Medellín, Colombia, has kicked its old reputation: It is now a cultural hub where natural beauty, boutique hotels, high-minded designers, and the wildest food and nightlife in South America come together. Wander the city’s warren of verdant alleys and you’ll encounter arty locals sipping java at single-estate coffee shops and a crop of young designers in eco-chic showrooms. This year, a creative undercurrent is thrusting Medellín to the cutting edge of urban development. Here, seven reasons why it should be next on your must-visit list.
Set in a brick-and-exposed-beams structure with polished concrete, Art Hotel fuses minimalist elegance with bright punches of color. Original paintings, sculptures, and jewelry by Colombian artists decorate the lobby and public spaces—all of which are available for purchase. Two blocks away, chic Europeans make up much of the clientele at the highly acclaimed Hotel Charlee. Even if you’re not staying in the geo-design structure, it’s worth stopping by for a rooftop mojito and to catch views of the pool and boisterous Parque Lleras. To avoid the noise, the rooftop spa at the Diez Hotel, with its bamboo decor, overlooks the entire city.
At El Cielo, chef Juan Manuel Barrientos fuses local ingredients, indigenous flavors, and high-minded molecular gastronomy. The fixed menu, with more than 10 “moments,” is sense melting and staggering; where else might you use rose petals to moisturize your hands, and blow steam out of your nose and mouth as you eat a Pop Rocks–themed liquid nitrogen citrus sorbet? On the other side of El Poblado, chef Laura Londoño holds court at Ocio, an industrial space made from recycled materials where a roster of low-and-slow roasts iconic of paisa culture reign. Try the pork codito or the steak with buttered tarragon, mustard, and cognac.
After years of artists leaving, Medellín is retaining its top crop of creative talent and establishing itself as an architectural destination in its own right. For a taste of the collective progress the city has made, visit the archival collection at Museo Casa de la Memoria. Then go modern at MAMM (Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín), a steel mill turned gallery with a growing circuit of Colombian-bred exhibitions that span the visual, musical, and architectural arts. The building itself is an Instagram-worthy attraction. Leaving MAMM, snack on empanadas down Calle 52 until you arrive at Plaza Botero, where Colombia’s most iconic works, the bronze Ruben-esque statues of Fernando Botero, fill the space. And to see the next generation of artists, hit the Lokkus and Banasta galleries for mixed-medium sculptures and installations.
For beautifully crafted statement pieces with a uniquely Colombian story, tryOropendola. Designer Carolina Vélez employs ancestral macramé techniques and natural fibers in her work; all pieces are handwoven by Vélez and members of indigenous communities from the neighboring Urbara region. Makua, another indigenous-inspired line, features bracelets and necklaces of gold-platter copper and polychrome patterns of the Kuna community. A few blocks away on Carrera 35, the ladies of Anima Terra will create a custom soap, salve, and perfume package. They’re located on the second floor of Vida Augusta, the flagship store for Colombian-made housewares, gifts, and casual apparel—there, you’ll find glasses and vintage cameras made from lignum wood. If you’re on your way to Cartagena, get your woven beachwear at Entreaguas.
Medellín’s surrounding Antioquia region exports coffee by the ton, and up until recently, locals never kept the top product—they’d invariably opt for tinto, a weak brew of second-rate beans. But new cafés like Pergamino are leading the single-origin coffee trend with spots that evoke the mix of decay and contemporary chic of L.A.’s Silver Lake or Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In its flagship location off Via Primavera, Pergamino offers public coffee tastings and the occasional barista competition. Another next-level café across the street is called Velvet, a Belgian-inspired open-air place with a bright sidewalk terrace and a bold latte special made with fresh cream and chocolate. And south toward Envigado, Café Revolución’s Art Deco space has a cappuccino to enliven any morning commute or 2:00 p.m. slump.
You wouldn’t know it from all the flora in front of the building, but Panorama is one of the city’s coolest watering holes. Reserve a seat at the rooftop bar and order a gin and tonic, crafted tableside with fresh herbs, or sangria, which comes with its own Popsicle in the glass. The locals flock for mixed-fruit mojitos at outdoor bar El Social and the tree stumps at Eco Bar. After drinks, the multicolored lights fly and the rhythm ignites. La Ruana de Juana, known for its legendary dance floor and Technicolor paint job, and Son Havana, a Cuban-inspired live music haven, breathe constant salsa, cumbia, and merengue. The only pause is for aguardiente, Colombia’s anise-flavored national liquor—it burns, so order a pitcher of lemonade to chase.
Natural beauty in the Aburrá Valley is the pride of many paisa. To get a taste (read: sniff) of the Colombian flower industry, venture to the storybook, breeze-licked town of Santa Elena, where traditional silleteros (flower farmers) hone their craft. At El Pensamiento Farm, poppy-lined paths weave through fields of more than 80 flower varieties, from dahlias to begonias. After testing your silleta-making skills—its version of the bouquet—drive the short distance to the 4,350-acre Parque Arví, and stroll beneath towering pine and eucalyptus trees. Take a gondola ride on the Metrocable, a feat iconic of the area’s flourishing renaissance, to Santo Domingo, the pastel-colored shantytown. Savor the view of the Biblioteca España—the public library made of three gargantuan slate monoliths—and the terminal glow of the city at dusk.