Nestled in the Andes more than 8,600 feet above sea level, Bogotá has a heft and urbanity, not to mention the traffic and population (eight million), that conjures up another great city, Los Angeles.
Like the City of Angels, Bogotá prefers to show off its charms via far-flung neighborhoods, which can be a challenge to the first-time visitor. But thanks to the many inexpensive taxis and, of course, Uber, you can get around Colombia's largest city with ease, from La Candelaria—the cobblestoned central historic district with top-notch yet human-scaled museums such as Museo Botero and Museo del Oro—over to Monserrate, whose central hilltop vistas make it prime tourist territory. Well, "ease" might be a little bit of an overstatement because of the crush of cars, but based on my experience, no one in the world drives with more intuition or sense of space than a Colombian cabbie. So, just buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Like Colombia itself, Bogotá has been working feverishly to shed its reputation as a nexus of the drug trade (with no help from the popular Netflix series Narcos), but you may still catch a whiff of coca culture—don't be surprised if you come across security or law enforcement with an unusual police dog in tow. You may find yourself wondering, as I did, how the friendliest pup in the world lands a gig as a guard dog. But Golden Retrievers, it turns out, are easily trained and have such sensitive noses that they are super adept at sniffing out three things: drugs, explosives and dollars. Yup, you read right: In the very bad old days, canines were trained to nose out large amounts of cash being brought from the USA for laundering purposes.
But as a San Franciscan on vacation here, my nose was trained toward restaurants. And in one of the world's most biodiverse countries, the cuisine has finally emerged from the category known as underrated to earn itself a seat at the table. The food scene in Bogotá is robust and runs from traditional hearty sopas and stews such as the awe-inspiring ajiaco of chicken and potato, to much more modern fare exquisitely prepared, plated and served. The jazz singer Peggy Lee once said that "perfection is made up of trifles, but perfection itself is no trifle." Spend a couple of hours in the relaxed sophistication of the restaurant Abasto, in the Chapinero neighborhood, and you will see what she means. While you won't find trifle on the menu, you will find a kind of ambient perfection—the type achieved as the result of hundreds of tiny decisions gone right—that is indeed rare.
Orlando, our favorite cabbie in Bogotá, had a huge awareness of the food options in the city. For a bowl of authentic ajiaco, he recommended Casa Vieja, and boy he was right.
The barrios of Bogotá vary greatly.
If peace, quiet and a sense of convivial order are your preference, opt for Parque 93, where plenty of hotels and Airbnbs make it the most likely destination for travelers from the U.S. If, on the other hand, you enjoy something a bit more bohemian with a palpable amount of atmospheric texture, head to Chapinero, which is the gayer barrio in the city in addition to having great restaurants and shopping. Those with a weakness for cobbled streets and Colonial architecture would find Usaquén—in the northern part of the city—to be right up their alley with its pronounced village feel.
Eat + Drink
Abasto is simplicity incarnate. Walk in, take a look a round, and relax knowing that you are in the hands of a chef— Luz Beatriz Vélez—who has worked out everything in her domain down to the last detail. From the somewhat mid-century modern feel of the dining room (including some exquisite chairs imported from Argentina) to the exposed kitchen to the food and drink, you're in for a treat. Start with a cocktail such as the fresh-on-the-palate Corozo, made with corzo fruit juice Aguardiente Antioqueño—translated as "fiery water," the anise-flavored liqueur is made from sugar cane and is quite popular in the Andes. Abasto has two locations in Chapinero and Usaquén, both specializing in fish. Also look for Vélez's Mercado farther north in the city. // abasto.co
El Ciervo y El Oso
The restaurant whose name translates to "The Deer and the Bear" has gotten a lot of justifiable acclaim for its take on traditional Colombian fare updated with what Californians see as the usual suspects: locally sourced seasonal ingredients. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant relies on meat, but it also bills itself as vegan-friendly with about half the menu dedicated to vegetarian dishes. As one local said to me, "If you want nice, conceptual Colombian food, this is your place." // facebook.com/ElCiervoYElOso
During every trip to a new city, there is a time to go old school. And while in Bogotá, that means Club Colombia. Dimly lit, with a fireplace just off the foyer, it has the feel of a different era. From the solicitous and professional manner of the wait staff to the people filling the tables, you'll get the sense that somehow time has managed to stop itself for an hour or two. Menus in English are available upon request, and indeed it seems many Americans dine here, sharing wonderful salsas, especially the remolacha which is made from beets; think catsup but with self-esteem. // restauranteclubcolombia.com.co
Things to Do
Museums and Galleries
La Candelaria, the historic central district, is home to two must-see museums. Museo Botero is named for Fernando Botero Angulo, the artist most associated with Colombia; here you'll find much of his work alongside other masters including Picasso, Dali and Miro. Museo del Oro, meanwhile, tells the history of the region, from the time of indigenous tribes to modern day, through the story of gold. The displays are both stunning and subtle, with captions explaining time and place, metallurgy principles and practices, and the local lore of humans transforming into jaguars. Near the northeast corner of Parque de la Independencia, the gallery NC-Arte curates contemporary and abstract work by both established and up-and-coming artists, with an emphasis on plastic and visual arts made in Colombia. Its whole mission is to investigate and contextualize contemporary artistic practices through a series of exhibitions and multidisciplinary projects. It often holds "meetings" where artists and the public converge to talk about the work on display—a great change-up from more traditional offerings.
As high up in the sky as Bogota is, you can climb another 3,100 feet when you visit. Take a taxi or the pubic transport system, Transmilenio, to the base and then choose to either ride the funicular or the arial tramway to the top. As you climb, the view is staggering, so keep your cameras handy. Once at the top, you will find a church and some restaurants. But keep your eyes to the sky to spot the condors circling and swooping overhead as they have for untold centuries. Magic. This area is home to many engaging and charismatic street dogs who seem to know their way around the traffic. If you happen to have a treat or two in your pocket, they are certain not to mind.
For the fashion-inclined, there is shopping at the atelier of Silvia Tcherassi, the first Colombian designer and first Latin American designer to be invited to both Milan and Paris fashion weeks. // silviatcherassi.com