There is something for everybody in Cartagena – and a restaurant for every taste and sensibility. Though the city sprawls far beyond the historic center, the key neighborhoods are El Centro (the original walled city) and its extensions, San Diego and Getsemaní. Cheap street stalls are scattered throughout the city, with some of the best found in Getsemaní’s Plaza de la Trinidad and La Matuna (sandwiched between San Diego and Getsemaní).
Ceviche is sold everywhere, as are fried delights such as arepas de huevo (fried corn cakes stuffed with egg), empanadas, and buñuelos (deep-fried maize and cheese balls). Making advance reservations for fine dining restaurants in Cartagena is recommended, especially during weekends and peak season (over Easter, Christmas and generally December to mid-January).
Caribbean Colombian flavors meet French technique at El Santísimo, Federico Vega’s innovative contemporary restaurant, ideal for foodies that appreciate fusion cuisine and a creative theme.
Inspired by the restaurant’s name (“the most holy”) there’s a (tongue-in-cheek) religious angle to the décor and the names of the dishes (Pañuelos de la Novicia or the “Nun’s Handkerchief” is camembert cheese with white wine and gooseberry sauce, and the desserts are themed on the seven deadly sins, for example). But there’s nothing kitsch about the food. Tenderloin is served on a creamy mushroom risotto, fish is marinated in coconut milk and coriander, and Thai-style sautéed rice accompanies shellfish and shrimp, all paired with a fabulously curated wine cellar. Reservations recommended.
- Where: Calle del Torno No. 39-62
The best place in Cartagena for a splurge, Carmen cooks up high-quality contemporary Colombian cuisine (with some Asian touches); freshly caught fish blended with olive and mango sauces, or curries made with local yams and bananas. Helmed by the lauded culinary team of Rob Pevitts and Carmen Ángel, the tasting menu here (five- or seven-courses) is pricey but definitely worth experiencing. Reservations recommended for Friday and Saturday nights, but go on a weekday lunchtime and you’ll usually slip in with no problems.
- Where: Calle del Santísimo (C 38) No. 8–19, Centro
Marea by Rausch
Tucked away inside Cartagena’s modern conference center, Marea by Rausch is ideal for gourmands seeking to avoid the crowds. Helmed by culinary celebrities Jorge and Mark Rausch, contemporary Colombian seafood is the main event here – from artfully presented ceviche to delicately fried fish.
You can order a la carte, but If you want the most value for your dollar, opt for the tasting menu (available for lunch and dinner). Eat inside the plush contemporary dining room (blissfully air-conditioned), or on the outdoor terrace – you get wonderful views of the old town from both vantage points.
- Where: Centro de Convenciones, Getsemaní
La Cocina de Pepina
La Cocina de Pepina is old-school Colombian dining, ideal for people seeking to experience tasty, local dishes at reasonable prices. Aim to get there at opening time in the evening (7 pm), to ensure you get in – it's a bit like someone's living room, with just six tables (reservations are possible).
The traditional Colombian criollo-style dishes served up here are the legacy of the late María Josefina “Pepina” Yance, who founded the restaurant and wrote a popular cookbook in 2010. Try her sublime “mote de queso” (cheese and ham stew), ceviche "si, si, si”, spicy prawn stew, or her celebrated stuffed peppers.
- Where: Callejón Vargas No. 9A–06, Getsemaní
Cartagena is justly renowned for its ceviche, and La Cevichería remains one of the best places to sample the seafood specialty, which usually includes fresh shrimp, octopus and fish marinated in mango, coconut and lime juices. Chef Jorge Escandon’s tiny restaurant got a huge boost on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show in 2008.
While the secret is definitely out, quality remains top notch. To avoid the crowds, be there at 1 pm when it opens for lunch (there are no reservations); sit outside if it’s not too hot. The paella, simmered in coconut milk, is a great choice for a more substantial meal.
- Where: Calle Stuart No. 7–14, San Diego
Saint Roque Cafe - Restaurant
Lovers of spicy food – and anyone in need of a break from typical Colombian menus – should check out the Indonesian dishes on offer at Saint Roque Cafe - Restaurant. It’s open for dinner only; reservations are recommended. Sit outside and have an aperitif before you order – this is one of Cartagena’s most colorful neighborhoods.
Classics such as gado gado (an Indonesian salad of vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and fried tofu served with a peanut sauce) are reproduced with local ingredients. Some of the restaurant’s profits go to a local children’s charity, La Vecina (established by the restaurant’s two Dutch owners).
- Where: Calle Espiritu Santo No. 29-214, Getsemaní
Chef Mila Vargas is another Colombian celebrity chef drawn to Cartagena, with Pastelería Mila a must-visit for anyone with a sweet tooth. You can enjoy breakfast plates, gourmet sandwiches and delicious quiche here, but it’s the cakes and pastries that have the wow factor: brownies, zesty lemon pies, Key lime cheesecakes and crispy churros dipped in hot chocolate.
- Where: Calle de la Iglesia 35–76, El Centro
This fashionable bar is ideal for people who appreciate craft beers and dimly-lit, historic premises. Demente was carved out of a once-crumbling eighteenth-century house, featuring exposed brick, rocking chairs, bench-like tables and minimalist décor. You can easily put a full meal together from their tapas menu (think fried sweet chili peppers and oxtail sliders). Hit this place in the early evening and you'll have no problem getting a table.
- Where: Plaza de la Trinidad No. 10–19, Getsemaní
This contemporary Cuban restaurant is best experienced for dinner – the blend of live Cuban son, tasty mojitos and decent (but pricey) menu at La Vitrola (“the jukebox”) can still make a great night, despite the hype – this is one of the city’s most popular restaurants and has been for a while (especially with Colombian celebs), so advance reservations are highly recommended (arrive after 8 pm for the best experience).
It’s much easier to get in for lunch, but you’ll miss out on the atmosphere, though the swirling ceiling fans, colonial Spanish décor and wooden shutters are definitely redolent of old Havana at any time. Seafood is big here, with the signature dishes fresh red snapper in chili sauce ("diablo") and grouper served in a variety of ways (the Indian marsala version is a spicy delight, if not especially Cuban). Note that men with shorts won’t be let in (forget flip-flops).
- Where: Calle Baloco No. 2–01, Centro
For a more exclusive dining experience head to the classy Vera restaurant (inside the plush Tcherassi Hotel), where Chef Daniel Castano crafts high-quality Italian dishes. Pastas come with truffles and scallops here. The all-white color scheme compliments the lovely open courtyard, with an idyllic pool backed by a green wall. Local movers and shakers book the place up on big occasions but come for lunch on a weekday and you’ll have it largely to yourself – and there’s no need to dress up.
- Where: Calle del Curato No. 38-99, Centro
Adventurous eaters should definitely sample Cartagena’s street snacks. One of the best street snack carts is Fritos de Trinidad, located at Getsemaní’s delightful Plaza Trinidad, where locals line up for the cheap but delicious empanadas and arepas (all less than a dollar). The neighborhood also has carts selling fresh fruit, juices and other tasty treats. We recommend you find a space on the plaza or church steps and just munch them as you soak up the scene: street performers, artists, families enjoying the cooler air, and kids playing soccer.
- Where: Plaza de la Trinidad, Getsemaní