First and foremost: Bogotá is huge. The Colombian capital is in fact the third largest city in South America, behind Lima, Peru and São Paulo, Brazil.
8 million people live in an area of 1500 sqkm (613sqm), thereby creating an utterly endless expanse of wealth disparities and contrasting areas.
On that basis, knowing where to go and what to do is of paramount importance in such a vast metropolis. Here is a comprehensive guide on how to approach your visit to the bustling Colombian capital.
History and overview:
Bogotá, officially Bogotá, Districto Capital (formerly Santa Fé de Bogotá) has been inhabited for over 12,500 years. Thousands of years before the Spanish era, indigenous tribes settled in the area of modern day Bogotá and survived on a hunting-gathering basis.
The actual city was founded in 1538 by Spanish colonist Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada as capital of the New Kingdom of Granada. The city remained part of the Spanish Empire until 1819 when Bogotá became the capital city of the newly independent Gran Colombia and later the Republic of Colombia.
Bogotá’s population started to explode throughout the 19th century and the city rapidly asserted itself as Colombia’s main economic and political centre. The second half of the 20th century was, on par with other Colombian cities, marked by the violent conflicts raging between drug cartels, paramilitary groups and the government. Although Bogotá has never had murder rates as sky high as Medellín, it is safe to say that the Colombian capital wasn’t a nice place to live in the 1980s.
Bogotá has like the rest of Colombia recovered from its dark days and is now a vibrant modern metropolis and Colombia’s main economic powerhouse. The city is however still characterised by harsh disparities in terms of wealth, cleanliness and crime rates. Gentrification is omnipresent in Bogotá and you will see a huge amount of gated communities and armed guards in front of properties, especially in the wealthier northern parts.
Knowing where to stay is crucial in a city of Bogotá’s size. The best areas are without a doubt the northern El Chicó and Zona Rosa areas (located in zones 1 & 2 on the map), which are safe and upscale neighbourhoods with great hotels and all the convenient infrastructures you need. Chapinero is another area with lots of smaller hotels and hostels and it is fine during the day but less developed and not as safe at night as the former two. Here are our hotel suggestions.
Sercotel Richmond Suites: A convenient and crisp hotel in the Chico business district, well located and with great rooms for very reasonable prices.
B.O.G Hotel: A great boutique hotel in a well located, safe and trendy area. The B.O.G has become a Bogotá institution thanks to its cosy yet stylish rooms and its excellent service and amenities.
W Hotel Bogotá: The famous W hotel chain has recently opened its first hotel in Bogotá and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. High quality rooms and amenities and all the luxury you would expect from a W Hotel in New York or Hong Kong.
Cultural offer and activities:
Museo del Oro – Gold Museum: (Carrera 6 # 15-82) Simply put one of the best museums in all of South America. This centrally located museum exhibits the largest gold collection in the world over 5 floors and is one of Colombia’s most visited cultural institutions. The 55,000 gold artefacts date back to pre-Hispanic times and give a great insight on Colombia’s natural wealth that was plundered when the colonists claimed the territory.
Cerro Monserrate: Monserrate Hill is Bogotá’s best natural viewpoint. The peak is located at an altitude of 3200m and contains a stunning religious site with some restaurants. The views over the never ending concrete jungle that is Bogotá are mind blowing and absolutely unmissable. There are two ways to ascend, you can either take the comfortable cable car or hike up more than 1000m which is fantastic but certainly not suited for the unfit traveller.
La Candelaría area: La Candelaría is Bogotá’s charming old town area. Picturesque colourful houses and lots of small bars, restaurants and coffee houses line the streets of this centrally located area which deliver stark contrasts to the soulless brown concrete blocks that constitute most of Bogotá’s cityscape. Be aware that the area is completely safe during the day but should UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES be visited at night. (Every Colombian will remind you that La Candelaria becomes a theft and robbery hotspot when the sun goes down.)
Plaza Bolivar & city centre: Bogotá’s geographical centre contains Colombia’s main political institutions, many banks and companies and the main square: Plaza Bolivar. The square is beautiful and a prime example of colonial architecture. In this area, you will moreover find many local restaurants that serve Colombia’s very diverse regional dishes. Be aware that pickpocketing is frequent in this area and you should therefore never carry too many valuables. Heavy police presence in the area has reduced the risk but in a South American city of 8 million people, caution is still always advised.
Street Art Tour: There are several street art tours offered in Bogotá, mostly around La Candelaría and Avenida El Dorado. Many talented Latin American street artists perform their craft in Bogotá and some central areas close to the historic district showcase that. If you want to know more about Bogotá’s street art tours, check this article by Culturetrip.
Museo nacional de Colombia – Colombian National Museum: (Ac 7 No. 28-10) Not as spectacular as the Gold Museum but still well worth a visit thanks to its vast collection of art and other historical items from different eras in Colombia’s timeline.
Day-trip: Zipaquirá – Salt Cathedral (Cathedral del sal): When you get fed up of the hustle and bustle of the never ending concrete jungle, a day trip is an excellent opportunity to see some more of Bogotá’s surroundings. We strongly recommend the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá (about 1hour from northern Bogotá). This uncanny cathedral was built into a 35m deep salt mine and nowadays hosts weddings and other festivities. The fact that the salt mine is fully operational and still contains several vast churches makes this one of the most astounding religious sites in the world.
The town of Zipaquirá moreover has some picturesque colonial architecture and a showpiece Spanish style square. To get to Zipaquirá you can take a bus in the northern Portal Norte Bus Station (you’ll have to ask around a bit, schedules are flexible and there are many companies offering the trip) or you can take a Uber which will set you back around 70k-90k COP (25-30USD).
Wine & Dine:
Colombia’s cuisine is rich and varied and every region has its very special dishes, one of Bogota’s main dishes being Ajiaco (rice/potatoes with chicken and corn). The great thing about Bogotá is that it is the culinary melting pot of Colombia’s cuisines but also a hub of great international restaurants. Here are some suggestions.
Andres DC: (Calle 82 #12-21) One of the coolest restaurants/bars/clubs in all of Colombia. This enormous complex is composed of 7 floors, each with a different theme (the ground floor is called tierra-earth and above you have the cielo – sky floor). You can try every Colombian dish here and they also have a vast selection of Colombian beers and liquors. The restaurant moreover turns into a club on the weekend where you can witness Colombia’s unparalleled dance culture.
Restaurante Luna: (Calle 83 # 12-26) A fantastic Italian restaurant right next to Centro Andino shopping mall and close to many other nightlife options.
As you may know (unless you live behind the moon), Colombians absolutely love to party. Bogotá has a lot of disadvantages but its nightlife is certainly not one of them. Thanks to the fact that this is an 8M city in a country with a rich party and dance culture, you are spoilt for choices in the Colombian capital. Here are some suggestions on where to party like a rolo (Colombian name for Bogotá natives).
Usaquén area: A great area to have a drink where you can find lots of small bars, restaurants and some nightclubs. The area is upscale and frequented mostly by young Colombian professionals who often speak English and work in one of Bogotá’s many international companies and banks.
La Chula Zona T: (Carrera 13 # 82 – 56). One of the best clubs in Bogotá and the best thing about it is that there are 3 Chula clubs (we recommend the one in Zona T, but our local sources tell us the others are similar). Hands down, in this reggaeton – crossover club you will find everything you expect from a nightclub in one the countries with the best nightlife in the world, La Chula is therefore unmissable for party lovers.
Chapinero area: An area with lots of small bars and clubs where locals and tourists gather to enjoy a drink during the week and even more so on the weekend.
Zona T area: The upscale nightlife district close to Andino Shopping Mall. You can find pretty much everything here, prices are higher than in Chapinero but the venues are generally of higher quality.
The Irish Pub Zona T: (Carrera 12A No 83-48) One of the coolest pubs in Zona T which will delight pub lovers with its various Irish themed rooms and its great local and international beer selection
London Calling Pub: (Cl. 120a #6A-24) Another pub which, akin to the Irish Pub, has a great drinks selection and beautiful cosy rooms. A taste of London in the Colombian capital and highly recommendable.
BBC- Bogotá Beer Company: (several in Bogotá) BBC is a chain which you will find in all of Colombia that stands for great beer and burgers and that is therefore always a good option if you want to have a local beer in a pub-like setting, Colombian style.
Final tips & verdict:
Bogotá’s traffic is world-renowned for the fact that it is utterly hopeless. Expect to spend a lot of time in traffic jams at any given time during the day. The fact that Bogotá doesn’t have a metro makes the traffic even worse.
Bogotá does have a system of ginormous buses which run on their own lane, the Transmilenio. This system can be a good option at certain times but for the love of all that’s holy DO NOT USE the Transmilenio during rush hour. Every traveller who did that will tell you the same thing: it is horrible, unbelievably crammed, unsafe and slow.
On that basis, the only real option to get around in Bogotá is a Taxi/Uber. The upside is that the official yellow taxis are dirt cheap and ubiquitous and that Uber (although officially banned in Colombia) works fine.
Some general safety tips for Bogotá:
- Do not walk into an area without knowing whether it is safe or not. (Ask hotel staff or other locals)
- Do not walk around at night, not even in the upscale northern parts (just take a Taxi/Uber)
- Do not walk around or take public transit with a backpack (classic Latin America), keep it in front!
- Do not take your smartphone/camera out unless you absolutely have to
- Be aware that a high number of thieves are on bicycles or motorbikes and can easily snatch anything you hold in your hands.
We realize that this is all common sense to most people but due to the very high number of careless travellers getting robbed or having something stolen in Bogotá, we find it essential to highlight these simple tips. Bogotá is not the safest city in the world but if you stick to the right areas and apply the aforementioned tips, you should be absolutely fine and you will be able to enjoy the Colombian capital because it has much more to offer than what many travel blogs/magazines would have you believe.
On par with most places in Latin America, the vast majority of people in Bogotá DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. We therefore highly recommend learning at least basic Spanish in order to properly navigate the Colombian capital (check picture below).
In a nutshell, Bogotá does have quite a few downsides but its advantages make up for them. Bogotá’s cultural institutions, malls, restaurants, bars and other nightlife options are far superior to most other places in Colombia. The fact that there are a lot of nature related activities and lovely smaller colonial towns nearby is another upside. On that basis, spending a few days in Bogotá is certainly worth it but we would still prioritise Medellín and Cartagena.