Ask a food blogger or chef about the world’s best cities for dining out, and chances are that Medellin, Colombia, is at the top of their list. Over the past decade, the South American metropolis has developed an energetic food and drink culture in which the U.S. dollar goes a long way.
Stroll through the upscale El Poblado district, and you’ll see locals salsa dancing in open-air taquerias or sipping anise-flavored aguardiente (liquor) at rooftop bars that look out onto the Andes mountain range.
Medellin’s culinary scene has blossomed in recent years thanks to homegrown chefs such as Juan Manuel Barrientos, who earned two Michelin stars for his Miami and Washington D.C. outposts of Elcielo, his modern fine-dining eatery that began in Colombia. He has been praised by Michelin for “deeply personal cooking that utilizes the bounty of fish, grains and tropical produce,” as well as creating "an intimate space for serious culinary sorcery.”
And at Medellin restaurants like his, other chefs are pushing boundaries with molecular gastronomy while honoring their country’s Indigenous cuisine.
High-End Experimental Dining at Elcielo
Medellin’s Elcielo encompasses more than just a five-star restaurant; the building also houses a sleek design hotel, a rooftop pool and bar, a sandy patio and an underground event space with a wine cellar. In the evening, diners sit down for a long list of “experiences” with playful visuals — these small bites may include everything from traditional corn crisps topped with edible flowers, gold foil and a cheese emulsion from the town of Paipa to soursop champagne and crab empanadas.
Chef Barrientos — known as “Juanma” — loves to put an imaginative spin on native products, such as by molding yucca bread into what looks like a sacred tree of life. Between plates, Elcielo offers eye-opening sensory “moments,” such as washing one’s hands in warm chocolate and coffee grounds; guests are encouraged to play with the sweet liquid and lick it from their fingers.
Exceptional Vegan Creations at Kai
Part of the Elcielo Hospitality Group, Kai is run by Juanma’s sister Sara Barrientos. Plant-based for decades, she puts her personal experience into inventive dishes that transcend standard vegan fare. The extensive menu even includes comfort foods such as burgers and nuggets (in forms ranging from jackfruit and lentils to mushrooms and black beans), which are so well-executed that meat-eaters are known to come back for more.
Try the pesto spaghetti with creamy cashew cheese and roasted vegetables — a mouthwateringly nuanced combination. And don’t miss out on the adjoining bakery that sells soft cookies, oat-milk ice cream and other vegan desserts.
Colombian Avocado at Agua Fresca Taqueria y Mezcaleria
Avocado lovers will be pleased to learn that the fruit is plentiful and delectable in Medellin. Colombia’s climate permits many varieties to grow year-round, including the native Lorena aguacate (avocado), which has a large, round silhouette and a smooth green peel. Many Medellin restaurants will let you order a side dish of avocado, scooped fresh and sprinkled with salt.
At Tulum-inspired Agua Fresca Taqueria y Mezcaleria, Lorena avocados are mashed into guacamole and topped with local microgreens, then served in a stone mortar with tortilla chips and a plethora of house-made sauces. The modern Mexican restaurant also serves fresh-milled corn tostadas and tacos piled with generous portions of creamy avocado.
Viche at Siete Pulgadas
Look for an unmarked door and listen for a DJ spinning electronica — it means you’ve arrived at Siete Pulgadas. Much of the tiny “listening bar" is taken up by an impressive sound system and stacks of rare vinyl records, which draw in a late-night hipster crowd. Siete Pulgadas is known for its craft cocktails made from viche, an Afro-Colombian liquor distilled from sugarcane. For hundreds of years, viche was illegal, as it was home-brewed and used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Since September 2021, this ancestral “moonshine” is allowed to be commercially produced and is used in cocktails such as viche sours with egg-white foam.
Small-Batch Coffee in Medellin Cafes
Colombia is famous for its coffee, which is the country’s third-largest export and has a distinct citrus, chocolate and nut flavor. Trek to Hacienda Santa Isabel farm in Fredonia, about a 1.5-hour drive from Medellin, to see how coffee is produced at high altitudes with the help of donkeys. Back in the city, sip on a cup of Arabica at La Fabrica, a roastery and co-working space that supports farmers who left the drug trade to grow coffee. Also, don't miss Pergamino, which has multiple locations and carries exclusive Colombian beans that you can get freshly ground and sealed to take home.