First 24 hours in Bogotá, Colombia

The Colombian capital has a bad reputation, but it’s actually a colonial gem, offering parklife, people-watching, great graffiti and lots of gold

7 mins

Before you arrive

Located on a high plateau at the very centre of Colombia, Bogotá is the natural gateway to this wild but wonderful country. Dating back to 1538, when it was founded by Spaniard Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Bogotá grew slowly.

But what started out as a collection of just 12 huts has transformed over the centuries into the sprawling capital of eight million inhabitants that stands today. What awaits travellers today is a historic and thrilling capital, and a vibrant nation.

At the airport

Bogotá’s Eldorado International Airport is located 15km west of the city centre. This modern hub is Latin America’s third largest airport and provides an easy entry point into Colombia. Its Puente Aéreo terminal currently handles most Avianca flights, though the airline is due to move into the revamped T1 later in 2014.

All the facilities you’d expect are present: free Wi-Fi, ATMs and currency exchange booths (though rates tend to be better in the banks of Bogotá). There is also a tourist information office though it’s often closed.

Getting into town

The best way to transfer to the city centre, particularly for those unfamiliar with Bogotá, is by taxi. In a bid to protect visitors from unscrupulous taxi drivers, there’s an official taxi counter in the baggage hall that will issue a printed estimate of the cost of your journey; this should be shown to the cabbie. Expect to pay around COP20,000 (£6.25) for a ride to the city centre. Journey time to central Bogotá is 20-50 minutes depending on traffic. Late-night arrivals offer the speediest transfer time.

Special Aeropuerto buses are also available. A one-way fare costs CO2,000 (60p). The service stops running at around 9pm.

Other ways to arrive

Those travelling by bus from elsewhere in Colombia – or from further afield – are likely to arrive at the busy central bus station, La Terminal, close to Avenida de La Constitución, around 5km from downtown Bogotá.

You’ll find a number of restaurants, luggage storage and even shower facilities here. As with the airport, there’s a tourist information stand and an official taxi office that can help determine fares. Taxis are available outside the station.

Essential info

Population: 8 million
Language: Spanish
Timezone: GMT-5
Visas: Not required by UK nationals
Money: Colombian peso (COP), currently around COP3,230 to the UK£
Best viewpoint: The mountaintop of Cerro de Monserrate (3,152m) offers the best views. Climb the 1,500 steps or catch the cable car. A return tickets costs COP16,400 (£5).
Health issues: None, but the city sits at 2,625m above sea level so some may experience mild altitude sickness.
Recommended guidebooks: Wallpaper* City Guide: Bogota (Phaidon, 2012), Colombia (Bradt, 2012), Colombia (Lonely Planet, 2012)
iPhone app: The free Bogototal app offers good recommendations for eating, drinking and shopping plus local events, activities and maps.

Climate: Bogotá’s high elevation gives the city a cool and pleasant climate. Evenings and winter can be chilly.

First day's tour

Concentrate on La Candelaria, the atmospheric old quarter, full of colonial houses built more than 300 years ago. Lose yourself in the cobbled streets and spend time people-watching, particularly in Bolívar Square, where a statue of Simón Bolívar (the Venezuelan leader who liberated Latin America from the Spanish in the early 19th century) stands, pride of place.

Here, visit the neoclassical Catedral Primada, the city’s grandest; inside you’ll find the tomb of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, who founded the city. Other notable buildings on the square include the Capitolio Nacional, built between 1847 and 1926 – work was frequently halted due to political protests.

Just up the road is the Museo Botero, filled with works by great native artist Fernando Botero, famed for his rotund sculptures. Also on show are pieces by Picasso and Dalí. Another museum not to be missed is the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum, corner of Carrera 5 & 16th St), which houses glistening gems and ancient archaeological finds created by the country’s indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans.

End the day in lively Santander Park (once known as Square of the Herbs), which is full of street entertainers and handicraft stalls.

Where to stay

Top end: The swanky Hotel Charleston (Carrera 13, No 85-46), located in northern Bogotá, is one of the city’s best sleeps. It has 64 modern, luxurious rooms, complete with queen-sized beds, marble bathrooms and all mod-cons. Doubles from around US$246 (£147), room only.

Mid-range: The Hotel Casa Deco (Calle 12, No 2-36) is within walking distance of all the main sights. Housed in an art deco building (above), the decor has artistic touches. The 21 rooms are spacious, the staff delightful and there’s a roof terrace with lovely views. Doubles from COP193,000 (£60), including breakfast.

Budget: Rooms at the homely Hostal Bogota Real (Calle 103B, No 46-05) are basic but comfy. It’s situated in a quiet and leafy neighbourhood just 15 minutes from the airport. Doubles from US$75 (£45), including breakfast.

Stay or go?

With so much on offer elsewhere in Colombia, it’s tempting to rush away – but give Bogotá a day or two at least. Beyond the obvious sights, discover the secret sides to Bogotá on one of its more unusual tours. For example, tour the sites of north Bogotá by bike or get the inside track on the city’s dynamic and thought-provoking street art with Bogotá Graffiti Tours (free, plus a donation).

Also, take a day trip to Zipaquirá, 40km away, to see the striking underground salt cathedral, constructed in the 1930s within old mining tunnels, 200m below. Then the real fun begins. Bogotá’s central location makes it the perfect gateway to explore more of Colombia – domestic flights serve all corners of the country. Head north to the colonial Caribbean city of Cartagena, south to the Amazon or west to the whales and jungles of the Pacific coast.

Main image: Selling art in Bogota, Colombia (Shutterstock)

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