Medellín: A Guide to the Most Innovative City in the World
Not so long ago, Medellín was a no-go city for tourists. In fact, in the ’80s, Medellín had the highest homicide rate in the world. Pablo Escobar and other cartel members were turning the city into a war zone and their violence was at its peak. Thankfully, after Pablo Escobar died in 1993, things started to turn around for Medellín. Since then, Medellín has become one of the coolest destinations in South America.
Medellín (also called the city of eternal Spring) has been working hard in the last few years to try and erase its bad image. I must say, they’ve done a really good job of it. In the last fifteen years, Medellín has undergone a huge transformation and it was recently named the most innovative city in the world. Thanks to its modern and efficient transport system, people living in poor neighbourhoods now have much better mobility and crime and violence have decreased dramatically.
The people of Medellín are very proud of this big change and so they should be. Tourism has picked up recently and people now flock to the city from all over the world. It’s a fabulous city to explore and you should add it to your Colombian bucket list. We spent 10 days in Medellín and although you don’t need that long to see all the main sights, Medellín is a nice place to hang for a while and soak up the atmosphere.
What to do in Medellín?
1- Take a free city tour
Our favourite thing to do in Medellín was the three hours long, free city tour with Real City Tours. This tour runs three times daily from the Alpujarra Metro Station. It’s the best thing to do if you want to learn about Medellín’s history as well as learn about the best sights in El Centro.
Our guide Dio was wonderful. Not only did he remember the name of every single person on the tour (there were at least 30 of us), but he told us lots of stories from his childhood to help us understand the struggles Medellín has gone through. We learnt a lot about Medellín’s past and present and it was a great introduction to the city.
There are many free tours available in Medellín but look no further, this one is the best!
2- Take a cable car up to Park Arvi
Getting to Park Arvi is half the fun because you need to use the cable car system to get there. The views along the way are the best you’ll find in Medellín. The first cable car ride takes you up above the city’s houses with views as far as the eye can see. The second one takes you on a long ride over the top of some beautiful woodlands.
Once in Park Arvi you can hike some of the park’s many trails. However, for security reasons, you now have to pay for a guide to accompany you on the trails. There is also a small market at the top where you can buy souvenirs or some yummy fresh fruit.
3- Admire Botero’s work
Fernando Botero is a Medellín artist and sculptor renowned for his rather weird statues of oversized and disproportionate people. The best place to admire his work is Plaza Botero where 23 of his sculptures are on display. Plaza Botero is a busy part of town which is always crowded, so keep a good eye on your belongings.
Right next to the Plaza is the Museum Antioquia. Inside this museum are 100 pieces of artwork donated by Botero himself. Some are his pieces, while others are from his private art collection. This is Medellín’s most popular museum.
4 – Relax in the Botanical Gardens
If you need some time to relax, away from the noise of the big city, head to the Botanical Gardens. These gardens are set on 14 hectares, where you will find more than 4000 types of flowers, many different bird species, a butterfly house and my favourite, the iguanas!
The Botanical Gardens are usually free to enter, unless (like us) you visit during the week of La Feria de las Flores when they charged us 16,000 COP each. However, the special flower displays they had inside the park were definitely worth the entrance fee. Also bear in mind that the gardens may be closed for some of that week, while they prepare the exhibits.
5- Hike the Cerro de las Tres Cruces at sunrise
If you enjoy a good workout first thing in the morning, this hike will do the trick. But start early for two reasons. Firstly, Medellín gets crazy hot during the day and this hike does not have much shade. Secondly, because you can watch the sunrise from the top and it’s definitely worth seeing! Many local people do this hike as their daily exercise, so you may feel rather unfit as you see them running up it in less than fifteen minutes when it takes you over half an hour! But don’t worry, just take your time and enjoy the views.
6 Take a tour of Comuna 13
Comuna 13 is the best place to learn about the transformation Medellin has undergone over the last ten years. Not that long ago, Comuna 13 was the most violent neighbourhood in the most dangerous city in the world! Back then, you wouldn’t have dared to try to enter it if you didn’t live there. It was full of invisible borders where you could be shot for trespassing!
But after a set of six electric escalators were built to give the community better access to the city, things began to change for the better. Combined with a new focus on art, creativity, and education, the neighbourhood has been completely transformed.
Comuna 13’s street art is bringing so much tourism to the area that the neighbourhood is now safe to visit during the day (but not at night). You can visit alone but we’d recommend taking a graffiti tour with one of the locals. You’ll learn so much more about the neighbourhood and the stories behind its street art.
There are now many groups organising tours of Comuna 13, so make sure you do some research beforehand. We’d recommend the original tour with Medellin Graffiti Tour.
7- Pay your respects at San Antonio Park
Although there isn’t much to see in San Antonio Park, two things stand out. They are two identical metal bird sculptures by the artist Botero. One of them is mangled, blown to pieces by a political group during a concert in 1995. The other is a replica which Botero donated while asking for the damaged sculpture to remain. This was to show how the city can and will transform into peace, which it is doing. Twenty people died during the attack, with many more injured.
8- Learn Spanish
If you are going to be in Colombia or South America for a while, having some basic Spanish will be very helpful. There are many schools to learn Spanish at in Medellin and it’s a great place to do it. We took a week of Spanish classes with Blink Spanish school. We enjoyed our time there and learned a lot. They also organise cheap accommodation for their students, either in dorm-style or private rooms.
9- Visit el Museo Casa de Memoria
This museum is dedicated to honouring the victims of armed conflicts in Medellín and Colombia. It’s another good place to go to better understand their complicated history. It’s free to enter and only about 50% of the displays are translated into English. But it’s still worth a visit.
10- Go shopping!
There are many “Centro Comercial” shopping malls in Medellín and if you enjoy shopping, you’re in luck. We mainly shopped for a camera, after having ours stolen earlier in Pasto but there are many malls where you can spend a rainy afternoon. Yes, it does rain in Medellín but never for that long!
11- Take a day trip to Guatapé
Guatapé is Colombia’s most colourful town and you simply must visit it. It’s only a two-hour bus ride away. You can either visit for the day (be sure to leave early) or spend a couple of days there as we did. Guatapé is loved by tourists and locals alike due to its beautiful scenery and colourful streets and squares. The town centre is packed with restaurants and shops.
Also, no visit to Guatapé is complete without climbing El Peñon. El Peñon is a natural phenomenon just outside the town. This huge rock is tough to climb but the view from the top is well worth the effort!
Is Medellín Safe?
That’s the question everyone asks. A lot of people still think that going to Medellín (or Colombia in general) is crazy. Of course, the people that say that have done no research whatsoever to learn the truth.
Of course, Medellín still has its problems but it’s no longer the crime-ridden city it used to be. There are still gangs around and crimes do occur, just like in any big city. But if you take a few precautions, you’ll be perfectly safe there.
Here are some safety precautions to follow while in Medellín:
- Don’t walk around at night, use a taxi; always!
- Find out from the locals which areas are safe to visit and stay away from the dodgy ones. You probably have no business going there anyway.
- Put your backpack in front of you in crowded areas and keep a close eye on your belongings.
- “No dar papayas” or “Don’t give papayas”. That’s a Colombian saying for don’t flash your wealth around if you don’t want it gone. Don’t go asking for trouble and it won’t come to you.
- Be careful when withdrawing money. Always use an ATM inside the bank. Don’t draw money out at night.
- Be careful with your drinks in bars or clubs. Spiking of drinks does occur.
Where to stay in Medellín?
Most tourists visiting Medellín will stay in either El Poblado or Laureles districts. Both areas are safe and have a good nightlife with plenty of restaurants and bars. Of course, being the most touristy areas they are not the cheapest but with a bit of effort, you can find reasonable places to stay. We spent time in both areas and would recommend either of them. Both are an easy train ride to the best places to visit while in Medellin.
Best on booking.com
If none of those take your fancy, try using HotelsCombined to search across all the major accommodation websites. We use it all the time:
Where to eat in Medellín?
Head to Mondongo’s to taste traditional Colombian food. There you can try the speciality of Medellín, the Bandeja Paisa. Just make sure you are hungry as it’s massive!
Mercado Del Rio
This market is more like a food court. It has all sorts of food from around the world, as well as bars and a couple of wine bars. It’s a great place to go for dinner or to hang out with friends. Many locals do just that, so it’s busy in the evening and especially at weekends.
Another great place to try very typical Colombian and South American dishes. Authentic atmosphere and food. There are a few branches around town.
If you love avocado like me then this place is totally for you. It’s avocado heaven! Everything is loaded with avocado. They even have avocado cocktails!
Where to party?
If you like to party then Medellín is the city for you. Parque Lleras in Poblado and La Calle 70 in Laureles are the city’s party spots. They have bars and clubs open till early morning with pumping music and plenty of people enjoying themselves.
How to get to Medellín?
If Medellín is your first stop in Colombia then you are most likely going to arrive at the José María Córdova International Airport (MDE). It’s not that close to the city itself. For a cheap option, you can take the airport shuttle bus to the city centre. Alternatively, you can take a taxi. You’ll be able to fly direct to Medellín from many cities in South America and even from a few cities in the US and Europe.
If you fly into Medellín from elsewhere in Colombia, you will likely arrive at the smaller Olaya Herrera airport (EOH). This one is located right inside the city.
And if like us you are travelling overland around Colombia, you can catch a bus to and from Medellín from many destinations in Colombia. For example, we took the bus from Salento to Medellín. The journey took us about 8 hours (a couple of hours longer than normal due to roadworks). If you travel from anywhere in the north of Colombia, you’ll arrive at the northern bus terminal. Likewise, if you’re coming from the south, you’ll arrive at the southern terminal.
How to get around Medellín?
Use the metro! Medellín is the only city in Colombia that has a metro system. The locals are so proud of it and for good reason. It’s very efficient, it’s safe and it’s affordable!
There are only two metro lines but pretty much all of the main sights are covered by them. If they aren’t (such as Parque Arvi), they are covered by one of the cable car lines that serve the hillside communities. Transferring to a cable car is included in your metro fare. However, you will need to buy a separate ticket to take the extension line that goes to Parque Arvi.
There are also many bus routes in Medellín but we didn’t use them. Therefore I’m not sure how good they are.
Finally, of course, there are loads of taxis in Medellín. They use a meter system so you don’t have to worry about being overcharged. Just make sure they switch it on. There is also Uber in Medellín but there aren’t many cars available. The couple of times we used them we had to wait for ages for one to be allocated and even longer for them to arrive. Also, because Uber is illegal in Colombia I wouldn’t take them from the airport.
Should you take a Pablo Escobar tour?
Now if you’ve watched the Netflix series Narcos and wonder if you should go on a Pablo Escobar tour, the answer is no. The locals hate the series and are upset that people want to go on this tour.
In fact, the locals don’t even want to say his name and some only refer to him as “that guy”. Why should people idolise a person who’s caused so much grief and hell in their lives? Of course just because you take the tour doesn’t mean you idolise the guy. But anyway, if you want to find out more about what happened, you’re better off visiting the Museo Casa de Memoria or taking one of the tours we mentioned earlier.
You’ll learn a lot more about what happened. What you see in Narcos is far from reality. We were told that only about half of it is true and the rest is fiction, created to keep people entertained.