If you’re heading to Cartagena to celebrate literature at the Hay Festival, or you’re just visiting as part of your vacation, you simply have to check out the city’s incredible historical past. From Spanish conquest, through to the bloody Inquisition and battles with pirates, the city’s Old Town is brimming with history.
Cartagena was founded as a Spanish colony in 1533 and quickly became Spain’s main port on the Caribbean coast. The town was sieged by pirates on several occasions, and also withstood attacks from the English and French, who wanted the port for themselves. Today, Cartagena is a UNESCO world heritage site and a stunning vacation destination, with cobbled streets, colorful colonial houses and music echoing through the streets. We’ve put together a 24-hour historic guide to Cartagena, so you can really take a step into the past:
9 a.m. – Castillo San Felipe
Start the morning at Castillo San Felipe, a fortress with panoramic views of the city. It was built by the Spanish colonizers in the 1600s to protect the city from pirates and intruders. It was known as the most impressive fortress in the Spanish ‘New World’ as it was almost impenetrable thanks to its unique, triangular design and strategic location on a hill. You can walk around the castle and explore its secret tunnels. It has an incredible panoramic view of the city, so spend some time soaking in the views.
12 p.m. – 1950s Era Lunch
Take a walk back to the Old Town and eat lunch at La Vitrola. The restaurant has an atmosphere reminiscent of 1950s Havana — it’s set in a restored colonial building with Cuban music, impromptu salsa dancing and a hearty menu. Be sure to make a reservation before you arrive.
2 p.m. – Palacio de la Inquisición
Now it’s time to take a look at one of the darker sides of Cartagena’s past: The Spanish Inquisition. Head to the Palacio de la Inquisicion, which is located in the Old Town, just a few minutes walk from La Vitrola restaurant. It was built in the 17th century and it served as a prison and torture chamber for heretics — that being anyone that tried to stand against the Spanish regime and its imposition of Catholicism. Heretics were denounced and sentenced to death for supposed ‘crimes’ that included magic and blasphemy. The Palacio de la Inquisicion was used in this way until the 19th century when the Spanish were overthrown, and Cartagena gained independence. The site today features eerie rooms, heavy with dark pasts. There’s a great exhibition that details the history of the Inquisition and showcases some of the grizzly torture instruments that were used by the Spanish during the period.
4 p.m. – Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa
It’s time to head to a more peaceful location. Convento de Santa Cruz de la Popa sits on a tall hill in the center of the city. It’s a beautiful convent, made up of several different colonial buildings. It was founded in 1607 as a small chapel and has since grown into a large convent. Today it’s home to many interesting artifacts, including different currencies from the past, historical books, and clothes used in the convent over time.
6 p.m. – Watch the Sunset from the Old Town Walls
Cafe del Mar sits on top of the wall that enclosed the Old Town. It’s on a beautiful lookout point that gazes far out into the Carribean Sea. You can grab a few drinks and watch as the sky turns from blue to orange to black. Once the sun has set, take a walk on the walls of the old town and observe the city below as it comes alive at night. It’s the perfect time to walk the wall, as the temperatures are much cooler in the evening.