Bogota – nearly as large as NYC, and one of the highest capitol cities in the world – is filled with history, culture, fantastic food, and beautiful views of the surrounding Andes mountains. I fell in love after spending a mere 3 days in the city. Below is my guide to getting the most out of a quick trip to Colombia’s sprawling capital.
How to have a great time in Bogota, Colombia
Below are general recommendations on how to make the most of your time in all neighborhoods in Bogota (and how to stay safe).
Try Candelaza – This is an incredible tea-based alcoholic drink that is infused with a number of ingredients, such as lemon, lime, cinnamon, and raw sugar. It’s served at various establishments throughout the city (Bogota residents love hot drinks and soup). Like many Colombian foods and drinks, most places make Candelaza differently, so try it wherever you find it! Most likely the mix will be unique each time.
Try Vegetarian and / or Chicken–Based Ajiaca – Ajiaca is a very popular soup served in Bogota that, again, is made somewhat differently at every location. The meat-version includes chicken and corn, and the vegetarian versions have a number of ingredients and can be creamy or broth-based.
Try Changua – I only found this once, at La Puerta Falsa (see below), but I loved it! The broth is coconut-based and includes eggs, bread, and various herbs. It’s some of the best soup I’ve ever had.
Use Easy Taxi – There are various stories of a ‘millionaire scam’ where Bogota taxi drivers pick you up, then take you to an ATM, and force you to empty your account. It’s not suggested to hail a taxi off the street. Instead, use Easy Taxi, which certifies that their drivers are legit and safe. We used it and had no issues.
Dress Like a Local – The way you dress is a bit more important in Bogota than in most places you travel to, mainly because it’s pretty easy to stand out. One thing to realize is that Bogota residents almost never wear shorts. They also rarely wear sandals. If you walk around in shorts and sandals, you will stand out. If you wear sandals / need to take sandals (like we did since we were headed to the coast after and could only pack one small backpack each), then bring nicer ones (i.e. Not flip-flops and not close-toed tourist sandals). Bogota residents (as far as we could tell) typically wear long pants, dark clothing, jackets, hats, no jewelry, and close-toed trendy-yet-comfortable shoes. If you dress trendy or like a hipster, you’ll be fine.
Dress for Rain and Temperature Swings – It rains at least some most days in Bogota and the temperature varies wildly (despite the climate generally being temperate). It’s best to bring a rain jacket, umbrella (if you can fit it), and clothes you can layer on / off as the temperature changes.
Be Aware of the Altitude – Bogota is over 8,000 feet above sea level. If you notice altitude, you will feel it. Be sure to drink lots of water and acclimate before doing strenuous workouts.
Take Out Cash – Many establishments are still cash only (and all street vendors are). Don’t expect to use a card everywhere.
The Water / Sustainability Tips – To avoid buying and wasting tons of plastic water bottles, take your own reusable bottle along with a straw that filters, or a portable filter. Alternatively, you can buy your own Life Straw filtering water bottle.
Straws / Sustainability Tips – Colombian cities use a LOT of straws, and we can confirm they’re scattered all over the beaches and throughout the sea. To avoid adding to the problem, you can ask for your drinks with no straw: ‘ sin pitillo’ is how Colombias say ‘without a straw.’ You also can take your own reusable straw and say ‘Tengo pitillo’ and show them your straw so they don’t give you others.
Take Advantage of Cheap Prices – In general, your dollar goes really, really far in Colombia (see below). For example, our flights from Bogota to Cartagena and Cartagena to San Andres only cost $30 each… Take advantage of this and the fact that you can get fantastic food, drinks, and lodging for very little money.
Learn Some Spanish and Colombian Dialect – Most people don’t speak English in Colombia. Some do, but don’t expect to find many. I’m somewhere between beginner and intermediate level in Mexican Spanish, and I struggled to get us through at times. Be sure to brush up / learn before you go, and expect to frequently use Google Translate to show people what you’re saying. You can also learn more about the various Colombian dialects and how they differ from other Spanish dialects here.
Try Hot Chocolate and Cheese – This is available everywhere in Bogota, and is quite good. Essentially you get a plate of hot chocolate, cheese (to dip in the hot chocolate), and various breads with butter. It’s quite good (see info on La Puerta Falsa below).
Hang out in La Candelaria Neighborhood
If you’re only in Bogota for a short period of time, I think you can spend a good bit of it in La Candelaria. This is both the historical / governmental district and the bohemian / backpacker district. It also is centrally located to most things you’ll want to do. Although we read it wasn’t ‘the safest’ neighborhood, we had no issues and never felt unsafe. Still, you need to be smarter and more alert in this neighborhood (and in Bogota in general) when compared to more upscale neighborhoods and other large cities, such as Cartagena and Medellin. Despite potential safety concerns – which arguably aren’t any greater than you’d have when staying in Chicago, NYC, or LA – La Candelaria is an amazing neighborhood filled with gorgeous Spanish architecture, the Colombian national government buildings, tons of police and militia (to maintain security), fantastically good and cheap food, hostels, and various backpacker / bohemian drinking establishments (also fantastically cheap).
Views of La Candelaria & the Andes from our Air BNB
General Tips for La Candelaria
Take cash – Nearly everything in La Candelaria is cash only (but very, very affordable), so take out cash before heading there.
Walk during the day, take cabs at night – Again, we walked around La Candelaria many times at night (mainly because we stayed there and didn’t realize it was ‘sketchy’ until a few days in), but it’s generally not suggested to wander around the district at night. I’d suggest touring, eating, and bar hopping during the day / early evening, then heading to a different area at night via taxi. If you stay in La Candelaria, just choose bars and restaurants that are close to where you’re staying to so you don’t have to walk far.
The Historical Area
Much of the historical district is centered around Calles 10 & 11. You can easily spend most of a day (or more if you’re a museum buff) walking around these blocks while taking in Colombia’s historical and governmental buildings.
Suggestions for making the most of the Historical District:
Take a Free Walking Tour – Our schedule didn’t allow for this, but free walking tours of the Historical District are offered at 10am and 2pm each day. They last 3 hours and have great reviews. I guided us on our own walking tour, but we didn’t get as much out of it as we would have with a local guide. I’d suggest scheduling one for your first or second day in the city to give you a feel of the area, and give you ideas for where you want to spend more time.
Have a drink in Bolivar Square – For those who don’t know, there are no open container laws in Colombia. Anywhere. One of the most fun things to do is grab a drink and hang in a square, or walk around the streets. Bolivar Square is the epicenter of the Historical District since it’s surrounded by the city’s premier cathedral, the National Capitol, Lievano Palace, and the Palace of Justice.
Eat at La Puerta Falsa – I realize this is ‘one of those tourist places,’ but it’s damn good and damn cheap, so it deserves to be. This is just beyond Bolivar Square on Calle 11. We tried Chocolate and cheese (hot chocolate, cheese, and bread served with butter. You dip the cheese in the hot chocolate. Trust me, it’s good), a chicken tamale (which is HUGE), and Changua. All were fantastic. They also have great desserts, which we were too full to try.
The Bohemian Area
Carrera 2 – This small street is one of my favorites in any city. It’s small, hilly, filled with colorful buildings and street art, and boasts a number of unique bars / restaurants that serve local food and drinks. My suggestion is to walk around and pop into any store, bar, or restaurant that interests you.
Chicha – Chicha is a heavy drink made of fermented corn. It varies in alcohol content from little or none to high. Many places on Carrera 2 serve Chicha, so pop in and ask for it anywhere. Just beware – we each ordered a Chicha, and were served two wine bottles full of the drink! Fortunately, ours had very little alcohol content, so drinking one bottle was the equivalent of pounding a light beer. Just be sure to ask how strong the alcohol content is in advance, and how big the drink will be.
Restaurante Sitio Casa Candelaria – We ate here one of our first nights, and it was great. For about $24, we had an appetizer, two entrees, and four total drinks – all of which were quite good. They serve great local Colombian dishes and drinks in a space decorated with antiques. It’s a really neat, affordable place.
De Una Travel Bar – This bar / restaurant is built around travelers. It offers drinks (coffee and alcohol), decent food, wifi, and outlets. It’s a great place to work if your hostel / hotel / Air BNB doesn’t have wifi, or you want a change of pace. I also loved the Candelaza here.
Places we wanted to try but didn’t have time to:
- For Breakfast / Coffee – Maria Café,, and La Tarteria.
- For Vegetarian Food – Quniua Y Amaranto.
- For Beer & Beer Tours – Papaya Gourmet.
Bogota is within and surrounded by the Andes mountains, so it’s a great place to take a hike. That said, if you have more time there, I’d suggest renting a car and getting out of the city to hike. If you don’t have much time, hike Monserrate, the closest mountain to the city. You can reach it by walking from La Candelaria. It’s a good workout, but be warned – It’s as packed as the internet says it is, which is pretty annoying. We went on a Sunday, so it was worse than ever. If you can, tackle Monserrate during the week. You also can hike Quebrada La Vieja (I believe). Similar to Monserrate, it gives you a great view of the city, but it’s more natural and less crowded. That said, I read that it’s only open from 5am to 10am when the police guard the trail. After that, you hike at your own risk. We avoided it due to this uncertainty, but I’ve read that others booked local guides to hike with, went early in the morning, and enjoyed it.
Visit Chapinero, the Trendy Neighborhood, and Try Great Beer
Chapinero is supposed to be the ‘trendy’ more upscale district of Bogota. We spent an afternoon / evening walking around and bar hopping in it. The barrio was very pretty and quite safe, and had lots of newer, trendier restaurants and bars within a few blocks of each other. Our absolute favorite was Mela’s Craft Beer. It had the best beer and IPAs we had our entire trip. We spent an evening talking to the brewmaster and teaching each other English / Spanish. Mela’s is new, but is expanding to other neighborhoods in the city (including Candelaria), and other cities in Colombia (including Cartagena), so you probably will be able to get their beer at more than this one location when you visit!