Every time we travel to Bogotá we invariably hit a stand-still traffic jam the second we reach the “Welcome to Bogotá” sign at the edge of the city. The traffic in this town of nearly eight million people (and seemingly as many cars) is epic. Also, the 8,600 foot (2,640 meter) altitude demands to be heard (bring a sweater and walk slowly) and the general pace and sprawl of the place can overwhelm city novices. Despite all of that, we’ve visited Bogotá frequently and we fall deeper in love each time. Use this city travel guide to pick the best things to do in Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital.
The New York City of Colombia
In many ways, Bogotá reminds us of our last known permanent address: New York City. It’s full of chic people (no matter how you define “chic”) as well as fringy, arty folks, and a contagious energy. It’s also full of distinct neighborhoods, just like NYC.
The Chapinero neighborhood is an exciting mix of bohemians and high-rise apartment buildings and a growing number of the city’s most compelling restaurants. The Candelaria neighborhood has an edgy, student vibe. Zona G area is where many of the best restaurants are clustered (don’t make a reservation until you read our epic list of the best restaurants in Bogotá) then there’s Usaquen, which was a separate town but has been incorporated into the sprawl of Bogotá (here’s our story about the best of the Usaquen neighborhood for the Wall Street Journal Magazine). Then there’s Parque 93 and, well, the list goes on and on.
You can use Uber and Uber X in Bogotá which we often found to be cheaper than taxis plus we liked the added security of having the Uber record of the booking rather than just flagging down a random taxi on the street. Colombia is much, much safer than it’s been in decades, but it’s still smart to use your common sense.
We never did figure out Bogotá’s much-ballyhooed Transmillenio bus system and after getting bad advice which led to getting really lost on the system during our first visit to the city we gave up. Because…Uber.
Things to do in Bogota
Besides just soaking up the big city vibe, we recommend that you take some time to enjoy the following:
The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá is one of the best museums we’ve visited (3,000 COP/about US$1.25, free for all on Sundays, tours available in English). The exhibits are fantastic with descriptions in Spanish and English, the collection is breathtaking and the guides (some tours are available in English) are passionate and knowledgeable.
Check out 15 hand-picked favorite items in our photos essay from Bogotá’s Gold Museum. An interactive, rotating display on the third floor called “The Offering” brings the importance of these gold objects to life with an audio track of shamans chanting and a mesmerizing video display. The museum also has a very classy gift shop so get your souvenirs and presents here.
The Swedish-built cable car system (called a teleferico in Spanish) that travels from the city up to Cerro de Monserrate whisks riders up to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) in less than five minutes. You can also take a funicular (look it up), but that only runs in the morning.
Up on top of Monserrate, you can visit a church that was built in 1657, enjoy the views, get a snack, or even eat a decent meal at a decent French restaurant. Tickets for the cable car or the funicular cost 17,000COP/about US$5.80 round trip or 10,000COP/about US$3.50 on Sundays. Or you can walk up.
Colombian artist Fernando Botero was born near Medellin, so it’s no surprise that the Museo de Antioquia on Medellin has a more impressive collection of art by their native son, including 23 of his signature bronze sculptures installed in front of the museum in Botero Plaza. However, the Botero Museum in Bogotá is worth a visit. Located in a renovated building, the museum includes galleries filled with work by modern masters (Miro, Calder, Klimt, Picasso) donated from Botero’s private collection along with works by Botero himself. Admission is free.
We are not guided tour people, but when we heard about 5Bogota tours we were intrigued. The owner’s goal is to present Bogotá through the five sense (sound, touch, taste, smell, hearing). You can embark on a tour that includes all 5 senses, or choose just the senses/activities that most interest you.
We chose taste and sight and that’s how we ended up learning how to make empanadas and got our first glimpse of Bogotá’s vibrant street art and graffiti scene. The 5Bogota website is in English and is really fun to use as a tour planning tool and we had great guides and a lot of fun.
The Museum of Modern Art Bogota (aka MAMBO, 4,000COP/about US$1.40) offers two floors of exhibits which rotate regularly to showcase all types of modern art. It’s a small but very hip museum. On the other end of the spectrum is the sprawling Colombian National Museum (free admission). Located in an imposing stone building that used to be a prison, this place has a bit of everything.
If you’re really into art, visit Bogotá in the month of October when the city hosts a trio of annual art events. Artbo is a massive gathering of Latin American art galleries and dealers who bring the work of established and emerging artists to a big convention center to show and sell. Barcu also features the work of established artists, like Colombia’s Federico Uribe, and emerging artists and takes places in galleries, event spaces, and studios in the La Candelaria neighborhood of the city. Then there’s an event called Feria de Million which focuses on affordable art.
It’s hard to believe, but there’s a fantastic hiking trail right in the heart of Bogotá. The Quebrada la Vieja (Old Creek) trail starts amidst swanky high rise apartment buildings on the edge of the city (free to enter, open from 5:30 am to 10:00 am) and winds through lush forest, past babbling brooks and over challenging trail with steep inclines, water crossings, slippery slopes and rocks. We spent two hours round trip on the trail which is just shy of 2 miles (3.2 km) each way from the trail head gaining 1,000 feet (300 meters) before reaching a fairy tale pine forest then a monument to the Virgin Mary and sweeping views of Bogotá below. More than 1,000 people entered the area the Saturday morning we hiked there but the trail is much less crowded on weekday mornings.
Museo Iglesia Santa Clara in the La Candelaria neighborhood across from the Presidential Palace presents a small but jam-packed collection of religious art inside a church which itself is a work of art. Built in the early 1600s, the church it’s one of the oldest in Bogota though it’s no longer used for worship. The opulent nave is filled with paintings, sculptures and religious artifacts. There’s gold leaf everywhere. In contrast to all that antiquity, a high-tech touch-screen system delivers information about each piece (Spanish and English, 3,000COP/about US$1 to enter).
We regret that we never visited the Center of Peace and Reconciliation in Bogotá where the government and artists have collaborated to recreate the city’s Central Cemetery. Opened in 2012 after thousands of bodies were exhumed and moved, the idea behind the project was to create a space where the violence and loss of the past could be recognized and honored in a way that allowed everyone to move closer to peace.
Artists created installations incorporating now-vacant mausoleums. New strikingly modern buildings were constructed (the project was overseen by Colombian architect Juan Pablo Ortiz). Thousands of test tubes of earth from massacre sites around Colombia were installed. The location itself is powerful even without those enhancements because the Central Cemetery is where victims of the revolt of June 9, 1948, regarded as the beginning of decades of violence in Colombia, were taken. This excellent article from Architectural Review will tell you more.
Bogota hosts many annual events as well. Every December the many parks and plazas in the city get dressed up in Christmas finery creating a city-wide spectacle they call the Ruta de la Navidad. The annual Bogota Wine & Food Festival brings out local chefs and attracts talent from around the world. And there are many arts and theater festivals in the city too.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia