Gone are Medellín’s days of being the ‘murder capital of the world’. This is a city that has clearly got back onto its feet and brushed itself off after some very turbulent years not that long ago.
These days it’s a place that’s worth spending a few days, maybe even more, and whilst it still does have its share of gritty barrios and dodgy characters, that’s not enough reason to bypass it altogether. Bare in mind, though, it still ranks just within the 50 most violent cities in the world.
That aside, Colombia isn’t the Colombia it was 10 to 20 years ago. Ask anyone that’s travelled South America lately what their favourite country was, and the majority will blurt it out without even thinking.
Home for us was an Airbnb in a quiet pocket of El Poblado, a mecca for the backpacker crowd. Walk around many of the streets in the thick of Poblado and you’d think you weren’t even in Colombia.
My first impression was along the lines of “Get me out of here“. Fast food joints, party hostels, thumping nightclubs, touts, drunk foreigners and locals pissing in the streets. It can be a bit hideous at night.
And then you turn a corner and find yourself in leafy streets with cute shops and boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
Let’s just say El Poblado has a little bit for everyone, and try to ignore the fact that this first thing to do in Medellín involves more than one thing. Just go with the flow!
Parque Llera – lined with jewellery stands and surrounded by bars and restaurants.
Angel’s Restaurant & Bar – Great spot to sit, enjoy happy hour or eat whilst overlooking Parque Llera.
Park – a very popular bar with beautiful courtyard seating and great music to match.
Cafe Velvet, Carrera 37, #8a-46
El Poblado has many great coffee shops, so if drinking tinto is getting a bit much – despite its dirt cheap price – there’s plenty of espresso to be had in the barrio.
Three places we checked out can be seen here, and my pick of the bunch would be Pergamino, with a very close second to Cafe Velvet.
Al Alma Cafe, Calle 8, #35-37
Pergamino Cafe, Carrera 37, #8a-37
They may not be exclusive to Medellín or Colombia, but you may as well try buñuelos at least once, if you already haven’t.
Many of the local cafeterias display buñuelos in their food cabinets alongside the empanadas and other quick snacks, but rather than eat something that’s potentially been sitting there all day, head to a source and eat them super fresh.
El Buñuelos makes these tasty fried balls of goodness all day, so you know they’re bound to be warm when you grab a bag.
So what are buñuelos? Quite simple, really. They’re like a savoury doughnut with queso costeño mixed through the dough. It’s a firm, salty cheese similar to feta.
There’s a light golden crust on the outside, and inside it’s fluffy, cheesy and delicious.
El Buñuelos Y Algo Más, Calle 10, #36-47
If you’re in need of a grocer in El Pobado, I’d recommend none other than the Carulla on Carrera 43a. It’s a bit more upmarket than your average supermarket, so if you’re after top quality produce, they’re bound to deliver. Great breads and seafood and plenty of imported bits and pieces.
For somewhere much more low key, there’s Merka 10 on the main drag – Calle 10. Our main reason for visiting these guys once or twice a day wasn’t for groceries, though.
They have two granizado churners in the kiosk at the front of the shop, and it was the maracuya (passionfruit) that stole our hearts. Not that the coffee one was bad. Actually, take a sip of each and you’re in for a flavour sensation.
So if you like your passionfruit frappé and a good dose of brain freeze, be sure to check them out. Or maybe even try their fried mozzarella sticks.
Merka 10, Calle 10, #38-41
German burger (13,500).
With El Poblado having so many non-Colombian food options, it’s easy to forget what country you’re in. Especially in a barrio like ‘Gringolandia’, or El Poblado. Or if you simply want to give local food a rest, why not do it at German Street Food?
It may not serve up exclusively German food, but the closest we could muster was the currywurst; something I definitely remember eating on the streets in Munich. Or was it Frankfurt?
Get your fill on hot dogs, burgers and döner kebabs, as well. Not terribly German, but we’ll let that one pass. Only because we loved what we ate, those delicious fries, the different grades of chilli sauce and having a choice of eight sausages.
German Street Food, Carrera 43b, #9-07
If you’re after a little French-style food mixed with a few International favourites, then take a seat at La Mesa Francesa. Order a vino and take your pick from either the Comida Rapida side of the menu, or Plates Principales.
Caesar salad, croque monsieur, cassoulet and bœuf bourguignon are the closest you’ll get to France, but if lasagne, shrimp risotto, gazpacho or an excellent fish & chips floats your boat, go for one of those.
Their version of a cassoulet is more akin to the same rice, frijoles (beans) and grilled meats you get at any Colombian asado joint. At least they try.
La Mesa Francesa, Carrera 40, #10-47
Not only does Medellín have a brilliant metro that’s clean, safe and bares absolutely no graffiti, but your ticket also includes the cable cars that can be found around the city.
Visitors to the city can get the cable car from Acevedo Metro station to Santo Domingo (Line K), about half way up Piedras Blancas.
Either get off here and explore the area (be a little street smart), or for an extra 4,200 pesos take the next cable car up to Arví Park where you can hike or simply enjoy the great outdoors.
Pablo Escobar tours are aplenty in this town, so if you’ve watched all the Narcos episodes from Season 1 and 2, or simply want to learn more about the man that crippled the country, seek one out.
Ours involved visiting the Monaco apartment building, Escobar’s club house, the first house he bought for his mother, his family grave and where he was ultimately killed. Although, many still believe he shot himself in the head before a Colombian cop did.
We booked Pablo Escobar tour at Casa Kiwi in El Poblado. Tour times are 9am and 2pm and cost 60,000 pesos per person.
For the ultimate in walking tours, look no further than Real City Tours if you want an honest, in depth and incredibly educational experience with a local that’s passionate about their city and not afraid to tell it like it is.
It all begins at the Metro station, where you meet one of the representatives and are asked to join one of two groups. Then it’s a ride downtown on the Metro, a brief walk to a gathering point and you’re given a snapshot of Medellín’s history, a good dose of its politics, Paisa culture and light sprinkling of that Escobar guy.
As with any walking tour, you visit a few of the city’s landmarks, squares and churches and learn of their history. You even get the chance to stop and sample some local food and drinks.
Guarapo – a sugarcane and lime drink sold all over Medellín.
Once a palace, now a shopping mall filled with fashion and cheap footwear. The walking tour takes you through Medellín’s popular shopping district before hitting up Botero Plaza, which is home to 23 giant, and often playful sculptures that are a signature of the city’s own artist and sculptor – Fernando Botero.
Reservations for Real City Tours must be made in advance via their website, which gives info on days, times and meeting places.
It is classified as a free walking tour, but expect to tip your guide 20,000 – 35,000 pesos. They kind of deserve it.
It’s purpose was to remove vendors from the streets, back in 1984, and lumping everyone beneath one roof in some kind of organised chaos. There are over 2,500 stalls spread over two floors, so expect to see all things ‘fresh produce’ along with clothing, footwear, household and hardware goods. Carnivores can even purchase live poultry and have it butchered there and then.
There’s even an area dedicated to those that dabble in traditional witchcraft, with many herbs, spices, trinkets and objects related to the practice. Fascinating and very aromatic.
The easiest way to get to the market is with either a taxi or the Metro – closest station is Estacion Prado. You can walk along Carrera 56 and Calle 53 from Plaza de Botero, but as we discovered, there are many vagrants and shady looking characters in this part of town, so I’d recommend some serious street smarts, or avoid this option altogether.
Why not take the Exotic Fruits Tour of Plaza Minorista and learn about some fruits you may not have heard of before?
Plaza Minorista Market, Calle 55
It’s best to purchase tickets the day before travelling from Jardín to Medellín. We picked up our bus tickets from Rapido Ochoa for 25,000 pesos per person. Travel time is 3½ hours.
Check the map for bus office location.