Bogotá is the hot travel destination right now. Visiting the Colombian capital, however, can be problematic since its rapid growth made most travel guides obsolete. Paste Travel is nothing if not “Bogotá literate” (see Charles McNair’s series about moving to Bogota) and the following recommendations can help travelers make the most of any visit.
Travel guides like Lonely Planet did readers a disservice by directing them to La Candelaria, a colonial neighborhood in the center of the city. The barrio does claim the majority of hostels, but for years, backpackers swung through Bogotá, stayed in La Candelaria and told other travelers to skip the city. The neighborhood has enough activity for a daytrip, but deficiencies in local nightlife and safety make the area a drag after dark. The real action is in the north.
To grasp the city layout, think of Bogotá like a grid with NYC-style streets and avenues. Calles are streets running east to west, while carreras are avenues running north to south. La Candelaria sits in the lower-numbered carreras and calles adjacent to the towering mountain ridge that forms the eastern edge of the city. The numbered grid continues below La Candelaria with Sur (South) attached to the street names, but tourists have no business traveling below La Candelaria.
Travellers want to stay between carreras one and 14, and while La Macarena (in the Calle 20s) is an excellent neighborhood downtown, focus your play and stay between Calle 60s and 120s in the eastern neighborhoods, such as the following:
Between the Chapinero and Los Rosales neighborhoods, Zona G is an upscale area with the city’s finest restaurants. In fact, the G stands for gourmet. Crepes y Waffles restaurants and Juan Valdez coffee bars exist throughout the city, but Zona G claims the only Crepes y Waffles Arte-Sano (do not skip dessert or the frozen coconut lemonade) and Juan Valdez Origenes (enjoy a Sierra Nevada French press on the rooftop deck) with more progressive choices. The bohemian hotspot sits between Calles 65 and 71 / Carreras 3 and 10. Foodies will want to stay near Zona G, and Chapinero Alto to the south is popular with the LGBT community.
Between Calles 79 and 85 / Carreras 11 and 15, Zona Rosa is nightlife central in Bogotá with party-packed Zona T, a T-shaped pedestrian intersection lined with restaurants, pubs and nightclubs. The area also features three of the city’s premiere shopping centers, i.e., Andino (with top designers), Atlantis (with a Hard Rock Café) and El Retiro with Andrés DC (the city version of Andrés Carne de Res in Chia). Zona Rosa also features boutiques by trendy Colombian designers like Adriana Capasso. The legal drinking age is 18, and people drink on the streets, so Zona T stays are better for young singles than strolled-strapped parents.
Slightly north of Zona Rosa, 93 Park (or Parque de la 93) is a lively square surrounded by restaurants, shops and pubs. As the name implies, the park sits between Calles 93a and 93b (and Carreras 11a and 13), and this upscale neighborhood is the ideal place for most travelers to stay with high levels of energy, character, security and activities. Colombia is the world’s largest supplier of emeralds, and if in the market for a bright green rock, visit the Centro 93 shopping center at Carrera 15 and Calle 93.
Annexed into Bogotá 60 years ago, the once-separate city of Usaquén is a fashionable neighborhood with colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, a central plaza, a Sunday market and stylish watering holes. For travelers wanting old-world charm, village-style Usaquén is the upmarket answer to La Candelaria. Center your stay near the plaza (Calles 118 and 119 / Carreras 6 and 6a) with the 16th-century Santa Bárbara Church on the park’s eastern edge.
The two hottest hotels right now are the boutique Click Clack near 93 Park and the luxurious BOG Hotel on the same street eight blocks south. Click Clack has a rock ‘n’ roll vibe that is more fun, but BOG has a rooftop pool bar and more professional staff. Party-friendly travelers should opt for Click Clack, but know that the rooms can be small, and the hotel website typically has higher rates than online travel sites.
Though travelers should not stay in La Candelaria, the neighborhood certainly deserves a daytrip. Plaza Bolívar (Calles 10 and 11 / Carreras 7 and 8) is the colonial heart of the city center, and churches and government buildings sit on all sides. Starting from this point, travelers can head east on Calle 11 to find the Botero Museum, a free gallery showcasing the works of famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero (think portraits with proportionally large girth) and a handful of international artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Claude Monet. A few blocks north at Calle 16 and Carrera 5, the Gold Museum houses the world’s largest collection of pre-Columbian goldwork. Head farther east into colonial Candelaria to see stunning graffiti murals, narrow pedestrian streets and local hippie culture. The corner of Calle 12c and Carrera 2 is a good starting point for street art, and graffiti tours provide deeper artistic exploration. A bit farther northeast, travelers can ascend Monserrate Mountain via a cable car, funicular or (for the non-hungover) hiking trail to visit a 17th-century sanctuary at more than 10,000 feet in elevation. For the non-religious, Monserrate offers stunning panoramic city views and an upscale restaurant with a well-positioned terrace.
With the culture box checked, travelers can now crack open an aguardiente bottle and dive into Bogotá’s slick party scene. The Apache Bar atop the Click Clack Hotel is a top pick for energetic crowds, city views and a stiff caipirinha, while Ocus Pocus is a Zona G gin bar with drinks served in skulls and live DJs overzealous with the volume knob. In Zona Rosa, Armando Records will appeal to Silver Lake/Williamsburg-type hipsters, while El Coq is the late-night spot for jetsetters who like electronic and indie music. The latter club is intentionally hard to find (a rooster image is its only signage) so know its exact location to avoid asking people the potentially problematic question, “Where is the Coq?”
For travelers staying in a hostel, Andrés will likely come up, so here is the deal. Andrés DC in Zona Rosa is like Papas & Beer without the beach, and the four levels (heaven, hell, earth and purgatory) provide different atmospheres. Andrés Carne de Res to the north is the grand-scale original that can be fun in groups. Both locations weigh heavy on the wallet—a mojito will run about $22—but the primary reason to visit should be lomo al trapo. Colombia’s finest contribution to barbeque involves the following: 1) pour a thick layer of salt onto a large cloth, 2) place a beef tenderloin in the middle, 3) roll the cloth to encase the beef, 4) tie it together with a string and 5) place it directly into the fire. A salt shell forms around the beef, and when complete, the shell is cracked leaving an insanely tender and savory piece of meat. Thank you, Colombia. (El Comedor in Los Rosales unsuccessfully attempts something similar with pollo a la sal.)
Speaking of belt-busting food, the Colombian capital is becoming a foodie destination, and several restaurants are worth visiting, including the following:
Book a week in advance for excellent European fare and cocktails at this ultra-trendy restaurant south of 93 Park. The salmon tartar with avocado is a highlight of the raw bar, while the red wine-soaked steak tops the prosciutto-wrapped salmon. For drinks, try the Penicillin with 12-Year Chivas Real, honey, ginger and lime.
In Zona G, this Spanish Basque restaurant is famous for crispy grilled octopus with a thick moist center served with creamy chimichurri sauce. The Colombian chef, who trained and worked in Spain, returned home in 2009 when the countries experienced an economic reversal of fortunes.
Photo: Greater Bogota Convention Bureau
Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos is a molecular gastronomist who manipulates taste, smell, touch and sound into a culinary circus. The restaurant offers two tasting menus (differentiated only by the number of courses) with delicious WTF plates and presentations that can produce more smoke than a David Copperfield show. Located in Zona G, this is a fine-dining establishment where patrons must play with their food.
North of 93 Park, the Euro-Latin Matiz is worth the tasting menu and wine-pairing splurge. Courses can include Alaskan king crab over pasta, Peruvian potato causa topped with crispy octopus, 36-hour-cooked pork belly and lamb served with a Mediterranean-style sauce. The pairings, meanwhile, tend to span the globe with wines from California, France, Chile, Argentina and even Villa De Leyva, a colonial town four hours outside Bogotá.
Celebrity chefs Jorge (chef de cuisine) and Mark (pastry chef) Rausch combine Colombian ingredients and French technique for what is easily the most-esteemed restaurant in the country. The Zona G restaurant has surprisingly affordable tasting menus with stylish touches such as serving tiramisu like a potted plant.
Photo: David Jenison
On the edge of Zona G, NN is a speakeasy-style restaurant with an entrance in the back of a funky design store. The prohibition-themed joint serves excellent beef wellington and cheese fondue as well as specialty cocktails like blood orange mojitos and vodka aloe vera. On certain nights, a piano player bangs out tunes by the likes of Billy Joel and Elton John.
Interestingly, the rise in Colombian gastronomy motivated several Peruvian chefs to open restaurants in Bogotá. Notably, Rafael Osterling opened La Despensa (try the crispy chicharron sandwich with cheesy huancaina sauce) and his namesake Rafael (go for the Thai coconut milk fish with clams or the goat cheese gnocchi). Gastón Acurio has three spots in the city—Astrid y Gastón, La Mar Cebichería and Madam Tusan—but only La Mar in Usaquén deserves a visit. (Interesting side note, famed Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez of Central previously helmed Astrid y Gaston Bogotá).
For upscale Colombian, the best bets are Mini-Mal, Leo Cocina y Cava and Donostia, but do not sleep on street food staples (e.g., arepa, corn on the cob) at Enrique Olaya Herrera National Park or Bogotá’s famed ajiaco soup with pulled chicken, cream, avocado, capers and three types of potato. Ignore the hotel concierge that suggests Club Colombia for ajiaco and find Mama Lupe on Calle 11 east of Plaza Bolívar. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves the best ajiaco in the city, but avoid the surrounding copycats trying to capitalize on its popularity.
Bogotá recently renovated its international airport, and as the hot new travel destination, direct flights continue to multiply. Delta already has direct flights from Atlanta and NYC; American Airlines from Dallas and Miami; United Airlines from Houston and Newark; Spirit Airlines from Fort Lauderdale; and jetBlue Airways from Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. Next month, Avianca will introduce direct flights from Los Angeles, and KLM recently reintroduced direct flights from Amsterdam after a 20-year absence. Other direct connects include Paris, Toronto, Madrid, Frankfurt and Istanbul. U.S. travelers do not need at visa.
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.