Another Guide of Things to Do in Medellin?!
There are SO MANY blogs claiming to know the top things to do in Medellin that we feel kinda dirty adding to the fray. But we have to because A) The vast majority of other posts are written by people who spent a few days in Medellin and essentially copy-pasted what others wrote before them and B) We need more readers.
“Ours is different,” you see.
And it’s not for everyone.
If you’ve never traveled abroad, are afraid to say so much as “gracias” in Spanish, and aspire to collect Instagram pics as your most prized souvenirs, stick to the other bloggers’ things to do in Medellin blog posts. Do the exact same thing as 90% of all tourists. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the same goes if all you want to do is party. We can’t help you there because our idea of partying is having friends over for dinner.
But if you’re adventurous, active, and willing to try stuff that might not work out, but pay off when they do you might find our list of things to do in Medellin to be a goldmine. And hopefully you’ll agree it is different from the others.
Top 10 Things to Do in Medellin for Adventurous Travelers
(In no particular order.)
1. Go up through the backdoor
Hike up to Parque Arvi and take the Metrocable down
Instead of taking Medellin’s famous urban gondolas both up and down to Parque Arvi, hike up via the backdoor route then take the gondola back down.
In addition to getting the satisfaction, fresh air, and exercise from hiking to the top, you’ll enjoy the absolute best view of Medellin from Cerro Pan de Azucar halfway along the hike and get a glimpse of Medellin’s rural roots.
2. Head for the hills
Medellin flanked by mountains to the east and west in the Aburra Valley. These mountains are surprisingly easily accessible (many by public transit) and full of lush jungle, waterfalls, butterflies, birds, awesome city views, and almost no other people.
The only challenge is finding the trails.
While hiking in Medellin, we got lost our fair share of times because the trails are poorly marked. That’s why we starting mapping them out and writing out guides to our favorite hikes. You can find all our guides to our favorite Medellin hikes here.
If you’re by yourself and/or nervous about getting lost or kidnapped in the jungle, look on Facebook for hiking groups to go with. Kinkajou Adventures is a good one.
3. Forget Narcos
Join a walking tour
You’ve probably already read or heard about Real City’s walking tours. If you have, it’s for good reason, and if you haven’t, well here you go.
The roughly four-hour guided group tours are a super informative way to go beyond the (mostly mis-)perception of Medellin that Narcos imprinted into all of our brains and give you a whirlwind overview into the city’s history, the narco era, and its revitalization. During the tour, you’ll also get to see all of downtown Medellin’s tourist attractions like Plaza Botero, Plaza Cisneros (a.k.a. Parque de las Luces), Paseo Carabobo pedestrian shopping street, El Hueco shopping center, and Parque San Antonio.
Too many people we met put off doing the walking tour until the end of their time in Medellin, which is kind of like studying for a test after you’ve already taken it. Don’t make the same mistake. Go online and reserve your spot for the first or second day you’re in town.
4. Go for lunches in bunches
Live off of menu del dias
From around 12-3 p.m. every day except Sunday (and sometimes not Saturday too), just about every restaurant in Medellin offers lunch specials called menu del dias. These include a soup, a main plate, a drink, and sometimes a dessert. They’re inexpensive (from 9,000 to 15,000 pesos, or $3 to $6 USD) and they’re awesome.
From vegan, to Indian, to French, to Colombian, whatever your dietary preferences are and whatever you’re craving, there’s a menu del dia for you. Try as many as you can while in Medellin, sometimes even two in the same day.
For a huge list of the best ones in town, with ratings, scores, photos and more, check out the huge Medellin menu del dia guide Chris went a bit overboard in making.
5. Pig out with pig in (…your belly)
Eat a humongous chicharron
Colombian chicharron is glorious. For those who know what Neapolitan ice cream is, it’s the deep fried pork meat version of that. On the outside is crispy skin which covers a layer of juicy fat that insulates tender meat on the inside.
Another way to look at it is as mega bacon. Bacon for dinosaurs.
And, if you go to the right spots, it’s almost the size of a dinosaur bone.
6. We’re not going to tell you
The secret sensation
There is one magical place in Medellin that has yet to be discovered by the fly-by-night Insta-bloggers and, sorry, but we’re not going to be the ones to spoil it. If too many people start going, the magic will be ruined. It’ll happen eventually regardless, but we don’t want to be responsible.
So why are we mentioning it? Because if you really want to find it, you can look hard enough and find it. There are YouTube videos and news reports (mostly in Spanish) about it. The only hints we’ll give is that it’s romantic, surreal, and over 25 years in the making. Also, you’ll need to speak Spanish (or go with a friend who does) to get the most of it.
If you think you’ve found it, after you’ve gone send us an email info(at)theunconventionalroute(dot)com with a picture and we’ll confirm whether or not it’s what we’re talking about.
7. GTFO of Medellin
Visit Jerico or Jardin
If you’ve got five days or more, don’t spend them all in Medellin.
Take a three-hour bus ride to Jerico or Jardin and experience the rural side of Antioquia, where men still wear cowboy hats, the buildings are as colorful as a bag of skittles, and the most popular thing to do is sit in the main square drinking tintos (coffee that the rest of the world refuses to drink, so it stays in Colombia), guaro (beware) and beer.
8. Feel like a superhero (or a dead person)
Chris, who had never paraglided before, was blown away (literally and figuratively) by his experience paragliding in Medellin. Yes, the views are incredible and it’s an adrenaline rush, but what impressed him more than anything was the feeling of flying.
Because there are no engines making noise and you can’t see, hear, or feel the pilot and the sail above and behind you, you really feel like a superhero (or a spirit that left a dead person’s body like in cartoons) floating up in the air.
It’s an incredible experience and Medellin’s a great spot to try. It’s a third the price of Europe or America (about 130,000 pesos / $45 USD), just as professionally run and safe, and incredibly scenic.
For more info on paragliding in Medellin, and how you make it even more of an adventure by hiking up past a waterfall to the launch site then jumping back down, check out our exhilerating guide.
9. Afternoon delights
Spend a few hours in Laureles
We don’t recommend people stay in Laureles if they’re only in Medellin for a few days, but it’s worth touring around for an afternoon. You gotta know the spots though, otherwise you’ll come away as unimpressed as we were when we first moved to Medellin and wanted out because it was so boring.
Here are the spots:
For lunch go to Cafe Cliche. We had a lot of Medellin’s famous menu del dia lunch specials and took them very seriously (this post proves just how seriously), and Cafe Cliche stood out as being perhaps the very best. Both their vegetarian and non-veggie options were invariably awesome. It’s not exactly Colombian food and the French guys who run the place are, well, stereotypical stuck-up French, but it’s worth it. As a plan B, try Naturalia (vegan), Uno Mas Uno, or Ocre.
Then get dessert at Nuovo Fiore. Their gelato is “special.” And by special, we mean some of them are potently packed with Mary Jane. The owner, who’s been getting away with selling her illegally-good gelatos for five years, says the cops come by all the time. They get free scoops. You’ll have to pay 6,000 pesos (just over $2 USD) or so.
Wander around a bit after that, then you can say you’ve seen Laureles.
10. It’s not only a gringo party place
Enjoy the best of El Poblado
El Poblado, especially the area around Parque Lleras, has a well-deserved reputation for being an overly-touristy, expensive, party place. There’s more to it than that, though. Even if you’re a hardcore off-the-beaten-path traveler, you should check it out.
And if you go to these favorite spots of ours in El Poblado you may even want to go back:
- Cafe Pergamino is easily the most popular coffee spot in Medellin and pretty much every blogger raves about it. We didn’t want to like it, but we did, especially their cold brew coffees, which are better and cheaper than anywhere else. If you can’t stand following the crowd and have to be unconventional, go to Hija Mia instead.
- For lunch, we’ll give you three options. If you want a traditional (and super affordable) Colombian menu del dia, go to Franchyes. Big eaters and those eager for authentic Italian should go to Toscano. And if you’ve been desperate for something spicier than pepper, which is in short supply in Colombia, go to Masala and be prepared to sweat.
- For pre-dinner drinks, El Social is the last bastion of semi-affordable Colombian-ness in the area. It’s no frills, but the beer’s cold, which is all you need. An alternative spot, and the word applies to their Che Guevara-lives-on vibe as well, is Erre, which is one of the few spots to have a happy hour, two-for-one beers and selected liquors.
- Wander around Manila a bit if you haven’t already then hike back up the hill to finish off your evening with a dinner at Alambique. It’s the only “expensive” (mains are $10 to $18 each) restaurant we went back to again and again.
Don’t be a dumbass gringo
If you wear shorts and sandals, talk loudly in English with your friends while walking the streets, and wander around with your head in your phone, you’re going to get unwanted attention. Be as inconspicuous as possible by dressing like a Colombian in pants and shoes, keeping your voice down, and keeping your phone in your pocket.
Other Things to Do in Medellin
Once you’ve covered the above top 10 things to do in Medellin, check these out.
Despite being surrounded by lush mountains and having lots of trees along its streets, there really isn’t much wide open green space in Medellin. The only unpaved parks are sports fields.
Jardin Botanico is the only real refuge. It’s peaceful, green, and fresh. While it’s not really any different than any other city’s botanical garden, which is why we wouldn’t say you have to go out of your way to check it out, if you’re in Medellin for a while you’ll probably appreciate it even more than you suspect.
It’s also a good spot for a date. Woo that special someone with a stroll through the park and a meal at In Situ, which is in the middle of the park (or get a picnic lunch from them).
We mentioned coffee a couple times in our top 10, but it’s worth calling out as its own activity. Over the past ten years, Medellin’s coffee culture has risen up from dirty tintos to become a hopping, craft-coffee, hip cafe crazed town. From mainstays like El Poblado’s Pergamino to upstarts like Rituales in Laureles and Cocolatte in Envigado, you’ll find exquisite brews wherever you go in the city.
You might also want to consider educating yourself about coffee. The session we di with Juan “The Coffee Hunter” Cano for our blind coffee taste test was one we’ll never forget.
Antioquia is the breadbasket of Colombia, and the Mercado Minorista, the city’s main produce market, is where you can stick your hand into that breadbasket and sample a little bit of everything. Marvel at the exotic fruit and super low prices, get a lunch at Aqui Paro Lucho, and follow it up with a juice from Jugos Rigo.
Warning: Don’t walk to Mercado Minorista. Take a taxi or Uber. On a map, La Minorista looks like an easy walk from other downtown attractions, but it’s not. It’s harrowing, super-dangerous, and you’re asking for trouble if you do it. Really. We’re all for taking the “unconventional route,” but there is no reward for risking yourself in this situation.
Go to a language exchange
Most Spanish schools in Medellin organize weekly language exchanges, where Colombians who want to practice English come to chat with foreigners who want to practice Spanish. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the Colombian/foreigner split is about 50/50.
Even if you don’t care to learn anything more than “Cuanto cuesta?” it’s worth going to a language exchange. It’s a great way to meet both tourists and locals. Plus the Colombians probably prefer it, since that means they get to practice their English without having to reciprocate by helping you practice Spanish.
Our favorite language exchange was the one run by Colombia Immersion in Envigado on Fridays. It’s got a great crowd, cheap beer, they always do ice-breakers to make it easier to approach strangers, and a big group goes to the bar together after. Make an afternoon of your trip in Envigado by going to Cafe Otraparte, walking up to the El Dorado neighborhood for dinner at Pedacito de Amor (good meat at great prices) or Pizzeria Burro (get the burrata pizza), which are both close to Colombia Immersion.
(On a related note: We really loved Envigado. It felt like a Colombian, pre-hipster Brooklyn. For everything you need to know to convince you to check it out, go to our Envigado guide.)
Check Out the Events
Check out Catalyst Weekly to see what foreigner-friendly events are going on while you’re in town.
Things to Do for Fitness and Exercise
Look good, feel good, travel good. Take advantage of Medellin’s perfect weather by getting some exercise outside.
On Sundays until 2 p.m., some of Medellin’s main thoroughfares are closed to traffic so people can run, walk, rollerblade, or bike through the city. It’s very popular, so join.
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If you love playing basketball like Chris does, join the Medellin Basketball Association group on Facebook and drop into one of their Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday pickup games.
Cerro Tres Cruces
Across the valley from El Poblado, Cerro Tres Cruces is a short but intense hike straight up the side of the mountain. Up top, there are all sorts of calisthenic fitness equipment to continue your workout and refreshment stands to keep you energized. While it’s not on the tourism radar, it’s very popular with locals from all walks of life in Medellin.
If you’re interested, our Cerro Tres Cruces guide has everything you need to know.
Overrated Things to Do in Medellin
As I write this, El Tesoro mall is #11 on TripAdvisor’s rankings and Santa Fe is #15. That’s ludicrous. These malls have the same Starbucks, Nike, Zara, and Forever 21 franchises as everywhere else in the world.
The people watching isn’t anything interesting either. It’s full of well-off Colombians, most of whom lived or studied abroad and look the same as the folks in the mall back home—the ones you probably never go to.
Comuna 13 Tours
Comuna 13 tours aren’t bad at all, but they are overrated. A couple years ago I bet they were awesome, but now that there are more tourists than locals using the famous outdoor escalators and it’s lost a lot of the gritty appeal it once had.
If you want to tour a hillside Medellin neighborhood, consider La Sierra as an alternative.
Don’t go here for the views. Go on one of the hikes we listed above in our top 10 things to do in Medellin. And if you can’t do that, then go to Cerro El Volador instead.
Guatape is the Colombian Disney World: a make-believe, colorful, touristy creation. Go to one of the pueblos in our top 10 instead. They’re not much farther from Medellin anyways.
Museo Casa de la Memoria
It’s free to visit and we appreciate its importance, but just about everyone who goes there is underwhelmed, which is why we say it’s overrated.
Mercado del Rio
El Mercado del Rio is a high-end food court with commensurate prices. There is some good food, but there’s enough good food elsewhere, and for cheaper, that if you have a limited time to spend in Medellin it’s probably not worth it.
Unless your a masochist, don’t drink aguardiente. It doesn’t taste good and will give you a nasty hangover.
We even did a blind taste test to see if one was better than the others (answer: No), which led us to stumble into some little-known facts about aguardiente that made us like it less (read them here).
Try it once—Gloria at La Gloria de Gloria, from number 5 of our top 10 things to do in Medellin, will give you a shot if you go there—and no more.
Still Not Enough for You?
For every last tip on Colombia that’s emerged from our fingertips onto this website, check out our Colombia Adventure Travel Guide.
There you’ll find all sorts of unconventional but helpful info on where to go for beachside waterfalls, why Bogota may or may not be worth visiting, which Colombian cheese is best, what to know before coming to Medellin and more.