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Top Things to do in Cartagena, Historic Port of Spain

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About Cartagena

Cartagena is an ancient port city located in the Region of Murcia, southeastern Spain. Cartagena has been inhabited for over two millennia, and its history and culture can be seen in the many archaeological sites and monuments found across the city. Roman ruins, such as the forum, temple, and theatre, which together with La Conception Castle are some of the most popular tourist attractions in Cartagena. Not to mention the Carthaginian, Byzantine or Moorish remains, and the modern Art Noveau architectural masterpieces scattered throughout the city.

Cartagena is also home to the Museo Nacional de Arqueología Subacuática, which contains artifacts from the many shipwrecks that have occurred in the area. Cartagena is also the home to the first modern working submarine in the world – The Peral Submarine – which could be seen in Cartagena Naval Museum.

Palacio Pedreño in the main shopping street of Cartagena. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Cartagena History

Cartagena was founded by the Carthaginians in 227 BC under the name of Mastia but it didn’t last long. The city was captured by the Romans in 209 BC during the second Punic Wars. They renamed the newly-founded Mastia to Cartago Nova. The town flourished during the Roman period, it was an essential port for trade and commerce.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city was occupied by the Visigoths and then the Arabs. It was recaptured by the Christians in 1245 and became an important naval base for the Spanish fleet. During the 18th century, Cartagena was a major trading port for goods from the Americas.

Unfortunately, due to its importance, Cartagena has seen a lot of war. It was the site of a major naval battle in 1741 between the British and the Spanish. Later on, Cartagena was besieged by the French in 1811, and it was bombarded by the British in 1812. The city was captured by the Americans in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. But it was the Spanish who did the most damage to the city. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Cartagena was the main naval base of the Republican Government and it was the last city to surrender to the forces of General and future dictator Francisco Franco.

During the Spanish Civil War, Cartagena was the main naval base of the Republican Government. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Today, Cartagena is a popular tourist destination known for its stunning architecture, exceptionally rich history, food and beverages, beautiful surrounding nature, beaches and coves.

Map of Cartagena

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La Conception Castle could be accessed by everyone, using the panoramic lift. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

The Roman Amphitheater

The Roman Amphitheater of Cartagena is one of the best-preserved Roman theaters in Spain and the second largest in the Iberian Peninsula, falling under the equivalent in Merida, Extremadura. The theatre was built in the 1st century AD and could originally seat up to 6,000 people. Today, due to its good condition and some renovations, the amphitheater is still used for cultural events such as plays and concerts.

The Roman Theater in Cartagena is one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in Spain. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

The amphitheater is the home to the archeology museum, where you can learn not only about the Roman past but the evolution of the surrounding area throughout the years. It was always in the center of Cartagena’s development – nowhere else the intermix of the cultures could be better observed in the city. The Roman Amphitheater could be also appreciated from the castle hill, but you can only learn more about its fascinating history if you decide to visit the museum. 

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Ermita de San Cristobal was assembled within an old mill. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Roman Forum

The Roman Forum of a rectangular site located in the center of the city. It measures approximately 100 x 50 meters. The Forum was the center of public life in the city during the Roman period. It was probably built in the 1st century BC and was in use until the 5th century AD.  The Roman Forum was used for public speeches, meetings, and other events. Probably the most fascinating thing about this archaeological site is that the excavations never stopped and new artifacts and findings continue to emerge. 

The Roman Forum could be observed from Arqueológico Cerro del Molinete Park located on the hill near the site but if you want to learn more about this timeless site you can do so in the Molinete Roman Forum Museum. It is dedicated to the findings that were made in the area, including the Colonial Forum. the Sanctuary of Isis, the Port’s Thermal Baths and the Atrium building. The museum contains a collection of Roman artifacts that were found in the area, as well as a number of other archaeological items. 

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The panorama from Arqueológico Cerro del Molinete Park. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

La Conception Castle

La Conception castle was built in the 13th century by the Order of Calatrava to defend the city from attack. The castle is situated on the top of Conception Hill, overlooking the harbor and the city, which offers probably the best vistas over Cartagena. It was used as a military base until the early 20th century, but today it is the perfect place to get closer to the history of the city.

The area around La Conception Castle is open to all visitors and could be accessed either by foot or by the panoramic lift. The castle itself could be visited for a fee and it offers even more beautiful vistas and some insights into the evolution of the city over more than two millennia.

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Cartagena – the city of treasures. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Roman Fortuna House

The Roman Fortuna House in Cartagena is a museum offering a unique experience of taking a glimpse into the past of the daily life of Romans. The museum is located in the former home of Patrician living in Cartagena. Here you’ll get to learn about the typical Roman upper-class villas, the museum also contains a collection of Roman artifacts that were found during the excavations in the area. Probably the most interesting remains of Fortuna House are the mosaics and mural paintings.

The name of the house comes from the inscription “Fortuna”, located at the back door. This Latin phrase translates to “Good luck”. Roman houses typically included such inscriptions in the entrance to the home to welcome visitors and warm intruders.

House Fortuna offers a unique opportunity to take a glimpse into lives of Patricians in the Roman Republic. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Punic Wall

The Punic Wall in Cartagena is a defensive wall built by Carthaginians during the second Punic Wars period in the 3rd century BC. The wall was built in order to protect the city from the Romans. Being one of the most well-preserved Punic walls remaining, it is a very important archaeological site not only on the National scale but on a global as well. The Punic Wall in Cartagena is one of the very few archaeological remains of Carthaginians in Spain.

In addition to the oldest defense fortress in Cartagena, you’ll get to see awkwardly uncomfortable macabre Dances of Death paintings in the 16-17th century Crypt of San Jose.

One of the most beautiful buildings from Art Nouveau times – Gran Hotel de Cartagena. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Personal Experience

Undoubtedly, Cartagena is one of my, if not THE favorite cities in the whole country. Nowhere else I have seen so much fascinating and difficult history of the Iberian Peninsula in such a small place. In Cartagena, it is absolutely normal to find Roman, Arab, Christian, and modern in such close proximity, almost on top of each other.  The city is like a history book. Cartagena is an absolute must-visit for every culture and history fan, though nature enthusiasts will be surprised by the surrounding nature as well. 

Cartagena itself has no beaches but there are spectacular coves and sandy beaches in the surrounding area. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots
All content and photos by Alis Monte. If you want to collaborate, contact me on info@ctdots.eu Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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