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A Local's Guide to the Best Things to Do in Old Town, Cartagena, Colombia

A Local's Guide to the Best Things to Do in Old Town, Cartagena, Colombia

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El Centro, or The Walled City, or Downtown or Old Town…there are many names for the beautiful historic city center that is the main attraction for visitors to Cartagena, Colombia. Its thick wall fortification and colorful colonial buildings date back centuries with layers of history waiting to be revealed. The walls have warded off untold pirate attacks, the churches have been beacons of hope for thousands including the African slaves once sold in its main plaza, but the Church was also a poor example of Christianity during the times of the inquisitions. I’ve been told that if you know the history of Cartagena, then you know the history of Colombia. And I believe that to be true.

I have written this post to share those maybe less known places that we’ve found to be some of the best spots to visit in El Centro. So, this is a local’s guide of favorite places in El Centro. And as we continue to discover these tucked away places, I will update this post accordingly. Plus, we’ve created a map with each of the places discussed below noted on the map.

Printable map

 

No Two Streets Share the Same Name

First, it is very difficult to explain where places are located in El Centro because a street has a different name on each block is (e.g., Calle 38 is also Estanco del Aguardiente, Calle de la Merced, Calle del Sargento Mayor, or three other names depending on which block you are standing on). I’ve heard that there are over 100 street names in El Centro…and those names are not used by Google Maps. Instead, Google Maps reverts to numbers (e.g., Calle 35, Carrera 3). Carreras run north and south through the city and Calles run east and west. However, taxi drivers are more likely to know the full street name, not the number of the street. So, trying to tell a taxi driver where to go using Google Maps directions is essentially useless. It’s best to just say the name of the place you’re visiting or a large nearby landmark.

 

Walk on the Wall and Peek Through Doorways

The unique feature of this area is the thick stone wall that surrounds the entire city. So, this may go without saying, but be sure to walk along at least a portion of the wall when you visit. The northwestern wall is a popular place to watch the sunset. There are some restaurants along that side, but you can also simply claim a portion of the wall to sit and wait for the sun to dip below the horizon.

A must when visiting El Centro is to walk along a portion of the wall, and maybe even catch the sunset. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

A must when visiting El Centro is to walk along a portion of the wall, and maybe even catch the sunset. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

This is one city where being a bit nosy is welcome and even encouraged at times. The beauty of the buildings in this city are not always obvious from their outward appearance…but take a peek into their inner courtyards and you will often be astonished by what you find. Some dilapidated fronts give way to amazing entrance ways and there is always, always, always a courtyard, and often a water feature such as pond or fountain. The buildings are narrow and long, so what may look like a small house from the front, extends the entire block once inside. So, take any opportunity you find to peek inside, whether it be a hotel, restaurant, or even a residence, people here understand the fascination with their homes and often allow a brief look around if you ask politely (always with a “por favor”).

The beauty of El Centro is often hidden behind doorways, so be sure to peek inside whenever you are able to view the inner beauty of these buildings which often include an courtyard and water feature such as a pool or fountain. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

The beauty of El Centro is often hidden behind doorways, so be sure to peek inside whenever you are able to view the inner beauty of these buildings which often include an courtyard and water feature such as a pool or fountain. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

 

Parks and Plazas

Another famous aspect of this city is its parks and plazas. They form the social centers of the various areas of the city and they are the landmarks by which directions are given. Learn their locations and you have nearly mastered navigating this city.

Simon Bolívar sitting atop his mighty steed in the park that bears his name.

Simon Bolívar sitting atop his mighty steed in the park that bears his name.

Plaza de Bolívar

Named for the famous freedom fighter, this square is recognized by the statue of Bolivar sitting upon his horse in the center among many towering trees. This square is a popular meeting place for locals to beat the heat of the city and the Cathedral, Museo Historico de Cartagena, and Museo de Oro adorn its sides (see more details of each below).

Plaza Santo Domingo

This square gets its name from Santo Domingo church that abuts one side of the square. This plaza is often the location of various music celebrations, plus there is a bustling night life with the plaza filled with cafe tables served by the surrounding restaurants and loads of roaming vendors. The square also contains a bronze statue of a naked woman by the famed Colombian artist, Botero. When you see her be sure to notice her various parts that are especially shiny because she’s been rubbed for good luck.

The view from Plaza San Pedro Claver looking towards the Cathedral lit up at night.

The view from Plaza San Pedro Claver looking towards the Cathedral lit up at night.

Plaza San Pedro Claver

Named for the church located along its western edge, this is a popular location to congregate, especially at night. And the steps of the church are often used for various cultural events. A popular photo of the Cathedral lit at night can be taken from this square, looking along the steps of the church, down Calle San Pedro Claver, north towards the Cathedral.

Plaza de Los Coches will be the first sight you see when entering El Centro from the Clock Tower.

Plaza de Los Coches will be the first sight you see when entering El Centro from the Clock Tower.

Plaza de Los Coches

Located just inside the entrance to the city that is under the clock tower, this is a popular place to meet to start your tour or adventure inside the city. You will also be greeted by many, many vendors selling various items to make your visit better including sunglasses, hats, or tours. On the far west side of the plaza you will find a line of vendors selling various Colombian sweets, including plenty of coconut, ariquipe, and panela treats.

Plaza de la Aduana

City offices line the southeast side of this plaza, which is also a popular location for various music and entertainment events. This is a good location to find ATMs as there are numerous banks that line this plaza too.

Plaza de la Aduana

Plaza de la Aduana

Plaza de Santa Teresa

This plaza is located outside of the hotel for which it is named, the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa. This area is a good location to find vendors selling the woven Mochila bags that everyone carries around here, and it is a great place to find a taxi given the hotel and the fact it is located near an exit of the city.

Plaza de Santa Teresa

Plaza de Santa Teresa

Parque Fernández de Madrid

Parque Fernández de Madrid

Parque Fernández de Madrid

This is a nice place to relax from the heat as it is full of grown trees and plenty of benches. You can sit in the shade and take in the view of the statue of the man who is the basis of the square’s name. The cultural center Alianza Colombo Francesa Cartagena and Santo Toribio de Magrovejo church can be found along its sides (see more details of each below).

Plaza de San Diego

Located back in the neighborhood that bears its name, this a great little park to find local jewelry vendors selling their wares in the late evening. They will even offer you a little stool to sit on if you hover near one of their areas for any length of time so you can be comfortable while you shop. One side of this square is lined by the well known Hotel Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.

Plaza de San Diego is full of vendors selling hand made bracelets and other treasures after dark.

Plaza de San Diego is full of vendors selling hand made bracelets and other treasures after dark.

 

Museums

My Spanish teacher, Amaurys, would argue that El Centro, itself, is a huge museum. And he’d be correct. Dating over 450 years since its founding, there are layers upon layers of history built into the foundation and walls of this old city. But, we also have our fair share of actual museums too.

Museo Naval del Caribe

Museo Naval del Caribe

Museo Naval del Caribe (Naval Museum)

Two stories, this museum provides a complete history of Cartagena, from before its founding, when the indigenous people reigned, to nearly modern times. And don’t let the name fool you, while there are some great life-size parts of naval ships to climb around in on the second floor of the museum, the museum isn’t just dedicated to the naval history of the city. Cartagena’s history as a major port with harrowing real-life stories of treasure, pirate attacks, and conquistadors lends itself to be told via a museum with Naval in the name. Located in the Plaza Santa Teresa. Expect to spend 1 hour, $16000 COP per adult (approximately $5 USD). For a docent-led tour, contact my Spanish teacher and licensed tour guide, Amaurys, via WhatsApp at +57 (313) 526-3910.

Iglesia San Pedro Claver (San Pedro Claver Church)

Named for Saint Peter Claver, the patron saint for the hundreds of thousands of slaves that passed through the walls of this city during the two hundred years of the slave trade, you are able to tour the entire property of this church. This includes a two-story building, which once was home to Saint Peter, that surrounds a beautiful, tree-filled courtyard, plus, the inside of the church itself. This is a treat to be able to see inside the church, as this church is not often open and you surely are not regularly allowed to walk all over the altar where you can gaze at the bones of Saint Peter housed in a glass coffin (no joke). Located in Plaza San Pedro Claver. Expect to spend less than an hour, $14000 COP per adult (approximately $4 USD). A docent-led tour is available for an additional fee.

Museo Historico de Cartagena (Historic Museum of Cartagena)

Formerly known as the Museo de Inquisicion (Inquisition Museum), this museum historically held examples of the torture devices used during the Spanish Inquisition to coerce the heretics into confession. The museum has more recently been transformed into a more pleasant locale, sharing the history of Cartagena which amounts to a static exhibit on the top floor of the building. Various rooms on the remaining floors often house art exhibitions which are free to enter. Likely of most prominence is the building and grounds themselves, which includes beautiful architecture, a large open courtyard, and massive tree-shaded grounds in the back. Located in Plaza de Bolivar. Expect to spend less than an hour, $21000 COP per adult (approximately $7 USD). I believe that an audio tour is available for a fee.

Historic Museum of Cartagena A.K.A. Palace of the Inquisition [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Historic Museum of Cartagena A.K.A. Palace of the Inquisition [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Museo de Arte Moderno

Museo de Arte Moderno

Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art)

This museum entails a small, two-story collection of various modern pieces including a black and white photo of Colombia’s famous author, Gabriel Garcia Marcus which greets you as you enter the museum. Rotating visiting exhibits can also be found here. Located in Plaza San Pedro Claver. Expect to spend less than an hour, $8000 COP (approximately $2.50 USD). The museum closes during almuerzo (lunch) from noon to 3pm.

Museo de Oro (Gold Museum)

This museum is currently under renovation and thus being housed in a smaller location on Plaza Bolivar. This museum is a fraction of the size of the famous gold museum in Bogota, and I’m told the gold pieces inside are replicas, they are not real gold. However, the intricate pieces that the ancients crafted are remarkable and help to impress upon visitors the abundance of gold that this area was founded upon and for which it was continuously sacked by pirates and others. Located in Plaza de Bolivar. Expect to spend less than an hour, free to enter. Independent tour guides are available.

The Gold Museum [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

The Gold Museum [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

 

Cultural Centers

Cartagena actually has a pretty large cultural and art scene. El Centro itself houses a few cultural centers that are worth noting because of their active schedule of events.

CFCE - Cooperatión Espanola is a beautiful cultural center in El Centro.

CFCE - Cooperatión Espanola is a beautiful cultural center in El Centro.

CFCE Cartagena - Cooperación Espanola

Supported by the Spanish Embassy, this beautiful two-story cultural center with a stunning open courtyard offers a variety of cultural events such as author talks, dancing, and music and rotating artisan and cultural exhibits, as well as a public library and a coffee shop run by the owners of Abaco Libros y Café. Located in Plaza de Santo Domingo (Carrera 3 #2-74). Expect to spend less than an hour, free to enter. https://www.facebook.com/cfcecartagena/

Alianza Colombo Francesa is dedicated to all things French and has a beautifully, recognizable building too.

Alianza Colombo Francesa is dedicated to all things French and has a beautifully, recognizable building too.

Alianza Colombo Francesa Cartagena

Dedicated to teaching the French language through numerous offerings of classes to all ages, this French cultural center also has a great cafe with unique coffee offerings and a library filled with French books. They also host cultural events and are most recognized by the striking blue exterior of their building. Located in Parque Fernandez de Madrid. Expect to spend less than an hour, free to enter. http://alianzafrancesa.org.co/cartagena/

La Presentación

This place is an all-encompassing artisan heaven. It contains 5 art gallery spaces with rotating exhibits, a theater, a beautiful internal garden, café, small store of artisan wares, hotel, and university. Located on Calle Estanco del Aguardiente #5-63. Expect to spend less than an hour, free to enter. https://lapresentacion.art

La Presentación is a cornucopia of cultural treasures including 5 art galleries, cafe, hotel, university, and store. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

La Presentación is a cornucopia of cultural treasures including 5 art galleries, cafe, hotel, university, and store. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

 

Cathedral and Churches

Like any good Colombian city, Cartagena has its requisite share of churches, and most notably, the Cathedral too.

The Cathedral in El Centro, Cartagena

The Cathedral in El Centro, Cartagena

The Cathedral (officially the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa Catalina de Alejandría or Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria)

Probably the most recognizable and most photographed structure in El Centro is the highly revered Cathedral. Not to be confused with an ordinary church, a cathedral is special in that it is run by a Catholic bishop, not simply a priest. Surviving an attack by the famed Francis Drake and with over 400 years since its completion, it is still beautiful and worth a quick walk through to see the inside. There is even a bronze larger-than-life-sized statue outside of Pope John Paul II, commemorating his visit to Cartagena in the 1980s. Located on Plaza de Bolivar. Expect to spend less than half an hour, free to enter.

Santo Domingo

Apparently the oldest church in Cartagena, Santo Domingo is probably the least adorned church on the inside, but still worth a walk-through. See information above about Plaza Santo Domingo, the plaza out front of the church that bears its name. Located in Santo Domingo Plaza. Expect to spend less than half an hour, free to enter.

Santo Domingo [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Santo Domingo [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

San Pedro Claver

See “Iglesia San Pedro Claver (San Pedro Claver Church)” under “Museums” above. This is the same location.

Santo Toribio de Magrovejo

This church is found in the San Diego neighborhood of El Centro. It is small, but bears a feature unique to any other church in Cartagena, it has a baroque-style altar carved in black lacquer and covered in gold foil. Another interesting feature is a cannonball that is preserved in a glass case. The cannonball was launched during an attack by Admiral Vernon on the city (friend to George Washington’s brother and the namesake of Mount Vernon), landed in the church during the middle of mass, and did not harm any persons or the church itself. Thus, it was deemed a sign of divine intervention and preserved. The church is not often open, but when it is, it’s worth a brief walk through. Located in Parque Fernandez de Madrid. Expect to spend less than half an hour, free to enter.

Santo Toribio de Magrovejo made famous by its baroque-style alter and divine cannonball preserved under glass.

Santo Toribio de Magrovejo made famous by its baroque-style alter and divine cannonball preserved under glass.

 

Theater

Teatro Adolfo Mejía

Also called by the locals by its previous name, Teatro Heredia, this is a truly beautiful theater, inside and out. The outside is known by its soft pink-colored brick, and the inside contains intricate wood designs with rich red upholstery. You can take a guided or self-guided tour starting from its less obvious Calle de la Chicheria entrance around the back of the theater. Prices range from $8000 to $11000 COP (approximately $2.50 to $4 USD) depending on if you have a guide, Monday - Friday 9am to 12pm and 2:30 to 5pm. Located on Calle de La Merced #38-10. Be sure to stop by the Universidad de Cartagena Clasto de la Merced extension right next door to the theater. The courtyard has a statue of the bust of Gabriel Garcia Marquez…and half of his ashes are buried there. (The other half are buried in Mexico, the country to which he was exiled.)

 

Food

Luckily, we are blessed with numerous food and restaurant choices in El Centro. This is one thing that Old Town does well. Note that dinner can be rather late here, so some restaurants do not open until after 6pm.

Get to the Roof

Many of the bars and restaurants in El Centro have amazing rooftop terraces. Some of the local favorites include the view from the Movich Hotel, Townhouse bar, Alquimico bar, and even the popular restaurant chain Crepes and Waffles. So, if there is an option to sit at a table on the roof, your answer should always be yes.

CHOCOLATE - Evok

The BEST Colombian chocolate can be found at Evok [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

The BEST Colombian chocolate can be found at Evok [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

The BEST Colombian chocolate that we have uncovered so far (and we have tried a lot) can be found at Evok. It is a chain, but that doesn’t detract from the flavor. Try one of their individual servings of chocolate truffles located in a glass case at their counter. They have two different levels of darkness and creamy centers of amazing flavors. Just $2500 COP per piece (approximately 75 cents USD), they are a steal. Located on Calle Santo Domingo (Carrera 3) #33-46.

PERUVIAN RESTAURANTS - Cuzco and Gran Inka

Our favorite restaurant in El Centro…Cuzco with their Peruvian cuisine.

Our favorite restaurant in El Centro…Cuzco with their Peruvian cuisine.

Surprisingly, one thing Cartagena has a lot of is good Peruvian food. We have tried many of them and two of our favorites are Cuzco and Gran Inka. Cuzco is a chain restaurant, but has a serene, beautiful atmosphere in the Walled City location. Plus, we have found that they have the best food. They serve sushi-type appetizers without the rice, called Bocados, that are amazing according to my husband and friends who went back a second time during their trip and ordered one of each of the 3 dishes. I always get the same dish and have now converted everyone who has visited to this dish too. The dish is called Risotto de Cilantro con Lomo Saltado. It comes in a black cauldron with a lid that they keep warm on your table with a candle. It’s a risotto dish that is nearly green with cilantro and medallions of slightly salty beef, tomatoes, and onion. It is simply delicious. Located on Calle Santo Domingo (Carrera 3) #33-48. Dinner does not start until 7pm. Reservations can be made via text on WhatsApp at +57 302 2137139, and they do speak a little bit of English.

Gran Inka has fabulous floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a great people watching perch into Plaza de Coches.

Gran Inka has fabulous floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a great people watching perch into Plaza de Coches.

A close second to Cuzco is Gran Inka. The food is delicious and beautifully presented, and the view onto the Plaza de Coches through their floor to ceiling glass windows is a great people-watching location. Located on the first floor of the Hotel Santa Catalina, it can be accessed from the Plaza de Coches entrance or the other entrance on Calle del Candilejo (Carrera 6) #32-62. Reservations can be made via text on WhatsApp at +57 318 4987259, and they can speak a little bit of English.

Wippy makes their own pasta with an entire menu of pasta noodle options from which to choose.

Wippy makes their own pasta with an entire menu of pasta noodle options from which to choose.

ITALIAN RESTAURANT - Wippy

As is not uncommon here, this Italian restaurant is also a cevicheria, as ceviche is abundant in Cartagena. But they also make their own homemade pasta, which is delicious. You also have the option to take any of their dishes and change the type of pasta they suggest on the menu. In fact, they provide you with a separate menu of just the pasta types which include such unique options as noodles made with cacoa (chocolate) or beet. The location is small, and we often do not make reservations before going, but rather show up and see if they have space. Located on Calle Santo Domingo (Carrera 3) #33-81 (down the street from Cuzco).

Bourbon Street, where you can find a bit of New Orleans in El Centro. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Bourbon Street, where you can find a bit of New Orleans in El Centro. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

GREAT 2 FOR 1 APPETIZERS - Bourbon Street

Themed after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, this bar/restaurant is known for its 2 for 1 Happy Hour food and drinks, including hamburgers, po’ boys, chicken wings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. I haven’t been yet, but my husband recommends them and the chicken wings and hamburgers in particular are favorites. Located on Calle 35, down the street east of Plaza Santo Domingo.

DESSERT - Donjuan

If you are desiring to hear some English in a town that mostly speaks Spanish, then head to Donjuan for dinner, and more importantly, dessert. Clearly this restaurant has been highly recommended among the English-speaking visitors because it was packed with Americans when we visited. It is a good place for dinner, but it is a GREAT place for dessert. First, of all they actually have a dessert menu, which is not often found in restaurants here, or there are just one or two items on the menu. Donjuan actually has 8 items and the Tarta de Manzana y Arequipe is amazing. It has light, buttery, layered pastry filled with apple and arequipe, which is essentially caramel. I also had the Cubos de Piña which is pieces of pineapple flambéed in rum with coconut ice cream. Simply delicious. Located on Calle del Colegio (Carrera 6) #34-60. Reservations are available on-line, but they only take them for 7:30pm and after 9:30pm. Otherwise, it’s first come, first serve.

Donjuan, go for dinner and stay for dessert [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Donjuan, go for dinner and stay for dessert [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Grab a fresh juice to go (para llevar) from Sierva María

Grab a fresh juice to go (para llevar) from Sierva María

FRESH FRUIT JUICE TO GO - Sierva Maria

This cafe sells actual meals too, but we love their fresh fruit juices. This is a great place to stop while touring the city, cool down in the air conditioning for a bit while they make your juice, and then head off again on your adventure with a juice to go (“para llevar” in Spanish). Located on Calle de las Carretas (Carrera 7) #34-34.

PANADERIA - El Pandequeso

El Pandequeso is a great place for a quick snack of fresh bread and unbelievably cheap prices…just follow your nose to find it… [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

El Pandequeso is a great place for a quick snack of fresh bread and unbelievably cheap prices…just follow your nose to find it… [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Just around the corner and down a block from Sierva Maria is a panaderia (bakery) that you can find simply by following the smell of fresh baked sweet breads. They have various, fresh baked pastries including pan de queso (a yummy ball of dough with cheesy center and a dusting of salty yuca flour on the outside), sweet rolls with sugar sprinkled on top, chocolate rolls…and the list goes on. The prices are so cheap that you can splurge and try one of everything. Located on Calle 34, just a few blocks from the Clock Tower.

BREAKFAST - Cafe de la Mañana

A great place to catch some breakfast, Café de la Mañana. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

A great place to catch some breakfast, Café de la Mañana. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

Here’s a little off the beaten path favorite…Cafe de la Mañana. Located across the street from La Presentación (see above), this is an adorable little cafe with yummy food and great service. The owner is German and is recognizable from his history of leading street food tours with Cartagena Connections (a local tour company who is also a favorite of ours). Located on Calle Estanco del Aguardiente #5-80. Their hours hover around 8am to 2pm and they are closed on Tuesday.

GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICH - El Barón

Ok, so normally one wouldn’t think of “grilled cheese sandwich” as a food category, but El Barón’s grilled cheese sandwich is good enough to deserve their own category. El Barón is actually a fabulous cocktail bar, well-known for their mixed drinks. They have limited seating inside and plenty of umbrella-covered cafe tables in Plaza San Pedro Claver outside. And, be sure to read their “rules” for eating at their establishment, which can be found in the front cover of the menu. You’ll chuckle. Located on Plaza San Pedro Claver (Carrera 4 #31-7). Sunday and Monday they do not open until 5pm, and the rest of the week they open at noon.

El Baron, the place to find the best grilled cheese sandwich in the Walled City. And a mixed cocktail too. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

El Baron, the place to find the best grilled cheese sandwich in the Walled City. And a mixed cocktail too. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

PIE - Mila Postres

Is Pie it’s own category? Yes, yes it is. Especially in Colombia where they do not quite understand the concept of pie as a dessert. Their “pies” are often filled with meat. So, to find a restaurant that serves good ol’fashioned sweet pies is a treat. Our friend who is a key lime pie aficionado, loves their version. Oh, and they have a long glass display case filled with various other confections too. Located on Calle de la Iglesia #35-76.

Mila Postres is one of the few places in Cartagena where you can get a traditional fruit pie.

Mila Postres is one of the few places in Cartagena where you can get a traditional fruit pie.

La Tumbamuertos Burger Bar has yummy hamburgers with delicious buns.

La Tumbamuertos Burger Bar has yummy hamburgers with delicious buns.

HAMBURGERS - La Tumbamuertos Burger Bar

Surprisingly, there are a lot of places that serve burgers in Cartagena, but this is our favorite. The place is cute, with seating inside and out, and it’s family-owned. The bread they use for their buns is delicious. And I actually like their veggie burger. Check out their Instagram page too and you might just see yours truly… Located on Calle 39 #8-34, right on Plaza de San Diego.

ARGENTINEAN - Quebracho Parilla Argentina

Good food, great smells, great atmosphere, and great staff. They actually have a full pig rotating over the fire too. And you’ll enjoy seeing their towering candles with their layers upon layers of melted wax dripping down the sides. Oh, and stay for the live music too. Located on Calle Baloco (Calle 33) #2-69.

Quebracho is a traditional Argentinian parrilla (grill) with wonderful aromas and food.

Quebracho is a traditional Argentinian parrilla (grill) with wonderful aromas and food.

SMOOTHIES - La Divinidad

La Divinidad, the best place to find delicious smoothies and smoothie bowls in El Centro.

La Divinidad, the best place to find delicious smoothies and smoothie bowls in El Centro.

I am beyond excited that La Divinidad now has a location in El Centro. Owned by a sweet couple, their first location is in the Bocagrande neighborhood and is a regular haunt for us locals. But now we can enjoy their delicious smoothies, juices, and smoothie bowls while tooling around Old Town too. Their shop is always clean, the ingredients are fresh, and the water they use is trustworthy (which cannot always be said for juice , smoothie or ice cream establishments in El Centro). My favorite is the Pinkberry Smoothie bowl. Each bowl is topped with either strawberries or kiwi, granola, and two toppings of your choosing. My favorites are chocolate chips and chia seeds. Located on Calle Gastelbondo (Calle 36).

COFFEE

I don’t drink coffee, so I’m hesitant to recommend any places. But, El Centro is full of great cafes. You pretty much can’t go wrong with the local places like Epoca (two locations in El Centro), Abaco Libros Y Café (a bookstore and cafe), or Se Volvió Prispi (has delicious chocolate coffee). Plus, there are plenty of the chain Juan Valdez in El Centro too (which are great places to use their bathrooms. Maybe just buy a little something first.)

 

Shopping

El Centro is replete with vendors hawking their wears along various parts of the wall or in the squares. Plus, there are plenty of stores and most are open from about 10am to 9pm.

MOCHILA BAGS - Arte Wayuu

Located along the southeast portion of the wall near the Plaza de Santa Teresa there is a vendor selling numerous Mochila bags, the woven bags that are popular around here. His name is Martin Quintero and his business is Arte Wayuu. I have found him to have the best designs at the most reasonable prices.

My favorite place to buy Mochila Bags is from the vendor located along the southeast portion of the wall. Ask for Martin.

My favorite place to buy Mochila Bags is from the vendor located along the southeast portion of the wall. Ask for Martin.

WOVEN BRACELETS AND OTHER HANDMADE JEWELRY

As mentioned above, the vendors that fill the Plaza de San Diego after dark are a great place to find woven and leather bracelets.

La Serrezuela has reinvigorated the historic bull ring and transformed the area into a beautiful high-end shopping center.

La Serrezuela has reinvigorated the historic bull ring and transformed the area into a beautiful high-end shopping center.

HIGH-END SHOPPING - La Serrezuela

A new shopping mall just opened in El Centro and it is beautiful! Built in the location of the historic bull ring, the mall houses high-end stores and many restaurants. Plus, the main attraction is the bull ring itself located in the center of the mall. It is three stories of beautifully decorative wood, with an open roof and a fountain in the center of the floor that sprays water to light and music (think very, very small scale Bellagio hotel-type fountain). Currently there are not many stores open in the mall, but likely be the end of 2019, it should be full. Located on the corner of Calle de la Serrezuela and Carrera 11.

Be sure to check out these adorable hand-sown stuffed animals by República Alegría at Casa Abba.

Be sure to check out these adorable hand-sown stuffed animals by República Alegría at Casa Abba.

LOCAL WARES - Casa Abba

The small entranceway of this store opens up to a large inner room filled with several vendors, each with their own designated area to sell their products. So, in this one store you can find hand-painted shoes and purses, handmade jewelry, paintings, bathing suits…the list goes on, all in a brightly lit and beautifully decorated space. One of the vendors that is close to my heart is República Alegría. The artisan sells handmade stuffed animals, with articulated limbs, fully hand-sown outfits, and a complete backstory of each animal’s life in the fantasy land of República Alegría. Located on Calle 35 near Plaza Santo Domingo.

INTERNATIONAL WARES - Casa Chiqui

This store is a treasure trove of cool stuff. Gathered from all over the world, including a heavy presence from India, they have jewelry, beautiful wooden furniture, handmade purses, heaps of beaded pillow shams, dinner ware, statues, vases, and various other home decor that you didn’t know you needed. A printed sign on the front window of the shop states “Your husband called, he said to buy anything you want!” So true. Located on Calle de la Universidad (Carrera 6) #36-127, just north of the University of Cartagena campus, and on the same side of the street. Oh, and if the door is locked, just be patient, they will come open it for you when they see you standing outside.

A great place to find treasures from far away places… [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

A great place to find treasures from far away places… [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

A great place to buy responsibly made Colombian handicrafts is El Centro Artesano [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

A great place to buy responsibly made Colombian handicrafts is El Centro Artesano [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

COLOMBIAN HANDCRAFTS - El Centro Artesano

You can feel great about buying anything from this store because they are dedicated to protecting the traditions of Colombian hand crafts. This is a good location to find woven goods, handmade pottery, carved wooden bowls and utensils, etc. The items can sometimes be priced higher than other versions found in other stores or from vendors on the street, but this store works directly with the artists to provide training and support in all stages of their production process. Plus, this space has some surprising additions if you’re nosy enough to walk through the store and out the back…it has a coffee shop, a second room containing more wares for sale, and a back room that often is showcasing background information on one of the hand crafts. Located on Calle de la Universidad (Carrera 6) #36-121, next door to Casa Chiqui.

Territorio has three locations in El Centro. Two have high-end handcrafted items and one has beautifully intricate hand-made woven bracelets.

Territorio has three locations in El Centro. Two have high-end handcrafted items and one has beautifully intricate hand-made woven bracelets.

CERAMIC PINEAPPLES AND WOVEN BRACELETS - Territorio

Did I get your attention? Ceramic pineapples, you say? Yep. A trip through El Centro will expose you to numerous stores selling various tropical fruit sculptures. My favorite is the ceramic pineapples found at Territorio. This is a high-end Colombian artisan store, often with the prices to prove it. But you can’t go wrong with the uniqueness of their goods and their quality. There are actually three Territorios in El Centro. Ceramic pineapples can be found at the store on Calle de Ayos (Calle 35) #4-29. Beautifully delicate handwoven bracelets, some with beads, some without, can be found at their location on Calle de la Mantilla (Calle 36) #3-77. There are a lot of stores and vendors selling handwoven bracelets, but I’ve consistently found beautifully made ones at this location.

LEATHER GOODS - Vélez

Vélez is a major chain store and can be found in just about every shopping mall, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of its goods. They have beautiful shoes, for both men and women, satchels, travel bags, briefcases, and wallets, as examples. Located on the corner of Calle de la Iglesia and Calle 35, you can’t miss their blue painted building.

A great place to buy quality leather goods is Velez. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

A great place to buy quality leather goods is Velez. [Photo credit: Barbara Conte-Meier]

La Tienda del Museo located right next to the Museum of Modern Art is a great place to find Colombian-made trinkets at reasonable prices.

La Tienda del Museo located right next to the Museum of Modern Art is a great place to find Colombian-made trinkets at reasonable prices.

CREATIVE WARES - La Tienda del Museo

I love the gift shops of Modern Art museums, they usually have such unique items for sale. Well, the store next to the Museo de Arte Moderno doesn’t disappoint. But, what I really love is that their prices are surprisingly reasonable. So, if you’re on the hunt for a unique Colombian-made trinket that likely can’t be found anywhere else in El Centro, check out La Tienda del Museo. Located next door to the Museo de Arte Moderno in Plaza San Pedro Claver.

El Arcon, an antique store with great treasures known only to locals…

El Arcon, an antique store with great treasures known only to locals…

ANTIQUE STORE - El Arcon

I am willing to share with you information about a store that is a real treasure in El Centro, and not very well known to visitors…El Arcon. The smell of an antique store, which I’m sure you know exactly what I mean, greets you first from the street. The door to the store will probably be closed, and maybe gated, but be sure to knock and be patient for them to open it. This store is filled with some fun and unique items that are great reminders of the Old City including loads of door knockers like the ones you’ll see adorning just about every wooden door. Unfortunately, the antique door knockers are long lost, but the molds remain and are used to cast the ones found at this store. They have them both large and small, including mermaids, fish, octopi, lion heads, and lizards. They also sell antique cannon balls, like the ones once used in the cannons adorning the wall. They may not be great for keeping your suitcase weighing less than 50 pounds, but well worth the cool factor. Located on Calle del Camposanto #9-46 in the San Diego neighborhood in El Centro.

408 Colectivo Artesanal has a great variety of unique, quality goods.

408 Colectivo Artesanal has a great variety of unique, quality goods.

UNIQUE WARES - 408 Colectivo Artesanal

This store has a great variety of well-made, unique stuff. They sell jewelry, wooden watches, woven shawls, and printed leather wallets, among other items. El Centro has plenty of knick knack, touristy stores filled with the same things, over and over again, and I just appreciate this store for its quality and distinctiveness. Located on Calle 35, just down the street from Vélez and Territorio.

Find David and Keber selling purses made from now defunt Venezuelan money.

Find David and Keber selling purses made from now defunt Venezuelan money.

PURSES MADE FROM VENEZUELAN MONEY - David and Keber

If you are looking for a unique gift when visiting El Centro, look no further. Two brothers, David and Keber, make beautiful purses and wallets by weaving Venezuelan paper money. These brothers have found a source of income to support themselves and their family back in Venezuela using the now defunct bills, and it is beautifully done too. They travel around to various locations along the wall but can usually be found among the vendors stationed outside the Cathedral or at any of the artisan fairs that pop up now and again in the Old City. Follow them on Instagram.

COLOMBIAN ART WITH A SOCIAL CAUSE - Duran Design Studios

Duran Design Studios, a great place to find beautifully handmade Colombian artisan wares.

Duran Design Studios, a great place to find beautifully handmade Colombian artisan wares.

In a bright white shop in an inconspicuous area of El Centro you can find Duran Design Studio filled with beautifully pieces. They have purses, wall art, woven home decor, etc. And all of the pieces are handmade and the store supports many artisan families. Located on Calle Cochera del Gobernador #33-10.

 

Bathrooms

A very important piece of information to know is where the bathrooms are located. Most restaurants have some version of a bathroom, if you are a patron of the restaurant. But, if you need one while walking through the streets there are public bathrooms in the front of the city in the wall by the Clock Tower (cost is $1200 COP) or in the rear of the city in the Plaza de Las Bovedas (cost is $1200 COP). Plus, you can often sneak into one of the many Juan Valdez coffee shops to use their bathrooms too. One other very important tip…when using the public bathrooms, be sure to grab your toilet paper BEFORE you go into the stall. Yeah, that’s a thing here.

 

Parking

Taxis are plenty to and from El Centro, but if you do decide to drive, there is a gated, well lit, and safe parking lot located at the Parque La Marina. The cost is approximately $8000 COP per hour (about $2.50 USD per hour).

Did We Miss Anything?

So, that’s our current list. If you have any additional favorites in El Centro, please be sure to leave a comment. We love to find new treasures.

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Updated October 18, 2019

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