Ciudad Vieja: An Open-Air Living Museum
When the Spanish came looking for the kingdom of El Dorado in 1533, they landed at Cartagena. Today this gem of colonial architecture has been beautifully restored, particularly within its authentic and lively 16th- and 17th-century Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Overhanging wooden balconies, flowering patios, narrow back streets, stately mansions housing fine restaurants, café- and palm-lined plazas, and centuries-old churches are enclosed and protected by the city’s elaborate murallas, 7 miles of thick walls and an impregnable chain of outer forts. An outstanding piece of military engineering built to protect Colombia’s most important city from pirate attacks, they are the only such fortifications in South America.
The early-17th-century Convento de Santa Clara is an architectural treasure; after a stint as a charity hospital, it was recently converted (under the watchful eye of UNESCO) into the city’s finest hotel. The painstaking restoration exposed long-hidden murals and secret doors; ceramics and cannon shot from pirate attacks also surfaced, evidence of the site’s intriguing history. Guests can dine in the former refectory of the Clarisa nuns or stroll through the flowering gardens in the quiet of what once was an arched cloister. The nuns’ spartan rooms are now luxuriously appointed, but the inspiring views remain unchanged: The tiled roofs of the historic Ciudad Vieja against the indigo Caribbean sea.