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What travellers love about Medellín is that there are so many things to go and see that it’s reeeeeally hard to be bored in this city. I spent a total of 6 weeks here, and loved every minute. I’ve compiled this list of the 25 top things to do in Medellin, Antioquia, so you don’t miss out on anything during your time here.
The locals – known as paisas – are said to be some of the most open and friendly in all of Colombia. Though I’ll admit that I don’t feel as safe in Medellín as I do in Bogotá, I’d tend to agree that the people here are very warm! Perhaps the weather helps – at a toasty 28-ish degrees celsius all year round, Medellín is known as the City of Eternal Spring (though we’d be pushed to find a Spring that warm in the UK so I do feel slightly cheated). In line with the dry season, December-April is high tourist season in Medellin, Colombia.
This city is vibrant and exciting in the centre, but the residential areas still manage to stay leafy and tranquil for the most part. A stay in Medellin can prove to be an assault on the senses, especially if you’re staying near the tourist and expat hotspot of El Poblado (have a look here at my recommendations for the best places to stay in Medellin).
When it comes to safety in Medellin, you do have to be alert. Beggars are plentiful, many of them suffering from the effects of decades of poverty and/or drug addictions & untreated mental health issues. I have been in situations where a person begging got aggressive and wouldn’t leave us alone; if this happens, slip into a local shop and the owners will normally speak to the person for you. Pickpocketing and mugging does happen in Medellin, even (perhaps even especially) in the swankier areas like El Poblado, so make sure you’re not a sitting duck. Lots of my 16 tips for staying safe in Bogota also apply to Medellin.
There is now also a plethora of refugees from Venezuela on the street who fled the struggles of their country but haven’t been able to build a new life in Colombia with their families. I always tried to give food and water when I could, but the sheer number of people suffering can feel overwhelming. There’s a lot on ongoing work to help these families find somewhere safe to call home – there are literally millions of Venezuelans displaced across South America, but Colombia has the largest number due to its proximity.
During my time in Medellín, I lodged in the spare room of a wonderful Venezuelan family’s apartment – they were some of the lucky ones who were able to get out of their country early on in the humanitarian crisis, sorting out finances and legal visas before they came. They taught me A LOT while I was temporarily part of their family (well, they still call me daughter!), and since I left they’ve become heavily involved in the Alianza de Comunicadores which aims to provide a voice to the Venezuelans in Antioquia; a great place to start if you’re interested in educating yourself on the realities of this humanitarian crisis.
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Top things to do in Medellin to fill your brain
Marvel at the progress of Comuna 13
A tour through Comuna 13 is usually the number one of people’s list of top things to do in Medellin, and there’s real good justification for it. Comuna 13 is one of Medellin’s 16 comunas, which are impoverished areas built up into the hills on land that no one else wanted. During the civil conflicts, thousands of displaced people ended up having to set up new homes here. For many of these comunas – some of which were still considered illegal settlements until not long ago – it’s only recently that they’ve been linked up to the city’s water and electric supplies.
Comuna 13 is famous for two reasons: firstly, it used to be run by cartels, and was one of the most violent places to live in Medellin. Even police were scared to enter, and so it essentially had to govern itself for decades. The second reason is that its turn-around has been fairly miraculous; successful social programmes, relevant socioeconomic policies, and the installment of escalators throughout the hills to give access to schools and jobs to those in the furthest, poorest areas have all played a part of making Comuna 13 safer and providing opportunity so that residents don’t get caught up in gangs. It’s now safe enough for tourists to take tours through Comuna 13 to learn about the history and current progress (please don’t wander around on your own though!). The Comuna 13 graffiti tour is one of the most raved about in all of Medellin – or even Colombia.
Do keep in mind that the community of Comuna 13 have done their best to capitalise on their touristic luck – which is obviously fantastic for them – so you’ll want to take some spare change to tip the breakdancers; HOWEVER, this has also led to a knock-on effect of young kids dropping out of school to make some quick money dancing on the streets. Cute as they are, don’t feed into this dangerous cycle; no tips for kids, please.
To get a broader understanding of the city’s history, hop down to Alpujarra station to pick up the El Centro Free Walking Tour (please note that as Colombia has become such a popular place to explore in recent years, places on many of the best tours to do in Medellin such as this one need to be booked online a day or two in advance). This will take you on a route around the centre of the city, telling you all about the colonial past, whacky art and modern day history. The bike tour with food tastings is another great way to explore the city and its history.
Learn about the Narcos respectfully at Casa de la Memoria
You might have already noticed that this list of top things to do in Medellin does not include anything that glorifies Pablo Escobar. Yes, Medellin was the epicentre for this particular cartel. Yes, the Netflix Narcos series was set here. Yes, there are a tiny minority of people for whom Escobar built houses in return for them donating their sons as mules and human shields. But for the vast VAST majority of Colombians, the glamorisation of this extremely painful era of their history is excruciating, and they’re trying their hardest to build a reputation that doesn’t revolve around cocaine and death. Please don’t partake in any specifically-Escobar or Narcos-themed experiences that might trivialise the issues or be insulting to Colombians.
If you’d like to learn about this history respectfully, Casa de la Memoria has a range of poignant exhibitions that tell the story how locals would want it to be told. It covers not only the narco era but also the history of the many paramilitary groups that wreaked havoc across the country.
Explore Colombia’s diversity at Museo Etnográfico Miguel Angel Builes
Museo Etnográfico Miguel Angel Builes is a small, unassuming museum that’s tucked away on a residential street in Laureles-Estadio. We found it by accident when walking around the area around where we were living at the time. During the 2 hours we were there, we were the only ones to visit the museum, and the historian/security guard/admissions receptionist was incredibly eager to show us around, essentially giving us a free private tour. There are over 2000 pieces of ethnographic importance, and the many exhibitions take you through Colombia’s people’s history and culture, from indigenous Amazon tribes to European farmers and Afro-Caribbean communities who found themselves here due to slavery. Exhibitions are as interactive as they can be without huge technological investment, with Amazonian houses and river huts (or tambos) built within the museum, and Andean instruments to try your hand at. The entry fee for the Museo Etnográfico Miguel Angel Builes is only 5K COP.
Absorb knowledge at Parque Explora
Maybe not what you’d expect to be in a list of top things to do in Medellin, but hey, if you like dinosaurs, you like dinosaurs. Not far from the Botanical Gardens of Medellin (which I’ll talk about in more detail later!), you’ll come across Parque Explora, an interactive science museum featuring an aquarium and planetarium. Entry is 25k COP, and you could easily lose a few hours in there.
Top things to do in Medellin to experience local life
Lose yourself in El Hueco
Want to get lost in blocks and blocks of endless shopping?! El Hueco (‘The Hole’) is just that, and hats off to you if you don’t lose your bearings at least once within one of the shopping mall mazes. A short walk from Parque Botero, near the San Antonio metro station, this place is bustling to the brim with streets and street of locals on the lookout for a bargain. The kind of things you’ll find on sale here are cheap men’s and women’s urban fashion, lots of counterfeit brands, jewellery, bags, fabrics, toys, phone cases, tech gadgets and sooooo much more. Do keep an eye on your belongings as you walk through the crowds!
Join in the pavement culture on Belén’s main plaza
Belén is fast becoming a favourite place to live for expats in Medellin, owing to its central-ish location, decent safety record and relaxed, local vibes. The main plaza, Parque de Belén, comes alive at around sunset, as old Colombian men meet for a cheeky sip of aguardiente (basically sambuca) and a chat on the benches, and sometimes people start dancing in the park’s centre. It’s a pretty cool thing to experience whilst in Medellin!
Get a feel for Antioquia at Pueblito Paisa
Ok, you won’t really find many locals here, but if you don’t have time to take a trip to a typical town outside Medellin (to Guatapé or Santa Fe, for example – more on those later!), Pueblito Paisa is the perfect place to see what a traditional Antioquian town looks like. Sitting high up on a hill with 360 views of the city, Pueblito Paisa is a to-scale model village, complete with a chapel and lots of delish street food stalls. It’s free to walk around all of the exhibitions inside the houses, which will show you what life in the pueblos around Medellin is like.
The first time I went to Pueblito Paisa, I walked from my apartment in Laureles-Estadio and climbed the stairs up the hill – while I did (obviously) survive I’d recommend getting a taxi there and back instead!
Stroll around San Pedro Cemetery
Colombians don’t tend to bury their dead in the soil; they’re mostly kept in above-ground tombs, family crypts or smaller stacked crypts depending on how much money they left behind. This makes for an interesting walk around the San Pedro cemetery, which is a peaceful way to spend an hour or so in Medellin. Cementerio San Pedro, which has provided a final resting place since 1842, also has a museum which offers exhibitions and social programmes.
Grab a taste of Medellin with a food tour
Though Colombia isn’t revered for its culinary prowess, the hearty food of Medellin is a particular favourite of many visitors to the country. Take a culinary tour to discover all the key traditional dishes that make up local menus, from patacones (mashed & fried plantain) to the mighty Bandeja Paisa (sort of like the Antioquian equivalent of a Full English Breakfast). Gaah, and now this section is making me crave frijoles.
I guess it’s a bit weird that I’m putting a public transport ride into my list of top things to do in Medellin, but when you hear that part of this city’s public transport system is CABLE CARS suddenly this gets a whole lot more exciting. The cable cars were installed to give access to more central jobs and education to those who live in the much less developed outer barrios. Rides are cheap, and providing you don’t go at a busy time of day you can just sit on the loop and watch the world go by underneath you. My favourite loop is from San Javier to La Aurora on Line J, at which you can get out and catch the views from the green area outside the station. We found locals there to be very friendly, though they giggled at us until we spoke back to them in Spanish.
Aside from the amazing views, it’s a lesson in how the vast majority of Medellin’s population actually live. While I’m not in any way suggesting that we embark on a self-guided poverty porn tour, this ride really puts into perspective the sprawl of the city, and it’s a good reminder that there’s more to Medellin than the bright lights and expensive cocktails of El Poblado. Obviously time your trip so you don’t take up a space in a cable car during rush hour, or you’ll piss a lot of commuters off!
Watch a Medellin football match
Paisas tend to be passionate football fans, so why not join in by getting tickets to see one of their teams play? Game tickets can be bought at the Atanasio Girardot stadium in the area of the city aptly named ‘Estadio’, and will cost in the region of 10-50k COP depending on the section you choose. If you want to go with a larger group of travellers to get right into the atmosphere, the Medellin football tour is a really great option for you – it includes buying a football shirt, painting faces, sinking a few beers and then going to watch a match together!
Top things to do in Medellin after dark
Dive into La Octava’s ballpit
A true sign of gentrification in any city is without doubt a bar with a ballpit. La Octava is a slightly tucked-away bar in El Poblado with an old pool filled with balls on the bottom floor. It’s always packed with backpackers, and the drinks aren’t actually too expensive. It gets a little loud sometimes so not the best place for a civilised catch up!
Act bougie at Envy’s rooftop bar
Dress to impress and get your swank on for this one. On the top floor of the stunning Charlee Hotel on Parque Lleras, you’ll find Envy, a rooftop bar with views of the whole of El Poblado and beyond. Drinks aren’t cheap by Colombian standards, but they aren’t eye-watering for most travellers either. It is best to reserve a table, but they do accept walk-ins on less busy nights. Wednesday nights are for salsa, brunch is served on Sundays and sometimes they hold pool parties, so keep an eye out for those! If you want to explore the famous nightlife of Parque Lleras but are travelling solo, get yourself onto an El Poblado bar crawl pronto.
Tour a craft brewery at 3 Cordilleras
Located near Industriales Station, the craft beer company 3 Cordilleras offers bar nights with a tour in their brewery every Thursday & Friday. The night starts with an hour or so in the on-site bar – on Fridays it’s accompanied by live music. The start of the tour is then announced on loudspeakers, but you have to be alert or you’ll end up missing it like our group did – oops. When we asked about it the staff were kind enough to repeat the tour privately for us! Perhaps the best thing about this tour is that you get 5 free beers with your ticket, and you can mix and match them to try more of 3 Cordilleras’ range. Tickets on Thursdays cost 25K COP, and it’s 30K COP on Fridays.
Dance the night away on La 70
If you want to experience nightlife in Medellin that isn’t dominated by non-Colombians, shimmy on down to La 70 in Laureles of a night-time. Weekends are obviously much more lively, but any day of the week you’ll be able to find some bars open. Highly contrasted to Parque Lleras in El Poblado, it’s super local, a little cheesy and very budget. A great night is always had here, making our way through buckets of Club Colombia and watching Colombians dance salsa and bachata!
Sink some beers in a corner shop
Really, the best way to spend a night like a local is to buy a few bottles of Águila from a corner shop, sit at one of their plastic tables and chill the eff out until your wife tells you to come home. Needless to say, this is one of the cheapest options for nightlife in Medellin, and the no.1 way to start any good night.
Top things to do in Medellin for park-lovers
Explore the vast expanse of Parque Arvi
This is a natural reserve right up in the mountains. Though it’s 30km from the city centre in Santa Elena, you can access it using the L cable car line from Santo Domingo; bag yourself a place on a Parque Arvi guided tour if you’re worried about doing this alone. Once there, it’s easy to spend a good few hours hiking through the main leafy trails or taking a conservation workshop where you can create your own pottery, string art, terrariums and more. You can also take bike tours if you’re not keen on hiking. It’s open from 9am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday, and entry is free. Do be alert of your surroundings and go in a group if you can; there have been recent reports of robberies of tourists on the deeper trails. The higher altitude of Parque Arvi means that temperatures are lower than in the city of Medellin – around 15 degrees Celsius – so dress accordingly!
Cure a hangover in the Botanical Gardens
Hungover after a night of throwing back beers on La 70?! Take a metro down to Universidad and get yourself in the 14-hectare Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden. Strolling through this park, counting orchids and looking out for wild parrots will have you forgetting all your woes. The botanical garden is also home to an interesting collection of architecture, as well as a café made from an old train carriage. There’s no entry fee, unless a private event is being held.
Top things to do in Medellin that hard as I tried didn’t fit in any of my other categories
Spot the smallest willy at Plaza Botero
You don’t have to be in Colombia long to hear about their pride and joy: Fernando Botero. He’s an artist with a very distinct style of painting and sculpting with comical body proportions. There are several galleries dedicated to his work across the country, but none more engaging than the 23 sculptures at Plaza Botero. These are free to view, and are a key part of most El Centro walking tours. If you’re reeeeeally into Botero’s art, there is a dedicated 6-hour Botero tour available.
Paraglide above the Andes
Adrenaline junkies, assemble! Medellin’s location in the mountains of the Andean cordilleras make it a great place to catch some winds and fly over the Antioqioan landscape. Paragliding is a popular activity from Medellin, there are plenty of tour companies so make sure you pick a reputable one.
One of the top things to do in Medellin when it comes to festivals is to attend the annual flower festival, or Feria de las Flores. This 60+ year-old celebration usually takes place at the beginning of August, and lasts for a week. It’s a vibrant display of all the epic flower exhibitions, accompanied by live music and cultural activities. For an orchid lover, you won’t want to miss the flower parade! If you don’t want to attend the flower festival in Medellin, perhaps plan your trip to the city at another time, as prices across the city will rise to meet demand.
Top things to do outside Medellin
Day trip to Guatapé
A day trip from Medellin to Guatape is a staple of Antioquian exploration. One of the most colourful pueblos in Colombia, Guatapé is an absolute delight to visit, whether independently or as part of a tour. It’s also close to the famous rock, El Peñon, which gives crazy-beautiful views of Lake Guatapé from the top. Check out my full guide to day-tripping from Medellin to Guatape here.
Day trip to Santa Fe de Antioquia
Less colourful than Guatapé but still full of Colombian charm, Santa Fe is a typical ‘white town’, with quaint cobbled streets and a lovely open plaza. It’s a short tuktuk ride to Puente de Occidente, once the longest suspension bridge in South America. Again, this trip can be done independently but there are guided tours available. Read my full guide to day-tripping from Medellin to Santa Fe de Antioquia here.
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