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The 11 most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico

Please only travel when it’s safe to do so.

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.

Colonial Cities in Mexico
Queretaro, one of the prettiest colonial cities in Mexico

We visit Mexico often – especially Cabo San Lucas for beach holidays.

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.

A panoramic view of Guanajuato, one of the best colonial cities in Mexico
Guanajuato (one of the Mexican colonial towns we visited) was the richest city in Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries

Pueblo Magico

Many of the colonial cities in Mexico are Pueblo Magicos or “magic towns.”

These are cities and villages to which Mexico has assigned Pueblo Magico status for their “magical” qualities” – be it their rich history, artistic culture, beautiful architecture or natural landscape.

Take Pena de Bernal. The monolithic rock that towers over the town is said to have mystical healing powers.

Papantla, another Pueblo Magico, is home to flying dancers that swing around the top of a 100-foot high pole.

There are currently more than 120 Pueblos Magicos in Mexico.

As for the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico, put the following on your bucket list.

1) San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is a particularly popular destination for American expats

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).

San Miguel de Allende is a jewel of a town
San Miguel de Allende is a jewel of a town

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 TravelerTravel + Leisure and The New York Times have all raved about this fairytale town…

The pink Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel
The pink parish church is San Miguel’s most famous sight

Recommended reading: Check out the best things to do in San Miguel de Allende

2) Oaxaca

A little Oaxacan indigenous girl in local costume
A little Oaxacan indigenous girl in local costume

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.

The markets of Oaxaca are particularly famous for the intricate textiles, woven products and emboidery on sale.
The markets of Oaxaca are particularly famous for the intricate textiles, woven products and emboidery on sale

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.

3) Merida

With a tropical climate, Merida feels different from many other colonial cities in Mexico
With a tropical climate, Merida feels different from many other colonial cities in Mexico

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.

A cafe in Merida
A cafe in Merida

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.

4) Guanajuato

Guanajuato is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico!

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).

Guanajuato’s Teatro Juarez is topped by eight bronze statues of the Greek muses

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.

Cars drive through a maze of tunnels underneath Guanajuato's historic center.
Cars drive through a maze of tunnels underneath Guanajuato’s historic center

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).

5) Puebla

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.

Want a cheerful Talavera frog pot?
Want a cheerful Talavera frog pot?

This is also the place to pick up some colorful Talavera pottery.

6) Taxco

Look at the jumble of white houses in Taxco!
Look at the jumble of white houses in Taxco!

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.

With its pretty white-washed houses and churches, Taxco is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico
With its pretty white-washed houses and churches, Taxco is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico

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).

Taxco, one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico, is known for its lovely silver.
You’ll be in silver heaven when visiting Taxco

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.

7) Queretaro

Queretaro is an enchanting colonial Mexican city
Queretaro is another enchanting colonial Mexican city

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).

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Queretaro, Mexico, was made for wandering around its colonial streets.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Queretaro was made for exploring its colonial streets

8) Morelia

Morelia Cathedral
The baroque cathedral in Morelia is one of Mexico’s most majestic

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.

The sculptor didn't name this large bronze statue in Morelia so people would use their imagination when looking at it
Hmmm. What name would you give to this sculpture?

Morelia is also known for its candy – yes, we indulged (the coconut sweets were our favorite).

Tamarind candy for sale in the candy market in Morelia
Tamarind candy for sale in the candy market in Morelia

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.

Monarch butterflies migrate to the mountains near Morelia

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.

Monarch butterflies alight on pink thistles in Chincua Sanctuary in Mexico
Monarch butterflies alight on pink thistles in the Chincua Sanctuary

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.

Women in Chiapas wearing gorgeous embroidered shawls

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.

A market in San Cristobal, Mexico
A market in San Cristobal

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.

Waterfalls, museums, great shopping for embroidery - San Cristobal is one of the best cities to visit in Mexico!
The El Chiflon Waterfalls make for a lovely day trip from San Cristobal

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.

10) Cuernavaca

Oh, the delightful fountains you see in Cuernavaca!

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.

In the 1950s and 60s, Hollywood celebrities like Gary Cooper had holiday homes in the lush city of Cuernavaca

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.

Built by a wealthy miner, the Borda Gardens in Cuernavaca, Mexico, even boast an interior lake
Built by a wealthy miner, the Borda Gardens even boast an interior lake

11) Campeche

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.

Pirates, plunder, treasure – Campeche has  storied past.
Pirates, plunder, treasure – Campeche has a storied past

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.

When in Campeche, eat seafood.
When in Campeche, eat seafood

Experience more of Mexico!

Read our posts on:

Cabo San Lucas | From whale watching to hiking up the Pedregal, check out these 25 epic things to do in Los Cabos.

Zihuatanejo | Want a great beach vacay? See the best beaches in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa.

Mexico City | Fabulous museums. Gorgeous art. A rich historical center. There are oodles of cultural activities in Mexico City to enjoy.

Puerto Vallarta | Where to stay? You’ll love these beautiful boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta.

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Photo credits: 3, 7, 12, 13, 14, 22, 23, 25 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


Have you visited any of the colonial cities of Mexico?


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Alaina Chapman

Tuesday 9th of February 2021

Love this! We plan to do this very thing but I think I would stick to non-touristy, smaller colonial towns. In 2019 we visited Valladolid. So beautiful and quaint, so much art and everyone was so very friendly. I would love it if you did a piece on smaller colonial towns? Did you visit those as well? We would love to have some suggestions.

Janice and George

Tuesday 9th of February 2021

Glad you loved Vallodolid! Great suggestion about writing about some smaller colonial villages :-). Maybe some more of the Pueblos Magicos. Guanajuato, by the way, "felt" small to us... Anyway, stay tuned... Maybe subscribe to our blog? And we'll put this on our "to do" list :-).

Carlos

Friday 22nd of January 2021

You left out ZACATECAS, Mexico City and Guadalajara downtown.

Janice and George

Friday 22nd of January 2021

Hi Carlos,

Oh, it's so hard to narrow down a list to the most beautiful cities! We should probably add Zacatecas. Next time we do an update, we'll get it in.

BTW, we've visited both Mexico City and Guadalajara (the Orozco murals there are amazing). We love these cities too!

Actually, we love all of Mexico :-). A great country, with so much to see and do. And some of the friendliest people in the world :-).

Tomás Flores

Wednesday 6th of January 2021

Simple question: why are U.S. citizens who live in other countries "expats" and everone else "immigrants"?

I am a Mexican "expat" retired in San Diego according to that self-centered privileged logic.

TL

Thursday 28th of January 2021

@Tomás Flores, you're an expat if you're legally there to celebrate your newly adopted home. You're an immigrant if you're illegal and harboring bad intentions, prejudice, and hate. The word "expat" is a neutral term. Hostility, disrespect and a bad attitude will keep you an outsider no matter where you live or why. That is what makes the problem. It's not about where you live.

There are plenty of Americans who'd like to live in Mexico. Unfortunately, many regular, down-to-earth, average Americans can't afford to retire in Mexico. (They need big pensions to do so.)

Hatemongering is a negative cycle on BOTH sides. Personally I find good and bad everywhere. I aim to do as much good as possible wherever I am and respect those who accompany me in this journey of life and share this planet with me. We are all breathing the same air. The air that knows no borders and speaks only ONE language. I hope you will choose to be a part of the solution. Celebrate wherever you are and every aspect of your life.

Oh, and really - the term "expat" is about who is speaking. "I am an expat", first person. Or those from my native country. It's about perspective. A sense of going out. But of course, to the locals I am an immigrant. Again it's perspective because from their position I am coming in. Both are true! Neither is wrong. The words only become ugly when spoken with ugly intentions. Clean the heart and the words will become much more friendly. Prejudice is a two-edged sword, so best not to grab hold.

Janice and George

Wednesday 6th of January 2021

Hi Tomas,

Thanks for reading our post!

No offence was meant by the use of the term "expat" :-). An expat is defined as simply someone who lives outside their native country (see Oxford Dictionary). And we used the word "expat" in this way.

But we can see how the word could carry different connotations (see this BBC article on "who should be called an expat?").

We personally have emigrated from country to country: George from Romania to Germany to Canada and Janice from England to Australia to Canada, and we're now Canadians. If we retired in Mexico, we'd be expats, since we wouldn't be citizens of Mexico -- just Canadians enjoying the beautiful colonial lifestyle and better Mexican weather :-).

Tina M Ernspiker

Saturday 2nd of January 2021

Very nice article! I love the beautiful images of Mexico :-)

Janice and George

Saturday 2nd of January 2021

Why thank you! It's easy to show beautiful images of Mexico - because there's so much that is beautiful in Mexico :-).

Gaston Lira

Thursday 7th of November 2019

You forgot to mention the city of Puebla de los Angeles, one hour from Mexico City. The first city built by Spanish people and king Charles V in 1531.

Janice and George

Thursday 7th of November 2019

Ah, Puebla looks like another beautiful colonial city in Mexico - famous for its Talavera pottery and mole. We're going to update the post to add it! Hopefully we can visit this UNESCO city in future :-). Thanks for commenting here...