Medellín is no longer run by Pablo Escobar (unless you’re still watching Narcos). The city, which is quickly growing and now Colombia’s second largest, has become one of South America’s most vibrant, inspiring, artistic and innovative cities. Sure, there are still the sad reminders of Escobar’s reign—like bombed out apartments or his face painted over the façade of the barrio he built—but there’s far more progression to make up for it. From El Poblado’s hipster restaurants and high-end boutiques to Calle 52’s chaotic, vendor filled markets to Medellín’s iconic cable car, a visit to this misunderstood city will, in itself, showcase just a taste of the entire country’s renaissance.
Photo by Claire Volkman
A testament to the city’s revival is the above ground Metrocable —a string of gondolas created in 2004 that work as an addition to the public transportation—which soar above the city’s Northwest underdeveloped barrios. Board at Estación Acevedo and try to get a window seat so you can get a humbling view of how many of the residents live in brick houses with crumbling metal and tin roofs. Hop off and transfer to the Santa Domingo line, which will take you past the sprawling barrios to Parque Arví, a 4,300-acre nature preserve that sits on the slopes of the Aburra Valley. This local favorite provides much needed refuge from the busy city streets and offers an array of activities, from zip-lining through the lush, pollution-free trees to exploring the 1,500-year-old pre-Hispanic constructions, which sit on the Camino Cizeo de León trail.
2. Pablo Escobar Tour
It may seem counterintuitive to the city’s progression to take a tour that dwells on its dark and turbulent past, but the Pablo Escobar tour is actually the best way to see just how much the city had to overcome. Medellín City’s two-hour tour takes you to legendary landmarks in Escobar’s history while a guide regales you will tales of his fascinating reign and the terrifying aftermath it had on the city. You’ll visit the bombed out Monaco building, where assassination attempts were made on him and his family, his gravesite (which might be decorated with a letter from former hit man Popeye, who is known to visit weekly), the small and humble home he died in and the barrios he built, which still bear a painted mural of his face.
3. The Museo de Antioquia and Plaza Botero
Photo by Claire Volkman
Located off Calle 52, a bustling street filled with vendors, food carts, barber shops and other hole-in-the-wall eateries, are two of Medellín’s most notable landmarks, the Museo de Antioquia and Plaza Botero. Paying homage to Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, the larger than life sculptures are as unique as they are eye-catching. Known for his depiction (and fascination) of plump historians, Botero’s coveted collection can be seen inside the Gothic museum that flanks the square. Free to enter, the museum provides a respite from Colombia’s rainy (or humid) weather, and gives you a rather inspiring look at Botero and many other local artists’ life works.
4. Plaza Minorista
Photo by Claire Volkman
For an authentic look at real “paisa” life, spend a few hours wandering through the overwhelmingly chaotic Plaza Minorista, a large undercover market off Calle 55. Home to over 2,500 vendors selling everything from fresh produce to fish to loaves of fluffy pan blandito (Colombian soft bread), it’s also a great place to grab a bite of truly local eats. Bring your camera, as the sights and colors will make for some incredible shots. Pro tip: Go with a guide to ensure you don’t get peddled or sick from a subpar vendor.
5. El Poblado
Photo by Claire Volkman
Arguably one of Medellín’s most “hipster” neighborhoods, El Poblado feels like a city unto itself thanks to a picturesque creek running through the center, thick clusters of towering oak trees and bamboo, and brightly painted murals decorating the parks and restaurants. Noted as Medellín’s most wealthy neighborhood, it’s also one of the most popular, with nightclubs, high-end eateries, outdoor parks, salsa clubs and bars surrounding Parque Lleras. For innovative cocktails, spice-filled empanadas or their gourmet take on bandeja paisa (the blue-collar dish that fuels the working class) head to Park Bistro, which features a trendy upstairs deck and outdoor seating complete with strung lights and flags. More than just food and drink, El Poblado is also a mecca for shopping, with malls like Santa Fe, Oviedo and El Tesoro selling custom-made Colombian jewels, clothing and home goods.
6. Sip and Salsa
Medellín’s passion for salsa dancing is seen all throughout the city in the numerous high-energy, music-blaring nightclubs. In Laureles, another young and trendy neighborhood, Son Havana is a Cuban themed club that millennials and salsa fanatics frequent on a nightly basis. Even more lively and eccentric is Cien Fuegos Cabaret, a venue decorated with hundreds of photographs of salsa stars and home to all levels of dancers, from professionals to novice tourists. Last but certainly not least is El Tibiri, a sweaty basement club that beckons the most dedicated of dancers. If the vibe is too intimidating, grab a local brew (Club Colombia), sit and simply enjoy the mural of dancers in front of you.
7. The City’s Inspiring Fare
More than just empanadas, Medellín is a foodie hot spot on its own, with a collection of highly regarded restaurants all throughout the city. Mondongo’s, which has two locations, serves up hearty portions of genuine cuisine—like crispy fried plantains and arepas (Colombian corn cakes) served with chorizo and cooked over an open flame. For something a little more high-end, visit Carmen, owned by an American/Colombian pair trained at Le Cordon Bleu. The menu has a strong Colombian foundation with a fresh California twist, so expect to find dishes like pig and gnocchi confit and home-cured salmon with mashed chontaduro (native fruit) on the menu. For a taste of France in the middle of Medellín, make a reservation at La Provincia, a casual yet romantic eatery spattered with white tablecloths and freshly plucked flowers. The food is just as beautiful and locals swear by the black risotto and mango-stuffed chicken breast.
8. Biblioteca España
Photo by Nothing Major
Built into the sloping mountainsides above Medellín is one of the city’s most recognized landmarks: the Biblioteca España. This gigantic library sits next to the Santa Domingo metrocable stop and provides sweeping views of the neighboring barrios and the hillsides. Although the structure, which resembles three sloped rocks with artistically layered windows, is a point of contention for some locals, others believe it’s another positive sign of the city’s new era. Regardless of how you feel, you have to stop in, if only for the panoramic views.
Claire Gallam is a seasoned writer and photographer with a passion for food and travel. She has spent time in more than 40 countries and hundreds of cities.