The Spanish Colonial heart of Bogota, Colombia, is La Candelaria, and unlike other historic districts you’ll find when strolling in Latin America, this vibrant, artsy neighborhood is anything but quaint. The punk-rock atmosphere, incredible collection of murals and fantastic modern art make an energetic foil to the centuries-old adobe buildings and beautiful churches you’d expect from the original Spanish settlers. There are walking tours and bike tours of the Candelaria, so ask around.
You’ll almost certainly be spending plenty of time here, since it’s close to most of the city’s fascinating attractions. And, if you’re not willing to splash out on a business-class hotel on the posh north end of Bogota (a solid 45-minute cab ride from La Candelaria), you’ll probably be staying here as well. While the majority of accommodations inhabiting historic old homes run from budget to mid-range, luxury travelers should check out Hotel La Opera, right on Plaza de Bolivar.
Enormous 1553 Plaza de Bolivar is a fine place to begin your exploration, taking in the enormous political edifices that operate this complex country. Then head back into the heart of the Candelaria to the Botero Museum, with many of the finest sculptures and paintings by Colombia’s best-known artist, Fernando Botero, as well as his own private collection of modern art from around the world.
But don’t miss the graceful Iglesia de Candelaria, just up the street from Museo Botero; red-and-white striped Senora del Ave Maria, on Calle Madelena, or the Iglesia San Bernardino, perhaps the oldest church in Bogota. It is in front of the small 1538 Plaza Del Chorro Del Quevedo, that some say is the original city center, with a fountain that once served as the original water supply for the tiny settlement of Bogota. Today, the plaza is the heart of all things Bohemian in Bogota, packed with hippies, jewelry salespeople and pickpockets, and is surrounded by a warren of alleys filled with tiny coffee shops, bars and stores geared toward Bogota’s skinny jeans- and black eyeliner-clad youth. (This area is not too safe at night; it’s better to leave your valuables at home and explore with friends.)
The most famous churches lie just northeast, on the pedestrian mall of Carrera 7 heading into downtown proper. You’ll pass through the Emerald District, with scores of stores selling the jewelry and raw emeralds; dealers sell uncut stones in the street, a fantastic deal if you’re educated, but a great place to get ripped off if you’re not. Most travelers will enjoy plenty of savings in a certified shop.
Continue down the pedestrian mall, lined with several souvenir shops and stores selling absolutely everything else, to visit the city’s most beautiful churches, the Primary Cathedral of Bogota and Iglesia San Francisco. Just across from San Francisco is what’s considered Colombia’s best museum, the truly dazzling Museo del Oro.
Or, better yet, finish your day in the Candelaria with a trip up to Montserrat, with magnificent views over the sunset and the city. If you return, via cable car (the stairs should only be used on weekends, when they are crowded with locals; muggings are common at other times), after dark, be sure to take a cab back to your hotel. Though some say the guidebooks overstate the Candelaria’s dangers, it is sketchy after dark and you don’t want to be the unlucky tourist.