I had my doubts about Medellin. Next time someone says "most dangerous city on Earth", I'll pull a machine gun on them - that spurious claim was made more than a quarter of a century ago, in Time magazine, in March 1988.

Like Bogota and Santiago de Cali, Medellin is a much wealthier, safer and more fashionable city these days, and its year-round summery climate, nearby forests and bird reserves and, indeed, the fact that it hasn't been backpackered into oblivion - unlike Cusco, say - make it a rather more desirable destination.

I was also dubious about claims that the city is the epitome of the "Colombian miracle" - shorthand for the quelling of violence of the left-wing Farc and paramilitary forces. Medellin has sizeable shanty towns, and the heavy presence of cops in the centre indicates that vigilance is vital to keeping up appearances.

See also: Medellin artist Fernando Botero talks to Fionnuala McHugh

On a balmy day in the zen-inspired, "interactive" Parque de los Pies Descalzos ("barefoot park"), however, I start to believe Colombia's second city might have something interesting to tell me after all.

It begins with me removing my shoes to stroll along a footpath of pebbles lined by guadua bamboo. The stones and slimy mud are soothing. Next, I walk out on to a lawn which, according to Adriana, my guide, "absorbs static energy". A group led by two of the park's official guides (provided free of charge) is hugging trees. Next comes a maze, which visitors are encouraged to cross with closed eyes, using only touch, sound and instinct. Finally I dip my legs into a cooling footbath.

"How much time do you dedicate in a whole week to your feet?" asks Adriana. "Consider all that they do for you."

This all takes place in the heart of the city, in the shadow of a utilities company building, for whose employees the park was originally created. With cafes and restaurants close by, it has become a focal point for workers as well as tourists.

Round the corner is an eco-árbol, a tree-like structure that purifies 22,000 cubic metres of air every hour by removing carbon dioxide and traffic toxins. Built by a company called ConTreeBute, it was developed with help from Italian engineers. When, in 2013, Medellin was hailed as the "most innovative city in the world" by the non-profit Urban Land Institute - beating New York and Tel Aviv to the title - its civic spaces were praised. The eco-tree and other urban installations around the city - such as the Orquideorama, a wooden meshwork of modular "flower-tree" structures in the botanical gardens - are part of this image rebuild.

Not that good old consumerism is in small supply. I am staying at striking United States-owned hotel The Charlee (surely an expat joke), in the leafy Parque Lleras area of El Poblado, an upscale residential district south of the centre. All around are independent boutiques and interiors stores, art supplies outlets, bars and clubs, loads of places to eat and even a Belgian coffee shop. I skip the sushi and ceviches and go to Mondongos for a bandeja paisa - an orgy of fried pork, beans, egg, black pudding, maize buns and plantain. It is a Saturday night, clubbing night, and the whole area is throbbing, despite torrential rain. The sheer bulk of my dinner precludes dancing.

El Poblado is lively and comfortingly middle class, but more interesting - and indigenous - is Comuna 1, a working-class suburb on the northeastern edge of the city that served as a recruiting ground for local drug lord Pablo Escobar. I travel there on Line K, part of the city's new cable-car network. From my little pod I survey a vast acreage of gimcrack houses and, beyond, the densely forested peaks of the mountains that surround Medellin.

At the top is the eye-catching and award-winning Parque Biblioteca España ("Spain library park"), an arts-cum-community centre funded by the Spanish government and opened by the king and queen of Spain in 2007. Inside I watch a play for children that makes them laugh while teaching them about hygiene. The artwork outside includes a mural by young artists celebrating last year's World Urban Forum. Another commemorates flood victims and past victims of violence in Comuna 1.

The smell of meat empanadas and roasting chicken mixes with the fresh mountain breezes blowing through this once disaffected, disconnected poverty-stricken sprawl. The journey to the barrio has been reduced from an hour or more on foot to 10 minutes by cable car; Comuna 1 belongs to Medellin now, and vice versa.

Artist Fernando Botero is known for paintings and sculptures of figures of exaggerated volume. He provides a useful commentary on Medellin's sense of self and the body. In the southwest corner of central Parque Berrío is Torso Femenino, a bronze sculpture of an inflated female form nicknamed La Gorda ("the fat lady") by locals. It was given to the city in 1987 - the first of many donations by Botero, who was born here in 1932. On nearby Botero Plaza are more of his bronzes - of men, women, a cat, a Roman soldier. Adriana says some of the sexier figures have become meeting points for couples: "Local men like voluptuous women."

In Plaza de San Antonio stand two bronze birds by Botero. At first they look similar but as you approach, you see that one is intact and the other is twisted and broken. In 1995, a bomb - planted allegedly by Farc militants - killed 23 people attending a concert and destroyed the statue. It has been left as a "homage to the barbarians". In 2000, Botero had an intact version of the sculpture placed in the park as a symbol of peace.

Under the tropical noonday sun, you can only do so much outdoors. I slip into the Museo de Antioquia (an art museum in which lots of Botero oil paintings hang) for a coffee - a good one. Colombians are beginning to take their best-known (legal) export seriously, training baristas and toasting the beans with care.

There is plenty more art here, if you want it. The Museo de Arte Moderno, located in a repurposed steel factory, has just opened a new wing to house a permanent display of Colombian artists, making it the largest in the country - and the city's vibrant art scene now rivals that of Bogota.

Medellin is also known for its textiles industry, which was established more than a century ago. In recent years this has developed into a fashion scene. El Poblado's Via Primavera (also called Carrera 37) is an open-air space for independent designers - especially those of shoes, leatherware and accessories - trying to tempt shoppers away from the huge malls that dominate the city. Local designer Camilo Alvarez, whose silky, summery couture opened last year's Colombiamoda (the country's biggest fashion show, held in Medellin), says, "The local paisa style is most evident in underwear and swimwear, sexy with a rich mix of textures."

The sea is many miles and quite a few Andean mountains away from Medellin, but the penchant for skimpy bikinis is of a piece with Botero's love of "voluminous" women.

Medellin says something original about regeneration and tourism. In future, perhaps other cities will invite visitors to feel and sense things, to meet people and learn about them, to visit the margins as well as the museums of the centre.

This is definitely not the most dangerous city in the world. It's not even the most dangerous city in Colombia - but it's almost certainly the most interesting and innovative one.

Getting there: American Airlines flies from Hong Kong to Dallas, then to Miami and on to Medellin.