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Your first encounter with Bogotá may not be love at first sight. The constant rain, chilliness, and surrounding pine-forest mountains make London seem downright sunny. But give Bogotá time, and you will discover a sophisticated city of skyscrapers, glitzy upscale shopping centers, restaurants to satisfy even the most discerning palates, and nightlife that will leave you needing a vacation from your vacation. Colombia’s capital and its largest city by far, Bogotá is a sprawling metropolis, home to eclectic and experimental architecture, a bohemian university crowd, a lively cafe scene, and attractive city parks. It is a city bursting with energy and culture.

Bogotá is, more than anything, a city of contrasts. Class differences are still very much apparent, with the wealthy, modern northern section a world apart from the slums, poverty, and high crime rates of the southern part of the city. Though security has improved dramatically in the last few years, the city center can still be dangerous at night, so you’re better off not wearing expensive-looking jewelry and clothing when visiting these areas. Still, Bogotá is one of Latin America’s safer cities, and it’s unlikely you’ll encounter any serious problems.

History

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the land that is now Bogotá was the southern capital of the Muisca culture, called Bacatá. While little evidence of the Muisca exists today, much of the early colonial period remains in the form of cobblestone streets and centuries-old houses and churches around Plaza Bolívar and throughout La Candelaria.

Sightseeing

Most landmark buildings—like the capital, neoclassical Teatro Colón, and the 17th-century Iglesia de San Francisco—sit within a few blocks of each other. Take the tram to Cerro de Monserrate for the best views of the city, then head to the northern suburbs to see the capital’s more contemporary side, with glitzy skyscrapers and posh red-brick residential towers.

Eating & Drinking

Bogotá seems to have more restaurants than it does people. In some areas, like the Zona Rosa, entire streets are lined with restaurant after restaurant and bar after bar. Start your day with a cup of fair-trade coffee from a local roaster, snack at streetside arepa stalls and juice stands, and then have an elegant dinner with 10 courses and a wine pairing. Cap off your night with pints of craft beer or adventurous cocktails on a rooftop bar.

Arts & Culture

The city is home to Colombia’s best museums, from the vast collection of pre-Columbian gold at the Museo del Oro to the chronological artifacts that explore Colombia’s past at the Museo Nacional. Art is ever present here, with graffiti-lined streets in La Candelaria and a blossoming gallery scene in districts like La Macarena.

Shopping

Although you will find better—and less expensive—handicrafts in the provinces, Bogotá has the country’s best shopping. Edgy urban designers have boutiques in trendy districts in the north, while sophisticated malls with the latest designer labels have cropped up all over the city. The finest jewelry stores (think in terms of emeralds and gold) are all found here.