The 10 best cities in Colombia (to travel to or live in!)
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What you’ve stumbled upon here is a round-up of what I consider the best cities in Colombia to travel to or live. Traditional, modern, tropical, cool, up in the mountains, down on the plains, full of fiestas, surrounded by nature – whatever you want, these spots have got it.
I’m not going to put the best cities in Colombia in any particular order, because it really depends on what you’re looking for. However, the main thing to take away from this list of best cities in Colombia is that there really is something for everyone!
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Medellín always tops the usual lists of best cities in Colombia for backpackers and expats alike, so why not start here since it’s the one you’ll be most expecting to see. With the second largest population of all the cities in Colombia, Medellín teems with energy, which coupled with the moderately hot (for a Brit…) climate makes it an obvious favourite.
What not to miss in Medellín: learning about Colombia’s difficult past on a Comuna 13 tour, seeing the iconic sculptures in Plaza Botero, hiking around Parque Arvi and partying around Parque Lleras or La 70.
Well, I make no effort to cover up the fact that this is hands down my favourite of the best cities in Colombia. This is where I spent the majority of my 9 months in Colombia, using the capital as my home base to feel a little more settled when I started to crave a bit of normalcy.
However, I always say that this is an amazing city in Colombia to live, but not always the best to visit. The weather is mild, rainy season is heavy and safety in certain barrios is sketchy (to be fair, there isn’t a single one of these cities in Colombia that doesn’t have bad barrios), but once you get the hang of Bogotá it starts to feel like home real quick. I love slipping into the hustle and bustle of the city, and enjoying a very normal, everyday life without sticking out too much.
This city is famous across Latin America for the huuuuge Barranquilla Carnival that takes place 4 days prior to Ash Wednesday (usually end of February or beginning of March), as well as being the childhood home of Shakira. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a powerhouse for the freight and service industries, and fairly affluent in places.
You can’t miss coming into Barranquilla from the East (like Santa Marta), as you’ll go over the sizeable Pumarejo bridge that crosses over an island of the Magdalena river.
Where to stay during a visit to Barranquilla: bh Barranquilla is the height of modern comfort, but Hotel Casa Colonial offers something typical that for history-lovers shouldn’t be missed. Note that around the time of Barranquilla Carnival, you’ll need to book your accommodation as far in advance as possible.
What not to miss in Barranquilla: going back in time at the yellow castle of Salgar, partying the night away at La Troja, chill at Coco Beach (access via the beautiful GHL Collection Hotel), touring the Carnival Museum if you don’t make it for carnival itself.
The jewel of the Caribbean coast! Aside from its stunning nearby islands (such as Isla Grande and Isla Barú), the urban areas of Cartagena itself bring enough excitement to your eyeballs to last you a lifetime. It’s definitely one of the best cities in Colombia for history-lovers, as the walled centre provides blocks upon blocks of traditional colonial houses and gorgeous cathedrals in all sorts of colours.
Being on the coast, fish is a regular on typical menus, as well as the Colombian-Caribbean-style coconut rice which is to die for. Its popularity with foreigners means things do get a bit more expensive in the centre, and you have to be a bit more aware of cheeky tourist traps, but overall a visit to Cartagena is always an incredible experience.
This one is deep in the Colombia’s Zona Cafetera (or coffee zone). For those who love to wake up surrounded by lush, green mountains but can’t leave the excitement of urban life behind, Pereira is a great option. It’s known for having pretty good nightlife, lots of shopping malls and a very low cost of living for a city that has it all. Pereira is perhaps not an amazing place to visit as a tourist, but it’s a hot topic for digital nomads and expats.
With only about half a million inhabitants, Pereira is one of the smallest of the best cities in Colombia. If you don’t want to get out of the city to visit some authentic coffee-producing towns (such as Filandia), you can spend a day in Pereira’s ode to coffee plantations, Parque del Cafe, instead.
Where to stay during a visit to Pereira:Zentrico provides stunning yet cheap accommodation in the city, whilst Sazagua Hotel is there for all of your green wilderness vibes.
A growing contender in the best cities in Colombia for backpackers, Santa Marta is a beautiful place. Despite always feeling like it’s full of people busily getting about their day, it still manages to feel chilled compared to the tourism hub of Cartagena. Key to its popularity is the fact that it’s a jump-off point for lots of the best things to do in Colombia, such as the Lost City Trek and visiting the town of Minca.
Santa Marta is a little rough around the edges, but aren’t all of the best cities in Colombia? It’s all part of the experience of living and travelling in this crazy country.
Just a few hours East of Bogotá, Villavicencio provides respite from the big city smog. Known as la puerta al llano or ‘the gateway of the plans’, it sits right on the eastern edge of the Andes mountains and has the climate of a tropical rainforest.
It’s famous for its beer-marinated veal (mamona a la llaner) and Cristo Rey statue, but the real fun in Villavicencio starts when you leave the city to explore the plains. It’s a great place for hiking in Colombia.
What not to miss in Villavicencio: some of these walking routes, tasting dishes from the plains, a tour of the many statues and monuments of the city.
Whether it’s climate or dancing you’re after, Cali brings the heat! The capital of salsa has solidified itself as one of the best cities in Colombia to travel or live by always keeping things exciting. It’s an incredibly vibrant city with maze-worthy fruit markets and lots of architectural beauty in the old town.
The year-round swelter can be a bit to handle if you’ve just come down from the lofty heights of the Andes, but the experience of travelling to or living in Cali is worth every bead of sweat!
This is known as the ‘white city’, owing to the number of buildings painted white from Colombia’s colonial era.
For hikers, this area is exciting for the Puracé Volcano, which can be climbed either with a tour ot independently, and history-lovers will love Popoyán’s Natural History Museum, and should not miss a day trip to the pre-Columbian chambers of Parque Arqueológico Nacional de Tierradentro. The indigenous market on Tuesdays will excite culture-seekers.
Where to stay during a visit to Popoyán: Hostal Antonio is a backpacker fave, but you can find some really reasonably-priced hotels here, such as Altoprado Popoyán.
What not to miss in Popoyán: walking Puracé National Park, climbing Volcán Puracé, taking an historical city tour, gawping at the ancient murals of Tierradentro, shopping at the indigenous market.
All-in-all, this is one of the cleanest-feeling cities in Colombia in my opinion, and it’s no surprise that it has the reputation of being the country’s prettiest. It’s ultimately a university destination, and it just has a really enjoyable vibe. Students gather outside small bars and parks to listen to music and drink at the weekend.
Where to stay during a visit to Bucaramanga: enjoy the convivial vibes of Zamia Hostel or sunbathe next to the more affluent section of Colombian holidaymakers in Sonesta Hotel.
What not to miss in Bucaramanga: visiting the nearby heritage pueblo of Girón (below), drinking cocktails with a view at SkyBar, getting a cable car to the Jesus statue on Cerro del Santísimo, hiking out to Piedecuesta waterfall.
While much lesser visited, Valledupar makes it into this list of best cities in Colombia due to its Amerindian influences, vallenato folk music and the relaxing fun to be had at the nearby Guatapurí river and in the surrounding countryside.
It’s not just Barranquilla that holds big festivals; Valledupar is the home of the Vallenato Legend music festival in April and La Quinta cultural festival, as well as being super close to the Brazilian-style carnival of Rio de Oro in March.
What not to miss in Valledupar: chillaxing with locals at the Guatapurí river (especially on Friday afternoons), seeking out vallenato music, visit the indigenous village of Nabusimake (please be selective in finding an ethical, small-group guide).
And there are my top 10 best cities in Colombia to either travel to or live in! Big shout-out to anyone who manages to make it round to all ten; that’s one way to guarantee you get a diverse view of the country!
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