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Agua is my favourite of all hotels, and if you choose to stay there, remember to also book a night in their outpost on the island of Barú. It is a beautifully restored colonial mansion, with a rooftop pool and bar, looking out to amazing views of the old city. There are only 3 rooms and they fill up fast so reserve ahead.It is worth it! Note – even if you are staying at another hotel in Cartagena, you can luckily still book at the Barú location.
This very elegant hotel, decorated by American designer Kelly McRorie, originated from a trio of traditional white-washed colonial buildings. Inside, you’ll find original frescoes on the walls and centuries-old wooden beamed-ceilings. It also has a great restaurant called Alma that serves amazing contemporary Colombian cuisine.
Another very charming boutique hotel in an 18th century house in the heart of the old city. The franco-colombian couple who owns it has poured themselves and various treasures from their travels into the decoration of the hotel’s just eight rooms.
Named from the Sanskrit word for bliss, Ananda definitely delivers on creating a happy, peaceful, and luxe vibe. The hotel has a great rooftop pool that’s ideal for tanning if you decide to spend one of your days in the city.
I love this hotel’s colonial-inspired, elegant décor. It makes it feel very authentic and intimate, as though you’re staying in someone’s beautiful house rather than in a hotel at all. Note: they serve a truly delicious breakfast.
This is the quintessential Cartagena restaurant. With its Old Havana charm and its impeccable food, this establishment is a mainstay favorite amongst everyone from old-school locals, to the glitzy socials of Bogotá. If you are lucky enough to get a table during the holiday season, you may get the distinct feeling that everyone seems to know each other – and they probably do. Go for dinner (when you may be serenaded by a live guitar), order yourself a mojito or two, and enjoy the menu of local and Italian-influenced fare. The carpaccio de mero and carpaccio de pulpo – paper-thin sliced grouper and octopus – are not to be missed. I also adore the camarones en hamaca – shrimp served over fried plantains.
At his eponymous restaurant, Colombian actor and man-about-town, Juan Del Mar, turns out the most popular pizza in the city. The sidewalk seating and rooftop tables are ideal for a romantic dinner tête-a-tête, or raucous dinner party before a night out. Try the Carbonara Pizza – a very worthwhile indulgence. They also do delivery & take-out, which can be a dream after a night of partying!
Perfect in you’re in the mood for a more formal dinner, this restaurant has a lovely setting and fresh, contemporary design. The blue and white color scheme creates a perfect escape from the hot days in Cartagena. My favorite dish here is the lemon risotto, but all of their food is amazing. The owners have a second restaurant next door called Maria, which is great for a quick, more casual bite.
You’ll find this restaurant in the Getsemani district, Cartagena’s city’s up and coming neighborhood. Located outside the walls of the Old City, the area still has the same charming, colonial-style architecture. It’s perfect for a casual dinner; go for take-out pizza, and sit in the plaza next door to eat, drink wine, and watch the locals. You most likely won’t see any tourists here.
SNACKS & SWEETS
If you’re craving dessert, stop by this bakery owned by the much-loved Cartagena local, Mila. Her signature chocolate cake topped with dulce de leche-based icing and dusted with gold leaf is irresistible.
Rosita is arguably Cartagena’s “oldest” baker. Her shop goes very far back, and virtually only locals know about it. Her specialty is coconut pie and they also have some yummy fudge brownies.
You can’t leave Colombia without trying pan de bonos, a much-loved traditional pastry. Go for breakfast and if you have time to spare, wait until they come fresh out of the oven. No guarantee you will not get addicted; one is usually not enough!
For some respite from the heat, grab a popsicle in virtually any flavor you can imagine. If you’d like to try a distinctly local taste, try one in arequipe or lulo fruit.
No matter where you end up going, there are a few things you just can’t leave Cartagena without trying, so keep your eyes peeled for these:
Coconut RiceCoconut PieLimonada de Coco (Coconut Lemonade)Kola Roman (Colombian soft-drink bottled in CartagenaTropical fresh fruit juices (Look for nispero, zapote, and corozo juice)Juices- fresh fruit juices of very tropical fruits such as nispero, zapote, corozo)Arepa de Huevo (Corn cakes stuffed with a fried egg. A truly religious experience.)Patacones (Fried plantains)Suero Costeño & Haogao (Colombian version of sour cream and a tomato &onion sauce. Spread these on arepas, patacones, or pretty much anything) pretty much anything
Located by one of the Old City’s fort walls, it’s an ideal spot for sunset drinks. Locals like to go for their afternoon beers and to listen to salsa.
This bar/club is always reliable for a night out. Go post-dinner for great drinks and fun music. Around Christmas and New Year’s, everyone seems to congregate here, so be prepared for a full house! Fun fact – Hilary Clinton was snapped downing a few beers here back in 2012.
By far the best salsa club in the city, no other bar feels as authentic as this. The tiny venue, decorated with vintage salsa posters and record cases, fills up quickly in the high season, and always manages to attract a perfect mix of locals and chic visitors.
Another local favorite, this spot is a bit more underground. You’ll hear lots of local music – not only salsa, but also reggaeton, reggae, and champeta.
This club is a bit more mainstream in that you’ll definitely hear some international music playing.
For high end artisan crafts, this is your one-stop shop. From colorful mochila bags, to hand-woven hammocks, to pre-columbian style jewelry, you’ll find some very cool souvenirs.
This local bikini brand can now be found all over the world, but that’s no reason not to stop in and stock up. Their fun prints and flattering cuts have made them the go-to swimwear designer for chic Colombians.
My brother and I opened this boutique just over a year ago. Despite its size, we keep the tiny boutique very carefully curated so we can somehow pack in all of your beach essentials. Pick up some sunglasses (our Shwoods brand frames are my favorite) or a pair of Swims waterproof loafers (a must for a day in the islands!).
My mother, Chiqui Echavarria, opened this home furnishings & accessories store as an outlet for her amazing eye for design. It’s filled with incredible treasures that she discovers on her travels to exotic places like Bali, Thailand, and Morocco, and then imports to Colombia. Anything you find in the shop – from 7-foot-tall statues of Buddhas brought from India, to intricate silver jewelry from Mexico, to wooden doors from Indonesia – you would probably find in our house as well!
This is the French swimwear line’s Cartagena outpost, which I actually opened along with my brother and business partner. Within months of opening, it seemed like every man from Bogotá seemed to be wearing one of their signature trunks! Soon we will carry Vilebrequin’s women’s line as well, which is actually only available in a few of their global stores.
This jewellery designer from Bogota always has fun little charm bracelets and necklaces – perfect gifts to take back home
The best shop for custom-made, traditional linen shirts known as guayaberas. They’re the unofficial uniform for men at warm-weather Colombian festivities, so if you happen be in town for a wedding, make sure you/your boyfriend picks one up! Even Bill Clinton found one here.
Besides all the eating, drinking, and shopping you’ll be doing, here are a few activities you shouldn’t miss:
Take a ride on a Chiva – Colombians’ interpretation of a party bus.
Rent a boat or take a ferry to the stunning islands of Baru and Islas del Rosario, about 30-45 minutes from the Old City. Your hotel will be able to help with all arrangements.
…And, finally, a few things to avoid:
Majagua and Playa Blanca – two tourist traps you do not need to get suckered into.
Beaches around the new and old cities of Cartagena. If you are craving the ocean, get out to the islands! They are well worth the trip.
Words by Cloclo EchavarriaPhotos by Naomi Meroz
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