Updated January 2019
Many arrive in Medellin knowing only about Pablo Escobar and the city's dark past, but most leave raving about the rest of what the city has to offer today.
Not only is the weather great any time of year, the city is abuzz with culture, nightlife and entrepreneurial spirit.
Here is our guide to ten great activities here, and our favourite things to do in Medellin whether you're on a budget or not.
#1 visit casa de la memoria
Colombia has had a cruel past - a country brought to its knees by drugs, gangs and a long-running civil war. In the few months that we have been here, we have spent hours seeking out documentaries and articles that can better explain its history.
In Casa de la Memoria, we found the most informative, upsetting and yet inspiring documentation of this country's past and its forgotten victims whilst offering a hopeful vision for the future. It was by far the best curated and most thoughtful exhibition we have ever been to.
You can easily spend hours taking in interactive displays, art installations and emotive photography, even if you don't speak Spanish.
Seriously, just go - this is without a doubt one of the top things to do in Medellin.
How to get there | Exit the metro at either San Antonio or Parque Berrio. Walk along Calle 52 for about 10 minutes - you'll see brown signs along the way pointing you to the museum, which is just behind Teatro Uriba.
Cost | Entrance is free.
#2 spend some time in comuna 13
Fifteen years ago, we would never have been able to set foot in Comuna 13. Even for locals, this was a neighbourhood you avoided.
Yet now, just 10 years after the city took back 13, this barrio is a symbol of the change happening in Medellin. The houses are painted brightly and the walls adorned with street art; the multi-levelled escalators connect the city to those that were once cut-off and tourists can be found enjoying one of Medellin's most iconic views.
Certainly, you don't want to be wandering off down dark alleys but for the most part, Comuna 13 is a safe place to spend an hour or so.
Cost | Absolutely free, just your transport costs.
How to get there | The most direct way is to take Metro Line B to San Javier (the last stop). From here you can either walk to the escalators or hop on the bus. To take the bus, simply exit the station and cross the road where you'll find people waiting for buses. Those to Comuna 13 arrive fairly frequently - they'll have a little sign at the front saying escalaras electrica - and costs around 1000 pesos. The driver will let you off close to the bottom of the first escalator - catch the bus back to San Javier station from the same spot.
Want more? For those that would like a deeper understanding of the changes that the neighbourhood has undergone, this tour of Comuna 13 is highly recommended.
#3 explore minorista market
Situated minutes from Cisneros metro station, Minorista market is a must for anyone looking for an authentic introduction to the city.
Everything can be bought, sold or recycled here. From old hands grinding corn for fresh arepas, colourful fruit and veg stands, grubby electronics repair shops, stacked cages full of animals for sale and even a row of stalls dedicated to second-hand toilets - it's a real experience for the senses.
We'd recommend coming here in the morning and spending a few hours sampling fruits, taking photos and just soaking in the atmosphere before grabbing a cheap lunch. Real City Tours also provide the exotic fruits tour which we recommend.
Cost | Free
How to get there | From Cisneros metro station, it's a 5 minute walk. If you're coming from Poblado, you're best off taking the metro to Hospital then transferring to the metroplus (bus) in the direction of 'U de M' and get off at the third stop near Minorista. It is possible to walk from Prado or Parque Berrio, but tours advise that this area can be a little dodgy.
Want more? You may also like our photo essay on the fruit sellers of the market.
*Update 2018: We've had a few comments from readers of the site that the area around Minorista market doesn't feel particularly safe. When we visited, there were 'characters' but it sounds as though the situation may have worsened. Exercise caution on your visit, consider a tour (this one is highly recommended) or taking a taxi home rather than the metro - let us know in the comments if and when the situation improves.*
#4 ride the cable cars
One of Medellin's greatest achievements, the cable cars have connected the poorer communities in the hills with their own city. Not only do they bring you to some of the more off-the-beaten track neighbourhoods, you will get a tremendous vista over the city.
How to get there | One set leaves from San Javier station taking you to La Aurora, and the other from Acevedo to Santo Domingo. From Santo Domingo, you can get another cable car up to Arvi.
Cost | Your $2,000 metro ticket includes transferring on to the cable car. If you don't exit the stations at the top, then you can easily get some pictures of the view then hop back in the next cable car heading down then take the metro to your next station - all for one ticket!
Want more? This metro private tour stops at the city's top sights and provides a great insight into Medellin's evolution into a global city, or if you'd like to combine the metro tour with other city highlight, consider this one.
If you feel like a more in-depth understanding of how Medellin has transformed itself through innovation, we recommend the 'Transformation Tour' with Palenque tours. Read our experience and the story of Medellin's dramatic change here.
#5 take in the art at museo de antioquia
At only $18,000 pesos entry (updated June 2018), you get a lot of bang for your buck in the Museo de Antioquia. With an excellent selection of works from the iconic Colombian artist Fernando Botero - largely donated by the man himself - as well as modern works from international artists, it is easy to spend at least a couple of hours in one of Medellin's best museums.
If you can't afford it, then outside the museum you'll find dozens of Botero's large bronze sculptures in the square - alongside a number of prostitutes. It's an interesting place.
How to get there |Exit the metro at Parque Berrio, and you'll find the museum in Plaza Botero.
Cost | $18,000 per person (updated June 2018)
#6 relax in the botanical gardens
The botanical gardens are our very favourite type of activity - free! You can easily spend a beautifully warm spring afternoon weaving through flowers or simply take a good book, sprawl on the grass and relax.
How to get there | Take the metro to Universidad, the gardens are easily found from there.
Cost | Free
#7 hang out in parque lleras and a bottle of aguardiente
Medellin has some great nightlife, with a lot of it concentrated in the gringo heavy Poblado area.
Before hitting the bars and clubs, Parque Lleras is the place to go for a few vasitos of aguardiente. The park is a popular and pretty safe drinking spot with locals and travellers alike enjoying the atmosphere. Get out of the hostel common area and start your Saturday night here. Note: once you burst the seal, you can use the toilet in one of the shops for $500. Useful if, like Andrew, you have the tiniest of bladders.
How to get there | From Poblado metro station, walk up the hill for about 10 minutes and hang a right at Carrera 38.
Cost | Free (but of course you're going to go and buy some Aguila and Aguardiente aren't you?!)
#8 enjoy a cup of colombian at one of poblado's many excellent coffee shops
Poblado, home to the majority of Medellin's gringos (and fondly known as 'gringolandia'), has a thriving café culture to rival that found in North American and European cities.
Wander along Carrera 37 and you will find a number of modern, beautifully designed coffee shops with every possible caffeine or chocolate concoction you could want!
How to get there | From Poblado metro station, walk up the hill for 10-15 minutes and Carrera 37 is on your right hand side.
Cost | Drinking at these cafés is of course pricer than your local tinto man, however an espresso typically ranges from $2,000.
#9 a 'Free' walking tour of the city
Tripadvisor's #1 attraction in Medellin (and one of many a traveller's favourite things to do in Medellin) has earned its place with good reason. On the day we went, we were led by enthusiastic and very knowledgable guide called Pablo from Real City Tours, who weaved the stories of Medellin with a walk through downtown taking in spots such as Alpujarra, the Forest of Lights, Botero Square, Parque Berrio and ending in Parque San Antonio, the site of a fatal explosion in 1995.
It lasts around 4 hours and, although it is promoted as 'free', you are expected to tip at the end.
How to get there | You have to reserve your tour on-line, with booking only available two days prior to the tour - spaces fill up quickly. Meeting instructions will then be e-mailed to you.
Cost | As with most 'free' city tours, you are expected to provide a tip to your guide at the end of the day.
#10 go to an atlético nacional match
If you've spent more than five minutes in Colombia, you'll certainly have seen lots of people sporting the famous green and white stripes of Atlético Nacional. Arguably Colombia's biggest and most popular team, tickets are usually easy to come by.
Matches fall on the weekend, with the odd midweek game. Check for fixtures and times here.
How to get there | The stadium is, oddly enough, next to the Estadio metro station on Line B, heading west towards San Javier. Alternatively, a taxi to or from the Poblado area won’t cost you more than 20,000 COP (a good idea if the local team loses and you need to exit the area quickly). Be sure to arrive nice and early as searches mean that the line to enter moves very slowly.
Cost | Tickets typically start at $10,000 however this is for the section where the hardcore fans sit. Although they create a pretty cool and raucous atmosphere, we definitely don't recommend sitting in this area. Pitch for something on the lower east or west side for $20,000+.
Bonus #11: Take a breath in Parque Arvi
We loved Medellin, but one thing it is certainly lacking is open green spaces. We've already mentioned the Botanical Gardens as a good spot to relax, but Parque Arvi is a fantastic place to head when the concrete jungle becomes a little too much.
Covering more than 17,000 square metres, Parque Arvi hosts a wealth of hiking trails, as well as canopy lines, lakes and even a mariposario (butterfly enclosure). The hiking trails are well marked so you won't gt lost and there is also a number of places to grab lunch. If you want to explore thoroughly, be sure to arrive early as the attractions are fairly spread out.
How to get there | First you'll need to get to Acevedo station from which you can hop on the K-Line metrocable using the same ticket. Go to the Santo Domingo station and change to the L-Line Metrocable, where you'll have to pay again. Take the ‘L’ all the way to the end at Parque Arvi and get off (Total for metroline & metrocable: 2,150 pesos
Cost | Total for metroline and metrocable is 2,150 COP. Entrance to park is free although there are guided walks leaving every hour (between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) from the tourist information point starting at $5000 COP)
Bonus #12: Take a Day Trip to Guatape
You'd be mad to come to Medellin and not at least take a day trip to Guatape, Colombia's most colourful town. Discover the colourful zocalos, climb El Penol, eat fresh trout by the lake and take a peek at local life. And whilst we're all for convincing people to spend a few days here, it's completely doable in one day if you start off early enough. What you need to decide however is if you want to do it yourself or take a tour.
The Tour | This all day tour costs $35 USD and includes transport, lunch, a guided tour of Guatape and the chance to climb Piedra del Peñol, as well as some free time to explore on your own.
Independently | Buses leave Medellin very regularly from Terminal del Norte, take 1.5 to 2 hours and cost around 13,500 COP. They return as frequently, making a day trip here relatively simple. For more information on this route as well as useful information for day-trippers, see our guide to Guatape.
Where to stay in Medellin?
This question will have backpackers visiting this epic city, split right down the middle. Some will firmly believe that El Poblado is the only place you could possibly want to lay your head, whilst others (such as us) would prefer to get out of the gringo-centric neighbourhood and find a hostel that's a little quieter, and a little more local.
We spent five weeks in Medellin, and called Yellow House Hostel home for more than four of those. Situated in a quiet neighbourhood this small homely hostel is an excellent choice for longer stays, couples or anybody wanting a relaxing time in the city. They also happen to have an awesome breakfast and two of the absolutely best dogs ever! **Update June 2018: We've been informed that the previous owner has sold, so the dogs are no longer there. Thankfully, it is still a great hostel, and definitely a good pick for the city.
Other top recommendations are:
Hostel Ondas | If you feel right at home in cool coffee shops, take a look at Hostel Ondas which has an organic cafe on the first floor! Upstairs you'll find a beautiful hipster-styled space full of reclaimed food and green plants with a huge kitchen, and above this a rooftop bar with a 360 degree view of Medellin. They also consider discounts for long-stays and volunteers to help run the hostel. Being located in La Florista, it's away from the gringo-centric neighbourhoods whilst still being safe. A great spot for couples or those that like to pick and choose when they party! Check availability and prices here.
Galeria Estacion | A little over two years old, this cool little hostel is great to chill out in (it even has Netflix!), but close enough to the centre of Poblado so you can easily get your drink on. Guest kitchen, terrace, friendly staff and cool design - plus it's one of the cheapest hostels on this list! Check availability and prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com
International House | Fantastic views from the common areas, super speedy internet and a great backpacker vibe - there's a reason this hostel keeps winning awards (plus - it's bloody cheap by Colombian standards!). Check availability and prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com
Secret Buddha | Rated the number three hostel in Colombia by a national paper, Secret Buddha is great for those looking for a slightly alternative place to stay and a retreat like experience. Split into two levels, it includes a 700m exotic garden with retro-world design and unique architecture. They even offer mezcal tasting evenings! Located outside of the city, it hardly feels like you're in Medellin at all. Check availability and prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com
El Alternativo | A new hostel located in the peaceful and bohemian neighbourhood of Manila, with an original, friendly and eco-responsible atmosphere. On the roof (with fantastic views over Medellin) there's a guest kitchen and wonderful terrace and on the street, a cafe hosting exhibitions and cultural activities. Check availability and prices here.