Go Beyond the TripAdvisor Top 10
This post is part of Everything to Know Before Visiting Medellin, a collection of no-B.S., unique guides to an unforgettable stay in Colombia.
We made this atypical Medellin travel guide because we're tired of travel guides that tell us exactly what's "must do" but are really just rewrites of the TripAdvisor top 10.
Instead of telling you what to do, we're going to share with you what we think you should know about Medellin: what's where, what's unique, what's tasty, and what's nearby and worth checking out too.
We'll also make some specific recommendations, but those are more to give you an idea what's out there.
Try some things we recommend for sure, but also make your own discoveries. That's how we had our favorite experiences during our six months living in Medellin, and that's how you will too.
Let's get into this Medellin travel guide.
Medellin Travel Guide Outline
- Before You Go – How to decide where to stay, and useful things to know before coming
- Things to Do – What's overrated and underrated, and our absolute favorites
- Food and Drink – How to stuff your face full of unforgettable goodness
- Medellin Getaways – Hikes and towns near Medellin for fresh air, and a fresh perspective
- Elsewhere in Colombia – Bogota, the Pacific Coast, and an epic trek
- Favorite Resources – Other online sources of Medellin tips
Before You Visit Medellin
Is Medellin Dangerous?
The parts of Medellin you're likely to visit are more dangerous than comparable areas in North America or Europe.
For instance, we heard no shortage of stories of friends and friends' friends and readers getting mugged, mostly when they were drunk and stumbling home alone, but even in broad daylight.
On the other hand, the vast majority of people we know and met, including many idiots who were asking for trouble, had no issues.
To stay safe, keep your valuables (including your phone) concealed in public, dress and act to blend in, heed locals' warnings about certain areas, and be extra careful at night. Common sense.
Where to Stay in Medellin
The mistake most newcomers make—we made it too—when trying to figure out where to stay in Medellin is to ask, "Should we stay in El Poblado or Laureles (or even Envigado)?"
Those districts are too huge. Your best bet is to find the barrio within one of those districts that's best for you.
Our guide of where to stay in Medellin ranks the city's top barrios in 12 criteria including food, safety, and affordability. That way, you can pick the ones that matter most to you and decide on the perfect place.
If you're too "busy" to go through that whole guide, here's a super-fast intro to the top 10 barrios we recommend you consider:
- Central Poblado: Most popular area for both tourists and long-term foreign residents. I sometimes almost forget I’m in Colombia when I’m in this part of town.
- Lower Poblado: More conveniently-located and low-key than Central Poblado. Still unmistakably Gringolandia.
- La Florida, Poblado: Swanky high-rise hotels and apartments, malls, and not much street-life.
- Central Laureles: Far from the metro, but full of cafés and eateries. It's where people who think El Poblado is "too gringo" go.
- La 70, Laureles: Closer to the metro than Central Laureles and more lively, for better and for worse.
- Northern Laureles: Laid-back, almost too laid-back, and well-to-do residential neighborhood.
- Central Envigado: Envigado’s small but happening “downtown” feels like you’re not in Medellin anymore, which was indeed the case not too long ago.
- El Dorado, Envigado: A true neighborhood feel, with row houses that have shops, bars, mini-markets, and other small businesses all along its narrow streets.
- Northern Envigado: Less street life than El Dorado, but a larger fine-dining / entertainment district, La Calle de la Buena Mesa.
- Downtown Medellin: On the rise and in the middle of the action. The most central for tourists during the day, but not the best at night.
Check out our Medellin neighborhood guide to decide which of these is best for what you're looking for.
Things to Know Before Coming to Medellin
Like everywhere, there are ups and downs to Medellin. And like everywhere, nobody tells you them before you get there.
Here are some of them—a quick cheat sheet of 10 good, bad, and fun things to know before coming to Medellin.
For all the details and twelve more things to know before coming to Medellin, see the full post.
Things to Do in Medellin
Our Top 10 Favorite Experiences
In the six months we lived in Medellin, we tried to see and experience everything. We gave the touristy things a go and explored all sorts of spots even locals had no idea about.
Of all our amazing (and not-so-amazing) adventures, these were our top 10 absolute favorites (in no particular order):
- Hiking Parque Arvi through the back door
- Forgetting Narcos and doing the Real City walking tour
- Gorging on as many menu del dias as we could all over the city
- Eating the most humongous piece of "mega-bacon" we've ever seen at La Gloria de Gloria
- Heading for the hills to go hiking
- (This one's a secret)
- Escaping Medellin and visiting pueblos like Venecia, Jardin, and Jerico (NOT Guatape)
- Feeling like a superhero while paragliding
- Spending an afternoon checking out the highlights in Laureles
- Enjoying the best of El Poblado
For all the details on these amazing experiences, a handful more that just barely missed the list, and some things we recommend not to do, check our atypicial guide of things to do in Medellin.
Overrated and Underrated Medellin Attractions
We have the sometimes contentious opinion that some Medellin's "top" tourist attractions should be on the bottom of your to-do list.
They're not all terrible (except Pueblito Paisa). It's just that there are likely better ways to spend your time and money.
Here our favorite examples:
- Overrated: Laureles, Parque Arvi, Pueblito Paisa, Uber, Poblado farmers market, Guatape
- Underrated: Envigado, every other Medellin park, Cerro Pan de Azucar, taxis, Mercado Minorista, Jerico
Don't Overlook Envigado, Medellin's Version of Brooklyn
Located right next to the high-flying, rapidly-modernizing El Poblado district of Medellin, Envigado remains a hard-working, urban, unpretentious town that's yet to be swallowed up by globalism (or hipsters).
It's a pre-hipster Brooklyn.
We lived there for two amazing months. Here are some of our favorite things about it:
- The Neighborhood Feel: There aren't many "highlights" in Envigado, but it's a great place to wander. Kids play on the streets, old men sit on tables drinking guaro while watching life pass by, and crazy Christmas displays decorate the whole town in December. And nowhere did we feel safer.
- The Restaurants: There's a fine-dining area called La Calle de la Buena Mesa, where you can pick where to eat based on your cravings that evening. In super neighborhoody El Dorado are some of our favorite spots like Pedacito de Amor and Pizzeria Burro. And there are La Gloria de Gloria and Trifasico with their enormous slabs of meat.
- Otraparte: The coffee isn't that good and the WiFi sucks, but even so El Cafe de Otraparte is the cafe / hang out area we miss most about Medellin.
There's A LOT more than this, of course, which you can read all about in our comprehensive Envigado guide.
What Everybody Other Blogger Recommends for Medellin
When we moved to Medellin we read a lot of blog posts on what to do and see.
Then we had the idea of compiling all those recommendations into one.
Things quickly got out of hand.
By the end, we had consolidated tips from over fifty travel blog posts. The compilation is enormous and overwhelming, but maybe you'll find it helpful.
Eating and Drinking in Medellin
Medellin's Best Restaurants for 20 Unique Occasions
We can't honestly tell you which are the "best restaurants in Medellin" because we haven't been to every one and tried every dish. Nobody has. But we can recommend some restaurants for specific occasions and cravings. For example:
- If you want to impress your partner with a romantic picnic in the park, go to In Situ
- If you need a rest, refresh, and refueling in Mercado Minorista (Medellin's city center produce market), go to Aqui Paro Lucho
- If you want Colombian cuisine with a modern, adventurous, and delicious twist, go to Alambique (probably our favorite restaurant in Medellin)
- If you want to get high and/or eat really good gelato, go to Nuovo Fiore
We have twenty recommendations in total. Check out our Medellin restaurant guide for all of them.
Medellin's Best Lunch Specials
Lunch is the best time to go out for food in Medellin. You can get high-quality, delicious meals including soup, a main course, a drink, and sometimes dessert for $3 to $6 USD. These specials are called menu del dias.
There are so many restaurants with menu del dias that it can be overwhelming, so Chris went a bit overboard to help you out. He went to over hundred places then made a list of his forty favorites.
See them all in his huge menu del dia guide.
The Best Colombian Coffee, Beer, Cheese, and Aguardiente
Are you sure your tastes aren't affected by branding and appearances?
And that's why do blind taste tests. In Medellin, we did some to determine who truly has the best coffee, beer, cheese and aguardiente in Colombia (or at least Medellin).
Here are the surprising blind taste test results:
- Best coffee: Rituales Cafe. Hands down. Read the full post here
- Best lager beer: Heineken. Ugh. We can't believe it either. Read all about it here.
- Best Colombian cheese: None. But if you force us, we'd take queso pera. Learn all about the weird Colombian cheeses here.
- Best aguardiente: Aguardiente is the local liquor and the best from our taste test (here) was Amarillo de Manzanares. More importantly, and regardless of which aguardiente brand you drink, read these nine surprising facts first.
An Intro to Colombian Drinks
You already know about Colombian coffee, but do you know what viche, mazamorra, and guarapo are?
Here's a quick vocab lesson:
- Chicha: A fermented corn drink that was the locals' drink of choice before the Spanish came and screwed things up.
- Viche: A home-brewed moonshine made from sugar cane that’s popular on Colombia’s Pacific Coast
- Chocolate Santafereño: Hot chocolate with cheese inside.
- Limonada de Coco: A hugely popular and super delicious and refreshing blend of coconut and lemonade.
- Mazamorra and Claro: Corn-infused milks that often come with your menu del dia (lunch special).
- Guarapo and Aguapanela: Drinks made from sugarcane. Guarapo is typically made by pressing the cane itself. Aguapanela is agua mixed with panela, unrefined cane sugar.
And there are even more Colombian drinks to know about. To see them all, where to get them, and how to drink them, check out our guide.
The quality and quantity of hikes near Medellin (many accessible by public transit!) was something we didn’t expect before coming. From waterfalls to caves to natural pyramids to Escobar’s old prison, whenever we ventured into the hills we were always rewarded for doing so. And every single time the views are incredible.
If you want to get some fresh air and develop a tight round tush the old-fashioned way (instead of artificially, like many women do in Medellin), we highly recommend it.
Some hikes are hard to find, so we've helped you out with a list of our favorite hikes in and around Medellin. For each hike, you’ll find a guide complete with directions, maps, and photos
Please, please, please don’t spend time in Medellin without visiting at least one of the nearby pueblos. It will completely change your understanding and perception of what Colombia and Antioquia is about.
And Guatape doesn’t count.
We went to a handful of pueblos and recommend them all highly, but there are plenty of others where you're sure to have an extraordinary travel story too. Here are the pueblos we wrote guides to:
- Jerico – A traditional town for religious pilgrammiges, it's now worth going to for an artisanal food pilgrimage, colorful sunsets, colorful waterfalls, colorful people, and colorful architecture. See what there's to do in Jerico, and what to eat on your own food pilgramage.
- Jardin – Jardin is a bigger, lusher, and more tourist-friendly version of Jerico. Here are our favorite things we did there.
- Venecia – Venecia is for you if you don’t want to see any other tourists and/or plan to hike Cerro Tusa (the world’s largest natural pyramid). Read more here.
- Urrao – The town itself wasn't our favorite, but it was cool for a couple of nights. Most importantly, it's close to the unbelievable and unforgettable Paramo del Sol. Check out these mind-boggling photos in our guide.
Elsewhere in Colombia
Paramo del Sol Trek
The trek to the Paramo del So is so mind-bogglingly cool that you forget to worry about how cold it can get (…well almost). Up at the highest point in Antioquia, there’s nowhere in the world with scenery like it. Read our guide here. Even if you don't like reading just go there for the amazing photos by our friend Oskar.
The Pacific Coast
Colombia's Pacific Coast was a no-go zone for a long time. It only very recently opened up for tourism again and started to appear on tourists’ radars. In other words, if you’re an adventure traveler now’s the time to go.
And from Medellin, it's an easy flight from the city center Olaya Herrera Airport.
Not knowing anything about it beforehand, we explored the Bahia Solano area for about a week. It turned out to be is a jungle, waterfall, and deserted beach paradise.
There’s so much to do that we couldn’t help but compile four different guides for the area:
- 15 travel tips for Colombia's Pacific Coast – Things you should be aware of, including how worried you should be about bugs and rain, what tour not to miss, and how not to miss your flight home.
- Where to stay around Bahia Solano – The pros and cons of all the options: remote beaches like Playa Mecana and Playa Cuevita, popular spots like El Valle and Playe El Almejal, or places in between like Playa Huina.
- El Valle travel guide – Your extensive guide of to this small town El Valle that is so under-covered by tour guides and blogs that even Google Maps doesn’t show its streets.
- The Right Way to do the Cascada El Tigre tour – This is the only waterfall we've ever seen that falls right onto a beach. It's Chris' wet dream. And if you visit it the right way, you'll see a few more waterfalls and save some money.
You might assume Bogota isn’t worth visiting. It’s too big, busy, dangerous, and cold. That's what we thought.
We were wrong.
You might be as surprised as we were by what Colombia's capital has to offer. Check it out.
And once you've had enough of Bogota and are ready to return to Medellin, consider taking the bus and maybe stopping off somewhere along the way. We went to a town called Honda. It wasn't our favorite, but it was an experience nonetheless. Read all about how (and why) to bus between Bogota and Medellin, and what Honda's like, here.
Favorite Other Sites
Resources and communities that helped us discover many of the items on this Medellin travel guide.
- Catalyst Weekly is the go-to resource to find out what foreigner-friendly events are going on while you’re in town.
- The Medellin Expats group on Facebook. It's full of lunatics, idiots, and self-promoters, but if you dig around you can find some truly helpful tips.
- Kinkaju Hikes and Adventures. Go on a hike, or a beer crawl, with a diverse and friendly group of people including local expats, local locals, and visitors.
- Tom Plan My Trip. This guy went super deep with info to help you plan your trip to Colombia. You'll find lots of stuff we didn't bother to write because he already said it.
- Wikiloc. It's the go-to app for finding and sharing hikes in Colombia. You'll have to pay $2.99 US to use it, but it's worth it.
- The Unconventional Route. That's us. Check out our extensive collection of Colombia-related advice here, ask us questions in the comments, or, if it's private, email us at info at theunconventionalroute.com.
How to Have an Awesome Medellin Trip
And if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions to share with other readers, please share them in the comments!