Vendors hawk colorful balloons and cotton candy. Strolling musicians sing enthusiastically. Church bells peal loudly.
And families ride bikes, stroll, pull children in wagons and roller-blade along the wide street fronting the cathedral.
It’s Sunday morning in Morelia!
Sunday mornings are car-free on the major downtown street. And this Mexican city is a riot of cheerful noise and color.
But you’ll find there are lots of fascinating things to do in Morelia, particularly in its historic heart. Like enjoying these Sunday morning festivities…
Things to do in Morelia
Why visit Morelia?
The capital of Michoacan state, Morelia has a population of about 600,000 in the city proper.
The downtown center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, brimming with more than 200 colonial buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Cool hotels and restaurants? Morelia has them. Great colonial attractions? You bet. Interesting tours? How about a Monarch butterfly tour in the nearby Sierre Madre Mountains?
Yes, Morelia is an attractive city to visit in Mexico.
In a world where so many popular tourist destinations are crowded (hello Venice!), we especially love that Morelia isn’t over-run with tourists.
Morelia feels authentic and real.
There’s a sense of discovery. You feel that your experiences are original.
(And, sorry if this post ends up taking away some of the surprise!)
Recommend reading: The first-class Mexico bus service is like flying business class
7 Best things to do in Morelia
Preamble out of the way, let’s go check out the best activities and attractions in Morelia…
1) Admire the Morelia Cathedral
Built between 1660 and 1744, the Baroque-style Morelia Cathedral is stunning. Made from pink stone, it sprouts twin pink spires that soar 200 feet into the sky.
Many think it’s Mexico’s most beautiful cathedral.
Inside, it features a monumental organ, imported from Germany. With 4,600 flutes or pipes, it was the largest organ in the Western Hemisphere when installed in 1905.
The cathedral is especially exquisite when illuminated at night.
And Saturday nights are particularly special – because that’s when a free “sound and light” show is held in front of the cathedral.
To watch the show, we’re seated at our hotel’s restaurant on the outdoor colonnaded walkway, right in front of the cathedral.
A bright TV-like display of images has been projected onto the cathedral for at least 30 minutes now. The street in front has been closed to traffic, and both the street and plaza are packed with people.
The excitement is palpable as the crowd waits for the show to start.
Everyone in town, it seems, is here – families with small children licking ice-creams, kissing couples, groups of laughing young people, students – all awaiting the show.
We had thought the show might involve a depiction of Mexican or Morelian history, with dialogue and images, something like the sound and light shows we enjoyed at the Pyramids and Karnak Temple in Egypt.
But when it starts, it turns out to be an extraordinary spectacle of fireworks, accompanied by loud stirring music.
Some fireworks shoot straight up in front of the cathedral. Some whoosh out from pipes installed on the outside of the cathedral walls and burst into dazzling stars high above our heads.
All too soon though, it’s over.
And we return to our pizza and wine – wishing we could see a repeat performance – as the crowd slowly dissipates.
2) Walk to the Morelia Aqueduct
Walk east from the cathedral and, a mile later, you reach the Morelia Aqueduct.
Built in the late 18th century, the Roman-style aqueduct was used to supply water for the colonial town’s fountains and convents. An icon in the city, the aqueduct’s 253 arches stretch for over a mile.
When lit up at night, the arches are a particularly gorgeous sight.
We walk along a tree-lined pedestrian promenade running along one side of the aqueduct.
A tea shop playing classical music makes us pause to listen. We also admire the statue of Independence leader Jose Morelos on horseback and peek into the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where the interior is covered inside with gold leaf.
Then we turn around and head back into the city…
3) Indulge your sweet tooth at the Morelia candy market
Do you love sweets? Then you’ll be in sugar heaven – Morelia is known as a candy mecca in Mexico.
The city’s high altitude and subtropical weather is ideal for growing the mangoes, coconuts, sugar cane and other ingredients used to make the sweet treats.
There’s a whole market devoted to sweets – the Mercado de Dulces.
Housed in a former Jesuit college, the market consists of a long alley stuffed with stalls, displaying an extraordinary variety of concoctions guaranteed to give you a major sugar high.
Packaged chocolate bars or Western-style candies? No. Think instead balls of sugary tamarind, guava paste, haystack-shaped toasted coconut (made with condensed milk) and crystallized fruits.
Rompope (bottled eggnog liqueur) is another popular item for sale here.
Bonus: Many other stalls on side-alleys sell crafts, such as beautiful leather belts, sandals, guitars, copper pots and chess boards with carved wood indigenous figures.
4) Eat at Lu Cochina
Where to eat in Morelia – apart from the candy market? We know just the place.
Lu Cochina is one of the best restaurants in Morelia (see reviews on TripAdvisor).
Lu serves creative regional specialties from Michoacan state.
Try the hibiscus salad if it’s on the menu. With lettuce, cucumber, toasted peanuts, blackberries, Cortina cheese and fresh lime (with hibiscus dressing), it’s delicious.
Other recommended dishes include the black bean soup, fresh trout and stuffed chili peppers.
And to go with your food?
How about a hand-crafted blue corn beer? Or try the basil margaritas (yummy, but the glasses are really small, so you’ll need at least two).
5) See the Centro Cultural Clavijero
Housed in what was a Jesuit monastery and college (in the 17th and 18th centuries), the Centro Cultural Clavijero is a cultural center and art museum showcasing contemporary art and photography.
The pink stone arches in the central courtyard of the two-storey building are impressive to see – as are the eight exhibition halls.
One room has a permanent exhibition of pictorial works, which includes art by Diego Rivera, Mexico’s famous muralist.
Interested in the Mexican muralists? Then you must visit Orozco’s fiery murals in Guadalajara
6) Witness the Monarch butterfly migration
Visiting Morelia between December and March?
Then you must do a day trip to the neighboring Sierra Madre mountains to witness the amazing sight of thousands of Monarch butterflies wintering in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Monarch butterflies spend summers in the United States and Canada.
But when the weather turns colder, they fly up to 3,000 miles south to Mexico – to this natural protected area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The story of the migration of the Monarch butterflies is truly remarkable – a special “Methuselah” generation even lives longer than other generations so these butterflies can survive the perilous journey.
We visit the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary, one of four sanctuaries open to visitors in the world-famous Monarch butterfly reserve.
After riding caballitos (small horses) up to the fir trees where the butterflies have gathered, we see them.
The butterflies are everywhere – swirling about our faces, alighting on bushes, quivering in the sunshine on nectar-laden lupines.
Thousands upon thousands of delicate orange-and-black Monarchs fill our view.
When clouds scuttle overhead, we even hear the sussuring of the butterfly wings, like soft rain falling, as the Monarchs flutter to the trees to huddle in clumps.
It’s quite magical. And a once-in-a-lifetime experience we won’t easily forget…
7) Tour the Museo Regional Michoacano
Dating back to 1886, the Museo Regional Michoacana (Regional Museum of Michoacan) is one of the oldest museums in Mexico.
It occupies an 18th century Baroque palace, and you can see some eye-catching murals by Alfredo Zalce (one of Diego Rivera’s contemporaries) on the stairway.
Inside, the museum displays hand-crafted historical furniture, enormous vases, colonial art and relics, pottery and so on. Unfortunately, the information explaining the artifacts is only in Spanish.
Where to stay in Morelia
We bunk down at the 5-star Cantera Diez (or Cantera 10).
One of the best hotels in Morelia, Cantera Diez is an architectural wonder. The building is over 300 years old, but the inside has been totally renovated in contemporary style.
It also has perhaps the best location in Morelia – smack dab in front of the Morelia Cathedral.
There are 15 designer rooms and suites.
Our junior suite has polished dark wood floors, a soaring wood-beamed ceiling, golden onyx lamps, king-size bed and a beaten silver bathtub on a raised upper level. One wall is exposed pink stone.
Complimentary tea, coffee and cookies are available in the dramatic atrium lounge in the mornings.
Best time to visit Morelia
Temperatures in Morelia don’t change all that much throughout the year.
Having said that, the hottest months are May to June (highs often reach the 90s F in May). The weather is humid too, and you can expect more rain in summer.
The best time to visit Morelia is when it’s a little cooler – from December to February. It’s also less muggy (so more comfortable) in winter.
Is Morelia safe to visit?
The state of Michoacan has a reputation for drug violence.
Most of the attacks are between drug cartels, or between criminal groups and the police or government officials. (No doubt, this is one reason international tourists aren’t flocking to Michoacan’s capital.)
Morelia, however, has not been hit by this violence. While the Canadian government safety advisory for Mexico warns against travel to Michoacan, it excludes the city of Morelia from its warning.
Americans tend to be more cautious traveling to Mexico than Canadians. And this is reflected in the U.S. government advisory, which says “do not travel” to Michoacan. But it goes on to advise that U.S. government officials may travel to Morelia (by plane or via certain highways).
So, is Morelia safe?
Over the years, we’ve visited many parts of Mexico (e.g., Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas) when there have been travel warnings.
We’ve never yet felt unsafe (no more unsafe than we would if visiting any foreign country).
During our Morelia visit, we notice a light military police presence – jeeps with armed personnel occasionally drive down the streets. But it gives us no cause for alarm.
We find the people warm, friendly and helpful (and they patiently bear with us as we struggle to speak limited Spanish).
Right now, Morelia is a delightful city to visit!
Recommended reading: Our Ultimate Mexico Travel Guide is packed with travel information on beautiful colonial cities you’ll want to visit, how to see Mexico by 1st class bus, Mexican beach resorts and more!
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Photo credits: 2, 8 to 12, 17 to 20, 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase