Bogotá is Colombia’s beating heart, an engaging and vibrant capital cradled by chilly Andean peaks and steeped in sophisticated urban cool. The city’s cultural epicenter is La Candelaria, the cobbled historic downtown to which most travelers gravitate. Here, a potpourri of preciously preserved colonial buildings house museums, restaurants, hotels and bars peppered amid 300-year-old homes, churches and convents. Nearly all of Bogotá’s traditional attractions are here – radiating out from Plaza de Bolívar – and gorgeous Cerro de Monserrate is just east.
Bogotá is located in the southeastern part of the Bogotá savanna (Sabana de Bogotá) at an average altitude of 2,640 metres (8,660 ft) above sea level.
Top sights in Bogotá
Plaza de Bolívar
The usual place to start discovering Bogotá is Plaza de Bolívar, the heart of the original town. In the middle of the square is a bronze statue of Simón Bolívar (cast in 1846), the work of Italian artist Pietro Tenerani. This was the first public monument erected in the city.
In the center, beside the 1846 bronze statue of Bolívar (of course), are flocks of pigeons that dive-bomb anyone within 50m of the square – a hat is a good idea.
Bogotá’s most famous museum and one of the most fascinating in all of South America, the Gold Museum contains more than 55,000 pieces of gold and other materials from all the major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. It’s all laid out in logical, thematic rooms over three floors – with descriptions in Spanish and English.
Second-floor exhibits break down findings by region, with descriptions of how pieces were used. There are lots of mixed animals in gold (eg jaguar/frog, human/eagle); and note how female figurines indicate how women of the Zenú in the pre-Columbian north surprisingly played important roles in worship.
The third-floor ‘Offering’ room exhibits explain how gold was used in ceremonies and rituals. Some displayed tunjos (gold offerings, usually figurines depicting various aspects of social life) were thrown into the Laguna de Guatavita; the most famous one, actually found near the town of Pasca in 1969, is the unlabeled gold boat, called the Balsa Muisca. It’s uncertain how old it is, as generally only gold pieces that include other materials can be carbon dated.
There’s more to understanding the stories than the descriptions tell, so try taking a free one-hour tour Tuesday through Saturday (in Spanish and English; 11am and 4pm), which varies the part of the museum to be highlighted. Audio guides are available in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese.
Casa de Nariño
On the south side of Plaza de Bolívar, beyond the Capitolio Nacional and reached via Carreras 8 or 7, this is Colombia’s neoclassical presidential building, where Colombia’s leader lives and works. To visit, you’ll need to email or go to the website and scroll down to ‘Visitas Casa de Nariño’ under ‘Servicios a la Ciudadanía’. No permission is needed to watch the changing of the presidential guard – best seen from the east side – held at 3:30pm Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
The building is named for Antonio Nariño, a colonial figure with ideas of independence and who secretly translated France’s human-rights laws into Spanish – and went to jail for it, a couple of times. In 1948 the building was damaged during El Bogotazo riots and only restored in 1979. Register in advance for 45-minutes tours at 9am, 10:30am, 2:30pm and 4pm during the week; 2:30pm and 4pm on Saturday; and 3pm and 4pm on Sunday. Note: guards around the president’s palace stand at barriers on Carreras 7 and 8. It’s OK to pass them, just show the contents of your bag and stay clear of the fence-side sidewalks.
Colombian National Museum
This museum is housed in the expansive, Greek-cross-shaped building called El Panóptico (designed as a prison by English architect Thomas Reed in 1874). It is undergoing a major modernization that will last through 2023. Colombia’s past is unraveled via archeology, history, ethnology and art housed in 17 galleries that will eventually be themed by floor.
The first two, Memoria y Nación and Tierra como Recurso, are open and present a striking modern contrast to the whitewashed walls and dated galleries elsewhere in the museum. On the third floor, room 16 gives the best sense of prison life – with old cells now done up in various exhibits. The first on the right regards Jorge Gaitán, the populist leader whose 1948 assassination set off the Bogotazo violence – and coincidentally delayed the opening of this museum! Afterward, check out the lovely gardens and their nice glass Juan Valdéz cafe, and there are many good eating options on nearby Calle 29bis.
The Teatro Colón, with its adorable Italian-style facade, has had various names since its birth in 1792; this latest version opened as Teatro Nacional in 1892 and was designed by Italian architect Pietro Cantini. Its lavish interiors reopened mid-2014 after it underwent a six-year makeover. The theater hosts concerts, opera, ballet, plays – and even electronica DJ sets.
There is a very good view of the city from the top of Monserrate (3210 m), the lower of the two peaks rising sharply to the east. It is reached by a funicular railway and a cable car. The new convent at the top is a popular shrine and pilgrimage site. At the summit, near the church, a platform gives a bird’s-eye view of the city’s tiled roofs and of the plains beyond stretching to the rim of the Sabana. Sunrise and sunset can be spectacular. The Calle del Candelero, a reconstruction of a Bogotá street of 1887, has plenty of street stalls and snack bars. Behind the church are popular picnic grounds. There are two upmarket touristy restaurants at the top, both overpriced and closed Sunday. If you wish to walk up, possibly the safest time is at the weekend about 0500, before the crowds arrive but when there are people about. At this time you will catch the sunrise. The path is dressed stone and comfortably graded all the way up with refreshment stalls at weekends every few metres. It takes about one and a quarter hours up (if you don’t stop).
The Plaza de Bolívar, marked out by the city’s founders (as Plaza Mayor), is at the heart of the city. Around the Plaza are the narrow streets and mansions of the Barrio La Candelaria, the historical and cultural heart of the city occupying the area of some 70 city blocks to the south of Avenida Jiménez de Quesada, north of Calle 6 and east of Carrera 10 .
Because the main commercial and residential focus of the city moved down the hill and to the north early on, much of the original colonial town remains. It is one of the best-preserved major historical centres in Latin America, and as such has attracted artists, writers and academics to fill the sector with theatres, libraries and universities, for which Colombia has a very high reputation in the Spanish-speaking world.
There are some delightful sights, especially the colonial houses with their barred windows, carved doorways, red-tiled roofs and sheltering eaves. The local authorities are helping to preserve and renovate properties and the cobbled streets, a feature of Candelaria. Many of the best of Bogotá’s churches and colonial buildings are in this district.
Some hotels are found in this part, more along the margins, for example Avenida Jiménez de Quesada. The streets are relatively uncrowded and safe, although care should be exercised after dark. West of Carrera 10 and south of Calle 6 is seedier and not recommended for pedestrians.
What to eat in bogota?
Ajiaco is Bogota’s regional plate. Chicken, potato, and corn soup served with a plate of rice and avocado. Add everything on the plate into the soup. Be like me and ask for extra capers (alcaparras). I didn’t see the big deal about ajiaco for a few months because I only had it at cheap and mid-priced restaurants. Make sure you have it at a decent place for at least 10,000 pesos. My favorites are the places a block from Plaza Bolivar downtown.
Arroz con Pollo
Every Latin American country has its own version of Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken). And while Colombian does not best any of its counterparts (Peruvian is the best), it is good enough to make this list. Bell peppers, chicken stock and saffron give the rice its flavor and yellow color. Mixed with shredded chicken breast, peas and green beans and served with fries.
Lechona is pork, rice, and peas cooked together. Then they stuff the shelled pig carcass with the rice and pork mix. It’s cheap and tasty. I always eat it at the market with morcilla, which is sold in the next stand. Morcilla is a sausage casing stuffed with cooked blood, rice, peas, and maybe celery. It took some getting used to, but now I love it.