Bogota is a city with an outsized reputation. The first image that comes to mind for most people
is the unfortunate history of violence associated with the narcotraficantes. In the late 80s and
early 90s, at the height of Pablo Escobar’s reign, Bogota was a dangerous place for Colombians
as well as tourists. But much has changed in the last two decades and Bogota has emerged as a
wonderful travel destination in South America, with a burgeoning culinary scene, artistic
enclaves and a generation of young people determined to shape the country into their image.
Bogota is said to be founded by conquistadors searching for the fabled city of Gold, El Dorado,
in 1538. But this alitplano in the Andes has been inhabited by civilizations since the Plasticine
era. The modern city grew out of the Muisca Confederation, a loose grouping of indigenous
Muisca tribes from the Andes, that established a settlement on the altiplano. The Spanish came
in the early 16th century and established the site as the capitol of the New Kingdom of Granada.
A mix of Spanish colonists, indigenous peoples and slaves were part of the rapid population
increase in the 18th and 19th centuries and Bogota remains one of the most populated cites in
South America to this day. It is also the third highest capitol in South America, at approximately
2600 meters above sea level.
The traditional and historic center of the city is the neighborhood of La Candelaria. The Plaza de
Bolivar is the heart of the old city, said to be the site of the first church. It has been used as a
site for public events such as markets and performances since it’s founding and now serves as
the location of the prominent state institutions, with the plaza bordered by the Palace of Justice,
National Capitol, the mayor’s residence at Lievano Palace and the Cathedral of Bogota. Plaza
de Bolivar is now mainly a tourist area, occupied by people selling the same toys and gifts you’d
find in any other major city. The one unique touristy offering is the indigenous people who have
hiked down from the Andes with their llamas, who’ll allow you to take a photo with them for a
Just off Plaza de Bolivar you can have a taste of traditional Colombian cuisine at La Puerta
Falsa. One of the oldest restaurants in Bogota, the menu is limited to just a few dishes, such as
tamales and Colombian chicken soup called ajiaco. Despite their humble nature, they are some
of the most beloved dishes in Colombia. Also try the chocolate con queso if the weather is chilly,
which can be any time of the year because of the extreme elevation.
Once you’ve eaten something, you can wander around the streets of La Candelaria and admire
the Spanish Colonial architecture, the neoclassical gem Colon Theater, or pop into one of the
many museums. And be sure to keep your eyes out for all the impressive street art, murals and
graffiti that decorate almost every wall. Though it might be well known, the Museo de Oro is
spectacular and worth a visit. It showcases craftwork, jewelry and gold objects collected from
the native population of the region that predates the Spanish colonists. You can view pieces
used as part of shamanistic ceremonies as well at the Muisca golden raft which was said to
inspire the myth of El Dorado.
Near the city center is Monserrate, the highest point in Bogota and the site of a 17th century
church that is popular destination for religious pilgrims. The mountain can be climbed on foot,
but at more than 3100 meters, it may be more advisable to take the cable car or funicular to the top. While the shrine is certainly worth a visit, the main attraction is the view, which puts all of
downtown and some of the northern and southern parts of the city on display. It’s very popular
as a sunset destination.
After checking out La Candelaria, the other up and coming neighborhood to explore is
Chapinero. A middle class neighborhood with lots of students, it is starting to gentrify and
evolve. Chapi, as its known by Bogotanas, is one of the best areas to dine out. There are
options for every palate and budget. For comfort food and live music, try La Hamburgueseria.
For something more sophisticated, check out El Cievero y El Oso, which offers both a meat
filled and a meat free menu in quirky presentations. Have a coffee at Cafe de la Estation, a
repurposed train car with espresso and snacks. Or have a beer at Chelarte, a local brewery. If
you can’t decide, go to Zona G, a concentrated area of restaurants, and stop in wherever looks
good. And while you’re nearby, wander to La Macarena, the smaller area that is fast becoming
the destination for the artistic community being displaced from Chapinero.
Head north of the city center to the Usaquen neighborhood for a different perspective on
Bogota. An enclave for artists and creative types, the neighborhood has lots of cute shops and
restaurants to check out. La Bodega De Abasto is the best place to grab something local and
delicious, as they have a market of fresh produce they use in all their dishes and their constantly
changing menu. And you can purchase the organic fruits and veggies as well, in order to try
some of the special Amazonian treats. For more traditional fare, it’s hard to beat Casa Vieja,
which has been serving traditional dishes for the last 45 years. The flea market is the best for
unique gifts. Or check out the Hacienda Santa Barbara, a shopping mall that used to be the
home of a wealthy tycoon.
El Norte, the norther part of the city, showcases yet another side of Bogota, a moneyed,
cosmopolitan side. Development in this area has been brisk, with many high rise apartment
complexes and shopping malls lining the streets. And though it can seem like one generic block
of buildings after the next, there are some fun things to do in this area. A perennial favorite of
Bogotanas is Crepes and Waffles. Yes, its a bit cheesy and will remind you of a certain factory
that makes cheesecake, but the food is good, the atmosphere is fun and there are so many
desert options you can really indulge your sweet tooth.
It’s also a good bet to check out Juan Valdez, the Colombian coffee chain, for locally sourced
coffee. And the mini-chain of Wok, an Asian fashion restaurant with a mix of Japanese, Thai
and other South East Asian foods, it also pretty great. Check out their juices made from
Amazonian fruits that come in shocking colors. It’s particularly popular among the hipster set
who wouldn’t be out of place in London, Bangkok or Brooklyn. And Wok is also a company that
wants to make the world better, sourcing food from local producers in sustainable ways.
Bogota is a sprawling, adventurous city with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. There are so
many things to eat, drink and learn that it is impossible to enjoy everything this vibrant and
creative place has to offer in just one trip.