People are divided when it comes to Colombia’s capital city of Bogota: they either love it or they hate it. A large cosmopolitan city of 8 million people sitting at an altitude of 8,660 feet, it has a cool climate throughout the year. Colombians call Bogota “the refrigerator of Colombia”. Overcast and often rainy, but when the sun shines everyone in the city is out in the streets.
The town is divided into 20 different neighborhoods. Most of them are drab, industrial barrios but some older parts of town shine with a colonial charm. Located in the center of Colombia, the capital sits on a high plateau, known as the Bogota Savanna, in a valley running north to south. At an altitude of 2,640 meters (8,660 feet), Bogota is the third-highest capital in South America, and the world, after Quito and La Paz.
The city was founded by Spanish conquistadores in 1538 after they conquered the indigenous tribe of the Muisca – the original inhabitants of the valley. Bogotá became the capital of the independent nation of Gran Colombia in 1819 and has remained Colombia’s capital ever since.
It’s hard for travelers to avoid Bogota. Back in the day, nearly all international flights arrived and departed from the capital. A trip to Colombia made the stay of a night or two in the capital inevitable. Today, international flights come and go from the major cities of Cartagena, Medellin and Cali. Even the more remote places in Colombia can be reached with a transfer in Bogota or Panama City. But when travelling by land through central Colombia, all roads lead to and from Bogota. And even the best efforts to avoid this city will prove futile. This sprawling metropolis requires a half-day of travel to enter and another half day, in stop and go traffic, trying to get out.
Where to Stay
Most travelers usually stay in the old city center called La Candelaria where many of the houses are well preserved in their original colonial style. Bogota’s best museums are located in this area as is the Zona Rosa – a nightlife district full of clubs and restaurants. Plaza de San Victorino is 10 blocks from the Candelaria neighborhood and offers the city’s cheapest meals – usually $1-$3 per dish. The backpacker saying is: ‘Stay in Candelaria and eat in San Victorino’.
Chapinero is another pleasant area to stay. It was once a seperate town that has been swallowed up by the city’s center, Chapinero, just a 10-minute cab ride from the center is a trendy neighborhood full of hotels, cafes and markets. The Zona G is located here; it’s the city’s epicenter of excellent, though pricey, gourmet dining.
Highlights: What to See and Do on your First Rendezvous
There is so much to see and do in Bogota. A city of this size needs months and multiple visits to get to know well. But if you are just passing through the city spending a day or two you can get a feel for it. Here are my highlights for your first rendezvous:
Carrera 7 runs from the city’s center all the way through Chapinero. It’s the downtown pedestrian shopping street. The street is closed to traffic for a good two miles from Plaza Bolivar all the way up to the Planetarium on Calle 26. And on Sundays they close the road to traffic for 6 miles and Bogotanians on foot and bikes fill the road.
Plaza Bolivar is the largest square in Bogota and considered the heart of the city. Here the Palacio de Justicia (justice department) the seat of Colombia’s legislature is located as is the Cathedral Primatial.
Walking west one passes through Parque Santander where the Avianca skyscraper and the Gold Museum are located. Further up Cra. 7 is the Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum.
North of Plaza Bolivar – all within easy walking distance – is the Colon Theater, the Military Museum, the Botero Museum, Casa de Moneda (the min). And further north, within walking distance of the center, is the cable car station going up to Cerro de Monserrate for a bird’s eye view of the city.
The city offers 58 museums and over 70 art galleries. If one enjoys strolling through obscure museums, and unusual galleries, Bogota is the place to be. It has the best collection of museums in Colombia.
Museo di Oro (The Gold Museum), calle 16 #5-41, located on the premises of the Banco de la Republica, is one of the finest museums in Colombia. It has 35,000 pieces of pre-Colombian gold work and 30,000 objects in ceramic, stone and textiles.
The Botero Museum Calle 11 #4-41, just 4 blocks north of Plaza Bolivar, has 123 works by Colombia’s famous artist, Fernando Botero. It also contains a large collection of modern and impressionist art which were all donated by the artist. The museum features Botero’s work – drawings, sculptures and paintings. Botero is still alive and lives in Paris. But he is originally from Medellin, which also has a square named after him, displaying 23 of his larger sculptures in a beautiful, open space. along with a museum, on the square, exhibiting his drawings and paintings. While the museum in Bogota is interesting and worth seeing, I think the one in Medellin holds his best works and is the better of the two.
Casa de Moneda Calle 11 # 4-93, next door to the Botero Museum, illustrates the history of money in Colombia – from pre-Colombian barter systems to the design and production of modern banknotes and coins.
The Museo Militar (Military Museum) Calle 10 # 4-92 is located three blocks east of Plaza Bolivar exhibits weaponry used by the Colombian military through the ages: from cannons, machine guns, uniforms, rifles and pistols.
Museo de Trajes Regionales (regional Costume Museum) Calle 10 #6-18 is one of my favorites, exhibiting traditional clothes and textiles from the different regions of Colombia.
Museo de la Esmeralda (Emerald Museum) Calle 16 #6-66 is located on the 23rd floor of the Avianca Building. Colombia is the biggest producer of emeralds of the highest quality. The museum explores everything about this mineral from how it’s mined, evaluated, cut and sold.
Teatro Colon (Colon Theater) on Calle 10 just a couple blocks north of Plaza Bolivar is Bogota’s finest theater. Built in 1892 it’s a city jewel.
Cerro de Monserrate is a church/convent perched in the mountains above the city offering a spectacular birds-eye view of the capital’s urban sprawl. It is reached by a funicular railway and a cable car. Tickets are $8 round-trip for foreigners and are obtained on site at the Taquilla Teleferico Monserrate Cra 1 and Cra 3 east. One could go there for free by climbing 1,500 steps. But the walkway runs under the cable cars and doesn’t look like an interesting hike at all. The Santuario de Monserrate church is a popular shrine and pilgrimage site. There are pricey arts, crafts and food stalls on top. It’s all a bit touristy. But the trip only takes a couple hours and it’s something everyone does when visiting Bogota.
More Things To See and Do
The city has numerous shopping centers, great parks and a very interesting night life with lots of clubs, bars and restaurants. Andres DC is the most famous steakhouse in Bogota. Though pricey, it seats 2,000 and is jammed on the weekends – a great place for people watching.
Torre Colpatria (Tower Colpatria) Cra 9 and Calle 26 is the tallest building in Colombia – 49 stories high. Go to the top for a 360-degree view of the city
There are also a number of free walking tours, food tours, graffiti tours in the city.
How to get around:
Taxis are cheap and plentiful.
Transmilenio buses, trains like subways have their own routes and run in and out from outer edges of the city to the center.
For more on things to do in and around Bogota see: Bogota and Zipaquira -are they worth seeing?