Beautiful plazas, colourful houses and grand churches — the best colonial towns and cities in Mexico are places I will never forget. During our one month trip through Mexico, Jon and I saw some of the most fascinating colonial towns and cities. We saw some interesting old architecture and got to know aspects of its incredible history and culture. From the colourful towns of Puebla and San Cristobal de las Casas to the bustling metropolitan, Mexico City, here are some of the best colonial towns and cities in Mexico that we visited.
Most people will remember Puebla for its traditional cuisine. Puebla is home to the famous mole poblano – a thick, rich, chocolatey sauce usually served on chicken. Although Jon and I are not huge fans of this dish, we had an incredible time in Puebla.
Puebla’s historic centre is rich in Spanish colonial architecture – it has many well preserved churches which date back from the 16th to 17th century, vintage buildings with intricate designs and an outstanding zocalo (main square). The Rosary Chapel in Santo Domingo Church is one that we will never forget; its interior is covered with gold and the details are extravagant. There are plenty of churches within the plaza’s vicinity, but the Cathedral Basilica de Puebla located in the zocalo remains the most popular place that everyone loves to visit.
Cholula is popular for Mexico’s largest pyramid – Pyramide Tlachihualtepetl and on top of it, the Spanish built a church, Santuario de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. It’s the world’s largest pyramid by volume — bigger than the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt — but it really just looks like a big hill now!
Cholula is an easy trip from its neighbour town, Puebla. At the centre of town is another fascinating church, San Gabriel Church and Monastery. We didn’t get to see the interior (apparently it is incredible) but the outside was a sight. It was almost like the fortress wall designs we saw in the south of Spain.
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The colourful market scene is what I remember most about Oaxaca (pronounced wah-ha-ka). There are different markets for food, handicrafts and other stuff. The food near the zocalo was delicious and cheap. We had soft tacos a few times and we always left the stall satisfied. The shopping was incredible — I bought a unique bag with small dolls that was three times the price in the touristy souvenir shops.
Like Puebla, some of the churches in Oaxaca also date back as far as the 16th century. The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which was also a former monastery has some brilliant interior design, and considered one of the most prestigious structures in the city. The monastery also contains a museum which holds a fine collection of artifacts from the Zapotec Civilization in Monte Alban.
The archaeological site of Monte Alban is located in a mountain setting near Oaxaca. Because of this, Oaxaca is known as a city that exemplifies the real Mexico – with indigenous roots and colonial influences.
San Cristobal de las Casas
Bright, colourful and alive — San Cristobal de las Casas is our favourite among the different colonial cities and towns in Mexico. It has that perfect mix of touristy areas and historic spots. San Cristobal de las Casas is an old town but it’s charm will truly make you feel welcome. Beautiful colours and textures of the rows of buildings and open plazas are picture perfect. One of the streets has been closed to traffic to cater to tourists, which looks nice (but the food is more expensive!).
There are two churches which have good views of town and serve as miradors (view points), Templo de Guadalupe and Templo de Cerrito de San Cristobal. At the northern end of town is a magnificent church, Templo de Santo Domingo.
There are plenty of shops that sell sweets, arts and handicrafts in town. The artisan market located near Templo de Santo Domingo is probably the best for souvenir shopping. We bought one of our favourite travel souvenirs here — a colorful woolen blanket. Unfortunately, we lost it along the way. I really miss it!
We also did a tour of the Palenque ruins and Agua Azul from San Cristobal de Casas to Palenque. It takes a full day along winding roads but definitely the best way to see this side of Chiapas.
Merida is the largest city and capital of Yucatan. It was once a walled city and a few of these walls still remain. There are a lot of churches, museums and squares in this city. Merida is also gateway to Uxmal, a Maya archeological site featuring pyramids and palaces.
The best way to see Merida is by doing the walking tour through its different plazas. I couldn’t find the map online for this walking tour (that you can also do on your own) but it takes a couple of hours. The walk takes you through the historic centre to see the different historical buildings and plazas. The streets and houses are not as dramatic as Puebla or Oaxaca, but the main square is well preserved and definitely worth seeing.
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Majestic cenotes surround the city of Valladolid (Yucatan). There is one cenote in town and a few others just outside of town that can easily be reached by bike or bus. We were spoiled with the beauty of Puebla, Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas that we didn’t appreciate Valladolid as much. Looking back, it is a nice city with a few good churches and colourful houses near its main square.
Plenty of tourists flock to Valladolid since some of the tours that go to Chichen Itza and Tulum also include this colonial town near the two. Valladolid is the best place to stay if you want to go to Chichen Itza independently. It’s a short bus ride away, which means you can get to the wonder of the world before all of the tourist buses.
Mexico City was the capital of the Aztecs, later the capital of colonial Spain and now, the current capital of Mexico. Also known as the City of Palaces, Mexico City is comprised of architectural gems. At the main plaza (also called zocalo) of the historic centre, the huge flag of Mexico reigns supreme and around it the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace.
Mexico City was our entry point in Mexico. Its historic center reminded me a lot about Barcelona, Spain. The architecture at the main square and the other nearby museums were very European and very beautiful. Most of the surrounding buildings were also very well preserved and maintained their purpose as government offices. In other parts of the world, most old buildings are made into souvenir shops and restaurants.
Mexico City is an interesting place with lots of great food options. The people barely speak English but it is hard to not to feel welcome in this charismatic city.
I always find small towns to be relaxing. A few hours from Mexico city is the scenic small colonial town of Tepoztlan, an interesting place to explore for a few days. Tepoztlan is home to some of the best quesadillas in Mexico and the freshest fruit ice creams which easily match the gelato we ate in Italy.
We didn’t just spend our days lazily in Tepoztlan. It is home to the Tepozteco Pyramid, located high above a hill near town. It takes about an hour to walk the many stairs to reach it. The pyramid itself was not as impressive as others we’ve seen but the location and the view was incredible.
Influences of the Spanish colonial period still remain. People enjoy their free time hanging around the big plaza and the markets are always alive. There is architecture isn’t as grand in this tiny town compared to other parts of Mexico but the Ex Convento Dominico de la Natividad is sure to impress. The gates have been decorated with beans and the interior holds beautiful murals.
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Map of the Best Colonial Towns and Cities in Mexico
Which of these best colonial towns and cities in Mexico would you like to visit? Let us know.
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