3 Days in Cartagena: The Perfect Cartagena Itinerary for First-Timers

Cartagena was easily my favorite city we visited during our 2-week trip to Colombia. The colorful colonial buildings, tropical beaches, and modern, glamorous neighborhoods make the city a perfect blend of old and new.

You could easily spend a week here strolling through the colorful streets, exploring the unique districts, and indulging in mouthwatering Colombian food. However, I think that 3 days in Cartagena is ideal for first-time visitors who want to get a flavor of a few different cities in one trip.

If you’re planning on visiting Cartagena for the first time, this incredibly detailed 3 day Cartagena itinerary will help you make the most out of your time in this stunning city. It also includes a free map, lots of insider tips, and of course, a bunch of restaurant recommendations!

*Disclosure: This post contains a few affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through my link.*

Are you planning a last-minute trip to Cartagena?

If your trip is coming up soon and you still haven’t booked anything, we have you covered! Below you can find our top picks when it comes to hotels, tours, getting around, and more.

Best Tours and Experiences in Cartagena

Best Places to Stay in Cartagena

Can’t speak Spanish very well? As people in Cartagena (and in Colombia in general) don’t really speak English, our best tip is to download Spanish on Google Translate so you can use it offline! Trust us, you’re going to need it.

Colorful street with colonial buildings in the Old City of Cartagena

Overview of Your 3 Days in Cartagena

Breakdown of your 3 days in Cartagena

  • Day 1: San Felipe de Barajas, the Walled City, Getsemani, Cafe del Mar
  • Day 2: Rosario Islands, rooftop bar
  • Day 3: Playa Blanca or Totumo Mud Volcano Experience, Bocagrande

Map for your 3 day Cartagena itinerary

Below you can find a customized map that includes all the locations you’re going to visit on this Cartagena itinerary.

I marked your 3 days in Cartagena with different colors – I used blue for the first, green for the second, and red for the third day, so you can easily see which places you’re going to visit each day.

How to use this map: This map is fully interactive, so you can move around, zoom in/zoom out, and click on the icons. If you want to see a larger map, click on the bracket in the upper right corner. To see more details and the different layers, click on the tab in the upper left corner. If you want to save it for later, click on the star icon next to the name of the map. Then simply open Google Maps either on your desktop or phone, go to ‘Saved’/’Maps’, and open the map whenever you need it.

Day 1 of Your 3 Day Cartagena Itinerary

Visit Castle San Felipe de Barajas early in the morning

The first port of call on your Cartagena itinerary is an early morning trip to Castle San Felipe de Barajas, the city’s most iconic historical landmark.

This fortress is just a few years shy of its 500th birthday and is one of the most impressive remnants of the Spanish Empire in Colombia. 

Positioned on a hill overlooking Cartagena, Castle San Felipe de Barajas was once a vital defense fort, but it’s now an insight into the country’s turbulent history and a fantastic viewpoint.

My favorite time to visit is just after sunrise when the castle first opens at 7 am. At this time, the grounds are usually peaceful, and you can soak up the views without interruption.

Another advantage of arriving early is that you’ll beat the heat and humidity. The castle doesn’t offer much shade and Cartagena’s weather can be intense, so it’s best to explore outdoor attractions like this one in the morning.

Beyond the amazing views, there’s plenty to keep you occupied inside the castle itself. You can climb through the many tunnels and staircases and explore the different levels.

Tickets will set you back 30,000 COP ($7.60) and can be bought in person at the ticket desk or online ahead of time.

Something to be aware of is that most of the information on site is in Spanish, but there are always guides available at the entrance if you want to do a deeper dive into the history of this fortress.

Castle San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena
View of the Walled City from Castle San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena

Breakfast at Época Café Bar

After visiting the castle, it’s finally time for breakfast! Around a 20-minute walk from Castle San Felipe de Barajas, you’ll find Época Café Bar, one of my favorite breakfast spots in Cartagena.

Between the decor, the staff, and the food, there’s nothing about this spot that I don’t love. This is Colombia, after all, so the coffee is also a stand-out feature!

The baristas here are incredibly knowledgeable and brilliant at explaining the entire coffee-making process, making it a must for all my fellow caffeine addicts.

I recommend trying the Calentado Época or the Chilaquiles for breakfast, both of which are absolutely delicious. You’ll also find lots of other items on the menu such as huevos shakshuka, acai bowls, pancakes, and waffles.

If you fancy something light or want to finish your breakfast with something sweet, their pastries are exquisite, too.

Indoor tables at Epoca Cafe Bar, Cartagena

Explore the Walled City

After breakfast, you’ll be in the perfect spot to explore the rest of the walled city, the charming historic district of Cartagena.

Because pirates frequently attacked Cartagena, the walls were constructed to protect the city and are still standing today as the best preserved in all of South America.

The walls run for 11 km (6.8 miles) and are a sight in and of themselves. Within the ruins are some of Cartagena’s most beautiful and brightly colored colonial buildings, many of which have been transformed into gorgeous bars and restaurants.

Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandria, Cartagena
Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría

I strongly encourage you to stick to comfy shoes for the first of your 3 days in Cartagena. From walking along the old stone walls to admiring the architecture and picking up cute souvenirs, you’ll spend most of your time in the Walled City on your feet. 

Some of the must-see spots you’ll want to check out are the beautiful Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría and Santuario de San Pedro Claver, the iconic Torre del Reloj, and the lively Plaza de Santo Domingo featuring a sculpture by the famous Botero.

You can also visit several museums and art galleries along the way if you’re interested in learning more about Cartagena’s history and culture, such as Museum of Cartagena de Indias or Museo Naval del Caribe.

Last but not least, make sure to stroll along at least a part of the wall that surrounds this part of the city. It offers stunning views of the ocean and the city!

Insider tip: You will come across many women dressed in colorful traditional clothing carrying fruit baskets on their heads while touring the Walled City. While it’s a fun photo opportunity, be aware that they will expect you to pay for the photo. Negotiate the price beforehand to avoid any misunderstandings.

Walls of Cartagena with a view of Bocagrande
View of Bocagrande from the Walls of Cartagena

Afternoon stroll at Getsemani

Another part of Cartagena that I absolutely fell in love with is Getsemani, the hip and trendy neighborhood on the edge of the Walled City.

If you take the colorful buildings and narrow walkways of the Walled City and give it a youthful, hipster-like spin, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Getsemani.

On the way to Getsemani, you can also walk through Centario Park, a green space with plenty of palm trees and benches to relax on.

Once you arrive in Getsemani, it’s worth taking some time to just wander around. It’s a relatively small neighborhood, so you can easily explore it on foot.

Colorful street in Getsemani, Cartagena
Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemani, Cartagena
Plaza de la Trinidad

One of the highlights is Plaza de la Trinidad, a lively square with music playing and street vendors selling food and drinks. It’s also a popular spot for locals to hang out and socialize in the evenings.

Getsemani is also known for its vibrant street art scene. Keep an eye out for colorful murals on the buildings and walls as you wander through the neighborhood.

Street art hunting was one of my favorite things to do in Cartagena and my favorite streets were Calle de la Lomba and Calle de Las Sombrillas, so definitely don’t miss these.

When you see how much this neighborhood thrives today, it’s difficult to believe that it was once downtrodden with crime and violence not so long ago.

Despite its remarkable overhaul, Getsemani has still managed to retain its local vibe and charm, making it a must-visit on your 3 days in Cartagena.

Street art in Getsemani, Cartagena

Sunset at Cafe del Mar

Before your feet give in after a busy day of exploring, make the 20-minute stroll to Cafe del Mar in time for sunset.

Cafe del Mar lies on the western edge of the old city walls and it’s one of the most popular spots to watch the sunset in Cartagena. It offers breathtaking views over the ocean and the city skyline, and the atmosphere is unbeatable as well.

The drinks list here feels almost never-ending, but you can’t go wrong with a glass (or jug!) of sangria or a margarita.

Although we didn’t try the food ourselves, the dishes coming out of the kitchen looked pretty tasty too, so it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re feeling hungry. The menu is mostly focused on seafood but there are also a couple of other options if you’re not a fan of fish.

In case you decide to eat elsewhere, check out the end of day 2 of this Cartagena itinerary for restaurant recommendations inside the Walled City.

Insider tip: Cafe del Mar gets quite busy during sunset, so make sure to arrive early if you want to snag a good spot. It’s also a good idea to make a reservation on their website in case you visit at an especially busy time.

Cafe del Mar in Cartagena
Sunset from Cafe del Mar in Cartagena

Day 2 of Your 3 Day Cartagena Itinerary

Catamaran Tour to the Rosario Islands

Considering Cartagena is blessed with a seaside location alongside the glistening Caribbean waters, you have to spend at least one of your 3 days in Cartagena checking out the nearby Rosario Islands.

There are a number of tour companies that offer different packages, but most include snorkeling gear, lunch, and drinks onboard the boat.

We personally went with this top-rated Rosario Islands Catamaran Tour, and it was one of the highlights of our trip. You seriously can’t miss this experience!

The tour starts early in the morning at Muelle de la Bodeguita port, where you’ll hop on board the sleek catamaran that’ll be your transport for the day. On the way to the islands, you’ll get some amazing views of Cartagena’s skyline, so make sure to have your camera ready!

Bona Vida Catamaran for a tour to the Rosalio Islands in Cartagena
View of Bocagrande, Cartagena from the catamaran
View of Bocagrande from the catamaran

The boat will stop at different places along the way, where you can take a dip in the crystal clear waters or go snorkeling to explore the underwater world.

It’s important to note that the boat won’t take you to the islands themselves, it will only stop at different spots around them. This is the same on every tour, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get to set foot on the actual islands.

The tour also includes a welcome drink, free non-alcoholic drinks during the day, and a delicious buffet lunch. There’s also a bar with alcoholic drinks available for purchase on board.

People on board the catamaran on a tour to the Rosalio Islands in Cartagena

Sunset drinks at Hotel Movich Cartagena De Indias

Your boat trip will wrap up at the same port you departed from, which is around a 15-minute stroll from the fabulous Hotel Movich Cartagena De Indias.

If you’re still not sure about where to stay in Cartagena, make sure to take a look at this amazing hotel! It’s located in the heart of the Walled City and features a gorgeous rooftop pool with panoramic views over the city.

The good news is that the rooftop bar of the hotel is open to non-guests as well so even if you decide to stay somewhere else, make sure to head here for sunset drinks and some epic views.

This was hands down my favorite spot for sunset in Cartagena. There’s something magical about watching the sun go down over the colorful buildings and the ocean while sipping on a refreshing cocktail!

Talking about cocktails, the ones at Hotel Movich are delicious and they also have a great selection of local craft beers. It’s definitely one of the best places to end your second day in Cartagena!

Rooftop pool at Movich Hotel Cartagena

Dinner in the Walled City 

Now that the sun’s gone down, it’s time to head for dinner, and I have a couple of places that I think you’ll love. Each of the spots I’ve mentioned below is also within a 5 or 10-minute walk from Movich Cartagena De Indias.

First up is La Cevichería, a traditional eatery that serves up some divine Colombian food even Anthony Bourdain approves of. Both the indoor and outdoor seating areas are regularly packed with foodies tucking into coconut ceviche, paella, and crispy tostones made from fried plantains.

A stylish restaurant within an enchanting old building, San Mateo specializes in a blend of Italian and Caribbean foods. As a result, the menu is huge, and you’ll have a hard time trying to decide between pizza, pasta, steak, and seafood. Stay a little later to catch some live music.

The sleek El Burlador Gastrobar is another personal favorite of mine, as it also combines live entertainment with top-quality food. Not only is the menu packed with delectable Spanish fare like gazpacho, carpaccio, and octopus, but you’ll also witness an old-school flamenco performance.

Day 3 of Your 3 Day Cartagena Itinerary

Option A: Beach day at Playa Blanca

For your final day in Cartagena, I will give you two options to choose from.

The first option is a beach day at Playa Blanca, which is considered one of the best beaches near Cartagena.

To be honest with you I debated whether I should mention this option at all or just stick to option B, but I figured as this is one of the most famous attractions near Cartagena, I will give you my honest opinion about it.

I’m planning to write a whole other post about why I don’t recommend visiting Playa Blanca but the short answer is that it’s a struggle to get there, it’s overpriced and overly touristy.

Playa Blanca is truly a beautiful beach, but unfortunately, it’s become some sort of a tourist trap in recent years. The beach can get incredibly crowded and it’s always full of vendors constantly pushing their products. The restaurants along the beach are also not the best and the food is crazily overpriced.

Drone photo of Playa Blanca, Cartagena

Also, getting to Playa Blanca is not that easy either. Basically, there is no public transportation option and there used to be a shuttle bus from the city to Playa Blanca, but it’s not in operation anymore. So if you’re planning on going, your only option is to take a taxi or join a tour.

We decided to call an Uber and I really wish we didn’t. It was a really long and expensive drive to get there but the real problem was that on the way back, we couldn’t find an Uber or a taxi to take us back to the city.

We ended up having to arrange transport with our broken Spanish and had to get into a car with two complete strangers which was quite stressful. Luckily, we made it back safely but it wasn’t a pleasant experience overall.

All in all, while Playa Blanca may seem like a beautiful and convenient option for a beach day, I don’t think it’s worth the hassle and frustration.

If you really want to go, I would 100% recommend joining a tour that will take care of all the logistics for you and make the experience much more enjoyable. Or just go with Option B, but definitely don’t try to make the trip on your own.

Option B: Totumo Mud Volcano Experience

If you would like to stick to a safe option, you can join one of the most unique experiences in Cartagena.

Around an hour north of the center sits Santa Catalina, a small city that boasts a tiny volcano called El Totumo. Not what you typically picture when you imagine a volcano, El Tutumo releases mounds of warm, soft mud rather than lava.

This Totumo Mud Volcano Experience is a quintessential Cartagena excursion and is something you simply can’t leave off of your 3 day Cartagena itinerary.

Lasting around 4 or 5 hours, depending on how busy it is on the day of your tour, you’ll be whisked away to Santa Catalina in the morning and given a brief overview of the area and its history.

You’ll then do the 50-step climb to the volcano and dive into the thick mud that allegedly takes years off your skin, according to legends!

If you want to go all out, treat yourself to a massage for a small extra fee before washing off the mud in the nearby lake. Once everyone in your group has cleansed themselves in the water, you’ll start your journey back to Cartagena.

Explore Bocagrande

When you’re exploring Cartagena in 3 days, I definitely recommend saving a few hours of your time to visit Bocagrande, an affluent neighborhood that wouldn’t look out of place in Miami.

Countless high-rise hotels and lavish restaurants are nestled along the palm tree-lined beaches, where you can spend the rest of the day lounging on the sand or cooling off in the sea.

In fact, I think Bocagrande is one of the best places to stay in Cartagena if you are looking for a beautiful beach vacation and would rather stay out of the busy and loud Walled City.

Playa de Bocagrande is the main beach in the area and is less than 10 minutes from Walled City by car. There are plenty of sun loungers and umbrellas available for rental, and you’ll also find some cabanas for something a little more comfortable. 

As Playa de Bocagrande is closest to the city, naturally, it’s one of the busier beaches. For somewhere on the quieter side, head to the far end of the peninsula and check out Playa Castillo Grande instead.

If you’re still feeling energized or want to do some shopping, Bocagrande has plenty of high-end and boutique stores to keep you occupied for a few hours. 

Playa de Bocagrande, Cartagena
Playa de Bocagrande

Dinner at Bocagrande

As I’ve previously mentioned, Bocagrande has a wealth of top-class eateries to its name, so staying in the area for dinner will be well worth your time.

Leña y Carbon restaurante is among the finest spots in town for premium cuts of meat and local classics like bandeja paisa, a flavorful mix of meat, beans, and rice. For the ultimate experience, dine on the outdoor patio and take in the lively Colombian music.

If you’ve stuck to mostly traditional food during your 3 days in Cartagena, Di Silvio Trattoria is a wonderful alternative. This restaurant also gives you the option to dine al fresco, which is the perfect setting to enjoy your bruschetta, thin base pizza, or creamy gnocchi.

Ely Café Bocagrande has an eclectic and wide-ranging collection of dishes available when you’re not quite sure what you’re craving. Some popular dishes include the overloaded nachos, juicy cheeseburgers, and poke bowls, but I also really loved their salad bowls.

If you happen to be staying in the area, this cafe was also my favorite for breakfast and their coffee is top-notch as well. Overall, Bocagrande has a little bit of everything for everyone, making it a must-visit destination during your 3 day trip to Cartagena. So be sure to add it to your itinerary!

Useful Info for Spending 3 Days in Cartagena

Where to stay in Cartagena 

Cartagena has so many gorgeous neighborhoods and districts to stay in, but there are a bunch of different factors that will dictate which one is a fit for you.

When you’re spending 3 days in Cartagena, you won’t want to be too far from the action, but being in a busy or expensive area isn’t for everyone. 

I think two of the best areas to stay in Cartagena are Centro and Bocagrande.

The Centro district, otherwise known as the old walled city, is the best place for first-time visitors to stay, and you’ll likely find your hotel built into a picturesque colonial building. This is the beating heart of Cartagena, so it can get crowded and costly at peak season.

If you fancy a taste of luxury and beachfront living, Bocagrande will surely fit the bill. Bocagrande is an upmarket, coastal neighborhood packed with modern, high-rise hotels and swanky restaurants.

It’s also a lot quieter than the old walled city, but it’s still not too far away should you want to explore. 

If you’re in a rush, here are my recommendations for these two areas for different budgets.

Best places to stay in Centro

Best places to stay in Bocagrande

Sunset view from Movich Hotel Cartagena
Movich Hotel Cartagena is one of the best places to stay in Centro

Best time to visit Cartagena

The best time of year to spend 3 days in Cartagena is usually between December and April. These months make up Cartagena’s dry season, which means you’ll avoid the heavy downpours and stifling humidity that the rainy period brings. 

Temperatures here are very consistent and rarely go below 76°F (24°C) or above 89°F (32°C), but it often feels much hotter during the wet season because of how heavy the air is.

As is the case with any city, when the weather is at its best, this is when most visitors plan their trips, so it can get crowded at times.

If you’re not keen on sharing your space with your fellow travelers, shoulder season months like November or May will be your best option.

Keep in mind that although these months are transitionary in terms of the weather, there’s a decent chance you’ll experience a handful of intense showers during your visit.

Colorful street with colonial buildings in the Old City of Cartagena

How to get around Cartagena

How you’ll get around Cartagena will differ based on where you’re going and how much time you have to play with, but I’m going to run through your different options below.

When you’re exploring the old walled city and neighborhoods like Getsemaní, walking will do just fine and is for sure the best way to discover these enchanting areas.

Cartagena’s primary form of public transport is its network of buses, and you’ll notice two types when you visit. The orange TransCaribe buses are great for getting out of the center to neighboring districts, while the minibuses are more like public taxis that don’t follow a set route.

The minibusses are a fun, local way to get around and are definitely worth trying out at least once. However, as they stop at various spots depending on where everyone on board is headed, they’re not the most convenient for seeing Cartagena in 3 days.

I found Uber to be the fastest and most hassle-free way to explore Cartagena. Finding cars was usually pretty simple, and it meant that we could hail a ride from anywhere for a reasonable price. If you find yourself without internet, the local yellow taxis are the next best thing.

Calle de Las Sombrillas in Getsemani, Cartagena

Planning a trip to Colombia?

Then you might want to take a look at all our other travel guides about Colombia. I promise, they are just as awesome as this article was!

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