Not so long ago, Medellín was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The name Medellín is still often associated with cocaine, violence and terror and Hollywood is right now cashing in on the events that nearly asphyxiated the second largest Colombian city in the 80s.
Fortunately, times have changed and the city has undergone a transformation so profound and so uncanny that you actually have to go there to believe it. Here are some suggestions on how to spend a few days in this completely reinvented city.
History and overview:
Medellín was founded in 1616 when Spanish explorer Herrera Campuzano built a small village in the area of modern day El Poblado, which is today one of Medellín’s largest municipalities.
In 1826, Medellín was named capital city of the department of Antioquia, which it has remained ever since. In the 19th century, Medellín was a thriving trade hub exporting gold and later coffee. The region of Antioquia is one of the main coffee regions in Colombia and very rich in minerals.
The second half of the 20th century constitutes Medellín’s darkest hour. Colombia was choking under the violent conflicts between drug cartels, paramilitary groups, revolutionary forces and the government and the situation looked so bleak that the US State Department called the country a ‘nation on the brink of a failed state’. The infamous Medellín cartel led by Pablo Escobar ruled the city and conducted a multi-billion-dollar drug enterprise that led to unspeakable suffering and the highest murder rate in the world (nearly 8000 murders in 1989 in the city alone).
These days are fortunately long gone and Medellín has undergone an immense transformation. At the beginning of the 21st century, a group of local and international experts worked on a wide-ranging redevelopment plan to improve the city. The city obtained Colombia’s first metro, large investments in the fields of safety and a cable car system to connect the poor ‘comunas’ neighbourhoods that has since been emulated all over the world.
Medellín is nowadays Colombia’s second largest city and the new economic powerhouse of the region, don’t be fooled by the headlines though, half of Medellín’s residents still live in shanty towns and poverty, crime and drug traffic have not yet completely vanished.
Medellín natives are called paísas and extremely proud of their achievements. Medellín’s transformation is so drastic that the city won the prize for World’s most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute in 2013 and the city was named the Smart Cities best city to live in in South America together with Santiago de Chile by Indra Sistemas in 2016.
The best area to stay for foreigners is without a doubt El Poblado. Its high safety levels, modern buildings and incredible nightlife options give El Poblado the edge over other areas in Medellín. Some people dislike it because of the high proportion of tourists and expats living there but in our opinion, it is the only wise choice for a short stay.
Hotel Lleras 10: A great option very close to Parque Lleras and to El Poblado Metro station. This hotel delights travellers with its great price/quality relation, its crisp and modern rooms and its unbeatable location.
Happy Hostel: One of the coolest hostels in El Poblado with stylish rooms, great staff and all the amenities you could expect from a boutique hostel
Hotel du Parc Royal: A beautiful boutique hotel ideally situated a few minutes from Parque Lleras with charming and stylish rooms and great facilities.
Cultural offer and activities:
Museo de Antioquia: (Cl. 52 #52-43) The Antioquia museum is one of the best museums in Colombia and the perfect place to have a look at some of the finest Colombian art, notably the works of Fernando Botero, arguably Colombia’s most famous artist.
The Cable cars: Medellín’s cable car lines are fully integrated into the city’s public transit system and do a fabulous job in connecting the less fortunate ‘comunas’ neighbourhoods. Taking the cable cars and glancing at the sheer endless widths of improvised houses in the comunas is spectacular, impressive and humbling. There is a possibility to get out and walk through the comuna 13, one of the most famous former drug neighbourhoods but this guide does not recommend slum tourism. All the other comunas are no go areas for foreigners but taking the cable cars is safe and unproblematic.
Plaza Botero and city centre: The city centre of Medellín is full of cultural institutions and small markets and shops where you can buy literally everything. The centre moreover boasts a large variety of small local restaurants where you can try some of the local specialities, notably the famous Bandeja Paísa (a mix of meat and vegetables from the region). Note that it is not recommended to walk around the city centre at night.
Parque Arví: This large national park is located just a small cable car ride (Metrocable linea K) from the city centre and features several hiking trails and picknick spots. A great nature related activity when you get tired of the concrete jungle.
Pueblito Paísa (Little paísa village): This small village is located on top of a hill in the city centre and was designed to imitate a typical Colombian village. The village offers a great opportunity to learn about the traditional paísa culture and its observatories offer excellent views over the city.
Botanical Garden (jardín botanico) (Cl. 73 #51d14) The botanical garden is a great place for a stroll and a beautiful park with lots of different plants and animals. The garden moreover frequently hosts cultural events, such as the Medellín book festival.
Wine & Dine:
Restaurante Al Rojo: (Cra. 38 #8-09) A great restaurant in Parque Lleras with live music and a large assortment of local, Asian and international dishes.
Hooters: (Cra. 37a #844) Great burgers and other fried dishes and a large selection of local craft beers.
Mondongos: (Cra 10a #38) A great local restaurant where you can try all of Antioquia’s specialities such as the Bandeja Paísa and the large variety of traditional soups.
Medellín has some of the best nightlife in all of Latin America which speaks for itself. The two main areas to go out in Medellín are Parque Lleras and Evigados. The sheer number of options in Parque Lleras is incredible and the area is visited by locals and tourists alike. Envigados is a bit more spread out and less touristy.
Parque Lleras area: Probably the best nightlife area in Medellín. The options are sheer innumerable and extremely varied. You can find all the traditional latino dance clubs, American style crossover clubs, British style pubs and bars and Ibiza style electro clubs. A night out in Parque Lleras will never get boring and it is therefore our top nightlife pick in Medellín.
Envigados area: The second main nightlife area in Medellín with lots of options for party animals and night owls. Note that this area is a lot less touristy than Parque Lleras which makes it cheaper but also entails less police presence.
Bar La Octava: (Cl. 8 #3749) One of the coolest bars in Medellín which has several rooms and a terrace with a ball pool. This bar is in fact so popular among travellers that a lot of locals do not go there anymore, which is a shame because the bar is an absolute gem.
La Ruana de Juana: (Cl. 10 #41-75) An excellent club located a few blocks from Parque Lleras playing every kind of reggaeton and other latino music, frequented mostly by locals.
37 Park Bar: (Cra. 37 #8A – 4) A cool bar featuring a cozy terrace and a great drinks selection for a hip young crowd.
Final tips & verdict:
Medellín’s public transit system is second to none in Colombia and covers the whole city. The metro is cheap, reliable and fast while the official yellow taxis are also a good option.
Although Medellín is hailed for its progress in terms of safety, there are still lots of areas where you shouldn’t go. Apart from the comunas, the city centre is considered safe during the day but not at night. El Poblado and Envigados are considered safe at all times but as always, caution is still required.
When visiting Medellín, always check with a local or a hotel staff person whether an area you want to explore is safe as this can be hard to know, especially since good and bad areas frequently overlap.
English levels are very low in Medellín so make sure to learn some basic Spanish, this will be necessary in countless situations, especially if you plan to explore the city on your own.
Another important fact to know is that the paísas absolutely loathe every kind of tourism associated with Pablo Escobar and the same goes for the popular Netflix show.
The locals do not like their city’s former reputation and consider it very much a thing of the past. The paísas are very proud people and love their city but don’t get this wrong: they love their city as it is now and they love the recent developments but everything that happened in the past has to stay in the past and as a traveller, you ought to respect that.
As a conclusion, Medellín is a fantastic city. The mere fact that this city has reinvented itself is a reason to go but this is by far not Medellín’s only upside. The food and nightlife options in El Poblado and Envigados are mind blowing and Medellín’s cultural offer is great as well and so are the large parks located in and around the city.
On top of that, there are multiple day trips starting from Medellín which make the city the ideal starting point to explore more of Antioquia.