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Did your family and friends balk when you told them you were going to Colombia? They likely even did a double take if you mentioned the city of Medellin. However, we, like so many other travellers to Colombia are here to tell you that Medellin and Colombia are totally different than they were 20+ years ago. In this complete guide to visiting Medellin in 2023, we will explain why Medellin is a must-visit when coming to Colombia, all of the best things to do in Medellin, where to stay in Medellin and how to stay safe.
First of all, Medellin is pronounced “MEH – DEH – JIN” since the double lls in Colombia are pronounced with a J sound. Medellin is Colombia’s second largest city, the capital of Antioquia province, and best known for its mild climate (the term “Eternal Spring” gets thrown around), dangerous narco-trafficking history and its more recent transformation – we will dive into that below. People from Medellin and the surrounding areas are called Paisas and they are known as proud people with a distictive heritage.
While Medellin isn’t a historic city, there are many things to do in Medellin and it was the place we felt that we learned the most about Colombia. The city consists of red-bricked buildings with poorer neighborhoods rising up the surrounding hills. Medellin may be best known for being home to Pablo Escobar, but that is a chapter Paisas would rather put behind them and many will not even utter his name. Pablo Escobar tourism is frowned upon and we would encourage you to learn more about the impact of narco-trafficking on Medellin’s history and its transformation towards the future, instead of glorifying a man that cost the city and country so many lives and hardship.
- 1 Is Medellin Safe?
- 2 Where to Stay in Medellin
- 3 Top Things to do in Medellin
- 4 Getting Around Medellin
- 5 How Many Days in Medellin
- 6 Medellin 3 Day Itinerary
- 7 Medellin with Kids
Is Medellin Safe?
In the 1980s and 1990s, Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world and that reputation still hangs over Medellin’s head. However, what I found most fascinating with the city was the total transformation that has occured since then. The city’s urban transformation is incredibly inspirational and rooted in social investments that have lifted people out of poverty and made Medellin one of the safest cities in South America.
We felt completely safe in Medellin, but Medellin is still a large city and petty theft can occur. We took the same precautions we would while traveling in a large European city – keeping valuables out of sight, being aware of our surroundings, and being extra careful in crowds. We have heard stories of armed muggings, but the only thing we encountered was taxi drivers trying to rip us off, which is par for the course when travelling anywhere in the world.
Where to Stay in Medellin
Most visitors to Medellin will stay in El Poblado or Laureles, although Enviato is another popular neighborhood, especially for digital nomads. Where you should stay in Medellin depends on what you are looking for.
El Poblado is the original traveller and backpacker neighborhood, as well as being home to wealthy paisas. There is a big nightlife scene, big and modern shopping malls and great restaurant options. It has a metro station and it is located centrally, making it easy to get around the city. The neighborhood is spread out and consists of high rise luxury buildings, wide boulevards and shiny shops and malls. There are lots of accommodation options from hostels to branded and boutique hotels. This is where most of the top end Medellin hotels are located. Some great options in Poblado are:
23 Hotel Medellin (Luxury Lifestyle Hotel) – super stylish boutique hotel with a lush greenery, a remote that works everything in your room and a great rooftop area with pool, make this an excellent place to stay in Poblado. Click here to check the latest rates.
Rango Hostel (Lifestyle Hostel) – if you are are looking for the above, but at budget prices and in a hostel format, this is the place for you. Stylish with lots of greenery, social common areas and a rooftop with a great view (and small pool), this hostel that feels more like a hotel is a great choice. Guests must be 18+. Click here to check the latest rates.
574 Hotel (Mid-Range) – this modern hotel gets rave reviews for its safe, walkable location, excellent value and friendly staff. Click here to check the latest rates.
Poblado Apartment – if you are traveling as a family or want more space, there are many great apartment options in Poblado with modern furnishings, multiple bedrooms and a kitchen. Click here to find the best apartment stay.
The other neighborhood we think you should consider is Laureles. This mostly residential neighborhood is leafy, more modest and laidback with cute little coffee shops and restaurants. The downside is the Laureles doesn’t have its own metro station, although you can use the nearby Estadio station or Ubers/taxis to link to other parts of the city. There are mostly mid-range options and many great apartments in Laureles. Some great options in Laureles are:
Hotel Cavalta (Mid-Range) – excellent modern hotel with a good location, rooftop with great views and rooms that accommodate families, Hotel Cavalta offers great value in Laureles. Click here to check the latest prices.
Hotel Colores Boutique (Budget) – excellent value, small hotel that offers exceptional rates, very friendly staff, standard rooms and rooms for families. Click here to check the latest prices.
Modern Airbnb (Mid-Range) – we loved our stay in this lowrise building; simple, minimalist design with colourful accents, room for our family, excellent wifi and residential location. Click here to check the latest prices.
Top Things to do in Medellin
Real City Walking Tour
If you do nothing else in Medellin, do the Real City Walking Tour. We have done “free” walking tours around the world and this was the best one we have done. It gave us a fantastic introduction to Medellin, including its history, people, culture, politics and of course narco trafficking. Our guide was a born and bred paisa and was incredibly enthusiastic. This tour set the foundation for understanding what makes Medellin so unique, its tragic past and the hope for the future.
This tour is a “free” walking tour, which means you choose to pay what you want to the guide at the end of the tour. They suggest $10 USD/person, but are very transparent that you can pay what you wish and/or can. It is a good idea to make a booking on their website. Tours are held weekdays at 9:30 and 2:30 and weekends at 10 am and depart from a metro station in El Centro. Tours are approximately 3.5 hours. Look for the red umbrellas at the meeting point. This tour was one of the best things we did in our 5 weeks in Colombia – it is a must when visiting Medellin!
Ride the Cablecars
There aren’t many places in the world that have cablecars as part of their public transit system, making this one of the unique things to see in Medellin. Paisas are very proud of their modern metro system, linked by buses and cablecars that connect the central part of Medellin to the hillside barrios. As part of Medellin’s magical transformation, the government built the cablecars to integrate barrios into the economic system of central Medellin. Traditionally, poorer residents live in these hillside barrios, where land was much more affordable than in the flat centre.
Medellin has 6 cablecars, with 5 of them being part of the regular public transit system, which means they cost the same as a regular transit ticket (less than $1 USD). The exception is the Parque Arvi cablecar, which costs 12,500 pesos per person per way ($3 USD). Parque Arvi is a massive park up in the mountains above Medellin. We took the cablecar there, but wouldn’t recommend it. There really wasn’t much to do at the top since they heavily discourage you from hiking on your own due to safety reasons (you can go on an overpriced guided hike).
Instead of taking the cablecar to Parque Arvi, we recommend just taking the cablecar to Santo Domingo. The trip to Santo Domingo is over the barrios and give you great views over Medellin. You can get off in Santo Domingo and wander around, before going back down. This is cheaper and doesn’t involve the longer cablecar to Parque Arvi, which is mostly over forest.
I had never heard of the artist Fernando Botero before visiting Colombia. Thankfully, during our trip we had many opportunities to appreciate his unique art throughout the country. Botero was born in Medellin and is best known for his “fat paintings or sculptures”. However, once you look closer, his subjects are not fat, but merely have exagerated proportions.
Botero Plaza is located in La Candeleria (centro) and displays 23 large Botero sculptures, donated by the artist. It is one of the best Medellin things to do, along with visiting the Museum of Antioquia (Botero Museum), located at the Plaza. This Art Museum houses works from Botero and many other Colombian and international artists. His work is stunning and the Museum is very impressive and its a great escape from the heat. Entry: 24,000 COP ($6 USD). Plan to spend a minimum of an hour there.
Comuna 13 Walking Tour
Comuna 13 is one of the most popular Medellin tourist attractions and foreigners and Colombians flock to this Medellin neighborhood to see and experience its transformation. Comuna 13 like most of the Medellin neighborhoods set on the hillsides surrounding the city centre was an impoverished area up until the last couple of decades. It was the most dangerous area in Medellin and through social projects has become the safest area in the city. Once ruled by narco-traffickers who used its location to move drugs in and out of the city, the barrio is now a colourful living and breathing open air museum of art, dance, music and hope. Best known for the series of outdoor escalators, originally built to connect its poorer residents to the rest of Medellin and now a major draw for tourists.
The best way to experience Comuna 13 is on a free walking tour and we highly recommend Zippy Tours. While you can appreciate the escalators, street art and transformation on your own, hearing the stories behind the transformation from a person who grew up and experienced it first hand, is much more meaningful. Tours are every day at 10 am and you can book through their website. We visited during Semana Santa and it was incredibly busy – if you can visit on a weekday, we recommend that.
Eat Bandeja Paisa
Bandeja Paisa is the signature dish of the region and consists of meat, meat and more meat! It originated as a protein-packed peasant dish for farmers working outside all day. Traditionally composed of two types of sausage, ground beef, chicharron, rice, red beans, arepa, plantains, avocado and fried eggs – it is a massive meal. You can find bandeja paisa at most restaurants in Medellin, but Hato Viejo, is a favourite among locals and tourists. Even better, they have a vegetarian version, so vegetarians don’t feel left out. Location: Cra. 47 #52-17, La Candelaria Price: 35,000-45,000 COP
In our opinion, Laureles is Medellin’s nicest neighborhood. While it is an upperclass neighborhood, its leafy streets, excellent cafes and restaurants make it a great place to spend time. Pergamino Café is an amazing cafe to get some work done, enjoy amazing breakfasts and baked goods and escape from the hustle and bustle of Medellin. Vegetarians and health food fans have lots of choice in Laureles, although we can definitely recommend Saludpan. Their set menu lunches are delicious, healthy and fresh. Stop by Percimon for the most amazing frozen yogurt with delicious toppings that you have ever tasted.
Crepes & Waffles is a Colombian institution and we turned our noses up at it when we first arrived in Colombia, but you really cannot visit Colombia without visiting this uber popular chain. The food is reasonable, a nice break from traditional Colombian food and employs single women and “women in need”, making it a nice business to support. You can find them throughout Medellin and Colombia, but there is a nice one right on Avenida Nutibara in Laureles.
The Botanic Gardens in Medellin is a great way to escape into nature in the city. If you visit on a weekend, you will see families enjoying a picnic and ogling the iguanas that roam the park. There are a number of lovely walkways showcasing tropical and desert flora and fauna, and best of all it is FREE to visit. Open 9-5 daily.
Experience the Outdoor Gyms
If you are into fitness, this is definitely a unique thing to do in Medellin. We were so impressed by the outdoor gyms located in various parks and neighborhoods. The ones in Medellin go far beyond the basic outdoor body weight equipment you often encounter. The ones in Medellin have weights, making it possible to do a full workout like you would at an indoor gym. These gyms are FREE and very popular with locals, so are also are a great way to get a feel for the local communities.
We found the largest and best one to be located at Unidad Deportiva de Belén, right beside the Laureles neighborhood. The other one in Laureles is Gimnasio Urbano INDER. There is also a small one in El Poblado’s tourist zone and another near the Oviedo Mall. The best times to visit are in the morning or evening, when it is cooler, although these are the busiest times as well.
Wander El Poblado
El Poblado is where most visitors to Medellin stay and is also an upscale neighborhood. While we preferred our stay in Laureles, El Poblado was a great place to visit for its many shopping malls, excellent international food options (we loved Bun Bao) and backpacker scene.
As you walk or move around Medellin, be on the lookout for the ubiquitous streetlight performers and prepare to be amazed by the innovativeness and variety of entertainment they can put on in 30-60 second bursts. We saw tight-rope walkers, elaborate jugglers, musicians, break dancers and so much more. Be sure to reward their efforts with some change.
Parque Explora Science Centre
If you are traveling Medellin with kids or if you like science, this is a fantastic science centre to visit in Medellin. There are so many engaging and interactive activities to keep everyone entertained with explanations in Spanish and English. These indoor and outdoor exhibits and activities are so fun that you should plan to spend a minimum of 4 hours there. There are a few food options if you want to eat there.
There is also a really nice aquarium that showcases fish from Colombia’s rivers and oceans, including piranhas and electric eels. They have university science students at the various stations that provide explanations (in English too!). The building itself is architecturally interesting and modern. Since it is located right beside the Botanic Gardens, combine your visit to these two attractions. This is one of the best Medellin attractions and it really impressed us. Entrance is 150,000 COP/family or 42,000 COP/person. Hours 10-5 daily.
Getting Around Medellin
Piasas are incredibly proud of the modern metro that was built in 1995. It runs north-south through the city and combined with Medellin’s buses, can get you anywhere you want to go. That being said, since we were a group of 4, it was cheaper and faster to use taxis or Ubers. However, we definitely recommend that you take a ride on the metro at least once.
Uber operates in a gray zone in Colombia, which may scare some people away from using it. However, we found it the most convenient way to get around Medellin because we didn’t have to deal with any language barriers, negotiate the price and it was door to door and incredibly cheap. Sometimes the drivers may ask you to sit up front with them and they may not want to take you to and from the airport, but we found Uber worked really well in Medellin in 2023. We would usually pay 10-12k COP for a 20 minute ride.
Taxis on the other hand were a pain for us – they never knew where our Airbnb in Laureles was and they never willingly used the meter. They also tended to be slightly more expensive, even when they did use the meter. So while I feel bad supporting Ubers over taxis, it worked the best for us in Medellin.
How Many Days in Medellin
Medellin is an easy city to spend time in and as Colombia’s second-largest city, offers a plethora of things to do. We recommend an absolute minimum of 2 days in the city, with 3 days being optimal and more being a bonus to see the best places to visit in Medellin.
Medellin 3 Day Itinerary
Day 1 – Real City Walking Tour, Bandaja Paisa lunch, Botero Museum
Day 2 – Comuna 13 Tour, Cablecar, Laureles
Day 3 – Your Choice – Botanic Gardens, Parque Explora, El Poblado OR Tour to Guatape
Medellin with Kids
Medellin is a great city to explore with kids. Kids of all ages will enjoy the parks and green spaces in Medellin, especially the Botanic Gardens. Visiting Parque Explora, riding the cablecars and outdoor escalators, marveling at the Botero statutes in Plaza Botero, are all very kid-friendly activities. Our tweens and teens took a real interest in the history of Medellin, its narco history and its transformation. Colombia is an amazing country to visit as a family and we recommend including a visit to Medellin with kids in your itinerary.
Read more about our Colombia travels:
- Top Things to do in Cartagena
- Visiting Minca
- 3 days in Tayrona National Park
- Hiking Los Nevados
- Guide to Salento