Medellin, Colombia

The metropolis of Medellín has made a remarkable turnaround since its days as Colombia’s murder capital in the early 1990s. It’s now an attractive, cosmopolitan city. It sits in the middle of the huge, mountainous departamento of Antioquia, whose capital it has been since 1826. Within striking distance is the previous capital, Santa Fe de Antioquia, which remains a lovely old colonial town and competes with lakeside Guatapé to attract day-trippers from the city. To the south of Antioquia, the compact departamentos of Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío form the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s main coffee-growing region.

The best travel tips for visiting Medellin

Medellín is at the heart of Paisa country. Paisas are alternately the butt of jokes and the object of envy for many Colombians. Their rugged individualism and reputation for industriousness dates back to the early nineteenth century, when they cleared Colombia’s hinterland for farming in exchange for the government’s carrot of free land.

One of the Paisas’ biggest contributions to Colombia has been their role in the spread of coffee. The Zona Cafetera is based around the three modern cities of Manizales, Pereira and Armenia, all victims of earthquakes that have devastated them in modern times, yet each with its own charms in the way of scenery, innovation and entertainment.

Easily accessible from Armenia or Pereira, the photogenic village of Salento is the gateway to some great hiking in the misty Valle de Cocoro. Along with Pereira and Manizales, Salento also makes a good base for exploring one of Colombia’s most postcard-perfect national parks, Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, with its snow-capped peaks and ominously rumbling volcanoes.

Out of town, many of the picturesque coffee-growing fincas – almost all established by Paisa homesteaders – have opened their estates to tourists.

Rough Guides tip: Planning a trip to Colombia? Perhaps our local experts in Colombia can help you!

Things not to miss Colombia: Medellin Slums, cable car.

Medellin's cable car © Shutterstock

Best things to do in Medellin

From the ballooning artworks of Fernando Botero at the Museo de Antioquia to the dramatic and beautiful scenery of Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, here are the best things to do in Medellin.

#1 See the best works of local artist Fernando Botero at the Museo de Antioquia

Medellín’s top art museum has some of the most important and most interesting works by local boy Fernando Botero, and a square full of his sculptures right outside.

On the west side of Plaza Botero, housed in a 1937 Art Deco pile that doubles up as the town hall, the Museo de Antioquia kicks off on its top floor with a gallery of works by Fernando Botero.

The first painting of Botero’s that the museum wanted was Exvoto, his entry for a biennial art competition in 1970, depicting the Virgin Mary holding in one hand a baby Jesus dressed in a sailor suit, and with the other dispensing the prize money (which Botero did not in fact win). When Botero heard that the museum wanted to buy the painting, he just gave it to them, and he’s been giving them works of art ever since.

#2 See more art at Plaza Botero

Parque Berrío Plaza Botero, otherwise known as Plaza de las Esculturas, a lovely, tree-shaded square created only in 2001, is embellished with 23 bronze scultures by Medellín’s favourite son, Fernando Botero, who gave them to his native city as a gift.

The sculptures include several reclining – and some standing – nudes, a horse with a bowler-hatted rider and another without. There’s a dog and a cat sticking their tongues out, a very un-Egyptian sphinx, and a Roman soldier wearing only a helmet, and managing to be both beefy and tubby at the same time.

Feel free to touch the statues, by the way – not only was this Botero’s original intention, but it’s also supposed to be lucky.


Fernando Botero art in Medellin © Shutterstock

#3 Take the Pablo Escobar tour

Few individuals have had as great (and negative) an impact on Medellín in recent history as Pablo Escobar Gaviria – the most famous of Colombia’s cocaine barons.

A high-school dropout, Escobar gained a foothold in the cocaine trade in the mid-1970s, as the drug was taking off in popularity in the US.

By 1982, he had a well-established smuggling operation, just in time for the huge boost in the market caused by the rise of crack.

By the mid-1980s, Colombia was shipping 70–80 tonnes of powder to the US every month, and eighty percent of the trade was in the hands of Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.

A couple of tours take visitors around the city to various Escobar-associated sights including the building he lived in, apartment blocks he had built, the rooftop on which he was shot, and, finally, his gravestone.

The best operators are Paisa Road and Discovery Tours.

#4 Take a day trip to Guatapé

The gorgeous lakeside town of Guatapé is just two hours out of Medellín. Many tourists come largely to see the nearby Piedra del Peñol, Colombia’s answer to Sugar Loaf Mountain, but the town itself is a far greater attraction.

Its picturesque little houses, painted in cheerful, bright pastels, with multicoloured wooden verandas, are famous for their decorative panels called zócalos.

Unsurprisingly, Guatapé is a big favourite with weekenders from Medellín.

The palm-lined parque principal (main square), Plaza de Simón Bolívar, is just a block off the lakeside, and must surely be one of the prettiest main squares in South America.

Guatapé’s prettiest streets are off the Calle del Comercio (Calle 31), which leads east from the parque principal.

Stairs opposite No. 29–9 lead down to the Plazoleta de los Zócalos, a lovely little square positively bursting with colour, and on past a row of little shops to the waterfront.

Colorful houses in Guatape Colombia

Colorful houses in Guatape, Colombia © Barna Tanko/Shutterstock

#5 Enjoy colonial elegance in Santa Fe de Antioquia

Just 80km northwest of Medellín – but nearly 1000m lower in altitude, and therefore much warmer – is the lovely whitewashed colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia.

The capital of Antioquia until that brash upstart Medellín usurped it in 1826, Santa Fe has since remained almost unspoiled. Many of its whitewashed houses still have their original stucco doorways with ornate decorations on the lintels in particular. Other buildings eschew the whitewash and stucco in favour of a bare but decorative stone and brick facade, a style called calicanto.

An easy journey from Medellín via the 4.6km Tunel del Occidente through the Cordillera, the town is a very popular weekend retreat from the city. During the week, things are much quieter, but on the other hand a lot of places are closed. With some bars and restaurants opening from Thursday to Sunday only, one museum open weekends only, and the churches generally open only for Mass.

#6 Head to Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, Colombia’s most dramatic national park

Indisputably one of the crown jewels in Colombia’s national parks system, the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, 40km southeast of Manizales, protects some of the last surviving snow-capped peaks in the tropics. That said, although the name Nevado implies perpetual snow, climate change has now lifted the snowline to almost 5000m on most peaks.

Three of the five volcanoes are dormant, but Nevado del Ruiz – the tallest at 5321m – remains an active threat. It killed 22,000 people and buried the now-extinct town of Armero when it erupted in 1985. It may be the most impressive area of the park, but the Nevado del Ruiz remains largely off-limits at present due to the risk of eruption.

Indigenous animals include mountain tapirs and spectacled bears, and sharp-eyed birdwatchers may be rewarded with the sight of a majestic Andean condor soaring the thermals in search of prey.

Things not to miss: Frailejones, Los Nevados National Park, Colombia.

Frailejones, Los Nevados National Park, Colombia © Shutterstock

#7 Discover how Colombia’s excellent coffee is produced at a finca

What better way to see how Colombia’s excellent coffee is produced than to stay on a farm where it’s done? A number of coffee fincas in the Zona Cafetera are open for visits, from traditional estates still attended by their owner to deceptively modern rural hotels where the only coffee you’ll find comes served with breakfast.

The farms look out on lush slopes, overgrown with shiny-leaved coffee shrubs and interspersed with banana plants and bamboo-like guadua forests. Many will arrange horseriding and walks, and they make an ideal base to explore the region’s attractions.

Coffee plantation © Fotos593/Shutterstock

Coffee plantation in Colombia © Fotos593/Shutterstock

#8 Go back in time in Salento

In the heart of coffee country, 24km northeast of Armenia, the adorable village of Salento is one of the region’s earliest settlements. A popular weekend getaway, this lovely little town is a perfect base to visit the wax palm cloudforest of Valle de Cocora, eat fresh local trout, and dance to classic Colombian sounds in the main square.

Founded in 1842, it stands on the old colonial road from Popoyán to Bogotá (which still exists as an unsurfaced trail). Its slow development means the lifestyle and buildings of the Paisa journeymen who first settled here have barely been altered since. The colourful, wonderfully photogenic one-storey homes of thick adobe and clay-tile roofs that surround the plaza are as authentic as it gets. Rural workers clad in cowboy hats and ruanas (Colombian ponchos) are a common sight to this day.

Salento, Colombia

Salento, Colombia © Pixabay

#9 Ride the Comuna 13 escalators

To see one of the innovative projects that have helped rejuvenate the city, pop over to Las Independencias I in Comuna 13, a formerly gang-ridden, violent neighbourhood clinging to a hillside on the western edge of town.

As part of the area’s regeneration, the mayor’s office have installed six flights of escalators (escaleras eléctricas) up the hillside, along with children’s slides and fountains to play in on the streets, paint to brighten up the houses and youth clubs to keep local kids out of trouble. The result: a neighbourhood still poor, but with a better quality of life, less troubled and on the up.

The escalators, installed in 2011, were among a number of projects called PUIs (Integrated Urban Projects), designed to improve life in the city, and uniformed staff, all local residents, will tell you with pride about the effect they have had.

Medellin escalators in Comuna 13, Colombia © Shutterstock

Medellin escalators in Comuna 13, Colombia © Shutterstock

#10 Visit Catedral Metropolitana, the largest church in the world built entirely of bricks

The fortress-like Catedral Metropolitana at the northern end of Parque de Bolívar, six blocks northeast of Plaza Botero, claims to be the largest church in the world built entirely of bricks – 1.12 million, if you’re counting. Not only the outside, but also the rather dark interior, is completely faced with bare brick.

The cathedral was designed in Neo-Romanesque style by French architect Émile Charles Carré. Construction started in 1875 but proceeded in fits and starts, and matters were not helped when the building was struck by a bolt of lightning in 1928, igniting a major fire. The cathedral was finally inaugurated in 1931.

Best areas to stay in Medellin

From the upscale and vibrant El Poblado to the relaxed and authentic charm of Laureles, these are the best areas to stay in Medellin.

El Poblado

Although most of the sights are in the downtown area, most foreign tourists prefer to stay in El Poblado, an upmarket neighbourhood in the southeastern part of town. This has the highest concentration of lodgings, including some cool boutique hotels and decent hostels.


The Laureles neighbourhood, within walking distance west of the city, is increasingly popular as a place to stay. It has a number of decent hostels and a fair whack of affordable, high-quality hotels.

City centre

Although most of the sights are in the downtown city centre, it’s quite a seedy area, with a lot of prostitution and drug dealing, and you certainly want to watch your step here, especially at night. For all that, the centre has a buzz that outlying areas don't, and there are a handful of decent, clean and friendly places to lay your head.

Browse the best hotels in Medellin.

Best restaurants and bars

If you're a food enthusiast or enjoy vibrant nightlife, Medellin offers two neighbourhoods renowned for their culinary scene: El Poblado and Laureles.

Upmarket El Poblado has tonnes of places to eat and party, including the city’s Zona Rosa, which is centred on the Parque Lleras in the middle of the barrio.

A lot of people just hang out in Parque Lleras, buying beer in the shops at its western end – Lleras Park Minimarket at Cra 40 No. 9–21 – even tthough drinking in the square and on the street is officially illegal.

A short walk west of the centre, hip Laureles is a good spot to grab some food, including some cool new vegetarian restaurants.

The streets just west of the metro line between Parque Berrio and San Antonio stations have a bustling market vibe with a handful of decent traditional restaurants to eat at.

Metropolitan cathedral church in Medellin, Colombia © Shutterstock

Metropolitan cathedral church in Medellin, Colombia © Shutterstock

How to get around

From the convenience of the metro system to the cable cars offering panoramic views, it is easy to get around Medellin. Here’s how to do it.

By metro and cable car

The city’s excellent metro system is clean and efficient and include cable cars in the price of a metro ride from Acevedo and San Javier metro stations. To avoid queues, it’s worth buying several journeys at once (all on one card, valid from any station to any station).

By bus and buseta

The safety and efficiency of the metro means that you’re far less likely to use buses, but at C$2000 a ride they’re not expensive. Bus #134 runs between Parque Berrío and C 10 in El Poblado, via metro Poblado, returning via C 10A.

By taxi

Taxis are cheap and plentiful; a journey from the city centre to El Poblado will cost around C$12,000. Reliable cab firms include Flota Bernal Taxi and Coopebombas. Medellín is also covered by Easy Taxi and, although not legally, by Uber.

What is the best time to visit Medellin?

Medellín is known for a delightful climate all year round, but certain times offer different  experiences. The best time to visit Medellin is during the dry season.

During December, January and February, you'll find warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine. It's a great time to explore the city's parks and outdoor attractions while enjoying the festive atmosphere of the holiday season.

As March rolls around, the city enters its dry season, lasting through April and May. Clear skies and comfortable temperatures make this an ideal time for outdoor activities like hiking, exploring the colorful neighborhoods, or simply relaxing in a local café.

June, July and August marks the start of the rainy season, but don't let that deter you. Showers are typically short-lived, and you can still enjoy a trip to Medellín during this time. Plus, the lush greenery that follows the rain adds an extra charm to the city.

September, October and November sees a transition back to drier weather, with occasional showers. It's a great time to experience Medellín's cultural scene, with various festivals and events happening throughout the city.

Find out more about the best time to visit Colombia.

Santa Fe de Antioquia, a heritage town of Colombia © Shutterstock

Santa Fe de Antioquia, a heritage town of Colombia © Shutterstock

How many days do you need in Medellin?

For an immersive exploration of Medellin, set aside a minimum of 3 to 4 days. Start by strolling through Plaza Botero, where you'll encounter the captivating sculptures of renowned artist Fernando Botero. Then, make your way to the Museo de Antioquia, home to a rich collection of Colombian art and cultural artefacts. Next, venture to Parque Explora, an interactive science museum that promises an engaging experience for all ages.

Don't miss the chance to hop on the Metrocable, which offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city and surrounding landscapes. To delve deeper into Medellin's vibrant neighbourhoods, dedicate time to exploring El Poblado and Laureles. If you find yourself with time to spare, consider a day trip to the picturesque town of Guatape to see its vibrant, colourful houses and the imposing El Peñol rock.

Rough Guides tip: Planning a trip to Colombia? Perhaps our local experts in Colombia can help you!

How to get here

By plane

José María Córdova airport Medellín’s José María Córdova airport lies a hilly 28 km from the city along a scenic highway. It services all international and most domestic flights and there are buses between the airport and the city centre. A tiny handful of small domestic flights use Olaya Herrera, the city’s second airport.

By bus

Depending on which part of the country you’re coming from, long-distance buses arrive either at the Terminal del Norte or Terminal del Sur, almost equidistant from the centre. Terminal del Norte handles traffic to or from the north, east and southeast, while Terminal del Sur has buses to or from the south and west.

Find out the best ways to get to Colombia.

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written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 21.03.2024

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