It’s true what they say (over and over again) about Colombia: It’s come a long way from its days as the murder capital of the world. Perhaps less documented is the sprawling city of Medellín’s recent rise as a design and culinary destination rivaling the design and culinary capital of Bogotá. While Bogotá makes headlines with every new design hotel or art gallery that opens in a warehouse, Medellín is finishing up a decade of its own civic-minded architectural projects, which have changed the face of once notorious slums and opened them up to the general public. Case in point: The hillside town of Santo Domingo Savio, now reached by mass-transit gondola, is attracting visitors for its stunning views and access to the nearly 1,800 acres of highland tropical forest at Parque Arvi. Bogotá might have a Botero museum, but Medellín, the artist’s birthplace, has a bigger one. Colombia’s capital has cutting-edge restaurants and craft beer, but so does Medellín: Head to restaurant Carmen (Carrera 36 No. 10A-27; 311-9625) in El Poblado, the city’s liveliest barrio, for California-born chef Carmen Ángel’s creative take on Pan-Latin dishes like Korean tacos and prawns with candied bacon and pineapple chimichurri, or to the new Humo (Carrera 35 No. 8A-45; no phone yet) in the Provenza neighborhood for a Colombian take on southern BBQ. And stop by 3 Cordilleras (Calle 30 No. 44-176; 444-2337) on Thursday for the brewery’s bustling happy hour. As for those design hotels, El Poblado has several, like the Charlee (from $270; thecharlee.com), a sort of Colombian version of the Standard, with 42 art-filled rooms, plus a rooftop bar and pool.
Population: 2.47 million
Distance from Bogotá: 55-minute flight.
While Bogotá has gotten tons of attention for its innovative public-transportation system, among other forward-thinking urban-renewal initiatives, the city to the north has its own share of flashy design projects.
Parque Biblioteca España
(Carrera 33B No. 107A-100): Giancarlo Mazzanti’s ultramodern, $4 million library and cultural center (at right) mirrors the granite mountains in the distance. The striking (albeit slightly weathered) structures are located in the hillside of the Santo Domingo Savio barrio, which is now connected to the valley below via gondola tied to the Metro, bringing in hundreds of visitors a day.
Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín
(Carrera 48 No. 19A-100, Ciudad del Río; 574-444-2622): In the new cultural hub of the city, Ciudad del Río, Peruvian architectural firm 51-1 is adding a flashy extension with exhibition halls and an auditorium to Medellín’s modern-art museum, which will be finished in 2014.
Escaleras eléctricas de la Comuna 13
(Enter at the San Javier Metro station.) This $6.7 million escalator (below) snakes up the hillside, replacing some 350 stairs that were once the main access to the city for the 12,000 residents of the impoverished Comuna 13. While in the past most locals did their best to avoid Comuna 13, it’s become a tourist attraction, with folks riding the stairs just for fun.