When planning a winter escape recently, my husband and I wanted a place that was warm, not too pricey, and had great food and art. We also didn’t want to travel all day. Our destination? Bogota, Colombia.
If you’re worried that the city is too dangerous, rest assured it has stepped away from its violent past, thanks in part to the government’s efforts to broker peace with the different guerilla groups, who have agreed to cut off all ties to the drug trade. Yes, Bogota, like many large capitals, has its share of homelessness and run-down areas to avoid. But for the most part, this “Athens of South America” with over 8 million people, has beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, over 100 museums, a burgeoning art and food scene, and several very swell hotels. Add friendly locals, excellent coffee, and a sophisticated buzz and you’ve got a city well-worth visiting. Here’s what to see and savor when you do.
Named after the Venezuelan soldier, Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of South America from Spanish rule in the early 1800s, this huge pigeon-filled square lies in the cobblestoned historic center of the La Candelaria area. In addition to a statue of the liberator, the square is edged by gorgeous traditional colonial buildings, including the Palace of Justice, National Capitol, Primary Cathedral of Bogota, and Lievano Palace.
Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum) & Museo Botero
Just off Plaza Bolivar, you’ll find the recently-renovated Gold Museum, a treasure-trove of Pre-Hispanic gold artifacts and exhibits explaining how pre-Columbian societies used gold and other metals for their daily living, political and religious purposes, as offerings, adornments and more. Nearby, lies Museo Botero, home to a huge collection of paintings and sculptures by one of Colombia’s most famous artists, Fernando Botero, known for his corpulent, child-like human figures.
This mountain, best reached by a cable car in the center of the city, offers spectacular views across the capital. Tour the Church of Monserrate and then head further up the hill for a traditional Colombian lunch at any one of the many stalls serving vegetable soup, chicken and rice in banana leaf packets, or hot-roasted chicken.
Hire a car to drive you to the town of Zipaquira, about 40 minutes from Bogota. There you’ll purchase tickets for a tour in English that will take you underground through a series of dark, winding passageways to see a massive underground church built out of an abandoned salt mine. First constructed in the early 1950s, the church was closed in 1990 due to structural and safety issues. Soon after, a second (the current) one was built approximately 200 feet below the original and capable of holding approximately 8,400 people. Everything you see is made from hardened salt!
Bogota has a very vibrant food scene with big-name chefs using local ingredients to create spins on traditional dishes at such places as Harry Sasson and Astrid & Gaston. Many have been opened in the chichi neighborhood of Zona Rosa, surrounded by designer boutiques and luxury hotels. For a slightly less fancy spot for lunch or a casual dinner, this lively restaurant has earned accolades for its scrumptious ceviche. Offerings range from mild to fiery and include inventive combinations of local fish, vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Don’t miss the exotic fruit shakes.
Juan Valdez Café
Colombia has always been known for its coffee and this small chain offers a range of extremely high-quality coffee drinks made with your choice of beans in various ways, such as percolated, filter drip and French press. The wood-filled cafes tend to be airy and bright and have free WIFI, along with cold drinks and pastries.
Four Seasons Casa Medina
Housed in a beautiful Spanish colonial estate that the Colombian Ministry of Culture noted “was a monument of cultural interest”, the hotel has a warm, intimate ambiance, quite different from the new Four Seasons across town geared toward business travelers. In addition to a cozy café and excellent in-house Spanish courtyard restaurant, the hotel has a small gym and spa, and elegant beamed ceiling rooms.
The Emerald Museum
Some of the world’s highest quality emeralds come from Colombia and this small, but fascinating museum (via an English tour) explains how emeralds are formed, extracted, and turned into jewels. Should you want a souvenir from your visit to Bogota, the adjoining gift shop sells certified emeralds turned into gold, silver, and platinum jewelry.