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The Best 11 Things to Do in Medellín

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Medellín, Colombia, is one of the most touristed city in the country for good reason—there are a lot of things to do in Medellín. The “city of eternal spring” has glorious spring-like weather year-round. It has a strong Paisa culture and is very affordable. It offers many cultural and historical things to do.

If you fly into José María Córdova International Airport, the drive down to Medellín is quite impressive. The airport is located high in the mountains and it is quite a descent to get to the city. The traffic can be extensive here as well. The 20-kilometer ride (12 miles) can take over an hour and a half, giving you lots of time to appreciate the beautiful views during the descent.

There is really no shortage of things to do in Medellin.

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The 11 Best Things to do in Medellín

There are so many fun things to do in Medellín. Here are my favorites.

Visit Botero Park

Fernando Botero, a world-renowned Colombian sculptor and painter, was born and raised in Medellín. He donated many sculptures to his home town. 23 of them are located in Botero Plaza in the downtown (“El Centro”) area. This famous plaza is surrounded by the Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture (Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe) and the Museum of Antioquia (Museo de Antioquia), also worth visiting.

This area is a popular tourist destination and quite unique to Medellín, making it one of the top places to visit in Colombia and one of the top things to do in Medellín.

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Botero Statue

Right near Botero Park is Iglesia de la Cruz, a beautiful and very old white church. Our tour guide said this was an area where women worked as “loving providers.” It is such an interesting dichotomy between religion and illegal practices.

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Iglesia de la Cruz

El Centro, the downtown area, is relatively safe. However, be careful with your belongings and consider going out during the day and not at night.

The Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture

The Palace of Culture is one of the most recognizable buildings in the city. It was designed by the Belgian architect Agustin Goovaerts. It is home to the Institute of Culture and Heritage of Antioquia. Visitors can visit exhibitions, view the historical photo archive, and the music and sound archive. There are also a café, a library, and an art gallery.

The Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture is located at Carrera 51 #52 01 Medellín Antioquia 050012, Medellín. It’s is open from 8-12 and 2-5 Monday through Friday, and from 8-3 on Saturday.

Museum of Antioquia (Museo de Antioquia)

The Museum of Antioquia is the second oldest museum in the country. It has an impressive 119 pieces donated by Botero including paintings and sculptures. An interesting piece of trivia is that the female paintings with a mole on her right buttock are paintings of his wife. There are also some other artistic creations including indigenous art and modern art.

There is a shop and a restaurant in the building, though my favorite empanada and buñuelo places are right outside. What is a buñuelo, you ask? Cheesy fried dough heaven.

The Museum of Antioquia is located at Calle 52 #43, Medellín. It is open from 10 – 5:30 Monday through Saturday and 10 – 4:30 on Sunday. Tickets cost 18k COP ($5.75 USD) and include a guided tour, however, it is only offered in Spanish.

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Botero Painting at the Museo de Antioquia
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Buñuelo

Try Bandeja Paisa

You won’t go to any city in Colombia without seeing restaurants selling this dish. It’s everywhere, and though there are some variations to the dish, it typically has a similar foundation.

What is Bandeja Paisa?

Bandeja paisa is the quintessential meal of the Paisa. These are people from the Antioquia region in Colombia including Medellín and the Coffee Triangle (Eje Cafetero). It is a gut buster featuring meat (usually ground meat, chicharron (fried pork rind), or chicken, but I saw it with trout as well), red beans, white rice, fried egg, plantain, arepa (corn cake), avocado, and a small salad. It is served at lunch or dinner. Trust me, whenever you eat it, you won’t eat again for a solid 12 hours or more. And best of all, the going rate for it at the smaller lunch places is around 8k COP, or $2.55 USD.

This is certainly no fancy dish or haute cuisine, but it’s tasty and filling. It often comes with a soup and aguapanela, a drink made from boiling sugar cane to a paste then adding in water. The drink almost tastes like a light tea to me, without caffeine, of course. It wasn’t overly sweet even though it’s made from sugar cane.

A Traditional Colombian Alternative

For another fun local meal that is also a monstrous portion (are you seeing the trend?) try Ajiaco. This popular dish typically is made with chicken, three varieties of potatoes, Peruvian corn, an herb called guascas. It includes a large number of sides including white rice, capers, crema, arepa corn cakes, and sometimes hot chilies or hot sauce. I literally ate one of these for three meals.

The best one that I had was at Mondongos. It cost only 24,500k COP ($7.80 USD). There are two locations, and one was just a block or two from my Airbnb in the Laureles neighborhood. One of the other locations is in the Poblado neighborhood, where most tourists stay when they visit Medellin. They have a third location in Miami in the USA.

Take a Free Walking Tour

I think free city walking tours are one of the best ways to get to know a city. They take you to the highlights of the city, provide extensive information about the people, the history, and the culture. They also provide great tips and recommendations from a local’s perspective. It’s a great way to get your orientation in a place and I always try to do one within a day of my arrival.

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There are many tour companies to show you the best things to see in Medellín for both paid tours and free tours. I chose Real City Tours and cannot rave about them more. My guide, Juan, was one of the best that I have ever had in any free or paid city tour. I heard great things from people who went with one of the other tour guides so I don’t think you can go wrong. Juan really made our morning an amazing experience.

Sometimes it’s best to take a paid tour if it offers specifically what you are looking to see. Otherwise, a free walking tour will be enough for you.

Is Medellín Safe?

Our guide provided us with his own personal experiences of growing up in Medellín and shared about truths and misconceptions of Colombia. He provided us with insight as to safety sharing the quote “Dar papaya.” It is a Colombian saying that means, “don’t put yourself in a position where people can easily take advantage of you.” He related safety levels in the El Centro area as “one papaya,” or “three papayas,” but once mentioned the highest, “four papayas.”

Yes, overall Medellín is safe. You really need to be cautious and aware, though. Avoid certain areas at night and ensure you have a grasp of your personal items (wear backpacks on your front and have a tight grip on bags). Be aware of your surroundings at all times and that includes not being distracted by your phone.

Also, do your research and be aware of the areas you are going to. I visited without incident, but I do know someone personally who had his camera stolen, and he’s a very experienced traveler.

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Medellín Street Art

The Impact of History

Juan addressed the “elephant in the room,” the “infamous man from Medellín.” He shared his personal story of losing his best friend, and almost losing his brother and his own life, due to the violence in the ’80s and ’90s. Though he understands the interest people show in him due to the media, he shared his opinions. He believes people should not support tourism focused around him.

One thing that really stuck with me is he shared his view — he can understand those who hate him, and he can understand those who love him, but cannot understand those who have no opinion.

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If you go to visit Medellín, I strongly recommend Real City Tours. There are a number of options, generally around 9 and 2, with two pick-up points. You do need to book in advance but can often do so the day before. Tours last around 3 hours and walk around El Centro in the downtown area. They also offer an exotic fruit tour and a barrio transformation tour at cost.

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Medellín Street Art

Take a Day Trip to Visit Guatapé

Guatapé is a stunning and colorful Spanish colonial town a few hours from Medellín and the most popular day trip. It is considered one of the best things to do while you visit Medellín. It’s a long day but is well worth the time and was one of my favorite things during my visit. You can learn about the best day trip from Medellin in this post.

Peñol and new Peñol

This day was jam-packed with a lot of amazing things. First, we visited “new Peñol,” where the people of the original town of Peñol were transplanted to create a lake to power a hydroelectric plant. We visited the Phoenix of America statue and a church made from rock. Both represented the people of Peñol, both their strength and their ability to transform their lives to move to a new place.

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Phoenix of America Statue

The new town may have provided homes, but certainly didn’t offer the quaintness of the replica of old Peñol. The replica was our next stop, bordering the created Guatapé Lake. It’s a cute little area where you can grab a bite to eat, buy some souvenirs, and enjoy the quaintness of the old city while enjoying the views of the lake. It features a beautiful church along with many traditional Spanish colonial buildings.

Next, we took a boat ride and it could not have been more perfect. The houses around the lake were beautiful and the lake was surprisingly large. In the center of it is a cross. It is placed in the spot where the Peñol church is located, now under 29 meters of water. There is a small outcropping of land in the lake with a compound of homes in disrepair that one belonged to Pablo Escobar. There is still a fight over ownership of all of his properties so this prime real estate goes unclaimed.

El Peñol

We climbed the 700+ stairs on el Peñol for incredible views of this stunning area. It’s incredible to think that they used to climb this rock with no stairs! Enjoy a michelada at the top of Peñol rock (beer with fresh mango). Or try a salted mango and take some time to really savor the views as a result of your climbing efforts.

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View from el Peñol

Guatapé

Last, visit the quaint and beautiful town of Guatapé. It is stunning from the first moments you see it with brights pops of color everywhere. As with all Spanish colonial towns, there is a large town square dominated by an impressive church.

Guatapé is known as “the tow of zocalos” for the beautifully carved and brightly painted 3D motifs of village life that adorn the bottom of almost every building in the historic city center. They were first created by Jose Maria Paula and the concept took hold of the town. All of the buildings in the historic center were updated to include them. They are customized to the interests of the homeowner.

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There are many tour groups who visit Guatapé. I booked through my Airbnb host with Maxitour Viajes. It cost 70k COP ($44.65 USD) and included breakfast and lunch, pick up and drop off to the place you are staying. It also includes a bilingual tour guide who speaks Spanish and English. The cost to climb el Piedra de Peñol is not included in the tour cost, and that is 18k COP or $5.75 USD. Read more about Guatapé, el Piedra de Peñol, and Peñol.

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Guatapé

Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanico de Medellín)

If you need a little time with nature in the middle of the concrete jungle, head to the Botanical Garden. Medellín is only 2.5 million people, but it feels so much larger! It seems to stretch everywhere in the valley between the mountains and all you can see are buildings as far as you can see. The garden is a lush oasis in the heart of the city. Just steps inside, the air feels cleaner and you can feel the city tension rolling right off of you.

There is a nice loop you can walk around, or you can go directly to the pond and watch the ducks. The garden has both a restaurant and a small cafe, which is actually an old train car. The cafe does serve good coffee, in case you’re interested.

Things to do in Medellín near the Botanical Garden

There are several other things to do in this area. You can visit Explora Park, a science museum with an aquarium, and Parque Norte, an amusement park that has an incredible lights display in December. Casa Museo Pedro Nel Gomez is a 15- to 20-minute walk. He was a famous local painter. Though his house is worth seeing, it takes you through a patchy area so use caution.

The Botanical Garden is located at Calle 73 51d 14 | Carrera 52 # 73-298, Medellín. It is open from 9 to 4:30 daily and is free of charge.

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Botanical Garden

My Personal Experience

I thought I’d share this story with you as it’s the best example I can think of to show how amazing the people in Medellin are. I took the subway to Universidad (University station) from my apartment. This required taking two subways and they were packed—uncomfortably so. I was very tired from walking around all morning but wanted to see the garden and was feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and cranky.

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A girl in her mid-20’s caught my eye and smiled, so I smiled back. She said something to me in Spanish which I didn’t understand. She then pantomimed how packed the subway car was. It was so silly we started to giggle. We got off the car and she asked where I was going. I told her, but I’ll admit my radar went up. She then started talking in rapid-fire Spanish, very excited, took my hand and wove us through the crowds to the correct subway line. She was going to the same place and that’s why she was excited.

We tried to talk a little and she showed me pictures of her young kids—clearly a proud mom. She made sure I got off in the right place, then pointed me in the direction of the Botanical Garden. She gave me a warm hug, said a few words that I believe were of encouragement, and I went on my way. If you want to know what the people of Colombia are like, this is it. Unfiltered and amazing.

Visit Communa 13

Communa 13 was front and center in Medellín’s past as it was previously one of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellín and one of the most violent. It is undergoing a transformation through art. Communa 13 is being revitalized by young artists painting some incredible murals.

You will also see young people singing, and if you’re lucky, a pretty amazing breakdancing crew. I know—welcome back to the ’80s but they were really amazing! Be ready for your heart to break a little while you’re inspired by the talent and the initiative of the people who live here.

Communa 13 Walking Tour

You can walk this area on your own and it is reasonably safe. However, I recommend a tour to see Communa 13 to get the history and perspective from someone who lives there. I went with Inside Medellín Tours and Sergio was my guide. Sergio shared about the early years of his life growing up in Communa 13 during the extreme poverty and violence of the 1990s.

There is a wall, two actually, decorated with painted bricks, a hand-made planter, and a plant. Each brick has a painted name representing a loved one that disappeared. At one time in the tour, he pointed off to an area in the distance. Sergio told us it was used as a dump and said that it is believed that thousands of bodies were left there during the extreme violence of the ’80s and ’90s.

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Sergio shared an early memory of being in grade school and walking six blocks to school and finding six bodies on the way. While you might hope this was an unusual occurrence, it wasn’t. He said it so matter-of-factly and clearly was used to the violence of his upbringing. I’m not sure which was more devastating, what he shared during that tour or the almost indifferent way that he shared it. I can’t imagine becoming so numb to such extreme violence.

Communa 13 Today

You can walk around today while taking in the gorgeous murals and see kids laughing and playing. You can see an old man sitting on a low wall watching the world go by and two teen girls sharing secrets about their lives. Life is blossoming here, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

An interesting quirk of this neighborhood is the many escalators leading to the steeper areas (escaleras electricas de la Communa 13). They seem very out of place here, especially given the poor condition and apparent poverty of the neighborhood.

The Inside Medellin Communa 13 tour is free with a hearty tip for the guide. It’s offered at 2:30 daily in English and Spanish and you do need to book in advance.

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Communa 13 Street Art

Enjoy Medellin Nightlight in Parque Lleras

Parque Lleras is the place to be for nightlife in Medellin. It is located in Zona Rosa (red zone) in the Poblado district of Medellín. This is very close to the area where many of the hotels are where the tourists stay. Many cities in Colombia have a Zona Rosa and Medellin’s is known to be one of the best. It features many bars, restaurants, shops, and dance clubs. This article has some great information about Parque Lleras.

By day, many of the bars are closed in this area. You can stroll through restaurants and cafes, and there are some street vendors. By night, it’s a very different place. You can hear the music from DJs and bands walking the streets, and there are more street vendors than during the day. Costs are a bit higher here than in other parts of the city, but it’s worth it for the scene.

Stroll Around Pueblito Paisa

If you don’t have time to take a tour to Guatape and visit the replica of Old Penol, then head to Pueblito Paisa (little town). It’s a recreated Spanish colonial town that is like a small-time capsule, back to an age where colonial town like this was commonplace in the area. It features a town square with a central fountain, a church, the Mayor’s office, and a one-room schoolhouse. Many things were brought from Peñol before it was destroyed to build the lake for the power plant.

There are several great restaurants and food carts, and lots of shops to purchase local items, including some handmade things. There are also great city views and the best time to go is around sunset.

Pueblito Paisa is located at Tunel av Nutibara, Medellin. Though you can walk to it, your best bet is to take a taxi as the roads are steep, narrow, and quite windy to get to it.

Ride a Cable Car

It may sound funny, but the number 2 thing to do in Medellín according to TripAdvisor, is to ride the cable car. The Medellín Metrocable was created to establish an alternative to metro transportation. It’s now a tourist attraction in its own right providing incredible panoramic views of the city for a budget self-guided tour of sorts. It runs from San Javier station (near Communa 13) to La Aurora, high in the mountains.

Santo Domingo is a great place to get off and walk around. You get spectacular views of the city. Even a few years ago it was unsafe. Though it remains one of the poorer parts of the city, it is safe for travelers. People are as friendly and welcoming as in other parts of the city. If you continue on to Parque Arvi, it’s a nice park with great views. There are a lot of local vendors and it is a nice place to walk around.

Public transit in Medellin is top notch and very inexpensive, at less than $1 USD a ride. You can get around very easily and subway stops are easy to find. People are surprisingly kind as well, and several times I saw people give up their seats to the elderly. The cars are modern and nice and the stations are kept clean. Don’t forget to validate your ticket as you may receive a fine if you do not!

Where to Eat in Medellín

Modongo’s

This restaurant is rather large on one of the main roads in the Laureles neighborhood. It was two blocks from my apartment, and I was tired but hungry when I arrived so it fit the bill. Wow! This was by far the largest meal I got during my trip and I literally ate three meals from a bowl of soup. But it wasn’t just a bowl of soup! It was large anyways, but the accompaniments took up most of my table.

I got a mora, blackberry, juice and ajiaco, a traditional Colombian soup made with chicken broth, chicken, three types of potatoes, Peruvian corn, and guascas (a green herb). Two additional plates came with crema, capers, puffy corn arepas, and several hot sauces.

Mondongo’s is located at Calle 10 ##38-38, Medellín, in the Laureles neighborhood. There is also another location in the El Poblado neighborhood at Calle 10 ##38-38, Medellín. Interestingly, there is a third location in the USA in Miami. My ajiaco cost only 24,500k COP ($7.80 USD)

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Fenecía

This Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurant is tucked on a side street in the Laureles neighborhood of Medellin. Fenecia offers an interesting take on Middle Eastern food using some local Colombian ingredients. Dishes are small, tapas-sized, so you can get a number of different things. I tried the hummus, dolmas, tabouleh, and an eggplant dish and they were all really good. I mostly ate Colombian food while I visited the country, this was a really nice change.

Fenecia is located at Carrera 73 C2 41 Av. Jardín, Medellin. There is a second location in El Poblado at the Mall Complex of Los Balsos.

Street Food

Street food is prevalent in Medellin and very inexpensive. I got several empanadas on the go and they cost around $1 USD. You can get lots of fruit and fruit juices, shawarma, or shaved chicken in a pita, buñuelos, and many other things. I usually will go to a cart that has people at it, particularly locals. They likely know the best and safest places to purchase.

Where to Stay in Medellín

It is not recommended to stay in El Centro, the downtown neighborhood in Medellín, as it can be very sketchy at night, and even dangerous in certain areas. It’s best to avoid the area and stay in one of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Poblado

The Poblado neighborhood is locally known as the “gringo neighborhood,” as it’s where many of the tourists and expats live in the city. There are benefits to staying here as it’s convenient to the metro, has loads of hotels to choose from, many great restaurants, and English is more commonly-spoken there than anywhere else in Medellín. However, prices do reflect this and if you’re seeking a more authentic local experience, you’re not going to get it here.

Laureles

I chose to stay in the Laureles neighborhood, where the locals live. In truth, it’s where the more affluent locals live, but it does give you a nice view of what it might feel like to live Medellín.

I rented an Airbnb apartment located in a high-rise apartment building on the main road with stunning city views and a panoramic rooftop deck for $40 USD a night. This area offers some wonderful restaurants and street food, and it is convenient to the metro. Laureles is less expensive than Poblado, though you won’t find many English speakers there.

Medellín Weather

Medellin is often known as the city of eternal spring because temperatures here average 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and typically only range ten degrees higher or lower. It does have some humidity, but much less than the cities on the water like Cartagena. After a visit to Cartagena, Medellin was just perfect in terms of weather.

The best times to visit Medellin are from December through March, or July through September. This is the dry season in Colombia overall and is a very popular time to go. You’ll pay a bit more for hotels, but it’s the best weather in the country and when it’s most recommended to go.

Check Out the Many Things to do in Medellín

There are many fun things to do in Medellín, and this is just a short list of them. It does include what I think are the “must-dos” in the city. I spent four and a half days there and felt it was a good amount of time. I would have liked to spend another few days if that were possible, but I felt with this time I got a great perspective of the city.

Colombia is known for being a friendly country, and Medellín seems to have some of the friendliest people there. Tourism isn’t a huge thing here yet, so people are very curious. They will come up to you just to strike up a conversation. If you speak even a tiny bit of Spanish like me, you can find a way to interact. They are very patient! Medellín was one of the most dangerous cities in the world in the 1990s but no longer! Visit Medellín because you can and because it’s amazing.

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