Cultural and Historic “El Centro”
To see the most interesting cultural and historic sights of Medellin you will need to head to “El Centro“, Medellin’s downtown. From old churches, quaint old plazas, historic cafes through to modern museums, there is something for everyone. In this section we have listed our favorite venues to see and visit.
The best way to see all the sights is to print off the Medellin Walking Tour Map and use it in conjunction with the descriptions in this section.
La Alpujarra Administrative Center
The Alpujarra is the home of the Medellin and Antioquia government buildings. There are three noteworthy government buildings: City Hall, the Palace of Justice, and the Seat of the Governor of Antioquia.
In the center of this square is a famous monument dedicated to the development of Antioquia. The sculpture’s title is Homage to Our Heritage and is by the artist Rodrigo Arenas Betancur (whose ashes are actually in one the pillars, as well). It stands 38 meters tall and represents the development of the region; gold mining, water exploitation, and the construction of the railroad. An interesting thing to note of the sculpture is that, after the representation of the railroad the monument rises into the sky, symbolizing the significant growth of the region brought on by such a technological achievement.
Alongside the Alpujarra is the Centro Cívico de Antioquia project. Most notable is the building with the concrete structures supposedly representing bamboo, but to many it’s referred to as Edificio Papa – the potato chip building.
Ferrocarril de Antioquia (Antioquia Train Station)
The railway system was once the lifeblood of Colombia’s budding economy. Whilst the construction of the station started in 1907 it wasn’t officially inaugurated until 1914. However only 40 years later the railway system was no longer viable due to improved road networks and cheaper forms of transport leaving the station in a state of abandonment in the 60’s. These days the beautifully restored Ferrocarril de Antioquia is considered to be an important national monument. There is a small free-to-enter museum inside the station showing how life was during those days. You can stop a while at the cafe located behind one of the few remaining steam trains in Colombia.
Parque de las Luces (The Lights Park)
This modern art installation consists of 300 light pillars, 2100 reflectors, and 170 floor lights. It’s best viewed during the evening time – just as the lights turn on. The beautiful and modern work of art is a great foil to the historical heritage buildings that make up the square’s surroundings.
The buildings Edificio Carre and Edificio Valsquez, constructed around the 1900’s, were originally built to be residential homes, however over time the buildings decayed and turned into places openly sheltering drug use and prostitution.
Recently, the buildings received a full renovation along with the square and surrounding buildings. Carre and Valsquez, which used to symbolize and embody Medellin’s criminal past, are now home to such positive establishments as the Office for Education of Medellin and Comfama, which supports health, education, credit, recreation and culture. These days the buildings are recognized to hold great architectural and historical significance to Medellin.
At the end of the Park you’ll see the Biblioteca EPM one of many urban regeneration projects where libraries are being built not only to improve the architectural landscape but also provide an educational element.
Carabobo & El Hueco
Now for some funny names. First there is pedestrian street Carabobo (meaning literally “silly face”) but is actually named after the Battle of Carabobo which lead to the independence of Venezuela. Along this shopping road you’ll see how every day life operates in downtown Medellin. You’ll soon reach an area known as El Hueco (meaning literally “the hole”) and is the heart of cut price shopping in Medellin. Don’t be fooled by the low prices; there are quite a few counterfeit wares for sale.
Palacio Nacional (National Palace)
Built in 1925, the Palacio Nacional was designed by the Belgian Architect Agustin Goovaerts and viewing the exterior of the building you would think it was fit for a king. Actually Medellin’s best lawyers first occupied the offices located throughout the building.
The Palacio Nacional has a dark side. Because the building used to be the highest in the city, many people would attempt suicide by jumping. Often the person attempting suicide would survive because the building wasn’t actually tall enough. Many ended up permanently disabled due to the injuries they sustained.
The architecture is an odd mixture of old and modern influences as the building’s construction code was brought up to present day standards. Today the building is a bustling shopping mall with around 400 stores – predominantly running shoes and clothing.
Iglesia de la Veracruz
Built at the end of the 18th century, the Veracruz church was originally constructed due to the demand from foreigners who resided in Medellin. The largest bell, adorning the top of the steeple, was once melted down to cast a cannon for the War of Independence in 1810.
Behind the church is a (unsafe) street notorious for prostitution and you will see many girls hanging out in front of the church, in stark moral contrast.
Get used to seeing the name “Fernando Botero” all over Medellin. He is a world famous artist, painter, and sculptor, from Medellin, Colombia and has reached an unrivaled level of world renown. He is most famous for his art, in whichever form, depicting figures that are “fat” or considerably rounded. Supposedly, these blown-up figures represent the degradation of society. For many in Colombia, Botero’s pieces might have been their first exposure to art, which is why he is so beloved.
There are 23 different different Botero sculptures in Plaza Botero, each depicting a figure with fantastically disproportionate roundness. Each are worth about US$2 million and were donated by the artist.
Museo de Antioquia
The museum might as well be called the Botero Museum since it also holds a significant amount of his work. The entrance fee is 10,000 COP and should take about an hour to comfortably see the Botero pieces (although there are many other artists on display as well).
The Cultural Palace of Rafael Uribe
Also located in the Plaza Botero is The Cultural Palace of Rafael Uribe. The palace, like the Antioquia Train Station, is also a Colombian national monument and open to the public. Also designed by the Belgian architect Agustin Goovaerts, the building is now home to concerts, a sound archive, a café, library, art gallery, and the “Rafael Uribe Uribe” Museum room. During the construction of the palace people didn’t like the aesthetic of the building. This resulted in Goovaerts just up and leaving the project. It was only until years later did the Colombian government decide to finish the building themselves. Due to this odd collaboration, the building represents a distinctly remarkable combination of European and Colombian architectural styles. The checkerboard pattern on the outside is actually painted, it’s not two different colored tiles.
Built in 1945 the Hotel Nutibara was one of the most prestigious hotels in Medellin. Today it’s shine has somewhat diminished as the more modern El Poblado has become the main financial and tourism center of Medellin.
For an escape from the city and a great view of the city we’ve heard you can buy a day pass to use the rooftop pool.
Pedro Nel Gomez Murals
Adjacent to the Berrio metro station are the beautifully crafted murals from the artist (and also architect, urbanist, and engineer) Pedro Nel Gomez. They depict the development and history of Antioquia.
Parque De Berrio
Parque Berrio was the original town center of Medellin and today is marked by the contrast of the modern Medellin Metro on one side and oldest church in Medellin, Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (built in 1649) on the other. Between 1784 and 1892, the square was called the “Plaza Principal” and was the site for executions and public and political events. However, the name changed to Parque de Berrio after a sculpture of Pedro Berrio was installed in 1895. A very important figure, Berrio helped establish the railroad in Colombia and thus is a figure that can be attributed to aiding Medellin’s development. In the beginning of the 20th century, various fires damaged the older buildings surrounding the square. This led to the construction of some of the more modernized buildings. Currently, Parque Berrio has come a long way, and is now home to the financial district of Colombia. It’s not uncommon to see street performers, musicians, and people dancing in the park. The park also contains one of Botero’s first donated works, “La Gorda” (“The Fat”) and “The Challenge”, by Betancur.
Brief Metro History: The metro itself also symbolizes Medellin’s modern development. It can be argued that the public transportation system, the only one in Colombia, greatly helped turn the city into one of the most well-planned and respected urban communities in Latin America. Finished in 1995, the metro connected the Northern and Southern communities, but more importantly, the metro cable cars reached into the poorer areas located east and west. The inclusion of the metro cable cars in Medellin were also the first time cable lines had been used for mass transit. What used to take poorer Paisas two hours by bus could now take 30 minutes – and for the low cost of only 2000 COP one way.
Basilica de Nuestra Señora Candelaria
La Candelaria is very important because it was the first church built in Medellin. The churches origins dates back to 1600’s but the current building was completed in 1776 and has been renovated many times since.
Curiously, lining the roads alongside many churches in Medellin one can also find street vendors that openly sell pirate videos including all sorts of pornography. Recently locals have been complaining about this type of activity alongside places of worship so the porn is often hidden under Disney DVD’s.
At the end of the small alleyway alongside the basilica you’ll find a tall art deco style building with large steel doors. Edificio Fabricato not only represents one of the oldest and most iconic fashion companies in Medellin but also the scene of one of the bloodiest crimes ever witnessed in Medellin History.
In October 1968 23 year old Ana Agudelo, a lift attendant in Edifico Fabricato, went missing for 10 days. On the 11th day her body was gruesomely discovered chopped up into 100 parts and hidden in pipes and tubes throughout the building. The crime caused a sensation in Medellin and the blame was quickly placed on the security guard nicknamed “Posadito”. It is said he was madly in love with Ana, despite being much older and married. Pasadito served just 12 years behind bars.
Carrera 49, also known as Avendia Junin is an iconic pedestrianized street which runs from the Coltejer building to Parque Bolivar. Throughout the 20th century, Junin has remained one of the most famous and historic streets in Medellin. There is even a Spanish verb – “juniar” which means to walk, buy, or simply peruse Junin.
In the 60’s and 70’s, Junin was a street almost exclusively for the elite, you had to have money to shop here. This led to the first shopping malls in Medellin. As time passed the street went through a transformation. By the 80’s, many street vendors were selling cheaper wares in front of the department stores, thereafter Junin began to be a place where all citizens could shop, regardless of economic status.
There are around 300 different stores on this street and you’ll find the sidewalks constantly crowded with shoppers, which becomes a nightmare around Christmas time. At the Parque Bolivar end of Junin you will come across the highest concentration of souvenir shops in Medellin, a whole market of t-shirts, tea towels and wooden craftwork. Remember to keep your bag in front of you to deter pickpockets.
At the start of Junin look up. Peaking at 175m the Coltejer Building is one of the tallest buildings in Medellin and the fourth tallest in the whole of Colombia. Construction first began in 1968 and finished four years later in 1972. As Coltejer was a textile manufacturer the top of the building was supposedly shaped to appear like a sewing needle. The company, which was founded 100 years ago, is one of the largest textile companies in Colombia and has greatly contributed to Antioquia’s industrial development. Controversially the Coltejer building was built on top of the former site of the magnificent 4,000 seater Junin Theater which historians cite as one the biggest cultural crimes in Medellin’s history. This is a prime example of the Paisas striving to advance and modernize albeit with disregard for maintaining the city’s culture and history.
Salon Versalles and Cafe El Astor
Contrary to the majority of businesses on Junin modernizing, two venues have stood the test of time; Salon Versalles – a restaurant specializing in Argentinean Empanadas, and El Astor – a cafe and chocoletaria. The key to their long-standing history has been their undying loyalty to quality goods and traditional recipes. Even the interiors of both shops still look like they did decades ago. When Versalles was first opened in 1961, its empanadas were extremely popular due to their sole competition being only the numerous Bandeja Paisa’s (the Colombian national dish) and arepa (a flatbread made of corn) vendors in the vicinity. It soon became a place for intellectuals, academics and authors, the thinkers who shaped the early days of the city. Versalles has never looked back, feel free to stop by and savor a delicious Argentinean or Chilean empanada, you won’t find better. Whilst your there check out the photos and memorabilia that line the walls.
The other historic shop, Café El Astor, was opened by a Swiss confectioner in 1930 and was immediately popular among European residents of Medellin. From the beginning, Astor’s success has largely been due to its emphasis on quality baked goods and flawless customer service. Now 85 years later and counting, it is still famous for its chocolates and cakes. For locals there is nothing more enjoyable than enjoying a mandarin juice and a “sapito”, a small green fruit cake in the shape of a frog. On the wall you’ll see numerous photos of local celebrities that have visited the Astor. Fill your belly and take away some tasty souvenirs as well.
The Parque Bolivar can be found at the end of Junin street has historically always been a meeting place for locals. In the center of the park, there is a sculpture of Simon Bolivar dating from the 1920’s. Bolivar was an instrumental force in the gaining of independence of certain Latin American countries from Spanish control. Certain streets adjacent to the park are named after the country’s whom the Venezuelan political and military leader aided Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. The Lido Theater, constructed in 1945, is also located around Parque Bolivar. Restored and reopened in 2007, the theater now offers a variety of programming throughout the year such as concerts and dance recitals. These days the park is decidedly dodgy so proceed with caution. There is a market here on the first Saturday of every month, it’s called San Alejo.
At the far end of Parque Bolivar is the Metropolitan Church. Adorned with beautiful and ornate stained glass windows, the church was designed by the French Architect Émile Charles Carré some time between 1883 and 1909. Construction lasted almost 50 years as the church was assembled entirely out of bricks. It is said to be the largest, brick-only, church in the world. There also happens to be a highly-valued art collection in a room beside the church but, sadly, the collection is private.
La Playa & Casa Barrientos
One of the most important and popular streets of downtown is The Playa. The name references the fact that the road was built over the Santa Elena creek.
One of the highlights of La Playa is the Casa Barrientos. Built in 1895 the house was designed by a French architect and constructed of the highest quality materials with imported fittings and furniture. The house was said to be the most exotic and exquisite homes of the period.
The house became the home to the Barrientos family, said to be extremely rich and aloof. There were 5 borthers and sister yet none ever married and it is said they did not mix within normal social circles or invite anyone into the house. In fact very little is known about them. Rumor has it that the hospital next door approached them saying we’d like to buy your house to expand the clinic. To which the Barrientos replied “better if we buy the hospital to expand our house”.
The house is also said to be haunted. However that doesn’t seem to deter the kids coming to visit every day since the Casa Barrientos is now a children’s library run by the Medellin council. You can have a look around but there are not alot of the original features left as when the last Barrientos died the house was left to ruin and all the artifacts and furniture stolen.
Teatro Pablo Tabon Uribe
Recently renovated the Teatro Pablo Tabon Uribe is one of the most popular theaters in Medellin with a wide variety of shows, dance productions and music events.
Check their schedule for free events such as dance and yoga classes.
Inside the theater there is a nice cafe if you need a break from the hustle and bustle outside.
Parque Boston is a typical Spanish influenced public square, with the obligatory church at one end and restaurants & bars around the other 3 sides. It’s an important focal point for the community, as place for people to come and rest, socialise and pass time. It’s a feature that is missing from new suburbs such as El Poblado. The statue in the center of the park depicts Jose Mara Cordova, a Colombian general under the rule of Simon Bolivar. If the name sounds familiar it’s because the international airport is named after him.
Around the park are several restaurants that specialize in trout and grilled meats if you’re looking for a cheap and tasty meal.
Casa de la Memoria
This museum is managed by the municipality of Medellin and is dedicated to the promotion of the reconstruction, visibility and comprehension of the armed conflict occurring in Colombia from decades ago till the present day. It is one of the few museums in the world that endeavors to bring awareness to a conflict that is still “on-going”. Under the moto “Recorder Para no Repetir” or “Remember in Order Not to Forget” the exhibit’s ultimate aim is dignify the victims of the conflict, safe-guard their history, but without explaining or glorifying details about the conflict itself. Many of the interactive exhibitions are subtitled in English, plan 30 mins to an hour to visit. Entry is free and recommended.
The museum and the newly renovated zone between the museum and Parque Boston is one example of the many urban regeneration projects in Medellin. Projects that have been designed to create modern spaces that create a sense of pride in the community and inspire change.
Nearby you’ll see the metal frame of a fountain, a few years ago it was the pride and joy of the local community. It was high tech and could produce shapes and even spell out words in water and even had laser that could project films in the water. Sadly like many community projects this million dollar white elephant, now sits inactive, the upkeep costs simply too expensive to keep it running.
Placita de Florez
The Placita de Florez is a covered market place that has been a gathering place for vendors for over 120 years. Whilst traditionally a marketplace for flowers the market now sells everything from meat, dairy products, vegetables, gardening supplies through to medicinal plants and spices.
The importance of flowers in Medellin’s history can be seen in August during the Feria de las Flores, the Festival of Flowers. The festival is a celebration of the traditional flower farmers who would come from Santa Elena, on the other side of the hills of Medellin, to the Placita de Florez. They would walk all this way with the flowers tied to a seat-like contraption (called a “silleta”) on their backs.
Medellin not only boasts the only public train and cable system in Colombia but now it can boast about the new state of the art tramvia due for launch late 2015.
Plazuela San Ignacio
The Plazuela San Ignacio is both architecturally beautiful and historically significant. It marks the birthplace of Medellin’s first university, the University of Antioquia. There are quite a lot of significant buildings in the area – the Church of San Ignacio (a historic Roman Catholic Church), Paraninfo of the University (a lecture hall-type building) and San Ignacio Cloister all built as one architectural wonder in 1803 when the neighborhood was still called San Lorenzo.
Up until the construction of the university the only way to study was to send your child to Bogota or Popayan. After the cloister of buildings was finished, locals now had a place to send their children to study. Nowadays the university buildings aren’t used for classrooms, but have been re-purposed to be a part of other activities such as a college radio, the Center for Turkish studies and a cinema.
Plaza San Antonio and Botero Birds
When first built, the public square Plaza San Antonio was used for concerts and events. It also included a famous Botero sculpture of a bird (in his classic “enlarged” artistic style). In June, 1995 a bomb was attached to the bird and detonated killing 29 people.
The culprit was never identified but the rightest, leftists, and drug cartel all claimed they had planted it. As the sculpture’s remains were about to be carried away, Botero declared that the half-desecrated bird (El Pájaro Herido) shouldn’t be removed. He reasoned that if the sculpture was simply discarded Medellin would never learn from it and it would simply be another tragedy buried within the annals of history.
Botero later donated a second, bird sculpture to the park, this one titled “El Pájaro de la Paz,” which means “The Bird of the Peace”. Today the two bird sculptures sit side-by-side as a permanent reminder of Medellin’s turbulent past.
Iglesia San Antonio
A hidden gem this is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Medellin and surprisingly one of the least visited.
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If you have time there are some very special places that are no directly on the walking tour route.
Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park)
The barefoot park is one of many examples of urban regeneration in Medellin. A place where people from different walks of life come come together and enjoy a public space that is free, fun and open to all. The park has several areas where you’re invited to kick off your shoes and enjoy the sand or water with your toes. There are many areas to enjoy including fountains, a bamboo garden and a grassy area ideal for picnics. Barefoot park may be one of the most relaxing places in central Medellin.
Behind the park you will see a metal colored building called the Edificio Inteligente. This is the headquarters of EPM the local utilities company. It is said that the building was designed to look like a battery and is supposedly one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in Medellin. On the other side is Teatro Metropolitano and Plaza Mayor, the city’s conference center where many of the city’s large events are held.
Museo Del Agua
Within the Parque de los Pies Descalzos you will find the Museo del Agua a public project financed by EPM. You will be lead through various zones throughout the museo learning about the importance of water from the beginning of time through to today. It’s all in Spanish but there are plenty of hands on zones if you want to go out of curiosity.
Ready to tango back in time? Salon Malaga reserves a special spot in Medellin for being one of the most historic tango bar / cafe in the city. Located only half a block away from the San Antonio Station, the Salon Malagá has been around for 60 years and has consistently stayed loyal to its bohemian roots.
Pass by during the day and it will be full of mostly older gentleman enjoying a beer or a coffee. The drinks are really cheap so don’t hesitate to stop for a while to people watch or to check out the tango memorabilia that adorns the walls, it’s like a tango museum. There are regular performances but you might need to book in advance, best to ask when you are there.
North of Medellin’s downtown there is a area called Prado Centro. In the early 1900’s Prado was the most expensive sector of Medellin with homes of immense size and austerity. However the area fell into decay with the industrialization and associated insecurity of El Centro. Many families chose to up and move to the more rural El Poblado (as it used to be).
One curious example of the wealth of that generation can be seen with the Palacio Egipto which dates to 1929. The Palace was built by the first optometrist in Medellin – Dr Fernando Estrada Estrada. He was fascinated by all thing Egyptian after two visits there decided to bring a little bit of Egypt to Medellin. He lived in the house for 40 years but sadly the palace has been left in a state of disrepair and so it’s only used for the occasional dance party. Unlike the palace, the company he founded – Santa Lucia, remains one of the leading optometrists in Medellin.
Use caution when visiting the Palacio Egipcio as it is off the main trial and may not be the safest area. If you wish to see this oddity we recommend you take a taxi and ask the driver to stop whilst you take a few photos.