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What Are the Best Cities to Visit in Colombia?

Colombia, by square meter is the most biodiverse country on the planet (and #2 overall after Brazil) and obviously one of the most exciting countries in South America. In addition to that, it features 9 UNESCO World Heritage sites, incredible big cities, and cobblestone lined historic villages. You could travel the country for years and not see everything. Here is our starter kit for the best places to visit to get a great flavor for the country. Remember, there is no such thing as must-see in Colombia, there is must-see for YOU. This guide will help you make some decisions.

1. Bogotá: La Capital Colombiana

As the capital city and largest city of Colombia, Bogotá serves as the cultural and economic hub of the country. Nestled high in the Andes Mountains, it boasts a blend of colonial architecture, modern skyscrapers, and vibrant street art. Travelers can explore the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, home to iconic landmarks such as the Plaza Bolívar and the Gold Museum, which houses an extensive collection of pre-Colombian artifacts. Additionally, Bogotá is certainly Colombia’s culinary hub featuring several of the top-ranked restaurants in Latin America like Leo, El Chato, Humo Negro, Harry Sasson, and more. Plus, if your Spanish isn’t great, Bogotá will be the easiest city to traverse as it is by far the most international city in Colombia.

What not to miss:

· The Gold Museum – we are not museum people, but this place is amazing. It’s full of pre-hispanic pieces made by the indigenous peoples well before the arrival of modern tools. The museum is as much an archeological museum as anything else but will give you an impressive look into Colombia’s inextricable indigenous history.

· The Candelaria/Plaza Bolívar – this is the heart of Bogotá, featuring the commercial and political hub of the city. In Plaza Bolívar you’ll find the main cathedral of the city, the mayor’s office, the supreme court, and nearby the presidential palace, La Casa de Nariño. It’s visually very pleasing and you’ll get a great sense of city life. The Candelaria is the historic district surrounding the area. You’ll find delightfully colorful buildings and restaurants (we recommend La Prudencia) but don’t hang around after dark as the safety of the area goes way down at nighttime.

· Monseratte – the hype is real! Though the mountain is mostly known for its famous church on top, the view of the city is unrivaled and you’ll get a sense of just how enormous Bogotá really is. There are a few restaurants and café’s at top, and the area stays open reasonably late. Don’t attempt the hike up as safety is sometimes an issue and it’s quite challenging. For $15 USD or less you can take either the teleferic cable car or rail up and down the mountain.

· The Salt Cathedral – about an hour and a half by car or an hour by train you can visit the famous Salt Cathedral. While historically not very important, the cathedral is an architectural marvel and people of all ages will enjoy the visit, it’s not just “another church.”

· Villa de Leyva – about 3 to 4 hours from Bogotá is the gorgeous historic town of Villa de Leyva. Off of traditional trade routes, the town looks pristine from 400 years ago, is lined with cobblestone streets, features wine vineyards and more. Villa de Leyva is sure to please!

2. Medellín: The Capital of the Paísas

Once known as the infamous stronghold of Pablo Escobar, Medellín has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, emerging as a dynamic metropolis celebrated for its innovation and resilience. The city's mild climate earned it the nickname "City of Eternal Spring," making it an ideal destination year-round. Visitors can ride the iconic Metrocable to explore the barrios perched on the surrounding hillsides, or stroll through the lush botanical gardens of Jardín Botánico. Furthermore, Medellín pays homage to its tumultuous past with the Casa de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to the victims of violence and conflict. Today, the city is the second biggest city in Colombia with an estimated population between 3 and 5 millio people. Plus, the city is having a gastronomic incoming with incredible restaurants like El Cielo, X.O., ídilico, Oci., and Cannúa. Medellín is the capital of Antioquia, and the Antioqueño people are often referred to as Paísas, known for their beauty, warmth, and gregarious personalities.

What not to miss:

· Plaza Botero - Medellín is a little bit more difficult to navigate by yourself than some of the other cities, but it can still be done. The recently deceased Fernando Botero is by far the country’s most famous artist and the prodigal son of Medellín. The impressive Museo de Antiqouia and the free-to-visit plaza Botero were curated by the maestro himself. Couple this visit with a trip to the Jardin Botanico and you can have a beautiful day out in the almost near perfect weather

· El Poblado – Medellín’s hippest neigborhood is lined with cool restaurants, boutique fashion shops, modern cafés, and lots of lush greenery. It doesn’t take a lot of walking around to realize why this neighborhood was on the NYT’s 2023 must see list.

· Parque Arví – just outside the city you can visit the giant Arví park reserve in the municipality of Santa Elena. The metro cable gondola ride is worth the trip itself to gain the most incredible views of this changing city. You’ll quickly rise into the giant forest preserve where you can connect with some impressive nature near the city.

· Comuna 13 – we know, we know, you were waiting to read this one. Truthfully, it’s not as cool as it used to be, now overrun with tourism, shops, café’s, and even AirBnBs. The Comuna 13 has lost its authenticity, but if you want an inspiring story of change and a little bit of Colombian barrio Disneyland, this is a good spot to visit and see the best murals and street art in Colombia.

· Adventure tourism – You’ll often see guidebooks that talk about San Gil, a small town that lies between Bucaramanga and Barichara (another beautiful town). While San Gil is great and worth visiting, it also takes nearly a full day to reach. Near Medellín you can do many of the same activities including paragliding either in San Felix or in Corcorna, and you can do white-water rafting on either the Cauca River or the Nare and Calderas rivers near Corcorna as well. It’s amazing fun and there is no need to lose a full day traveling to enjoy these activities! Medellín is also the biking capital of Colombia, so if you are cyclist, there are serious mountains for training nearby.

· Guatape – About two hours away is the large lake system of Guatape with its mammoth monolith locally known as “La Piedra,” or the rock. Again, Guatape has become very touristic and is a beautiful town, which is great for the local selfie-seeker.

· Jardín – About 4 hours away you can visit the historic town of Jardín. It’s known for coffee, beauty, and the very difficult to see Andean Cock-of-the-Rock bird. If you want a more authentic stay in Colombia, we’d recommend Jardín over Guatape. There are many coffee plantations nearby to visit, and Plantation House is a great hotel in town to get you settled.

3. Cartagena: The Heroic City

Steeped in history and romance, Cartagena is a coastal gem renowned for its well-preserved colonial architecture and Caribbean charm. The walled Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, beckons visitors with its cobblestone streets, pastel-hued buildings, and ornate balconies draped in bougainvillea. Travelers can wander through the maze-like alleys, stopping to admire landmarks like the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the Palacio de la Inquisición. But let’s get one thing right: Cartagena is an historic destination. The good beaches take 1.5 to 2 hours to get to and will cost money to visit. Cartagena is worth visiting but don’t get duped into think you’re getting city and beach together.

What not to miss:

· The old walled city and Getsemaní – although they used to count as one, they are technically separate neighborhoods. They both make up the historic center of Cartagena and you can easily get lost wandering the enchanting streets of Cartagena, which feel totally different during the day and the night. Cartagena is definitely a good destination to take a free day for some good old fashioned people watching.

· The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas – The old fort that used to protect the city is a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s terrific preservation and easy to self-guide access makes it worth spending a couple of hours out of your day to visit.

· Tierra Bomba Beach Clubs – they’ll cost you some money, but they’re place to be. We recommend Blue Apple Beach.

· The Rosario Islands – about two hours from Cartagena you can visit the Rosario Island archipelago. Book a day trip to visit one of the islands and have a beach day at one stop, or book a private boat (around $1,200 - $1,500 USD per day) and have the private ability to island hop to your heart’s delight.

· DON’T VISIT – The Totumo mud volcano. It’s disgusting. Please trust us.

4. Cali: The Salsa Capital

Known as the "Salsa Capital of the World," Cali pulsates with rhythm and energy, drawing visitors with its lively music scene and passionate dance culture. The city comes alive after dark, as salsa clubs and bars reverberate with the infectious beats of Afro-Colombian music. Beyond its vibrant nightlife, Cali boasts scenic parks, such as the tranquil Parque del Gato, and cultural institutions like the Museo La Tertulia, showcasing contemporary Colombian art. Additionally, Cali serves as a gateway to the nearby Valle del Cauca region, renowned for its sugar cane plantations and coffee farms. Please be careful when visiting Cali, although an exciting city, crime is still an issue and you should be conscious of having cell phones and money out in public.

What not to miss:

· A Salsa show – This is the big reason to visit Cali and it’s true, Caleños are the best salsa dancers in Colombia. Delirio is the most famous show in town but there are several that are great. You’ll see dancers that even intimidate the best dancers from other cities in Colombia!

· Monumento El Cristo Rey – Cali’s answer to Christ the Redeemer in Brazil is a fine big statue, but show up for the incredible views of the city. This is Cali’s answer to Monserratte

· A sugar cane farm – panela is the stuff that fuels Colombians. You can read about it in our article “What is Panela?” Cali is the biggest producer of sugar cane in Colombia, important in both the Colombian kitchen and rum barrel! It’s a fascinating process worth seeing, there are various options on Viator.

5. Santa Marta: The Closest Point Between Mountains and Sea

Nestled between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and the Caribbean Sea, Santa Marta offers a blend of natural beauty and cultural heritage. Travelers can explore the colonial charm of the city center, visiting landmarks like the Cathedral of Santa Marta and the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, where Simón Bolívar spent his final days. Moreover, Santa Marta serves as a gateway to the stunning Tayrona National Park, home to pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and ancient indigenous ruins. Adventurous souls can embark on treks to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida), an archaeological site dating back over a thousand years. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are home to four indigenous tribes (the Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogui, and Tayronaki) and you should be advised that there are park closures in February and June.

What not to miss:

· Tayrona Park – This is the obvious one. Tayrona Park is HUGE and there are many ways to see it – the main park entrance will cost you about $30 USD to get in and take you to Arecifes beach and the idyllic Cabo de San Juan. You’ll hike about two hours each way through lush jungle and with some luck see some monkeys along the way. For those with a car, guide, or both, there are waterfalls, rivers, and more in other areas like the Pozo Encanto, Don Diego, Mendihuaca, and more.

· The Beach – On the Colombian mainland, the best white sand beaches are definitely part of Tayrona. Of the most accessible beaches, we recommend Bahía Concha and Playa Cristal. But go early as daily entrances are limited to between 200-400 visitors.

· Scuba Diving – Did we mention that Tayrona Park is big? A huge portion extends out into the Caribbean Sea and it’s gorgeous to see underwater as well. We recommend diving with the very responsible Centro de Buceo el Rodadero.

· Minca – Okay, well here is another one we have to mention but just because it’s famous. Minca has changed drastically from a former Peace Corps Volunteer site to a growing village largely dominated by foreigners, hostels, and small hotels. There is a decent coffee farm, some good beer, lots of great bird watching, and a decent walk to what used to be the once beautiful and now over-visited Pozo Azul. We’re mentioning Minca here, but in reality… well, you know.

6. Manizales: The Best City in the Eje Cafetero

Perched high in the Andes Mountains, Manizales enchants visitors with its picturesque landscapes, cool climate, and welcoming atmosphere. The city is renowned for its annual Feria de Manizales, a lively festival celebrating Colombian culture through music, dance, and bullfighting. Nature enthusiasts will appreciate the nearby Los Nevados National Natural Park, where they can hike among snow-capped peaks and volcanic landscapes. Additionally, Manizales is known for its coffee production, offering visitors the opportunity to tour nearby plantations and learn about the art of coffee cultivation and processing. In reality, Manizales is the only city in the famed “Coffee Triangle” or Eje Cafetero that actually produces large quantities of this wonderful brown gold. In addition, the city often scores amongst the happiest citizens in Colombia for its wonderful quality of life. While backpackers have largely been priced out of some of the other Colombian cities, Manizales continues to be a charming and authentic option. While the airport at nearby Pereira might be a better option to fly into (the Manizales airport often closes due to weather concerns), Manizales is the better city to visit.

What not to miss:

· A coffee farm – there is a great farm right near the city called Hacienda Venecia. Owned by a former governor, the farm produces excellent coffee, has a great tour, and three levels of lodging. Plus, it’s located essentially at the foot of the city.

· El Nevado del Ruiz – Wow, wow, wow. Amongst the BEST destinations in Colombia is the Nevado del Ruiz volcano. You can book tours with various local sites and head up the mountain through a magical Paramo, an ecosystem responsible for major production of fresh water, filled with dreamy frailejon plants. The visit is mystical and feels like going to the moon. Definitely take a jacket as it gets cold up over 14,000 feet.

· El Cable – while tourists might go toward the city’s old gothic cathedral, locals flock up to El Cable, a charming square in front of a shopping mall where the old metro cable used to make its last stop. The square is next to the city’s architectural college and marked in the middle by the town’s largest Juan Valdez, which plays center to the annual theatre festival. The area is also the heart of restaurant and nightlife only rivaled by the nearby Manila neighborhood. El Cable is the place where locals will meet up and you’ll definitely get a college-town vibe from the area.

· Salento – located about two to three hours from Manizales (between Pereira and Armenia, the other two cities in the coffee triangle), Salento is a charming colonial town located near the enchanting Cocora Valley. The town is great for backpackers and regular visitors alike as it is peppered with cool hostels like Coffee House and Luciernaga, and amazing new hotels like Sazagua Cocora Valley. The town has grown significantly but continues to maintain its historical charm. The nearby Cocora Valley features a terrific 5-hour hike to the hummingbird house or slightly longer circuit, which will take you across rivers and streams and past the valley’s biggest attraction: giant wax palm trees, Colombia’s official tree. The species is critically protected and the trees can grow over 200 feet tall. Salento is known for its laid back vibe, but if you want an even more authentic trip, check out nearby small town Finlandia, which while popular is not yet as touristic as Salento. Equally, both are two of the most charming small towns that are easily accessible in Colombia.

7. Barranquilla:

Situated on the northern coast of Colombia, Barranquilla captivates visitors with its vibrant Carnival, one of the largest and most colorful celebrations in the world. The city comes alive with parades, music, and dance during the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday, showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Colombia's Caribbean coast. Beyond Carnival, Barranquilla offers a thriving arts scene, with museums like the Museo del Caribe celebrating the region's history and culture. Visitors can also enjoy the city's bustling street food scene, sampling delicacies like fried fish, arepas, and patacones. The biggest new attraction to the city is its large statue homage to hometown legend Shakira. You may also catch a local ballgame at a the modern parks donated by local heroes like Edgar Rentaria.

What not to miss:

· Carnaval – In February, Barraquilla hosts the second biggest carnaval festival outside of Rio. The festival is highlighted by a big parade, but in reality, the festivities are one long non-stop party for at least a week (if not a month!). If you go near the stadium you’ll experience non-stop dancing and foam in the streets, and sometimes late night concerts by major acts in like Bomba Estereo and Sistema Solar.

· The food – the town is the epicenter of Lebanese immigration into Latin America, and local cusine is excellent. There is also a lot of growth in high-end gastronomy. We recommend checking out Arabe Gourmet and Manuel (a top 100 in Latin America).

8. Leticia: Las Tres Puertas

Located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, Leticia offers travelers a unique opportunity to explore Colombia's wild side. The city serves as a gateway to the vast wilderness of the Amazon Basin, where visitors can embark on jungle treks, wildlife safaris, and river cruises. Leticia is also home to indigenous communities such as the Tikuna, Yagua, and Huitoto, providing cultural insights into the traditions and customs of the region. Additionally, adventurous travelers can cross the border into neighboring Peru and Brazil, expanding their Amazonian adventure. The border is the largest open border in the world, with Tabatinga, Brazil just a 5 minute cab ride away, while the entire other side of the river is Perú. But be aware that once you cross borders, so will your cell service, currency, and language necessities!! Even from just Colombia to Perú the available dishes will vary, given certain influences between each country.

What not to miss:

· The main square between 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. – every single day thousands of parrots land to perch for the evening before taking off 12 hours later. The scene is dramatic if not loud, and totally worth seeing!

· Parque Mundo Amazonico – A terrific private reserve with funding for plant research from NGOs, universities and backing from three indigenous tribes, Parque Mundo Amazonico is an amazing spot to visit to learn about medicinal plants and local life.

· Puerto Nariño – located about 4 hours by public boat from Leticia or two hours by private boat, Puerto Nariño is an incredible 1,000 person village mostly inhabited by members of the local indigenous tribes. While slightly more modern than the old ways, the village does not permit motorized vehicles inside, while being very well paved and organized. It’s a great place to visit the Terapoto lakes (in the wet season), go on hikes, or venture out on night excursions to see creepy crawly creatures and dart frogs.

· Calanoa – This is hands down the best hotel in Colombia’s Amazon. It’s a Nat Geo favorite and has its own giant primary forest preserve. Reservations are tough to get but include food and excursions. If you can go, go.

· What Not To do Part I: Don’t go to the Decameron or On Vacation. They’re chain resorts that might as well just count as deforestation. There is nothing authentic about them.

· What Not To do Part II: Visit Monkey Island. Yes, you’ll get covered by lots of cute monkeys, but they were forced to live on the island by a scientist who subjected them to animal testing. Today, the island just perpetuates and justifies the horrors of this small island’s past.

Other interesting places worth mentioning:

In conclusion, Colombia's cities offer a diverse array of experiences, from the bustling metropolis of Bogotá to the tranquil beauty of Leticia in the Amazon. Whether you're captivated by colonial architecture, entranced by vibrant street life, or eager to explore pristine natural landscapes, Colombia has something to offer every traveler. So pack your bags, immerse yourself in the culture, and embark on an unforgettable journey through this captivating country. If you are looking for a first trip to South America, Colombia should be your obvious first choice.