After studying abroad in Seville and teaching English for one year in Madrid after graduation, I was pretty disappointed when I was assigned to teach in Cartagena the following year. I had never even heard of Cartagena, and it was located in Spain’s Region of Murcia, less glamorous and fast-paced than the world-renowned cities of Seville, Madrid, and Barcelona.
Despite being upset about my teaching placement, I did a quick Google search and thought the small port city looked nice enough. I was soon headed there to teach in Spain for a second consecutive year.
Looking back on my time in Cartagena, I feel terrible for ever having had those negative feelings. I quickly realized that I was fortunate to have been placed in one of Spain’s loveliest hidden gems. Cartagena was the pleasantest of surprises, and I’ll never forget its charm that captivated locals and visitors alike.
Cartagena was historically one of the most important defensive ports of the western Mediterranean. Despite this, and despite the recent spike in cruise ships making pit stops at the city’s famous port, the city remains practically unknown to tourists.
It shouldn’t be that way, though -- Cartagena is a city teeming with rich traditional culture, outdoor adventures, ancient architecture, perfect weather, and stunning beaches. Here are some reasons why Cartagena is one of Spain’s best hidden gems.
It Sits On The Mediterranean Sea
As part of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain has one of the longest coastlines along the Mediterranean Sea, stretching nearly 1,000 miles.
Cartagena is one of many Spanish cities located on the gorgeous Mediterranean coast, making it a perfect destination for a seaside getaway. Palm trees line its streets, and the city is home to numerous beaches.
A city located on the Mediterranean will inevitably offer some delicious seafood and provide some beautiful year-round weather (we’ll discuss that in detail later on).
You Can Get Free Tapas
Believe it or not, “free” tapas in Spain are harder to come by than many people believe. This often comes as a shock to travelers who expect complimentary tapas throughout their Spanish holiday.
While Granada is probably the last major Spanish city that offers an abundance of “free” tapas (I say “free” because you still have to order an alcoholic beverage in order to receive one), Cartagena is a diamond in the rough that still has a handful of free tapas bars -- you just have to know where to look.
El Tranvía is located in the heart of Cartagena on Calle Mayor, with ample outdoor seating and friendly staff. Order a caña (small beer), doble (medium beer), tanque (the biggest beer), or tinto de verano (think refreshing, carbonated sangria), and you’ll receive a delicious, fresh, and free tapa!
If you’ve done your research on Spain, you probably know that the service industry there doesn’t function the same way it does in the United States. Servers don’t rely on tips, and eating out in Spain is a time to enjoy being with friends and family, not a time to rush to finish a meal.
When visiting El Tranvía, you might not be immediately acknowledged by your waiter, but don’t let this ruin your experience. Live like a local, sit back, relax, enjoy the weather, and people-watch while you’re waiting. When in Spain, do as the Spaniards do. ¡Olé! The Weather Is Perfect Year-Round
As I previously mentioned, Cartagena boasts a Mediterranean climate with perfect year-round weather. Don’t believe me? During my year in Cartagena, the temperature rarely went below 60 degrees or above 85 degrees, and it almost never rained. Could you ask for anything more perfect than that? I didn’t think so.
With such delightful weather, there’s never a bad time for a dip in the sea, a snorkel in one of the shore’s numerous coves, a nice dinner on an outdoor patio, or a stroll through the city center with an ice cream in hand.
There Are Amazing Beaches And Coves
Some of Cartagena’s biggest draws are its beaches and coves.
Less than a 10-minute drive from the city center is Cala Cortina, one of Cartagena’s best beaches. This quaint cove beach features crystal clear waters, ample parking, a snack bar, warm white sand, and plenty of snorkeling opportunities. The picturesque spot is a local favorite, especially during the summer months.
Situated just 20 minutes east of Cartagena is Cabo de Palos, one of Spain’s most famous snorkeling destinations. Travelers can either drive or take the number 20 bus to Cabo de Palos from Cartagena’s main bus and train station. The 1,300-foot beach is home to secret coves and pristine waters, making it a popular snorkeling and diving spot in Spain.
It’s Home To Incredible Hikes
Adjacent to Cartagena is Algameca Chica, a Hong Kong-style shanty fishing village that’s virtually unknown to tourists.
Near Algameca Chica is an abundance of stunning hiking areas along the Mediterranean with rugged cliffs and unparalleled views of the sea. Head south from Algameca Chica, and you’ll run into several fascinating hiking trails, including Cueva de la Cala, Cima Arco de la Amalia, Arco Amalia, and Reflector.
You Can Tour An Ancient Roman Theater
One of Cartagena’s most popular historic attractions, the Roman Theater was hidden beneath the city for centuries; it was rediscovered during excavations that began in 1988.
Believed to have been built between 5 and 1 B.C., the theater can seat 7,000 spectators and is divided into three horizontal sections. A semicircular space in front of the stage once served as an orchestra -- and still does! Performances are held in the ancient arena today.
Visitors can wander through the theater and adjacent museum at no charge. Audio guides are available in English, French, and Spanish.
There Are Free-Roaming Peacocks
If you continue uphill from the Roman Theater on either Calle Concepción or Plaza Puerta de la Villa, you’ll reach another popular attraction in Cartagena, Castillo de la Concepción. Located within Torres Park, this green space offers incredible panoramic views of the city.
The views aren’t the only spectacular feature of the park, however. An abundance of wild peacocks roam freely about the park, an unexpected yet delightful sight that only heightens the area’s picturesque qualities.
It Has Its Very Own Liqueur (And Its Very Own Specialty Coffee Drink)
Spain’s top-selling liqueur, Licor 43, is a sweet, vanilla-flavored liqueur that allegedly dates to 200 B.C. -- and it’s only made in Cartagena.
Produced by the Diego Zamora family and company, the drink gets its name from the fact that it’s made from 43 different ingredients.
In Cartagena, the most popular way to drink Licor 43 is by ordering an Asiático, a shot of coffee with condensed milk, Licor 43, hot milk, and a hint of cinnamon.
In Cartagena, you can even take a Licor 43 tour, a 2-hour experience that highlights the flavors, history, and culture of Licor 43.
There Is A Beatles-Themed Bar
As a diehard Beatles fan with a John Lennon tattoo, I might be overly excited about this discovery, but Cartagena is home to a Beatles-themed bar and restaurant fittingly named Yellow Submarine.
While the restaurant caters to tourists and is mostly Western-inspired, the quirky Beatles bar offers a wide selection of international beers, including some that are quite hard to come by, such as the famous Belgian beer Delirium Tremens. Inside, the bar is decked out in Beatles memorabilia from floor to ceiling, a sight that any Beatles fanatic will love.
With ample outdoor seating, Yellow Submarine is a great place to kick back and relax, enjoy a cold cerveza, and bask in the warm Mediterranean sun.
It Makes A Great Road-Trip Stop
Not only does Cartagena lie on the Mediterranean Sea and have perfect year-round weather, but it also serves as a great road-trip stopping point.
If you’re renting a car and driving through Spain, you should know that Cartagena is centrally located between several major Spanish cities; it’s only a 3- to 6-hour drive from Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, Seville, Málaga, and Valencia.
Many travelers decide to stop in Cartagena for one or two days, and since the city is rather small, it makes a perfect halfway point.
It Hasn’t Been Discovered By Tourists… Yet
When I tell people that I lived in Cartagena for one year, their reaction is usually, “Oh, you lived in Colombia?”
Not many people are aware that there is another fabulous Cartagena in Spain!
What I love most about the city is its pure authenticity. Unlike many bigger Spanish cities, it’s managed to avoid becoming a tourist trap and provides a unique experience that is difficult to find in the more-visited areas of Spain.
While this lovely port town is becoming a more popular stop for cruise ships, it still upholds its vital and rich Spanish culture, something you won’t find in Madrid or Barcelona.