I can categorize people’s responses to “We are visiting Colombia in November!” into three buckets. The first was an incredulous, “Why?”. The second was, “Oh, do you watch Narcos?”. And the third (thankfully a smaller number) was, “You mean British Columbia?”
I hope that even just my Cartagena blog posts answered the question “Why?” quite adequately. However, it is Medellin that really took my breath away. It’s Medellin (pronounced Me-de-jean by locals) that really answers the question “Why Colombia?”
Once touted as the most dangerous city in the world, home to the infamous Pablo Escobar, Medellin is now a thriving metropolis. Its setting in the picturesque Aburra valley and its eternally spring like climate is definitely a big draw. However, the evolution of Medellin is one of the most interesting stories in modern history. I think this article talks about it so well!
Medellin is just as safe as say, Cincinnati, Ohio, which means there are mostly safe neighborhoods, but some not-so-safe neighborhoods. That’s where the similarities end, the Medellin we visited is rainy, lush green, and generally beautiful (Sorry, Cincinnati). It also houses many amazing restaurants, delicious coffee shops (Antioquia produces some of the best coffee in the world!), vibrant street art and, of course, diverse fruits.
Ready to spend a day getting to know Medellin?
Where to Stay in Medellin
Patio del Mundo is a little boutique hotel at the top of a tree-lined sloping street in El Poblado. It’s quiet, but only a 5 min walk away from all the action! It’s super cute, with seven bedrooms, each fashioned after a favorite place from the owner’s travels. Such a charming idea!
The gardens are very pretty too, and there’s a secret hot tub to wind down your evenings in! We were welcomed with delicious fresh orange juice, and treated so well throughout our stay! Everyone was so friendly, and always willing to chat about Medellin and give recommendations. I highly recommend staying at Patio del Mundo.
First Stop : Cafe Velvet
Start your morning early with fresh, delicious breakfast in the garden at Patio del Mundo.
After breakfast, walk down to Cafe Velvet for some coffee. The walk itself is very pretty, and I loved seeing the outdoor gyms in Medellin. Cafe Velvet is somewhat of an institution in Medellin, but it hopefully shouldn’t be too crowded at this time of the day.
Are you adequately fueled now for a busy and potentially tiring day?
Second stop : An Exotic Fruit Tour by Real City Tours!
This is the most fun tour I’ve ever been on! We walked through Minorista Market, spoon in one hand, camera in the other, tasting and learning about all the delicious fruits in Colombia. I hadn’t heard of 70% of the fruits and some of them didn’t even have English names. My favorite was the Guayaba (guava) because it’s sour, and I’ve only ever had sweet guavas before. A couple of very interesting ones were Granadilla and Borojo. Seeing the absolutely gigantic avocados was pretty cool too!
Our guide Germán was so knowledgeable about both Colombian fruits, and the history of Medellin. When we told him how our Uber driver was apprehensive about us coming to Minorista, he explained why this tour is even set in the Minorista market. In the dark days of Medellin, when Pablo Escobar (referred to as Voldemort by Germán!) and his cronies reigned supreme, Minorista market was a rather dangerous place. There was a lot of extortion and murder, and most residents rightfully stayed away from it. This was decades ago, but memories in Medellin are long, and some locals still shy away from the market. This is a pity, because it hurts the nearby farmers who bring their fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses and meats to sell. Hence, Real City Tours wants to improve the local consciousness about Minorista by showing them it is so safe that even tourists go there! Genius!
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Minorista, learned a lot, and never felt unsafe, even when we were roaming inside the market without our guide. On the contrary, everyone was very friendly!
The area outside the market is not the nicest, so I wouldn’t advise walking around outside. Take an Uber/taxi/metro straight to and from the market.
I highly recommend taking the Exotic Fruit Tour with Real City Tours in Medellin! The best part is that tour sizes are small (ours was just three people!). After the tour, which comes with fresh arepas, all the amazing fruits, and a delicious fresh fruit juice, I don’t think you’ll be particularly hungry for lunch. So save your appetite for snacks later and head to the next stop.
Third Stop : Plaza Botero
From Minorista, hop in a taxi or an uber to head straight to Plaza Botero. Google Maps will show you that it’s a relatively quick walk – but DO NOT walk! The area around the market and the plaza is not the nicest, and I would liken it to walking through the Tenderloin in San Francisco. Just not something you want to do.
However, you’ll see plenty of tourists (mostly Colombians) once you get to the square! You will also see Botero’s interesting sculptures, and one of the most beautiful buildings in Medellin. Fernando Botero, a sculptor and artist who loved depicting exaggerated figures of people and animals, is actually from Medellin!
This beautiful building is the Uribe Palace of Culture, which now houses an Art Gallery and historical archives.
This is a quick stop, if you need a bathroom break, there is a clean one in the coffee shop El Laboratorio de Cafe across the street. Please make sure to buy something from the shop if you use their facilities!
Fourth Stop : Communa 13
This is going to be the heaviest but most uplifting stop of the day. From Plaza Botero, take the metro or a taxi to the San Javier Metro Station.
Every day at 2 pm, Zippy Tours offers free walking tours of Communa 13. Note, please always TIP your guide on a free walking tour. We learned about Zippy Tours from our Exotic Fruits Tour guide, who taught the Zippy tour guides English! So this tour is offered by guides who actually grew up in Communa 13 and learned English just a few years ago! Our guide was Laura, and I would highly recommend her.
We started our walk from the San Javier station (this is the metro station which has cable cars going up to the hills!), and in a few minutes it started pouring! This is typical in Medellin, so the tour went on.
Laura had intimate knowledge about Communa 13, since she lived there throughout it’s most dangerous time, so dangerous that even Pablo Escobar famously refused to step in there. However, in a semi-controversial coup the city took back Communa 13 years ago, and the clean up efforts began. Communa 13 now is not perfect, but it’s working toward it. There are escalators that take residents up and down the hills, the most amazing local art covers the walls and uplifts the people. Some of Communa 13 is almost a playground for tourists, with giant slides and spontaneous hip hop dance performances.
You will find delicious empanadas at a street stall here after going up 2-3 flights of escalators. Or else there’s always the option to grab a quick ice cream or coffee at one of the many shops lining the area. Remember, the locals do rely on tourist dollars.
My favorite part of the tour was when Laura took us to her house to show us the view from our terrace! Her neighbors and family were so excited to see all of us. The view was simply gorgeous, and in that safe space, she told us more about life in Communa 13, and the dramatic transformation. She tells the story so much better than I can, so book a flight and go hear it straight from her!
Word of warning : These tours can get packed, and sometimes you feel part of a herd of sheep walking around Communa 13. Feel free to leave the tour (after tipping your guide!) if it gets too much for you.
However, I am glad we stayed till the end, because we got to see Laura’s house and learn her story. I don’t think I would have appreciated Communa 13 as much without meeting Laura.
Fifth Stop : Refueling at Pergamino Cafe
You’ll probably be exhausted by the end of your Communa 13 tour. It’s taxing physically of course, but learning about the emotional turmoil of the residents in such recent history is also mentally taxing. The best way to process all this is over a cup of delicious Colombian coffee. Head back to El Poblado (quickest way is to take a bus from the end of your tour back to San Jacinto metro station and then uber from there). The cafe I recommend is actually diagonally across from Cafe Velvet (where you started your morning!) but this is really the best coffee I had in Medellin. It’s also a good place to buy some coffee beans to take home with you!
After this, walk around in El Poblado for a bit if you have the energy. El Poblado is full of artistic shops, cute cafes, good food. It’s also full of digital nomads seeking to live cheap but well. Once you finish exploring, head to the sixth stop – my personal favorite!
Sixth Stop : Dinner at El Cielo
You didn’t think I’d forget about dinner did you? Let me start off by saying that this is the best dinner I’ve had in my life (except for my mom’s chicken biryani, obviously). El Cielo is no mere dinner, it’s an all out dining experience. Starting off with hot towels and a delicious welcome shot with cotton candy(!), to washing our hands with chocolate and exfoliating them with coffee grounds (I licked everything off my fingers after!), to the nine most interesting and amazing ‘moments’ with four wine pairings – it is easily the best way to spend your money in Medellin. Each of the ‘moments’ is a delightful take on traditional Colombian cuisine – the chef truly takes you on a journey through Colombia.
And before you think this was fearfully expensive (a meal like this would be at least $250 per person in NYC) it was under $70 per person! I highly recommend making reservations a month in advance. Unfortunately, reservations require a phone call, but the long-distance charges will be worth it. If you can’t score a reservation, still try to walk in. We made friends with a solo traveler from New York who just walked in that evening and was seated at a table close by. So, don’t lose hope!
Last Stop : Cocktail Bars in El Poblado
Full disclosure, although we would have liked to, we didn’t actually go to any cocktail bars in Medellin. We are lightweights, and the wine at El Cielo was more than enough for us! However, here’s a local’s recommended list from our server (who looked like John Snow) at El Cielo. If you check any of these out, let me know how they were?
This one day Medellin itinerary gives you the perfect taste of Medellin. But I highly recommend you to stay longer, and delve deeper. There is so much more to see in Medellin! If you have a few more days, try out this awesome self guided Metro tour of Medellin from Practical Wanderlust. You could also take a day trip to Guatape, or spend a couple days on a coffee finca close by!
General Tips on Medellin
- Taxis are pretty cheap, but most drivers only know Spanish
- Ubers are also very cheap, but routing is famously poor, so tack in several extra minutes (at least ten) to your pick-up time.
- Figure out which areas are safe to walk in from the locals. Most areas are safe, but like any other city, there are some sketchy parts.
- El Poblado area has really good cafes, restaurants, hostels and hotels.
- Most toilets did not have “seat covers” so ladies, get ready to squat! Also, make sure not to flush the toilet paper. Throw it in the trash instead.
- You can use credit cards at most hotels and cafes in Medellin (Please sign up for a credit card with no foreign transaction fees like the Chase Sapphire Reserve). However, keep some cash about you for tips, taxis, street food etc. We converted cash only once at the airport when we landed in Cartagena. You won’t need much of it.
You know the drill. Pin this post for later, to re-read before you actually head to Medellin. Or, if you don’t know the drill, read my guide on travel planning with Pinterest.