Colombia often gets a bad rap, but not these days. In the 1960s, it was considered one of the most violent places in the world. There was political fighting of all kinds and from all sides. This included the drug cartels, one of which was led by the infamous Pablo Escobar. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of this drug lord, especially after the Netflix series Narcos.
But a lot has changed since those days and Colombia has become quite the must-visit destination. Escobar is no longer with us, the political situation is stable, and the country has invested in and relies on tourism.
Whenever that is the case, it is fair to assume, as a tourist, you are welcomed and measures have been taken to ensure you feel safe and comfortable. Indeed, during my month-long visit to Colombia, I encountered more police officers than I may ever have in my life. Upon speaking to a few of these quite-young officers situated on nearly every corner, I learned that this police presence was part of the effort to increase tourism. It is surely working.
If you have hesitations about visiting this beautiful and diverse country, let me put you at ease (as I did for my mom). While in Colombia, I experienced friendly people, delicious food, and a diverse landscape.
My trip ended in Medellin where I was able to spend nearly a week exploring the sprawling city. Here, I’ll share my top four most exciting things to do during your visit to this lively city.
1. A Free Walking Tour
A free walking tour is my favorite way to start my time in any city. It is the perfect way to get to know the layout of the city. You get to see all the famous landmarks, as well as get to know more of the history and culture of the city.
Sign up for a free walking tour ahead of arriving in Medellin and make this the first thing you do. That way, you know where you want to return to in order to explore longer. Your guide will also give you great tips on where to dine — I love locals’ picks for that authentic feel — alert you to special or free days for museums and other attractions, and answer any of your questions about the city.
There are a handful of sites that offer free walking tours in Medellin. There are also a handful of different start times — usually one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the early evening. Most tours are about 3 hours long. You will be walking the whole time with only occasional breaks to admire an attraction and learn about it from the guide. Then, you are off again, so make sure you have comfortable footwear and dress for the weather.
Pro Tip: While these tours are called “free walking tours” and they are indeed free to attend, there is an expectation of a tip at the end. If you enjoyed your time and feel your guide was knowledgeable, be sure to have some local currency on hand to show your appreciation at the end of the guided tour.
2. Pablo Escobar Museum
Yep, there is a whole museum in Medellin dedicated to this guy. If you are at all curious about his long reign in Colombia, Casa Museo Pablo Escobar is the museum for you. I guess I blame it all on Narcos for making me so curious about this infamous drug lord. I was eager to learn as much as I could about him and his empire, and this museum held a wealth of information.
This tour and the museum are actually owned by family members of Escobar. Escobar’s eldest nephew opens the doors to the properties and shares his stories with you all for about $50. There are two tours daily that last about 3 and a half hours.
During the tour, you will visit several important locations on the property, such as Pablo’s main house, the flight zone where he would escape, and Montesacro Cemetery, where Pablo and many others involved in the cartel are buried.
And while these sites are interesting in their own right, it is the stories you will hear along the way that really make this the experience that it is. With firsthand accounts of what really happened and stories you haven’t heard on any news station, this museum gives you all the inside deets you want to know.
3. Bandeja Paisa
Loosely translating to “tray of the countrymen,” as in a cafeteria tray, this meal is meant to cover an entire tray (and then some) with food piled high. And if it doesn’t, they’re not doing it right. If you want to get a taste of a little bit of every food Colombia is famous for, bandeja paisa is the meal to order. Found most everywhere in Colombia, bandeja paisa is most famous in Medellin.
Typically, this meal will consist of chorizo, grilled steak, morcilla (“blood sausage”), fried pork belly, a fried egg, white rice, either fried or baked plantains, and pinto beans. Extras (because you need more to cover this tray) might include a green salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado, a tasty sauce of tomatoes, garlic and onions, lime wedges, and sometimes even arepas.
If you eat one thing in Medellin, make it bandeja paisa and you won’t have to try anything else because this dish has it all. I highly recommend sharing this as it is as giant as its description suggests. Try it for lunch and then be sure you can take a siesta right after. You will need it.
Because this meal is so popular in Medellin, you will likely find it in nearly any restaurant. Alternatively, you can also find it at the many street meat vendors in the plaza.
4. Plaza Botero
Have you heard of this sculptor? If you haven’t, you certainly will during your visit to Colombia. Fernando Botero is a bit of a national hero and rightly so. He’s created an entire style of sculpting known as “Boterismo.” This style involves nearly caricature-like sculptures. Ever seen absurdly fat sculptures of people and animals? That was very likely Botero. His sculptures have been displayed all over the world.
However, in his birthplace of Medellin, Plaza Botero displays 23 of his famous sculptures. In the early 2000s, Botero donated all of these simply named bronze sculptures to be placed all around the plaza. Most of these were at one time in museums all over the world and now reside permanently in Medellin. Legend has it that rubbing one of the statues will bring you love and good fortune.
Conveniently located in the heart of the city, Plaza Botero is just 3 minutes away from the Parque Berrio metro station. This fun collection of sculptures is my favorite free thing to visit in Medellin. Go during the day for the best lighting for great pictures. While there, stop into the nearby art museum, the Museum of Antioquia.
No visit to Colombia is complete without a stop in Medellin. Chances are you will be flying in or out of here. While visiting this happening city, you have all sorts of fun and exciting things to do. Here, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface with my top four favorite experiences in Medellin.