Bogotá feels like a city that is coming out of its shell and embracing its own identity. The Bogotá I came to know in 2019 is one that is full of energy – energy of activist students, rebellious street artists, ambitious real estate developers, hustling “comerciantes”, and everyone else in the 10 million-strong and growing population of the city.
The Colombian capital is one of those cities that doesn’t necessarily feel like a “destination” in the way that Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, or even Medellín does, but there are so many cool things about this city that I feel obliged to share, that I haven’t seen captured in other lists. I am 99% sure that Bogotá will soon be regarded as a capital of culture – of gastronomy and art – in the way that Mexico City has developed a similar reputation over the past 5 or 10 years. Here’s what makes me excited about Bogotá as we head into 2020:
As a foodie and an owner of an all-day cafe that focuses on using fresh, local ingredients, I am so excited about the blossoming “new Colombian” scene, locally referred to as “Cocina de Autor”. My gastronomic history of Bogotá is limited, but it feels to me that until 6/7 years ago fine dining was more of a formal affair, with restaurants like Harry Sasson creating delicious dishes, but ones you might find in France or Italy. But recently a “New Colombian” cuisine has arisen that uses fresh, local ingredients is combinations that are uniquely Colombian. My favourites:
Prudencia – a 4-course lunch-only tasting menu in a stunning converted casa in La Candelaria. Their daily menu pairs incredibly high quality local produce with innovative (and effective) cooking techniques. The whole experience is absolutely delightful and it felt like a genuine treat to enjoy such rich flavors over lunch. And at $65.000 for the vegetarian tasting menu, I felt as though I was robbing them. They offer a range of meat plates, but they try and promote the vegetarian tasting menu, and if you had tried the braised cauliflower steak I had last week you would know why.
Salvo Patria & Mesa Franca – 3 blocks from each other in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood I call home, these 2 restaurants are the stand outs in what has become a must-visit destination for any foodie in Bogotá. Salvo Patria recently celebrated its 6 year anniversary, but in 2019 threw out its (extremely popular) fixed menu in favor of a menu that changes weekly based on what ingredients are in season. They typically have some dish that involves eggplant which usually blows my mind, and they are experts at dealing with Colombian fish – raw snapper ceviche and Pacific coast Cobia curry are two dishes which stand out from recent memory.
Mesa Franca just celebrated it’s 3 year anniversary which was shortly followed by an announcement that it was included on the new “World’s 50 Best Discovery” list, which highlights spots that aren’t yet on the official “World’s 50 Best” list but worth keeping an eye on. Their baked shiitake mushroom appetizer dish is probably my favorite plate in the world right now – an insane combination of flavors and textures (peach, goats milk yogurt, and mushroom) – and their fixed main course includes an unforgettable seafood achiote spaghuetti, and specials have included piangua, a Colombian clam, in squid ink risotto, which blew me away, and Pirarucu, a giant Amazonian freshwater fish. They recently started “Cumbia Vegetalica” Thursdays with vegetarian specials accompanied by a live DJ spinning classic Colombian cumbia vibes. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the quality of their cocktails – I’m not usually a licquor type of guy but Tom Hydzik has converted me into an evangelist. Try something with viche, a tradtional Colombian cane sugar licor.
Llorente / Sauvage / Cuarto Frio – the only restaurant out of these 3 that I’ve actually eaten at is Cuarto Frio, but they are all relative newcomers to the Bogotá food scene that are striking the right balance between creativity, a beautiful ambience, and delicious food. All three are located in beautiful corner spots and are perfect for lunchtime people watching or sharing a special meal with partners, friends and family. None are particularly cheap by Colombian standards (up to $45.000 for an entree), but worth every peso. There are many other restaurants in this vein, including Cafe Bar Universal, Oficial, Black Bear, Tabula, Local by Rausch and others, but I don’t know enough about them to recommend them.
Leo – Bogotá’s gastronomic star, Leo by Leo Espinosa was the first Colombian restaurant to make it onto the “World’s 50 Best” list in 2019, and having dined there in late 2018 I can attest that she represents the pinnacle of creative Colombian cuisine. Scouring the country for uniquely Colombian flavors, the 10 course dining menu at Leo was a true gastronomic experience on par with anything I’ve had in my life. As a former New Yorker, I find it incredible that I was able to make a reservation at this food mecca with just a week’s notice, and that our entire meal for 2 people (with non-alcoholic drink pairing and service) came to about $140 (~$400.000, if memory serves).
More casual: El Pantera y Tacos Insurgentes, Arbol de Pan, Elektra, De Raiz, Canasto, Pizza Paraiso, Mesa Salvaje – Yes, I’m including my own all-day cafe, Mesa Salvaje, in this group of more casual places that are doing something delicious and interesting related to food, but only because I think it deserves to be there! This group represents a mish mash of taquerias, bakeries, cool plant-based restaurants, bistros, and pizza joints. Each place has it’s own vibe but all of them are welcoming places at all hours with high quality products. The fried avocado tacos at Insurgentes continue to blow my mind, as does the truffle mushroom risotto at Canasto, the cashew mozzerella cheese balls at Elektra, and everything at Mesa Salvaje (but of the local ingredients, the arracacha soup, the guanabana cake, and everything we make that involves zapallo). I like to think that we represent the best of Colombian ingredients in a pleasant, accessible manner. I know that we have plans for pushing ourselves creatively in 2020, and knowing some of the chefs at the other places in this group I can only imagine what they have up their sleeves!
Cenas Clandestias – The last thing I’d note is that Bogota seems to have a pretty large “secret dinner” culture, and I have been to a couple of incredible Cenas Clandestinas and recently found out about a few more I’d love to attend. DIOSA, a tiny spot 1 block away from Mesa Salvaje frequently does incredible dinners with guest chefs, and I know that Musas de Tierra is also doing plant-based pop up dinners across the city. I’ve heard good things about Oculto, too.
BEERS & COFFEE
My two small luxuries in life that I afford myself on a frequent basis are good craft beer and incredible coffee, and Bogotá has no shortage of either.
Craft beer is tricky in Colombia because good hops have to be imported from the US or elsewhere, which puts craft brews at a significant price premium to the national brews. That said, a small but passionate group have created a pretty impressive craft scene that has produced both delicious brews and some wonderful neighborhood craft beer bars to spend time in. My two favorite local breweries are Cerveceria Gigante, and 13 Pesos. Gigante makes my favourite hoppy Pale Ale in Colombia, and they just opened up a tap room next to Plaza Lourdes, the latest addition to a neighborhood that is adding new and cool spots by the month. 13 Pesos doesn’t have a physical presence but can be found in many of my favorite bars and restaurants – I’m a big fan both of their IPA and all their small batch seasonals, like the Guava Sour we’re offering in Mesa Salvaje right now. I also wanted to mention the explosion of neighborhood craft beer bars above and beyond the omnipresent Bogotá Beer Company that are helping to create a beer scene with a variety of flavors and personalities. I’m a fan of Beco Bar, Statua Rota, Mono Bandido, and Maravillas.
The coffee scene in Bogotá is superrrr interesting (at least to me, a coffee shop owner!). The nadir of the specialty coffee scene here began in earnest 4 or 5 years ago with the arrival of Bourbon Coffee Roasters, Libertario, and Azahar. While there may have been others who were roasting specialty coffee at the time, these 2 shops brought to the city the specialty coffee shop vibe that one hopes to find in any modern North American, European, or Asian city these days.
Since then, many other Roasters and Coffee Shops have entered the fray: Arte y Pasion, Tourist Coffee, La Cantera, Cafe 18, Varietale, Bogotá Coffee Roasters, Catacion Publica and more, meanwhile Bourbon Coffee rebranded as Colo Coffee and opened 2 new beautiful locations while Azahar remodeled their first location into a stunning shop and opened a second location in La Candelaria. It is now relatively easy to find a place to get a good filter coffee with a well-roasted Natural, Honey, or exotic variety, and good Colombian coffee is as good as any coffee I’ve had from across the world.
But something interesting is happening: while specialty coffee is becoming more available and recognized throughout the city, there seems to be evidence that the market here isn’t yet big enough to support more than 1 or 2 stand alone specialty coffee shops that generate the majority of their revenue from coffee, and especially not outside the expat rich neighborhoods of Zona G and Parque 93. As a result, there is a lament from baristas I know that many Specialty Coffee shops are pivoting to focus on adding a solid food program to compliment their coffee offerings. I personally am all for it – All Day Cafes with excellent coffee is my favorite type of place, a place to enjoy solo or in company at whatever hour of the day. Obviously, Mesa Salvaje has slotted right into that definition and I think we benefit from being associated as a vegetarian brunch and lunch restaurant as much as for our coffee.
Right now, the ultimate destinations for good coffee in Bogotá are: Libertario in Zona G, Colo Coffee in Usaquen, and Catacion Publica in Usaquen. But as places to visit, my favorite coffee shops would be Azahar in la Candelaria, Varietale on Calle 45, the original Bourbon Coffee Roasters, and Mesa Salvaje (obviously :)).
One last note while we’re talking about beverages – there is a nascent Kombucha scene that feels like it is trying to force itself onto the market, but I’m interested in whether some of the traditional Colombian ferments like chicha or masato could be branded and marketed as delicious artesanal beverages in their own right rather than being considered as a bootleg drink one makes at home.
I hate when tourists visit Bogotá and talk about the “culture” of the city in reference to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). This city is exploding with fresh Colombian culture in its art, music, and cinema scene, and the notion that some pieces of gold from hundreds of years ago represents the epitome of Bogotano culture is an insult. I blame TripAdvisor.
Some cities express their culture through music, or through architecture, or through food. To some extents Bogota has all of those, but I think Bogotá’s real strength is in its art. In Bogotá art doesn’t feel static, as in a framed painting in a museum exhibit, but rather dynamic. The street art scene here is funny, political, colorful, and diverse; even murals by famous street artists can be taken down one day and replaced the next, and sometimes even painted over by another street artist; there are characters and recognizable styles, and it is a genuine pleasure to encounter a new piece by an artist I know as I stroll through the city. I have bought a few pieces by street artists at Street Lynx gallery just outside the old town, and I love the Bandy Bandy Gallery in San Felipe which also sells works from the best street artists in the city. Look at Franco (@fcolombia) Stinkfish (@stinkfishstink), Toxicomano (@toxicomanocallejero), and Erre (@erre.erre) for a sense of the city’s street art vibe.
But Bogotá’s art scene isn’t limited to the street art. One of the coolest things in Bogota is Noche San Felipe, a bi-monthly open house of all the galleries and spaces in the San Felipe neighborhood. There is something much more accessible about wandering in and out of galleries at will with a beer in hand and good music playing – it makes the traditional art gallery experience super fun. Noche San Felipe has also spawned Open San Felipe, a daytime version that occurs semi-frequently during the weekend. Look on their facebook page to see if there is an event on that you can attend.
I’m not a huge nightlife person, but this city has an incredible variety of high quality nightlife. My area of Chapinero is home to the superclub Teatron (technically a gay club but fun for everyone), old school sweaty rumba spots like Casa Babylon, smaller dance bars with good vibes like La Negra, and cool new bars and lounges like O.D.E.M. with a beautiful view over Plaza Lourdes and good music at a reasonable volume. Armando Records remains the go-to spot in Zona T although Vintrash hosts the surprisingly fun weekly Gringo Tuesday event.
Outside of traditional nightlife, I love the presence of Cine Tonalá, an indie dine and drink cinema that offers pretty good tacos and beers for you to enjoy during the movie, and I am very excited at the opening of Tejo Turmeque, a new spot in San Felipe that takes the traditional Colombian game of Tejo (think cornhole with gunpowder) and puts it in a suitably millenial vibe. Billiards is also a huge activity in passing time in Bogotá and I’m waiting for someone to open a trendy pool bar, too.
DAYTIME ACTIVITIES THAT ARE NOT MONSERRATE
Bogotá is a gigantic city and there is so much interesting stuff to do in and around it, whatever your preferred type of activity. Here is a brief list of some of the daytime activities I love or have been highly recommended by friends:
- Muvo to Mercado Las Pulgas on Sundays – Muvo is a shared electric bike scheme in Bogotá and is my favorite way to get around the city. Sunday mornings represent the perfect opportunity to hop on a Muvo bike and participate in Cicolvia and head on up to the lovely neighborhood of Usaquen in the north of the city. Every Sunday there is a huge flea market throughout the neighborhood with lovely artisan goods. You could make a day of it by getting lunch in one of the many bars and restaurants and catching an afternoon movie in the art-deco Cinema Paraiso.
- Spend a morning getting lost in Paloquemao – Paloquemao isn’t the largest produce market in the city, but it is the best one to visit. Go spend a morning discovering fruits and vegetables you never knew existed – I have been to produce markets all over South America and Paloquemao is the best one of the lot. It doesn’t totally stink of meat or fish, is relatively clean, and nobody attempts to rip you off. I recommend procuring some fruits that look interesting and sitting down in one of the little bars inside the market and washing down the new flavors with an Avena (milky oat drink) or a mid-morning beer as the vendors tend to do.
- Climbing in Suesca – I’ve never been, but many expat friends rave about it.
- La Palma y El Tucan – I spent new year’s day 2020 on this coffee farm outside of Zipacon, a 90 minute drive from the capital. Getting there requires a car, but once there I can honestly say it is the most beautiful coffee farm I have ever visited, in a valley with mountains on 3 sides and epic views to the West. The coffee grown at La Palma is regarded as some of the best in the world, and a tour of the farm and a coffee workshop there provided a wonderful day for coffee lovers (like me) and coffee newbies (like my family) alike. You can also opt to spend a night in one of their cabins there, or add a massage to the day trip. The service wasn’t the best in the world, but the location and the coffee made up for it.
- Used clothes shopping in Plaza Espana – for the more adventurous among you. Plaza Espana isn’t the nicest part of the city by a long stretch, but it is home to a giant used clothes market where you can find the occasional diamond in the rough.I have found a couple of my favorite sweaters there and never paid more than $20.000 (~$6 USD). My partner even found a Barbour jacket for $3USD, which after a dry cleaning looks incredible.
- Ride the Metrocable in Ciudad Bolivar – I am also yet to do this, but I plan on rectifying that soon. The Metrocable was built to provide an easy way for people living in the informal hills up in Ciudad Bolivar to access the main part of the city, but as in Medellin it seems like the novelty of riding a Gondola within a city is attracting tourists. I can’t attest to the view from the top, but I’ve heard it is a fun experience.
- Sumapaz airbnb experience – this is a full day activity that I did with my girlfriend in October. The Colombian paramo or high altitude wetland ecosystems are unique globally, and this Airbnb experience provided an intimate way to experience the alienness and isolation of the landscape. The Sumapaz paramo is technically within the departamento of Bogotá itself, but I felt like I was walking on another planet as we crested ridges and saw entire landscapes before us with jagged peaks and millions of strange looking flora. I recommend the Airbnb experience instead of just visiting the park by yourself as they enter the park via a private farm and you feel like you can really engage with the nature rather than view it behind a barrier.
I love Bogotá and I want everyone who comes to see what makes this an incredible city. If you are visiting, please stop by Mesa Salvaje to say hello and enjoy an incredible Colombian coffee! We’re at Diagonal 55 #4-14 in Chapinero Alto, in the middle of the best neighborhood for food and drink in the country :)