Gabriel García Márquez once described Bogotá as a “grey, cold city where everyone dressed in black… and people were introverted and silent”. In fact, the city was for many years a bit more than merely cold and grey; it was also dangerous and violent. But those days appear firmly in the past. Colombian political life has settled and Bogotá’s urban sister Cartagena has put the whole country on the destination map with thriving nightlife and gorgeous boutique hotels. Now Bogotá is stepping into the spotlight, its galleries, boutiques and innovative restaurants packed with stylish cachacos (as Bogotános are called).
Situated 2,640m above sea level, Bogotá is the capital of the only South American country with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea; the second-most-biologically-diverse country on earth. Its spectacular geography results in literally dozens of microclimates – which translate into a wild variety of unique fruits. So make like a local and ask at any restaurant, from the poshest to the most basic, for the daily selection of jugos (juices), and you’ll be delighted by the variety. They’re uniformly delicious, always squeezed on the spot and mixed with water or milk.
You might start at the traditional-with-a-twist Restaurante Club Colombia. With a choice of 31 jugos, it is also one of the best places to enjoy simple but delicious local fare – from empanadas Bogotánas (savoury spiced-meat pastries) to ajíaco, a peculiar but tasty soup made from three kinds of potato (potatoes, remember, are originally from the Andes).
Indeed, foodies would do well to locate the lion’s share of their activities in and around Club Colombia’s neighbourhood. In the nearby district of Zona G several young chefs have staked out locations. Here Camilo Giraldo runs Emilia Romagna, an Italian restaurant featuring organic ingredients and an impressive wine list in a home-like space. Favourites include the oven-baked tomatoes and rich handmade pastas. Around the corner are Criterion, with a broad French-Mediterranean menu (foie gras with truffled vinegar, San Daniele ham shavings with mozzarella), and Harry’s, a top spot for tapas, people-watching and rubbing elbows with Colombia’s powerful and influential.
But the clutch of recently opened, and fabulous, Peruvian restaurants – including an outpost of the famous Astrid y Gastón – are increasingly sharing the kudos with their Colombian counterparts. The newest and most in-demand is La Despensa de Rafael, from well-known Lima chef Rafael Osterling. Located in a mid-20th-century English-style house, La Despensa draws an artsy and relaxed crowd (as well as President Juan Manuel Santos) with traditional but super-fresh ceviches and delicately grilled seafood.
The “G” in Zona G stands for gourmet, but could just as easily stand for gallery, since three of Bogotá’s top contemporary spaces are within its environs. Bogotá’s art scene is in a decisive growth stage, as several curators and collectors from the US and Europe have already discovered (more than one among them comparing the city’s energy with London in the 1980s and Mexico City in the 1990s).
Nueveochenta, run by the energetic Carlos Hurtado, is a four-year-old gallery behind a 1950s façade that showcases emerging Colombian artists such as Jaime Tarazona and Kevin Simón Mancera. A couple of blocks away is Casas Riegner, whose über-cool proprietess, Catalina Casas, has an impressive stable of new and more established Colombian and Latin American artists such as Mateo López, Gabriel Sierra and Antonio Caro. For edgier work from artists whose names are on the lips of the most plugged-in locals, visit La Central, whose co-director is former Londoner Beatriz Lopez.
La Candelaria, the colonial district around Bolivar Square, is the city’s more traditional cultural nexus. It’s worth a visit for the Banco de la República, which houses a collection of first-rate Colombian art and the Museo Botero – a gift from the venerated artist to the city, with a selection of his own work and a surprising smattering of Picassos, Ernsts and even a Bacon. And don’t miss the Museo del Oro for its spectacular pre-Columbian gold jewellery and artefacts. Nearby, Don Jaime Botero has turned an 18th-century house into a beautiful antiques shop. It’s still a well-kept secret, the green door usually closed; but knock if you are in the area (or call for an appointment).
Bogotános value their music as much as they do art. For a swing through the city’s vibrant music scene, there’s no better place to start (or finish) than Gaira Café. A stop-in at Gaira invariably morphs into a night spent dancing away to live groups chosen by co-owner Guillermo Vives – a talented singer whose friends include some of Bogotá’s most beautiful Beautiful People. If the dancing gives you an appetite, order up some patacones – fried plantain.
Andrés Carne de Res is another unique venue; what began as a humble steakhouse on the outskirts of the city has become a must for locals and visitors alike, who delight in the flea-market décor, buzzing ambience and traditional dishes. Andrés has a second location in Zona T, Bogotá’s nightclub and café area, which proposes an equally good time. And if you prefer your dance music delivered by DJ, stop in at Armando Records, a disco on a sprawling terrace.
In the realms of design and fashion, the city’s talent pool is growing. Fashion-savvy locals patronise Leal Daccarett, headed by duo Francisco Leal and Karen Daccarett, who joined forces in 2002 while studying in Milan. The clothes integrate edgy tailoring and handmade designs worked by local artisans. Equally surprising are the designs by former model Isabel Henao, who has added a chic children’s line called Cozita to her collections.
Meanwhile, Mariana Shuk, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, creates wonderfully unique jewellery using traditional methods. (On the subject of Colombian jewellery, the local emeralds are world famous, yet many will have heard the stories of falsification that surround their trade. Don’t risk it: go straight to the reliable sources. These are Joyería Bauer, Bogotá’s oldest jeweller – visit the original shop at Centro 93 – and nearby Joyería Fleing.)
Aficionados of serious craft and design should make an appointment at Hechizoo. An architect and self-taught weaver, founder Jorge Lizarazo produces custom-made rugs, upholstery and exceptional textiles that are sourced by designers as far away as Milan and Tokyo.
Glamorous dining, avant-garde designs – but where does one stay? Thankfully, two properties have recently brought style and boutique sensibility to what has been Bogotá’s main drawback: a sorely lacking hotel scene. Avia 93 is Bogotá’s first proper design hotel, owned by the Bessudo family (the Franco-Colombians behind Aviatur, the country’s top luxe tourism concern) – a 40-room haven with design inspired by Jean Nouvel and a plum location near the famous Parque de la 93.
Alternatively, the JW Marriott is the most recent and most luxurious hotel in the city, located in the financial district with sleek interiors by local architect Miguel Soto (who used Jorge Lizarazo’s spectacular textiles). For more classic tastes, there is the Casa Medina, popular with Bogotá’s establishment and visiting dignitaries. Its style is a marriage of colonial and mid-20th-century influences, with a lovely courtyard bar, top-notch service and a convenient Zona G location.
Bogotános also value their relaxation and recuperation rituals. La Barbería is a quirky men-only space that combines a barber shop, a spa and a bar. One can book a straight-razor shave or massage, relax in the hammam or simply enjoy an apéritif, accompanied by an excellent selection of jazz. Chairama Spa, which caters to both sexes, is the city’s best, covering an impressive four floors and offering a long list of treatments.
One of Colombia’s enduring legacies is, of course, its literature, and visitors should not miss the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, a thrilling, curvaceous building by Rogelio Salmona that houses various exhibitions and a 90,000-strong bookstore – a satellite of the Fondo de Cultura Económica, Latin America’s most esteemed and prolific publisher. Perhaps García Márquez might return to Bogotá soon, for a long-overdue revision of his opinion on this most engaging of Latin America’s capitals.