Medellin Vs. Cartagena – Choosing Your Colombian Adventure

Medellin vs Cartagena - comparison of which city is best to visit

Choosing between Medellín and Cartagena depends largely on what you’re seeking in your travel experience.

If you’re fascinated by a city’s transformative spirit, yearn for cultural immersion, and love exploring urban landscapes, Medellín’s vibrant scene is for you.

However, if you’re drawn to historical charm, desire a relaxing seaside getaway, and are intrigued by tales of colonial history, Cartagena’s enchanting atmosphere will captivate your heart. 

Regardless of your choice, both cities promise a unique, unforgettable Colombian adventure. We were so glad we were able to visit both!

From the vibrant life humming in the heart of the Andes to the soothing rhythms of the Caribbean Coast, Colombia remains a country of contrasting treasures.

With each city boasting its unique personality and distinctive allure, visitors often find themselves torn between two charismatic contenders: the innovative, vibrant city of Medellín, and the historic, sun-soaked gem of Cartagena.

Imagine a destination where lush, green mountains stand as natural skyscrapers, housing a city that hums with relentless energy and thrives on its innovative spirit.

This is Medellín, ‘The City of Eternal Spring,’ known for its delightful weather, cutting-edge urban development, and rich cultural canvas.

From salsa dancing nights to delicious street food, soaring cable cars to inspiring graffiti tours, Medellín offers a unique fusion of tradition and modernity that continues to captivate the hearts of its visitors.

In stark contrast, envision a place where time appears to have stood still, where cobblestone streets echo stories of pirates and colonial conquests, and pastel-colored buildings hold an air of time-honored elegance.

Welcome to Cartagena, ‘The Jewel of the Indies.’ As you explore the city’s ancient walled district, dine in gourmet restaurants, or simply relax on stunning beaches, you’ll find yourself enchanted by the city’s rich history and laid-back Caribbean charm.

The question, then, isn’t about which city is better — it’s about which city better suits your taste for adventure. So, if you find yourself undecided, fear not.

In this article, we’ll delve into the unique offerings of both Medellín and Cartagena— two captivating cities that beautifully embody the spirit of Colombia — to help you find your perfect Colombian destination.

Cartagena compared to Medellin, Colombia Travel

What You Can Expect When Visiting Medellin

Medellín, a city that once topped lists for all the wrong reasons, has undergone a transformation that embodies the resilience and tenacity of its people.

Today, it stands as a modern metropolis, offering an enticing blend of culture, innovation, and nature, sure to captivate the discerning traveler.

As you explore Medellín, the city’s reputation as a center of innovation is evident.

Marvel at the modern architecture that stretches towards the sky, weaving a narrative of progress in concrete and steel.

Don’t miss exploring the city’s integrated urban projects, including the expansive urban escalators in Comuna 13, or the metro cable car system offering panoramic views of the city.

Wander into the heart of El Poblado district, where you’ll find a vibrant mix of hip boutiques, art galleries, and some of the city’s finest restaurants and nightlife.

Medellín enjoys a mild climate year-round, with temperatures typically ranging between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

This comfortable weather is ideal for a leisurely exploration of its many parks and outdoor spaces, such as the Parque Explora, home to South America’s largest freshwater aquarium and very similar to the Exploratorium for those visiting San Francisco, or the lush Botanical Garden with its iconic Orchideorama structure.

But the city’s appeal isn’t limited to its urban offerings. Medellín is nestled in the Aburrá Valley, offering a wealth of adventure and nature right on its doorstep.

From paragliding over the city to hiking in the nearby Andes mountains, there is an abundance of outdoor activities to thrill any adventurer.

Only a short drive away, you’ll find the picturesque town of Guatapé, famous for its colorful houses and the massive rock monolith, El Peñón de Guatapé, offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Cartagena Vs. Medellin in Colombia

So, who is the ideal traveler for Medellín?

  1. The curious urban explorer who thrives on immersing themselves in a city’s vibrant culture and history, yet also appreciates the draw of nearby natural landscapes.
  2. The adventurous foodie seeking to discover a city’s flavor through its innovative cuisine and bustling food markets.
  3. The tech-savvy traveler intrigued by a city’s use of innovation to drive social change.

But, above all, Medellín is a city for those who can appreciate the beauty of a city’s transformation and the enduring spirit of its people

These are all of the characteristics of this modern city that we loved and want to highlight for those who want to visit Medellin.

For us, visiting this city was like reading an inspirational book. We were blown away by the dedication of its people to improve and innovate, to create and motivate.

Our visit left us feeling energized and charmed.

Quick note: While Medellin area allows you to explore mountain towns like Salento, Cartagena will give you access to coastal towns.

Medellin has more sights than Cartagena

What You Can Expect When Visiting Cartagena De Indias

Cartagena, affectionately referred to as ‘The Jewel of the Indies,’ is a city that captures hearts with its timeless charm, cultural richness, and stunning coastal beauty.

A visit to Cartagena is a journey back in time, an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of conquistadors, and a chance to lose oneself in the intoxicating rhythms of Caribbean life.

Cartagena’s cultural richness shines through in every aspect of the city’s life.

The sounds of Afro-Caribbean rhythms fill the air as you wander through vibrant markets, providing a pulsating soundtrack to your exploration.

The city is a haven for food lovers, where you can taste the diversity of Colombia’s culinary traditions, from fresh ceviche in upscale restaurants to hearty arepas sold by street vendors.

Throughout the year, Cartagena hosts numerous cultural festivals, including the renowned Cartagena International Music Festival and the International Film Festival, showcasing the city’s commitment to celebrating and preserving its unique cultural heritage.

Medellin Attractions vs. Cartagena Colombia

No visit to Cartagena is complete without appreciating its coastal beauty.

The city basks in its privileged location on the Caribbean Sea, boasting golden beaches and sparkling turquoise waters.

Just off the coast, the idyllic Rosario Islands offer a perfect day-trip getaway, Like the islands near Playa Del Carmen, for sunbathing, snorkeling, and diving in the coral-rich waters.

The city’s sunsets are the stuff of legends, providing the perfect backdrop to an evening cocktail on a beachside cabana or a rooftop bar in the old city.

However, it’s Cartagena’s historical charm that leaves a lasting impression.

The walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a living museum adorned with colonial architecture, imposing churches, and grand plazas.

Walking through its narrow, cobbled streets amidst colorful balconied houses is like stepping back in time, as tales of pirates and Spanish galleons come to life. It reminded us a lot of our visit to New Orleans.

So, who is the ideal traveler for Cartagena?

  1. The history buffs seeking to immerse themselves in the narratives of a bygone era.
  2. The beach lovers who crave a blend of sun, sea, and sand with a dash of Caribbean charm.
  3. The culture enthusiasts eager to dive into the rich tapestry of local music, art, and cuisine in this colonial city.
Cartagena attractions vs. Medellin

Above all, Cartagena is a city for the romantics – those who find joy in moonlit walks on ancient walls, or who revel in the soft glow of a Cartagena sunset, totally different than the sunsets in Yosemite, reflecting off pastel-colored buildings.

Here, in this city of timeless allure, every traveler finds a piece of themselves amidst its historical streets and captivating shores.

We initially approached Cartagena with a fair share of skepticism, expecting to encounter just another overly-touristy destination with a predictable slate of attractions.

Yet, from the moment we set foot on its cobbled streets, we found ourselves utterly charmed by its magic.

Cartagena is a city that knows how to surprise and enchant, elegantly merging its historical charm with a vibrant, modern sensibility.

Each day unveiled a new gem to us, whether it was a secluded sun-dappled courtyard or an artist’s hideaway.

The seafood, arguably some of the best we’ve ever had, was a revelation, with local chefs transforming the ocean’s bounty into culinary masterpieces that exploded with flavor.

Yet, what truly won us over were the unique activities that let us experience Cartagena beyond the usual tourist path.

Considerations For Comparing Medellin And Cartagena

In the forthcoming section, we’ll dive deep into the heart of this decision, unraveling the nuances of each city that could sway your choice.

From the mild, spring-like weather of Medellín to the tropical heat of Cartagena, the budget considerations for each destination, the vibrant nightlife, tantalizing culinary scene, and the rich tapestry of history and culture that underpin both cities.

We’ll also address the all-important question of safety, giving you a comprehensive understanding of what each city offers. 

Comuna 13 views 1

1. History And Culture Offered By Medellin Compared To Cartagena

Both Medellín and Cartagena offer a wealth of history and culture for visitors to explore, yet the character and experiences each city provides are distinct.

In Cartagena, the city’s history is on vivid display within its iconic walled city.

With its beautifully preserved colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and grand plazas, Cartagena feels like a step back in time.

Walking around in Cartagena was like walking around in an open museum for us!

This city was one of Spain’s important ports during the colonial period, a history you can delve into at sites like the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a formidable fortress, or the Palace of the Inquisition, now a museum detailing darker aspects of the city’s past.

Cartagena’s culture, unlike Medellín, is deeply influenced by Afro-Caribbean traditions, evident in its music, dance, and cuisine, making it a vibrant, sensory destination.

Once infamous as the stronghold of Pablo Escobar, Medellin has made remarkable strides in transforming its image.

Visitors today find a city committed to innovation, progress, and social integration. The transformation is particularly apparent in neighborhoods like Comuna 13.

In essence, choosing between Cartagena and Medellín is about choosing between two different types of historical and cultural experiences.

Cartagena offers a vibrant journey through colonial history and Afro-Caribbean culture, while Medellín provides a compelling narrative of transformation and resilience, grounded in Paisa traditions yet looking firmly towards the future.

2. Which City Has Better Weather? 

One key factor when planning your vacation to either Medellín or Cartagena is the weather, as it can greatly affect your overall experience.

Medellín, aptly known as the “City of Eternal Spring”, enjoys a moderate and consistent climate throughout the year due to its high altitude.

Temperatures typically range between 60°F (15°C) to 85°F (29°C) during the day, which makes it comfortable for exploring the city and its surroundings at any time of the year.

Evenings can be cooler, so we recommend to carry a light jacket or sweater.

It’s worth noting that Medellín does have a rainy season (April to May and September to November), but showers are usually brief and shouldn’t significantly disrupt your plans.

While exploring Medellin, we felt that the weather was very comfortable and allowed us to be out all day long without any distractions.

It was nice not needing an airconditioner turned on in the hotel or the car and to be able to enjoy the fresh air with open windows.

Contrary to Medellin, Cartagena is a tropical coastal city, and as such, it has a hot and humid climate.

Average temperatures hover around 88°F (31°C) year-round, and the city experiences high humidity, which can make it feel even warmer.

We visited during May and can say that it was unbearably hot and humid during the day. So much so that we avoided being outside between 11am and 4pm!

Cartagena’s weather has two seasons: a dry season (December to April) and a wet season (May to November), with the latter marked by short, intense rain showers, usually in the afternoon or at night.

From what we understand from talking to locals, you don’t want to be visiting Cartagena in November!

If you enjoy the heat, beach activities, and don’t mind a bit of humidity, Cartagena’s tropical weather will suit you.

Just make sure you pack the right beach accessories, especially if going with toddlers.

But, if you prefer milder temperatures, less humidity, and are keen on outdoor urban and nature activities, Medellín’s pleasant, spring-like climate might be a better choice. 

Medellin Things To Do vs. Cartagena

3. Safety In Cartagena Vs Medellin

Safety is a significant consideration for any traveler, and when comparing Medellín and Cartagena, it’s important to note that both cities have made significant strides in increasing safety and reducing crime over the years.

Cartagena is widely recognized as one of the safest cities in Colombia, particularly in the tourist-friendly areas like the walled city (Ciudad Amurallada), Getsemaní, and Bocagrande.

These areas are heavily patrolled and well-lit at night, making them comfortable for visitors to explore.

However, like any city, there are neighborhoods that may be less safe, especially after dark, and it’s always recommended to stay alert, avoid flashing valuable items, and be aware of your surroundings.

Our tour guide said something that is both funny and depicts the level of comfort for us when we were in Cartagena with our little one. He said that Cartagena is 90% safe.

The other 10% are the potholes and sidewalk hazards that you have to watch out for as well as the fast moving cars that never stop for pedestrians (although, we were surprised how many actually did stop for us!).

Medellín, once notorious for high crime rates in the 80s and 90s (it was the worlds 2nd most dangerous city), has made remarkable progress in transforming itself into a safer, more welcoming city.

Areas popular with tourists such as El Poblado and Laureles are generally considered safe, with a noticeable police presence and plenty of lively public spaces.

We made sure to keep our cell phone out of sight when walking around in the streets.

Another thing we paid attention to was where we placed our belongings when dining in restaurants, making sure they are not easily grabbable.

That said, we found that size doesn’t always dictate the feeling of safety.

Despite our usual inclination towards smaller destinations, Medellín, with its sprawling cityscape, was a pleasant surprise.

Yes, it is a big city and carries the energy and complexity that comes with that.

Still, our experiences in Medellín were overwhelmingly positive, and we felt quite safe navigating its streets, even with a child in tow.

The city has transformed itself remarkably over the years and has developed a strong focus on family-friendly spaces and activities.

Parks like Parque Explora and Parque Arví, and the interactive EPM Library, made our family exploration both exciting and comfortable.

Activities in Medellin compared

4. Attractions Medellin Offers Compared To Cartagena

The attractions and activities offered by Medellín and Cartagena cater to different interests and adventure levels, providing unique experiences that define each city.

Medellín, nestled in the Aburrá Valley, is an urban explorer’s dream, with a striking skyline and vibrant neighborhoods each boasting their own character.

You can ride the city’s modern metro and cable car system, not only for transportation but for panoramic views of the city and its surrounding hills.

Medellin Things To Do:

  1. The botanical garden, with its stunning orchid collection,
  2. Parque Explora, a family-friendly science museum with South America’s largest freshwater aquarium, are must-visit spots. From where we were staying it was an easy cab ride away. The day we spent there gave us all something special to remember from Medellin. We loved the views and seeing how much fun our little one was having exploring all of the interactive diplays.
  3. Outdoor enthusiasts can venture into the nearby Andean forests for hikes, bird watching, and visits to coffee farms.
  4. Explore street art in Comuna 13
  5. Visit the Museum of Antioquia where several Fernando Botero sculptures are displayed
Parque Explora aquarium in MEdellin

We enjoyed taking group tours that took us through Comuna 13 and Plaza Botero because we didn’t have to worry about transportation and we learned a lot from our guides.

Seeing the valley and skyline of Medellin below while drifting in the sky with birds hovering above was a magical scene!

Cartagena, on the other hand, entices visitors with its coastal allure and historical charm.

The old walled city, with its maze of colorful colonial buildings and plazas, is perfect for leisurely exploration.

Cartagena Things To Do:

  1. You can visit the impressive Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
  2. Stroll around the historic Getsemaní neighborhood on a walking tour
  3. Explore the Palace of Inquisition for a historical deep-dive
  4. Boat trips to the nearby Rosario Islands, and water sports like snorkeling and scuba diving.
  5. For a unique experience, we highly recommend a dip in the Volcan del Totumo, a mud volcano believed to have therapeutic properties

If you seek a blend of urban exploration, outdoor activities, and contemporary culture, Medellín’s tourist attractions are tailored for you.

If you’re drawn towards a coastal destination with a rich historical backdrop, lively culture, and beach activities, Cartagena would be an ideal choice.

Activities in Cartagena compared

5. Restaurants & Food Options Available

When it comes to culinary experiences, both Medellín and Cartagena provide an array of enticing options, though with different focal points reflecting their geographic and cultural differences.

Medellin Colombian food, rooted in Paisa tradition, offers food lovers the chance to explore the hearty and homely cuisine of the Antioquia region.

Bandeja paisa, a platter filled with beans, rice, pork, beef, plantains, and topped with a fried egg, is a must-try staple.

For the adventurous foodies, Medellín’s evolving food scene offers innovative restaurants where traditional ingredients meet international techniques, often in hip settings within the trendy districts.

Our favorite restaurants in Medellin:

  • Naan – for authentic Indian cuisine
  • Restaurante Cuon – for upscale and unique dishes
  • La Matriarca – for great local dishes
Indian restaurant in Medellin

Meanwhile, Cartagena, perched on the Caribbean Sea, excels in fresh seafood dishes and tropical flavors.

Ceviche, fresh fish, and coconut rice are mainstays on restaurant menus, showcasing the city’s coastal bounty.

Within the city’s walled old town, you’ll find numerous upscale restaurants serving exquisite fusion and international cuisine in beautiful colonial-era buildings, making dining not just about the food but also about the atmosphere.

We made sure to get our fix of seafood while in Medellin, including trying out a couple of sushi restaurants.

Here are some of our favorite places to eat in Cartagena:

  • Buena Vida Marisquería – Best seafood and fun vibe
  • Masaki Sushi – Best sushi
  • La Mulata – unique and delicious

If you lean towards hearty, traditional meals, and innovative cuisine, Medellín is your city.

If fresh seafood, tropical flavors, and dining in picturesque settings are more your speed, Cartagena won’t disappoint. 

Food in Cartagena vs. Medellin

6. Nightlife Compared

Medellín is renowned for its pulsating nightlife, with options to suit every preference, even bachelor parties.

Zona Rosa and the Parque Lleras area in El Poblado district are known for their bustling bars, clubs, and cafes, where you can find everything from electronic music to live bands playing traditional Colombian rhythms.

Cartagena, on the other hand, offers a more laid-back, romantic vibe. As the sun sets, the walled city comes alive with people gathering in plazas for al fresco dining and impromptu dancing.

The Getsemaní neighborhood is a great place to experience Cartagena’s nightlife, with colorful street murals providing the backdrop for lively bars and dance clubs playing a mix of Caribbean music.

Cartagena’s beach clubs and rooftop bars, many with stunning views of the Caribbean Sea, offer a more upscale night out.

For a fast-paced, high-energy nightlife with plenty of options, Medellín is the city for you.

If a more relaxed, romantic, and picturesque night scene appeals to you, Cartagena would be the ideal choice. 

viewpoint of Medellin in Pueblito Paisa

7. Budget Comparison For Visiting

Medellín, being a larger city with a more diverse range of accommodations and dining options, can be a more budget-friendly choice for travelers.

Hostels and budget hotels can be found throughout the city, especially in popular areas like El Poblado and Laureles.

Eating out in Medellín can be quite affordable as well, with local markets and street food stalls offering delicious meals at low prices.

Public transportation, including the efficient metro system, is inexpensive, making it easy to explore this Colombian city on a budget.

In contrast, Cartagena, with its focus on tourism can be pricier.

The city’s walled old town, in particular, is filled with boutique hotels and upscale restaurants that reflect its historic charm but also come with a higher price tag.

However, budget travelers can still find more affordable accommodations and dining options, particularly in neighborhoods like Getsemaní.

Activities like beach visits can be enjoyed at little to no cost, and public buses, while not as modern as Medellín’s metro, provide a cheap way to get around.

Budget travelers who prioritize city exploration, cultural immersion, and access to nature might find Medellín a more suitable choice.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to spend a bit more for a beach-side, historic city with a romantic ambiance, Cartagena might be worth the extra expense.

It’s worth noting that we did notice a, somewhat significant, increase of quality for what you get in Medellin. We felt that it gave us more “bang for your buck.”

Cartagena church

8. Which One Is Better For Expat Living?

When choosing between Cartagena and Medellín as an expat destination in Colombia, several factors come into play.

Both cities have their unique allure and offerings that may appeal to different lifestyles and preferences.

Cartagena is an idyllic seaside city with a slower pace of life. Its romantic streets, historical charm, and beautiful beaches make it an attractive location for those seeking a laid-back lifestyle in a picturesque setting.

  • Pros:
    • The city’s compact size makes it easy to navigate and provides a tight-knit community feeling, ideal for expats who value close social connections
    • It’s also one of the most popular tourist destinations, which means plenty of opportunities in industries like hospitality, tourism, and teaching languages
  • Cons:
    • Cartagena’s tropical climate can get quite hot
    • Cost of living tends to be higher due to its appeal to tourists

On the other hand, in Medellín there’s an abundance of activities to engage in, from outdoor adventures to cultural events.

  • Pros:
    • Its neighborhood, El Poblado, is particularly popular among expats due to its safety, modern infrastructure, and variety of restaurants, bars, and shops.
  • Cons:
    • Medellín is a large city, and navigating its size and pace can be a challenge for some.

Our travels have led us to many places, but few have left such a lasting impression as Medellín.

We found ourselves drawn to the city’s vibrant energy, its perfect climate, and its welcoming people.

There’s a palpable sense of innovation and resilience that pulses through Medellín’s streets, reflecting a city that’s continuously evolving, yet deeply rooted in its history and culture.

Throughout our visit, we found ourselves envisioning what it would be like to be more than just tourists, to call this city our home.

The idea of weekend hikes in the nearby mountains, café-hopping in El Poblado, joining in the lively Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), and becoming part of the city’s thriving expat community became increasingly appealing.

living in Medellin as expats

9. Spanish Speaking Level Required For Each

In both Medellín and Cartagena, having a basic understanding of Spanish will significantly enhance your travel experience.

However, the level of English proficiency among locals and the reliance on Spanish can differ somewhat between the two cities.

Medellín, although increasingly popular among international travelers, still has a large portion of residents who are not fluent in English.

In many restaurants, shops, and tourist attractions, even the touristy El Poblado area, we encountered locals who primarily spoke Spanish.

Moreover, we appreciated that Paisas (people from Medellín and the surrounding region) are known for their clear and slow-paced Spanish, which makes it easier for beginners like us to understand and practice the language.

During our 2 weeks traveling in Colombia, our fist time in South America, our Spanish significantly improved thanks to them!

Cartagena, being a more established tourist destination, generally has more English-speaking locals, especially within the tourism industry and in the historical walled city where most tourists congregate.

In both cities, locals appreciate when visitors make an effort to speak Spanish, even if it’s just a few basic phrases.

Medellin public transportation ins better

10. Getting Around: Which One Is Easier?

Medellín boasts a modern and comprehensive public transportation system, considered one of the best in Latin America.

The city’s metro and cable car network make it easy to travel between different neighborhoods and to the surrounding hillside communities.

Buses, taxis, and ride-hailing services like Uber are also widely available.

Cartagena, on the other hand, is smaller and its main attractions are largely concentrated in the historic walled city and the Getsemaní district.

These areas are highly walkable, allowing visitors to easily explore on foot.

However, traffic can sometimes be congested in and around the city center.

In terms of accessibility, both cities cater to tourists and have the infrastructure to accommodate them.

If you appreciate a reliable public transit system and don’t mind covering larger distances, Medellín might be more appealing.

If you prefer exploring on foot and having most attractions within a short distance, then Cartagena could be the better choice.

Cartagena sunset and skyline

Comparison Results: Medellin Vs Cartagena

In an intriguing journey between two of Colombia’s greatest destinations, visitors grapple with the decision of choosing between Medellín and Cartagena for their vacation.

Both cities offer surprising aspects, promising first-time visitors an experience that’s bound to exceed expectations.

In Medellin visitors thrive on immersing themselves in the city’s culture and history, as well as its innovative transformation narrative.

Medellín’s mild climate makes exploring this metropolis comfortable throughout the year.

In terms of costs, it’s generally more budget-friendly compared to Cartagena, making it a great choice for cost-conscious travelers.

The city doesn’t hold back on activities, from vibrant street art tours to hikes in the surrounding mountains. It also boasts an energetic nightlife, ensuring a diverse array of experiences.

On the other hand, Cartagena’s appeal lies in its cultural richness and historical charm.

Its white sand beaches and turquoise waters cater to those seeking a tropical getaway, while the old city is an ideal backdrop for a romantic evening stroll.

Seafood lovers will be delighted by the fresh catch of the day served in numerous restaurants. Despite being a bit pricier, Cartagena offers an experience that is well worth the cost.

Both Medellín and Cartagena have a lot to offer and are sure to leave visitors in this part of South America awestruck.

Ultimately, the choice depends on what type of traveler you are and what experiences you seek on your journey.

Use our favorite travel resources to help you plan your trip:

Medellin vs Cartagena De Indias Pin

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Hi! We’re Rob and Taiss. We set off to live a life in as many places as possible. To actually live in locations around the world long enough to get to know the locals, the culture, and the food, not just a taste of it.
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