront from El Centro and the ilk are uninterrupted views of the city skyline. Head over to the expansive Lácides Segovia Park for the best seat in the house; at a stone's throw is the Plaza Fuerte el Pastelillo, home to a mammoth stone fort with old-world cannons protecting the waterfront walls.
Equally stunning is the view of the bay from Muelle Turistico de Cartagena, a promenade lying adjacent to the Santa Cruz Marina. Yacht and cruise ships stay parked here at the latter venue and you can contact local service providers for guided excursions and trips to the nearby islands. Keep heading west from the marinal and you will come across some highly-rated seafood restaurants and seaside venues, amongst which Mabare Restaurante-Bar and Club de Pesca (which has been operating since the 1950s) are must visits.
Puente Roman connects the neighborhood to the Getsemani across the inlet channel. Manga also offers direct access to some of the inner city neighborhoods such as Pei del Cerri and Pie de Pipa (home to such hidden landmarks as the Las Botas Viejas sculpture and Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas). Hotels might not be as many in number, but you won't have to sweat too much for a nice homestay or bed and breakfast.
That's our complete list of neighbourhoods from Cartagena traveller. Take your pick and get packing for your next vacation; the Magic city awaits!