8 Things to Know Before Visiting Medellin

Medellin | © Kevin Dooley/Flickr
Medellin | © Kevin Dooley/Flickr
As a famous movie fashion designer might have said: “Medellin is so hot right now!” Colombia’s second city is undergoing a meteoric rise in reputation and popularity, with tourists and expats flocking to ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ in droves to enjoy its excellent climate, friendly people and wonderful tourist attractions. Visiting Medellin is pretty easy, but there are some things that are helpful to know before you visit, so here are some tips.

People will talk to you!

This seems like an odd tip, but it is quite pertinent for a lot of Western travelers in particular: Paisas – people from Medellin and Antioquia – are notoriously garrulous and welcoming, which can often catch foreign visitors by surprise, especially if they are arriving from the much more reserved vibes of Bogota. Everyone, from the street vendors to your neighbors in a restaurant, will smile and perhaps even try to strike up a conversation, so don’t worry, or be suspicious: the folks from Medellin just like to welcome outsiders to their city, of which they are justifiably proud. Paisas also love small talk, so once you strike up a conversation be prepared to be in it for a while!

Paisas are always ready with a friendly smile © Iván Erre Jota/Flickr

Avoid the Escobar chat

Contrary to what a surprising number of people seem to believe, the vast majority of Colombians aren’t exactly enamored of their most famous criminal and domestic terrorist. Sure, you can find people who still hold respect for Pablo Escobar, but it’s a minority, and the overwhelming majority of locals definitely don’t want to hear that you love Escobar, think he was really cool or came to their city because you saw Narcos on Netflix. He caused untold suffering in Medellin, and there’s a good chance that the person you are speaking with lost a friend or family during the violent 1980s and ’90s. Ditch the Escobar t-shirt as well!

Take public transport

When faced with a favorable exchange rate it can be very tempting to travel everywhere in a city by taxi, but in Medellin, this would be a mistake. Unlike other Colombian cities like Bogota and Cartagena, Medellin has some excellent public transport which can save you money if you’re traveling on a budget. Most major tourist attractions can be accessed via the Metro or urban cable car system, so save the taxis for your nights out and get a Metro card to use during the day.

The excellent Medellin metro © George Donnelly/Flickr

Don’t go everywhere in shorts and flip-flops

Medellin is known as ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ and the weather clearly got the memo on the name: the climate in the city is wonderful, with regular hot days and blue skies. Naturally, it’s common for travelers to wear shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops during the day as they explore Medellin, but the locals themselves are rarely found so casually dressed. Colombia is a deceptively formal culture, and long trousers and shirts are generally the norm. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t wear your more casual, hot weather clothes, but be aware of the conventions and avoid these outfits in restaurants and clubs.

You can split a Bandeja Paisa!

Medellin’s most well-known traditional dish is the bandeja paisa – a huge plate loaded with meat, rice, beans, plantain, avocado and more. It’s delicious and definitely something to try during your time in Medellin, but be aware of how absolutely huge the portions are. If you are travelling with another person or you meet someone at the hostel, consider going halves on an order, especially if you aren’t someone who typically eats a lot. Otherwise, you may need half a day to digest and recover and that’s time you could be exploring the city.

A hearty bandeja paisa © Edgar Zuniga Jr./Flickr

Don’t miss the Free Walking Tour

If you are planning to do one guided tour during your time in Medellin, make sure it’s this one. The Free Walking Tour by Real City Tours takes visitors all around the El Centro neighborhood and explores the culture and history of Medellin over the course of almost four hours. It’s an excellent immersive experience, and the guides are informative and good fun. Also, no question is off-limits, so make this tour the time when you learn about the aforementioned violence in Medellin from a local who is open to talking about it.

Don’t limit yourself to the city alone

Medellin might be an extremely popular travel destination, but there is so much more to Antioquia – the department of which Medellin is the capital city – than just the urban areas. Many travelers visit the city for a few days on their way between the coast and the Coffee Region and make the mistake of not heading out of the city into rural areas. Small towns like Sante Fe de Antioquia, Guatape, Jardin, Tamesis and many more all make wonderful day trips or overnight stays and give you the chance to see another side of Colombia. So make sure to enjoy Medellin but plan for a few days outside of the city too.

Beautiful Andean scenery outside Medellin © Eddy Milfort/Flickr

The airport is outside the city

This might seem like an obvious one, but you’d be amazed how many visitors don’t realize that Medellin’s principal airport – Jose Maria Córdova Airport – isn’t actually in the city and end up scrambling to make their flight on time. Instead, it is located in the smaller town of Rionegro, around an hour from the city itself. There’s a small airport named Olaya Herrera Airport within the city, but this only serves a few regional routes and most travelers won’t be departing from it. So be aware of the distance between the city and the airport and plan your travel accordingly.