Having shed its violent image, Medellín today is a vibrant new world. The city of 2.5 million people has garnered international kudos for its exemplary model of urban planning; in 2013 it earned the title of “most inventive city” by the Urban Land Institute. Following on the heels of pioneering mayor Sergio Fajardo, Medellín’s current mayor Federico Gutiérrez (elected in 2016) has restated his commitment to a policy of urban renewal based on social inclusion.
From the up-and-coming Ciudad del Rio neighborhood to posh Poblado and gritty Centro, an infectious energy and entrepreneurial zeal defines Medellín’s cultural zeitgeist. The city’s creative class, which languished behind closed doors for decades, has seized the moment and defined its own artistic center. With their signature passion, hardworking ethos, and independent spirit, Medellínenses are blazing their own trail. With contemporary galleries, world-class museums, whimsical parks, striking architecture, gourmet restaurants, hip boutiques, and seemingly a different festival every week, the city feels alive with possibility. Medellín certainly has its flaws, but right here, right now, it’s one of the world’s most fascinating and innovative cities to explore.
If possible, try to visit Medellín in August, during La Festival de Flores ★★★, one of the most unique festivals in the world, when the campesinos from Antioquia come to the city to display their flower designs. The weeklong celebrations feature a number of events, including an antique car parade, horse parade, and the grand finale, the flower float parade, where young and old alike display their flower designs in a 3- or 4-hour parade, also featuring dancers, singers, and performers. Be sure to book your plane ticket far in advance if you'll be in Medellín during this time. Midrange and budget hotels sometimes won't take advance reservations, so you might need to arrive early in the morning or book a higher-end hotel.
Medellín is a city of parks and plazas. A great place to begin exploring is at Parque Bolívar (Metro: Prado), which admittedly is a popular hangout for bored old men, prostitutes, and drug addicts, even during the day. Avoid the park at night. Even so, this plaza is home to Medellín's largest church, the Romanesque-style Catedral Metropolitana, Carrera 48 no. 56-81 (tel. 4/513-2269), made with over 1.2 million bricks, which, according to legend, were solidified with bulls' blood. The inside of the massive cathedral is rather dim and somber. The church closes at night, but generally remains open during the day.
To get to Parque Berrio, walk down Avenida Junín -- a pleasant pedestrian promenade with many picturesque balcony-level restaurants and some decent shopping -- or take the Metro to the Parque Berrio stop. From here, go to the Museo de Antioquia, Carrera 52 no. 52-43 (tel. 4/251-3636; www.museodeantioquia.org), which features over 90 artworks donated by Medellín's native son, Fernando Botero. It's open Monday 9:30am to 5pm, and Friday to Sunday 10am to 4pm; admission is COL$8,000 adults, COL$3,000 students with college ID; children 11 and under are free. On the other side of the plaza is the Palacio de La Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe, Carrera 51 no. 52-03 (tel. 4/251-1444), a rather strange neoclassical cakelike palace-turned-art museum that features rotating exhibitions and workshops. It's open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm.
If the Museo de Antioquia wasn't enough Botero for you, head to the Plazoleta de las Esculturas, where you can see (and be photographed with) his singular sculptures of Adam and Eve and the Reclining Venus.
Other parks worth checking out include El Parque de Los Deseos, a popular place for couples and movies on weekends; El Parque de Los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park); and El Jardín Botánico, Carrera 52 no. 73-182 (admission COL$3,000; Metro: Universidad).
The slightly cheesy but free Pueblito Paisa, Calle 30 no. 55-64 (tel. 4/235-8370; daily 6am-midnight), is a miniature replica of a typical Antioquian town. It offers decent souvenir and handicraft shopping as well as an excellent paisa restaurant and great views overlooking Medellín. Take a taxi here -- ideally on a weekday, when it's less busy. Do not attempt to climb up or down El Pueblito Paisa, as violent robberies have occurred here.
If you're interested in riding Medellín's cable-car system, take the Metro to the Acevedo station, from which you can board the cable car. You get great views of the city as you ascend -- especially of the expansive comunas -- and from the top, you'll have a great view of the Valle de Aburra, in which Medellín's center was constructed. Tip: Avoid the cable-car system between the 4-to-6:30pm rush hour. If you don't want to get off at the top, you can stay in the cable car, which will take you directly back to the Acevedo Metro station. Make this trip during the day and don't stray far from the cable-car station at the top, particularly if you're taking pictures.
The Eje Cafetero
South of Medellín, the Eje Cafetero is a magical world. Colombia’s impossibly lush coffee triangle combines scenic natural beauty with outdoor recreation, colonial history, and a growing inventory of evocative places to stay.
The industrious cities of Pereira, Manizales, and Armenia provide the commercial hubs and bases for exploration. Coffee plantations and forests of bamboo, guadua, and eucalyptus carpet misty mountains that rise above undulating valleys where dairy farms, avocado fields, orange orchards, and rushing rivers stocked with trout speak to the region’s incredible fertility; drop a seed here and it will certainly thrive.
The picturesque towns of Salento and Filandia—where cowboys still ride their horses into town and 1940s Willy Jeeps shuttle travelers and bags of coffee beans along unpaved roads—provide access to one of Colombia’s natural treasures, the Valle de Cocora. Here, you can hike or horseback ride through mystical cloud forest where the storied wax palm (the world’s largest palm tree) adds a dash of the surreal to a bewitching landscape. In the distance, the dramatic snowcapped peaks of Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados summon intrepid climbers to test their mettle scaling the park’s five tempestuous volcanic peaks (three are still active).
In many ways, Antioquia is Colombia’s beating heart, culturally and economically. Now, with a spirit of peace, openness, and prosperity, you can literally feel, sense, and taste a city and a region that is finally coming into its own.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.