Cartagena (Spain) Cruise Port

Port of Cartagena (Spain): An Overview

In the sun-dappled Murcia region of southeastern Spain, Cartagena -- a naturally deep and sheltered Mediterranean port surrounded by five hills -- has long been coveted as a trading center and seafarers’ game-changer.

Dating to 227 B.C., when Carthaginians first set foot on its shore, this strategically located harbor has unfurled a culturally rich and historically tumultuous tapestry. Cartagena has been governed by Romans (Hannibal, with his army and elephants, stopped there on their military march across the Alps to Rome), ruled by Arabs and re-conquered in the 13th century by Ferdinand III for his Kingdom of Castile. Each new wave of distinct leadership carved indelible marks on this port's art, architecture, law, finances and industry.

And yet this city of awesome ancient treasures is one of Spain's lesser-known tourist havens. Today, you will discover a pedestrian-friendly and pleasant metropolis of approximately 220,000 people that both exuberantly celebrates its past and exudes a forward-thinking spirit. Cartagena's wealth of archaeological sites draws you to explore its notable yesteryear -- many Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Moorish ruins remain, making it one of Spain's most fascinating age-old jewels. Its universities, filling restaurants, bars and parks with young people, are signs of a lively future.

Hanging Around

Pier Alfonso XII Cruise Terminal is low-key, basically an easy-in-easy-out security checkpoint, designed to make transit as convenient as possible for ship passengers. The historic section of the city, brimming with amenities, is a five-minute stroll away.

Next to the terminal is an attractive and welcoming waterside area, where the Real Club de Regatas de Cartagena (Yacht Club) features an open-to-the-public restaurant with a spectacular harbor view. There is also a stand for taxis, which are metered, if you are interested in exploring farther afield, though nearly all the Cartagena city sites are doable on foot.

On your post-sightseeing return to the ship, you might be tempted to laze away any remaining minutes with a sherry or sangria in hand at one of several inviting portside restaurants with umbrella-topped outdoor tables, overlooking Cartagena Bay. Keep an eye on your watch, but definitely give into the feel-good urge to soak up the last drop of relaxed Spanish ambiance.

Don't Miss

Museo del Teatro Romano: Directly across from City Hall, the contemporary salmon-colored Roman Theater Museum focuses on artifacts and architectural details excavated from Cartagena's magnificent Roman Theater, which was constructed between 5th and 1 century BC. Interactive museum exhibits explain the cultural, political and marketplace maneuverings of early Romans. From the museum, you can enter the outdoor fenced-off theater itself, walk across its stage, climb steps and sit on stone seats that accommodated 6,000 spectators in its heyday. (+34 968 12 88 00; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday and closed Monday May to September, limited hours vary during the rest of the year)

If you're short on time, but long on interest, bypass the indoor museum (which charges admission) and scoot around the corner and up a short hill (you can't miss it) to view the Roman Theater from streets above and below, positions that are perfect for photographing.

Parque Torres and El Castillo de la Concepcion: On the other side of the Roman Theater, behind the seawall and up a steep hill, is the most eye-catching place in Cartagena for panoramic views and a chance to photograph your cruise ship from a bird's-eye perch: Torres Park, a verdant overlook swiftly reached via Ascensor Panoramico (Panoramic Lift), which whooshes you up 150 feet (10 Calle Gisbert). The grounds of nearby Conception Castle -- where Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and Castilians built defense structures over the centuries -- are flocked with ducks and peacocks today. Its current rendition dates to King Alfonso X in the 13th century. A visitors' Interpretation Center explains Cartagena's history, particularly its medieval period. Afterward, you can comfortably wend your way back down to the port, people-watching and selfie-snapping as you go. It's hard to get lost. (El Castillo is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily July 1 to September 15, reduced hours vary during the rest of the year)

La Casa de Fortuna: Imagine what it was like to live as the wealthy 1 percent in the Augustan Roman Empire. Archaeology and history buffs will relish this building, called The House of Fortune. It was discovered beneath street level in 2000, this complete home dates to the first century B.C. With stone mosaic floors and painted wall murals (featuring birds taking flight), it also once had -- surprise! -- glass windows. On display are bone pins that women used for setting hairstyles and cosmetic tools for mixing beauty ingredients. Eye the pottery, oil lamps, coins, weights used for weaving and a handsome white marble bust of Hermes, the Greek god of trade, travelers, athletes and border crossings. A sophisticated sewer had also been erected. (13 Plaza de Risueno; +34 968 52 54 98; open 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday July 1 to September 15, reduced hours vary during the rest of the year)

ARQUA -- Museo Nacional de Arqueologia Subacuatica: The National Museum of Underwater Archaeology ARQUA houses the National Center for Underwater Archaeological Research. Delve into enlightening info about ship construction, trade and navigation since ancient times. (22 Paseo Alfonso XII; +34 968 12 11 66; open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays and public holidays April 15 to October 15, remainder of year on reduced schedule)

Museo Arqueologico Municipal de Cartagena: Visiting the well-planned Municipal Archaeology Museum, built at the site of a Roman necropolis, is a helpful way to wrap your head around all the comings and goings of Cartagena's bygone days, as well as its prehistoric formation. On site are family vaults, Spain's precursor to cemeteries (45 Calle Ramon y Cajal; +34 968 12 89 67; open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)

Cartagena Segway Tour: Zip along the maritime promenade and around town, seeing sites in a whole new way aboard your electric, two-wheeled, transport vehicle. You'll cover more ground than by walking. After an initial training session, your small group will be led for a 90-minute tour. Expect to attract the attention of passersby.

Barco Turistico: Situated alongside the marina, the Tourist Boat ticket office in a kiosk-like hut sells boat tours across Cartagena Bay to ogle fortresses, including the massive 17th century Fuerte de Navidad (Fort Christmas), castles and coastal batteries. Learn facts as well as colorful legends. (Nine tours run per day, Monday to Sunday, July 1 to September 15, during other months, departures vary)

Museo Naval: Near Cartagena's military arsenal where submarines and naval vessels are moored, the Naval Museum is filled with extraordinary early ship models, scuba-diving history, weaponry, anchors, paintings, navigation instruments, rope-tying displays, medical instruments used at sea, uniforms, medals, propellers, flags and stories about ancient mariners. Isaac Peral's prototype for the first electric-battery powered submarine is showcased there. (Muelle de Alfonso XII; +34 968 12 71 38; open 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday June 16 to September 28, with fewer hours the rest of the year)

Getting Around

On Foot: Cartagena's easy accessibility from your ship is a time-saving bonus. As you walk off the gangplank, leaving the port security gate, head north alongside a picturesque marina, filled with vessels -- from rowboats to swanky multimillion-dollar yachts. The broad walkway is landscaped with dozens of majestic palm trees and colorful flowers.

Take a left (it's obvious which way to go with the city within eyesight), turn right to cross a road and continue past a small leafy park, Plaza Heroes de Cavitte, which has an obelisk war memorial in its center. Going straight, you'll be on bustling pedestrian street, Plaza del Ayuntamiento, covered in gray-white-and-saffron-hued marble tiles.

You will now be inside the compact historic area, delineated by Muralla del Mar, an 18th century seawall built by Carlos III. Next to Heroes park is Palacio Consistorial (City Hall), a gorgeous Art Nouveau towered structure dating from 1907, containing a tiny tourism office outpost that provides helpful info by a few English-speaking staff and a free detailed street map that illustrates sites and worthy buildings. From there, your many options are footsteps away and cinch to navigate.

By Taxi: If this is your second trip to Cartagena, you might enjoy going to Cala Cortina, a sandy beach on the city's outskirts that is popular with residents; it features a casual fish restaurant, lifeguard and toilet facilities. Hire a taxi at Pier Alfonso XII Cruise Terminal's taxi stand; the driver will zip along the shoreline on Paseo del Muelle for the quick 1.8 mile trip.

Lunching

Fresh fish is a menu staple. Grilled monkfish and grouper are often dished up with Spanish-style rice and garlic mayonnaise. Many restaurants specialize in zesty seafood stews and paellas. Even empanadas can be filled with fish, such as tuna. Also, sample the fig bread, sometimes spread with soft cheese.

Sip asiatico, a Cartagena-specific drink originating in the early 20th century, when Asian sailors visiting the port added condensed milk, brandy and cinnamon to coffee. Typically only served in this region of Spain, asiatico comes in a conical-shaped clear glass, into which ingredients are poured separately to create layers, with (usually) condensed milk on the bottom, then espresso, followed by brandy and a local liquor called Licor 43. It's topped with foamed milk and cinnamon, plus a lemon peel and two roasted coffee beans positioned to float. Stir for a memorable caffeine concoction.

Delikatessen Valles: This carniceria and charcuteria is a meat lover's fantasy, especially for those who savor pork. Order sliced jamon (ham) to go, and make a yummy picnic on a park bench. (6 Calle Canales; +34 968 12 22 28; open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday)

Kuss: This chic-looking pasteleria creates fancy pastries and candies, as well as tapas. Add sweet selections to your picnic fare. (8 Calle Carmen; +34 868 06 82 81; open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday)

Meson El Descanso del Icue: Bull sirloin, marinated sardines on toast, grilled octopus, garlic pork -- enjoy a hearty meal at this traditional, rustic-looking Iberian restaurant. (9 Calle Jabonerias; +34 868 06 82 33; open 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. most days; offers Wi-Fi)

Maricastana: From the moment you enter, focusing on a blackboard above the bar filled with handwritten names of delectable tapas, you know that you'll happily sit down, order a bottle of wine and contemplate why Cartagena is not on everyone's mind. Around you are bowls filled with olives and white anchovies and plates piled high with cheeses and grilled veggies. (10 Calle Puertas de Murcia; +34 968 50 28 19; open 8 a.m. to midnight Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday)

La Marquesita: Michelin guide-recommended, this lovely restaurant with a floral-filled terrace serves Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine, as well as gluten-free dishes and is welcoming to families with young children, setting up kid-size table and chairs. Friendly, English-speaking waiters. (6 Plaza Alcolea; +34 968 50 77 47; open 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday)

Where You're Docked

Cartagena has two cruise ship docks, with most vessels mooring at Pier Alfonso XII Cruise Terminal. A quick 1,000 feet or so from city center, the port makes an ideal entry point. The water is deep and can accommodate megaships. If your vessel docks on the south side of the harbor, Muelle de la Curra, you will ride a shuttle bus.

Watch Out For

Cartagena is a safe, friendly, low-cost city. The caveat is in your pre-cruise preparation. In many travel forums, people often confuse it with Cartagena, Colombia, sharing incorrect info and debating where the cruise ship terminal is, for example. During our recent stay in Cartagena, several North American travelers told me that they had downloaded maps, read up about restaurants and historic sites, only to embarrassingly realize once they arrived in this Spanish port that they had had the two cities confused in their research.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

Spain uses the euro. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.

While credit cards, such as MasterCard and Visa, are accepted in some stores and restaurants (American Express far less so), it greatly helps if your cards are the embedded-chip-and-pin versions that work with the European point-of-sale systems. Some Cartagena stores and restaurants do not accept credit cards at all.

To obtain euros, go to banks in the historic district, such as Deutsche Bank (7 Plaza de San Francisco), to use ATMs.

Language

Most people in this Spanish port who interact with tourists -- in their jobs at restaurants, bars, museums and other sightseeing venues -- speak basic English. Friendly and welcoming to visitors, they may also know French or Italian, so if you also understand a bit of one of those languages, there are no communication barriers.

Best Souvenir

Ceramics and leather goods are popular buys in Cartagena, but look beyond stores stacked with mass-produced factory wares. Instead, hone in on artisanal boutiques and galleries with hand-made items that feel more authentic and personal. At Centro Regional de Artesania (10 Calle Honda) you'll ooh and aah over hand-crafted ceramics, one-of-a-kind leatherwork and glasswork, rugs, hand-sewn clothing and jewelry -- all created by local artists.

For More Information

On the Web: Institute of Tourism of Spain, Cartagena

Cruise Critic Message Boards: Spain Ports

IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide

--By Laura Manske, Cruise Critic contributor

  • Cartagena (Spain): Royal Princess
    killineybay
    We have been to Cartagena before and done most of the tourist sites. It is a very easy city to do on your own. Tom's port guide is an excellent resource. ... Read more
  • We had a Tapas tour organized by a fellow cruiser. It was not only a Tapas tour but also a tour of the most interesting sites in Cartagena. Maria was amazing and very pationnate about her town. Muexperience.com is a must and very reasonnably ... Read more
  • Great town to walk. Nice shops to browse in. Town is right where you dock. Went into the Roman amphitheater which was very interesting. Remember to ask for senior discount. ... Read more
  • It's a nice port, been here before. Not enough to see locally to support doing a tour. You can get the background on line and then walk the city yourself and then return to the ship which docks in a fairly active port with restaurants and just soak ... Read more
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