CARTAGENA Spain

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Why visit Cartagena, Spain

Cartagena is a small port city with a big history. Since its founding in 227 BC, the city has been ruled over by Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and finally the Kingdom of Spain. There are numerous archaeological sites, including the Roman Theater that was only just discovered in 1988! Cartagena is also home to a world-class naval museum and a charming old town with plenty of modernist architecture to discover.

The former regatta club of Cartagena next to the sea, Spain
The former regatta club of Cartagena, Spain

This small port city is home to 216,000 inhabitants and is located in the southeast corner of Spain. Its wide bay is one of the best protected ports in all of the Mediterranean. It was for this reason, as well as its close proximity to a silver mine, that the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal the Fair founded the city in 227 BC.

Its original name was Kart hadašt which was Phoenician for “new city.” This is the same name that was given to the original Carthage in modern day Tunisia. After the Carthaginian defeat in the second Punic War, the Romans gained control of the city which was renamed to Carthago Nova.

The Romans fully exploited the mineral reserves of the surrounding mountains and took advantage of Cartagena’s privileged defensive location on the coast. Most of the ancient ruins that can be seen in the city today date back to this time period.

Square lined with palm trees next to Cartagena's Naval Museum - Spain
Palm trees next to Cartagena's Naval Museum

In 714 AD, the Moors conquered most of the Iberian peninsula and Cartagena was mostly forgotten. That is until the 1700’s when it became one of Spain’s leading naval ports.

In 1873, Cartagena established itself as its own self-governing canton for a period of 6 months and put itself in the center of Spain’s Canton Revolution. The city was heavily shelled and it’s estimated that 80% of the city’s buildings were destroyed before everything was all said and done.

Today, Cartagena is one of three main navy bases for Spain.

TIPS TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR VISIT TO CARTAGENA
  • The city’s tourism office offers several combined tickets that will help you save money when visiting Cartagena’s landmarks. There are several options ranging from a 13€ voucher that allows access to 4 museums to the complete 24€ pass that gives access to all the sites. For more info, visit the city's tourism office website.
  • Avoid visiting on Monday, because most of the tourist sites are closed.

Top Things to Do in Cartagena

1

ROMAN THEATER

The roman theater, one of the top things to do in Cartagena, Spain
The roman theater, one of the top things to do in Cartagena

Cartagena’s Roman theater (6€ entrance fee) is the city’s main tourist attraction and visiting it is at the very top of the main things to do in Cartagena.

Built by the Romans in the 1st century BC, the theater had space for about 7,000 spectators. Remarkably, houses were built on top of it and it remained buried for almost 2,000 years. It wasn’t discovered until 1988!

Access to Cartagena’s Teatro Romano is done through the theater museum, which occupies the Riquelme Palace located on the town hall square (Plaza del Ayuntamiento).

The visit to the museum starts along an underground corridor with an exhibition of archaeological remains found while excavating the theater.

After touring two more exhibition rooms, you will finally cross one last corridor running under the Santa Maria church until reaching the imposing Roman Theater, which you can tour freely.

3

OLD TOWN

Puertas de Murcia street in Cartagena's historic center, Spain
Puertas de Murcia street in Cartagena's historic center

Unfortunately, Cartagena was mostly destroyed by bombings during the Cantonal rebellion that took place at the end of the 19th century. However, a big mining boom took place shortly afterwards that created a new local bourgeoisie excited to show off their newly acquired wealth. Luckily for us, they did so by building beautiful houses inspired by the Catalan modernist movement all over the city center. Thanks to them, strolling through the old town is one of the top things to do in Cartagena.

We recommend you to walk from the San Francisco square to the town hall square along the Honda and Mayor streets. The Calle Jabonerías is another noteworthy street with a great atmosphere, especially on the weekends.

Modernist Casa Maestre building in the Plaza San Francisco, Cartagena (Spain)
Modernist Casa Maestre building in Plaza San Francisco

The Plaza San Francisco itself is a charming square with several huge trees and incredible architecture on it (although a lot of it is quite neglected). A building that stands out particularly is the Casa Maestre, inspired by Gaudí’s Casa Calvet.

Walking along the Honda and Mayor streets you will see other cool buildings such as the Gran Hotel, the Casa Llagostera, the Casino and the Casa Cervantes.

The quaint Plaza San Francisco in Cartagena's historic center (Spain)
The quaint Plaza San Francisco

Your walk will end at the elegant Plaza del Ayuntamiento (town hall square), located just a few meters away from the port. This square is presided over by the impressive Palacio Consistorial, seat of the city hall. This square is also where you will find the entrance to the Roman Theater Museum.

THE MARINERA, THE QUINTESSENTIAL TAPA OF CARTAGENA

Make sure not to leave Cartagena’s old town without trying the most famous tapa of the region, the “marinera”. This curved breadstick is covered by a generous scoop of Russian salad which is then topped with an anchovy.

The marinera is the perfect tapa to accompany a cold beer on a sunny terrace!

4

CONCEPCION CASTLE

Views of the Cartagena bay from the Concepcion Castle – Murcia, Spain
Views of the Cartagena bay from the Concepcion Castle

The Castillo de la Concepción (4€ entrance fee) is a medieval castle from the 13-14th centuries located on top of one of the five hills that historically protected Cartagena.

The truth is, there isn’t much to see of the castle itself. The main thing to do is to enjoy the great views of the city from the lookout area, including the port and the Roman Theater. There are some great photo opportunities for the theater and the rest of the city.

Inside the fortress you will find the Interpretation Center of the History of Cartagena. It houses an exhibition about the 3,000 year history of the city and the different civilizations that have called it home.

If you don’t want to walk up to the castle, you can use the panoramic elevator, which ascends 45 m (148ft) and is located on Gisbert street. The easiest option is to buy a combined ticket castle + elevator.

5

CONSISTORIAL PALACE

Majestic exterior of the Consistorial Palace in Cartagena's center, Andalusia
Majestic exterior of the Consistorial Palace of Cartagena

The Palacio Consistorial is one of the main modernist buildings in the city and also one of the most beautiful ones. It was built between 1900-1907 by Tomás Rico, featuring an eclectic style with French influences.

This unique triangular building stands out for its majestic white marble facade, which is topped with one zinc dome in each of the three corners plus a larger one on top of the main entrance. It was actually the first building in the city to have electricity.

Imperial marble staircase inside Cartagena's Palacio Consistorial (town hall) – Murcia, Spain
Imperial marble staircase inside Cartagena's Palacio Consistorial

Today, for 1€ you can take part in a 20-30 min guided visit. In addition to learning about Cartagena’s history, you also get to see:

  • The imperial marble staircase with a gorgeous stained glass ceiling.
  • The "sala de plenos” (plenary hall), featuring several original lamps, each of them weighing 500kg (over 1,100 lbs!) and made with over 10,000 crystals.
  • The “oficina del secretario” (secretary’s office) featuring also several original elements such as the desk, typewriter, oil lamp…
  • The “alcaldía” (mayor’s office).

The Palacio Consistorial is one of the top things to do in Cartagena and, if you have the time, we recommend you to take part in a guided visit.

Beaches around Cartagena

Due to its great location in the coast of Murcia, known as Costa Cálida, Cartagena is surrounded by beautiful beaches. What’s even better, Cartagena features a semi arid climate, which is actually one of the hottest and driest climates in Spain. And La Manga del Mar Menor is less than 30 min drive away.

Cala Cortina near Cartagena in Murcia, Spain
Cala Cortina near Cartagena

CALA CORTINA

Cala Cortina is one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Murcia. This 200 m long beach is made up of coarse sand and features tranquil crystal clear waters.

It has all services and amenities, including several chiringuitos (beach bars).

Cala Cortina is located 5 km east of downtown Cartagena. It takes about 10-15 min to get there by car, but it is also possible to walk (40-50 min). If you have the time, walking to Cala Cortina is a nice alternative. You will enjoy beautiful views of the coastline as well as great panoramic views of the beach itself on arrival.

Small beaches at El Portús, near Cartagena – Spain
Small beaches at El Portús

EL PORTUS

To the west, the closest beaches accessible from Cartagena are in El Portús. Although in google maps you can see that there are some beaches closer to the city center, those are in military land and can’t be accessed.

El Portús is a tiny fishing village with a small pebbled beach followed by several tiny coves. Next to it is also the Camping Naturista (nudist campsite), located in front of another small pebbled beach.

Although the pebbles might not be the most comfortable, the waters are crystal clear! Just do like the locals and make sure to come prepared with beach chairs.

More Things to Do in Cartagena

TOURIST BOAT & NAVIDAD FORT

The tourist boat cruising in the bay of Cartagena, Murcia
The tourist boat cruising in the bay of Cartagena

Throughout history Cartagena has been treasured for its port. If you are interested in learning more about the importance of its bay or just want to get out on the water for a bit, then taking a ride on the tourist boat (“barco turístico” in Spanish”) might not be a bad idea.

During the 45 min boat ride (6€ ticket) you will navigate around and out of Cartagena’s bay while sighting castles, defensive batteries and lighthouses. At the same time, the multilingual audioguide will teach you about their military, strategic and commercial importance over the centuries.

Note that you can pay 2€ extra and get off the boat to visit the Fuerte de Navidad. Although the truth is that there isn’t much to see on it, you can enjoy some nice views of the city. Keep in mind though, that you will have to wait a full hour to get back on the boat.

ROMAN FORUM, FORTUNE HOUSE & AUGUSTEUM

Foundations of the Roman villa in the forum of Cartagena, Spain
Foundations of the Roman villa in Cartagena's forum

Cartagena’s Roman heritage goes far beyond its impressive theater. Here is a list of the other main Roman sites in the city:

  • Located at the feet of the Molinete hill, the Roman Forum (6€ entrance fee) contains the archaeological remains of a block of the ancient Roman city that covers about 1,000 square meters (1/4 acre). There isn’t too much intact and the site is mostly made up of building foundations.
  • The Casa de la Fortuna (2.5€ entrance fee) houses the remains of a small Roman villa from the 1st century BC, discovered in the underground level of a modern building. While touring the house, you will be able to admire some murals and mosaics as well as get an idea of what it was like to live in Roman times.
  • The Augusteum (2.5€ entrance fee) was a temple dedicated to the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Visitors can learn about the cult to the emperor and the exuberant performances staged at the temple.

CIVIL WAR SHELTERS MUSEUM

At Cartagena’s civil war museum-shelter (3.5€ entrance fee), you will have the opportunity to learn more about the city’s more recent history. During the Spanish civil war (1936-39), Cartagena was an important Republican stronghold. It was actually the last city in Spain to surrender to Franco's troops.

Due to its geographical location, it was very difficult to attack Cartagena by land or sea. Therefore, it suffered many air attacks. At this museum, you will visit one of the many shelters created to protect civilians during the bombings.

This audiovisual museum features real testimonies, images and sounds from the war, making it easier to imagine what it was like to live through such a horrendous and traumatic experience.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF UNDERWATER ARCHAEOLOGY

The ARQUA or National Museum of Underwater Archaeology (3€ entrance fee) is responsible for the research, conservation and exhibition of the underwater cultural patrimony of Spain.

One of the main highlights of this interactive museum is the Odyssey treasure. This collection of over 570,000 gold and silver coins belonged to the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk in 1804.

PUNIC WALL INTERPRETATION CENTER

The Punic Wall Interpretation Center (3.5€ entrance fee) houses some of the only Carthaginian remains in all of Spain. They belong to a defensive wall from the 3rd century BC, the same time period as the Punic Wars when the Carthaginians fought the Romans.

Next to the wall, you will also discover the burial crypt of the hermitage of San José built in the XVI and XVII centuries.

Top Hotels & Apartments in Cartagena

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