Cartagena Murcia Spain tourism travel guide attractions museums beaches | Love 2 Fly

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Last updated on July 18th, 2022 at 12:05 pm

Spain famously suffers no shortage of cities with ancient and noble pedigree. But one of the oldest is also remarkably undersung, all things considered. A handsome port of some 214,000, Cartagena sits astride the Mediterranean coast of the autonomous community of Murcia, in the south of the country just northeast of Andalusia. And it’s this strategic location that led not just to its status as a major Spanish naval port for centuries but to its very founding way back in 227 BCE – not by the usual Romans or Muslims but by the Romans’ great rivals, the Carthaginians, under one Hasdrubal the Fair, brother-in-law of the legendary Hannibal (in fact, the city’s very name is Spanish for Carthage, which was located in present-day Tunisia).

Since then, it’s seen many rulers and civilisations come and go – Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines, and Arabs – before being conquered in 1245 by the Kingdom of Castille.  Thus, given this more than two millennia of history, it’s no surprise that Cartagena is brimming with historical monuments. What’s more, they’re all lined up like pearls on a string, which makes for an easy walking tour leading from one awe-inspiring site to the next. Share a guide for this tourist attraction and get more engagement with the help of Jaynike. Check out their wide range of social media services and select the most suitable platform for you.

Leave your car in the car park near the central bus/railway station and set out along Avenida Duque San Diego,  which leads from east to west ending in the other major sightseeing street, Calle Mayor. Your first stop will be – yes, a modern structure, of brushed steel and glass, but which protects the remains of the Punic (meaning Carthaginian) walls (above). It’s of particular interest because very few structures of Punic times remain in Spain. Start your tour with an explanatory video, then tread the glass walkways over the huge slabs of ruined walls. (By the way, you’ll also see the ruins of the 16th-century Hermitage of San José, unearthed during the excavation – most prominently an intact crypt with rows upon rows of burial niches filled with skulls and bones of monks and an especially morbid depiction of the “Dance of Death” – aka Danse Macabre – a common theme of Christian art dating back to the late Middle Ages.)

Next, follow Duque San Diego to an authentic treasure, the Casa de la Fortuna, a wealthy Roman villa from the post-Punic period of Roman Hispania, which lasted around 700 years beginning in 209 BCE. Roman Cartago Nova was very rich, due to extensive silver mines and trade through its sheltered, strategically important port. Discovered only in 2000, it consists of several large rooms, all decorated with colourful floor mosaics and vivid wall paintings (one of the swans being the most famous). Furniture, household appliances and mannequins in period clothing round out the picture of a rich family’s life during Cartagena’s ancient heyday.  (Check ahead for opening hours because nothing is visible from the outside and you don’t want to be disappointed; it’s closed on Mondays as are all local museums.)

After this, take a right and follow the signs to the Roman Forum District, where again, glass walkways let you look down at the foundations of ancient houses, streets, baths, and some remaining wall paintings – although not as vivid and well preserved as Casa de La Fortuna.

Continuing onward, you’ll hit the city’s main downtown high street, splendid and pedestrianised Calle Mayor, where you’ll notice it’s lined with magnificent Art Nouveau buildings – the product of another mining boom, in the early 20th century.  Foremost among them are the former Grand Hotel – today, the La Caixa bank and the Casino with its distinctive white balconies and colourful stained glass windows (casinos in Spain are for gambling, but rather cultural societies, open to everyone featuring cafés or restaurants). Heading south towards the port, you’ll also come across the Art Nouveau Palacio Consistorial (city hall), massive and triangular, where you may well be able to catch an exhibition of Spanish modern art.

Opposite the town hall, hidden behind the façade of a bright pink building, is the Roman Theatre – Spain’s second largest after Mérida in Extremadura. You start with a three-floor museum packed with statues and artifacts, then pass through an illuminated tunnel into the theatre itself. Inaugurated in the year 4 CE and holding as many as 6,000 spectators, it still hosts performances today, and from the top tier you have a view of the adjacent ruins of the 13th-century cathedral (it was shelled by Francisco Franco‘s forces in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War and abandoned ever since) and beyond that, the sea port – your next stop.

This strategic harbour was of course the main reason why so many civilizations battled bitterly to control Cartagena. Guarded by two fortresses at its entrance, today it’s divided into commercial and leisure/cruise sections, and you’ll find an appealing waterfront where you can enjoy a drink or an excellent seafood meal at one of the cafés and restaurants lining the promenade with views out over the yachts and small boats, as well as the cruise-ship terminal and the open sea beyond. And while you’re here, catch a cute photo op sitting next to several bronze sailor statues by 18th-century Murcian sculptor Francisco Salzillo, whose works are found scattered throughout the city. Then, after all your walking, why not rest your feet and take a senic harbour cruise leaving from here – three hours on a catamaran (including a stop at one of those forts, the Fuerte de Navidad) or one on an enclosed craft with a sundeck.

Back on terra firma, both history buffs and maritime mavens should pop into a couple of great sea-flavoured museums. ARQUA is Spain’s national museum of underwater archaeology (as well as a scientific research centre), its most famous exhibit a treasure of 570,000 18th-century gold and silver coins, recovered from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk off Portugal in an 1804 battle with the British.  On the opposite side of the port promenade and located in a refurbished 18th-century prison, the Museo Naval Cartagena displays not only tall-ship models, uniforms, medals, and much else related to naval history, but also the Peral, the world’s first battery-powered submarine (above), designed in 1988 by native son Isaac Peral. To this day, Cartagena remains home to the most important of Spain’s three naval bases.

Beyond all that, whilst walking around Cartagena you’ll spy a massive hilltop castle which dominates the city’s skyline. Built in the 13th century after the Christian Reconquest, the other harbour-guarding fort, Castillo de la Concepción (above) merits a visit – via a new Cartagena landmark, the glass-enclosed “Panoramic Lift” (illuminated at night) – for exploration of its atmospheric halls, filled with multimedia displays detailing city history (as well as temporary exhibitions, like one I saw recently of Renaissance clothing), with an emphasis on the Middle Ages. And of course the views of the city and sea from up here are grand.

After taking the lift back down, turn left to enter the Civil War Shelters Museum in tunnels where locals took refuge from the aforementioned shelling during the 1936-39 civil war, which hit this city hard. The photos, artefacts, and audiovisual narratives by survivors always leave me with a chill at man’s inhumanity to man. You can then stroll along the 18th-century Carlos III ramparts to make your way back to the car park and the bus station (an Art Nouveau masterpiece in its own right, by the way, with a central staircase in the shape of a lighthouse, as befits a city dominated by the sea and all things maritime).


If you’d like to leaven your history with a bit of beach time, there’s a fair bit to choose from in the area, starting with the local-popular city beach Cala Cortina (though this sandy blue-flag beach is only 250 metres/820 feet long, which means that in summer it can be very crowded). Accessible from the port area, it features protective netting to screen out jellyfish, as well as picnic and children’s play areas, but not much more. The area’s main star is a little bit farther afield, though – about a half hour’s drive east, Mar Menor – Spain’s largest natural lake and Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon, with mud famous for therapeutic properties – is separated from the Med by a 22-kilometre (just under 14-mile) strip of sand, It’s part of nearly 70km (43½ mi.) of shoreline dotted with plenty of beaches like the one above – some sandy and extremely kid friendly, others rocky, coves only accessible by boat.

Finally, if you can manage a visit during the last week of September, you are in for a treat in the form of a festival called Cartaginenses y Romanos (Carthaginians and Romans, above), which celebrates and re-enacts the city’s ancient history – with much accompanying partying, of course. 

But no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll be captivated by Cartagena – and very likely want to come back!

Haseeb Haseeb

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