It was my first time visiting Medellín, Colombia. In fact, it was my first time in South America. Hearing so many wonderful things about the country of Colombia, I planned out a weeklong trip that started in Medellín first.
After spending three nights in what is known as the “city of eternal spring,” I wanted to share a bit about this city. A vast metropolis, Medellín seems to expand in every direction. As I made the descent down into the valley from the airport, it was hard to soak it all in. Towers upon towers sprawled across a lush, green city that climbed up the mountains. It was breathtaking.
Most of the time in Medellín was spent exploring El Poblado, the home base for most travelers visiting. The neighborhood is packed with bustling cafes, local boutiques, and top restaurants. One day was spent out in Guatapé, which was well worth the bus ride to soak in the views. The city is changing, at least from what the several locals shared with me. It became very apparent as to why it has started to become a traveler’s hotspot.
With all of this in mind, I want to share some detailed thoughts on my time there. Each section below address the more common questions, what I loved about the city, and more. Take a look at what to know about visiting Medellín.
The Complete Guide to Visiting Medellín
Safety in Medellín, Colombia
I am a firm believer in being transparent and I want to paint an accurate picture of my time in Medellín. Safety in Colombia is always the first question asked and for good reason. It wasn’t long ago that Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world with a violent past and drug-related problems. Today it is changing and there is a ton to love about the city, however, I walked away with mixed emotions on this.
How I felt in Medellín was conflicted. I traveled with my male cousin and I would not consider traveling alone here as a female traveler (personally). At times I felt completely safe in Medellín and other times I was on edge, being incredibly cautious and considerate of my surroundings. Certain neighborhoods should not be entered after dark like Comuna 13 and you’ll find most travelers sticking to El Poblado. There were moments that felt tense as we would walk through certain streets to return to our hotel and then other moments where I could have been in San Francisco at a hipster cafe.
How I felt in the city
We took a free walking tour in the center of town and it was one of the best things we did on the trip (I’d suggest doing this before anything else in Medellín.) There is a phrase in Colombia called “no dar papaya.” Its literal translation is “do not give papaya”, which means do not put yourself in a position for someone to take advantage of you. Like walking alone, showing off valuables, and more. On our tour, our guide would let us know the level of “dar papaya” on a scale of 1-10, 10 being you need to be incredibly cautious. In some areas of the center of town, it was level 7 and others at level 2.
Those level 7 moments were the moments that were the most intense. I felt out of place, nervous, and acutely aware of my surroundings. Then that same night, we returned to a swanky hotel with a rooftop bar with drinks that rivaled a trendy cocktail bar in NYC. It was that day I grappled with the contrast more than ever. So much to love about this innovative city and yet so much to improve in terms of security.
I am not an expert on safety and security, I can only offer up how I felt on this portion of the trip. I read a really interesting article by Skift this month titled “Medellin’s Tourism Challenge: Telling the Right Story of Its Violent Past.” It’s worth a read and does a proper dive into the current climate with statistics, a look at the past, and more. The article covers the topic in depth, something I am not equipped to address. I hope this insight and my own story gives a portrait of the two realities that are present today.
What to Know Before Visiting Medellín
Safety: The above section covers this more fully. I would recommend not to show off valuables, avoid walking alone at night and book accommodations that are in safe zones like El Poblado.
Transportation: The metro is the safest form of transportation. The metro is easy to use, just buy tickets before and enter the gates. Uber is also recommended or have your hotel call you a trusted taxi.
Money: The local currency is the Colombian Peso. You will need to have cash on you for some vendors, so I would recommend pulling money out at a local ATM from a trusted bank. Most restaurants/cafes will accept a credit card as well.
Travel Insurance: I recommend having it. My preferred insurance is World Nomads.
Amount of time: For Medelliín, you could spend three to four days pending on how many day trips. At least two full days are needed in the city.
What to Expect at Medellín Airport
With multiple direct flights landing at José María Córdova International Airport, it’s an easy city to reach. When you land, expect a small customs area and a baggage area. Make sure to fill out that customs form properly — it is in Spanish so ask a flight attendant to help if needed. On arrival, you’ll be confronted with drivers offering to give rides to Medellín. Please use the official taxi line or Uber (we took Uber) for a trusted driver. It’s about a 45 minute to an hour drive into Poblado area.
On departure, security is pretty relaxed and like most major airports, the terminal is outfitted with amenities. If you’re flying domestically, the domestic terminal is rather minimal with a few cafes and shops.
The weather in Medellín is different from the rest of Colombia due to its elevation. During the day it can get hot and humid and at night it will cool off. The winter months are cooler so be prepared for a light jacket and sweater.
Dress in Medellín is not like Cartagena. Walking around in flip flops and cut-off shorts is not recommended as you’ll stick out. The dress is very proper and rivals that of Manhattan. Men are typically in collared shirts and pants and the women dress incredibly well. I wish I had brought more pants + blouses for the dinners in Poblado especially.
Where to Stay in Medellín
The only neighborhood I can recommend with confidence is El Poblado. We had three nights here and it was the best base for being able to walk out at night for dinner and quick access to other sights in the city. Here are the top three hotels:
- Art Hotel: We had all three nights booked here. The rooms are basic but somewhat trendy at the same time. For the price point, I feel you get good value on the stay. With included breakfast on the rooftop, it’s a good base for visiting Medellín.
- Celestino Boutique Hotel: If you’re willing to spend a bit more, this is the boutique hotel I would opt for. It’s well located and is intimate with great design.
- The Charlee Hotel: This is another great option in El Poblado as it has a ton of rooms and is centrally located. It comes up as the most recommended a hotel each time across guides and TripAdvisor.
Things to Do in Medellín
- Take a free walking tour: The best thing we did was a four-hour walking tour with Real City Tours. I would recommend doing this first on arrival and reserving. You’ll walk through a lot of the main sights in town as well, all while learning from a local about the history and present happenings in Medellín.
- Visit Museo Casa de La Memoria: This museum shares about the Colombian conflict from the viewpoint of the victims and more. It came recommended from our tour guide as an opportunity to learn more about the local history.
- Explore Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín: If you’re looking for modern art in the city, come here.
- Take a day trip to Guatapé: One of the best days spent on a guided tour to Guatapé. I share all about the experience in full on this post.
- See the Fernando Botero Angulo sculptures: Head to Plaza Botero to see the famous sculptures.
- Take a gondola ride: The gondola rides in Medellín are amazing for scenery. We opted to take the one over Comuna 13, didn’t get out and came back. You can take it up to Parque Arvi as well as an alternative.
- Try local coffee: Pergamino in El Poblado is the place to go. The menu features a wide selection of roasts from local farms they source from.
- Enjoy the Joaquín Antonio Uribe Botanical Gardens: One of the best spots that are completely free to visit is the botanical gardens.
- Consider a Comuna 13 Tour: It’s hard to mention Medellín and not the name Pablo Escobar and Comuna 13. During the day, there are many free walking tours that explore this infamous neighborhood’s art scene. I would recommend a guided tour here during the light hours. We were going to join one and decided not to as it was too hot in the middle of the day. I would come earlier in the day.
- Head to Parque Lleras for Nightlife: If you’re in El Poblado, no doubt you’ll hear the music coming from this hotspot for salsa and more.
Best Restaurants in Medellín
- OCI.mde: This was our last meal in town and one of the favorites for a modern take on Colombian food. It’s upscale and the restaurant has a ton of energy. *Reserve in advance.
- Vaggart: This is the rooftop restaurant at the Art Hotel and the food was really good. It was more of a bar menu but loved it!
- Empanadas at the corner of Avenida Caraboobo and Calle 52: These were my favorite, I can’t find the name on the map but if you’re headed to Plaza Botero, it is right there on the corner.
- Burdo: Popular spot for both drinks and casual bites.
- El Tejadito: Come here for stuffed arepas, so delicious!
- Cerveceria Libre: For a local brewery, come here and try their beers on tap. The “passion” was my favorite.
- La Bronco: Favorite cocktails were here and the food looked good as well.
- Coffee at: Pergamino, Rituales or Cafe Velvet.