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I absolutely fell in love with Medellin! This amazing city of 2 1/2 million has the big city energy and drive of a London or a New York. The Paisas are passionate full on people and I adored them and their beautiful city of eternal spring! When it comes to what to do in Medellin the list is long! I spent over 3 weeks in the city and I feel like I left with quite a few things on my to-do list.
Medellin is not so much about major Eiffel Tower type sites – it is much more about experiences, exploring neighborhoods, eating fruit and generally embracing the paisa life!
Want to know more about Colombia? Here is a great guide to all you need to know as to why Colombia is the next big travel destination!
How do I get to Medellin?
Medellin has an international airport – however, there are not a load of international flights in and out! Iberia flies direct from Madrid (see my review of Iberia Business Class) but generally, you will go via Bogota. There are however loads of domestic flights in and out of Medellin. As Colombia is large and hilly flying internally is common and very reasonably priced. I used the national carrier Avianca several times and found them very safe, good service and quality and very reasonably priced.
The airport is about 45 minutes by car from El Poblado – the main tourist area in Medellin. It is a long and windy trip down a mostly single lane road. They are currently building a tunnel from the airport into Medellin but that is still under construction. A private taxi will cost you about 70,000COP. It is not recommended to use one of the taxi apps to and from the airport as they have been stopped and not allowed to continue.
A shared taxi can be taken from the Taxi Colectivo Aeropuerto near San Diego Mall. It will cost you less than 20,000 COP but will not leave until it is full (4 passengers). There is an airport bus which goes from a stop on Palmas near San Diego Mall and this costs about 10,000COP.
What are the best ways to get around Medellin?
Medellin is in a valley – which becomes clearly evident as soon as you arrive due to the hills and the views!!! The centre of the valley is where the main city centre is located. The general rule is the further up the hills of the valley you go the worse off is the neighborhood, driven by its distance into the centre.
The people of Medellin could not be more proud of their Metro system! It is very clean and no one eats on it or leaves rubbish. It is jam-packed during rush hour. The metro basically runs the spine of the city. Initially, I found the payment system a bit confusing. The best thing to do is go to the ticket office at any metro station and buy a 10 ride plastic card that you can use to tap on and off.
In addition to the metro, the city also has cable cars and trams that provide access to some of the steep hill neighborhoods. These also make for fantastic tourist experiences as you get some amazing views and into really interesting neighborhoods – more of this to come!
There are many buses around. They are cheap to use and tend to leave when full. These are the best way to get yourself up and around the neighborhoods near the top of the valley.
In terms of taxis, there are official taxis and uber, tappsi and EasyTaxi. Uber, Tappsi and EasyTaxi are very cheap and easy to get. However, the biggest thing is DO NOT SLAM THE DOOR of the taxi. Medellin taxi drivers are very particular about how the door is closed – be as gentle as possible or you will greatly upset them!
Also, when using an Uber or Tappsi or EasyTaxi at least one person should sit in the front of the taxi. The drivers prefer this as it is then not so obvious that they are operating the vehicle as a taxi.
What to do in Medellin – Places to Go
1. Museo de Antioquia
I am not much of a museum person – it normally has to be quite quirky to get me in the door. But I really fell for the works of Botero from the moment I saw my first sculpture so I felt I needed to go and I am so glad that I did!
The museum contains a mix of sculptures and paintings by Botero – although it is heavier on the painting side. This includes one of his most famous paintings of the death of Pablo Escobar. The museum also exhibits the work of other local artists.
It is a lovely building with a great gift shop (see shopping further below) and it also has a nice little restaurant! The museum is located on Plaza Botero.
2. Plazoleta de las Esculturas (Plaza Botero)
This was one of my favourite places in Medellin. Botero donated all of these sculptures to his home city of Medellin – on the condition that no payment was required to see them. This square was quite derelict prior to the gift and now it is a delightful plaza in the heart of Medellin.
There are 23 bronze sculptures in total in the Plaza and they are all very photogenic – and attract many photographers! The square has many benches for a break, vendors galore selling hats and rather load fruit vendors. It has a lovely busy main square atmosphere and feel to it.
There is a very interesting building in the plaza – well it is actually the main building. It is a rather interesting mix of styles. The story behind it is that there were problems with the original architect. He quit halfway through the build. The people of Medellin decided that they would be fine to finish it and would do it in their own way – and in a completely different style! I kind of like it – it is a bit crazy and all feels rather paisa appropriate!
3. House of Memories Museum
This local museum is housed in an absolutely stunning building that on its own is worth a visit. However, I must confess I did find it a little dull. The exhibits are limited and are mostly in Spanish – which is of course fair enough. Most of the memories are pre-1980 so there is not much on the drug and guerrilla fighting which gave Colombia its no longer relevant bad reputation. Of course, if this pre-1980 information is of interest to you then you will love it – its all about what works for you.
4. Parque Arvi
Arvi Park is on the outskirts of Medellin. It is a massive park where you can hike, trek etc. It takes a couple of metros and a cable car to get there but it is the largest park in Medellin. Free guided walks leave every hour from 10-3 at the tourist information point.
5. Pueblito Paisa
This kitschy little mock paisa village is located at the top of Cerro Nutibara – a very tall hill! Walking up the hill is a great work out (ok I took a cab but it looked like a great work out ). The mock village at the top is not that fabulous – especially if you have visited actual Colombian villages which I had by that point. However, if you don’t have much time in Colombia then it would be worth popping up here to have a look.
There are the usual food and souvenir options. But the real reason to come up here is the view. When you arrive the little village is on your left – head to your right where there are a lot of stairs and a big building. Behind the stairs and building is a large quite plain sort of concreted area where you can see some amazing views of Medellin. Walk around the entire area as you will get 180-degree views.
6. Alpujarra Administrative Center
This is not a particularly exciting area as it is the centre of the government in Medellin. However, it does contains some quite cool and very photogenic buildings as well as the Monument to the Race sculpture.
7. Square of Lights/Plaza Cisneros
This square in the middle of Medellin has been fitted out with 300 lights on poles. They are a mix of heights up to 24m. This art installation was part of the overall city effort to rejuvenate Medellin. It is stunning to visit both during the day and in the evening.
8. San Antonio Park
This is not the loveliest of parks – it is quite heavy on the concrete – but it is an important park in Medellin. When you visit you will see 2 identical Botero sculptures – one is severely damaged and the other one in perfect shape. A terrible bombing took place in this park in 1995 and killed 23 people. The sculpture known as the Bird of Peace was also damaged in the attack.
The original plan was to remove the damaged sculpture. However, Botero himself insisted that it remain in the park. He said he would provide a new sculpture but only if the old one stayed as a reminder of that terrible day.
This park also becomes a bit of a pumping food and beer area on the weekends for a lot of the workers of Medellin.
9. Botanic Gardens (Jardin Botanico)
As Medellin is renowned for its flowers expectations are high for the Botanic Gardens! I visited in the middle of Feria de Las Flores (see below) and was blown away! I only got to explore probably a small percentage of the gardens as there was so much going on with the festival. This is definitely somewhere worth visiting and spending some time.
10. Feria de las Flores
This one-week festival is the biggest thing that happens in Medellin each year. Read all about Feria de las Flores here.
11. Shopping Medellin
There is a lot on offer when it comes to shopping Medellin! My absolute favourite area for shopping were streets Carrera 35 and 37 of Via Primavera in the El Poblado neighborhood. There are lots of local designers on offer in super cute boutiques and they are heavy on swimwear and resort wear.
My number one shopping discovery in Medellin was Entreaguas. This local designer specializes in swim and resort wear. Her bikinis and bathers are gorgeous as are her cover-ups – they are made with stunning prints and the straps are often made from a unique macramé style. The brand is quite rightly positioned as wearable art. This is exactly the type of thing you want to buy when you are travelling – every time I wear my Entregeaus outfits I get asked about them.
In the same area is the lovely Bonhomia which stocks gorgeous homewares and gorgeous fabrics – I bought a backpack. It is located on Carrera 37.
For all your standard shopping needs head to the Santa Fe mall. This has all of your mainstream brands with over 380 stores.
Need some electronics? Then head to the Monterrey electronics mall just near El Poblado station. This mall is over 3 levels and has everything electronic you could ever need. From the station, you will need to cross the main road to get to the mall.
The gift shop at the Museo de Antioquia is fantastic for some stylish Medellin souvenirs. Botero prints are on everything and look great. They also stock art and crafts from local artists.
Tours are definitely the best way to see Medellin. So much of the city is about exploring rather than big stand out attractions. I absolutely loved wandering the streets with a small tour group (apart from the free walking tour Medellin which is a big group but you still must do it!) and experiencing the food and art and stories of Medellin.
If you only do one thing when you are in Medellin take a tour! And try to make it combine street art and food! I did four tours whilst I was there and highly highly recommend all of them:
12. Free Walking Tour Medellin
This was the first tour that I did in Medellin on my second day I think? Anyway, I do highly recommend it. The free walking tour model has become very popular – essentially the tour is “free” and you decide at the end how much to tip your guide. A great model!
All the guides are locals which makes a huge difference in a city as full of recent history as Medellin. Our guide, Julio, did a fantastic job bringing Medellin to life and explaining the complexities of recent history across drug cartels, guerillas, and corrupt government officials. The tour covers the downtown area.
I wrote a dedicated post on Medellin Walking Tours which includes this tour on a great website called Medellin Guru.
13. Medellin Food Tour
This is a must do! Colombia is all about street food and it can be quite tricky to figure out how all of these work. A food tour is perfect plus you get to explore some of Medellin’s many neighborhoods.
There were only four of us on the tour so it was perfect for questions and adequate sampling time! We kicked off with the classic Medellin street food – Bunuelos. These are of course made from corn (like most things) and cheese and are at their best fresh. I doubt they are low calorie or high in nutrition but they must be sampled while in Medellin!
Next up was one of my personal highlights – Maria’s fruit cart at San Antonio station. Maria is fabulous fun and full of personality. We liked her and her fruit so much that we went back a couple of times and she remembered us and it was like seeing long lost family!
I highly recommend the ripe mango with lime and salt – it is amazing! Locals prefer their mango unripe but I couldn’t embrace this – see how daring you are!
We then hopped on a cable car and headed up high into the valley and Villa Sierra for some delicious bakery treats and amazing views. We also passed some great street art.
Next up was the quintessential Colombian street food arepas. There are different versions of this mix of corn and soft white cheese. Then we enjoyed Obleas – a multilayered snack of wafers and different sauces.
We finished at Salon Malaga near San Antonio station where we tried the white spirit of Colombia Aguardiente. How is it that so many countries have such dreadful white spirits as their national alcohol? One shot was more than enough…..
The Medellin Guru post also covers the street food tour in more detail. And here is another article that I wrote on the food in Colombia.
14. Medellin Communa 13 tour – Stairway Graffiti
Street art has exploded in Medellin and has been a critical part of the city’s rejuvenation. Perhaps the area that has benefited the most from this is Communa 13. This neighborhood was literally the epicenter of the problems of Medellin with the highest murder rate in the world. This was driven by its location high up the valley and close to the highway.
Today the residents have turned Communa 13 into an outdoor art gallery and you can now see children happily playing on the streets. Several companies offer tours of the area but I would highly recommend you use Stairway Storytellers. This company was set up by residents of the area to help teach English and the tour guides all grew up in the area – and the money you pay for the tour goes to support this very worthy organization. And their tour was brilliant! We even got to meet one of the street artists!
Or click here for some other Street Art Tour Options.
15. Pablo Escobar Tours
There are a number of Pablo Escobar based tours run from Medellin. This is a highly contentious area for locals. There are a mix of views – all negative – around this new type of tour. Those negatively impacted by Escobar feel it is wrong for locals to make money out of Escobar, there are many different views on Escobar so no tour can be completely correct and the people of Medellin are desperate to escape their association with the man.
I have written a dedicated post on these tours that you can read here and make up your own mind.
Where should I stay in Medellin?
I had a fantastic stay in the Art Hotel Medellin – read my review here. For prices and availability click here. I would highly recommend staying in the El Poblado area for first time visitors as it is full of great restaurants and shops and easy to get around. It is also very tourist friendly and just makes life a bit easier so you can enjoy Medellin.
I also used the gym at the Charlee Hotel and it was lovely! It also has a great central location in Medellin and a fantastic rooftop bar and pool! The rooms are gorgeous and they also have a great restaurant on the ground floor. Click here for prices and availability.
I have also read good things about the Diez Hotel Click here for Prices and Availability. For a quieter option in the centre of town check out The Sites Hotel Prices and Availability Here. And Hotel Loyds is another good option in El Poblado – Click here for Prices.
If you’re looking for a lower cost option check out this ultimate guide to backpacking in Colombia.
Being Unsettled in Medellin
I was based in Medellin for one month as a participant in a new way to travel – Be Unsettled. This organization is only just over 12 months old. Essentially their purpose is to give travelers an experience of being a local in the city they visit rather than being a tourist. The way they achieve this is to get 25+ people together from all over the world and find them apartments near each other and a central workspace. https://beunsettled.co
This then becomes the community. The community is supported by two hosts who support with everything from SIM cards to doctors names to great nights out. It is up to the individual as to how involved they choose to become in the community. Most people come to Unsettled on their own – it is a very easy way to meet people!
You can learn much more from their website here but I will tell you that I absolutely loved my month being Unsettled in Medellin. I have visited over 80 countries and I am sure Colombia now holds a special place in my heart because of being part of Unsettled. As the ultimate test, I am seriously considering being Unsettled somewhere else in the world in 2018!
If you are interested in being Unsettled make sure to tell them that The Boutique Adventurer sent you as you will receive a discount of USD$150. Click here to find out more about Unsettled.
16. Take Some Day Trips
Guatape is the number one day trip from Medellin for good reason. It earns its own dedicated blog post – you can read all about Piedra El Penon and Guatape here.
The other very popular day trip is Saint Elena which is the base of the Medellin flower industry and best visited in July leading up to Feria de las Flores.
Due to the windy and mountainous roads around Medellin most other nearby towns require an overnight stay
17. Drink coffee in Medellin
Read all about the best places to have coffee in Medellin here. If you are in a rush my favourites were in El Poblado and across the road from each other on Carrera 37: Pergamino and Velvet.
Where are the best places to eat in Medellin?
Read all about the best places to eat in Medellin here. If you are in a rush my number one recommendations are Al Alma for brunch, Oci for dinner and Crepes and Waffles for dessert!
18. Visit Food Markets
There are two particularly great food markets in Medellin. One is a small farmers market that is in El Poblado on Sundays. This market features local producers and covers fruit, honey, preserves etc etc – a mix of food you can eat on the spot plus things to take home.
Mercado del Rio is a fantastic market in the centre of the city that has at least 50 odd restaurant stalls, a wine bar, more formal restaurants upstairs and everything you could ever want to eat! The market covers every cuisine as well as doing its own tasty and upmarket versions of traditional Colombian food like Arepas. Their ice cream and popsicle stalls alone justify a visit!
As you can see when it comes to What to Do in Medellin the list is long! I spent a month in Colombia and was based in Medellin – I would definitely recommend spending the most time on a trip to Colombia in Medellin – ideally 5 days. There are so many things to do and areas to visit that even then you will only get a taste of this energetic and innovative city.