Do you like your melon juiced, your buildings candy-colored, and your fish prepared al frito? If so, then Cartagena, Colombia, is calling your name. The coastal city is an enticing tropical destination rapidly making its way onto travelers’ radar. With a port, fortresses, and group of monuments that were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, the town is known for its colonial architecture and Caribbean climate, both of which inform an unexpectedly Dickensian aesthetic—as if one might stumble at any moment upon Miss Havisham’s tropical estate. It’s a literary vibe befitting the adopted home of magical realist and national treasure Gabriel García Márquez, whose former house is located in the stately San Diego quarter.
Sleepy plazas come alive at night as the temperature drops and tourists and locals mill about, dipping in and out of one another’s lives. A slew of boutique hotels and hostels make Cartagena a reasonable place to stay at any budget, whether you’re an Australian backpacker or a Bogotá banker. High-end shopping exists—Michael Kors and Salvatore Ferragamo both have outposts, as does Italian furniture maker Kartell—but the real design stars are the city’s centuries-old buildings, awash in a rainbow of saturated hues. You’ll be inspired by everything from the patina on doors to the elegance of rough-hewn joints meeting at odd angles, seemingly on the brink of collapse in the sweltering heat. And amid the chaotic vibrancy of Caribbean life, you’ll glimpse moments of tranquillity: negative space on a canvas exhausted with color.
Tucked behind one of the many gorgeous doors around town, the modern, intimate Tcherassi Hotel + Spa has seven high-design guest rooms and a courtyard restaurant that’s a dreamy retreat from the stifling humidity. Savor the ambiance while gazing out on a vertical garden of more than 3,000 local plants. Another verdant courtyard can be found at the Sofitel Santa Clara, a 17th-century convent converted into a family-friendly 122-room hotel. It’s got enough antique wood tables to make you swear off Saarinen for good.
At Restaurante María Cartagena, chef Alejandro Ramirez Gomez turns out crowd-pleasing spins on local ingredients—including grilled lobster tail with fettuccine and a classic pulpo al olivo. La Central Antillana is a good pit stop for a budget-friendly lunch in an atmosphere that conjures up Havana. The Anthony Bourdain–approved La Cevichería offers a flavorful alternative to the region’s abundant fried fare; order the shrimp ceviche, served with mint pesto–drizzled mango on a bed of avocado.
The city’s street vendors hawk everything from arepas to dizzyingly patterned mochila bags. Buy a fresh coconut water before heading off for an afternoon of browsing. Colombia is known for its emeralds, which are in no short supply at Maríelena Villa Rodriguez’s MariRustic (Calle del Curato No. 38–60). But it’s the store’s collection of antique objects—from Wedgwood china to salvaged brass drawer pulls—that most strikingly caught our attention. Vendor Julian Reyes López has a showroom, Dos Reyes (Calle Estanco del Aguardiente No. 5–63), in a beautiful old high school that also houses art galleries; look for more antique furniture as well as original work by Ecuadorian painter and sculptor Oswaldo Guayasamin. An eclectic collection of found items and stately treasures, from vintage clocks to ornate candelabras, is the specialty at Olano boutique (Calle de Las Damas No. 3–90).