Medellin is changing quickly. Once the notorious hideout of drug lord Pablo Escobar, it wasn’t all that long ago that Medellin was dubbed “the most dangerous city in the world.” But recent years have brought a remarkable transformation not only to Medellin but also to Colombia as a whole.
Today as you stroll around Medellin’s bustling streets and shady parks, there is a tangible feeling of hope and innovation in the air. Yes, you might still notice shanty houses or a heavy police presence, but that’s not what you’ll remember. Instead, key features include the city’s perfect weather (Medellin is also known as “the city of eternal spring”), friendly locals (Paisas) who are eager to play host, and a burgeoning assortment of chic boutiques, fun nightlife and hip art galleries.
Don’t be surprised if you fall in love with all there is to see, do and eat in Medellin. Mr Hudson will get you started.
Where to stay
Exquisite design, expansive city views and a rooftop swimming pool and lounge—what more could anyone ask for? The Charlee Lifestyle Hotel is Medellin’s premier boutique hotel. Rooms are retro with vintage-inspired design, all of which is pulled off with elegant ease. Perhaps most notable are the hotel’s “vertical art galleries”, featuring extensive artwork from a range of Colombian talent.
The luxurious Hotel Park 10 is elegant yet unpretentious. Expect features like wood floors, exposed brick, marble bathrooms and whirlpool tubs. Savour a cup of Colombian coffee in the lovely outdoor dining area, or enjoy a quick stroll to the Zona Rosa—home to some of the best nightlife in Medellin. Alternatively, the Museum of Modern Art is just a few kilometres away.
The Art Hotel is a boutique hotel tucked away on a side street, yet just moments from the famous nightlife of El Poblado. While the hotel’s rooms are certainly impeccable, it’s the additional features that will blow you away. Think amenities such as a Turkish bath and sauna, private cinema and boutique wine bar.
Photo: Dan Moore
Top neighbourhoods to explore
Visit Medellin and the first neighbourhood you’re likely to hear about is El Poblado. Not only is this one of the most affluent areas of the city, it is also where most of the top hotels, restaurants and nightlife are located. In the heart of El Poblado is Parque Lleras, around which you’ll find many places to while away the evening.
In stark contrast to El Poblado is the neighbourhood of Santo Domingo. Once one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the city, Santo Domingo has been largely transformed due to the installation of a teleferico that connects to the city’s main metro line. Now residents of Santo Domingo can easily head back and forth between Medellin’s urban centre. Take the teleferico up to the town, and then visit the Biblioteca España. The fantastic free community centre gives the neighbourhood access to computers, a library, seminars and more. The community centre is a fascinating example of community development and education.
Finally, it’s worth a stop at the Pueblito Paisa. Opened in March of 1978, the town replica was built to look like a typical Colombian Antioquia town. The “town” itself is quite touristy (and it is certainly not a traditional neighbourhood), but several viewpoints around the area offer a 360-degree view of the city and surrounding mountainside that shouldn’t be missed.
Things to see and do
Don’t miss a walk through the whimsical Botero Statue Park, a plaza comprised of 23 sculptures by Botero. The Colombian artist famously noted for his “voluminous representations” is one of the most recognised and quoted living artists from Latin America. The park is adjacent to the equally impressive Rafael Uribe Palace of Culture and the Museum of Antioquia. The museum houses over 100 pieces of Botero’s artwork and sculptures that have been generously donated.
Just before dusk, make your way to the Barefoot Park (Parque de Los Pies Descalzos). The park features a “no shoes allowed” sandbox, pathways and waterfall, encouraging people to get grounded and connect with the earth. If that’s not up your alley, then try nearby Parque de las Luces and Edificio Vasquez. These are the old warehouses where Pablo Escobar used to process his massive cocaine exploits. Today the buildings have been transformed into a historic site with an adjacent park that lights up spectacularly at night.
Photo: Dan Moore
Eat, drink and be merry
No visit to Medellin is complete with trying Mondongo. The traditional Colombian soup consists of diced tripe and slow-cooked vegetables. The famous restaurant by the same name, Mondongos, is a favourite place with locals and the ideal restaurant to give the classic dish a try.
If you’re ravenous, then it’s time to try Bandeja Paisa. This Colombian speciality includes soup, meat, fried plantains, fried egg, chorizo, chicharron (thick pork fat), beans, avocado, rice and salad. You can try the dish throughout Medellin, but Brasarepa is one of the best. First made famous by Anthony Bourdain, the unassuming restaurant just outside of the city centre is well worth the short taxi ride over.
For something a bit more swanky, head to the Woka Lounge. Expect mouth-watering sushi and thai cuisine in a breath-taking forest setting. The restaurant’s goal is to stimulate the five senses using the four elements of nature: earth, water, air, and fire. Thankfully, it does so with class, style and mouth-watering meals.
Medellin is known for its nightlife, which is equal parts rowdy, kitsch, and fun. El Eslabón Prendido, Kukaramakara and Sixttina are a few popular places for reggae, salsa or general clubbing on the weekends. If you’re looking for truly unique but also incredibly tacky, then consider Dulce Jesus Mio. The club was designed to resemble a traditional Colombian town but is as outlandish as clubs get. Bring your camera and get ready for a night like none you’ve had before.
If you don’t want the tourists in El Poblado or the kitsch of Dulce Jesus Mio, then perhaps an Underground Tango Tour would be more up your alley. Medellin is an enclave of tango-afficionados, second only to Buenos Aires. Brush up on your tango, or simply be moved by the passionate steps of the experts.
Where to shop
There are countless shopping malls and designer department stores located throughout the city. However, we recommend the one-of-a-kind boutiques at Barrio Laureles for clothing and home decor you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Interestingly enough, Medellin has also been referred to as “the Silicon Valley of underwear manufacturers.” While you won’t always find the local brands in shops (many Colombians prefer U.S. name brands), keep an eye out for local designers for men such as Mundo Unico and Clever.
The San Alejo Handicraft Market falls on the first Saturday of every month and is a worthwhile stop if your travel dates coincide accordingly. From baskets to jewellery to clothing to toys, there’s a little something for everyone among the sprawling booths. Alternatively, the Centro Viejo Pueblo Artesanal is a bit more touristy, but still offers similar unique handicrafts every day of the week.
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Parque de las Luces | Photo: Dan Moore
Charlee Lifestyle Hotel | Photo: Charlee Lifestyle Hotel
Pueblito Paisa | Photo: Dan Moore
Art Hotel | Photo: Art Hotel
Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro | Photo: Dan Moore
Hotel Park 10 | Photo: Hotel Park 10