Things to do in Medellín
If you are considering visiting Colombia, Medellín is a can’t miss destination. Sure, Bogotá as the capital and political hub, and Cartagena with its history and cruise-ship port get all of the fame and glory, but Medellín is by far the most dynamic and exciting city destination in Colombia.
In fact, Medellín is so dynamic that it has twice been named World Travel Rewards top city destination in South America and was the 2022 winner for emerging destination. The El Poblado neighborhood was on the New York Time’s 2023 list of places to visit, and the Boston Globe just published an article on why Medellín should be your next destination.
Is it Worth Visiting Medellín? #
The city has become a mecca for digital nomads, backpackers, and high end travelers alike. Medellín is noted for its various industries including education, medicine, technology, and gastronomy. The city is home to several prestigious universities in Colombia such as CES, EAFIT, Universidad de Antioquia, and Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana. Medellín is where Lasic surgery was invented and the San Vicente hospital is where the first retina transplant was conducted in South America.
Medellín is best known as “The City of Eternal Spring,” and the home base of the “Paísas,” a word that comes from paisano or countryman. It’s the heart of Colombian culture, and when talking about how great Medellín is, even Colombians themselves will say, “well, Medellín is Medellín.”
So, then, what is there to do in this city…?
The Top Things to See in Medellín #
El Poblado #
El Poblado – the El Poblado neighborhood is named such because “poblado” means “the populated.” When the Spanish began to explore the Valle de Aburra or the Aburra Valley that makes up Medellín, they encountered a large indigenous population in what is now El Poblado, and thus named the area after this population. Today, the area is known for its popularity and density of good restaurants, bars, and overall incredible nightlife. There is a concentration of great hotels as well, but we’ll get to all of that.
The area itself is huge, extending from the area of Industriales up to El Tesoro, down to Eafit University and over to “La Frontera” with Envigado. But the popular area where most people hang out is called Provenza, a lush area sandwiched between Calle 34 and 37, and buttressed by the famous Parque Llleras and vía Jardín. This is where most of the high end outing occurs.
But maybe one of the most overlooked aspects of El Poblado is its fashion. All of Poblado but especially Provenza is full of small independent and designer fashion shops and travelers can wander in and out. It’s worth noting that paisas care about their appearance and while they will not dress in suits, will have their clothes well planned. Medellín is known as the fashion hub of Colombia, highlighted each year by the Colombian fashion show, Colombia Moda.
The old is the new again! Before El Poblado became the famous neighborhood it is today, Laureles was the place to be. In the “old days,” Laureles was marked by enormous homes, some with as many as 14 – 20 bedrooms! If you’ve seen the movie Encanto, you’ll note that the whole family lives together. But as Medellín modernized, houses made way to apartment towers and as the city grew and people began to live on their own for the first time.
Today, Laureles is having a revival due to its flat geography (in comparison El Poblado is very hilly), it’s more accessible housing prices, and a concentration of new restuarants and bars, particularly close to the parks “Parques” 1 and 2. Full of new restaurants and the addition of new locations for old favorites like Pergamino, Pizzeria Olivia, and Pampero grill, Many of the staples of the El Poblado neighborhood are now accessible in the Laureles area!
El Centro #
If heading to the center of Medellín, often called just “el centro,” definitely take care with your belongings. During the day it’s bustling and safe, but it’s probably better to avoid during the night. In addition, el centro is an active area for pickpockets so you should be careful with your belongings, especially if riding the metro. That said, there are a lot of things to see and reasons to head downtown.
Plaza Botero #
“El Maestro Fernando Botero” is one of the most famous artists in the world with more pieces in museums across the planet than any other living artist. Many people wrongly assume that Botero is obsessed with fatness. In fact, he uses largeness to accentuate human features, and to be able to differentiate between people, backgrounds, or more. One of the things that has made Botero famous is reinterpreting famous or classic paintings and sculptures and giving them a distinctly Latin or Colombian twist. For example, his reinterpretation of the corruption of Aristotle shown in a Colombian household. You’ll notice little items in his paintings like dirty fingernails to demonstrate corruption or culpability, “chismosos” or gossipers pointing or looking at scandalous things happening (a common stereotype in Colombian culture), or expressionless faces that are in fact replaced by the power of a very expressive hand.
During the day, Plaza Botero is very safe, and the mayor recently created a safe zone partitioned off and constantly patrolled to help guests enjoy the plaza. The areas around the plaza are safe, but lesso and travelers should avoid continuing north and northwest of the plaza by foot.
Botero plaza is famous for three items that are there:
- In the plaza you can encounter over 20 sculptures donated to the city by Botero himself (a prolific artist who has mastered painting, drawing, AND sculpting). You’ll get an idea for Botero’s style: simple titles, biting critique. For example, the Paísa man who has a tiny head and large body (the opposite of most sculptures in order to respect dimensions) in order to deflate the oversized ego of the Paísas. In another corner “cabeza/head” makes you realize that the large naked woman is not the focus of the piece, but rather the male head and what’s on his mind.
- The Museo de Antioquia – the Antioquia museum is an incredible collection of pieces curated over its 140+-year history. But the treasure of the museum is concentrated on its third floor, where Botero himself curated the permanent exhibit of his work. You’ll noticed how the pieces in each gallery almost play off of each other.
- The Rafael Uribe Uribe Cultural Palace: once the governor’s offices (actually, the Antioquia museum used to be the mayor’s offices), the Rafael Uribe cultural palace now holds temporary art and architectural exhibits, city offices, and meeting rooms. The building itself is a departure from the rest of the city, as it features clear gothic and European features. From its fourth floor terrace, visitors will encounter gorgeous panoramic views of the city.
El Hueco #
Connecting with Plaza Bolivar, the larger area that connects Plaza Bolivar to Alpujarra (the actual government center) is known as “El Hueco,” or “The Hole.” The sector earned this nickname because of the density of street merchants and small local shopping centers. Locals joke that there are so many shops that you can “fall” in without getting out, hence the name “El Hueco.”
In this bustling area you can find just about everything for sale from antiques to toys to insect repellent. But the star of the area are the many stores selling off-brand clothing. Fakes are generally categorized between A, AA, AAA, and AAAA depending on their quality. Medellín is a city with a long history of textiles and brands like Desiel and Levis have housed in the Medellín area, making the Hueco a natural extension of the textile past.
While El Hueco is very interesting and lively, there is a high density of people so travelers should be vigilant to avoid petty theft and pick-pocketers. Despite our words, Medellin is a safe city.
Nearby, travelers can walk down the famous street known as “Junin,” which used to be the most popular street in Medellín. Teens and young adults heading out at night used to say they were going out to “Juninear” or hang out on Junin street. Junin famously leads up to Parque Bolívar, one of the most beautiful and important spots in the country, and also walks by the Coltejer building, which is designed to look like a sowing needle and was the headquarters of Colombia’s textile industry.
Jardín Botanico / The Botanic Gardens #
Accessible by metro, the Jardín Botánico (Botanic Gardens) is one of the most important destinations in the city. The area used to be incredibly violent and the Gardens are another example of a recouperated zone, highlighted by its achtecturally impressive and important “Orchideorama,” an outdoor event center popular for concerts and weddings, accented with orchids and the home of the orchid competition during Medellín’s Flower Festival.
The Botanic Gardens can easily be enjoyed in an hour or less, or a half a day if you really want to hang around. The gardens feature a nice walking path through a forested zone, open park areas, and there is a nice butterfly exhibit as well. The main restaurant in the Botanic Gardens, In Situ, is one of the best in Medellín. Even the gift shop is well done.
For those with a good eye for spotting animals, the park features several bird species, free-roaming iguanas, monkeys (that are quite difficult to spot), and somewhere hidden, a sloth. During Medellin’s Flower Festival week “La Feria de las Flores,” the Orquideorama plays host to the festivals impressive orchid competition.
The gardens are an excellent way to enjoy tranquility in the heart of the city. Even better, entrance is completely free.
Parque Explora #
Literally sandwiched right in front of the Botanic Gardens and the Universidad de Antioquia lies Parque Explora, an excellent science museum with activities for kids and adults alike. The vast majority of the information is in Spanish so if you don’t speak or you are a little afraid of getting out of your comfort zone, Parque Explora may not be for you.
Before entering, visitors have access to various physics displays that show concepts like centripetal force, distance, inertia, and more. The main attraction of the park is easily it’s very nice but small aquarium, highlighted by native aquatic species like the Amazonian Pirarucú – the second largest freshwater fish in the world. While the captive specimens may not reach the 6-meter length of the wild fish, it’s still very impressive to see.