A First-Timer’s Guide to Medellin, Colombia
This year has been a whirlwind, with uprooting my life in Atlanta and relocating for my new job. So most of my travel this year has involved last-minute trips booked to take advantage of long weekends. And from my new home in Louisville, finding decent flights is a challenge—I take what I can get. So that’s all to say that I booked my trip to Medellin with little knowledge and few expectations.
I found myself intrigued, captivated, and challenged by Medellin in the few short days I was there. I saw and did so much in just a weekend, and had an amazing time. So I wanted to share the ultimate first-timer’s guide to this vibrant city!
Read all about my Colombian adventures:
When to visit Medellin
Medellin is called the “City of Eternal Spring”, so temperature-wise, really any time of year is great. Though in my opinion, it’s more like “City of Eternal June”—it was pretty darn warm when I was there! I ended up wishing I’d packed more sundresses and left my jeans at home.
When I asked a local about it, he laughed and said it must have been named before global warming 🙂 The wet season is March through August, so be prepared for rain if you visit during that time.
It also makes a great weekend or long weekend trip. It’s not a super long flight from most of the U.S., and like many cities you can really see a lot in just a couple days. I left super early on a Friday morning and got in late afternoon (because I no longer live in a major city, I have more layover time).
I left midday Monday, and had covered not only all the main things I wanted to see in Medellin, but also a full-day trip outside the city to see Guatapé and the famous El Peñol rock, plus a coffee farm tour.
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Tips for arriving in Medellin
I landed in the early afternoon and it took about 25-30 minutes to get through customs. I’d done my research ahead of time and knew that there were two ATMs outside of customs before I left the airport. Unfortunately there was a huge group of dude-bros (obnoxious frat guy backpacker types) who were all taking turns getting money, so I ended up waiting like 20 minutes in line to use the ATM…I don’t think that’s normal though.
Once I got my money, I got a cab, asking ahead of time how much it would cost. It was 70,000 pesos (around $22 USD), and while you don’t have to tip I did just a bit. I also had a minor anxiety attack in the cab because I was going through my money from the ATM and because the 50,0000-peso note doesn’t have all the zeros on it like the others, I thought for a minute that the machine hadn’t given me all my money. Whew, crisis averted!
It took us about 45-60 minutes winding our way through the mountains to reach my hotel. One exciting thing is that sometime in 2019, a tunnel is opening up that will cut that trip to more like 25-30 minutes.
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Getting around Medellin
You have quite a few options, depending on your time, budget, and where you’re going.
- Use the metro. It’s easy to navigate and really affordable. One recommendation I would make is making sure to purchase a round trip ticket or a day pass for the metro, especially if you’re taking the cable cars (the line for purchasing a return ticket at Santo Domingo was pretty long).
- Uber or taxi. I used both, depending, and both were fine.
- One note on Uber, I read that you’re supposed to get in the front seat (as awkward as this sounds), because even though it’s technically legal, it’s not really allowed? I don’t know all the ins and outs of this, but I played it safe, pretended like I knew the guy, and got in the front seat.
- Uber drivers and taxi drivers weren’t particularly chatty or friendly to me, which is fine but just wanted to mention in case it bothers you. Overall the people of Medellin *were*, so it was noticeable.
- Uber can sometimes be frustrating, as it takes a long time to get picked up or you’ll have multiple people cancel. It’s a great option if you’re in an area without a lot of cabs, but otherwise taxis are generally easier.
- Taxis should always use their meters, except the airport trip which I believe is a flat rate (70,000 pesos).
- Certainly you can walk at times—I did a lot. But make sure you know which areas are safe and which aren’t, and I’d recommend using a taxi or Uber after dark vs. walking, unless you are really familiar with the area or with a big group of people.
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Where to stay in Medellin
I looked at a few different neighborhoods, but ended up in El Poblado. If this is your first time in Medellin, and especially if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker, I think Poblado makes the most sense.
I stayed at the Diez Hotel Catagoria Colombia, and was quite happy with it. The location is great, in the heart of Poblado. It’s in easy walking distance to the cute streets of Barrio Provenza, lots of restaurants and the metro.
It has a lot of amenities and is clean and I felt very safe. My only complaints were that the walls were quite thin (so I could hear other people, though thankfully not at night) and the water wasn’t super hot. I’d completely recommend this hotel.
Things to do in Medellin
#1: Explore El Poblado & Parque Lleras
When I first arrived and got settled in, I spent some time exploring this neighborhood. It was only a 3-minute walk from the hotel, and during the day it’s a quiet, shaded neighborhood with cute little shops and restaurants.
After dark it transforms into a nightlife mecca, with crowds flocking to the thumping music and patios for dinner and drinks.
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One of the great things about Medellin overall, but that I really enjoyed in the El Poblado and Parque Lleras area, is the street art. It’s super bright and fun, and often in unexpected places (like the gorilla below, which I just happened to catch when I looked up).
#2: Immerse yourself in Medellin’s coffee scene
I’m a coffee obsessive, so Medellin and I are a match made in heaven. I made it my mission to try as many great coffee shops as I could find. First up was Pergamino, a charming little shop in El Poblado.
Get there early to beat the crowds, but no matter what time of day I visited, I was able to grab a seat.
Sit and sip your (absolutely delicious) coffee, try different beans and roasts, snack on a scone or muffin, and even get some work done if you’re in the mood. I sat and read and savored my smooth, rich latte.
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PSA: There’s a little Pergamino shop in the Medellin airport, perfect for grabbing a few last-minute gifts of coffee on your way home!
Next up was Ganso y Castor, known not only for coffee but as one of the best breakfast spots as well. I had breakfast here to fortify myself for my all-day tour outside the city, and immensely enjoyed my salmon eggs benedict and pancakes.
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Another must-visit coffee shop in the El Poblado neighborhood is Cafe Velvet, a little oasis of calm in the business of El Poblado. The coffee was delicious and the food fine (if not earth-shattering), and I loved the vibe of the inside seating!
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A couple other coffee or breakfast stops I wanted to try but couldn’t get to were Cafe Versalles (an institution serving up killer empanadas), and then getting further afield from the El Poblado neighborhood are Algarabia or Rituales in Laureles for a more indy coffee scene.
I did also go to Reposteria Astor, a local favorite for desserts. The homemade chocolates and candies looked quite impressive (but not my style) and I’ve heard the ice cream is great. I tried a few different things from the menu and they were good but not amazing. Since it was so far out of my way, I’d say it’s skippable unless you’re in the area.
#3: Try arepas con chocolo
While you’re seeking out the best coffee Medellin has to offer, make sure to try some traditional Colombian delicacies as well. I accidentally stumbled upon arepas con chocolo my very first morning in Medellin, at d’Andre Gourmet, right near my hotel.
While I was underwhelmed by the almond croissant, I finally got some of my Italian to work so was able to haltingly converse with the waitress, and she recommended I try the arepas con chocolo.
I wasn’t sure what that was, but was game. It is *not* chocolate (like it kind of sounds), but instead is an arepa made with fresh sweet corn rather than just dry corn meal. The taste different is AMAZING. These are so delicious, and I’d recommend eating them anytime you can find them!
There are several other Colombian delicacies I tried to find but just couldn’t quite connect with, like ajiaco (a chicken, corn, and potato stew that sounds delish; I’ve heard Mondongo’s is good for it), bunuelos (little cheesy fried dough balls), and obleas (thin wafer cookies with filling, a bit like a stroopwafel).
I did try the unripe green mango with salt and lemon at the top of El Peñol, and highly recommend it—super refreshing!
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#4: Cocktail and sunset from a rooftop bar
Medellin sits in a basin, surrounded by mountains. Because of that, there are a lot of great views to be had. One of the best is the bar Envy, atop the Charlee Hotel, and this is where I headed on my first night in Medellin.
Sadly the sunset was kind of underwhelming this evening, but it was a lovely view all the same. I highly recommend calling ahead and reserving a table if you want to sit near the windows!
I ordered a fancy gin & tonic and “sexy fries”, these batter-fried green beans. I couldn’t resist, with a name like that!
A couple other options for a sunset view are Zarzal Bar on Las Palmas and Restaurant Marmeleo.
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#5: Explore the sculptures of Plaza Botero
Fernando Botero is Medellin’s most famous artist, and you’ll find a huge concentration of his sculptures in the plaza bearing his name.
They’re incredibly distinctive and hard to miss, cheerful-looking fat people and animals scattered all over. You can tell which parts people rub for luck, like the Roman soldier’s…man parts 🙂
I was absolutely fascinated by the building in Plaza Botero, which looks like a church but is the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture.
It was designed by a Belgian architect in the Gothic Revival style, and I find the bi-colored brickwork absolutely fascinating. On a sunny day it photographs like a dream, particularly with those pointy trees. It is just incredibly visually striking.
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#6: Visit Plaza de San Antonio for a history lesson
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t spend a lot of time learning about the time of Pablo Escobar and the violent hold he had on the country. I’ve never watched Narcos because I’m a total baby and that crap scares me. So while I read a tiny bit about Medellin’s history in this area, I didn’t dig deep.
But one thing that is worth seeing that makes it more tangible is the exploded remains of a Botero bird statue in Plaza de San Antonio. A bunch of dynamite was stuffed into it and detonated before a big concert in 1995, killing 29 people and injuring more than 200 others.
This was emblematic of the violence and chaos perpetuated by the narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) on their own people. Botero has built a new statue that stands by the old one, a symbol of the peace he hopes Medellin has moving forward.
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#7: Take the metro cable cars for an amazing view
Because I was coming from Plaza Botero, I knew I was looking for the Parque Berrio metro station. For whatever reason I had the DARNEDEST time finding the station (it wasn’t labeled well on the front, so I kept walking past), but got my ticket and easily got on the right train.
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To get to the cable cars, you want to head toward Niquia, and then get off at the Acevedo stop to catch the cable car up to Santo Domingo. The signs are easy to follow once you’re headed in the right direction (you want Teleférico, which means cable car).
As I mentioned above, I recommend purchasing a round-trip ticket (or a day pass) so you don’t have to stand in line to buy a ticket coming back.
Then just enjoy your ride! On a sunny day, the views of Medellin were gorgeous. The cable cars were built to link the very poor shantytowns (communas) up on the hills to the main part of Medellin, which gave poorer people better access to the city. At just a couple dollars, it’s also the cheapest city tour you could imagine!
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I got off at Santo Domingo, though you can continue on to Parque Arvi if you are going early enough in the day (this does cost a little extra). This neighborhood used to be super dangerous, but these days you’re fine visiting in the daylight if you’re near the station.
My biggest complaint was that I didn’t research places to grab a coffee or bite to eat ahead of time (and there is very little cell signal up there). So I mostly just walked around for a few minutes and then grabbed a cable car back.
Look at how steep the ascent and descent are! One thing to make sure you notice when going both ways is the random art on some of the housetops, which I didn’t notice til late in the ride but found absolutely charming.
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#8: Splurge a little on a nice dinner
Because I was kind of in the area and hadn’t made reservations at one of the even swankier options (like Carmen), I ended up at Angus Brangus for dinner one night. I got a couple glasses of wine and a decent steak, and had the place all to myself (I know, I can’t do the 8pm dinner!).
Another night I bellied up to the bar at Burdo, in the Barrio Provenza near my hotel. It had a super cool vibe, like a fancy and somewhat Gothic Day of the Dead celebration.
I got a delicious drink and yummy-sounding salmon entree, and enjoyed the vibe before calling it an early night.
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#9: Take in some live music at 3 Cordilleras Brewery
This was definitely one of the cooler, more local-feeling things I did. The beer culture in Medellin is still developing, since most of what you’ll find is typical watery Latin American light beers.
But more and more craft options are popping up, and I decided to spend the evening at 3 Cordilleras checking them out.
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They have live music on weekends, so I paid 30,000 pesos (about $10 USD) for entry and 5 drink tickets. Yes, FIVE. Colombians not messing around. I was super early because it didn’t make sense to head back to the hotel after dinner, so got there around 7:30 but the band didn’t come on til 9:30.
When they did, it was amazing…like being back in high school! It was a cover band, and they did everything from Eagle Eye Cherry to Oasis to Pearl Jam to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Incredibly enjoyable.
I will say that they were out of their stout beer (SAD), so I ended up trying a few but sticking with the strawberry one (called rosada) most of the night. Odd and delightfully refreshing.
#10: Take an exotic fruits tour in Minorista Market
There are several great-sounding tours you can take in Medellin, including the incredibly popular free walking tour offered by Real City Tours. I wanted to take that but the timing didn’t work out.
Instead, I went with my pattern of seeking out food tours and took the highly-recommended Exotic Fruits Tour by the same company.
Read more about my exotic fruits tour experience here and the almost 20 different fruits we tried!
The tour company keeps groups small, which I prefer, and it was easy to meet up with them and our guide, German (her-man). He took us through Minorista market, telling us about the violent history of the market itself and introducing us to tons of crazy fruits.
It was a great tour and I highly recommend! The tour takes about 3 hours and costs $25 USD.
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#11: Learn about how coffee is grown
Now that you’ve sampled some of Medellin’s coffee shops, get out of the city and get your hands into the actual process. You have a bunch of different options, from a short visit to a full-day exploration.
Because I had a fairly short time and a packed itinerary, I decided to combine a few things and booked a private full-day tour that included a couple hours at a coffee farm near Guatapé.
Get an in-depth look at my coffee farm tour experience in this post!
Using my guide, Carlos, as my interpreter, I spoke with the farm’s owner, Miller. He took me out to the fields and I spent about half an hour picking the ripe berries myself.
Then he showed me how the beans are extracted, dried, processed, and then toasted. We enjoyed the fruits of our labors, sipping a smooth little cup of freshly-brewed coffee and a few bites of chocolate that Miller also made himself.
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#12: Find yourself charmed by colorful Guatapé
One of the first things you’ll read about Medellin is how you have to visit Guatapé, and I’m here to tell you that I agree.
Yes, it feels touristy. But the vibrant colors and intricately-detailed zocalos (tiles adorning the buildings). There isn’t a ton to DO here, it’s more about chilling, having a cup of coffee, a cinnamon roll, and enjoying the colorful spectacle.
Read more about soaking in Guatape’s colors here!
#13: Ascend El Peñon de Guatapé
A 10-million-ton rock once worshiped by ancient native people, today we have steeply-winding staircases to help us climb this giant rock rising out of the plain. Also called Piedra del Peñol, the main reason you’ll want to climb all 700+ steps is for the view of the surrounding area.
Read more about climbing El Penon here!
As you can see, it’s totally worth it!
While you’re in the area, stop for a few minutes at the replicated town of El Peñol—replicated because they had to move the original town when they flooded the area to create the reservoir.
Whew! As you can see, I really made the most of my weekend in Medellin! While it was my first time in the country, it was a great introduction to the culture and people of Colombia, and the weather makes it doable any time of year.
A few other Medellin tips:
- The sidewalks very uneven and often have big steps or breaks, so be super careful because they will legit kill you. This is not a place where you can look at your phone and walk around, you need to pay super close attention or risk breaking an ankle.
- One thing that was a little surprising to me was that there was not nearly as much English spoken as I thought there would be, since Medellin is a major hub of digital nomads from all over the world. Even in Poblado I didn’t find a lot of people who spoke English. This isn’t an issue since it’s their country and obviously it’s not their job to speak my language, I just hadn’t practiced some Spanish ahead of time and was caught off-guard.
- I wish I’d found this book ahead of time, it comes highly recommended: Colombian Spanish…To Help You Speak Like a Local.
- Google Translate is your friend!!
- One thing I did do was occasionally ask a local (like a waitress) whether a particular route was safe to walk. I usually showed them on Google Maps where I was thinking of going, and asked “¿Es este un lugar seguro para caminar?” Not perfect, but got the job done. I got some yes’s, and also some no’s (in which case I’d grab an Uber).
- Other places I wish I’d had time to visit
- Parque Arvi, an amazing park above the city covering over 17,000 square meters and offering views, hiking trails, farmers markets, and much more
- Puebelita Paisa, a nearby little town with a great view of the city, and (some say) the best bandeja paisa around
- Doing the free 4-hour walking tour from Real City Tours (people rave about it)
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