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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Medellin

If ever there was a city brimming with 21st-century optimism, it's Medellin. With a comfortable, mild climate and cosmopolitan feel, this city of 3.5 million - the second largest in Colombia after Bogotá - hasn't always had an easy time of it. In 1988, Time magazine declared Medellin "the most dangerous city in the world." In 2013, The Wall Street Journal called it the most innovative metropolis on the planet. Needless to say, much has changed in a quarter of a century, and this is no longer the city once in the grip of the famed narco-trafficker Pablo Escobar. Far from it, Medellin is overflowing with things to do for all types of travelers and packs a way bigger punch than most cities of its size.

1 Plaza Botero and the Museum of Antioquia

Sculpture in the Plaza Botero
Sculpture in the Plaza Botero
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Hometown hero Fernando Botero donated 23 of his larger-than-life sculptures to the city of Medellin, and you'll find them sprinkled around the aptly named Plaza Botero (near the Parque Berrio metro station). From rotund Roman legionaries to overstuffed animals, these portly figures have become symbolic of downtown Medellin and are surely the most photographed artworks in all of Colombia. Their setting against the ornate black-and-white patterns of Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture only highlights the overall appeal.

You'll find even more of Botero's works - including famed paintings like La muerte de Pablo Escobar ("the death of Pablo Escobar) - in the Museum of Antioquia. Located along the western edge of Plaza Botero, this three-story facility is the second oldest museum in the country. It includes a wide spectrum of art from pre-Columbian Colombia right up to modern masters like Botero. If you only go to one museum in Medellin, make it this one.

Address: Carrera 52 # 52-43, Medellín, Antioquia

2 The Medellin Metrocable

The Medellin Metrocable
The Medellin Metrocable | Photo Copyright: Mark Johanson
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Medellin lies in a big Andean bowl, and the best way to take in the panorama is simply to hop on public transportation and connect to the Medellin Metrocable. These futuristic cable cars soar above the city into the surrounding hills, offering unrivaled views that are perfect for avid photographers. One option is to ride Line J over social housing towers and smaller shantytowns to an outstanding overlook near the final station at La Aurora. A more popular thing to do, however, is take Line L up to Arvi Park, an urban oasis of forested hills that feels a world away from the city center. This vast park is the perfect getaway for nature lovers, with peaceful walking trails and plenty of food and craft vendors to satisfy your every need.

3 The Coffee Shops of El Poblado

The Coffee Shops of El Poblado
The Coffee Shops of El Poblado | Photo Copyright: Mark Johanson
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Colombia is the world's third-largest coffee producer, and many of the beans come from the hills of Antioquia surrounding Medellin. Of course, you don't need to leave town to experience the distinct flavors of Colombian coffee. The trendy El Poblado neighborhood is a hub of coffee culture and absolutely brimming with hip cafés grinding strong local roasts. The granddaddy of them all is Pergamino, with hot and cold beverages made largely from beans grown on the owner's family farm. Right across the street, you'll find the equally recommended Café Velvet, while on the far side of the neighborhood (and much closer to the El Poblado metro stop) lies Urbania Café, which has rotating art exhibitions on the walls and a great selection of Colombian design and fashion magazines to read with your latte. Each of these cafés makes its own blends from regional beans and sells them by the bag for prices you're unlikely to find back home.

4 Comuna 13

Comuna 13
Comuna 13
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Comuna 13 was once the most dangerous neighborhood in Medellin. Now it's fast becoming one of the city's top tourist attractions, with tour groups wandering through its graffiti-filled streets. Why? An ever-growing system of open-air escalators linking together Comuna 13's cliff-clinging communities has helped drive down crime and elevate community pride. Many of the escalator operators are also street artists who've livened up the edges of the escalator route with colorful murals that both reflect the neighborhood's tough past and offer hope for a promising future. To get the most out your visit, it's best to take a tour with an English-speaking guide from a company like Comuna 13 Tours.

5 Guatapé

There is so much to see and do within Medellin that it can be hard to leave. However, one of the top-rated attractions among most visitors actually lies 90 kilometers out of town. El Peñón de Guatapé is a monolithic rock formation that soars 200 meters above the surrounding landscape. Climb the 750 concrete steps to the top, and your reward is 360-degree views over the Guatapé Reservoir, a manmade lake that has numerous tentacles lined with vacation homes and hotels. The viewing platform up top has plenty of drink vendors and shaded tables to cool off at before huffing it back down to the bottom. Numerous tour operators in Medellin offer this trip daily, and many excursions include a boat trip out onto the turquoise lake to view El Peñón from afar.

6 MAMM: Medellín Museum of Modern Art

This modern art museum is, without a doubt, the star attraction of the up-and-coming Ciudad del Rio neighborhood, a former industrial area along the Medellin River that has been gentrified in recent decades and is now home to artists' lofts, sculpture-filled gardens, and top-tier dining. Built within (and all around) the refurbished confines of a 1939 steel mill, MAMM showcases some of the stars of Colombia's contemporary art scene, including pop artists Beatriz González and expressionist Débora Arango. Ride the elevator up to the top floor of this five-story building and wind your way down for the best experience.

Address: #19A, Cra. 44 #16 Sur100, Medellín, Antioquia

Official site: http://www.elmamm.org

7 Museum House of the Memory

Museum House of the Memory
Museum House of the Memory | Photo Copyright: Mark Johanson
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You can explore Medellin's sordid past, collective progress, and promise for a brighter future at Museum House of the Memory. This striking (and free-to-enter) complex opened in 2012 to offer a space for victims of Colombia's armed conflict to amass and dignify their memories. The archival collections depict the history of drug and paramilitary violence in the country as well as the fight for peace and unity. It is, perhaps, the best place in Medellin to come to grips with Colombia's headline-making history and put a face to the victims of Latin America's longest-running armed conflict.

Address: Calle 51 # 36-66 Bicentennial Park, Medellin

8 Barrio Manila

Exceptionally green and effortlessly chic, this pocket-sized barrio on the edge of El Poblado offers a quieter alternative to its neighbor. Home to a number of fantastic accommodation options across all budgets, Manila is also your go-to spot for some of the trendiest open-air restaurants in the city, including Tal Cual and Malevo (for chargrilled meats). Want a healthy breakfast? Head to Café Al Alma for a big bowl of granola and yogurt with local fruits. In the mood for an afternoon pick-me-up? Try Hija Mia for one of the silkiest americanos in town.

9 The Botanical Garden and Parque Explora

Butterfly at the Botanical Garden
Butterfly at the Botanical Garden
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Need a break from the city noise? Head to the Botanical Garden near the Universidad metro station, where 14 hectares of green space awaits. This sprawling and free-to-enter garden not only showcases more than 600 species of trees and plants, but also has a herbarium, lagoon, and popular butterfly enclosure.

Just across the street from the Botanical Gardens, you'll find another must-see attraction: Parque Explora. This family-friendly complex boasts a vivarium (for reptiles and amphibians), a planetarium (for stargazing), and Latin America's largest freshwater aquarium (which showcases many critters from the Amazon Basin). There are also three interactive areas, with educational exhibits on physics, neuroscience, and communications.

Medellin Botanical Garden

  • Location: Medellin, Antioquia

Parque Explora

  • Address: Cra. 53 #7375, Medellín, Antioquia

10 Plaza Cisneros

Plaza Cisneros
Plaza Cisneros
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Plaza Cisneros is yet another example of a section of Medellin that was once full of drugs and violence but is now a relatively safe and popular destination for sightseeing. Walk by during the day, and it might not look like much, but head back after dark and the 300 light poles scattered throughout the plaza will surely leave an impression. These 24-meter-high beacons are like giant Jedi lightsabers brightening up the night sky. More than just pretty lights, this plaza is also home to some spectacular architecture, including the angular Biblioteca EPM, a library with a small museum and free Wi-Fi. Head across Avenida San Juan for even more architectural marvels like the bumblebee-colored towers of Plaza de la Libertad.

Address: Cl. 44 #52-50, Medellín, Antioquia

11 Barefoot Park

One of the most bizarre - and beloved - attractions in Medellin is Barefoot Park, a zen-inspired public park designed by local architect Felipe Uribe de Bedout. Visitors are encouraged to take off their shoes and wander through its green gardens, sandy pits, and bubbling water fountains to experience the different textures and contemplate how they feel. The idea is to reconnect with nature in a way humans lost when we started wearing modern footwear. Equally enjoyable for both kids and adults, the park has plenty of shady nooks and cooling waterways to beat the heat on a scorching afternoon.

Address: Cra. 58 #42-125, Medellín, Antioquia

12 Pueblito Paisa

View from Nutibara Hill
View from Nutibara Hill
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This mock town atop Cerro Nutibara is like a living museum, where you can walk back in time to the turn of the century and experience life in rural Antioquia. The village centers around a traditional town square with a church, mayor's office, barbershop, and one-room schoolhouse. Its hilltop setting also makes it a great spot simply to get a bird's-eye view of the city below. You'll find plenty of souvenir and handicraft shopping here alongside some excellent restaurants where you can try the paisa cuisine of the Colombian Andes, including classic dishes like bandeja paisa, a belly-busting platter of ground meat, pork crackling, fried plantains, and avocados served with rice and refried beans.

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