It’s safe to say that I was about as excited to visit Medellin as one could possibly be before arriving in a new travel destination.
After all, Medellin is tucked away in a picturesque valley in the Andes Mountains, has a fascinating recent history, and is nicknamed “The City of the Eternal Spring”…what’s not to love?
As it turns out, I did in fact love Medellin…but I also found myself feeling a bit surprised by the city, too.
For one thing, Medellin actually reminded me of Mexico City in a number of ways…which should definitely be taken as a compliment! After all, you may remember my brief but passionate love affair with Mexico City earlier this year.
That said, I wasn’t as instantly charmed by Medellin as I was by my beloved Mexico City.
Confession time: I always feel a bit guilty when I compare cities and locations that don’t really have any business being compared to one another (like, just because these are two large Spanish-speaking cities, I need to decide which one I like more??), but in this case it was all too easy: the perfect cool, breezy, sunny weather; the phenomenal public transportation systems; the similar charm and trendiness of Mexico City’s La Condesa and Medellin’s El Poblado; the food and the nightlife; the urban flair mixed with an overall easygoing vibe…the list goes on.
But in spite of all of those comparisons, Medellin felt like a younger, less developed version of Mexico City. It felt a bit grittier and yes, a bit less safe. Then again, Medellin has faced (and conquered) many challenges that Mexico City hasn’t, and it’s clear that the city has come a loooong way over the years, and that the locals are extremely proud of what they’ve accomplished.
But, I digress!
In my opinion, Medellin is more a city of stories than it is a city of sights.
In fact, I don’t have a single “must see” for the city of Medellin. Not one! There are no specific churches, architectural wonders, parks, gardens, museums or squares that I think a visitor has to see to experience “best of Medellin.”
What I do have, however, is a number of definite “must dos”…all of which tie in – in one way or another – to Medellin’s history, culture, and spirit.
While one day in Medellin isn’t quite enough time to cross all of the city’s potential “must dos” off your bucket list, it is enough time to get a taste of the city’s vibrant culture, complex history, and unique personality.
Explore El Poblado/Parque Lleras
Despite Medellin’s fabulous public transportation system, which allows you to get from one area of the city to another in a snap, it’s still important to make sure you’re based in an area of the city that you’ll thoroughly enjoy. After all, you’ll likely be spending a good portion of your time there…better make it count!
For me, the neighborhood of El Poblado is hands-down the place to stay in Medellin.
It’s safe, walkable, and SUPER scenic. Picture open-air restaurants, trendy cafes and bars, plenty of lush greenery and shady foliage, and the best nightlife in the city (in the Parque Lleras area). Although I didn’t personally indulge in much of the local nightlife myself, I still appreciated having the ability to walk down the block for a drink or two at a nearby bar, before heading to bed early.
El Poblado is a great place for having breakfast and coffee before you start your exploring, or dinner and drinks at the end of the day…or both! And considering that El Poblado is one of Medellin’s most upscale neighborhoods, it also provides a nice contrast to the other areas of the city you’ll explore.
Ride the Cable Car
Believe it or not, Medellin’s unique public transportation system is listed as the city’s number one attraction on TripAdvisor. Of course, calling the Medellin cable car just a “public transportation system” really doesn’t do justice to its historical significance.
It sort of goes without saying that Medellin (and actually, Colombia as a whole) doesn’t have a particularly glowing reputation for safety. In fact, as far as reputations go, it doesn’t get much worse than being named THE most dangerous city in the world. In 1991, Medellin also “earned” the title of “murder capital of the world” with a whopping 6,349 murders that year within the city limits (a rate of 380 per 100,000 people…yikes).
Of course, this was during the height of tensions between the Medellin Cartel (the infamous cartel headed by Pablo Escobar) and rival cartels, paramilitary groups, the Colombia government, and the United States government. The Medellin Cartel was fully dismantled by 1993, after wreaking havoc on the city of Medellin for more than 20 years.
But even after the fall of the cartel, Medellin was in a dark place. It was a divided city with extremely high rates of poverty and unrest. This was particularly true for those who lived in the underdeveloped barrios high up in the mountainsides overlooking the city, who faced isolation and lack of access to jobs, healthcare, education, and supplies.
That all changed when the Medellin MetroCable was opened in 2004. Suddenly, Medellin’s most impoverished people had a chance to escape their isolation on the steep hillsides and access the city center, where they could find jobs, schools, public libraries, shops, and markets.
For the people of Medellin, the new metrocable represented so much more than just a new way to get around the city; it represented hope, change, and growth. In addition to the metrocable, the city also began developing new libraries, safe public parks and squares, and even a local bike-share program. For these (and other) reasons, Medellin’s reputation has recently shifted from being a city filled with violence, drugs, and danger to a city filled with innovation.
So yes, THAT’S why the Medellin MetroCable is considered the “number one attraction” in the city, and it’s definitely worth a ride to the top!
How to Ride the Medellin MetroCable
If you’re staying in El Poblado (or really, anywhere in Medellin), getting to the location where you board the cable cars is a breeze – you can just take the metro the whole way there! Simply purchase a metro ticket and head north, towards Niquia (the final stop in that direction). Keep riding for eleven stops, until you get to the Acevedo stop. This is the metro stop for the cable cars!
After you board the cable car, there will be 3 stops: Andalucia, Popular, and Santo Domingo. From what I understand, Santo Domingo is the only stop that is considered safe for travelers to do a bit of exploring in, so wait to exit the car until you get to this stop. It’s here that you can see the large, black, and very modern-looking Biblioteca España (Library of Spain), which was inaugurated in 2007 as part of Medellin’s efforts to promote access to education and safe spaces.
Where to Go and What to See
Riding in the cable car and gazing down at Medellin’s poorest neighborhoods offers a stark contrast to the city center. While much of Medellin is modern, urban, and densely populated, the scenery begins to change more and more as you continue to drift upwards.
The streets become unpaved and winding; the buildings become shorter and appear to have been thrown together haphazardly; the sidewalks and urban amenities give way to greenery, farmlands, and thick foliage.
I got off at the Santo Domingo stop to look around for a bit, but eventually decided to continue my journey upwards towards Parque Arvi (the cost of this is not included in your metro ticket; it is roughly 1.50 USD more). The park contains a number of nature trails for hiking and exploring, but I hadn’t done much research before my arrival and was immensely confused about what to see and do there when I arrived.
That said, my time in Medellin’s “green lung” consisted of nothing more than wandering around near the entrance of the park for a few minutes, trying to make sense of some maps and signage (in Spanish), then purchasing and eating what was hands-down the greasiest empanada I’ve ever consumed (still good though!). Eventually I gave up on my quest and hopped back in the cable car to head down the mountain.
So, while I’m pretty much useless when it comes to offering real advice for visiting Parque Arvi, I will say that the ride alone makes a visit to the park well worth it! The scenery was beautiful, and it was a nice close-up look at the gorgeous nature that surrounds the city of Medellin.
I was glad to have the car to myself during the ride down from Parque Arvi back into Medellin, since this was my only real chance to snap some photos of the gorgeous scenery. I definitely would have felt both silly and disrespectful taking photos like a clueless gringa if locals were seated next to me, using the cable car for its actual intended purpose.
Real City Free Walking Tour
I had heard about the free walking tour from Real City Tours before I even arrived in Medellin, and again from almost every backpacker I met in the city (“Have you done the free walking tour yet?” ; “Do you know about the free walking tour?”)
The tour itself really was incredible; whether you consider yourself a “tour person” or not, it should definitely be on your “must do” list if you’re visiting Medellin! Our guide was Juan, who was absolutely fantastic – he was passionate, engaging, and ridiculously informed about Medellin’s history and culture.
The tour brings you to places like:
- Plaza Botero
- Alpujarra Administrative Centre
- Plaza Cisneros (Plaza of Lights)
- Parque Bolivar
- Parque Berrio
- Carabobo Pedestrian Walkway
- Veracruz Church
- National Palace (now converted into a shopping mall!)
One of the best things about this tour is that they really do try to introduce you to the “real” Medellin.
As Juan put it, “The city center is crowded, dirty, loud, and filled with pick-pockets. In fact, some locals may try to put an X over certain areas of your map, especially those in the city center, and tell you that they’re not safe or nice places to visit. I’m going to take you to those places.”
Juan was very upfront with us regarding the level of risk for theft in the areas we were visiting, letting us know when we should move our backpacks to the front of our bodies and put our electronics away. I do want to point out we did NOT go anywhere that was a risk to our physical safety – all of the places that we visited were very populated and accessible to tourists. However, they were areas that you may not necessarily want to bring excess cash or your nice DSLR, especially if you’re not with a local guide like Juan.
We saw sights like Plaza Botero with the 23 Fernando Botero sculptures, but we also saw prostitutes loitering outside churches and old men getting drunk in the park.
Juan had a keen eye for spotting seedy situations that may go unnoticed to an unsuspecting foreigner, like men sniffing glue from paper bags on a park bench, or pouring rubbing alcohol into their juice in the corner of a crowded public square.
At times, it sort of felt like we were playing a twisted game of Where’s Waldo – but rather than searching for a nerdy guy in a striped sweater, we were searching for the city’s dark underbelly that somehow managed to hide in plain sight. Every time Juan pointed out an illegal activity unfolding in front of us or the site of a surprisingly-recent violent event, it felt like we were peeling back another layer of Medellin’s exterior and clearly viewing the scars that remained from city’s violent past.
As Juan explained it, it’s important to see and acknowledge these scars because they’re a reminder of what the city has been through, and what it has overcome. For every sad story Juan shared with us, he shared another story of how the city had been transformed and reinvented using education, progress, and architecture.
As luck would have it, I also happened to be on the tour the day after the U.S. election, just hours after I found out that Donald Trump was our new president. The wounds were still very raw and emotions were high, and I was feeling so disheartened by the division and downright hate I had witnessed in my fellow countrymen.
So, when Juan ended our tour by reminding all of us that in spite of whatever hardships we may be facing in our own countries, that it was important to keep a positive and hopeful spirit – just as the people of Medellin had always done – I couldn’t even hold back my tears.
It was an enlightening, fascinating, and moving experience to say the least!
Other Things to Do in Medellin
I used up an entire day taking part in the activities listed above (strolling around El Poblado and grabbing breakfast in the morning, riding the cable car and exploring Santo Domingo/Parque Arvi, eating a leisurely lunch in the city center, joining the 4-hour afternoon walking tour, and then ending my day with dinner and drinks) but if you’re keen to see even more of Medellin, these are some of the city’s other most popular sights and activities:
- Jardín Botánico – 14-hectare botanical garden with more than 1,000 living species and 4,500 flowers
- Parque Explora – Interactive science museum, home to South America’s largest freshwater aquarium
- Pueblito Paisa – Replica of a typical Antioquia town, high up on a hill above the city (NOTE: I actually visited Pueblito Paisa on the same day that I took part in the activities outlined above…and it didn’t make the cut for a reason. I found it to be super strange and touristy! I don’t personally recommend it, but for some reason it’s highly recommended on TripAdvisor)
- Paragliding – Medellin is among the cheapest paragliding locations in the world! I would have loved to have done this if the weather was more cooperative.
- Go watch a soccer match – Again, I would have LOVED to have done this if I had more time. Cheap and exciting!
Have you ever been to Colombia and/or Medellin? If so, what would you add to this “must do” list for one day in Medellin? If not, would you ever want to travel here?