Explore an Urban Renaissance in Medellín

1. Where to Stay

Enjoy modern furnishings at Art Hotel Medellín.Photo: Courtesy of Art Hotel Medellín

Unpack your bags at the splashiest new design-centric hotel in the city, The Charlee (from $220), where the smallest room is 500 square feet. Opened in December 2010, the property also houses a massive health club and spa and a rooftop pool.

Sleep around the corner from the trendy Parque Lleras district’s best clubs and restaurants at Art Hotel Medellín (from $120). Its 54 rooms sport interior brick walls that contrast with bright red chairs. The hotel is also home to a private cinema that frequently hosts film festivals and art-house flicks.

Retreat from the city center at the 24-room Hotel y Parque Ecológico Piedras Blancas Piedras Blancas (from $165), which sits in the forested mountains and can be conveniently reached by cable car. Bordering an ecological park, the property includes access to canoes, zip lines, fishing, hiking, and a butterfly farm.

2. Where to Eat

Ajiacos y Mondongos (left) is known for its traditional stews and eclectic atmosphere, while brunch favorite Bonuar (right) hosts live blues bands in the evening.Photo: Nicholas Gill; Santiago Restrepo

Taste dishes that have been passed down through generations at Ajiacos y Mondongos, a modest lunch counter with a handful of tables. Locals line up for their choice of traditional stews like ajiaco (chicken and potato), mondongo (tripe), or cazuela con frijoles (beef with beans) ($10 each), made from scratch daily.

Dine on the city’s best brunch dishes at Creole fusion restaurant Bonaur, where smoked salmon with passion fruit béarnaise ($8), ham and corn omelettes ($6), and papaya with green chicken curry ($8) are standouts. Located inside the Museo de Arte Moderno, it’s also a destination on weekend evenings for sipping old-fashioneds ($7) and listening to live blues bands.

Sample locavore cuisine at the modish, three-level Bijao, where ingredients are sourced directly from area farmers. Chef Andrei Mikail López’s menu draws on all of Latin America for inspiration, resulting in delicious takes on octopus ceviche ($8) and moqueca ($18), a traditionally Brazilian fish stew.

3. What to Do

Museo de Antioquia (left) houses 108 paintings and 23 sculptures by Fernando Botero. The Orquideorama (right) at Jardín Botánico displays more than 5,000 Colombian orchids. Photo: Flickr/laloking97; Courtesy of Medellín Botanical Garden

Kick back at sunset with a bottle of anise-flavored aguardiente or churros and hot chocolate at the Parque Biblioteca España (Cl 107 and Cra K33B), a spectacular $4 million mixed outdoor space anchored by Giancarlo Mazzanti’s ultramodern library. Transformed in 2007 from what was once one of the city’s poorest and most violent hillside slums, the park offers expansive views of the twinkling lights of the city below.

Explore the greatest collection of work by Colombia’s most recognized artist, Fernando Botero, at the Museo de Antioquia ($3), directly across from a plaza adorned with a dozen of his sculptures of voluminous bodies with dwarfish features. The latest addition, The Death of Pablo Escobar, donated by Botero himself, depicts a larger-than-life version of the drug kingpin’s bullet-ridden downfall.

Spot the city’s architectural renaissance at the open-air Orquideorama, or orchid center, an otherworldly wooden structure designed by Medellín-based Plan B Architects that highlights the lush surroundings. It sits inside the Jardín Botánico (free admission), a 35-acre botanical garden that also holds a bamboo forest, lagoon, shops, and cafés.

Discover one of Colombians’ passions on a four-hour Underground Tango Tour ($100), which reveals that the city’s wealth of tango clubs is second only to those in Buenos Aires. The tour begins with a dance lesson, visits a shrine to famed tango dancer Carlos Gardel (who died in a plane crash here in 1935), and then explores offbeat clubs and dance studios hidden in places you’d never find on your own.

4. Insider’s Tip

Bypass the cafés and try an authentic cup of coffee from local street vendors.Photo: Nicholas Gill

Colombia is one of the world’s coffee-producing powerhouses, and the prime growing region is just a few hours from Medellín, so at least one taste is a must. Skip the ubiquitous Juan Valdez Cafés and take your java like most locals do: from roving street vendors who sell tiny cups of tinto (sugary black coffee) from thermoses. In addition to a more authentic experience, you’ll pay only a quarter for your morning brew. And don’t worry about the language barrier: In 2010, nearly one hundred vendors received English training to encourage tourism.

5. Oddball Day

Climb 656 feet to the top of Peñón de Guatapé, a flat-top boulder, for striking views of the adjacent reservoir.Photo: Flickr/laloking97; Flickr/life's too short

Gear up for a day of exploring natural attractions with a breakfast of arepas stuffed with Antioquia cheese ($2) or empanadas ($1), accompanied by hot chocolate served in copper cups ($1) at La Casita de mi Abuela (Cl 50 S 43 A-30; 574-331-6535). Next, take the Metrocable ($1), a mass-transit gondola system that extends the subway network, up and into the city’s hillsides, to the 1,761-acre Parque Arvi (free admission). Once there, traverse some 40 miles of trails through the highland tropical forests and spot a variety of birds, of which Colombia has the world’s greatest number of species. For a casual lunch, stop by rustic local favorite El Hato Viejo (Cra 49 No. 52-170; 574-251-2196) for large portions of regional plates like sopa de guineo (plantain soup; $5), langostinos (prawns; $14), and brevas con queso (figs with white cheese; $4). In the afternoon, catch a 45-minute bus ($5) to Guatapé, a town bordering a hydroelectric-dam-created reservoir dotted with islands, where many antioqueñas have built brightly tiled weekend homes. Work up an appetite climbing the 644 steps to the top of Peñón de Guatapé, a 656-foot flat-top granite boulder, and then return to the city for dinner at El Cielo, where you can have à la carte items like artisanal pasta with crab and coconut ($12) or the adventurous degustation menu ($45) of chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, Medellín’s leading practitioner of molecular gastronomy. End the night hopping from Scottish-themed Pub Escocia (Cra 37A, 8A – 43; 574-311-5607) to destination club Betty House (Cl 10A 40-27) in Parque Lleras, where the sleek, skimpy outfits on display make the city’s reputation as silicone capital of the Americas fully apparent.

6. Links

Discover the latest news of events, concerts, and new nightlife options from the free print and online English-language magazine geared toward expats, The Arepa.

For a plotted map of the city’s tourist-friendly attractions, restaurants, and hotels, visit the Medellín Map.

The city of Medellín’s official website, Medellín Portal de la Ciudad, has loads of stats, visitor information, and links to Mayor Alonso Salazar’s Twitter and Facebook pages. There’s even English translation.

Explore an Urban Renaissance in Medellín