One of the world’s most dangerous cities in the 80s and early 90s, Medellin has long been the victim of antiquated media representations.

But the times are changing and in 2013, the Colombian hub was named “Innovative City of the Year” by the Wall Street Journal, which shows just how far it’s come from it’s checkered past. Now one of the most progressive cities in South America, from international cuisine to world-class hotels, Medellin offers travelers a firsthand look at the rebirth of Colombian culture. And with year round temperature averages of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, there is never a bad time to visit.

Come with me as I take you on a tour of some of Medellin’s highlights.

The Impact of Pablo Escobar

To truly experience Medellin, you have to start by understanding its past. Present day Medellin is a direct result of one man, whose name should come as no surprise. Pablo Escobar. Named the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes in 1989, Escobar’s legacy can still be seen throughout Medellin today.

A man of the people, he built schools, football fields, hospitals, and other structures for the poor, creating a Robin Hood-like persona ingrained in local Colombians. No matter how polarizing of a figure he was, Pablo Escobar not only shaped the landscape of present-day Medellin, but the international relationship between Colombia and the western nations. You can visit the Monaco Building, bombed by the Cali cartel in an assassination attempt, the place he was actually killed, and his burial site. All are well preserved and open for visitors.

Must-Make Cultural Stops

With ample plazas and parks, Medellin is an outdoor paradise with some truly innovative public spaces. Parks include interactive displays and games, which make it an educational and fun family experience. You can also visit the largest freshwater aquarium in South America, across the street from which you’ll find El Jardin Botanico with a stunning orchid display.

Along with greenery, art is in no short supply in Medellin. Plaza de las Esculturas is home to some familiar pieces, as La Candelaria is lined with art from famed local sculptor Fernando Botero that have been on display in New York City. Across the plaza, you’ll discover Museo de Antioquia, Colombia’s second museum. You can see more of Botero’s work along with several other local artists including Luis Caballero. A beautiful modern space with great lighting and pieces that detail Colombian history and culture, it’s a not to miss museum.

If you’re looking for the cultural heart of Medellin, it has to be the Instituto de Cultura y Patrimonio de Antioquia. Offering visual displays, dance performances, concerts, and countless other events, every visitor needs to make a stop here as artistic expression is an essential part of the Colombian identity.

Eat and Dance your way through Medellin

From international fusion to traditional family establishments, good food is in no short supply in Medellin. While trying to narrow down the options is nearly impossible, there are a few dishes and drinks you simply must try. First, the world-class coffee. Fresh farm roasted beans are on tap just about everywhere, but local chain Juan Valdez is a good place to start and the Colombian equivalent of Starbucks.

Soup is also very popular and one not to miss is Ajiaco, made with chicken and potatoes. Unmistakable for its use of guasca, this South American herb gives a distinct flavor to comfort foods. Pair a bowl with a fried empanada and you have one heck of a lunch.

For dinner you have two choices: Bandeja Paisa or Picada o Fritanga. I prefer the Picada because it’s very meat centric, highlighting the pork ribs, chorizo, and chicharron. Bandeja is a bit of a lighter dish with rice, plantains, fried eggs, and beans at the forefront. To top it off, add a side of fried plantains (patacones / tostones) or the Colombian cheesy bread, pandebonos for a well-rounded and tasty meal.

Once you’re sufficiently stuffed, it’s time to work up a sweat on the dance floor. Medellin has the most diverse nightlife in all of Colombia. From salsa to jazz, Parque Lleras is the de facto starting point for most nights out. With everything from beer gardens to Top 40 DJs, that’s where the international crowd mixes and mingles. But for the real Colombian experience, head away from downtown to one of the amazing salsa clubs. El Eslabon Prendido is one of these dance meccas.

Put Your Safety Fears to Rest

We hate that this even needs to be said, but many tourists still worry about safety in Medellin. Long gone are the days of the FARC and AUC, and although crime still exists, it’s no worse than any other major metropolitan city. Violent incidents are almost nonexistent, but use common sense and be wary of pickpockets in the heavily trafficked tourist areas.

Medellin is a growing and vibrant city and Colombians are some of the world’s most welcoming people, excited to showoff their culture. They’re a great example of what a city can become and it’s incredible to be able to experience history in the making. 

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