Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, is one of the places tourists often hesitate to put on their itinerary. Safety issues, general big-city-ness or even weather seem to daunt some of the travelers who love Colombia for its tropical nature, however, for an adventurous traveler interested in different aspects of Colombian society, Bogota is a fascinating spot to see.
I have lived and worked in Bogota for over a year and even married a local Bogotano – therefore I often get asked for tips on how to best spend time in the city.
While my experience here was rather that of an expat than of a tourist, I hope you still find my recommendations worthwhile and helpful for your trip. To bring you the most accurate perspective, I also consulted this post with several locals. Ready for some salsa in your life? Let´s go!
I will cover the following topics in my guide:
- History of the city
- What to do: Points of interest in Bogota
- Where to stay
- Where to eat
- Where to party: Nightlife in Bogota
- Where to shop for coffee and souvenirs
- Transport options
- Safety tips
- Weather & Climate
History of Bogota
While most of the resources will tell you that Bogota was founded by a Spanish guy with a fancy name of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada in 16th century, it is not quite the case. There has (obviously, duh) been prehispanic (Muisca) settlements in this area prior to that, albeit less important than in nearby Zipaquirá, the home of a famous salt mine and an underground cathedral. The original name, Bacatá, was used by our Gonzalo and turned into Santa Fé de Bacatá, evolved to Santa Fé de Bogotá and was simplified to simply Bogotá in August 2000.
While originally the capital of Colombia was the picturesque port of Cartagena de Indias and later Honda, a town on the logistically important Magdalena river, the Spanish soon ran away from the heat, humidity and mosquito-borne diseases to the safety of high altitudes provided by the 2640 meters above the sea of the valley at the feet of Monserrat and Guadalupe mountain where Bogotá lies til today.
Bogotá is home to many governmental buildings and offices, but also universities, restaurants, and museums. In my article, I will try to present you the best options of spending your time in this city.
What to do in Bogotá: Main points of interest
First of all, note that Bogota is huge. I mean, HUGE. There are officially more than 8 millions of inhabitants living in the city, but this number is more likely close to 10 millions with all the people coming for work and not registering or getting counted in properly.
The city itself stretches far and wide as most of the constructions are low residential buildings. You can see a few skyscrapers in the downtown, but most of the city, in spite of progressing developers, retains a “human” size of architecture.
During your visit, you will likely stay in the downtown for the most part of the time and that is also where a big chunk of the stuff worth sightseeing is located.
Colorful colonial architecture and cobbled streets will make you feel welcome along with familiar faces of other tourists who love to take photos with llamas and feed somewhat sickly looking pigeons at Plaza Bolivar.
You can enter the museum of Casa de la Moneda for free to see a piece of history among other museums, but also original artwork of a Colombian artist Botero, famous for painting everything fat. There are a number of free events such as concerts, expositions or dance performances that you can attend in Bogotá too – you can find a list of these here (a governmental website).
If you don’t take a walk at the “7th street” in Bogota, you are missing out! You can easily connect to it from Plaza Bolivar, next to the cathedral. Street artists, be it musicians, street painters or artesanos (who create jewelry out of wire, string, seeds and/or stones) are all on display here, trying to earn some luca (money) to survive while others are busy running between many governmental offices. If you walk on Septima towards north, you will reach Chapinero, a party neighborhood – there are some interesting design shops to see in the day, or bars and clubs at night. Before going, do refer to my safety tips to make an idea.
Museo de Oro
My favorite museum in all of Colombia consists of thousands of stunning pieces of golden artwork, along with detailed information boards that explain the history and culture of local people in the pre-colonization period. The entrance is low (3.000 COP) but don’t be fooled, the exposition offers great value. It is fairly large though so reserve enough time – this museum used to be my favorite plan for rainy afternoons when I lived in Bogota.
Cerro de Monserrate
Everybody goes to Monserrate, an old pilgrimage site on top of the hill above the city…except for me. The cablecar will take you up for 16.000 COP, or you can choose to hike up – do mind that the security guards are watching the pathway only until about 4 pm and the neighborhood under Monserrate is not one you want to wander around. Do take into account that you might suffer from lack of oxygen because of the altitude.
There is a story I tell when asked why I never made it up there – people say if a couple goes to Monserrate together, they will break up. I guess I really wanted to marry my Colombian husband!
Free Graffiti Tour
This is a popular one and worth taking, I’d say, in spite of not having taken it myself. Part of the charm is that they explain the stories and struggle behind the artwork – you should definitely see and document the street art especially now when the current mayor of Bogota links street art with crime and delinquency and threatens to wipe it all out. All of this while canceling the project of metro that the city needs desperately and, let’s say, whose financing suddenly became obscure to say the least.
Colombian street art in general carries a strong social message – it is a way for normal people to protest against the oppression, lack of basic social care and many other issues that the society is facing, however, not once the artists have been shot by police when creating their murals. The tour is free, but tips/donations are welcome.
Bogota’s biking scene is stronger and healthier than you might think. Every Sunday since early morning til about 2pm, many of the big roads are closed for traffic and bicycles, roller blades, joggers, dogs, kids, people in wheelchairs and everyone else happily hit the tarmac to ride around safely and enjoy their free day. This tradition dates back to the seventies and is a good reason to plan your visit during the weekend – why not rent a bicycle and discover the city from a different perspective?
Parque de los Periodistas
A favorite meeting point, this park on top of La Jimenez is also a place of protests at times. Nearby you can find several nice cafés with tasty postres (desserts), but also admire the architecture and mountains that limit further construction.
Where to stay in Bogota?
If you are a budget traveler, most of the hostels are located in La Candelaria and around. If you are looking for a slightly more fancy neighborhood, it might be worth a shot to book at Zona Rosa, a posh district with many offices and fancier bars.
Couchsurfing should be fairly easy to find – we hosted a number of travelers in our apartment and weren’t overwhelmed by the requests.
While I felt there were not too many AirBnb options (you might want to book a bit in advance), these might have become more common with time.
In any case, I absolutely do not recommend sleeping outside. It is not a great option in any big city, but it is a terrible idea in Bogota. Avoid sleeping in parks or on benches as it might cost you more than just your stolen backpack.
Please do refer to the safety section for places you might want to avoid.
Where to eat in Bogota?
Your best choice is to eat where the locals hang out, obviously. There are a number of small family run restaurants where you can order a corrientazo (lunch menu) for about 5.000 – 10.000 COP. If it is truly a local place, expect soup, a huge chunk of meat, potatoes, rice and/or fried platano (plantain or “male” banana), but few veggies to land in front of you. Sometimes even the drink is included.
Along with these, a favorite spot of mine is also a chain of restaurants called Crepes & Waffles – along with a variety of sweet and salty crepes (pronounce with a snobby French accent, s´il vous plait!), they also have a self-serve, voracious, fill-your-bowl-as-much-as-you-can salad option, including many vegetarian-friendly salads of all colors and tastes for 7.000 COP.
For coffee, have a sugarcane – panela – sweetened tinto (black coffee) from a street vendor, but if you’re feeling fancy, drop by one of the Juan Valdez cafés that the locals consider one of the best Colombian coffees in general. You have probably heard that the best Colombian coffee is exported, however, rest assured – I have never had a bad coffee in Colombia no matter if at a fancy spot, an office or a beach seller.
Do drink as many of the jugos naturales as you manage to cram in your belly – the fruit juices made of a crazily wide range of tropical fruits with cute & funny names such as lulo, tomate de árbol (“tree tomato”…I once put it in a soup. Don´t judge me!) or guanabana are everywhere and they are insanely delicious. And healthy. Think of all the vitamins!
Where to party: Nightlife in Bogota
It is not perceived well in Colombia to party during the work week and so if you are concerned with enjoying the best of Bogotan nightlife, you should plan your visit between Thursday and Sunday. While Thursday (called juernes – a mix of jueves and viernes – for party purposes) is more lively than other workdays, Friday and Saturday will obviously be your best bet.
You can find rather (from my point of view) elegant nightlife scene in the Zona Rosa and tourism powered party at hostels in La Candelaria, but personally, I enjoyed going to a place called Latino Power that offers live music and party until they kick you out (they offer lockers for a small fee), Rincon Cubano for salsa (without having to pay for cover) with locals and Transistor in the Septima for sitting around and talking with friends.
For more clubs, Chapinero is notoriously known for its party scene – depending on the program, Asilo might be a good choice.
A secret place that only opens between 5 and 7 pm is an old bar run by an even older gentleman who goes by the name of Don Benito and can be found in the downtown.
Bars have to close at 3 am because of the law, however, there are more options afterwards to be found – not for weak stomachs though! Usually they include a backdoor with a nasty looking bouncer who will or will not let you in, but certainly won’t let you out before sunrise. There are many stories of drugs, sex and violence circulating about these joints although mostly they simply cater to whoever doesn’t feel like sleeping before dawn and knows which door to knock on.
Where to shop for coffee and souvenirs
I have already written about my favorite flea market in Bogota that you can visit every Sunday, but there are also other quirky places to shop in the city. Pasaje Rivas is a cute market with plenty of options for those looking to buy a hammock, mochilas (handmade bags), or other colorful products of Colombia – however, if you are heading to the Caribbean coast, do consider purchasing handmade goods locally from the indigenous population to make sure they receive a fair amount for their work. You can find some tips on that in my adventurous guide to Cabo de la Vela.
Another market worth eyeing is in Usaquen, next to the Hacienda Santa Barbara shopping center. On Saturdays, artists build their stands and spread their sheets in the streets to sell everything you can imagine.
Obviously, many sellers choose to stay near Septima and La Candelaria; you can find several smaller markets and itinerant sellers. On Septima, you will see several ladies who sell amazing necklaces from colorful beads – these can cost between 30.000 – 70.000 COP depending on size, difficulty of making (one can take two days to finish) and your haggling skills.
If you are looking for materials to produce handcrafts yourself, head a few blocks up to the Decima – ask for Metrocentro, which are several floors of an artisan market piled one on another.
San Victorino is a popular spot to buy nearly everything, but beware of safety issues, especially after dark. Same goes for La Jimenez, a nice street with a long fountain at day (F.’s grandfather used to catch fish here back in the 20’s, when it was a river) turns into a risky area at night.
Read more: Visit Bogota´s charming flea market!
Until early 2000’s it was common to spot a donkey pulled carriage navigating among the traffic, but those days are long gone. The best option to move within Bogota – apart from walking and bicycling – is the TransMilenio, without a doubt.
However, the system can seem a bit chaotic and daunting at first. The elevated paradas (bus stops), typically accessed by a bridge and located in the middle of the road (troncal) are often long, with several doors marked with letters, numbers and colors of the lines of red TransMi buses. For example, B52 is the bus that goes in the direction to the Portal Norte and this line is marked with green color, meaning that all the green buses eventually get to Portal Norte, C.C. Santa Fe or Terminal, the newest northern stop. (TransMilenio is still growing.) For more detailed information on how to use the TransMilenio, how to get from the airport to the downtown and how to find out which bus you need to take, refer to my bulletproof TransMilenio manual. (In the making.)
The least attractive way of transport are public buses – collectivos. These don´t have any official stops and you simply hail them down by waving at them. Each bus has a board in front with names of the places it passes by, but at times, this can get very confusing. You pay in cash and the price depends on how far you go. I haven´t figured these buses out even after one year and I would advice you to avoid them unless you are traveling with a local who can make any sense of it.
Now that I have you completely confused, let´s pass to the last point on my Bogota checklist – the safety issues.
Safety in Bogotá
Bogota safety is a tricky subject. Everyone can agree on one thing though – Bogota is a dangerous city and there is no denying it.
During my times as an expat in Bogota, I have heard many ugly stories, but haven´t faced any issues myself – well, just that one time, but nothing more, I swear!
The things I do (or don´t) in order to keep safe are simple:
I under-dress. I wear simple clothes and avoid flashy and expensively looking jewelry. This has to do with my somewhat hippie-messy style, but even if you are into fashion, you will do better if you leave those golden earrings back home.
I don´t show my smartphone in public. In Colombia, you should limit the use of your smartphone in the streets – if you must, find a corner and do it secretly and fast. In fact, I turned to the good old Nokia brick which works fine and makes it clear that you don´t have much valuables on you. There are also stands with “Minutos” where you can use a mobile phone for cash. Google maps don´t fare well in Bogota so that´s not much of a help anyway – asking people on the street is better.
I don´t talk about my job or money in front of unknown people. Don´t get into salary talks when people can hear you, not even taxi drivers.
Avoid bad neighborhoods. A crime can happen anywhere, however, some places are more notorious than others. In Bogota, avoid wandering in empty streets at night. West of the Caracas, Cruces (around the Tercer Milenio park), Bosa (south of the city), San Victorino at night, further than Plaza Espana (the so-called L street is where the drug market occurs) are just some of the places you probably don´t want to explore.
However, there is something more to be said: you can be attacked (not pickpocketed. Attacked.) basically wherever. While you can minimize the risks by being careful, nothing is 100%. If you get attacked, hand over your valuables and don´t argue – the galas (criminals) are not there to play with you and if so, you are not going to like their game.
That said, an attack is one of the possible scenarios and should not stop you from enjoying the city. Think of it as of any other accident on the road – sometimes it happens, but most of the time you´re fine.
To conclude, no de papaya – “don´t give papaya” is a local expression meaning, be careful, don´t show off and don´t give anybody a reason to notice you, let alone think of robbing you.
Weather and climate in Bogota
Whenever the air gets tense, we can switch to talking about weather, right? The climate in Bogota is rather cold, or at least compared to what most people imagine it should be in a tropical country. Due to high altitude, the temperature is mostly between 15 – 20°C during the day, but can get down to 8°C at night. On cloudy days, nights are warmer. The highest temperature measured in Bogota was 26°C. Bogota has a dry and a rainy season – it is the rainiest between September and November, Christmas time is dry and April gets rainy again. June – July can get rainy, but less. August is windy and is a popular time for kite flying. The relatively cold weather means no mosquitoes – yey!
When visiting Bogota, don´t forget to bring a light jacket (and a light sweater if you are an icicle as yours truly), ideally waterproof. In case of rain, raincoat and umbrella sellers jump on the business opportunity right away so even if you forgot your raincoat, you will be able to get a spare one in the street.
What you must have is a good sunscreen lotion – use a strong factor. I was using Daylong with factor 50 for kids and sensitive skin (unfortunately they are not paying me to say this) that you can find in Colombian pharmacies as well.
In spite of mild climate, the sun is full of merciless mountain UV rays that will roast you within 15 minutes so applying sunscreen (and ideally wearing a hat) is crucial.
Visiting Bogota: A guide by an expat
Bogota, as most big cities, has its good and bad sides – however, with a bit of information at hand, it can be enjoyed to its fullest. I hope you find this guide useful and don´t feel put off by the safety section – while it can seem scary, it is there to help you set realistic expectations, unlike many other articles that simply forgo the issue. In fact, these can be your safety tips for all of your stay in the country.
Colombia is a wonderfully beautiful place and I keep hearing people say it is their favorite in all of South America. I wish you the best of luck when visiting my former hometown – Bogota, in spite of not being the prettiest beauty queen within the country, is an interesting city with a vibrant art scene and has the experience to offer.
If you are traveling to Colombia, maybe you will find some of these articles useful:
Learn Spanish online with me
Did you know I also teach the Spanish language? If you are heading to Colombia and in need of a few refreshing lessons, or want to start from scratch, you can contact me at girlastray.blog(at)gmail.com and ask about my personalized classes. I can also help you formulate your motivation letter and job applications, if you are planning to stay in South America for longer. Looking forward to hear from you!
Did you find this article useful? Do you have more tips to add? Have you visited Bogota – what was your (least) favorite part? Do let me know in the comment section!
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