How to Spend 24 Fabulous Hours in Medellin, Colombia
Let me start with this: if you have more than 24 hours to spend in Medellin, Colombia, just stay longer. This exciting Colombian city deserves at least three days of exploration. But if like me, you can only afford a day or so of your Colombia travel itinerary to the city - likely because you’re headed to the Caribbean coast or the coffee region - here's a jam-packed Medellin city guide so you can make the most of this killer metropolis (and true comeback kid of South America) in just one day.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded and experienced traveller, but I’ll admit I had some serious nerves ahead of my trip to Medellin. Once the home of Pablo Escobar (you know, just the most notorious drug dealer of all time) and the violent Colombian drug trade, Medellin has yet to fully shed its reputation as a dangerous place to visit. More than 20+ years have passed since the peak cocaine era and Medellin has won countless awards for its urban transformation and innovation. But the average visitor is still likely to tread with caution because of the city's notorious past. However, as soon as you're greeted by the uber-friendly locals and pop into the chic cafes, restaurants and boutiques cropping up all over town, you'll quickly forget you had any trepidation. Of course, like in any new travel destination, you'd still do well to remain alert of your surroundings and belongings. But be warned: once Medellin wraps you in its charms, this will harder to do than you anticipated.
But enough of my nerdy historical ramblings, let's move on to why you’re really here - to read my city guide and make the most of your 24 hours in Medellin.
Medellin: Where to Stay
Start by booking yourself a night at the Art Hotel, a chic yet affordable hotel (especially if you split the cost with a fellow traveller) in the heart of Medellin's El Poblado neighbourhood. Not only is this classy establishment the perfect place to unwind after a long day of pounding the city pavements, it's also ideally located so you can squeeze in as much of Medellin as possible during a short visit. It's got a slick, modernist feel helped by a beautiful atrium in the middle of the hotel, and friendly staff to help you get around town.
If you're on a tighter travel budget, check out this post by The Broke Backpacker for all of your Medellin hostel needs.
Medellin: What to Do
1) Start your day with a quick but strong cuppa at Pergamino: Don't miss this trendy cafe in the heart of El Poblado neighbourhood. Its cool and relaxed vibe will set the tone for your day. I'd even venture to say it's the local haunt for Medellin's growing community of digital nomads. And the coffee itself is simply divine. They even sell their own roasts. The morning I visited, the majority of clientele were actually there to restock their at-home coffee supply.
2) With your coffee buzz in full swing, head over to Ganso and Castor for one of Medellin's best breakfasts. This adorable bistro, with its retro white-tiled walls and checkered flooring, is located in the glamorous Provenza neighbourhood. And the food (and coffee, if you need a second cup to push through your jetlag) is superb. I ordered a delicious half-and-half breakfast of French Toast and Eggs Benedict. Servings aren't huge but the flavours are superb and its all rather affordable (approximately $7-$10 a breakfast) given the quality of the food and sophistication of the space.
3) Once you're fully fuelled, head downtown to Botero Plaza and the Museum of Antioquia. Botero Plaza might ring a bell because it's named after Colombia's most internationally recognised artist, Fernando Botero. His paintings and sculptures are renowned for his signature rounded and voluptuous figures. The square itself is filled with Botero sculptures of chubby cats, horses, dogs and us humans. And the plaza is always buzzing. You'll find locals going about their day, tourists snapping photos with their favourite piece and hawkers selling everything from fresh mango slices to ice cream to colourful balloons for the little ones.
Once you've explored the square, head to the Museo de Antioquia for your cultural fix and a respite from the crowds. This beautiful art museum houses an extensive collection of Botero's work (donated by the artist himself to help re-establish the museum and put Medellin on the cultural map) alongside other celebrated Latin American artists. You'll even find Botero's famed piece, "The Death of Pablo Escobar." Also, do not miss the museum shop. There are incredible pieces of jewellery, textiles and interiors designed by local Colombian artists. I picked up a beautiful hand-woven scarf designed by an award-winning local designer.
4) Once you've worked up an appetite, walk over to a local establishment and Medellin institution - the Versalles Cafe. Open since 1961, this Argentinian cafe with an American-diner feel serves up killer empanadas - both the Argentinian and Chilean way. I know, I know. You’re after authentic Colombian food. But I promise these are worth you veering away from the local fare. Then enjoy a local pastry for dessert. My friend and I shared a guava-filled donut to give us the sugar boost we needed to keep on exploring.
5) If you're still going strong, head back to El Poblado and go for a wander in Parque Lleras. This small yet vibrant park is a fantastic place to people-watch. Find yourself a cozy spot and watch the world go by. If you'd rather do a spot of shopping, most of the streets surrounding the park are dripping with cute boutiques where you can find many a quirky souvenir.
6) By the time you wrap up, it'll be time to get your evening started on the rooftop bar of the Charlee Hotel. It's the perfect place to watch the sun set across the city's mountains and skyline. You can sample an array of interesting cocktails, slow down to match the pace of the bar’s chill electronic tunes and watch the night come alive.
7) With your pre-dinner cocktails ticked off the list, it's time for dinner. And Medellin's happening restaurant scene will not disappoint. Just be sure to arrive early or you might not get a table. (That's what happened to us.) If you want local fare somewhere lowkey, consider Mondongo's where you can eat a classic Colombian Bandeja Paisa. For something more upscale, book yourself in at Carmen and for the ultimate gastronomic experience, head to El Cielo. These were all on my Medellin hit list but one day simply wasn't enough.
8) If your night is just beginning, head back to Parque Lleras and get your party on at the countless bars and clubs throughout the area. Whatever your pleasure, you'll find what you're looking for: a local pub, live music, clubs and the best late-night food stalls. If you're ready to call it a night, head back to the Art Hotel for a cozy night in.
Medellin: What to Do with More than One Day
OK, so I'm going a bit rogue here and throwing in some things I would have done in Medellin had I had an extra day or two. If these activities are also of interest, consider adding more days to your Medellin travel itinerary so you don't regret missing out on these too:
1) Ride the city's cable car: Public transport is a great way to get a true flavour of a city and its people. And what better way to do that than to see it from above? The Metrocable is renowned for (finally) linking Medellin's shanty towns to the rest of the city. And it offers up some of Medellin's best views. Lonely Planet calls it the cheapest city tour on the planet.
2) Go on a walking tour with Real City Tours: Real City is the best tour agency in town. The guides are known to be both fun and factual. And they offer tours for any interest: there's the Exotic Fruits tour for foodies, the Walking Tour for those who want to hit every tourist hotspot and the Barrio Transformation Tour for urban junkies like me.
3) Walk in Pablo Escobar's footsteps: Not literally. This man was a murderer who left his country in shambles. But for those keen to better understand Escobar's influence and impact on Medellin (and Colombia as a whole), Top 10 Tours is said to be the most informative and authentic option out there. Sure, we've all seen Narcos but there's nothing like the real local stories to shed some light on the city's truly brutal past and phenomenal transformation.
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