9 awesome things to do in Medellín, Colombia’s most innovative city
In 1988, Time Magazine wrote an article titled “Welcome to Medellin, coke capital of the world”, which dubbed Colombia’s second largest city the most dangerous place on earth, a city whose every move (and whose every politician) was seemingly controlled by the cartel. Government officials were assassinated with alarming frequency, bodies lay in the streets from the thousands of people murdered annually, and amidst it all, the far-left guerrilla group FARC ripped the country to literal shreds in a bid to gain political power. While that article is definitely worth a read, it’s important to understand that it paints a picture of a wildly different Medellín than what exists today.
Present day Medellín is the most vibrant and culturally rich city in Colombia, and perhaps nothing highlights its remarkable transformation better than, just 25 years after being called the “world’s most dangerous city”, being awarded the title of “world’s most innovative city” by the Urban Land Institute and Wall Street Journal. It’s an accolade hard earned but very well deserved.
Medellín still bears some scars from its turbulent past (and most paisas, or Medellín locals, refuse to even say the name Pablo Escobar), but the city has undoubtedly evolved, now leading the entire continent with its safe and accessible public transport system and the countless social projects designed to support its citizens.
Modern day Medellín (pronounced med-uh-JEAN, where the last syllable has a soft “j” sound like “beige”) is beloved by travellers for its world-leading social development, burgeoning art scene, thriving digital nomad culture, and “eternal spring” weather— what really makes the city special, though, is its incredible resilience and the determined paisas who made such an astounding resurrection possible. Bottom line: if you want to understand Colombia, past and present, there is no better place. This post contains absolutely everything you need to know about visiting Medellín, including what to do in Medellín, where to stay, how to get around, and more!
1 | Ride the Medellín Metrocable
Two of Medellín’s most notable features are the cable cars ascending into the hills in the city’s northeast and northwest, quickly and inexpensively connecting residents in even the poorest barrios to the rest of the city. These cable cars have effectively reduced commutes for locals from several hours down to just several minutes and really iconify the social change Medellín has been able to achieve through urban development.
Exploring some of these barrios is an excellent way to discover Medellín through the eyes of the locals, not to mention that the cable car delivers some of the city’s most spectacular aerial views!
Best of all, it’s insanely easy to catch a ride on one of Medellín’s cable cars, as both stations are conveniently connected to the train line and, as part of the Metro system, you can transfer directly from the train to the cable car on the same 2,550COP ($1AUD) ticket!
From Acevedo Station, you can ride the cable car to Santo Domingo and onwards to Parque Arví, which is another excellent place explore, or from San Javier Station (near Comuna 13), you can ride up to La Aurora. To plan your excursion, check out a map of Medellín’s Metro network, including the trains and cable cars, in the Getting around Medellín section of this post.
2 | Comuna 13
Formerly the most dangerous barrio in Medellín, Comuna 13 is now one of the city’s top attractions, a symbol of how far things have come in the years since gangs and drug lords ruled the streets.
Now, vibrant art covers nearly every surface of the neighbourhood, local dance troupes perform for onlookers, an enormous series of escalators improve accessibility between the barrio and the rest of the city— and perhaps most importantly of all, travellers frequent Comuna 13 on walking tours, gaining an understanding of what happened here.
Educating yourself about the darkest moments in a city’s history can sometimes feel morbid, but this kind of social and cultural awareness is also so important when we travel. I don’t think you can really claim to have seen Medellín if you haven’t learned about its storied past, and you certainly can’t appreciate its incredible progress if you don’t know where its people have been.
You can absolutely visit Comuna 13 on your own for no more than the cost of a metro ticket (2,550COP), but I’d strongly recommend opting for a guided tour instead. Not only is this the best way to learn about the neighbourhood’s transformation and the symbolism behind the most striking pieces of street art, it’s also an excellent way to support locals working hard to de-stigmatise their home.
There are heaps of tour options, but I’d personally recommend Zippy Tours, which departs from the San Javier Metro Station daily at 10am or 2pm. Although the tour is technically “free”, you should plan to tip around 20,000COP (less than $8AUD) per person. I promise it will be well worth it!
3 | Sip Colombian coffee
Colombia is the world’s 3rd largest coffee producer (following only Brazil and Vietnam in terms of export quantity), so it’s no surprise that trying some of the local café comes in high on the list of things to do here. True, Colombia’s so-called “Coffee Axis”, or Eje Cafeteria, may be the best region to sample coffee directly from local fincas, but Medellín still boasts a fabulous coffee scene of its own!
Unfortunately, not all coffee in Colombia is created equal, and paisas tend to drink tinto, which is about as bad as it gets. This usually means a small cup of watered-down instant-quality coffee that needs a lot of leche and azúcar to be drinkable. It’s sold by vendors all over the city and it’s an important staple of Medellín’s local coffee culture, but it’s not something I’d recommend to travellers, especially not when there are 100x better cups to be had in one of Medellín’s many cafes.
Particularly in the trendy neighbourhoods of El Poblado and Laureles, which are already heavily favoured by tourists, there are an incredible selection of cafes where you can sample (if not the country’s best, then certainly) some of the country’s better coffee. Some of the highest rated spots to check out:
- Desarolladores de Cafe (Carrera 35, El Poblado)
- Rituales (Avenida Nutibara & Circular 2, Laureles)
- Pergamino Café (Carrera 37, El Poblado)
4 | Admire the street art
From a city characterised by violence and poverty to one known for its innovation and social enterprising, Medellín has undergone an enormous transformation in the last few years, symbolised in large part by the art that now covers every inch of the city.
All of Medellín’s spectacular street art hasn’t just given the city an aesthetic improvement, though— it’s been a creative outlet for locals to share their stories and spread hope for a brighter future, as well as an incredibly effective way to engage at-risk youth in positive community programs. Rather than wagging school or initiating into gangs, young paisas are being encouraged to develop creative passions like painting or dance (there are even free programs that allow school children to learn English and French, which absolutely blows my mind), and this is how you should view art in Medellín: as a tool for powerful social change and unfiltered cultural expression.
You’ll see a lot of Medellín’s most impressive street art on a Comuna 13 tour (#2 on this list), but I’d really encourage you to either explore some of the barrios on your own or stay behind after your tour to experience this area and its art further. There are hundreds of murals lining the polychromatic streets, each with their own political, historical, or cultural significance, and you’re guaranteed to leave with a totally renewed respect for the transformative power of art.
5 | Day trip to Guatapé
Escape from the city bustle for a day to discover Guatapé, Colombia’s most colourful town, situated on the shores of a spectacular turquoise reservoir and framed by lush, rolling hills. From the jaw-dropping lake views atop La Piedra to the rainbow-coloured streets decorated with bas-relief zócalos, there is seriously so much to enjoy in this charming pueblo.
Best of all, Guatapé is an extremely easy day trip from Medellín, accessible on a quick public bus without the need to pay for a tour or private transport. Buses to Guatapé depart Medellín’s busy northern bus terminal (Terminal Norte), which is directly and very conveniently connected to the Caribe Metro Station.
From Terminal Norte, you can find the companies servicing Guatapé on the lower level (ticket counter 9 & 14). I travelled with Sotrasanvicente & Guatape La Piedra (counter 14), which departs for Guatapé every 20min from 6am to 7pm. Tickets cost 14,000COP ($5.50AUD) and the ride takes around 2hrs.
You can actually hop off the bus directly at the base of the stairs to La Piedra, a few minutes before reaching Guatapé town. Basically all the tourists on the bus will be doing this, so you certainly won’t miss it! I’d highly recommend making this your first stop and then catching a tuktuk into Guatapé pueblo to explore further. Read more about climbing La Piedra below, #6 on this list!
6 | La Piedra del Peñol
Guatapé is best known for its stunning and impossibly convoluted lake (actually a man-made reservoir) whose turquoise waters twist through the rolling hills and verdant forests of the Antioquian countryside.
In the 1970s, the Colombian government created this reservoir by flooding nearby lowlands, including the town of El Peñol, to create a renewable source of power. The Guatapé-El Peñol hydroelectric dam now provides an astounding 35% of Colombia’s electricity, proving once again that this country is leading the continent in terms of environmentally-friendly development.
The absolute best way to marvel at the view over Guatapé is atop La Piedra del Peñol (or simply La Piedra, “the rock”), a hulking 220-metre monolith said to be the 3rd largest rock in the entire world. You’ll have to climb nearly 700 steps to get to the top, but it’s a very short workout for a spectacular reward.
From where the bus drops you off, you need to hike about 5-10min uphill over a gravel trail and up a few stairs to reach the base of La Piedra. It’s a further 10-15min to climb all 659 stairs to the main viewing area atop La Piedra, but the view is certainly worth the effort! There’s even a little bar at the top serving snacks and cold drinks, so plan to grab a beer or salty mango michelada (local cocktail made from beer, lime, unripened mango, and a LOT of salt) and hang out for a while, enjoying Colombia’s “best view”.
7 | Fall in love with Fernando Botero
Just as Antoni Gaudí’s fantastical neo-Gothic architecture is synonymous with Barcelona, so are Fernando Botero’s voluptuous sculptures a significant (if somewhat curious) icon of Medellín.
In the words of former mayor Juan Gomez Martinez: “This is a city known around the world for all the wrong reasons, stigmatised for all the problems we have had, but now we have an opportunity to be known culturally, to have people think of us as the city of Botero.”
A born and bred paisa, Botero has donated hundreds of works to the city over the course of his artistic life, most notably 119 paintings and sculptures that are housed in the Museo de Antioquia and 23 enormous metal sculptures that are arranged outside the museum in Plaza Botero. Both are easily accessible from the Parque Berrío Metro Station; tickets to Museo de Antioquia are 18,000COP ($7AUD), but Plaza Botero has the benefit of being completely free.
Admire hulking metal sculptures of rather rotund women posing provocatively, strangely proportioned men riding horseback, and perhaps the most symbolic work of all, the so-called “Birds of Peace”. When Botero’s original chubby bird sculpture was torn apart by a FARC-detonated bomb that killed 30 and injured more than 200 people in 1995, he made an exact replica which now sits next to its damaged brother— a perfect symbol of Medellín, past and present.
8 | Paragliding
Leave the city behind for a day to soar above Medellín’s rolling hills and lush mountains— that’s right, parapente. Paragliding is one of my favourite adventure activities (although it’s far more peaceful than high-adrenaline), and coupled with the spectacular Antioquian scenery, it’s a can’t-miss experience in Medellín.
Paragliding flights in Medellín actually take off from nearby San Felix, which can be reached via bus departing from either Caribe Metro station (connected to Terminal Norte Bus Station) or Aurora Cable Car Station (accessible from the San Javier Metro Station); see the Metro map at the bottom of this post for more information.
There are a few companies operating in San Felix, including Paragliding Medellín; tandem flights start at 160,000COP ($62AUD), which is an excellent deal compared to paragliding in Europe or Australia. (Note that the photos below are actually from paragliding in San Gil, which I’d ALSO highly recommend if you don’t go up in Medellín!)
9 | Watch a fútbol match
Like most of Latin America, fútbol isn’t just a sport in Colombia— it’s a religion. That makes seeing a fútbol match (soccer, for my Aussie and American readers) one of the most intense, authentic experiences you can have in Medellín!
There are 2 fiercely competitive teams in Medellín, each with an absolutely fanatical following: Atlético Nacional (green team) and Independiente Medellín (red/blue team). Seeing either of them would be a true experience, although Atlético Nacional is the country’s most popular and successful team.
All matches are held in the massive 40,000-person-capacity Estadio Atanasio Girardot, which is easily accessible from the Estadio Metro Station (2,550COP / $1AUD) or from El Poblado in an Uber (15,000COP / $6AUD).
Matches typically occur on Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday and you can either get tickets online in advance or directly from the stadium for 10-100,000COP ($4-40AUD), depending on seats and who’s playing. That being said, it’s usually advisable not to sit in the hardcore fútbol section for your first game, so opt instead for the adjacent seats so you can experience the fanfare without the risk of getting caught up in a fight.
Getting to Medellín
Bogotá to Medellín
If you’re travelling from Bogotá to Medellín, you really have 2 options: bus or flight. Buses in Colombia are incredibly nice and inexpensive (expect to pay around 60,000COP or $24AUD for the bus), but the downside is that you’ll spend at least 10hrs on the bus. On the other hand, you can fly from Bogotá to Medellín in just 1hr (plus the extra time getting to the airport), but the flight will cost more like 150,000COP ($60AUD).
Read this super detailed guide for step-by-step instructions on getting from Bogotá to Medellín: TRAVELLING FROM BOGOTÁ TO MEDELLÍN VIA BUS OR PLANE: COLOMBIA TRANSPORT GUIDE
San Gil to Medellín
You can also reach Medellín from San Gil, although it’s not quite as straightforward as the journey from Bogotá. Take the bus from San Gil to Bucaramanga (12,000COP; 3hrs) and then take a bus (60,000COP; 8-10hrs) OR fly (250,000COP; 1hr) from Bucaramanga to Medellín. Flying can save you several hours, but it’s not entirely painless, since you still have to catch a 3hr bus and take a taxi from the bus terminal to the airport in Bucaramanga (30,000COP; 25min).
Want all the details on taking the bus or flying between San Gil and Medellín? THE BEST WAY TO GET FROM SAN GIL TO MEDELLÍN (BUS VS FLIGHT): COLOMBIA TRANSPORT GUIDE
Santa Marta to Medellín
Santa Marta to Medellín is one of the few journeys in Colombia where taking the 18hrs+ bus (195,000COP / $76AUD) is actually more expensive than flying (80,000COP / $32AUD), even when you add in the 45,000COP for checking a bag. I’d recommend getting a cheap flight with Viva Air if you’re coming from the Caribbean coast.
Everything you need to know about the bus or flight from Santa Marta to Medellín: HOW TO GET FROM MEDELLÍN TO SANTA MARTA (BUS OR FLIGHT): COLOMBIA TRANSPORT GUIDE
Getting around Medellín
Medellín’s Metro train network is extremely convenient, very safe, and incredibly inexpensive— this is definitely the best way to get around Medellín! Check out the Metro map below for an idea of where you can go on the train. Tickets on the Metro cost just 2,550COP ($1AUD) regardless of how far you’re travelling. There’s no need to buy a transit card, either; just buy single use tickets from the window at any Metro station.
Popular spots in Medellín that connect to the Metro:
– El Poblado (Poblado Station)
– Comuna 13 (San Javier Station)
– Plaza Botero (Parque Berrío Station)
– Terminal Norte, Medellín’s main bus terminal (Caribe Station)
As mentioned previously, Medellín also has several cable cars servicing the hill neighbourhoods around the city, which are connected to the Metro at Acevedo Station (cable cars to Santo Domingo and onwards to Parque Arví) and San Javier Station / Comuna 13 (cable cars to La Aurora). The best part is that you can transfer from a train and the ride all the way to the terminal cable car station still using the exact same 2,550COP Metro ticket.
Even though Uber is technically illegal in Colombia, you’ll still find it operating in Medellín, and it’s the best way to get around if you can’t take the Metro (to the airport, for instance).
You might be asked to sit in the front seat with your driver to disguise the fact that you’re using Uber— I even had a driver invent a little bit of a backstory for us in case we were pulled over— but I never had any issues using Uber in Medellín, nor do I know anyone who has, so it’s no cause for concern.
Uber is much cheaper AND safer than taking a taxi, but if you do need/want to take a taxi somewhere, it’s best to ask your hostel to call one for you or to use an app like EasyTaxi or Tappsi to request a registered taxi.
Where to stay in Medellín
Los Patios Hostel is the most popular hostel in Medellín, loved for its absolutely awesome rooftop overlooking the city, great on-site activities and restaurant/bar, and the super convenient location in the middle of El Poblado. Pod-style dorm rooms from 40,000COP / $16AUD and private rooms from 125,000COP / $49AUD.
Poblado Guest House is another great option in El Poblado, offering a rooftop kitchen and hang-out area with sweeping city views. It’s not as lively as Los Patios, but it does have much cheaper private rooms, which is great for couples on a budget! Privates with a shared bathroom 50,000COP / $20AUD and with a private bathroom 65,000COP / $26AUD.
Selina Medellín is the El Poblado-version of this super trendy Latin American hostel chain, although it honestly feels more like an upscale boutique hotel. Expect eccentrically decorated common areas, a fabulous cafe, multiple outdoor courtyards, an insane schedule of in-house activities, and one of the best co-working setups of any hostel. Dorm rooms start at 40,000COP / $16AUD and private rooms at 225,000COP / $89AUD.
- Pick up a local Colombian SIM card so you can use your phone for Google Maps and WhatsApp. There’s a Claro shop in Sao Paulo Plaza about 10-15min walking distance from El Poblado (search this in Google Maps: Claro C.C. Sao Paulo – Centro de Atención y Ventas). Bring your passport and your phone, and the staff can get you completely set up (just know that they likely won’t speak a single word of English). Including the SIM itself, you can get 2GB of data to use within 15 days for 20,000COP / $7.50AUD, and then subsequent top-ups can be done at basically any convenience or telecommunications shop around the country.
- As with most everywhere in South America, there is a very real language barrier in Medellín and I really wouldn’t recommend travelling here without learning some basic Spanish phrases. Most tour guides will speak a bit of English, but waiters, cashiers, taxi drivers, bus station employees, and just general people on the street typically won’t speak a word.
- Although Medellín has improved leaps and bounds in terms of safety, and it actually felt like one of the safer cities I’ve visited in Latin America, it’s still important to keep your wits about you and exercise some basic common sense when you’re walking around. For the most part, it’s safe to have your camera out and take photos, but don’t invite petty crime by flashing expensive electronics around and not guarding them properly.
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