We arrived in sultry, steamy Cartagena at the end of our sail boat adventure through the San Blas Islands from Panama. After four days of travel on the boat, we were ready for solid ground and a solid meal and we got both. As the country’s most touristed city, Cartagena attracts some of the best chefs and top restaurants in Colombia. After more than a month spent eating our way through this amazing city, whose historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, we put together this Cartagena food guide including 11 restaurants to try (and one to avoid) so you can make the right choices about drinking and eating in Colombia’s sexiest city.
Eating in Cartagena
With so much to chose from (and so much of it so good), eating in Cartagena is a major activity, not just an enjoyable necessity. Here’s our guide to the best things we put in our mouths.
La Cocina de Pepina is famous in Cartagena as the place to find creative interpretations of Caribbean dishes. Grab one of the six tables and order up vibrant sweet and sour corozo juice made from seasonal palm fruits, fish stew rich with coconut milk, refreshing ezcapacio (chunks of fresh tuna pickled with carrots and peppers) and more all served in a brightly painted space down an unassuming side street.
Opened in 2013 in the bohemian Getsemani neighborhood, Demente is still one of the best bars in Cartagena. Originally serving tapas only, a new menu now includes tapas and larger plates including an octopus salad, fried fish and pork chops plus many of the most popular tapas offerings. Don’t miss the rich and nuanced ox-tail hamburger and plates of addictive fried and salted sweet green peppers accompanied by cocktails, aged rum, beer on tap and a small but well-sourced wine list. Real Cuban cigars are available too and you can relax in a stylish rocking chair and watch the smoke loft gently up through the retractable roof (one of only two in the city).
Though the historic center of Cartagena is jammed with ice cream and paletta (Spanish for popsicle) shops, La Paletteria stands out thanks to hand-craftsmanship with the freshest all-natural ingredients from fruits to nuts to chocolate. Don’t miss out on having your paletta dipped in chocolate before you dig in.
Ceviche and other forms of raw fish are a staple of many menus in Cartagena. We had the best tiraditos (thin strips of raw fish, like a Latin take on sashimi) at La Perla.
Di Silvio Trattoria in the Getsemani neighborhood is well known for its pizzas though a full Italian menu is also offered. Over the years the restaurant has sprawled to include three adjoining locations. The roofless, crumbling, peeling façade of a gutted historic building serves as an outdoor dining room and it’s one of the most atmospheric al fresco dining locations in town. And the pizza is pretty good too.
It is widely said that Gregorio Herrera is the best maître d’ in Cartagena and he is securely at the helm of La Vitrola. Opened in 1994, La Vitrola has cultivated a gravitas beyond its ten years with an extensive menu (jerk chicken, rib eye, ravioli, ample seafood options and more) and skilled wait staff. There’s a live Cuban band most nights set up in front of La Vitrola’s inviting long bar. Reservations are a must and there’s a city casual dress code.
Best on a budget
Even after a recent price hike, La Mulata is serving up the best value lunch in Cartagena in a stylish setting to boot. Local workers and tourists looking for an affordable meal fill the place for seafood, pork, beef and chicken dishes served up with Caribbean style and sass. All meals are prefaced with a soup (for around 15,000 COP or US$6) and should be washed down with one of La Mulata’s three varieties of ice cold, homemade lemonade. Ask for their frequent diner card. You will be back and you might as well eat your way toward a free lunch.
Even cheaper (and less inspired) is Totopo where 10,000 COP (about US$4) gets you a passable set meal. In Getsemani, Corocoran serves up set meals for 6,500 COP (about US $2.50) and draws a massive crowd. Be prepared to wait for a table, though the harried waitresses seem to take pity on foreigners.
Opened in 2014 in a narrow, five level townhouse style building, Frank & Frank delivers a distinct speakeasy feel from the discreet doorway to the parquet floor, chandeliers, leather banquettes, intimate lighting and masculine colors and materials. If you were seated next to F. Scott Fitzgerald you would not be surprised. You also wouldn’t notice once the food arrived. The signature grilled octopus appetizer, marinated in miso and white wine, was nuanced and beyond tender. The rack of lamb with mint and star anise was bright and decadent. And just say yes to the cheesecake dessert topped with smoky, sweet eggplant. It works.
At the end of 2014, Colombian celebrity chef Harry Sasson debuted his sixth restaurant and the first one outside of Bogota with the opening of the 200 seat Harry’s Restaurant & Bar inside the landmark Charleston Santa Teresa Hotel. The menu is seafood heavy to take advantage of the local bounty and the bar has a fabulous view.
You will be told that you must have sunset drinks at Cafe del Mar, a bar that’s located on the wall that encircles the historic center of Cartagena. You don’t. Prices are sky-high, it’ll be packed, service is poor and the ambiance is lack luster. Instead, buy a cold beer from one of the many vendors who walk around the wall with coolers, claim a seat on the stone and coral wall (built by Spanish conquistadors to keep marauding pirates at bay) and enjoy.
Get even more Cartagena eating options in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com about foodcrawling in Cartagena
Read more about travel in Colombia