The colonial cities in Mexico were built on the backs of sorrow and silver. Gobs and gobs of silver.
So much silver that the mines supplied more than a third of the world’s silver.
The riches went to building lavish mansions, fountains, cathedrals, theaters, statues and monuments. And for three centuries, the Spanish in Mexico lived in grand splendor in gorgeous cities.
On one six-week trip, we explored colonial Mexico for a change, and we visited some of the most beautiful and best colonial Mexican cities.
Recommended reading: See our ultimate Mexico travel guide!
Colonial cities in Mexico
By way of background, colonial Mexico dates back to 1521 (or earlier, depending on your take on history).
But after Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs in 1521, Spanish adventurers fanned out in the Mexican heartland, seeking to make their fortunes from precious metals.
Gold was found, but silver was the real winner. And a necklace of silver mining cities quickly sprang up.
Not surprisingly, they’re some of the best cities in Mexico to visit today. Their historical centers are often UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
As for the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico, put the following on your bucket list.
1) San Miguel de Allende
Let’s start with San Miguel de Allende.
It’s probably the most best-known Mexican colonial city to Canadians and Americans (it has a large expat community).
With its tangle of cobblestone streets, high-end art galleries, cornucopia of restaurants and gorgeous colonial mansions and courtyards hidden behind big wooden doors, San Miguel de Allende is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico.
Little wonder that that Architectural Digest, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and The New York Times have all raved about this fairytale town…
Recommended reading: Check out the best things to do in San Miguel de Allende
Oaxaca city is best known for its vibrant market scene, diverse indigenous peoples and colonial buildings made of green volcanic stone.
One of the most popular indoor markets, Mercado Benito Juarez sells everything from freshly ground coffee beans to woven baskets.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre focuses on arts and crafts, including embroidered blouses and hand-crafted leather sandals.
Beyond the markets, the 16th century Baroque-style Templo de Santo Domingo church is an extraordinarily beautiful church with a monastery-turned-museum.
Other great Oaxaca tours and activities include cooking classes (Oaxaca is a foodie city!) and visiting the ruins of Mitla in the Teotitlan de Valle area.
Merida is the perfect Mexican colonial city to visit before or after a beach holiday in Cancun or the Riviera Maya. (It’s a 3- to 3½-hour drive from Cancun.)
Tree-lined streets are lined with 16th century mansions, opulent churches and pretty pink and mint green houses.
Haciendas have been turned into charming boutique hotels.
And classical concerts and theater thrive.
Merida is also known for its foodie scene.
Markets overflow with juicy oranges and other Mexican fruits and veggies, and cooking classes are popular.
Round out your Mexican vacay with a foray into Mayan culture. Merida is only 75 miles away from Chichen Itza, one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Guanajuato is just over an hour’s drive away from San Miguel de Allende (#1 above).
A university town, Guanajuato is younger and more Mexican in feel than San Miguel de Allende, and it has far fewer foreign visitors.
The main part of the historic center is pedestrian-only, so you can walk freely about the tree-filled plazas, small museums, churches and the Teatro Juarez (a magnificent theater dating back to 1873).
Cars are relegated to driving underneath the city through an amazing network of one-way tunnels. This makes the city very pedestrian-friendly.
Mexico is known for its acceptance and celebration of death (witness its Day of the Dead festivities).
And Guanajuato is no stranger to this fascination with death.
One of its claims to fame is the bizarre Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, showcasing more than 100 mummies behind glass cases.
We also took in lots of cool art at the Diego Rivera Museum, home to the famous Mexican muralist and painter (and Frida Kahlo’s husband and lover).
Located in southern central Mexico, Puebla was founded in 1531 as a stopping place for Spaniards traveling between the port city of Veracruz and Mexico City.
Today, the historical center overflows with Baroque churches; many houses are decorated on the inside and out with bright blue-and-yellow azulejo tiles.
This is also the place to pick up some colorful Talavera pottery.
Known as the “city of silver” for the wealth of its local silver mines, the colonial city of Taxco is one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos.”
Perched high on a hillside, with possibly the steepest streets in Mexico, it’s jam-packed with a great variety of opulent white mansions and houses.
What to do in Taxco?
Check out the view from Cristo Rey, the giant Christ statue looming above the city.
And shop for silver. Dozens of shops sell beautiful silver jewelry (make sure to get “real” silver from the area).
The taxis in Taxco are fun to ride around in too – they’re all vintage Volkswagen beetles.
Catch one while you can, as unfortunately they may soon be gone.
Also one of the best cities in Mexico to visit, tranquil Queretaro is located about a two-hour drive north of Mexico City.
Its colonial center is full of twisting alleys with restored colonial homes, Baroque churches and parks.
Top sights in Queretaro include La Casa de la Marquesa (an 18th century palace), the Gothic-Baroque cathedral and the Queretaro Regional Museum (housed in a monastery).
The capital of Mexico’s Michoacan state, Morelia is very authentic – a real non-touristy city.
Within its colonial heart (an area some 17 by 10 blocks), the city has over 200 historical buildings with Baroque and neo-classical facades.
There’s modern street art too.
The sculptor of one bronze sculpture of a huge head on its side didn’t name it so you’d use your imagination when looking at it.
Morelia is also known for its candy – yes, we indulged (the coconut sweets were our favorite).
Morelia is also the prime jumping-off spot for an expedition into the nearby Sierra Madre mountains to view thousands upon thousands of Monarch butterflies in the UNESCO-listed butterfly sanctuaries.
Each year, the butterflies endure a remarkable migration from Eastern Canada and the U.S. to Mexico.
They breed and spend the winter in patches of Oyamel fir forests (at a breath-sucking elevation of 10,000 feet high), about a three-hour drive from Morelia.
One day, we hiked and rode caballitos (small horses) up to the Chincua Sanctuary, where we were surrounded by orange-and-black Monarchs.
When clouds skittered overhead, they would fly to the tree branches to huddle together in huge beehive-like clumps to stay warm.
9) San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas is set high in a valley, 7,000 feet above sea level, in the lush state of Chiapas.
Surrounded by pine-forested mountains, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico.
Of course, there are churches to see, like the beautiful pink Templo Santo Domingo.
And museums and markets.
And pedestrian-friendly cobblestone streets with boho cafés and lovely colonial buildings.
On the outskirts of the city, you can visit indigenous villages like Zinacantan for hand-made textiles.
The surrounding countryside is full of natural wonders too – don’t miss a day trip to the El Chiflon Wateralls.
Tip: Bring a sweater with you to San Cristobal de las Casas! The air is fresh and you’ll be sleeping under blankets at this cooler elevation.
Just south of Mexico City, you find Cuernavaca.
Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring” for its year-round warm weather and verdant gardens, Cuernavaca is a popular weekend destination for wealthy residents of Mexico City.
The Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes built himself an imposing palace here.
The Palacio de Cortes now houses Cuernavaca’s museum, the Museo Regional Cuauhnahuac, which includes an enormous mural by Diego Rivera.
The city is also home to the Robert Brady Museum (with fine arts collected by American artist and millionaire, Robert Brady), the Borda Gardens (once Emperor Maximilian’s summer house), magnificent mansions with iron-railed balconies and fine restaurants.
Pirates and plunder. Two things that plagued Campeche after it was founded by the Spanish in 1540.
Pirates would flock to the port city to steal the Spanish riches and treasure for themselves. So the Spanish built a wall in the 17th century to protect the city.
Today, several museums are housed in the still-standing bastions of the wall. Inside the wall, you find more than 2,000 historic buildings, many painted in rainbow colors of purple, pumpkin, pink, mustard and blue.
As with all of the colonial towns in Mexico, wandering the storied streets is one of the most pleasant pastimes.
And to eat? Well, being by the sea, Campeche is the place to gobble up seafood.
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Photo credits: 3, 7, 12, 13, 14, 22, 23, 25 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase