Medellin, Colombia has gone from being the murder capital of the world to laying claim to being one of the world’s most innovative cities — all within only a 20-year time span.
If you’d only heard mentions of Colombia in the past, it was probably for all the wrong reasons. But now, as stability and security have taken hold, the country has opened up to a new wave of travelers.
As someone who has lived in Medellin for the past few months, here are my thoughts on the top 5 must-see attractions in Medellin:
Metro Cable and Parque Arvi
One of Medellin’s much heralded and innovative projects was to build an aerial tramway or cable car from the city’s metro system — the only such system in Colombia — up to the poorest communities in the hills surrounding the valley.
Investing in the poorer communities with this project not only improved transportation to these impoverished residents, but it also unwittingly became a major tourist attraction, offering up some of the best views in the city.
Medellin improved the economic possibilities of thousands residing in the slums, dramatically reducing the time it takes to reach potential jobs and employers in the valley below, while also reducing crime in what used to be one of the most violent parts of the city.
From the Santo Domingo station (the last Metro Cable stop), you can also take a separate aerial tram ride — not included in the cost of the normal metro fare — up to Parque Arvi, a park and natural area set above the city where you can enjoy cooler temperatures, hiking trails, forests, and streams.
The Botanical Gardens located north of downtown are a serene setting adjacent to the University of Antioquia. One can stroll through the orchid garden, or wander among cacti, flowers, or lush forests.
Taking a picnic lunch to the Botanical Garden is a great (and free) way to escape the hustle and bustle of life in the big city and find your own little bit of quiet space.
It is also a great place to see a variety of animals and wildlife — iguanas roam the gardens along with various birds, and they also have a butterfly room filled with butterflies sporting strange and colorful markings.
Nearby you can also visit the Parque Explora interactive science museum and the amazing Planetario de Medellin.
Plaza Botero and the Museo de Antioquia
Fernando Botero is probably the most famous Colombian sculptor and artist. Even if you aren’t familiar with his name, you’ve probably seen his work.
He is known for his particularly distinctive style in portraying everything from people to still lives with embellished, “fat” proportions.
Take in a variety of his sculptures for free in Plaza Botero — the busy and frenetic central square of downtown — and then venture into the Museo de Antioquia for a larger selection of his works, including more sculptures and a variety of his paintings.
Most tourists only bother to visit Plaza Botero in El Centro, but there is a lot more of interest to see in the surrounding area.
No visit to Medellin is really complete without wandering around the frenetic downtown.
You can go browse El Hueco, “the hole”, which is a crowded and chaotic mess of street stalls selling all manner of things.
You can venture up to Junnin Street — a popular pedestrian-only shopping area that is so deeply rooted in the city that the verb junniniar (to window shop) became a local word.
From there you can venture north up to the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest baked-clay brick structure in the world, and an impressively large church.
There is much more to see within El Centro, of course, and I fully recommend taking the free, donation-based, Real City Walking Tour while in town for a great overview and look into the center of Medellin.
El Poblado and the Malls
Most foreigners stay in Poblado, the most upscale, developed, and Westernized part of the city. Regardless of whether you stay there or not, it is still most definitely a place worth checking out — just don’t be the tourist that never ventures outside of Poblado.
Poblado is the center of nightlife and weekend activity, and it also is home to a growing number of amazing restaurants, including a burgeoning international cuisine and some of the best coffee shops in Medellin.
I’m not one to visit malls too often in the States, but they really love their malls here and I’ll admit, they are quite impressive.
El Tesoro is a massive complex overlooking Medellin, which features theme park-like amusement rides for the kids, upscale shopping, and dining. The equally large and impressive Santa Fe Mall actually has a retractable roof to accommodate the weather of the day.
The malls are essentially the places to see and be seen in Medellin. Take a stroll, take in this part of the city, and maybe even grab a movie at one of the top of the line cinemas at the mall.
Part of the beauty of Medellin to me is that it is a city of contrasts — one morning you can be bartering over a t-shirt in “the hole” in El Centro, and the next you can be strolling through some of the most upscale shopping malls you’ve ever been to.
So there you have it — my must see attractions during your trip to Medellin.
To be sure, this list is only the tip of the iceberg for things to do and see here, but they remain among my most recommended visits to those that I host here via Airbnb.
Medellin is an amazing town, I invite you to come experience what lured me into unexpectedly settling down in the City of Eternal Spring.
About the author
Ryan S. is a former Washington DC desk jockey turned adventure travel blogger who left behind the working world at the end of 2012 to see more of the world. He’s been exploring all that Colombia has to offer since the beginning of the year. You can read about his other adventures on his blog, Desk to Dirtbag, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.