21 Things To Do In Medellin, Colombia
What to do in Medellin, Colombia?
The ‘city of eternal spring’ sits shrouded in the Antioquian countryside. Thick forested hills guide the road into Colombia’s best city, where orange towers poke out through the greenery. From the first glimpse, Medellin’s unorthodox beauty lives up to its fashionable new reputation. The capital of Colombian transformation, the city is fast developing into one of the most desirable tourist destinations around.
Her lively streets are steeped in history, and in rejuvenated personality. In El Poblado colourful street art contrasts with low hanging jungle foliage, music from the bars mingles with waterfalls. In El Centro, you’re lost in the manic rush of daily life, swept up immediately amongst the local hubbub. You’ll learn stories in Comuna 13, discover passion while spectating at el Estadio, find tranquillity in the city’s many parks. You’ll come to know the paisas, and come to know the character of Medellin.
I knew from my first day in Medellin that it would be my home for the next couple of months, and I miss it every day since I’ve been away.
Here, I’m covering just some of the weird and the wonderful things to do in Medellin, Colombia.
The Pablo Escobar Tour
If you want to talk about Pablo Escobar in public in Medellin, you have to call him ‘he who must not be named’. Emotions, both positive and negative, about the man are evident immediately if the topic is mentioned in the narco’s home city. With so many of Medellin’s residents being so closely, personally effected by the drug wars that plagued Colombia in the 20th century, this is unsurprising.
Many people struggle with the idea of narco-tourism. With the idea that foreigners are travelling to Colombia specifically because of Narcos, or because they idolise volatile terrorists that made the country one of the most dangerous in the world for its inhabitants. I have my own mixed feelings. However, not only is it an important part of understanding the history of Medellin, it’s an incredibly interesting opportunity to gain a perspective on local opinions about the man. His grave is covered in fresh bouquets of flowers every day, which are pissed on almost every day. Some people hang pictures of Escobar portrayed as an angel or a second coming of the lord, some consider him the physical manifestation of the devil himself. The divide is curious and, in my opinion, worth exploring.
There are many, many tours that run in Medellin, taking tourists to key sites in the story of the narcotrafficantes. Most are run by tour companies with little personal knowledge of the man or the story. However, there is a tour that is run by close friends and family of the kingpin. You’ll be introduced to the living members of the cartel, who are open to some surprisingly probing questions. You’ll be shown round Pablo’s house, be driven through the city in his car, by his driver, through the neighbourhoods that he built. It’s the only opportunity you will have to speak face to face with the people at the core of the war, and the only opportunity to understand their mindsets, and their stories.
The mayor of the city is trying to shut these tours down, in an effort to clean the city of her violent past and to make it a more appealing place for the more fashionable tourists that fill Medellin in recent years. You have to decide for yourself if learning about the history negates looking to the future.
It’s pretty dark, but if you’re interested in that side of the city’s history you can get many questions answered. The only way to book tours is to send a Whatsapp to one of the organisers at (+57) 3128898781.
Free walking tours
Free walking tours are a staple of South American towns and cities. Always an insightful experience, teaching about the history, politics and culture of the guides’ home towns. Learn about the history of Medellin beyond its infamous reputation, and take a walk around the downtown area of the city, typically skipped by those who just stay in El Poblado and get closer to the action in the heart of Medellin. This tour is often noted as one of the best free walking tours in Latin America, and should definitely be done at the start of your visit to Medellin, so that you can understand the paisa personality from the get-go.
Comuna 13 tour
Comuna 13 is a famously violent district high in the hills of Medellin. Suffering decades under the control of guerrilla, paramilitary groups, the district saw death and destruction on a daily basis. Now, Comuna 13 is a beacon of transformation in Medellin and in Colombia. A hotspot for local art, and for large tour groups, taking a visit to Comuna 13 can help you to understand the relationship that the city has with her past and her future. It is possible to do without a tour, and possibly better to do so, which I’ve written more in my full post on the district here.
A day trip out to the small neighbouring town of Guatape is a necessary excursion for tourists staying in Medellin. The quaint town itself is overshadowed by the colossal El Penol, and the incredibly views over the Antioquian countryside. It is possible to take a guided tour from Medellin, or to just get the bus out and explore for yourself. Read my full guide to the town here.
Watch a football match
Attending a live football match is a rite of passage in Latin America. They don’t have the finesse of the European football leagues, the staggering stadiums of the USA, or the global appeal of the premier league, but they’re a hell of a party. With unadulterated passion, full litres of aguardiente being poured for all fellow fans, and the occasional large fight breaking out from nowhere, there isn’t one boring second at a Colombian football match.
Go down to Estadio, grab a ticket at the office or, with quite a bit of caution, from a hawker, and perch amongst the huge crowd inside the stadium. After, head out to the wild parties found on nearby Calle 70 and avoid anybody looking a bit too rowdy.
Playing local sports at unidad deportiva de Belén Andrés Escobar
With an Olympic sized swimming pool, a running track and outdoor exercise equipment, you can join the locals in getting sweaty for free. Open free to the public at select times, an afternoon at the complex can offer a respite from the sight seeing and offer the opportunity for a spot of fun and games.
There is also free exercise equipment available outside Estadio Atanasio Girardot, right next door to Estadio metro station, which is always freely open to the public.
Mayorista Central Market
Thousands of vendors cater to customers from every corner of Colombia in Medellin’s biggest produce market, Mayorista. The outdoor complex of little warehouses are stocked daily by the Antioquian farmlands that surround the city, selling fruits freshly picked just hours before. Go down to the market early in the morning if you’re looking to compete with the restaurateurs for the best of the produce, or at mid-morning if you want to see the market at its most lively and hectic. The market winds down by around midday. Vendors are always ready to provide free samples, so this is a great opportunity to try some of the more unusual fruits available in Medellin, such as uchuva or sour curuba. Travelling across Latin America really opened my eyes to how many fruits there are in the world that I’ve never even imagined before, lost to European or Asian cuisines.
Placita de Flores
Medellin’s flower market is home to a mix of the, expected, flower stands and butcher shops, with some fresh produce vendors thrown into the fray. A small and historic market, Placita de Flores caters to individual buyers more than restaurants or wholesellers, making for a more relaxed atmosphere and a snippet of daily local life.
Plaza Minorista José María Villa
The most popular market for tourists seeking a slice of Medellin’s local culture, Plaza Minorista resembles the grungy but animated markets that are commonplace across Latin America. Given an indoor space to trade in after straight-up refusing to move their stands from the plaza, the bullheaded vendors established a home for themselves. Check out the brightly painted signs hanging over every stand, peruse yet another astonishing array of bizarre and beautiful local fruits, and hang out at one of the sit-down juice bars for a refresher. As with any Latin market, the best way to get to know the market is to chat to the vendors, practice your Spanish and get to know some of the people who have sat at these stands through the best and the worst of Medellin’s tumultuous history.
A famous instalment hanging over the city, the cable cars leading up to poorer neighbourhoods in the hills around Medellin are a symbol of progressive infrastructure and transformation in Colombia. Flying over the poorest parts of towns, full of people, and then over silent forests, you’ll finally reach Parque Arvi. With spectacular views over Medellin, you can quickly come to understand why its gaining a reputation for its unorthodox beauty. An archaeological site and ecological reserve, Parque Arvi is a sight to see in itself, with ample opportunity to wander forested trails in the Antioquian countryside. Its also home to a farmers market at the weekends, if you haven’t quite seen enough markets yet.
The light installations towering over Plaza Cisneros are a symbol of change and hope in modern Medellin. Once one of the most dangerous areas in the city, on the doorstep of cartel HQ, the plaza is now home to pop up art displays about the violence that they’ve overcome, and to a busy and vibrant community in the day time. In the centre of the city, close to market stalls and shopping malls, it’s a popular spot for local families to relax. Despite the progress made, I would still recommend avoiding this area at night. Crime may be down, but it’s not dead.
The Botanical Gardens
El Jardín Botánico de Medellín Joaquín Antonio Uribe may be a mouthful to mention, but the city’s botanical gardens are a secluded slice of Colombia’s natural beauty in the middle of town. Housing exotic plants from across the second most bio-diverse country in the world, tranquil spaces to sit and enjoy the fresh air, and some very fat iguanas, the gardens are a great spot to relax and are totally free to visit.
Parque de los Pies Descalzos inspires locals and tourists alike to become more in touch with nature, encouraging visitors to walk barefoot through the dewy grasses, dip into cooling pools or enjoy the bamboo meditation space. Take a picnic with you, enjoy the meditative mood present in the park, and enjoy Medellin’s perfect climate in the open green spaces.
Cerro de la Tres Cruxes
Hiking in the forested mountains that surround the city offers an opportunity to escape to nature, to get some exercise, and to get views of Medellin that are worth the energy. Taking around 30-40 minutes to reach the ‘Hill of the Three Crosses’, you start the hike in town and end up on a secluded grassy spot, where you can buy fresh juices and enjoy the calm. The climb is best made in the mornings, before the heat of the day really sets in.
Various works by the famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero are on display in the square that bares his name. The modernist bronze sculptures were donated to the city by the artist, as a part of their rehabilitation of previously dangerous parts of the city. Surrounded by impressive buildings, the square is a must see for any traveller with an eye for art and design. Many of the artists other works are on display in Medellin’s modern art museum.
Casa de la Memoria
As much as the city hopes to disassociate itself from the history of the Medellin cartel, of the death and the destruction and the civil war, they can’t forget the lives that were lost to senseless violence over the last few decades in Medellin. Casa de la Memoria is an emotional foray into the memory of the innocent people murdered in the city, the victims of Colombia’s era of terrorism. The museum is hard-hitting, but crucial to understanding the complex history of the city, and to fully comprehending how far they have come in such a short period of time. Many of the residents of the city suffered first hand in these wars, many have lost friends and family, many have stories to tell. Remembering this is important when getting to know Medellin and her inhabitants.
Including interactive displays, art exhibitions, photography, and signs detailing the cruel history and its local victims, the museum is emotionally harrowing but incredibly informative.
Museo de Antioquia
You can while away for hours exploring the halls of Museo de Antioquia. The aforementioned iconic Colombian artist, Fernando Botero, donated much of the collection himself. You can check out some of his works, as well as art from across Colombia, and select pieces from around the world. An impressive collection, and a great spot to spend a couple hours in the shade at the hottest times of day.
This interactive science museum is a great place to play, for adults, kids, and those who find themselves stuck somewhere in between. Ranging from live physics displays, mind games, dinosaur exhibits, an aquarium, vivarium and children’s section, there are hours on entertainment to be had. Indulge your inner geek for the afternoon.
Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellin
A trip to el MAMM is crucial for any fan of modern art. A large and well curated collection of local and international modern art, the museum introduces fresh exhibitions regularly, and often hosts cultural events. It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours if you’re interested in modern art, and its housed in a cool and up and coming neighbourhood, Ciudad del Rio, which is worth checking out in itself.
The epicentre of El Poblado’s nightlife, Parque Llares is the ideal jump off point for a night of debauchery and fun, home to a wide range of bars, clubs and crowds of people drinking in the street. While this area is more geared towards the gringos than in more residential regions of Medellin, you can still find gaggles of locals and students at bars like El Social. If you want to indulge fully in the gringo furore, you can check out the back room ball pits and reggaeton karaoke nights.
For a full guide to where to go on a night out in Medellin, in El Poblado and beyond, check out this guide.
Medellin is separated into districts, or comunas. These in turn are comprised of various barrios, or neighbourhoods. You’ll probably stay in El Poblado, the centre of tourism and the home of most of the hostels and hotels in the city, but if you want to check out the more local parts of the city you can check out my guide to those neighbourhoods here.
You could spend months in Medellin without ever getting bored. You’ll never tire of her people or her personality. If you’re planning to visit Colombia, this city should be the number one destination on your list.
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