The Ultimate Travel Guide to Cartagena, Spain
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(Cartagena, Spain) Cartagena, the eye-catching naval city on the Mediterranean in the Southeast of Spain is much older than her namesake Cartagena de Indias in Colombia. Founded around 227 BC by Hasdrubal the Fair and named after the original Carthage, it has seen many civilizations and battles, primarily prompted by a need to control one of the strategically most important ports of the Mediterranean.
As a result, Cartagena is a city with an incredible number of historic monuments and sites, from the Punic Walls to the second largest preserved Roman amphitheaters on the entire peninsula to exquisite Art Deco buildings, all in a rather small space.
Add to this museum, a beautiful port which can be explored by boat trips, a pedestrian shopping zone, cafes and restaurants offering the ever-present tapas and you simply can’t resist to explore the captivating city on foot.
Another highlight is the colorful spectacle of Romans and Carthagens, also known as Moors and Christians when hundreds of actors in period costumes take over the city and re-enact the Punic Wars. Each year in the last week in September, this festival attracts thousands of visitors. Maybe you’ll be one of them.
In this Cartagena Travel Guide blog, we listed helpful travel tips and advice on how to get there, things to do, places to eat, best hotels, travel packages and more.
Best time to visit
Avoid January which is the coldest month and July and August when it’s not only very hot but also very crowded because of the holiday season. Spring and Fall are very pleasant months and the above-mentioned festival is another reason the choose fall for your visit.
How to get there
There are two airports near Cartagena, Murcia, and Alicante. Murcia is closer but mostly serves low-cost airlines. Far more international is Alicante/Elche. From there you can either hire a car, advisable if you want to explore more of the great areas around Cartagena or catch a bus. Buses run from just outside the airport to Cartagena Central bus station on an hourly schedule and the journey lasts between 2 1/2 and 3 hours depending on traffic.
No train connection from Alicante and taxis are very expensive.
Cartagena begs to be explored on foot. In fact, most of the important sites are ‘lined up’ so to speak, if you devise a circular route, starting and ending at the Central Bus station. Otherwise, there are buses which take you a bit further afield. If you travel by car, park it outside and proceed on foot.
Places to Stay
Hotel Los Habaneros
Address: Calle San Diego 60, Cartagena
There are several reasons for my choice of this 3-star hotel. First of all, it’s within a few steps from the train and bus station, therefore easy to reach. Secondly, it’s just opposite the starting point for my sightseeing round trip, the Centre of the Punic Wall. I like the simple but modern and comfortable rooms, wifi throughout and the ample breakfast in the bar downstairs. They also serve excellent cakes and tapas at around €2.50 each. Eat two and you have enough to keep you going for hours. Outside the bar is a lovely terrace with even better views of the Punic wall just across and the imposing Charles IIi fortress with surrounding park to your right. People at reception are very friendly and helpful and will even give you inside tips if you are looking for a special place to eat or shop.
Sercotel Alfonso XIII
Address: Paseo Alfonso XIII, 40
Somewhat more luxurious is this hotel, located on one of Cartagena’s main streets and a short distance from the Old Town and the interesting sites. Not noisy at all and a great plus is the first-rate gym. Modern and elegant rooms with all amenities incl. wifi throughout.
Pension Manolo II
Address: Avenida Juan Carlos I, 7
Located in the business district of Cartagena, the center can nevertheless easily be reached by bus as there is a bus stop right in front. Rooms are simple but clean and ample, wifi in all areas of the hotel and friendly service at 24-hour reception.
Places to eat
Address: Calle de Murcia, 14
One of my first stops to eat is this excellent restaurant and tapas bar. Very close to the entrance to the Roman theatre and Calle Mayor which is a nice shopping street, the interior, and the decoration are as enticing as the food. I prefer to sit at the bar and have tapas, but there are tables for a sit-down meal in the back room.
Address: Calle Mayor 56
A word about casinos in the south of Spain, because they are often misunderstood by tourists. They don’t have anything to do with gambling but are the meeting venue of cultural societies. Often located in splendid historic buildings, as is the case in Cartagena, their cafes and restaurants are open to everybody. If you want a good meal or just a coffee and cake in Art Deco splendor, the casino is the place to go to.
Fine dining in Restaurante Magoga
Address: Plaza Doctor Vicente Garcia Marcos, 5
Specialties are oxtail ravioli and suckling pig. As you can see, meat and seafood are popular in the dishes of Cartagena but vegetarians won’t need to starve either.
All along Calle Mayor in the direction of the port, you find plenty of smaller bars and restaurants which are less expensive than Magogo.
Where to shop
Calle Mayor is full of boutiques. As it is a pedestrian zone, window shopping is easy. A bit further afield but reachable by bus is a branch of the popular Spanish department store chain El Corte Ingles.
What to do and see
My round trip starts at Plaza de Bastarreche with the central train and bus station at my back. Crossing Calle Duque San Diego, the first stop is the Center for the Interpretation of the Punic rampart. It is an excavation site of the oldest part of Cartagena, the punic wall where building started in 227 BC. What was also discovered are burial chambers of medieval monks, you’ll see skeletons and skulls exhibited in their original places.
Follow Calle Duque San Diego and watch out for the sign for Casa de la Fortuna. It’s a complete Roman villa with amazing murals, the most famous being a peacock.
Keep your eye on the left and see a huge outside glass elevator which connects the lower part of the city with the rampart of the Castillo de la Concepcion 45m up. At ground level is the Spanish Civil War shelter museum, a reminder of more modern history.
The entire Roman Forum consists of several parts, most of them accessible from side streets of Duque San Diego. You will see the columns of the Amphitheatre and the Augusteum and you can already look down on the most famous Roman site: the vast Roman theatre. The entrance to that and the Roman museum, however, is from a pink art deco building just opposite the Town Hall. Calle Duque San Diego leads you to Calle Mayor, then turn left and you have reached the Theatre Entrance.
It’s not only the sites of antiquity which make Cartagena so unique. There are also several beautiful Baroque, Rococo and, above all, art deco buildings, all along the way.
Admire the facades of the former Grand Hotel, the Town Hall itself, the Charity Church and the Maestre House to mention but a few.
Once you have arrived at the Town Hall square, cross over and discover the naval history of Cartagena. Isaac Peral, a naval engineer from Cartagena, invented the electric submarine and a huge model is exhibited in the naval museum.
As you have now reached the port of Cartagena, divided into an industrial and leisure part, it’s time to contemplate a boat trip around the port. Sightseeing vessels depart crossing Paseo de Alfonso XII and down the steps.
After your boat trip, you finish your on foot round trip by crossing the Paseo again and following along the imposing walls of the Charles III rampart. At the foot are nice gardens and along the sidewalk coffee bars, some decorated with outstanding iron sculptures.
Money and other matters
Currency in Cartagena is the EURO. Some parts of the city have public wife other do not. As this is a very touristic city, English is widely spoken.
The suggested round trip gives you just an overview of the incredible number of things to see in Cartagena. It doesn’t even mention the Byzantine and Arabic sites.
You may well consider planning more than one day for your visit and, if you have hired a car, explore the surroundings like La Manga de Mar Menor, a protected area with the beaches of Portus, La Gola and Levante or a trip to Murcia.
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