Bogotá vs Medellín: two largest Colombian cities compared. Which one is better and why?
This article has replaced the original text about Central Colombia on May 23, 2021.
Bogotá vs Medellín. Which one is better to visit? Based on popularity among the backpacking community, the answer appears to be seemingly straight forward favouring the latter but things are not so black and white. After all, we’re talking of comparing the first and second city and that is always a peculiar comparison, wherever you go. Just imagine Madrid vs Barcelona, NYC vs LA or London vs Birmingham, well the last one is probably not the best example, is it?
Anyway, so let’s compare few factors about those two cities so you can decide for yourself, based on your areas of interest. We’ll look at tourism options and various attractions, safety, nightlife, climate, public transport and few other areas to give you an idea of what is the difference between, just as well as what there’s to do in Bogotá and Medellín. FYI, although this post will list the highlights when it comes to tourist attractions in each city, please note that it isn’t exactly a double-city guide.
Bogotá vs Medellín: basic facts
Bogotá, Distrito Capital is a huge megacity of more than 8 million people. Its metropolitan area of 1775 km² means that we’re talking about a massive and vibrant city that offers everything such a large city offers anywhere else in the world. On the other hand, the regional capital of Antioquia Province Medellín has “only” 2,5 million people and an area of 382 km². So although it is the second-largest city in Colombia of a decent size, in comparison to Bogotá it appears like a provincial city. Established in 1538, the country’s capital is also 78 years senior to its younger regional sibling.
Another major difference between the two cities is the elevation. Bogotá, with its 2640m altitude, the fourth-highest capital in the world (after Ecuadorian Quito, Bolivian La Paz and Bhutan’s Thimphu). Such altitude makes Bogotá‘s weather rather fresh, with an average temperature of 15 °C. To use the words of a local friend “single-season wardrobe” city. As for Medellín, at “only” 1495 metres above the sea level, it is more than a kilometre lower than Bogotá, which gives the city an undisputable advantage of more pleasant, all year round spring-like climate with an average temperature of about 22°C, not to mention better blood-oxygen levels as opposed to country’s capital.
Bogotá vs Medellín: Looks
Regarding the skyline looks, both cities are surrounded by the beautiful Andes, which is IMHO a factor that always helps the looks of any city. In this case, the mountains also do a massive favour to both cities, especially to Medellín as it appears in front of a spectator in rather stunning fashion upon entering the valley of Aburrá, where it’s located In comparison, given its huge size, Bogotá comes across as a bit of a massive beast.
Urban structure-wise, both cities are built as classic grids with calles and carreras as much as the hilly relief allowed such a system. If we were to talk about street looks, it would be rather hard to describe such large metropolitan areas because we’re talking about a rather eclectic mix of architecture worth centuries of development that’s been furthermore determined by rather an extreme mix of budgets, from the most basic to the very generous ones.
When it comes to urban planning the same model applies. Both cities could appear a bit messy. For instance, Medellín‘s overground metro creates a rather brutal if not even perhaps a bit of a sci-fi feel, especially in the centre when such structure cuts through the historical parts of the city. This is not to say that Bogotá‘s past urban planners became famous for their “mix&match” style when it comes to architecture styles and traffic solutions.
However, during the last few decades, things began to change for the better. There are visible signs of massive urban planning improvements in both cities, whether we’re talking about particular locations, such as La Plaza de Toros de Santamaría by the Bogotanese architect Adonai Martinez or the overall urban planning strategy. For instance, Medellín has even been recently awarded numerous acclaimed international prices for its urbanism, such as Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize or Veronica Rudge Green Prize for its social urban model and public transport system.
Things to do in Bogotá
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Being a megacity, Bogotá provides a large number of things to do in and around the city. The Colombian capital therefore naturally boasts of a large number of landmarks, such as Cerro Monserrate or the pretty and colourful historical quarter La Candelaria. Except for numerous charming streets with shops, restaurants and cafés, in La Candelaria, you’ll also find the city’s main square Plaza Bolívar, which is practically lined up with colossal buildings, such as Palace of Justice; National Capitol; Archiepiscopal Palace; Cathedral Metropolitan Basilica of Bogotá and Liévano Palace.
Then there is of the tremendous amount of museums, people keen on history, science or art can visit. From the long list of museums in the Colombian capital, the most popular museums are: Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) with over 55 thousand, mostly pre-Columbian golden artefacts; a church-turned art museum Museo Santa Clara; Museum Botero that is dedicated to the famous Colombian artist; Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá; and finally to learn about Colombian history, there are Colonial as well as Colombian National museums.
The cosmopolitan element of the political, as well as business centre of the country also brings further advantages, when it comes to dining, culture, large international cultural events and so on. Furthermore, the capital city also boasts of some excellent day trip options, such as the amazing underground Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, the picturesque town of La Calera, the coffee town Fusagasugá. Nature lovers could opt for visiting for example Laguna Dorada in Guatavita; pretty Tequendama Falls or check out the amazing biodiversity of Chicaque Nature Park.
Things to do in Medellín
Although Medellín has come a long way in the last 3 decades, when it comes to its transformation from being one of the most violent places on Earth to become a popular tourist destination, the city can’t be a match to the country’s capital when it comes to various historical landmarks. It however came up with its own set of unique attractions to appeal to backpackers, international students and digital nomads.
Those include guided tours to Communes 13 or 8, the poverty-stricken hoods of the city one could not even dream of visiting a few decades ago. There’s also the vibrant Plaza Botero and the surrounding historical centre. Due to the popularity of a certain Netflix show, some perhaps little unaware or ignorant tourists also choose to do the highly controversial Pablo Escobar Tour, which is usually met with resentment by the locals, many of which or their relatives suffered terrible fates during his time.
Although the range and variety of Medellín‘s museums can’t match those in the capital, there’s a decent amount of museums to explore for the history or art lovers. Among the most popular museums in the city are: Museo de Antioquia to get more info about the region; Casa de la Memoria to learn about the Colombian conflict or Museo de Arte Moderno to please your soul with beautiful modern art.
When it comes to the day trip options, this is where Medellín matches or perhaps even overperforms Bogotá. You can visit some of the neighbouring pretty colonial towns, such as Guatapé; Santa Fe de Antioquia or Jardín. Nature lovers could decide between multiple options to admire the stunning local nature in for example Parque Arví; Reserva Natural Cañon Del Río Claro or the slightly off the beaten path locations, like San Rafael that boasts of plenty of pools and waterfalls of Cocorná that comes with some apparently amazing paragliding conditions.
Bogotá vs Medellín: People
Oh well. Such subject can’t be approached without deploying massive stereotypes, which isn’t exactly my favourite method but you know how it often goes between the people from the two largest cities in the country: there’s always a bit of rivalry going on 🙂 And massive stereotyping. After all, Colombia isn’t the only country where its people are a bit funny when it comes to their attitude towards the people from their capital, right?
So just for fun, here are few things that are apparently different between people from Bogotá and people from Medellín, at least according to some locals. Many Latin cities have nicknames for people who live in them. So please note that people from Bogotá are Rolos or Cachacos (click here to find out why in case you were interested) and people from Medellín are Paisas (countrymen).
So the rumour has it that Paisas are apparently friendlier, while Rolos are rather cold 🙂 Personally, I can not confirm that because I have found people from both cities equally friendly. Actually, I found them very friendly. Anyway, furthermore, Rolos are apparently boring, polite and uptight. I can’t confirm this rumour either unless all people in Bogotá represented the exceptions to the rule 🙂 Unfortunately, I haven’t learned much about what’s “wrong” with Paisas because, to be honest, Rolos only had nice things to say about them.
Bogotá vs Medellín: Culture, going out and nightlife
To talk about entertainment, Bogotá is again the true capital of the country. The whole theatre, art and music scene is naturally bigger than in any other city in the country, perhaps even bigger than all other Colombian cities combined. Whether you decide to check out Teatro Colón; Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez; Espacio Odeón, we’re talking about world-class venues that cover a wide range of genres. In comparison, when it comes to for example music, in Medellín, you’ll be surrounded with rather dominant reggaeton and some occasional Cumbia or Salsa.
Comparing the nightlife in these two is a less easy task because both of them can claim high levels of vibrancy. While there are still naturally more options for clubbing in the larger Bogotá, whether you check out Parque 93; Zona Rosa, also known as Zona T or other the trendy bars in Chapinero a lot of those are often places where locals mix with expats and travellers. Medellín‘s party central Parque Lleras and the surrounding areas in El Poblado hood appear to be less of a mix, with locals being less dominant for some reason, not to mention that the better climate allows a lot of the party scene to take place on terraces as opposed to colder Bogotá.
Bogotá vs Medellín: Safety and where to stay
Let’s be honest, safety in Colombia is often among the first questions many people ask about the country. It is due to the very bad reputation the country was infamous for only several decades ago. But many things have changed since then and both cities have improved in several departments, safety included. Well, perhaps I better say that many things have changed a lot and some others haven’t changed much.
While many travellers are mostly concerned about street crime, robberies and in the worst-case scenario even kidnapping, let’s not forget that Colombia is technically still in the Civil War. Althghout the 2016 peace deal made the largest rebel group FARC lay down their weapons, there are still several groups that are still active, fighting for whatever their cause evolved into over the years with the shifted politics and cocaine money. The 2019 car bombing attack was the latest terrorist addition to the currently largest fighting guerilla group, the National Liberation Army.
If we however look back to the early 2000 and beyond, things were far worse when it comes to acts of terrorism and general crime. Between 1958 and 2013, the conflict has claimed as many as 220 000 lives, out of which there were 177 307 civilians. Furthermore, it forced 5,7 million people to flee their homes, generating the world’s second-largest population of internally displaced people. We are therefore talking about an extremely bloody horrible struggle that goes beyond most people’s imagination.
I better leave this sad subject here because it’s drifting me off-topic, plus I might be creating a wrong impression about the current safety situation in the country. In case you were interested, read about how the conflict begun and evolved, who fought against whom and who’s still keeps fighting here. As I said, things have however changed, especially with the 2016 peace deal, otherwise, Colombia wouldn’t be among the top 10 fastest-rising tourist destination on the planet. In the same breath, I must however add that the situation is still far from ideal and you’ll see the signs of the past here and there when it comes to security precautions and so on.
Hoods to avoid, hoods to stay and precautions
At present, there are hoods in both cities, where you should feel absolutely fine but there are also few spots, where I would not advise you to wander around with your iPhone and golden jewellery, especially if you look like a gringo. The safe areas in Bogotá are Chapinero and perhaps the daytime La Candelaria. When it comes to Medellín, we’re talking about El Poblado, Laureles, and Envigado (read more here by Flora Barker in Colombia Reports).
The areas you should stay away from in the capital would be San Cristóbal and Ciudad Bolivar and in Medellín, think twice before heading to Santo Domingo, Bello, or even the downtown area (La Candelaria) of the city (read more here by Joey Bonura in Bogotivo).
As for the precautions, use official taxis or Uber only. Do not hail them on the street. Do not flesh your jewellery – even better, leave the jewellery at home and keep your cell phone hidden when on the street. Watch out who you accept your drink from and if you’re heading out, best do it in groups. More practical tips about safety in Latin America could be found here, in case you were interested.
Bogotá vs Medellín: Get around the city
I’ve found the public transport in the capital (TransMilenio system) rather complicated for an outsider but due to the grid system, it’s somehow doable, if you really try. However, if you do not need to move around the city that much, please note that taxis are rather cheap if you avoid the rush hour where you pay for being stuck in the traffic. Just make sure that you are using the official taxis only and that your door is locked. In case you wanted to work out the public transport system, here‘s a piece by Valeria Garbin at Colture that has a go at explaining it.
While Bogotá still works on its metro system, Medellín already has one. And it’s a really good system that is connected with the three interconnected cable cars which transport people up to the hilly parts of the city, similar to Mi Teleférico in La Paz. It is very easy to use and orientate yourself around the city. You need to purchase a ticket at the station, obtain a local Oyster card and check in/check out. When you use up the credit, the card will stay in the machine.
How to get there
Both cities obviously have their own airports. Bogotá‘s El Dorado International Airport is obviously the busier of the two as well as more suitable when it comes to getting onward flights around the country. Medellín‘s José María Córdova International Airport however also has quite a few options to reach the inland destinations. To move between the two cities, you could take a 60-minute flight for €35+ flight. The approximately €20 bus ride would take 10-15hrs.
For getting in and out of the airports, I’ve personally used other means of transport but you could take a cab from the official taxi stands. As for more economical solutions, please note that in both cities there are options for using public transport for the journeys to and from the airports. Those are the TransMilenio buses that go from the airport to La Candelaria for just 2000,-COP €0,50, respectively Aeropuerto-Combuses which would take you to El Poblado for only 13 000,-COP (€2,90).
Sort of conclusion
To wrap it all up, let’s just say that objectively, Bogotá DC is rather incomparable to any other city in Colombia. It’s not that it’s just by far the largest city in the country, it also represents a place with much more influence and money. It is, therefore, more cosmopolitan and there’s far richer cultural options as well as restaurant and nightlife scenes. Furthermore, perhaps also because it is an older city than Medellín, it holds more historical landmarks as well as museums and places of interest for people that like educational attractions.
At the same time, Bogotá appears to be a rather underrated destination for tourists and IMHO it deserves much better than being a 2-4 days visit kind of place for a usual traveller. There’s so much to see, learn and experience in the Colombian capital but somehow it isn’t reflected in the city’s ratings with tourists. At the same time, I understand that the city could feel rather overwhelming for a first-timer. The best advice I’d have about visiting Bogotá is to have a friend there or grab a walking tour with locals to learn about this amazing city.
Medellín, on the other hand, feels far calmer and more relaxed than the country’s capital. It has also prettier settings, a better climate and more oxygen than Bogotá. The city enjoys its high popularity with travellers and digital nomads and regardless of whether or not this popularity is disproportionate to the country’s capital, it well deserves it. Attraction-wise, in spite of being more than 3 times smaller than Bogotá but it doesn’t offer 3 times fewer attractions, in other words, as there’s a lot to see/do in and around the city.
Overall, I’d say that if you were looking for culture, museums, art galleries and/or to learn about Colombia, head to the country’s capital. Medellín‘s tourism crowd divides into few areas of interest. Quite a lot of backpackers head here to party hard (there are various delivery services to nearly everything), others come to admire the nature and party a wee bit less. Make sure that you pick your hostel accordingly 😉 Then there are quite a large numbers of gringos who come here to take advantage of certain industries the city provides. You’ll see them hanging around Poblado with the professional female street workers…
To conclude on the comparison, I’d say that each city has something unique to offer and it only depends on your areas of interests as well as how you deal with the crazy buzz of a megacity. IMHO, rather than Bogotá vs Medellín, the whole comparison should be set more like Medellín vs Cali, which would be a much tighter competition of the second and third largest cities in the country that are more similar in size and local influence. Bogotá is just a different weight category.
Useful and interesting links
- Bogotá Safety: Joey Bonura writes for Bogotivo
- Understanding Public Transport in Bogotá: Valeria Garbin explains how to get around the capital city in Colture
- Medellín Safety: Flora Barker writes Colombia Reports
- Bogotá’s Events: Bogotá Post‘s listings
- Bogotá’s Events: 10 Times listings
- Medellín‘s Events: Medellín Guru‘s listings
- Colombian Civil War: click here to read about the complex conflict
- 2016 Peace Deal: Sibylla Brodzinsky writes for The Guardian about the historical deal
- Rolos or Cachacos: Origins of the Bogotanian nicknames explained by Daniela Trillos on Colture
Other possible destinations to visit in Colombia:
- Southern Colombia: Nariño Province, Popayán, Cali, Guaviare, Tatacoa Desert and many more
- Central Colombia: Villa de Lleyva, Ráquira and many more
- Caribbean Colombia: Santa Marta, Cartagena, Rincón del Mar, Necoclí and Capurganá and many more
Featured photo by Faber Leonardo on Unsplash