Deciding what to do in Medellín? There’s an abundance of adventure on offer in Colombia’s valley-cradled second city.
As transformations go, Medellín’s is quite the glow up. Once off-limits to your average tourist and synonymous with cartel carnage, Medellín is now a proud, safe, and sophisticated modern metropolis that welcomes more and more travelers each year.
A balmy climate, friendly local paisas, and a jovial atmosphere make for the city’s culture especial. Got your Spanish phrasebook ready? Here’s your ultimate guide for what to see, what to eat, and what to do in Medellín.
What to do in Medellín: Neighborhoods to Visit
No matter where you decide to lay down your backpack / suitcase / Louis Vuitton bindle, the city’s beloved public transport system means you’re able to explore easily from almost any Medellín district.
Different areas have different vibes. Whether you’re looking for a place to stay or areas to soak up the atmosphere, check out these Medellín neighborhoods to get a feel for the city.
Traditionally, hilly El Poblado is one of Medellín’s tourist hubs. It’s a thriving, upmarket neighborhood that comes to life after dark. With high-end restaurants and hotels surrounded by boisterous nightclubs and bars, it’s the place to be if you’re looking for lively evening adventure.
If you’re looking for something quieter, Envigado and the neighborhood of La Frontera is an option. Technically, Envigado is its own municipality, but don’t let that put you off. It’s an airy residential area, close to the action, with green spaces and a real community feel.
Laureles has won the hearts of travellers in recent years. It’s got the vibrancy of El Poblado, but with a more authentic Colombian feel. If you gravitate towards chill restaurants and hip cafés, head to leafy Laureles.
The pros of El Centro are obvious: centrality, proximity to the most interesting historical landmarks and sightseeing spots. Just be careful at night – like in any big city, you need your wits about you, and it’s home to some interesting characters.
A little out of the way, what Sabaneta lacks in centrality it makes up for in atmosphere. It’s an authentic barrio (neighborhood), a friendly and old school pueblo (village). Another area governed by its own municipality, it’s a laid-back corner with a giant park, well connected to central areas by metro.
An old and charming part of town, Bélen is a trendy neighborhood easily reachable via metro. If you’re looking for an all-rounder, Bélen has it all, from party spots to modern malls and family-run pastelerias.
What to do in Medellín: Museums & Culture
There’s a wealth of things to do in Medellin to scratch your cultural itch. Whether it’s art, history, or tiny poisonous frogs that make your brain fizz, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Fernando Botero’s city.
Get a rounded look at Colombian art inside Museo de Antioquia
Museo de Antioquia is a symbol of Medellín’s transformation. Renovated in 1997, the art museum is a culture trove that reflects both Colombia’s proud heritage and its modernity.
One of the biggest draws of the museum is its large collection of work by Colombian hero Fernando Botero. You’ve likely seen Botero’s amusingly rotund caricatures, in memes, on the walls of vintage stores, or as bathroom decoration in German football bars (true story).
Taking pride of place inside the Palacio Municipal on Plaza Botero, the museum’s art spills out into the square, with 23 of his bronze sculptures flanking the main entrance.
Inside, visitors gravitate toward the third floor dedicated to Botero’s world. Sometimes voluptuous but always voluminous, his animals, common folk, and historical figures fill the halls, each with their own socio-political subtext.
Botero is the star, but there are 17 rooms to enjoy displaying a timeline of art that stretches from pre-Columbian times through colonization and beyond. See photographs, cartoons, and sculptures by Colombian artists; the murals of Pedro Nel Gómez; plus work by the likes of Picasso and Rodin.
Understand Colombia’s troubled past at Casa de la Memoria
For 30 years, Medellín gained a reputation around the globe as the most violent city on Earth. During the destructive era of Pablo Escobar’s brutal drug cartels in the ʼ80s and ʼ90s, and later paramilitary warfare, thousands of Colombians died or disappeared.
There’s much more to celebrate these days, but Museo Casa de la Memoria is a designated space to reflect on and reconcile the conflict in Colombia’s recent past. It aims to remember and process times during which most people’s primary concern was survival.
Opened in 2012, this free museum houses multimedia exhibits in multiple languages, video and audio testimonies from victims and perpetrators, art by Colombian artists, and much more.
Marvel at science with a visit to Parque Explora
You can’t miss Parque Explora. This science and technology hub is an architectural highlight of Downtown Medellín, a row of tetris-like red blocks surrounded by trees and plant life.
Inside there are over 300 engrossing activities through which subjects like biodiversity, physics and even neuroscience become easier to comprehend. It’s a hit with locals, and a go-to for parents debating what to do in Medellín with kids.
Better still, it’s home to the largest freshwater aquarium in South America. Here you can see water wonders from the Amazon rainforest (10% of which is in Colombia), poisonous snakes, majestic axolotls, and loads of fish only found in Colombia.
Get lost in green at Jardín Botánico
The trumpets playing as you enter the jungle-like Jardín Botánico give it a kind of Jurassic Park feel, without the nagging threat of being flanked by velociraptors.
A 34-acre urban oasis, Jardín Botánico bills itself as a living museum, a conservator of Colombian flora that belongs to the people of Medellín. Highlights include a butterfly house, the Orquideorama, a large lake, and plenty of quiet spots to breathe in that fresh O2.
There are few better places to be on a warm day in the city. The gardens are free to enter, and there’s a handful of cosy restaurants, including one inside a converted antique train carriage. Jardín Botánico is a great option if you’re at a loss for things to do in Medellín.
Experience the grandeur of Museo El Castillo
El Castillo may look like something out of France’s Loire Valley, but this magical castle and its lush gardens sit right in the middle of El Poblado.
The passion project of Europhile José Tobón Uribe, El Castillo was built in 1930, and is based on the Gothic style the Colombian physician was charmed by on his travels.
Inside you’ll find walls adorned with art by native and European artists. There‘s original antique furniture, and twinkling chandeliers to make for that opulent atmosphere. The gardens are well kept, and it’s a pleasant picnic spot.
What to do in Medellín: Outdoor and Adventure
Blessed with leafy surroundings and an outdoor state of mind, the people of Medellín have lots of options when it comes to fresh-air excursions.
From day trips to nearby towns, to literally flying above the city, make sure to get a good dose of the outdoors during your Medellín stay.
Hike the scenic trails of Parque Arví
If the great outdoors is your cup of Colombian joe, then head for the hills. The Parque Arví nature reserve is set across 40,000 acres, 30 km to the south-west of Medellín. Another benefactor of the city’s excellent transport system, you can reach Parque Arví by Metrocable. An adventure in itself!
The park is a protected space for ecotourism, proudly highlighting the best of Colombia’s rich environmental, cultural, and archaeological heritage.
Take on a 54 km network of trails by bike or by foot, with multilingual guides leading the way should you choose to take a tour. The tours are led by friendly experts, focusing on archaeology, wildlife, flowers, and even the country’s myths and legends.
See Colombian wildlife at Parque de la Conservación
In 2020, Medellín’s popular Santa Fe Zoo became Parque de la Conservación. With the change of name came a bold new strategy to become a hub for wildlife conservation and rehabilitation in Colombia.
The experience at Parque de la Conservación is an exercise in educational gawping. You can admire the incredible animals, and learn how you can secure them a safer future. This is particularly true for jaguars, bears and primates, all of which are the focus of new conservation projects.
The park provides a lush retreat right in the city hubbub. It’s home to 500 species of trees and plants, and you’ll find almost a thousand animals, from spider monkeys to flamingos and zebras.
Go paragliding in the hills
Maybe paragliding wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when starting your list of things to do in Medellín. But a tandem flight overlooking both the lego-like city and the rolling green of Antioquia is an unscripted highlight for many travellers.
Many of the hotels and hostels in Medellín will have a hook-up with a local paragliding outfit, who’ll organize shuttling you up to the heady heights of San Felix.
It’s a wonderful mirador with feet planted, but the adrenaline rush of soaring above the city is worth the 50 USD (160,000 COP) it’ll set you back for a 20-minute flight.
These aren’t cowboy operations. Medellín boasts a tight and safety-first community of pilots and instructors to make sure you don’t die, or worse, miss out on evening beers.
Take a day trip to Guatapé
Just 90 minutes outside of Medellín is the reservoir town of Guatapé. Known for its colorful houses and the biggest rock you’ve seen outside of a wrestling ring, it’s a popular day trip for visitors to Medellín.
There’s plenty to see and do in Guatapé. Climbing El Peñol is a highlight. This enormous granite slab sticks out of the landscape like a giant thumb, and you’ll see the 200-meter-tall monolith from miles away on your approach to the town.
Climb the 740 steps carved into the side, stop by a shrine to the Virgin Mary on the way up, then gaze out at the incredible view from the summit.
The town of Guatape is a treat in itself, known for its brightly colored houses decorated with fresco-like artworks. Take time to walk the luminous streets, and take photos to send home to your mother, who is guaranteed to reply with something like “Oh wow, so pretty!”.
Take a day trip to Santa Fe de Antioquia
A 90-minute drive north-west of Medellín is Santa Fe de Antioquia. Formerly the state capital, this pretty colonial town sits in a state of sun-kissed snooze 60 km outside the city.
Authentic, charming, and quiet, a day trip to enjoy Santa Fe de Antioquia’s cobbled streets and cozy cafés is a must, and it’s all the better for being a less tourist-heavy location. It’s the perfect place to just explore. No plan or itinerary, just good, clean wanderlust.
Make sure to check out Puente del Occidente. This nearly 150-year-old suspension bridge over the great Cauca River was once the longest of its ilk in South America, and is inspired by New York’s Brooklyn Bridge.
What to do in Medellín: Walking Tours
There’s something special about wandering the streets of Medellín with a local guide.
The people of Medellín are proud of their city and that tourists are flocking to it. Don’t be surprised if they make an effort to share a smile, or make a beeline for you to have a chat.
The free walking tour put on by Real City Tours is one of the things to do in Medellín. If you spend long enough in the downtown area, you’ll likely see an enthralled gaggle of gringos tuned-in to storytellers wearing red polos.
The troubles of the not-so-distant past are still fresh in the memories of locals, so Medellín walking tours give the right amount of focus to them. It really is the perfect way to understand Medellín and Colombia’s recent history.
The tours don’t venture to Comuna 13. Instead you’ll get an honest, accurate, non-dramatized look around the city as you visit the likes of San Antonio Square, City Hall, the old railway station, and Botero Square. Nothing in life comes free: tip generously!
What to do in Medellín: Futbol
In Colombia, football is king. The national team’s biggest stars are household names, and their faces are used to sell everything from toilet roll to breakfast cereal and police recruitment.
In Medellín there are two main teams to follow if you want to get a feel for South America’s most passionate pastime.
Like all good football rivalries, fans of Atletico Nacional (green) and Deportivo Independiente Medellín (red) would pawn their grandmas if it would guarantee a few weeks of city bragging rights.
Atletico (Los Verdolagas) are the most successful team in Colombia with 16 league titles. Ever in their shadow, Independiente (El Rojo Paisa) trail behind with five.
The fact that the two sides share home turf gives the rivalry that bit more bite, and getting to a game at Estadio Atanasio Girardot is a worthwhile experience, whichever team you choose to see on a matchday.
More often than not you can buy tickets on game day, unless it’s for a big cup game or when the teams face off in El Clásico Paisa. Just make sure you wear the right colours!
What to do in Medellín: Nightlife
The Medellín nightlife is undoubtedly one of the best things about the city. And it’s not just the above-average ratio of beautiful papacitos and mamacitas.
On any given night, there’s a good choice of spots to sink a few Aguilas and contemplate the Latin-American musical sensation that is reggaeton. You just need to know where to go.
If you go out in Medellín, you’re more than likely going to spend time in El Lleras (especially if you’re a gringo). This El Poblado party district has all the evening amenities in the same place: bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, with options catering to all tastes and budgets.
Increasingly, the area of Provenza is luring revellers from the established night out in Parque Lleras, with the promise of chilled rooftop terraces and some of the best cocktails in town. You can dip between Provenza and El Lleras during an evening, depending on how the wind and poor choices take you.
If the idea of tumbling home at 4:00am with bass-damaged ears is appealing to you, the popular nightclubs of Barrio Colombia could be exactly what you’re looking for. This exclusive area might empty your wallet quicker than other party spots.
Via taxi or designated driver, a trip into the hills to Las Palmas is an oft-missed Medellin nightlife opportunity. With breezy climes and stellar views over the city, it’s a bit more upmarket, and provides a great atmosphere to see out the day over a few cervezas.
Want to party with the locals? Bring your phrase book to LA 33 if you don’t speak the lingo. Here you’ll find paisa bars and clubs, a mix of music and themes, and affordable prices. Don’t sweat it if your español no es bueno – head to Public House for pints and a basic level of communication.
Restaurants, street food, cozy bars and all-night clubs, with that authentic Colombian feel. La 70 is the party mile of Medellín, a loco lane of dancing, drinking, occasional debauchery, and hazy memories.
What to do in Medellín: Food & Drink
The best accompaniment to any city trip is large helpings of local food. You can bet Medellín has its own feast of traditional snacks for you to get tucked into during your visit.
The bandeja paisa makes an English breakfast look like a reduced-calorie meal. This is the most famous dish in Antioquia, the one you really should try unless you value your arteries and/or lead a meat-free life (vegetarians are excused – in fact, maybe don’t read the next part).
Bandeja means tray, and this gluttonous slab comprises red beans cooked with pork, plus rice, ground beef, chicharrón, fried egg, plantain, chorizo, arepa, blood sausage, and bit of avocado for those trying to watch their figure.
Marranitas, literally little pig girls, are glorious balls of flavor. Pork belly is encased in plantain and deep fried to deliciousness. They’re not a local delicacy – marranitas found popularity in the Valle del Cauca region of Colombia and spread around the country.
Next on this deep-fried journey through the clogged arteries of Colombia: the iconic empanada. When done right, these miniature pockets are the perfect snack. Choose your salsa, and opt for an empanada filled with your chosen mix of piping-hot beef, potatoes, onions, cheese, and rice.
You won’t get out of Colombia without eating an arepa. These round, thick, corn tortillas have been around for thousands of years. They may seem bland and pointless at first, but give them a chance. Arepas are plain so that other flavors may thrive.
Try the paisa arepa, topped with butter and cheese. Or, look out for a variant more popular on the coast, the egg-stuffed arepa de huevo.
Chicharrón is a deep-fried piece of pork belly that can be eaten as a snack, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or even sloppily at the end of night out. It’s a very common sight in local restaurants, especially as part of a bandeja paisa.
Medellín might be the City of Eternal Spring, but a bowl of hearty bean casserole goes down a treat in all seasons. Traditional Colombian frijoles can consist of black beans, pork rinds, shredded meat, sweetcorn, avocado, and an arepa.
No, not the microwavable kind. Good Colombian tamales come wrapped in plantain leaves. A corn dough shell is filled with anything from meat, cheese, vegetables, or beans. The local tamales Antioqueños usually consist of pork, potatoes, carrots, and beans.
This banana-like fruit is a staple ingredient in Colombian cuisine, and there are lots of ways you can enjoy it.
Fried patacones are a quick and easy snack, and can be accompanied by meats and cheeses. You’ll also see grilled plantain in some dishes like fritangas and picadas, and platano frito as a cheeky side.
Chocolate caliente con queso
Cocoa with cheese. Yes, really. It’s either delicious or an abomination, depending on who you speak to.
It’s important to remember that not all chocolate comes laced with sugar. The hot chocolate in Colombia is often bitter because it’s made from pure dark chocolate.
Chocolate caliente con queso is a popular drink throughout Latin America, but Colombians have their own special ingredient: soft, salty, melt-in-the-mug, spoon-from-the-bottom cheese. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Gringos are often surprised by how much they like it!
Is Medellín safe?
How safe is Medellín? The answer is very. Even now, Medellín struggles to shake its old reputation as dangerous and off-limits. But the truth is, aside from taking obvious precautions as you would in any big city, you have nothing to fear visiting Medellín. It’s a beautiful city full of friendly people and memorable experiences.
How far is Medellín from Bogota?
It’s quite a distance from Medellín to Bogota – 400km as the condor flies. If you don’t want to brave the nine-hour bus journey from Antioquia to Cundinamarca, flights between Medellín and Bogota are very reasonably priced.
What does Medellín mean?
Medellín has no ‘meaning’ or literal translation. The name of Colombia’s second city has colonial roots, chosen by bearded (a safe bet) conquistadors who came from a small Spanish village of the same name.
What is a paisa?
Paisa is simply a word for the people of Medellín, Antioquia, and other areas of northwest Colombia. It derives from the word “paisana”, meaning “countryman”. It’s a friendly term of cultural identity, and paisas are known for being kind, welcoming, hospitable people.