Famous for Flowers. Yes, Flowers.
Call it the Medellín miracle. Colombia’s second city still has its vices, but the world’s former cocaine capital has been rehabbed. Terrorism has ceded to tourism, thanks to visionary social policies that have transformed the once menacing city into a model metropolis. Slums where police feared to tread are now linked to the innovative business and cultural hub by the well-policed MetroCable, whisking visitors aloft to Barrio Santo Domingo, a new tourist hot spot where the black cubist España library perches dramatically over the shanties. Downtown, in the valley below, sunlight glints on skyscrapers and avant-garde architecture framed by Andean mountains—proof that a jewel is made complete by a stunning setting.
Art-filled public parks lie at the heart of the city’s holistic makeover. Voluptuous sculptures by Medellín native Fernando Botero stud Plaza Botero, where the Museo de Antioquia displays paintings by Botero and Picasso. Nearby, office workers strolling Plaza de los Pies Descalzos (“barefoot park”) cast off shoes and socks to rejuvenate amid a sensory Zen garden. Families flock to Parque Explora, with its interactive science exhibits and world-class aquarium. Self-assured young people in designer jeans swell Parque de Lleras, the city’s epicenter for chic nightlife. Art-mad Medellinenses have even morphed a former steel mill into the Museo de Arte Moderno. Its Bonuar restaurant serves Creole fusion fare spiced with live American-style blues.
Tradition? Relax. It scents the air when the City of Eternal Spring bursts into mid-summer bloom for the annual Feria de las Flores in August. The 58-year-old flower festival fills the streets with kaleidoscopic color, a winsome testament to Medellín’s metamorphosis. —Christopher P. Baker
When to Go: Year-round, average temperature remains about 72ºF every day; December-February is the dry season; May and October are the rainiest months; early August, Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), a ten-day celebration of regional Antioquian culture; December, elaborate holiday light displays
How to Get Around: Use the modern Metro system to travel around the city for about a dollar per ride. For the best aerial views of Medellín, ride the Metrocables (cable cars) up the eastern slopes of the Aburra Valley (and over some of the city’s poorest, mountainside favelas). Transfer (for about two dollars each way) to the scenic Metrocable line that extends up to theParque Arvi nature preserve.
Where to Stay: The six-story Art Hotel Medellin in the upscale El Poblado neighborhood has an industrial loft vibe: brick walls, polished concrete floors, and exposed steel and wood beams. Rooms facing the atrium can seem cavelike, so book a brighter Superior or Executive room with a window overlooking the street. Walk a block to Parque Lleras, Medellín’s popular restaurant and nightlife district.
Where to Eat or Drink: Two go-to Antioquian staples to try aremondongo—slow-simmered tripe and vegetable stew topped with a savory tomato and onion criollo sauce—and bandeja paisa, a platter piled high with filling foods like beans and rice, ground beef, avocado, plantain, andchicharrón (fried pork belly) and topped with a fried egg. The aptly namedMondongos serves both dishes at two Medellín locations.
What to Buy: Medellín’s supersize malls are worth a visit for people-watching alone. At Poblado’s posh El Tesoro Parque Comercial, fashion-forward Paisas (Medellín residents) stroll, dine, hang out on the atrium’s cozy couches, and shop at upscale retail stores, including Arturo Calle andTennis. The four-story, open-air mall also has a movie theater and a pint-size amusement park with a Ferris wheel and train.
Cultural Tip: Only tourists wear flip-flops, and local men are rarely spotted wearing shorts. To look more like a Paisa, leave the beachwear at home. Pack long pants and jeans instead.
What to Read Before You Go: Medellín native Héctor Abad’s memoirOblivion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, reprint edition, 2013) is a profoundly moving tribute to his father, who was murdered by Colombian paramilitaries in 1987.
Fun Fact: From Medellín, it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride east to La Piedra del Peñol, or El Peñol (the Stone), a 721-foot monolith towering over the Embalse del Peñol hydroelectric dam. A switchback concrete staircase (built into a vertical crevice) leads up 649 steps to the top of the rock. Make the extra climb up the three-story observation tower for panoramic views of the islands and man-made lakes below.
Insider Tip From Christopher P. Baker: The Art Hotel Boutique, steps from Parque Lleras, embodies Medellín’s chic sophistication.