The spotlight has recently focused on Medellin, Colombia for two contrasting reasons. First off, Netflix’s series “Narcos” revealed the monstrosity of Pablo Escobar and his impact on Medellin in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. During those years Medellin was the homicide capital of the world, which is why people shudder when they hear of their friends or family planning a trip to Colombia. However, Medellin’s transformation is the other reason the city has been in the spotlight recently. In 2013, Medellin was named the most innovative city in the world by the non-profit Urban Land Institute.
Access to public transportation, lush green spaces, and innovative social programs have made Medellin not only a great city to live in, but an impressive place to travel to. Paisas, or locals to Medellin, are relaxed, carefree people whose attitude is contagious. Medellin is full of tourist attractions but the main appeal is the energetic, carefree vibe found all around the city. If you’re planning a trip to South America, the city of the eternal spring should be at the top of your list.
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How to get to Medellin
One reason tourism in Medellin is taking off is because of how affordable budget airlines have made traveling to the city. Spirit and Jetblue are two airlines that have connecting flights in Fort Lauderdale and have shockingly low ticket prices. If you are traveling from Europe or Australia, Avianca, British Airways, or Ibería are the airlines that fly to Medellin. Viva Colombia is a national airline that has affordable domestic flights if you are arriving in Medellin from another place in Colombia.
The city’s main airport, Aeropuerto Internacional José María Cordova, is located about 35 km outside of Medellin in the neighboring city of Río Negro. There are a few different options to reach the city. The easiest but most expensive is to take a cab. This will cost around 60,000 COP but will get you exactly where you need to be. The cheaper option is to take the bus into San Diego mall or Hotel Nutribara, two central locations in the city. The bus costs 9,500 COP, but you’ll want to take a taxi to your destination once you get off the bus. If you are arriving late at night, I recommend taking a taxi directly to your destination.
What to expect in Medellin
Paisas have a very distinct Spanish accent that can take a bit of time to get accustomed to. Even though Medellin is rapidly modernizing, English isn’t as widespread as other major Latin American cities. If you plan on spending most of your time in Poblado, you will find more English speakers than other neighborhoods in the city. Because of the number of tourists and backpackers in the city, you won’t have trouble meeting other people to speak English with. If you are spending longer than a few weeks in the city, I recommend taking Spanish classes in Medellin. You’ll feel much more confident in Medellin but also make some new friends who are in the same boat as you.
The currency of Colombia is the Colombian Peso, abbreviated COP. You won’t have any trouble finding a place to exchange money, but I would recommend avoiding doing so on the street and instead visit an official casa de cambio or exchange house. One of the easiest ways to get Colombian pesos is withdrawing from an ATM with an international debit or credit card. I recommend visiting your bank before you head to Medellin to become familiar with international withdrawal and transaction fees. Credit cards are widely accepted, and if you have minimal fees it may be more effective to use your card then pay with cash.
Tipping is not very widely practiced in Medellin. At more expensive sit-down restaurants your server will ask if you would like to include a service charge to your bill. This is the most common form of tipping. If your server asks and you decline, you are expected to leave your own tip. Unless you are staying at a luxury hotel, you don’t need to worry about tipping in Medellin.
Locals from Medellin go out of their way to assure travelers that the city is nowhere near as dangerous as it was during the years of Pablo Escobar. In fact, you should avoid mentioning the Netflix series unless you want to hear a rant about how unfair and unrealistic the portrayal of Medellin is. Paisas are some of the friendliest, happiest people you’ll encounter abroad. That being said, there are still areas of the city that you should approach with caution.
The city center is an incredible place to visit during the day, but you should really avoid it once the sun goes down. The same thing could be said for the city’s comunas. Unless you are walking around alone at night, you shouldn’t have trouble in other areas of the city. A common phrase in Medellin is “No dar papaya”, which is a recommendation to avoid blatant demonstrations of wealth in public places, or drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. The more you try to blend in, the less likely you are to endure any trouble.
How to get around Medellin
Public transportation is a constant source of complaint and confusion in most cities. In Medellin, it’s quite the opposite. Locals take pride in their metro, which is why it’s hard to spot rubbish on the floor or graffiti on any sort of public transportation structure. The most convenient way to get around Medellin is by using the metro. Each metro station has maps to orient travelers and police officers to ensure safety.
If you’re confused, you can approach a police officer or an attendant selling tickets to ask for directions. One major reason that Medellin was named “Most Innovative City in the World” is due to its integration of cable cars into the public transportation system. The gondola-like metro lines allowed for marginalized citizens living on top of the city’s hills to access jobs and civic programming in the city center. The cable car metro lines are also a popular tourist attraction in Medellin, Colombia. Because the city is in a massive valley, the cable cars provide a stunning panoramic view. If you are planning to visit Parque Arví, the cable car is the best way to arrive.
For more efficient mobility, I recommend using Uber. The prices are typically cheaper than the standard cabs, and you won’t have to worry about getting overcharged or dropped off at the wrong location. If you are planning day trips, you’ll need to get to one if the city’s two bus terminals. The North Terminal can be accessed via the metro, but you’ll want to take a taxi or Uber in order to access the Southern Terminal. Be sure to do some research ahead of time in order to make sure you arrive at the correct terminal. There are busses in the city as well, which is the cheapest way to get around. They can be difficult and intimidating to navigate, but all of the routes are on google maps. Technology makes navigation in Medellin simple. Use it!
The best time to visit Medellin
Medellin’s nickname “The City of the Eternal Spring” is a testament to the gorgeous weather that the city enjoys year round. If you’re ever wondering what to do in Medellin, go enjoy the beautiful weather in one of the city’s parks. For this reason, there really isn’t a bad time to visit. January, February, and March are peak tourism times, which can be a blessing or a curse.
If you really want to save money, the best time to visit is during the months of May or November. The Fería de la Flores or Flower Fair is the city’s largest spectacle and is held during the last week of July and the first week of August. While the experience is one of the certainly unique, it can make finding accommodation difficult.
Things to do in Medellin
There is constant debate about which city in Colombia is the best to go out in. Nightlife in Medellin is fun, to say the least, and you will never have trouble finding a real party. One of the main things to do in Medellin at night is dance. While the younger generation prefers dancing to reggaeton, salsa is still king of Medellin. The two most popular spots for dancing are El Tíbiri and Son Havana, both of which are located near La 70.
Son Havana has free classes every Wednesday and Thursday night at 7:30. Taking a free class here is a great way to begin the evening and gain some confidence in your salsa skills. If you really want to take your dancing to the next level, I recommend taking classes at Dancefree in Poblado. They offer a handful of different class options, even if you only want to take one or two classes.
Free Walking Tour
The Real City Tour has recently become one of the most popular things to do in Medellin. The tour is free, but your tour guides will ask for a monetary contribution at the end of your exploration in the city center. However, this tour is well worth the pesos you’ll pay. You’ll spend around 4 hours with a local hearing all of the ins and outs of Medellin’s historical transformation and visit sites where historical events took place.
The tour is educational and engaging and made my time in Medellin much more enjoyable because I had a contextual understanding of the city. I also received awesome recommendations on foods to try, bars to go to, and other places in the city to visit. This free walking tour was better than any other that I’ve done.
Understand the Real Story of Pablo Escobar
If “Narcos” was your main catalyst in coming to visit Medellin, it’s best to keep that information to yourself. As you can imagine, Pablo Escobar isn’t revered in this city. Pablo Escobar tours are controversial and looked down upon by locals. That being said, the story is one that deserves to be told in order to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again.
Pablo Escobar tours visit different places of significance, like Pablo’s prison, his tomb, and the place where he was killed. Visiting the sites is interesting, but the most important part of the tour is learning about the havoc he put Medellin through. If you are going to do a tour, I recommend making sure it is educational instead of entertaining.
Learn about Transformation in the Comunas
The comunas of Medellin are where real economic and social innovation has taken place in the city. Santo Domingo is one neighborhood that has changed drastically in recent years. Visiting this neighborhood independently is recommended only during the day. It’s also a great opportunity to use the cable cars! The most popular comuna to visit is comuna 13 or San Javier. This neighborhood was the most dangerous neighborhood in the world at one point because of it’s easy access to the main highway outside of the city.
Gang and paramilitary activity was a part of everyday life. Now, instead of violence, the comuna is full of street art, specifically graffiti and hip-hop. Travelers come to the neighborhood to experience the art, but also to hear the story behind the transformation of the neighborhood. You won’t have any trouble finding a tour of this area, as many different companies around town offer different sorts of tours. Visiting a comuna is a must-do for anyone spending a few days in Medellin.
Take Spanish Classes
Medellin is one of those places that people get caught in. It’s regarded as the best city for Digital Nomads in South America, which is why you’ll meet foreigners who have lived in the city for an extended period of time. It’s an affordable place to work remotely, but also an incredible place to have an authentic Latin American experience. For this reason, the city has a handful of Spanish schools.
Elefun, Toucan, and Blink are the most popular Spanish schools in the city. They accommodate to all levels and are flexible to the amount of time that you want to learn. Taking Spanish classes is a great way to begin your time in Latin America. After a few hours of instruction, you will feel much more confident in your communication skills and have a better idea of how to continue learning on your own.
Go to a Football Match
Medellin has two football teams, Atletico Nacional and Independiente Medellin. The two teams share not only a competitive rivalry but also a stadium near La 70. Going to a football game in Medellin really allows for you to feel the energy of the city. The fans only stop chanting to celebrate a goal. If you take the metro to the Estadio metro station you can buy tickets for any game.
If you want to take part in some pre-game festivities, make sure you head to the correct area for each respective team. Atletico Nacional has claimed La 70 and Independiente fans prepare for games north of the stadium on Avenida Colombia. Even if football isn’t your cup of tea, going to a game is an entertaining way to spend an evening in Medellin.
Paraglide at San Felix
If you want to get your adrenaline pumping, I recommend paragliding in San Felix. San Felix lies a bit north of the city and can be accessed via taxi or bus. If you want to save money, I recommend going by bus. You will want to go to the Northern Bus Terminal and buy a ticket to San Felix from Expreso Belmira at ticket office 11. I recommend reserving a flight time in advance so that you don’t have to wait at the top of the hill for long. Once you take off, you will have an awesome bird’s eye view of the city.
Medellin is located in the dense jungle of the rolling Andes mountains. The flora and fauna found around the city is enchanting, but there are also plenty of cool places to hike just outside the city. El Salado Ecological Park has a hike for everyone. There are short walks around the park and multi-day treks that pass through coffee plantations.
The entrance to the park is only about 5 minutes away from the southern part of Medellin, Envigado. Arenales is another option just south of the city. Once you get off the bus, you will have the option to hike towards Pablo Escobar’s self-constructed prison, La Catedral, or hike to a massive waterfall. No matter which hike you decide to go on, you’ll feel like an explorer navigating a tropical rain forest.
Places to visit in Medellin
Explore El Centro
The city center of Medellin has enough to keep you busy for a few days. The two main things to do here are learning about Medellin’s history and shopping. If you decide to do the free walking tour, you’ll visit two of the city’s most popular parks, Parque Berrio and Plaza Botero. Parque Berrio is full of life. You’ll find men and women singing, gambling, and trying to sell anything they can. Plaza Botero is similar, except for the many Botero statues that loom around the park. Parque de las Luces is another park that is surrounded by important historical and political buildings.
If you want to find cheap, knock-off clothes, El Hueco is just the place for you. Just simply walking around in this commercial area is a treat. You’ll see just about anything you could imagine, and then a few things that will make you go “huh?” In order to reach the center of the city, you’ll want to take the metro to San Antonio. El Centro of Medellin is full of people, so you’ll feel quite safe during the day. Visiting at night is a different story. Unless you are hanging out with a trustworthy local, I wouldn’t recommend visiting the city center at night.
La 70 or la setenta is one of the liveliest streets of Medellin. If you get off the metro at the Estadio metro station, you’re in the perfect spot. Start walking south and for the next 2 kilometers, you will be surrounded by cafés, bars, restaurants, clubs, and boutique shops. There are also plenty of street food vendors where you can sample some of Medellin’s delicacies. La 70 is a great place to go out in Medellin because there are simply too many options for a good time. If you are looking for a central location to stay in the city, I highly recommend finding accommodation near La 70.
Museum of Memory
There is no better place to learn about the recent history of Medellin than the Museum of Memory. The museum was finished in 2012 as space for conflict victims’ families to collect their memories and educate future generations on what happened in Medellin during the violent times. The goal is to “remember so to not repeat”. The museum is a powerful experience, however, most of the exhibits are only in Spanish. If you don’t speak to well, you have two options that make everything accessible. First, there are tour guides for hire at the door. Second, you can download an app that provides an English audio guide.
Massive open-air markets are what make shopping in Latin America special. You can spend hours wandering around, sampling new fruits, and getting a feel for the local vibe of the city you are visiting. All of this definitely rings true for Miniorista Market, the largest open-air market in Medellin.
While travelers come to the market for an overwhelming sensory experience, locals come for the bargain. It’s the cheapest place to buy food in the city, especially if you know how to haggle. If you are planning a longer stay in the city and want to save some money on food, be sure to come to Miniorista for your shopping needs. Even if you don’t need to buy much food, come and try one of the many small restaurants located inside the market.
Going to Parque Arví presents the best opportunity to take the cable car in Medellin. In order to arrive, you’ll have to take the cable car from Acevedo over the mountain and to the park. Arriving in this manner allows for a stunning view of Medellin. Once you arrive at the park, there are a few different options for things to do.
Most people come to hike. You can do a guided hiking tour, which will allow for you to see much more of the park, or hike on one of the trails that don’t require a guide. One of my favorite attractions in Parque Arví is the Comfama. The Comfama has three different ropes courses for those seeking an adrenaline rush with their visit to the park. You’ll spend a few hours on zip lines, rope bridges, and other fun, challenging elements. If the Comfama isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other things to see and do in Parque Arví.
Parque Lleras has recently become the center of Medellin tourist attractions. It’s a great place to meet up with friends, meet new people, or start a night out in Medellin. Parque Lleras is the place to be for nightlife in Medellin’s high-class neighborhood Poblado. The park is surrounded by blocks of fancy restaurants, bars, clubs, discotecas, and liquor stores. Parque Lleras never sleeps. It’s also a nice place to visit during the day when artisans set up stands around the park’s exterior. There are many different accommodation options near the park as well. I recommend staying near if going out is one of the main things on your Medellin to do list.
Whenever I needed some time to relax and escape the city, the Botanical Gardens were the place I would go. First, the entrance is free. Second, there are over 1,000 different species of flora and fauna to see. Third, it’s a really good place to spend time with friends. You can walk around and see all the gardens have to offer, or you can simply bring a blanket and spend the afternoon sprawled out on the grass. Be sure to visit the famous Orquideorama, one of the architectural marvels of the city that is located inside of the Botanical Gardens.
If you want to feel like a kid again, come to Parque Explora. This science museum is full of interactive exhibits that entertain people of all ages. The museum is located right next to the Botanical Gardens, allowing you to spend your day balancing time outside and inside. The building is a spectacle in and of itself here. Visiting a science museum may not be your top priority when visiting Medellin, but I promise that this museum does not disappoint! You’ll be recommending it to all of the other travelers you meet in the city!
An incredible view is something that a lot of different places in Medellin can boast, but there is none better than Pueblito Paisa. Pueblito Paisa is located right in the center of Medellin on top of a massive hill, which provides a panoramic view of the entire city. At night, the lights of the city give the place a magical feel. Pueblito Paisa is a representation of a traditional Antioquian pueblo. There are vendors selling souvenirs and traditional Colombian foods. I recommend trying an oblea, a sort of Colombian wafer, here. You can arrive by walking up the hill from the Industriales metro station or simply taking an Uber or taxi. Don’t worry. Every driver in Medellin knows how to get to Pueblito Paisa.
What to eat in Medellin
Colombia may not be regarded as the premier culinary destination. However, Colombian food is very affordable. Almost every single restaurant will offer a menú del día or “menu of the day”, which costs anywhere from 6,000 COP to 12,000 COP. The meal typically consists of juice, soup, rice, beans, roasted vegetables, and grilled meat. This is the most typical meal in Medellin and is the best way to save money when traveling in Medellin.
If you want a challenge, try and eat an entire bandeja paisa to yourself. Bandeja paisa is the traditional dish of Medellin and consists of ground beef, chorizo, chicharrón, friend plantain, beans, rice, avocado, and an arepa. The dish can easily feed two people, which is why I recommend sharing your first one. You can’t leave Medellin without having tried this popular dish. Paisas also love their thick, hearty stews.
Two that they love are Ajiaco and Mondongo. Ajiaco is made with chicken, three different types of potatoes, and a collection of Colombian herbs. Mondongo, on the other hand, is a stew made with many different things. Tripe is the essential ingredient, but you’ll also find chorizo, pork, corn, potatoes, onions, yuca, and a handful of different herbs and spices.
It seems like people are always snacking in Colombia. There are so many different street foods and street snacks to try. When you first start walking around Medellin, you won’t miss all of the vendors selling delicious smelling treats. The most popular of snacks is the empanada, a deep-fried pastry stuffed with meat, rice, beans, cheese, or whatever the vendor decided to throw in. It’s common to see people gathered around an empanada, chatting, and jostling in position for the special sauces that accompany empanadas.
Other common street snacks in Colombia are arepas de choclo, buñuelos, and pan de bono. These snacks are delicious alone, but what really makes their flavor come alive is Colombia’s most popular export, coffee. Coffee is served just about everywhere in Colombia. There are artisanal cafés which serve up the country’s best, but also vendors who carry around a thermos and sell a daily brew. Tinto is the word that locals use to order black coffee and then proceed to put in an unhealthy amount of sugar. I love coffee, which is one of the reasons I feel at home in Colombia.
Where to stay in Medellin
My favorite place to stay in Medellin is in the Laureles/ Estadio neighborhood. It’s located in the center of the city, and the metro is very accessible. The neighborhood has a much more local feel and due to it’s flat nature, is much easier to walk around in. I recommend trying to stay near La 70 or Segunda Parque de Laureles. Both of these places have so many different things to offer! The Wandering Paisa is a great hostel for backpackers that is just a few blocks away from La 70. Inntu Hotel is the place that I recommend for those with a bit more to spend on accommodation. This hotel is a high-rise that has a great view of the city and a rooftop terrace for everyone to enjoy.
El Poblado is the place where everyone will recommend you to stay. It’s definitely the high-class area of Medellin, which is not hard to miss. There are skyscrapers on just about every corner, but also world-class restaurants where you can eat food from all corners of the world. Poblado is built on the hillside, which makes walking around the neighborhood a bit difficult. During the day though, chances are you’ll be exploring different areas of the city. At night, Poblado is the place to be.
Parque Lleras is the nightlife capital of the city, which is where you should try and stay. Selina Hostel is located a few blocks away but is becoming the most popular place to stay in the city. It’s massive and has a coworking space for digital nomads to use. Instead of recommending a hotel in Poblado, I would recommend checking out Airbnb. You’ll be surprised by the number of incredible properties available within your budget. Medellin is a modern city, and Airbnb is a testament to that.
If you want to be located near a handful of tourist attractions in Medellin, I recommend staying in the center of Medellin. This neighborhood is bustling during the day but becomes much quieter in the evening. It has a reputation for being dangerous, which is probably why accomodation is much more affordable in this area of Medellin. At night, simply plan on taking taxis to get places and you will have no trouble. Raíz Hostel is set in an older house, which adds to the charm of the place.
It’s located right next to the tranvía, which makes it easy to access the metro and other cool parts of the city. The famous Hotel Nutibara is where I recommend staying in the city center if you want to avoid a hostel. This hotel has a rich history to it, but also has a shuttle that leaves directly to the airport for cheap. It also has arguably the best location of any hotel in the city and was the first subterranean wine cave in Medellin.
If you’re planning to stay in Medellin for a while, Envigado might just be the place for you. It was once a suburb of Medellin, but now is engulfed in the urban sprawl of the city. It also has a few metro stations, which makes it feel even more a part of the city. Nature geeks will also really love Envigado because of how accessible different parks and hiking trails are.
There is really something for everybody in this little corner of the city. For backpackers, I recommend Ivy Hostel. The place has a stellar location between Envigado and Poblado and an awesome staff that will help you feel at home in the area. Portales del Campestre has a rural feel to it, even though the hotel is located in the city. I recommend it for those who are looking for a place to escape the chaos of Medellin.
Tours to do in Medellin
Medellin is surrounded by massive coffee plantations. If you’ve never been to a farm, I highly recommend it. It’s an interactive way to learn how coffee is produced. Colombia is regarded as the best coffee-growing country in the world, and chances are you’ll be able to sample coffee from the farm that you visit.
There are plenty of options for Pablo Escobar tours, but most of them visit the same sites. The Catedral, or Pablo Escobar’s prison, is one of the places where groups visit. Another popular place to visit is Pablo’s tombstone. Make sure that you are reverent during the tour and are not glorifying the man who was responsible for thousands of deaths in Medellin.
Medellin is famous for its incredible street art. I always recommend doing a street art tour because it shifts your perspective of the city. I always have a deeper appreciation for street art after the tour, and I’ll also notice beautiful art on my walks around the city. This tour in Medellin explains some of the most popular pieces in the city. It’s a great way to experience Medellin with a local.
Day trips from Medellin
Guatapé is the most popular place to visit outside of Medellin. There is a massive rock, El Peñol, that you can climb for an incredible view of the man-made lake. My favorite thing to do is rent a motorcycle and explore the area. There are a few small villages to stop in and also some breathtaking waterfalls to relax by. The town of Guatapé is charming and full of great places to eat. I recommend trying trout wherever you go eat! It’s a local delicacy.
Jericó is my favorite city in Colombia. It’s a very Catholic city, boasting over 20 churches and it’s very own saint. The city is set on the mountainside and is surrounded by coffee farms. It’s an easy walk from one side of town to the other, which makes it easy to explore the rivers and waterfalls surrounding the city. Jericó may be small, but there are plenty of things to do to keep you busy. I’ve never visited a place as charming as Jericó.
Jardín and Jericó share a rivarly over the best coffee village in Antioquia. I prefer Jericó, but Jardín is also a very magical place. Jardín has more tourism and is better suited for adventure travelers. There are a few tour agencies in town that run hikes and mountain biking trips. Like Jericó, the central plaza is an awesome place to drink coffee and interact with locals. Jardín is another one of those places that you’ll never want to leave.
Santa Fe de Antioquia
Santa Fe de Antioquia is the place that people from Medellin go to in order to escape the city. There really isn’t much to do here besides relax and enjoy colonial architecture. This is the nearest little pueblo near Medellin and I recommend visiting to get a feel for small, traditional Antioquian villages.
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Recommend budget tours in Medellin
- Private Half-Day Pablo Escobar Godfather Tour in Medellin
- Private Day Tour of Jardín with Horseback Ride and Coffee Villa from Medellin
- Full-Day Guatapé (Pueblo de Zocalos) from Medellín
- Jardín Day Trip: Colombian Coffee and Sightseeing Tour from Medellín
- Medellin City Private Tour
- Medellín ATV Tour
- Medellín Street Art Tour
- Santa Elena Day Trip: Silleteros and Flower Farm Cultural Tour
- Coffee Plantation and Jardín City Day-Tour
- Medellín Museums Tour
- Medellín Food Tour
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