Sitting at a beautifully refreshing altitude of 2,640m, Colombia’s capital is diversity personified and showcases the cultural, historic, ethnic and natural highlights that make this one of Latin America’s most rewarding destinations. Find out all there is to see and do in Bogota before venturing forth to explore Colombia’s multitude of treasures.
Bogota is everything a capital city should be. It is the economic, cultural and artistic heart of Colombia, its most vibrant core and a beacon of modernity mixed with the quintessential flair of a country snuggly cradled between the exotic Caribbean and enticing mountainous Andes. Boasting a fusion of modern and colonial architecture, excellent museums, plenty of luscious green spaces interspersed with sky-high buildings, charming locals and the best cuisine in the whole country, Bogota is so much more than a mere springboard for better Colombian experiences. Bogota is, in fact, one of the best Colombian experiences of all.
Bogota’s Best Highlights
Unrivalled art & culture
With its uber-cool street graffiti and abundance of artists (the city is home to a large number of world-class art institutes) Bogota is undoubtedly the rising star in the Latin American art-world, and a street-art tour of the capital is certainly reason enough to visit. Legalized in 2011, street art in Bogota has taken on a life of its own, incorporating the vision of young and old artists alike to portray the turbulent history of the once-troubled country and showcase the many facets of its inhabitant’s talents. The city’s culture scene is evident not just through the many colourful murals but through the sheer number of theatres, art museums and galleries found all over the city. An art-appreciation tour through Bogota’s city centre is a wonderful way to get acquainted with one of the most enticing aspects of Colombia.
La Candelaria: an utterly charming historic quarter
The city’s most historic colonial quarter is the hub of the thriving tourist scene and where you’ll probably spend most of your days. Gorgeous cobblestone streets framed by wrought iron and wooden balconies brimming with flowers in bloom.
Brightly painted houses and doorways begging to be photographed, as well as gorgeous museums, boutiques and restaurants set in historic buildings enticing you to stop more times during your sightseeing walk than you’d ever intended. La Candelaria is where you’ll find most of Bogota’s individual tourist attractions (like the best churches and museums) as well as copious food and drink choices, so spending endless days exploring every nook and cranny won’t be too difficult.
World class museums of old and new
The Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) is where you’ll find the largest gold collection of pre-Columbian artefacts in the world, with more than 55,000 glistening items on display, unearthed from just about every corner of the country. This overwhelming, fascinating and humbling museum retraces the ancient history of the country and reveals the treasures (in metal, stone and textiles) of all the indigenous cultures which thrived here long before Europeans arrived.
The El Dorado collection alone is reason enough to visit. For curvaceous art head to the Botero Museum which showcases the voluptuous creations of Colombia’s immensely beloved modern painter and sculptor. Regarded as the most prominent international art collection on display anywhere in Latin America, this comprehensive museum is spread over two floors and combines a hundred of Botero’s own masterpieces and about 80 from renowned international artists, including Picasso, Matisse and Salvador Dali. If you’re into fine jewels, visit the Emerald Museum. Many visitors don’t know that Colombia is one of the world’s top emerald and fine stone exporters and this small but excellent museum boasts a few truly startling pieces.
A surprising cycle-friendly culture
Bogota boasts over 300km of cycle ways and can easily be described as the most bicycle-friendly city in all of Latin America. Given the delights hiding along pathways, with a flurry of parks, lakes, plazas and fountains you’d otherwise not see by taxi, a bicycle tour of Bogota is a wonderful way to discover this gorgeous city and get a bit of exercise along the way. This is also a particularly handy way to visit Parque Simon Bolivar, dubbed Bogota’s Central Park.
It covers more than 400 acres (larger than NYC’s!) sits right in the heart of town and with its beautiful lakes, picnic areas and walkways, is a popular weekend destination for locals and visitors alike. Head here on a Sunday and see the kite-flyers at play and note that most of the city streets close then to give cyclists a chance to leisurely meander through the city. An excellent way to join locals on two wheels down the city’s main drags.
Stunning churches and architecture
From the gothic to the majestically colonial, the modernist and the insanely colourful: Bogota’s stunning architecture will undoubtedly captivate you at first glance. This is one of those cities where it pays to always have the camera handy and where turning a corner can reveal unexpected surprises.
The most eye-catching treasures in town are arguably the colonial-era churches, because if there’s one thing you can say about the Spanish is that they knew how to build beautiful cathedrals. The most famous, the Catedral Primada on Bolivar Plaza, is the largest church in the country and the crown jewel of Bogota’s most impressive square. The Iglesia del Carmen church and Colonial Art Museum also worthy of a photographic stop, if nothing else.
The historic quarter played a pivotal role in the creation of Bogota over 500 years ago and when it comes to striking architecture it is the city’s piece de resistance. One could spend hours just soaking up the beautiful façade of the old homes and buildings along Bogota Street alone.
Mount Monserrate – for fabulous vistas
Almost 400 years ago a church was built atop Mount Monserrat, the striking 3,150m peak that hovers over Bogota as if protecting it from evil spirits. A pilgrimage site for centuries, Monserrate is revered for the splendid and all-encompassing views over the city it offers as well as spellbinding sunsets. No need to make it a hard slog either! A convenient and very enjoyable cable-car will have you up the top of the peak in a jiffy so if you wish to skip the 1 hr ascent on foot you certainly can. The views of Bogota after dark, on a clear night, are simply exceptional.
The magnificent Botanical Gardens of Bogota
On the western outskirts of the city centre is the Jardin Botanico, reputedly the largest and most comprehensively flowered in the country. Not just a relaxing place for a nice stroll, these gardens house over 100,000 species of flora endemic to Colombia and there’s an excellent indoor facility that’s divided in the different ecosystems found throughout the country. Orchid lovers will be particularly impressed. Colombia boasts over 5,000 different types of orchids and the display in these gardens are outstanding.
Best Souvenirs to bring Home From Bogota
Emeralds are Colombia’s calling card and easily one of the least ‘kitschy’ souvenirs you could seek. Expensive as they may be! Affordable silver jewellery is also very popular as are the hand-made artefacts locally sourced. You’ll find a lovely cluster of souvenirs stalls, boutiques and stores in the side alleys around Plaza Bolivar and in the city’s famous Sunday markets (like Usaquen flea market) which are held all over town.
Colombian coffee is also very popular although you should check import restrictions if travelling from Australia and New Zealand. Usually, they need to be commercially prepared and vacuum packed to be allowed through but best to double check before purchasing. The country is also famous for its good quality leather goods. Just one block south of the flea market in Usaquen is the colourful Hacienda Santa Barbara, a shopper’s paradise if you’re in the market for good quality souvenirs. Bogota has taken to the ‘shopping mall’ craze and you’ll find an array of malls attracting budget and splurge shoppers alike. Ask your hotel concierge or tour guide for more specific recommendations dependant on your wishes and budget.
Top Tips When Visiting Bogota
Safety is usually a prime concern for those travelling to Bogota, and Colombia in general, for the very first time. It seems the country’s reputation still has a long way to go to improve people’s perception. But it may surprise you to learn that the main problem foreign visitors face when visiting Bogota the capital is actually altitude sickness. Life at over 2,600m in altitude can be a tad breathless for the unaccustomed so keep this in mind and give yourself a couple of days to acclimatize, especially if you wish to hike up Monserrate peak.
Here are a few insider’s tips that’ll make your visit to Bogota all the more enjoyable:
Use common sense when it comes to your personal safety: this is still a developing country in many ways and there is still a big problem with poverty and petty street crime.
- Inform yourself: every major city has its ‘shady’ suburbs and areas that are fine to visit during the day but not so much after dark. Find out what they are, either from your tour guide or hotel concierge and tour accordingly.
- The popular tourist areas are still the safest: both the historic quarter (beloved by backpackers) and more upmarket hoods are kept safe by tourist and common police.
- Don’t flaunt valuables: leave your jewels at home and keep your expensive camera/phone/watch pout of sight.
- Travel in a group: everywhere in the world is made much safer simply by travelling in a group.
- Take something warm for evenings out: altitude living in Colombia means that evenings and nights are cool, all year long. Don’t be misled by the notion that Colombia is all tropical and take something warm to wear as well.
- Do take your mid-morning coffee from mobile lady vendors: they may look like something out of ghostbusters, but those ladies carrying vats on their backs meandering through town? They serve hot piping coffee! Have yours black or tinto (with a splash of milk) by the side of the road, like locals do.
- Have a salsa lesson: It is often said that Colombian hearts beat to the rhythm of the salsa and if you wish to indulge (and you really should) you can take a class when visiting Bogota. And there’s not even a need to get formal! One of the most appreciated compliments you could ever make a local is by asking them to show you some beginner moves. They do so love to comply.
- Down a shot of aguardiente (if you dare): the local anise-flavoured alcohol is said to grow hairs on your chest and is particularly handy if you’re out at night and forgot to take something warm to wear! The name translates to ‘firey water’ yet that would still have to be the most underrated term in the world.
- Cut travel time and take internal flights: Colombia is a deceptively large country and, unless you have a lot of time to travel and wish to overland, taking domestic flights is both convenient and inexpensive.
- Haggling is expected: certainly not if shopping in high-end boutiques but otherwise, when buying souvenirs from street stalls and even taking taxis, prices are inflated initially in expectation of a good haggle. Don’t disappoint them!
Be ready to be overawed – Bogota assaults the senses like few cities on earth. The vibe, the vibrant colours, the friendly locals, the music, the wonderful aromas and the music, laughter and chit-chatter make this one of the most enigmatic and addictive capitals in all of South America. So give Bogota, and Colombia, the time they deserve. Don’t rush through: you’ll be doing this incredible city (and you) an enormous disservice if you don’t slow down and soak it all up.
Bogota is a brilliant introduction to tours of Colombia and a convenient place from where to reach all the country’s major tourist highlights like Cartagena, Medellin, Cali and the amazing Tayrona National Park. For Colombia itineraries, options and more insider’s tips and recommendations….call us! We are totally enamoured with Colombia and just can’t wait to show you around.
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Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”