Medellin’s downtown, better known as El Centro, has a somewhat rough and negative reputation, but there are a number of great gems in the area that make it a place you should explore at least once, if not a few times.
In many cities around the world, it is often desirable to be as close to the center as possible, but that’s not really the case in Medellin. While prices to live in El Centro can be incredibly cheap, I wouldn’t really recommend living there, especially when there are so many other incredible places to stay in Medellin.
There are much better neighborhoods across the city for day-to-day living, but El Centro makes a great place to visit during the day time, and there are even some great places to explore at night.
What follows will be an introduction to El Centro with some top recommendations to fill your day (or even a few).
First, a word about safety. El Centro’s rough reputation is somewhat deserved. There is a higher occurrence of robberies and pickpockets in the area, and you’ll notice an increasing number of homeless people and drug addicts on the streets.
In the daytime the streets are absolutely filled with people and activity and it is, for the most part, safe except for the chances of pickpocketing. Stick to well trafficked areas and be aware of your belongings and your surroundings.
At night, however, when all the workers go home and businesses close up shop, the streets become much more lonely. Unless you know the area well, it is always better to spend the pesos on a taxi to go to or from wherever you are going in El Centro at night.
At any time, do not take excessive cash, do not flash valuables like your expensive cellphone or camera, and be cognizant of your belongings if you are bringing a backpack or purse. You will notice areas where the locals wear their backpacks across their chest, so take note and do the same. It’s best to leave anything you don’t need at home though.
After all that ominous talk, I’ve spent many days alone in El Centro and enjoyed the nightlife quite a few times (with company) and nothing has ever happened to me.
Free Walking Tour
If you have never explored El Centro, my first tip is to get your bearings with Real City Tours and their free walking tour of downtown.
The tour lasts for four hours and will give you not only a great overview of everything downtown, but also an incredible overview of the history of Medellin and Colombia.
The tour is free, but they ask for voluntary donations at the end. The tour is truly excellent and something I recommend to every new visitor to Medellin.
You should make reservations online.
I would recommend the morning tour, so you have time to explore a bit of El Centro on your own afterward. Otherwise the afternoon tour will end just as it is getting dark and businesses start to close up shop.
Parque de las Luces
We will begin our self-directed walking tour near Alpujarra (metro station) or near Avenida San Juan (a main bus route), and start with a walk through the Parque de las Luces also known as Plaza Cisneros.
It is a large plaza filled with large columns of light, which light up at night. It’s a pretty cool place that makes for unique photos.
If you head a few blocks east, you will turn north on Avenida Carabobo, a large pedestrian only street that is filled with merchants and activity.
From here you will notice a ton of streets that have been closed off by merchants selling hats, clothes, and everything else. This big maze of stalls is El Hueco “The Hole” where you can find some cheap goods. It’s always interesting wandering through as people shout “a la orden” (at your service).
Pick up a cold guarapo, a sweet sugar cane based drink, from one of the mobile merchants and make your way through.
Plaza Botero and the Museo de Antioquia
Carabobo will take you straight to Plaza Botero, the large central plaza that is filled with the rotund statues of Fernando Botero, the internationally renowned artist that hailed from Medellin.
The Museo de Antioquia sits on the western edge of the plaza and is absolutely worth a visit when you have a few hours to spare to explore the many works of Fernando Botero as well as other local and international artists.
Head past the checker colored Palacio de la Cultura and under the elevated track of the metro system and continue east for a few blocks along Calle 52.
Head toward Coltejer Tower, which is the most emblematic building in Medellin which was designed to look like a giant sewing needle and stands as the tallest skyscraper in the city.
If you’re ready for lunch, right around the corner from Coltejer Tower, you’ll find Hatoviejo along Carrera 47. Hatoviejo is one of the top restaurants in the city for typical Paisa food.
If you want to try the infamous bandeja Paisa, or a cazuela, or even ajiaco, you can’t go wrong with any choice here.
At the base of Coltejer Tower you will find Junin Street (Carrera 49), which was once one of the main retail and shopping areas in Medellin. It is still a generally upscale place for El Centro with a number of the city’s most famous brands.
The street even gave birth to the local Spanish verb of “Juniniar” which basically means to go window shopping.
The street will end at Parque Bolivar and the massive Catedral Metropolitana.
If lunch at Hatoviejo didn’t leave you absolutely stuffed, then be sure to pop up into Astor Reposteria which is an absolute institution here in Medellin and dates back to the 40s.
There are a variety of sweet treats on offer in this classically elegant locale, including the famous little animal figurines. But my personal favorite is the chocolate cake (one of the best I’ve ever had, anywhere) accompanied with a tinto coffee.
Credenza Gastronomia Creativa
Just before sunset, I’d highly recommend heading east on Avenida Maracaibo and crossing the Avenida Oriental. Along Carrera 45 you will find the Centro Colombo which has an amazing bar and restaurant on the 10th floor.
Just tell the doorman that you are going to the restaurant.
Credenza Gastronomia Creativa offers up a number of beers and cocktails, and you can enjoy the sunset over the western mountains as you sip your drink on their balcony.
If you’re hungry, they’ve got a menu with some truly unique dishes. I highly recommend the delicious glazed chicharron.
If you’re up for it, you can even turn it into a bar crawl, starting at Credenza, mentioned above. While I mentioned earlier the dangers of El Centro at night, there are a number of excellent places located in close proximity, which I would feel fine walking between.
If you are arriving after dark or heading anywhere further (even those mentioned earlier in the article) then it is best to take a short taxi ride.
Parque de la Periodista
Is an oddly shaped little park that sits a block from Colombo on Avenida Maracaibo, which sits at the center of an eclectic and bohemian mix of places. The park has a general counterculture vibe with lots of leather jackets and pot smoke wafting around.
El Acontista is a great low-key jazz bar and bookstore that offers up some delicious pizzas and drinks. Come here and chill to jazz as you sip wine.
They even offer up live jazz music on Monday nights.
Wall Street is a great little rock ‘n roll bar in a city that is surprisingly devoid of rock music. They have cheap prices, a pretty good selection of music.
Down the street and closer to Colombo is Cancielo, another small rock bar that might be more to your liking.
El Eslabon Prendido
Eslabon Prendido is perhaps the best salsa bar in the entire city and is renowned among the salseros here. If you want to show your moves or just take in the spectacle (what I do), then head here.
Tuesday nights are especially popular as they bring in live music and the place packs to the gills.
It’s a really fun night, and one that I recommend to all.
Many visitors to Medellin don’t explore much of El Centro beyond the typical tourist attractions like the museum, but there are a number of incredible restaurants, bars, and more that everyone should take the time to explore.
Do you have any favorites in El Centro? What would you recommend to newcomers?
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