High altitude Bogotá is a study in contrasts. Modern areas of redevelopment have sprung up alongside the colonial-era neighborhoods, home to well-preserved cobblestone streets and 17th-century churches. The older neighborhoods, particularly La Candelaria, contain the glut of the city highlights. You can get between the areas of interest by bike or bus (Bogotá has an excellent network of bike routes and car-free bus lanes).
The contrasting neighborhoods also contain a clash of cultures, as Bogotá's smartly-dressed office workers rub shoulders at bus stops with hipsters, artists, and musicians. A fascinating graffiti tour will provide a glimpse into the bohemian culture. The following list describes how to see the best of Bogotá, plus other places and experiences that should not be missed while you visit the city.
See Bogotá's best graffiti
Bogotá is one of the great graffiti-art cities of South America, ranking alongside Rio or Buenos Aires. Locals use the exteriors of buildings in Centro and La Candelaria as their canvas in which to paint great murals. Themes include everything from indigenous rights, to anti-war sentiment, to the fallout of Colombia’s decades-long civil war, to love and passion, to comic book adventure scenarios. Styles range from flawless airbrushing to sharp and well-shadowed stencils of the Banksy variety.
The municipality of Bogotá has a love/hate relationship with graffiti. Some mayors have promoted it as art, while others have introduced laws designed to curb it. Regardless, Bogota’s street art has flourished over the years. As mentioned above, it’s possible to enjoy the graffiti art on foot or bike. However, taking the walking tour allows more time to enjoy the various artworks on display. Plus, the guides are often artists themselves.
The street art in Bogotá isn’t merely a local affair. The word is out, and guerilla artists from all over the world have been descending on the capital city to leave their mark in the form of brush strokes and paint. The phenomenon has become so ingrained in the city’s fabric that it’s unlikely any future government initiatives will be able to stamp out Bogotá’s great graffiti culture.
Where: Graffiti tours often leave from Parque de los Periodistas in La Candelaria.
When: Most agencies typically offer two tours per day, one in the morning and one in the early afternoon.
Duration: Tours last about 2.5 hours.
Take a cycling tour
Bogotá has a terrific network of bike paths: exploring the city on two wheels is a great way to get a lay of the land. Most tours start in the historic southeastern neighborhood of La Candelaria, pass through Plaza Bolívar, veer north to barrio La Merced (with its British inspired homes) and continue as far northwest as the Parque Metropolitano Simón Bolívar. Many agencies also offer graffiti art tours on bicycle. (However, if you’d like to take the more traditional tour on foot, see below).
If you prefer to explore Bogotá on your own, try the Ciclovía. This event, held every Sunday, features 100 km. of city streets are closed off to vehicle traffic.
Where: Cycling tours leave from the La Candelaria neighborhood; major ciclovía routes include the north-south thoroughfare of Carerra 7, and the east-west calle 26.
When: Most agencies run two tours per day, one in the morning and one in the early afternoon.
Duration: Bike tours typically take between 3-5 hours.
Explore La Candelaria on foot
Bogotá’s colonial heart begs to be explored. To keep things simple, visitors can start a foot tour from the same place most cycling and street art tours embark: Parque de los Periodistas, on the northern edge of La Candelaria (a couple blocks down you’ll find Bogotá’s famed Gold Museum). Travel south and climb Carrerra 2 until it narrows into a tiny cobbled walkway called Calle del Embudo (funnel street), which is flanked by chicha bars. Chicha is a fermented corn liquor that originated in the campo and is still primarily imbibed by farmers. To say it is an acquired taste is an understatement (best to hold your nose while you drink it).
Carrera 2 leads up to the Plazoleta Chorro de Quevado, where, according to legend, the city was founded in 1538. Today the little plaza is a bohemian center filled with funky little restaurants, cafes, and bars. Follow Carrera 2 south to Calle 10, passing the old colonial homes with their wood balconies as you go. Turn left and proceed east down the hill, where you’ll pass the Museo Botero, which is dedicated to Colombia’s most famous sculptor/painter, Fernando Botero.
You’ll also pass the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, which hosts an annual Feria de Libro (book fair), but the dates change each year. Inside the center, you’ll find a small English literature section, well-stocked with works from the eponymous literary lion and Colombia’s favorite son.
Continue down, and just before you reach Plaza Bolívar you’ll pass a row of eateries specializing in that most ubiquitous of Andean dishes, ajiaco. One of these restaurants, La Puerta Falsa, is over 200 years old and draws a huge tourist crowd. Best to fortify yourself here if you want to continue hiking back up into the hills and taking in the beautiful colonial buildings: the high altitude makes even the shortest of city strolls a strenuous activity. At least you’ll burn a few calories.
Where: Southeastern Bogotá, south of Avenida Jiménez and east of Carrera 10.
When: Daytime hours; security can be a minor issue after dark, especially on the quieter street.
Duration: Plan for half a day in order to see the various museums, cultural centers, churches, and landmarks.
Tour Plaza Bolívar
Plaza Bolívar, located in the southeast of Bogotá, is the historic heart of the city (and the country). Founded in 1539 as the “Plaza Mayor,” it has remained well-preserved over the intervening centuries. Anchoring the expansive plaza is a Pietro Tenerani-sculpted statue of the much-venerated libertador, Simón Bolívar.
All four sides of the square are steeped in history. On the east side, you’ll find El Catedral (constructed between 1807 and 1823), Bogotá’s most famous church. On the west is the Alcaldia (city hall), A French-inspired building fronted by a long arcade. To the northeast is the Museo de la Independencia (or Casa del Florero), which offers interactive exhibits detailing Colombia’s rich history. Also on the north side is the imposing Palacio de Justicia, a fortress-like structure with a tragic past: in 1985 M-19 guerillas stormed the building and killed 12 judges.
Where: Calle 11 at Carerra 7.
When: All day, but security is an issue at night.
Duration: you can stroll the plaza in a few minutes. However, if you want to enjoy the various museums, cultural centers and colonial churches in and around the plaza, plan for a few hours.
Visit The Gold Museum
Colombia has a rich indigenous history, with various Native American tribes having existed all across the country long before any Europeans showed up. The Muisca people, for example, are an Andean tribe who lived (and continue to live) in and around the Bogotá area. The ancient Muisca were known for their gold work – and they mined it by the tons.
Today the fruits of their labor can be seen at the most famous museum in Colombia (perhaps on the entire continent of South America), the Gold Museum. Here visitors can take in a number of exhibits featuring stunning gold and silver work. The quality of the craftsmanship is seen in the ceremonial dressings, such as headpieces and breastplates, as well as in the various pieces of jewelry and sculptures.
The earliest gold artifacts in the museum date back to 500 BC. The most impressive piece isn’t the largest. On the third floor, you’ll find the Balsa de Eldorado, a small golden sculpture of a raft carrying a Muisca chieftain and depicting the ceremonial offering of gold to the water goddess of Lago Guatavita. The intricacy of the craftsmanship is stunning.
Where: inside the Banco de la República Building located at Carerra 6 #15-88.
When: Tue-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 10am-4pm.
Duration: allow at least a couple of hours to fully explore the myriad exhibits on the multiple floors.
Enjoy a night on the town
When the sun goes down in Bogotá, do what the locals do: enjoy good food, good music and good times. For dining, no experience beats Andres Carne de Res, a local institution. The food here is
When the sun goes down in Bogotá, do what the locals do: enjoy good food, good music and good times. For dining, no experience beats Andres Carne de Res, a local institution. The food here is parilla criollo: rustic fare like grilled meats. But the cuisine is secondary to the dining experience. Andres is a party.
The original location is a light-strewn hacienda set on a couple miles of property in the town of Chía, about 45 minutes north of Bogotá. It boasts 11 dining rooms, two dance floors, and five kitchens. The other more central location is in the Zona T (the famed “Zona Rosa” nightlife area of Bogotá). It has been built over five floors, each with its own theme: the top is heaven, while the red-lit bottom floor is infierno (I’m sure you can decipher the meaning). Regardless of the location, the party remains the same: live music, good food, and shameless revelry.
Although the country is home to many styles, the musical pulse of the nation is salsa. Locals grow up dancing to salsa and any beat will get them moving. Like many things considered “Colombian,” their version of salsa is a mish-mash of various influences. Colombians took the salsa popularized in New York and Cuba in the '50s and made it their own, adding Caribbean rhythms, speeding up the tempo and creating a sexy three-step dance that celebrates, as one tango teacher puts it, “the madness of love and lust.”
To really experience Colombian culture means you have to dance, even if you’ve never shaken those hips before. Beginners can head to La Villa, a club in Bogota’s nightlife area, the Zona T. La Villa offers salsa dancing lessons, and foreigners rave about the experience.
Where: Andres Carne de Res has many locations, but the two most popular are in the town of Chía, and in Bogota’s Zona Rosa. La Villa is located here as well.
When: Thursday through Sunday are good nights to hit the town; La Villa hosts salsa classes on Tuesdays from 5-9pm (after their English/Spanish language-exchange meet-ups).
Duration: Colombians typically eat dinner around eight or nine, and bars and nightclubs will stay open until between 2-4am.
Eat local meals at Mercado Paloquemao
Bogotá is fast becoming known as a destination for foodies. Classic local dishes plus international fare and fusion cuisine can be sampled all over the city, although the best restaurants tend to be found in the neighborhoods of La Macarena and the Zona G. If you really want to get to the beating hard of the food scene in Bogotá, you’ll come to the Mercado de Paloquemao.
This municipal market is one of the best in Latin America. It’s so big (the property takes up half a city block) you likely won’t be able to see all of it in a single afternoon. Upon entering you’ll find some of the most exotic fruits from throughout the country, such as feijoa (a cucumber-like fruit that tastes similar to guava), guanabana (a large spiky fruit with white flesh that resembles an alien egg) and carambola, a deliciously tart and sweet star-shaped fruit.
Head to the rear of the market and have lunch at one of the tiny food stalls. Here you can sample some home-cooked local dishes such as ajiaco (a rich chicken stew with maiz and cream) and, if you’re brave enough, caldo de raíz, a soup made from both bull penis and testicles. Not surprisingly, locals rave about its aphrodisiac qualities. You be the judge.
Where: Calle 19 #25-04.
When: Mon-Sat 4:30am-4:30pm, Sun 5am-4:30pm.
Duration: Come for lunch and spend an hour or so browsing the stalls.
Hike Cerro Monserrate
No visit to Bogotá would be complete without hopping in a cable car or funicular elevator and climbing 3,152 meters above sea level to the top of Cerro Monserrate. Once atop this Andean lookout, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the entire city of Bogotá, and indeed the green valleys that stretch out beyond it. After Machu Picchu in Peru and Cristo Redentor in Río de Janeiro, Cerro Monserrate offers some of the most stunning views on the continent. It's also possible to walk to the top: the 1500 steps take about 90 minutes to climb.
Where: a kilometer or so northeast of the La Candelaria neighborhood, at the foot of the Andes.
When: Daily. The cable car runs as late as midnight.
Duration: Plan for an hour or longer. Aside from the sweeping views, there’s an interesting church here (on the site of a former monastery), as well as a couple very good restaurants.