If you’ve ever watched ‘Narcos’, you might have some pre-conceptions about Medellin. But it’s time to drop them. The dangerous, drug-fueled city of the 1980s is a reformed character. These days, Colombia’s second-largest city is a lively, vibrant, and, more importantly, safe place that’s shaken off its infamous past to emerge as one of South America’s hottest destinations. Whether you’re into cafe culture, shopping, museums, or art, you’ll find no shortage of amusements to keep you busy from dawn to dusk. Your only problem might be jamming them all into one trip. If you’re on a tight schedule and need help picking out the unmissable from the so-so, check out our lineup of the 20 best things to do in Medellin for first-timers.
20. Take a Spanish class
If you want to come back from your trip with more than just a tan and a souvenir, why not using your vacation as an opportunity to pick up a new skill? The city offers numerous places to brush up on your Spanish, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how cheap the classes are. Goatsontheroad.com recommends the Toucan Spanish School as one of the best schools in the city, but if you’d rather go your own way, a quick google search should throw up no end of options.
19. Jump on the Escaleras Electricas De La Comuna 13
An elevator might seem an odd addition to a list of the best things to do in Medellin, but trust us, the Escaleras Electricas De La Comuna 13 are no ordinary elevators. While the locals rely on the elevators as a convenient way of getting through the hills, for tourists, they’re an attraction in their own right. The views as you travel up to the top are extraordinary, as are the numerous murals and artworks that stud the walls. And don’t feel obliged to do the entire ride in one go, either – stopping off for a refreshing fruit lolly or a wander around the shops on the different levels is all part of the fun. If you want to throw in a bit of history, book a guide to accompany you – they’re readily available, affordable, and a great way to learn a little more about the significance of the elevators in Medellin’s past. As a way to spend a lazy afternoon, it’s the perfect experience.
18. Enjoy the view from Envy
Envy is a rooftop bar that sits atop the Charlee Hotel. It does a fine line in gin and tonics, by all accounts, but that’s not the reason you need to visit. Thanks to its elevated position, it offers some of the best views of the city you’re likely to find anywhere else. Although things start to get livelier later on in the evening, time your visit for dusk to enjoy the sight of the sun setting over the mountains. There’s also a DJ, salsa dancing, and an aquarium style pool to enjoy once you’ve had your fill of the view. If you fancy a morning visit, the brunch menu is said to be epic.
17. Visit Museo de Arte Moderno
If modern art is your cup of tea, a visit to Medellin’s Museo de Arte Moderno is going to be unmissable. The collection isn’t vast by any means, but while it may be small, it’s also exquisite. The photography on the bottom floor of the museum is worth an hour of anyone’s time, while the permanent exhibitions of the works of such celebrated local artists as Débora Arango are extraordinary. You’re free to wander independently but it’s worth taking a tour if you want to learn a little more about the pieces on display. If you time your visit right, you might even get the chance to grab a movie at the museum’s charming little cinema.
16. Soak up the coffee culture
Colombian coffee is among the best in the world, so where better to treat yourself to a cup of joe? Take the advice of onegirlwholeworld.com and make it your mission to try as many of the local coffee shops as you can. You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to places to try, but one shop in particular that seems to get no end of people raving is Pergamino. As well as sourcing their coffee beans from their own farms, they make a fresh roast three times a week to guarantee the freshest, tastiest brew. The scones are meant to be pretty legendary, too.
15. Take a day trip to Guatapé
In fairness, there’s enough to do in Medellin itself to keep you from ever getting bored. But if you want to pack at least one day trip into your visit, jump on the bus to Guatapé. Located within an easy two-hour ride from the city, Guatapé is a popular getaway for Medellin’s locals. Little wonder. Famed for its charmingly colorful houses, its plethora of restaurants, shops, and bars, and, of course, the endless opportunities for water-based fun at the nearby Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir, this is a resort town that was clearly designed with rest and relaxation in mind.
14. Check out Feria de las Flores
If you’re lucky enough to visit Medellin in the first two weeks of August, you’re in for a treat. Every year, the city plays host to the Feria de las Flores, a ten-day flower festival that represents one of the most important traditions in Medellin’s social calendar. With a pageant, horse parades, and music concerts, the jubilant, fun-packed celebration offers a unique opportunity to experience some authentic local culture. Miss it at your peril.
13. Explore the mountains
If you’re brave enough to leave the comforts of the city and head out for an adventure, you’ll find plenty of great places to experience nature in the mountains flanking the city. With lush jungle, tumbling waterfalls, panoramic views over the city, and more butterflies than there are people, it’s a little slice of real-life paradise. Just bear in mind that as the hiking trails aren’t particularly well marked, it’s best to join a hiking group rather than attempt it alone.
12. Take a walking tour of the downtown
Medellin might not be the scary city it used to be, but there’s still a couple of areas that can feel a little too old-school for comfort. Until you get your bearings, you might feel more comfortable being accompanied by someone who knows exactly which streets are worth exploring, and which ones are best steered clear of. Desktodirtbag.com recommends you get around the problem by jumping on a downtown walking tour. Offered by Real City Tours, the tours are free of charge, but donations are welcomed.
11. Watch a soccer match
If there’s one thing every good Colombian loves, it’s soccer. Whether you’re usually a fan or not, try to squeeze at least one match in while you’re here… even if you were indifferent before, the atmosphere and the excitement are both so infectious, you’ll leave a convert. Ticket prices are more than reasonable (expect to pay around $12.50 for entry) and with 2 local teams (Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín) to choose between, you won’t have to worry about missing a match day.
10. Visit Museo de Antioquia
If you’re intrigued by the work of Fernando Botero, don’t miss a visit to Museo de Antioquia. The museum is packed with some of the most famous examples of his work, including his legendary painting of the death of Pablo Escobar. The exhibits from other local artists are worth checking out as well.
9. Take a stroll at Jardín Botánico
Medellin is a BIG city. It’s got hustle, it’s got bustle, and it’s got people. A LOT of people. And while that’s great most of the time, sometimes, it’s going to feel a little much. Sometimes, you’re going to want something a little more relaxing. A little quieter. When those moments strike, beat a retreat to Jardín Botánico. Spread over 14 hectares and boasting more species of flora and fauna than we can list, it’s the perfect place to enjoy some nature and relax.
8. Visit El Castillo Museo y Jardines
Did you know that Medellin has a castle? Don’t worry if you didn’t; even some locals aren’t aware of its existence. Medellin’s best-kept secret is set in the El Poblado district of the city. Constructed in 1930 by the architect Nel Rodrígue, the design of El Castillo Museo y Jardines was inspired by the castles of the Loire Valley in France. Spread over several floors and offering some very interesting exhibitions of stained glass, antiques, paintings, and sculptures, a tour of this criminally overlooked attraction is well worth the entrance fee. If you’ve got time to squeeze in a wander around the gorgeously landscaped gardens as well, so much the better.
7. Explore Parque Lleras
No visit to Medellin is complete without checking out Parque Lleras. Set in the heart of the Poblado area, the park is pleasant enough in the day but it’s at night that it really comes into its own. Packed with street vendors, food stalls, bars, clubs, restaurants, and street performers, it’s one of the best places in the city to kick back and soak up some local flavor. If you’re in the mood for something alcoholic, take misstourist.com’s advice and pop into one of the bars to sample the regional favorite spirit, anise-flavored Aguardiente. If you’d rather keep your wits about you, a coffee from Pergamino or Café Velvet comes highly recommended.
6. Take a salsa class
Fancy learning a new skill while you’re on vacation? Then why not give salsa dancing a whirl? The city is packed with places where you can take a few classes, either as part of a group or one-on-one, depending on your preference (and your budget, of course). After you’ve finished, head to one of Medellin’s many salsa bars to show off what you’ve learned.
5. Paraglide over the city
If you want to combine a major adrenaline rush with some top views, take the advice of theunconventionalroute.com and book a paragliding experience. The exhilarating rush of flying through the air is one thing, but the stunning sight of the city sprawled below is likely to get your heart racing just as much. A quick internet search will turn up numerous professional operators offering the experience, most of whom are unbelievably reasonable when it comes to pricing – expect to pay around $45 or less.
4. Check out the lights at Plaza Cisneros
Medellin isn’t exactly short on plazas, but Plaza Cisneros is a plaza with a difference. Named after the Cuban engineer Francisco Javier Cisneros, it’s home to a small forest of 300, 24-meter-high light poles. At night, the sight of the glowing forest is the kind of spectacle you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry.
3. Tour Museum Pablo Escobar
If you’ve done any prior research into Medellin, you’re likely to have run into the name Pablo Escobar more than once. The leader of the Medellín Cartel earned the nickname “The King of Cocaine” when his monopolization of the cocaine trade into the US during the 1980s and 1990s led to him becoming the richest criminal in history. By the time of his death in 1993, he was believed to be worth the equivalent of $59 billion USD. If you’re intrigued enough by his life story to want to learn more, a visit to the Museum Pablo Escobar comes highly recommended. Set in what once Escobar’s private family home, the museum offers a wealth of photos, personal possessions, and other exhibits that chronicle his life and story.
2. People-watch at Plaza Botero
If you like people-watching, take The Crazy Tourist’s advice and head to Plaza Botero. Studded with 23 bronze statues donated by the square’s namesake, Fernando Botero, and packed with street vendors, performers, and souvenir stalls, it’s a great place to kick back with a coffee and an empanada and watch the people go by.
1. Hike up to Parque Arvi
Parque Arvi is a mammoth sprawl of parkland that sits in the hills just east of the city. If you want to stretch your legs and fit a bit of healthy exercise into your trip, pull on your walking boots and hike up. The views from the top make the climb more than worthwhile, as does the panorama of Medellin offered from the midway point at Cerro Pan de Azuca. If you can’t face walking back, follow the advice of theunconventionalroute.com by jumping on one of Medellin’s famous urban gondolas.