As residents of Colombia, we’ve made two visits to Cartagena de Los Indios, one of this country’s most beautiful and highly touristed cities. As we started planning for our February trip to Spain, we were fascinated to learn that there’s also a Cartagena, Spain – and it’s the namesake of the much younger Colombian version. Of course we had to visit, and we’re so glad we did.
On our month-long visit to Spain’s Costa Blanca, we saw traces of the Roman Empire in a couple of other cities. But Cartagena is where we could really sense the distant presence of Romans who lived and thrived in this area over 2,000 years ago. Cartagena was founded by the Carthaginians in 220 BC (!), just a few years before it was conquered by the Romans. With its excellent natural harbor and rich mineral resources, Cartagena was an important trading hub in the Mediterranean and thrived under Roman rule for several centuries.
Here are our Cartagena highlights. (As usual, most of our pictures are in galleries – just click the first photo to click through larger versions of each.)
Castillo de la Concepción
Cartagena is well-fortified, surrounded by hilltop medieval castles in various states of disrepair. They speak to the need to defend this important trading port through many centuries and many different cultures. The most visited is Castillo de la Concepción, looming over central Cartagena from the top of the hill of the same name. Over the centuries, the hill has served as a fortress to Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, and Castilians, and now houses the History and Medieval Cartagena Visitor Centre. The current structure is a restoration of the castle built by Alfonso X of Castille in the late 13th century. Into the 20th century, the fortress housed an air raid siren during the Spanish Civil War.
The castle is a great place to start your tour of Cartagena, and it’s worth the climb up just for the spectacular city views. The museum was rather unimpressive, in our opinion, but the ancient Roman cisterns under the castle keep are pretty amazing.
TIP: If you don’t feel like walking up, take the panoramic lift on the east side of the hill (about $2 per person).
Casa de la Fortuna
We discovered this fascinating little museum on our first day wandering through Cartagena’s historic quarter. In the 1970s, workers building a new bank and apartment block stumbled on the remains of a domus (upper-class Roman dwelling). In the ensuing decades the house was painstakingly excavated to reveal three bedrooms, an atrium, a salon for receiving guests, and a banquet room. Archaeologists were able to restore some of the colorful wall decoration and also a geometric floor mosaic.
The museum does an excellent job of imagining what daily life was like for the family that lived in the Fortune House (so named for the inscription found in the entrance to the atrium, which reads “Fortuna Propitia.”
Since photography was not allowed in the dimly lit museum, here are a couple of photos from another source, a photographer named Santiago Abella. Here is his photo stream. ¡Gracias, Santiago – espero que no te importe!
TIP: Entrance to the Casa de la Fortuna museum is €2.50. Spend another €1.50 for the audio tour – well worth it. Here’s a great article with plenty more information about the site.
The Roman Theater Museum
Cartagena’s fantastic Roman theatre was a huge highlight, and the well-done museum is a must. Emperor Caesar Augustus began construction on the theatre right around the birth of Christ, which makes this fantastic site about 2,020 years old! By the third century, the structure had ceased operating as a theatre and was taken over by a market. As the centuries passed, the ruins slowly disappeared under layers of urban development.
In the 13th century, Alfonso X of Castille built Cartagena’s first cathedral on top of the theatre ruins and using some of the old Roman stone. In 1939, the cathedral was shelled and destroyed during the Spanish Civil War (a story in and of itself!).
Together with the ancient theatre in Mérida, Cartagena’s Roman Theatre is one of Spain’s most important archeological sites. The first excavation work began in 1988, with the modern museum finally opening in 2003. The museum itself is quite a remarkable architectural feat, with exhibits in a former 18th-century palace and a passage underneath the ruined cathedral to the theatre itself.
TIPS: The Museum is located directly across fro Cartagena’s landmark Town Hall , and its fantastic website includes everything visitors need to know. We did the audio tour, but honestly, it was too verbose (what seemed like 10 minutes spent on a display of pottery shards, for instance). You could probably learn almost as much without it.
The National Museum of Underwater Archaeology (ARQUA)
The National Museum of Underwater Archaeology is the home of Spain’s world-renowned National Centre for Underwater Archaeological Research. ARQUA is world renowned for its groundbreaking research and efforts to preserve Spain’s underwater cultural heritage. The public-facing museum is fascinating, with displays on naval construction, trade, and navigation since ancient times.
By the 19th century, a mining boom had brought new money to Cartagena and transformed its historic center with one beautiful art nouveau building after another. We spent an afternoon wandering along broad avenues and from one pedestrian-only street to another, just gawking at the stunning architecture. Cartagena gets kudos for its outstanding job of preserving these treasures, most of which are beautifully restored.
TIP: Cartagena is built for walkers. Start your foot tour at the waterfront and head a little north to the pretty green plaza with the landmark Spanish-American War Memorial. Keep walking north and you’ll see the Plaza del Ayuntamiento with the stunning, 100-year-old Town Hall. If you haven’t visited the Roman Theatre Museum yet, it’s just across the street. From there, the pedestrian Calle Mayor continues north, with scores of picturesque little side streets branching off.
Things We’re Saving for Next Time
We’re sorry we didn’t get to visit the Naval Museum, but it was closed on the day we were in the area. The renowned museum houses the world’s first submarine, invented by Isaac Peral.
- From Alicante, we rented a car to travel north to some of the seaside towns along the Costa Blanca and then all the way south to Cartagena (about a 1.25-hour drive from Alicante). We were highly pleased with Centauro car rental agency in Alicante, conveniently located across from the train station. Not only is picking up and returning the car super-easy, but the service is outstanding.
- We stayed in the economical and comfortable Hotel Sercotel Alfonso XIII. It’s an easy walk from there to the historic center.
- While visiting the Castillo de la Concepción, we spotted a little red tourist train that turned out to offer a nice overview of the city. A day-long ticket for the hop-on, hop-off train is about $7 per person.
- Cartagena’s tourism website is a great resource.
- Like everywhere else we visited in Spain, Cartagena has fabulous restaurants. Our two favorite dining experiences were Taberna La Satisfecha and El Pincho de Castilla, a landmark steakhouse highly popular with the locals (go right at opening to nab a table).
Next up: Traveling Spain’s Costa Blanca!