Medellin Is On the Rise. Join the Ride
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.
Medellin lives up to it to its "City of the Eternal Spring" nickname for two reasons. First, thanks to its perpetually perfect year-round spring-like weather, and second because new and unique things to do in Medellin seem to spring up every week.
Because of this, Kim and I rarely felt bored during the six stupendous months we lived there. You won't either.
Here's the low-down on the best things to do in Medellin including:
- Our unique top 10 things to do
- More favorites
- Overrated things to do
- Things NOT to do
- More inside Medellin travel tips
10 Best Things to Do in Medellin
On our bittersweet plane ride back to Canada after living in Medellin, Kim and I narrowed down all the amazing things to do in Medellin to the ten we enjoyed best and would most recommend to our friends.
Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Go up through the backdoor:
Hike up to Parque Arvi and take the Metrocable down
Instead of following the hordes who ride the gondola both up and down, hike up via the backdoor route then take the gondola down.
In addition to getting the satisfaction, fresh air, and exercise from hiking to the top, you'll enjoy the absolute best view of Medellin from Cerro Pan de Azucar halfway along the hike and get a glimpse of Medellin's rural roots.
Read our complete hike guide for maps, tips, and more.
2. Forget Narcos:
Join a walking tour
If you've already heard about Real City's walking tours, it's for good reason.
And if you haven't, well here you go.
The roughly four-hour guided group tours are a super informative way to go beyond the (mostly mis-)perception of Medellin that Narcos imprinted into all of our brains and give you a whirlwind overview into the city's history, the narco era, and its revitalization.
During the tour, you'll also get to see all of downtown Medellin's tourist attractions like Plaza Botero, Plaza Cisneros (a.k.a. Parque de las Luces), Paseo Carabobo pedestrian shopping street, El Hueco shopping center, and Parque San Antonio.
Don't make the same mistake we've seen too many people do, which is to put off doing the walking tour until the end of their time in Medellin. Doing so is kind of like studying for a test after you've already taken it.
Be smart and go online to reserve your spot for the first or second day you're in town.
3. Go for lunches in bunches:
Live off of menu del dias
From around 12-3 p.m. every day except Sunday (and sometimes not Saturday too), just about every restaurant in Medellin offers lunch specials called menu del dias.
Menu del dias include a soup, a main plate, a drink, and sometimes a dessert. They're inexpensive (normally from 9,000 to 15,000 pesos, or $3 to $6 USD) and they're awesome.
From vegan, to Indian, to French, to Colombian, whatever your dietary preferences are and whatever you're craving, there's a menu del dia for you. Try as many as you can while in Medellin, sometimes even two in the same day.
For a huge list of the best ones in town, with ratings, scores, photos and more, check out the huge Medellin menu del dia guide Chris went a bit overboard in making.
4. Head for the hills:
Medellin is flanked by mountains to the east and west in the Aburra Valley.
These mountains are surprisingly easily accessible (many by public transit) and full of lush jungle, waterfalls, butterflies, birds, awesome city views, and almost no other people.
The only challenge is finding the trails.
While hiking in Medellin, we got lost our fair share of times because the trails are poorly marked. That's why we starting mapping them out and writing out guides to our favorite hikes. You can find all our guides to our favorite Medellin hikes here.
If you're by yourself and/or nervous about getting lost or kidnapped in the jungle, look on Facebook for hiking groups to go with. Kinkajou Adventures is a good one.
5. Pig out with pig in (…your belly):
Eat a humongous chicharron
Colombian chicharron is glorious.
For those who know what Neapolitan ice cream is, it's the deep fried pork meat version of that. On the outside is crispy skin which covers a layer of juicy fat that insulates tender meat on the inside.
Another way to look at it is as mega bacon. Bacon for dinosaurs.
And, if you go to the right spots, it's almost the size of a dinosaur bone.
6. Find it yourselves:
The secret sensation
There is one magical place in Medellin that has yet to be discovered by the fly-by-night Insta-bloggers and, sorry, but we're not going to be the ones to spoil it.
If too many people start going, the magic will be ruined. It'll happen eventually regardless, but we don't want to be responsible.
So why are we mentioning it? Because if you really want to find it, you can look hard enough and find it. There are YouTube videos and news reports (mostly in Spanish) about it.
The only hints we'll give is that it's romantic, surreal, over 25 years in the making and you'll need to speak Spanish (or go with a friend who does) to get the most of it. We also mention it in other posts of ours.
If you think you've found it, after you've gone send us an email info(at)theunconventionalroute(dot)com with a picture and we'll confirm whether or not it's what we're talking about.
7. GTFO of Medellin:
Visit Jerico or Jardin
If you've got five days or more, don't spend them all in Medellin.
Take a three-hour bus ride to Jerico or Jardin and experience the rural side of Antioquia, where men still wear cowboy hats, the buildings are as colorful as a bag of skittles, and the most popular thing to do is sit in the main square drinking tintos (coffee that the rest of the world refuses to drink, so it stays in Colombia), guaro (beware), and beer.
8. Feel like a superhero (or a dead person):
Chris, who had never paraglided before, was blown away (literally and figuratively) by his experience paragliding in Medellin.
Yes, the views are incredible and it's an adrenaline rush, but what impressed him more than anything was the feeling of flying.
Because there are no engines making noise and you can't see, hear, or feel the pilot and the sail above and behind you, you really feel like a superhero (or a spirit that left a dead person's body like in cartoons) floating up in the air.
It's an incredible experience and Medellin's a great spot to try. It's a third the price of Europe or America (about 130,000 pesos / $45 USD), just as professionally run and safe, and incredibly scenic.
For more info on paragliding in Medellin, and how you make it even more of an adventure by hiking up past a waterfall to the launch site then jumping back down, check out our exhilarating guide.
9. Afternoon delights:
Spend a few hours in Laureles
We don't recommend people stay in Laureles if they're only in Medellin for a few days, but it's worth touring around for an afternoon.
You gotta know the spots though, otherwise you'll come away as unimpressed as we were when we first moved to Medellin and wanted out because it was so boring.
Here are the spots:
For lunch go to Cafe Cliche.
We ate a lot of Medellin's famous menu del dia lunch specials and Cafe Cliche stood out as being perhaps the very best. Both their vegetarian and non-veggie options were invariably awesome. It's not exactly Colombian food and the French guys who run the place are, well, stereotypical stuck-up French, but it's worth it.
Go for a coffee at Rituales, a newcomer in the Medellin coffee game that sources their beans right from Medellin's hills and blew away the competition in our professional blind taste test of Medellin coffees.
Then get dessert at Nuovo Fiore.
Their gelato is special. And by "special," we mean some of them are potently packed with Mary Jane. The owner, who's been getting away with selling her illegally-good gelatos for five years, says the cops come by all the time. They get free scoops. You'll have to pay 6,000 pesos (just over $2 USD) or so.
Wander around a bit after that, then you can say you've seen Laureles.
10. It's not only a gringo party place:
Enjoy the best of El Poblado
El Poblado, especially the area around Parque Lleras, has a well-deserved reputation for being an overly-touristy, expensive, party place.
There's more to El Poblado than that, though. Even if you're a hardcore off-the-beaten-path traveler, you should check it out.
If you go to these favorite spots of ours in El Poblado you may even want to go back:
- Cafe Pergamino is easily the most popular coffee spot in Medellin. Pretty much every blogger raves about it. We didn't want to like it, but we did, especially their cold brew coffees, which are better and cheaper than anywhere else. If you can't stand following the crowd and have to be unconventional, go to Hija Mia instead.
- For lunch, we'll give you three options. If you want a traditional (and super affordable) Colombian menu del dia, go to Franchyes. Big eaters and those eager for authentic Italian should go to Toscano. And if you've been desperate for something spicier than pepper, which is in short supply in Colombia, go to Masala and be prepared to sweat.
- For pre-dinner drinks, El Social is the last bastion of semi-affordable Colombian-ness in the area. It's no frills, but the beer's cold, which is all you need. An alternative spot is Erre, which is one of the few spots to have a happy hour, two-for-one beers and selected liquors.
- Wander around Manila a bit if you haven't already then hike back up the hill to finish off your evening with dinner at Alambique, maybe our favorite restaurant in Medellin.
Other Fantastic Things to Do in Medellin
Once you've covered the above top 10 things to do in Medellin, check these out.
✓ Spend Some Time in Envigado
We really loved Envigado.
It felt like a Colombian, pre-hipster Brooklyn. In other words, it has managed to maintain an authentic neighborhood vibe despite being right next door (a 20-min bus ride or two metro stops) from glitzy El Poblado.
There aren't many "tourist attractions" in Envigado—the city didn't even have a hotel until recently!—but the city itself is an attraction.
It's super safe, too.
For everything you need to know to convince you to go, and what to do when you do, read our Envigado guide.
✓ Jardin Botanico
Despite being surrounded by lush mountains and having lots of trees along its streets, there really isn't much wide open green space in Medellin.
The only unpaved parks are sports fields.
Jardin Botanico is the only real refuge. It's peaceful, green, and fresh. While it's not really any different than any other city's botanical garden, which is why we wouldn't say you have to go out of your way to check it out, if you're in Medellin for a while you'll probably appreciate it even more than you suspect.
✓ Drink Coffee
We mentioned coffee a couple times in our top 10, but it's worth calling out as its own activity even though it's kind of a cliche.
Over the past ten years, Medellin's coffee culture has risen up from dirty tintos to become a hopping, craft-coffee, hip cafe crazed town.
You might also want to consider educating yourself about coffee. The session we di with Juan "The Coffee Hunter" Cano for our blind coffee taste test was one we'll never forget.
✓ Explore the Mercado Minorista
Antioquia is the breadbasket of Colombia, and the Mercado Minorista, the city's main produce market, is where you can stick your hand into that breadbasket and sample a little bit of everything.
Marvel at the exotic fruit and super low prices, get lunch at Aqui Paro Lucho, and follow it up with a juice from Jugos Rigo.
Warning: Don't walk to Mercado Minorista. Take a taxi or Uber. On a map, La Minorista looks like an easy walk from other downtown attractions, but it's not. It's harrowing, super-dangerous, and you're asking for trouble if you do it. Really. We're all for taking the "unconventional route," but there is no reward for risking yourself in this situation.
✓ Go to a language exchange
Even if you don't care to learn anything more than "Cuanto cuesta?" it's worth going to a language exchange, events where Colombians who want to practice English come to chat with foreigners who want to practice Spanish.
Language exchanges are a great way to meet both tourists and locals. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the Colombian/foreigner split is about 50/50.
Our favorite language exchange was the one run by Colombia Immersion in Envigado on Fridays. It's got a great crowd, cheap beer, they always do ice-breakers to make it easier to approach strangers, and a big group goes to the bar together after. Make an afternoon of your trip to Envigado by going to Cafe Otraparte, walking up to the El Dorado neighborhood for dinner at Pedacito de Amor (good meat at great prices) or Pizzeria Burro (get the burrata pizza), which are both close to Colombia Immersion.
Things to Do for Fitness and Exercise
Look good, feel good, travel good.
✓ Sunday Ciclovia
On Sundays until 2 p.m., some of Medellin's main thoroughfares are closed to traffic so people can run, walk, rollerblade, or bike through the city. It's very popular, so join.
✓ Outdoor Gyms
Medellin is a dream for people like us who prefer to ditch the gym and work out outside because there are public workout areas all over. The best ones are by Estadio and in Belen, but there's also a decent, though small, one in El Poblado.
✓ Play Basketball
If you love playing basketball, as Chris does, join the Medellin Basketball Association group on Facebook and drop into one of their Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday pickup games.
✓ Cerro Tres Cruces
Across the valley from El Poblado, Cerro Tres Cruces is a short but intense hike straight up the side of the mountain. Up top, there are all sorts of calisthenic fitness equipment to continue your workout and refreshment stands to keep you energized. While it's not on the tourism radar, it's very popular with locals from all walks of life in Medellin.
If you're interested, our Cerro Tres Cruces guide has everything you need to know.
Overrated Things to Do in Medellin
Comuna 13 Tours
Comuna 13 tours aren't bad at all, but they are overrated. A couple years ago I bet they were awesome, but now that there are more tourists than locals using the famous outdoor escalators and it's lost a lot of the gritty appeal it once had.
If you want to tour a hillside Medellin neighborhood, consider La Sierra as an alternative.
Guatape is the Colombian Disney World: a make-believe, colorful, touristy creation.
Go to one of the pueblos in our top 10 instead. They're not much farther from Medellin anyways.
Museo Casa de la Memoria
It's free to visit and we appreciate its importance, but just about everyone who goes there is underwhelmed.
Mercado del Rio
El Mercado del Rio is a high-end food court with commensurate prices.
You can find some good food there, but you can find enough good food elsewhere, and for cheaper too.
If you have a limited time to spend in Medellin it's probably not worth it.
Worst Things to Do
✗ Act like a dumbass gringo
If you wear shorts and sandals, talk loudly in English with your friends while walking the streets, and wander around with your head in your phone, your odds of finding trouble in Medellin will skyrocket. Same goes for if you walk around empty streets by yourself in the middle of the night.
Be as inconspicuous as possible by dressing like a Colombian in pants and shoes, keeping your voice down, and keeping your phone in your pocket.
It's simple, obvious advice, but we never ceased to be amazed by how many Medellin tourists don't follow it.
✗ Escobar Tours
Everyone who lives in Medellin is fed up with Escobar talk. They want their city to be known for other things, and deservingly so.
Joining Escobar tours goes against those wishes.
Watch Narcos, do the walking tour, and leave it at that.
✗ Waste Your Time in Malls
These malls have the same Starbucks, Nike, Zara, and Forever 21 franchises as everywhere else in the world.
The people watching isn't anything interesting either. It's full of well-off Colombians, most of whom lived or studied abroad and look the same as the folks in the mall back home—the ones you probably never go to.
✗ Pueblito Paisa
Don't go here for the views. Go on one of the hikes we listed above in our top 10 things to do in Medellin.
If you can't go hiking, go to Cerro El Volador instead.
✗ Drink (Too Much) Aguardiente
Aguardiente is Colombia's national liquor. It's anise-flavored, kind of like a cheap and watery ouzo, pastis, or sambuca.
Unless you're a masochist or some friendly Paisas invite you to join them for a shot, drink beer or rum instead.
We were naive and ignored this advice. We even did an aguardiente blind taste test to see if a delicious aguardiente existed.
And they all leave horrible hangovers. What's more, the taste test led us to stumble into some little-known facts about aguardiente that made us like it less.
Try aguardiente once—Gloria at La Gloria de Gloria, number 5 of our top 10 things to do in Medellin, will give you a shot if you go there—and no more.