7 Memorable Experiences in Bogotá, Colombia
Over the years and our many travels, our family has fallen in love with a few cities we have visited. Sometimes the reason is easy to explain as may be the case with New York, Paris, Sydney or Barcelona. But with Bogotá, Colombia’s high-altitude capital, we found it harder to articulate what it was that made us feel such an immediate and intense affection for this city.
True, there is congestion, pollution and sharp contrasts between the wealthy and the poor, not to mention the city’s past reputation for persistent violent crime (no longer the case, I can assure you). But over the five days of our recent spring break we spent in Bogotá, we were wowed by its vibrant energy, a unique fusion of colonial and cosmopolitan, fantastic culinary scene, mind-blowing street art and the picturesque mountains encircling this 8 million person metropolis. And then there are the Colombian people: warm, welcoming, caring and loving life, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, something we easily identify with. In no time we felt a connection.
Here are seven highly memorable and fun things to do in Bogotá, Colombia that we enjoyed over our five-day visit. All are very suitable for family travel.
1. Step back in time in Candelaria
Candelaria, Bogotá’s picturesque colonial district, is the city’s oldest area and one of its main tourist destinations. It is best explored on foot. We were fascinated by its blend of centuries old buildings, beautiful churches, charming cobblestoned streets filled with food vendors, as well as modern museums, cafés, restaurants and numerous flamboyant graffiti (more on this in just a moment).
One of Candelaria’s most recognizable landmarks is Plaza de Bolivár, which used to be the town center and is a great place to start your exploration. Check out the bronze statue of Simon Bolivár, the Venezuelan-born leader who played a key role in Colombia’s history; admire the statuesque Cathedral of Bogotá, which you have likely seen in many travel pictures; and chase the giant flock of pigeons eagerly awaiting the tourists (and the corn they feed them) every day. Surrounding the square are the National Capital (seat of the Colombian Congress), the Supreme Court and the Llevano building which houses the Mayor of Bogotá.
From here, you can stroll down the many charming streets leading from the plaza, simply taking in the unique vibe of the neighborhood. Pause at one of the numerous street vendors to buy a tasty arepa (Colombia’s most famous food, best described as corn-based pancake, served with a wide variety of fillings or toppings) or obleas (two super thin waffles glued together with arequipe, Colombia’s version of dulce de leche or other filings creating a delicious cookie).
Tip: Before our visit, we were warned that the area is not particularly safe, and we should avoid exploring it on our own. We felt perfectly fine during the day, but like in any large city, it is always prudent to exercise common sense and some caution as often the “obvious tourists” can be easy prey.
2. Look into the heart of the city with Bogotá Graffiti Tour
I must admit that I’ve never been a big graffiti fan and actually often get annoyed when I see a defaced building or even public art in our home city of Chicago. However, my view on this changed dramatically after we visited Bogotá. While many cities frown on graffiti and penalize the offenders with hefty fines, Bogotá has a much more permissive attitude, often looking the other way or even embracing it. Opportunities to admire Bogotá’s unique street art, which frequently expresses political, socio-economic or environmental concerns, are literally everywhere, but certain sections of Candelaria offer some of the most amazing graffiti you have ever seen.
Several companies offer graffiti tours in Bogotá (most of them as part of touring the Candelaria), but I recommend the Bogota Graffiti Tour, which offers tours run and guided by street artists themselves. They take place every day at 10 am and 2 pm with a meeting point at Parque de los Periodistas (easy to find, just ask) and last about three hours. Tours are free, but tips at the end are encouraged and much appreciated.
We saw jaw-dropping art and learned the names of some of the Bogotá’s legendary grafiteros, their covert signatures, codes and secret meanings in their creations, as well as many other interesting facts about the city’s “graffiti scene.” It was an incredible experience, one I highly recommend and something I would do all over again in a heartbeat.
Tip: If you are signing up for the afternoon tour, know that Bogotá often experiences rain showers this time of day. It might be a good idea to bring a rain jacket or umbrella.
3. Drown in gold at the Gold Museum
You cannot visit Bogotá without paying a visit to the famous Gold Museum, which showcases roughly 55,000 awe inspiring gold pieces from all of the major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia that survived the Spanish conquest, making it the biggest collection of this kind in the world. While universally regarded as a highly prized status symbol, gold has had an especially deep meaning among Colombian cultures in pre-Colombian times. The museum showcases the process of making gold, its historical importance in religion and politics, its role in mythology and symbolism and more. Our favorite part was learning about different tribal rituals where gold played a key role.
Tip: You can certainly navigate on your own, but to enrich your experience the museum offers free tours at 11:00 am and 4:00 pm Monday through Saturday in Spanish and English. The museum is closed on Mondays.
4. Indulge in typical Bogotano fare at La Puerta Falsa
When visiting a new city, you should try at least one of its signature dishes, preferably at a place which is popular with the locals. In the case of Bogotá, I highly recommend a visit to La Puerta Falsa, a tiny and easy-to-miss bakery and restaurant just steps away from Plaza de Bolivár. Considered one of the city’s institutions, this cozy establishment has served generations of every day Bogotanos as well as famous artists and politicians. A few travel guides suggest it is touristy, but don’t believe it. You may find some well researched travelers at its long wooden bar or on the cramped second floor with only three tables, but the place is super authentic with locals as it most frequent clientele.
You must try the ajiaco, a thick, satisfying soup prepared with chicken, three different types of potatoes and a special herb called guascas, which gives it its deep grassy flavor and authenticity. It is considered the city’s official dish. Served with giant corn, capers, sour cream and a side of white rice and Colombian avocado, it is quite a filling meal and absolutely delicious.
La Puerta Falsa is also a great place to enjoy chocolate completo, a hot cocoa served with a chunk of white cheese, a bread roll and almojábana (best described as a sweet cheese bread). This is Bogotá’s traditional breakfast though often eaten as snack as well. If you can, save some room for the unbelievable tamales, they are like nothing you have seen before. Ridiculously tasty and enormous, they can easily be shared between two people. Finally, La Puerta Falsa also sells an impressive assortment of pastries and the most delicious fresh juices if you are looking for a quick pick-me-up and don’t have time to sit down.
Tip: The restaurant is small and can fill up quickly, especially around lunch time. Try to beat the crowds by showing up on the early side of noon or just be patient, the turn over is quick and the reward, trust me, will be worth it. Note that La Puerta Falsa accepts cash only.
5. Go XXL at the Botero Museum
After sampling some local food, you might be ready to enjoy some art. You are in luck because the Botero museum, housing works of one of Colombia’s most recognized 20th century artists, is only minutes away down the street and definitely worth a visit. Self proclaimed as “the most Colombian of Colombian artists,” Fernando Botero made headlines in 2000 when he generously donated 123 of his own art pieces as well as his extensive private collection consisting of works by Picasso, Miro, Dalí, Matisse, Monet, Chagall and a few others to his native Colombia.
Located in a beautiful colonial villa wrapping around a lovely courtyard complete with a fountain, the museum is very manageable in size, making it particularly well suited for families. It was a great opportunity to introduce our kids to this important artist, known as the “man who paints fat people” due to his signature style.
Tip: The museum is free (a condition Botero made when he presented his generous gift), but closed on Tuesdays, so plan your visit accordingly.
6. Get a magnificent view of the city from Monserrate
Want a memorable grand finale for your visit, complete with a breathtaking view of Bogotá? Head to Monserrate, a 10,341 foot high mountain towering on the east side of the city and a well-known tourist attraction as well as a famous pilgrim destination. Each year millions visit its summit and the church of the Fallen Christ, but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate its serenity and splendid views of the city, which looks very peaceful from this vantage point. The summit is a great place to watch the sunset and then be moved again as the city fades into evening and its lights begin to appear.
The top of Monserrate can be accessed via funicular, telerifico (a cable car) or by hiking (the preferred method for pilgrims). There are a couple of restaurants, but we decided to go casual and purchase arroz con pollo empanadas from a snack stand close to the church. They were outstanding — make sure to ask for the spicy salsa! Beyond the church you will also find dozens of souvenir shops with interesting offerings.
Tip: The ride via funicular and a cable car cost the same, and the tickets are interchangeable so you can try one on the way up and the other on the way down. Because the summit is over 10,000 feet high, I recommend you do not plan this excursion for your first day in Bogotá to minimize the chances of getting altitude sickness.
7. See first hand how Colombians like to party at Andrés Carne de Res
It is hard to visit Bogotá and not hear about Andrés Carne de Res. It is equally hard to explain what this place, in part a modern restaurant, a colossal bar, and a multi stage dance floor is about. One simply has to experience it. Its eclectic decor is awe inspiring, and the menu is so extensive it is practically a book. Every dish we ordered was amazing; the cocktails (or fruit lemonades in the case of our children) were some of the best I have had in my life; and the tantalizing music had us swaying our hips before we knew it. The whole place is crazy, over the top and impossible to resist once you arrive. Andrés Carne de Res will give you a reason on its own to return to Bogotá.
The establishment’s original location is outside of Bogotá in Chia. We visited the second and newer location, known for its many floors arranged in a special theme (I won’t give it away). This location is on the north side of Bogotá, in Zona G.
Tip: There is a gift store in Andrés Carne de Res which sells some of the coolest souvenirs in the whole city of Bogotá. If visiting with kids like we did, plan on going in late afternoon or early evening as kids are not allowed entry during later hours.
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