Exploring Bohemian Bogotá: A Colombian Adventure Part 1 of 3
After my visit to the amazing city of Medellín in 2018, I knew that I wanted to return to Colombia to see what more the country had to offer. I finally had the opportunity this month to spend about a week in three different areas: the capital city of Bogotá, the tiny Caribbean island of San Andrés, and the coastal city of Cartagena.
Because each of these places is so unique, Colombia has become one of my favorite destination countries, and I already know that I’d come back again to check out even more cities if given the chance (Maybe Barranquilla? Or Cali?). There’s literally something for everyone: cosmopolitan cities with fine dining and museums, outdoors activities of all varieties, beautiful beaches, great nightlife, and more.
Bogotá is a city full of historical attractions, cultural activities, and great hangout spots. The neighborhood of La Candelaria is where most visitors congregate, and it has a Bohemian feeling to it with historical government buildings as well as countless bars and restaurants to explore. There’s also the nearby town of Zipaquirá, which has a very interesting cathedral that is definitely worth the day trip to go see.
In full disclosure, I’m glad my first visit to Colombia was to Medellín and I would recommend going there for your first visit as well. It’s a modern city with a beautiful green landscape where you can feel a sense of innovation and looking towards the future. However, you might find that Bogotá looks more interesting to you! Hopefully my posts covering both cities will give you an idea of which one should be your first stop in this really phenomenal country.
Things to Do in the City
Stay in La Candelaria
As I mention above, I think La Candelaria is the best area to stay for anyone visiting Bogotá. There are a bunch of hostels here, although I’m sure there are nicer options as well. The one that I found on Airbnb was super cheap (like $12 per night), but it was also pretty bare bones. For example, they didn’t provide soap, shampoo, or a towel, so if you’re going to go this route, you might want to pack those things just to be safe.
Free walking tour offered by Secretaria Distrital de Cultura, Recreación y Deporte
This is a great way to get an introduction to La Candelaria, and the best part is that it’s free! You’ll learn about Colombia’s struggle for independence, violent past, and , and how buildings and parts of the city reflect this rich history. The tour guides also have a wealth of knowledge on all the best attractions the city has to offer, from interesting neighborhoods to nearby museums.
Go to the office on this corner and ask about when they’re offered (mine was 9:30 a.m.). They give tours in English and Spanish, and our guide did a really good job of telling the stories of the places we saw.
Explore Bolivar Square and the surrounding blocks
Bolivar Square is the first stop on the walking tour, and it’s basically the heart of the city. Within a few block radius of the square, you’ll find government buildings, universities, restaurants, shops, and more. This is a great place to start exploring from, and be sure to check out the interior of the Cathedral of Colombia on the square’s southeast side when it’s open to visitors.
Walk the alley of Carrera 2
This tiny alleyway was probably my favorite street in La Candelaria. On one side, you’ve got the Plazoleta Chorro de Quevedo, where young people gather at all hours of the day and night to engage in and watch street performances and musicians, and on the other, you’ll have a great view overlooking the neighboring district of Santa Fe.
Museo del Oro (Gold Museum)
A number of people recommended checking out a bunch of museums in Bogotá, but with only two full days here and one of them taken up by a day trip to Zipaquirá (more on that below), I only had time to visit the Museo del Oro. I had heard that this was the most impressive museum in the city, and even though I didn’t see the others, I’d totally believe it!
They have an incredible collection of pre-hispanic gold artifacts, including jewelry and accessories, statues, and more. My favorite pieces were the smallest ones, many of which had a stunning amount of detail. Entrance was very affordable (only about a dollar or two), and there was no line to get in. Even if you’re not a museum person, you should set aside an hour or two to check this one out.
Try Some Local Bogotana Food
I ended up eating most if not all of my meals in La Candelaria because there are just so many restaurants to choose from. If you want to try a distinctly local dish, you have to visit La Puerta Falsa. This tiny restaurant founded in 1816 offers both tamales and ajiaco, a special type of chicken stew. I decided to try the tamales along with a hot chocolate that was served with bread and cheese (which sounds random, but I think that’s an another Bogotá tradition).
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to try one of the many hole-in-the-wall or family owned restaurants in La Candelaria! I ended up at one for my final meal in Bogotá and ordered a random cut of steak with rice and beans, but the meat ended up being super tender and everything was delicious!
Climb the Hill to Monserrate For A Mind-Blowing Sunset
Ok, I have to admit that I saved the best for last. Ask anyone from Bogotá what you should see and they’re bound to mention Monserrate (the last “e” is pronounced, by the way). It’s a hill with a church on top that overlooks the city, and it’s accessible by either funicular (ground cable car), teleférico (suspended cable car), or you can allegedly climb it by foot at certain times of day.
Unfortunately, the teleférico was not working when I visited earlier this month (February 2019), so the only option to get up was the funicular. It took about ten minutes, and once you reach the top, there are a couple of restaurants that looked like they would probably be expensive.
You absolutely should go during sunset, and as any amateur photographer such as myself knows, sunsets are most stunning when there are some low-lying clouds for the light to reflect off. Seeing the city slowly illuminate as the sun went down was definitely the highlight of my visit to Bogotá, and this skyline is undoubtedly one of my all time favorites!
Day Trip to Zipaquirá
This was the one day trip I took from Bogotá, and I really recommend going if you’d like to see a smaller town as well as a bit of the Colombian countryside. The town’s most significant attraction is the Catedral de Sal, a salt mine-turned-cathedral, which is I’ll bet is unlike any church you’ve ever been to.
La Catedral de Sal
From the moment you purchase your ticket and descend down the tunnel into the mine which is 650 feet below ground, the Salt Cathedral is a one-of-a-kind experience. We used the audio tour, which I actually really liked because it provided explanations of everything we saw.
The first thing you’ll see are a series of fourteen crosses arranged in tiny chapels adjacent to the main pathway of the mine. Each cross represents a part of the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This is where the audio tour is most helpful; it explains how details, such as lighting, the way the crosses are carved, and the caverns behind some of the crosses represent various aspects of the end of Jesus’s life.
The next part of the Cathedral was my favorite. It’s the actual chapel, complete with church pews, decorations, and annexes. Apparently they actually do hold regular services here, and I would’ve totally loved to hear a choir perform in this incredible space.
At the end of the tour, you’ll find a bunch of souvenir shops, restaurants, and restrooms. You’ll need to head back the way you came, which means you’ll get one last chance to see the fourteen crosses.
After you’ve toured the salt cathedral, head into town for lunch before making your way back to Bogotá in the afternoon. There’s a public square that feels a lot like a mini-Bolivar Square, and surrounding it are a bunch of restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops.
A Perfect Jumping Off Point For a Colombian Adventure
I’m really glad that I spent about 2.5 days in Bogotá, which seemed like the perfect amount of time to see the essential attractions. Needless to say, if I had more time here I would’ve liked to explore one or two more museums as well as some other neighborhoods. La Candelaria is great, but a quick glance at the map (or a view of the skyline from Monserrate) reveals how big this city really is. There’s definitely more to explore if you’re spending more than a few days in the capital of Colombia.
I’d also like to extend a huge thank you to my former coworker Ana María and her family, who so graciously helped me organize my time here and who accompanied me on the majority of my excursions here! It was an amazing time and I owe most of my good experiences in Bogotá to their kindness and hospitality!
After my time in the city came to an end, I set off for San Andrés, a tiny Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea that most readers have probably never heard of. That was an incredible experience as well, although it was different in almost every way from the metropolitan capital. Read my blog post about San Andrés here.
Lastly, I spent my final few days of my trip in the tourist haven of Cartagena. Every place I’ve been in Colombia has been spellbinding in its own unique way, and it seems to me that everyone can enjoy what the country has to offer, whether you’re a solo traveler, a spring breaker, or a family. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think of Bogotá in the comments below!