Cartagena’s nerve centre serves up breathtaking colonial architecture, the city’s top attractions, finest hotels, eateries and drinking dens as well as being the administrative and cultural heart of the city
The urban sprawl to the east and the industrial zone further south has left the city's historical Centro far from central in the geographical sense of the word yet pretty much everything that matters happens in the most costly concentration of colonial real estate in Latin America.
Centro has lost none of its importance thanks to the universal lure of its colonial pomp and the concentration of government buildings, hotels, tourist attractions, bars and restaurants in the area. Gone are the traditional white walls that typified the city as recently as the turn of the last century.
An explosion of ochre, mustard, burgundy, blues and other more riotous colour schemes have livened Centro up as part of a multi-million dollar facelift in the last decade. Cartagena's finest hotels and restaurants have taken over the uber-casas built by slave traders and Spanish plunderers in the 17th century.
The richest residents knocked up stunning two and three-storey mansions by the westernmost tip of the walled city, where they bagged the sea breeze and first whiff of pirates. Today only those at the very top of Colombia's rich list can afford to maintain these opulent houses in their original residential state.
Many of the prized mansions - with as many as 14 bedrooms close to the pivotal Plaza Santo Domingo have been converted into luxury hotels by enterprising international and local investors or sliced up into luxury apartments. Check out some of the most impressive colonial casas in our Luxury House Guide.
While the traditional elites have no interest in renting out their pride and joy, some of the second homes of the nouveau rich and famous can be hired out to a new breed of overseas visitors arriving from Europe, Brazil and the US.
* Taking in all the city's landmarks on our unique Historic City Tour with a certified guide
* There are almost too many restaurants to sink your teeth into. Check out our Gourmand Guide for a sample of some of our favourite foodie experiences
* For a sundowner like no other, grab a seat at Cafe del Mar or El Baluarte. Perched on the city walls, the lounge bar offers an all-year round breeze and an unparalleled locale to watch the sun fall into the sea. Serving up some stiff competition is Hotel Movich, whose roof terrace offers 360 degree veiws of the cit
A healthy mix of sub-cultures makes San Diego one of the most interesting and varied districts in the city, something reflected in its diverse gastronomic offering
San Diego is formed by 16 blocks north of Calle de la Universidad de Cartagena and west of Calle San Augustin and Calle de la Moneda and stretches to the Baluarte de Santa Catalina and the walls that protect the city to the north.
Architecturally the houses are smaller and were built principally for the military, artisans and clergy. There are fewer of the two- or three-storey holiday homes for the ultra-rich that characterize the centre and you will still find traditional families living in some of the more modest houses in this part of town.
After Cartagena's moneyed classes swapped the claustrophobic centre for expansive mansions in Manga and later Bocagrande and Castillogrande in the mid-19th century it took the renovation of the former Santa Clara Monastery, converted for the hotel chain Sofitel into the city's pre-eminent hotel in 1995, to put this barrio back on the map.
Colombia's farandula, or celebrity set, has since colonised San Diego including John Leguizamo who bought a place here after filming Mike Nichols' Love in the Time of Cholera.
The bohemian types that spill out of the arts college, Bellas Artes, provide a counterweight to the tourist overkill that blights the Centro in high season.
Locals living to the periphery of the walls are also doing their bit to resist the Disneyland development further to the south.
SAN DIEGO HIGHLIGHTS
*Some of Cartagena's best restaurants are clustered around Plaza San Diego, including Cuba 1940s,Tumbamuertos and Juan del Mar. All of them boast breezy terraces
*Sheltered under the city walls, La Bovedas, built at the end of the 18th century to store gunpowder and troops and later used to lock up unruly residents now stocks a good collection of handmade craftwork
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A fiercely traditional barrio offering a heady mix of bars, dancing, affordable diners, hostels and hotels for backpackers and bohemian colonists looking to mix it up with the carefree locals.
A little rougher around the edges than the gentrified districts of Centro and San Diego and the lofty ambitions of the beach districts, Getsemaní offers a glimpse into the more unruly historic centre of the past.
Historically populated by merchants, smugglers and freed slaves thriving from activity in the port and main marketplace, Getsemaní has always been more raucous than the hoity centre with all its regal airs and graces.
While much of the area's carefree population are direct descendants of the hell-raisers of yesteryear it is no longer the terrifying place that rich Cartageneros used to scare their children into staying at home. Backpackers, never averse to roughing it for a cheap bed, have braved the bogeyman with few problems for decades and a select group of boutique hotels have followed their lead setting up shop in some of the bigger properties on Calle Guerrero and Calle del Carretero.
With the Four Seasons taking on the former Club Cartagena and Teatro Colon, the barrio is undergoing a stratospheric transition that has made it one of the coolest barrios in Colombia, if not the world. The transformation hasn't gone unnoticed with the New York Times, amongst others, picking up on some of the newest bars to join the fray.
Music is a strong theme in this spirited part of town with volume levels a good five notches higher than the rest of the old town. A cacophony of top-notch sounds systems battle it out for supremacy.
* Taking in the street art and distinctive character on our unique Explore Getsemani Tour
*the Plaza de la Trinidad remains the only plaza in the historic centre that maintains signs of 'normal life' in the city. Grab a Club Colombia from the corner shop and a pick-up chess game with a Getsemaní patriarch
* There are some great wallet-friendly food and drink options here. Hit Bar del Sur for their A* arepas and artisanal brews. Go to Bonche for a creative cocktail that doesn't cost the earth.
* Start the day with a breakfast of champions at Oh La La Bistrot or Beiyu, the two healthiest, tastiest spots in the city.
*Arguably, Getsemani offers the best nightlife in the city. Whether it's Café Havana's live band, the champeta madness at Bazurto Social Club or the G&T's at Demente, there is something for everyone.
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After fifty years at the heart of the city's tourist trade Cartagena's Copacabana is still alive and kicking. The busiest of the city's beach districts has a host of boutiques, bars, spas, restaurants, casinos and cafés vying for your hard-earned pesos
Old 'big mouth' has been the Copacabana of Cartagena since American oil executives made the place fashionable in the mid-20th century.
Boasting the longest stretch of beach in Cartagena's metropolitan area, the district became a tourist Mecca for Colombians from the 1960s onwards.
Bocagrande extends five blocks back from the beach and is populated by towers looking west towards the ocean or eastwards at the Bay of Cartagena.
The skyscrapers are semi-occupied by locals sharing their lofty locales with second homers and a regular flow of tourists on the hunt for self-catering apartments with a sea view and a swimming pool.
The Avenida San Martin (Cra 2) acts as the main road in to Bocagrande from the old town and as such is lined with beachwear and fashion retail stores, restaurants, cafés, beauty parlours and casinos that cater to the out-of-towners and moneyed residents.
Beyond passing the day at the beach, popular plans include a leisurely coffee at Juan Valdez followed by an early evening stroll along the Bay before ducking into one of the casinos to try your luck at Black Jack.
On Cra 3, the main road out, traditional restaurants Chef Julian or El Arabe have been keeping the punters coming back with the best paella and Lebanese food in the city.
International chains Hotel InterContinental, Regency Hyatt, the Sheraton and Radisson Hotels are all investing heavily to spruce up some of the empty rundown beachfront plots, giving a welcome lift to Bocagrande's jaded hotel scene.
Having said that if you are looking for a cheap bed for the night, Bocagrande remains unquestionably the best option with plenty of supply to play with including some funky, old school hotels that have been around since the 1980s offering good rates on Cra 3.
* Staying at Hotel Caribe, home to the largest hotel pool in Cartagena and packed with history.
* You're right by the beach! It may not be the stuff your Caribbean beach fantasies were made of, but there are plenty of watersports to take advantage of. Colombia Flyboard (you literally get to fly in the air) is our personal favourite.
Rich and reserved, the towers and mansions of the exclusive beachfront district of Castillogrande remains one of the toughest corners of the city to crack
Connected to Bocagrande as part of a dogleg that juts out eastwards into the Bay of Cartagena, Castillogrande (or Castillo' as it is known) has become a high-rise playground for Cartagena's richest families.
This wealthy cul-de-sac made up of 16 luxury blocks stretching from Cra 6 to Cra 14, has shot up over the last five years with towers of up to 42-storeys built where the city's upscale beachfront houses once stood.
Popular with rich Cartageneros since the mid 20th century, rents reflect the higher quality of much of the construction that has taken place in this part of town.
Although fewer of these impressive apartments find their way onto the holiday let market there are a few spectacular properties to be bagged if you look hard enough. Many of the best apartments are rented to executives working on the city's industrial expansion or owned by families that have little need to supplement their income by renting houses out to the masses.
More residential than its noisy neighbour, Bocagrande, Castillo' has few options for hungry out-of-towners but you're never far away from the supermarkets and restaurants of Bocagrande or el Centro and the lack of reasons to head to Castillo' at night only helps keep the riffraff at arm's length.
The beach is a more relaxed family affair than the no holds barred hustle of Bocagrande. Its little surprise that exclusive Castillo' boasts three members' clubs that are worth trying to wangle an invite from some of your well-to-do neighbours.
The Club Union, Club Naval and Club Cartagena offer a host of activities that will keep the children busy so you can finally stick your feet up and enjoy the sea view or sneak off for a game of tennis if you're feeling a little more energetic.
Most visitors head straight through Crespo on their way to the old town from the airport. As one of Cartagena's best-kept secrets that's just the way the locals like it.
A low-rise, middle-class, barrio by the airport, Crespo is one of the city's best-kept secrets.
Largely untouched by the stratospheric development going on in neighbouring Marbella and La Boquilla, Crespo was for much of the second half of the last century a sleepy outpost for shrewd out-of-towners and a middle class population of locals not too fussed with living life in the thick of things.
The construction of a tunnel that will link Marbella to La Boquilla, has momentarily stripped the barrio of its famously laid-back beach.
When finished, however, it will add an expansive promenade for cyclists and budding rollerbladers.
It is also the only barrio which offers the chance to catch a rickshaw to the airport!
La Boquilla | Los Morros
Whether it's out-and-out R&R or the adrenalin-rush of kite and wind surfing, this expansive stretch of luxury condominiums offers serious beach-lovers the chance to top up the tan and re-charge the batteries.
Miami-style beachfront condominiums line one of the widest stretches of beach in Cartagena, making this a popular destination with beach lovers living the Latin dream.
La Boquilla has gone through one of the most extreme makeovers in the city with some of the poorest homes in the country giving way to row after row of beachfront condominiums and resort-style hotels of up to 12 storeys.
Underpinning the district's recent transformation is the development of Las Americas Hotel & Resort, the city's largest hotel with more than 500-rooms in two adjacent luxury resorts.
Created for those averse to excessive movement while on vacation or corporates creating a laid-back conference experience, Las Americas has become the flagship of the Araujo family's local business empire.
During the high season the area is packed by a crowd of Miami wannabes with plenty of silicone stacked girls and buffed up boys from Medellin, Cali and Bogotá on display.
Its distance from the old town keeps the hawkers down to manageable levels. Located 10 minutes north of the old town, the beach is blessed with the best winds in the area making it popular with fanatics of kite and windsurfing.
With plenty of beach to play with it is a popular option for parties, expansive weddings, concerts and sporting events including beach volleyball and football.
But if its real kicks you're after just keep walking beyond the crisp white apartments and beach resorts to reach the real La Boquilla, a bristling example of the other Cartagena, a poor barrio that moves to the champeta beat thrown out by pumping sound systems and lives for baseball. Discover this grass-roots barrio on our local Real Cartagena Tour.Book The Real Cartagena Tour
Marbella | Cabrero
Keep both the beach and the old town close in this well-placed district to the north of San Diego. Keep fit with beach football or rent a bike to stretch your legs on the cycle route every Sunday
Heading north from the old town towards Crespo, Marbella's beach-front condominiums are shooting up at a rapid rate.
The district's loftiest buildings offer a more affordable sea view for visitors that want the beach option while staying within walking distance of the walled city.
Marbella's small crescent-shaped beaches are not the best but that doesn't stop them getting crowded with locals at weekends.
Duringthe week you can watch the fisherman bring in their haul from the balcony. Exercise is the order of the day in Marbella and on Sundays the road between the buildings and beach is converted into a cycle route.
Pretty much every day the beaches are converted into makeshift football pitches or taken over by organised aerobics sessions. Attractions include the Rafael Nuñez Musuem, the lovingly preserved former home of the only president to have come from Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Built in 1858 for wealthy patriarch, Manuel Román y Picon, the father of Nuñez' second wife, Soledad Román, the two-storey Antillean-style house sits in front of a monument to Nuñez greatest achievement, the Colombian Constitution of 1886 that lasted more than a hundred years until 1991.
A leafy, largely autonomous, residential suburb with a pleasing promenade and a lazy rhythm that makes it popular with a laid-back, family crowd
Manga became more popular as the city's influential families grew tired of living on top of one another in the walled city in the early part of last century.
Largely residential in nature, Cartagena's moneyed classes escaped the old town to build expansive Moorish and Andalucian mansions on large plots fitting of their accumulated wealth.
Arguably the most spectacular is the Casa Roman (Calle Real) built by the city's influential soft-drink dynasty in the 1920s.
Others have since been converted into private schools, offices, police stations or have sadly fallen into disrepair. Characterised by towering fruit trees and a strong nautical association that stems from the port and two of the city's largest yacht moorings, the district is less feverish than the city's bustling centre and beach districts.
As well as a strong selection of affordable places to eat, Manga has one of the finest seafood destinations in town, Club de Pesca.
Housed in one of the city's former fortifications in the ramparts adjacent to the city's most exclusive yacht club dinner at Club de Pesca is a terrific treat after a leisurely late afternoon stroll along Manga's seafront promenade.
The city's commercial port can be found at the most remote end of this diverse part of town.Book Dinner on the Walls