On the face of it, Bogotá doesn’t have a lot going for it.
You’ll surely arrive in Colombia with visions of balmy tropical beaches, yet the capital’s average elevation of 2,640 meters (8,660 ft) ensures it is typically cold and dark. Because the surrounding mountain ranges trap the clouds it’s also notoriously rainy.
Then there is the traffic. It has a lot of it. With a population of over 7 million, Bogotá still lacks any kind of metro system.
The centre can also seem a little edgy and gritty. One student traveller even told me he was too scared to enjoy Bogotá. He really didn’t need to be, but I guess first impressions can be difficult to overcome.
Oh, and the architecture looks mostly like this:
So, are you excited to visit Bogotá?
Waaaait, don’t tap that back button!
I want to make the case for why Bogota is actually an amazing city to visit if you give it a proper chance. I came to love Bogotá and think it’s often underrated.
If I had to choose a place to live, I would probably choose Medellin. But for a place to visit as a tourist, I think Bogotá has more to offer.
Getting your bearings
Okay, let’s be real. Bogotá is not a superficially beautiful city. The centre is dominated by old brown commercial buildings apparently from the 1970s. Even the nicer heritage buildings are in sore need of a fresh lick of paint. This isn’t picture-perfect Cartagena by any stretch of the imagination.
This might be a bit jarring if Bogotá is your first stop in Colombia, which for many it is due to having its main international airport.
I think Bogotá being the first Colombian city most people see might explain some of the negative comments out there. The situation seems similar to Bangkok, which often shocks new arrivals in Thailand with its chaotic traffic and sheer size, but which many admit to liking much more on a second look once they’ve adjusted to the country.
Bogota’s look and feel are fairly typical for South America. Bogotá actually reminds me somewhat of Lima in Peru, Santiago in Chile, or other Andean cities.
Most other Colombian cities are at a much lower elevation and have a warmer climate, so it’s interesting to spend at least a bit of time in this mountain city. The cool air will contrast against the searing tropical heat on the coast.
While traffic is definitely a problem at times in Bogotá, it luckily takes only at most a 30-minute taxi ride from the airport to the city centre.
Once you’ve arrived, you might completely forget that you’re in a metropolis home to millions of people. The mountains create natural limits to its sprawl, with the walkable centre hugging the slopes of Monserrate peak.
Most tourists stay in La Candelaria, a historic neighbourhood with old houses, churches, and many of the main museums and attractions.
The area may look a bit rough around the edges here and there but it is well-policed, so you don’t need to be afraid. Do take care in the middle of the night when the streets are empty (consider taking a taxi during these hours) but you can feel free to explore during the day or evening.
There are loads of fun cafes, shops, and a street market to discover in La Candelaria. It’s alive with activity; students, businesspeople, and tourists will all be roving the streets.
There are some nicer and leafier residential areas in Bogotá, but La Candelaria is the logical place to go if you’re visiting Bogota for the first time. You can read more about other areas to stay here.
What I love about Bogota is that it’s a real city that isn’t just made for tourists. This is quite unlike what Cartagena has become and unlike the gringo town of El Poblado in Medellin.
There are so many fascinating details in Bogota to discover if you give it some time. Here are a few tips on getting the most from your stay.
How to love Bogotá
1. Take a bicycle tour
Bogotá is surprisingly bike-friendly. Take the chance to do a bicycle tour as you’ll be able to cover a far greater area than walking.
You can book the best bicycle tour here.
A bike tour is absolutely the perfect introduction to Bogota. At least, I can say it totally changed my perspective. Consider doing this first thing you arrive!
Your guide will tell you stories about Bogotá that will make the city come to life. The tour will also help you understand the politics and culture of Colombia a lot more; these are helpful insights you can take with you on the rest of your trip. I loved all the stops on this bicycle tour.
You get to go to a local fruit market and try out some of the crazy fruits that in some cases you can only buy in South America. You may even leave the market with what you’ve just always wanted: a sensual selfie with a big green soursop.
A visit to a coffee roaster will give you your first taste of Colombia’s proudest product (yes, coffee, and not that other stuff).
Along the way, you’ll stop to see some of Bogota’s finest street art, see where emeralds are traded, and more.
The tour ends at a bar where you can play tejo, a traditional ball-throwing game where hitting the gunpowder-filled target will set off a loud bang. It’s an absolute hoot.
Walking tours are also an option but I strongly recommend a bike tour as you’ll get to see so much more. For instance, you’ll get to go inside the old bull ring of Bogota which is quite a way outside of La Candelaria.
There are many dedicated bicycle lanes in Bogota so it’s safe even if you don’t often cycle. The bicycle tour that I did lasted about 5 hours and you can book this tour on GetYourGuide.
2. Hit up the museums
Bogota has many great museums that offer a great introduction to Colombian art, culture, and history.
While Medellin is a better place to learn about Pablo Escobar and the associated period in Colombia’s history, Bogota is for everything else.
A must-visit is the Gold Museum which houses over 34,000 pre-Columbian gold artefacts. It’s an absolutely dazzling display of intricate art made by the indigenous peoples of Colombia.
Other cities in Colombia such as Cartagena and Cali also have small gold museums, but none can compare to the one in Bogota.
The Botero Museum is another highlight, home to one of Latin America’s most important international art collections. Among them are over a hundred pieces by Colombia’s own Fernando Botero, the artist known for his comically bulbous characters. Even if you’re not so much into modern art, I think Botero has broad appeal due to his surreal and exaggerated paintings and sculptures.
Besides these top two museums, there are at least a dozen well-rated other museums to visit.
3. Stay for car free Sunday
Bogota may often be car-choked and thick with traffic noise, but this has also led to the proud tradition of the carfree Sunday known as Ciclovía.
Some of Bogota’s biggest avenues and highways are closed to traffic on these days and open only to pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, and the like.
It’s a perfect day for people-watching as many Bogotanos from all walks of life walk the car-free streets. National Geographic wrote about this Sunday tradition that has improved the quality of life in Bogota.
Watch some riveting hamster races on car-free Sunday…
There are all kinds of street activities on Sundays as well including dancing, exercise classes, games, and markets. During Ciclovía Bogota transforms into a whole different city, so it’s worth planning your stay around a Sunday if you can.
Ciclovía takes place every single Sunday and on major holidays.
4. Dive into the culinary & night scene
One of the best things about being in the capital is just the huge variety of cuisine, drinks, and nightlife that you can enjoy.
With at least 50 nightclubs it’s a great city to party. The bar and club scene is less hyped and gringo-fied than Medellin and so its has a different appeal. The nightlife is more concentrated in specific areas in Medellin, so you can more hop easily between venues there, but most agree Bogota has much more and better nightlife overall.
Local craft beer and specialty coffee are easy to find and so are many excellent restaurants, their offering ranging from casual Colombian set meals to Michelin-star level dining.
You won’t have this level of variety once you get to smaller towns in Colombia’s coffee region or the coastal resorts, so it’s worth making the most of it while you’re in the capital.
5. Use Bogota as a base
Being at the center of Colombia and so well-connected, Bogota is the perfect place from which to organize many day-trips.
Want to hike to a truly epic waterfall? Then don’t miss a trip to La Chorrera, Colombia’s tallest waterfall. Starting in Bogota, a tour to La Chorrera will take about 8 hours.
You can also travel to Chingaza National Park, where you can experience the páramo, a unique mountain ecosystem with endemic plant species such as the seemingly cactus-like frailejones.
Also within day trip range is the fascinating Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, a church carved into a salt mine about 200m (660 ft) underground. It’s a stunning monument and still used for services to this day.
By staying in Bogota you get to enjoy all the nightlife, great restaurants, and other advantages of a big city, while spending your days visiting the many highlights in the surrounding region.
Is Bogota worth it?
With so many destinations in Colombia vying for your attention it may be difficult to dedicate some time to Bogota.
But ignore the naysayers with only negative things to say (you can find them on some blogs or forums) as I would bet that they didn’t give the city its due.
If you ask me, yes, Bogota is absolutely worth visiting.
Just make sure not to expect a glitteringly beautiful city with lovely warm weather, because that’s just not what it is. Bogota’s qualities are found a little more under the surface. Because it feels more like a ‘real Colombian city’ it lets you see a non-touristy side of Colombia.
If you are on a shorter trip and flying in- or out of Bogota, then it won’t hurt to stay at least a day in Bogota. Since you’re going to be there anyway you may as well spend a night before travelling onwards to other popular places like Cartagena, Salento, or Medellin. You may be quite pleasantly surprised by Bogota.
If you are travelling for a longer time in Colombia then you may want to put at least 3 or 4 days into Bogota, especially if you plan to take any day trips from the capital. There is enough to see and do to keep you occupied for quite a while. Personally, I can say that Bogota was one of the quiet highlights of both my trips in Colombia.
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