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Colombia is one of the hottest destinations to visit in 2017. Travelers are coming from far and wide to sample Colombian coffee, frolic on the white sandy beaches and consume delicious cuisine. But Bogotá, the capital, is often overlooked, as visitors often head directly to the colonial city of Cartagena or the beaches of Tayrona. And thanks to the popularity of shows like Narcos, travelers wanting to see a big city here often head to Medellín instead. While I suggest visiting a number of places if you’re planning to visit Colombia, don’t skip out on Bogotá. The city, which is now safer than ever, is absolutely enormous and has so much to offer in terms of cuisine, culture, history, sports and art, within its many contrasting neighborhoods.
1. It’s a Safe Starting Point
Bogotá is the perfect jumping-off point to start your Colombia trip. You can fly nonstop from many US cities, and once there, the rest of the country is at your fingertips. The city is a safe place with easy access to comfortable hotels and secure taxis — make sure you study the special pricing system on the laminated sheet behind the front passenger seat. While you should definitely take precautions with your belongings and at night as you would when traveling to any city, most of the neighborhoods you’d want to spend time in are safe for tourists.
2. Feast on Delicious, Filling Lunches
Bogotá’s restaurant scene is known for its cheap and delicious lunch menus, which can start as low as just a couple of dollars for a full meal including a drink, often a fresh-squeezed juice. The city, which features a number of vegan and vegetarian spots, has any style of food for any budget, and some of the best spots can be found in the funky Candelaria neighborhood. Plant eaters can enjoy the vegan/vegetarian lunch menu at Nativa or Quinua y Amaranto, while carnivores should head to Maria Candelaria, where the specialty is stuffed chicken breasts, which you can order a variety of ways — the basil and sun-dried tomato one is the best, smothered in melted cheese. If it’s ambience you’re after, dine outside in the quaint garden at Doméstica. These places also use fresh, local ingredients like maize and quinoa, as well as many other fresh fruit found in Colombia.
3. Free Art and Architecture
Fernando Botero is one of Colombia’s most famous artists, known for his plus-sized interpretation of people, fruit and animals. While the museum featuring many of his works in Medellín has a small fee to get in, the Botero Museum in Bogotá is free to visit. The collection includes some of his most popular pieces, like his interpretations of the Mona Lisa and Adam and Eve, as well as many of his unique voluminous statues. The museum also houses art from other famous artists like Pierre Renoir and Claude Monet.
The museum is located in the Candelaria neighborhood, one of the most colorful areas of the city. From one- and two-story, bright and bold buildings to Spanish Colonial squares like Plaza Bolívar, this area is chock-full of Instagram-worthy shots. Plus, the street art that covers many of the walls in this neighborhood is some of the coolest free art you’ll find.
4. Tejo and Beer
Sports and beer fans should head to a tejo bar, a place where you can play the famous “sport” of tejo. Although the origins aren’t completely clear, many suggest the game was created by the Chibchas, an indigenous tribe in Colombia. Tejo is played by throwing metal pucks at a target board. The targets have gunpowder in them, and when you make a hit, the target makes a tiny explosion — points for you! The game is almost always combined with beer and the ambience of a tejo bar, similar to that of an American pool hall, is typically fueled by locals drinking and generally having a good time.
5. Local Fruit Markets
If you’re not in the mood for a day filled with games and beer, there are other ways to experience culture alongside the locals. One of the most appetizing ways is to visit a fruit market. Colombia is home to some of the most exotic and tropical fruit in the world, so you’ll discover an entirely new palette of flavors. Most locals are thrilled at the chance to explain these unique items, and if workers see you making purchases, they’re often happy to give you free samples.
6. Coffee 101
Jet-lagged visitors can also partake in one of Colombia’s most famous traditions: coffee. Not only can you chill out in a local coffee shop, but many spots will also give you a tour or explain a bit about how Colombian coffee is made. Relax at Varietale, located in what was once a convent, or head to Café Cultor, which will give you some history on the coffee trade. Proceeds here are used to help coffee farms located in conflicted areas of the country. Catación Pública is for serious coffee aficionados, and even offers courses for those who want to take the Coffee Institute’s quality-grader exam.
7. You Can Explore the City by Bike
Bogotá has some of the worst traffic, which is precisely why Sundays are dedicated to cycling, giving locals and tourists alike a chance to cruise the city on two wheels without worrying about cars. Called the Ciclovia, the program means many streets are closed to cars on Sundays and holidays from 7:00am to 2:00pm. If you love to ride, you can rent bikes during this time or arrange to participate in a bike tour. You won’t be alone, though, as an estimated one million people come out on their bicycles to enjoy the traffic-free streets.
8. There’s Always a Great View
The best views of Bogotá’s urban sprawl can be seen from the heights of nearby Montserrate — 10,300 feet above sea level — located right on the edge of the busy city center. You can easily reach the top by funicular or cable car, or those wanting a steep hike can walk right up. Once you reach the top, you’ll find a church, restaurant, snack bar, complex of small shop and souvenir stands and, of course, epic views of Bogotá and beyond.
9. It’s Easy to Use Points and Miles
Bogotá is really easy to fly to, as many major airlines fly from the US to the Colombian capital city, offering opportunities to use up those points and miles. Avianca, a Star Alliance member, flies from New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX). American Airlines, LAN and Avianca fly nonstop from Miami (MIA) and, everyone’s favorite low-cost carrier, Spirit Airlines, flies nonstop from Fort Lauderdale (FLL). Delta also offers nonstop flights from Atlanta (ATL). As far as hotels go, the W Bogotá is a stunning SPG property where you can use those Starpoints, although it’s slightly far from the city’s historic center. Overall, the city definitely isn’t hurting for points properties — you’ll find a Grand Hyatt Bogotá, several Marriotts, a Hilton and a few Holiday Inns, part of IHG, here as well.
Have you ever been to Bogotá? Tell us about your experience, below.
Featured image by Jesse Kraft / EyeEm / Getty Images. All other photos by the author unless otherwise indicated.
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