For most Americans, Mexico is a land of palm-lined beaches and all-inclusive resorts. But the country's richest cultural experiences, most stunning architecture, most jaw-dropping ancient ruins and tastiest cuisine can all be found in the interior of the country.
Most of Mexico's colonial towns and urban metropolises are far from the beach, and mostly gloriously devoid of the hordes of tourists that swarm the country's coast. Here just a few of the top places you should visit:
San Miguel de Allende
Let’s get this out of the way: San Miguel de Allende is touristy, filled with expats and feels as much like Europe as it does like Mexico. But it’s filled with foreigners for a reason.
San Miguel is not exactly a budget destination; it has some of the poshest boutique hotels you’ll find in the country and it can compete with any other city when it comes to high-end restaurants. It’s pristine, perfectly preserved historical center is also home to some of the finest art galleries, boutique shops and quirkiest bars in Mexico.
Protip: Get lost. Wander through the city’s color-splashed, cobblestone streets, and duck into galleries, art-filled hotels and boutique shops. Make sure you visit Fabrica La Aurora, a former textile factory turned artist hub. Here you can find dozens of galleries where you can witness artists working on their wares.
If San Miguel is a little too polished for your taste, head about 50 miles west to the city’s grittier neighbor. Like San Miguel, Guanajuato is awash in colorful houses that dot the hillsides, and it’s connected by a network of underground tunnels that serve as the veins of the city.
This UNESCO World Heritage site was founded more than 450 years ago, and while it certainly shows its signs of age (in the most beautiful, charming way), it remains a vibrant city thanks to a thriving cultural scene and a university with more than 20,000 students.
Protip: Visit during Festival Internacional Cervantino, an international cultural festival that takes place every fall, and is comprised of events ranging from free street theater, art, and music to high-end opera, ballet, and symphony concerts that take place in the dozens of theaters, plazas and performance venues around the city.
Hierve el Agua (the frozen waterfall) — Photo courtesy of istock/cicloco
Oaxaca is exploding with color. One of Mexico’s cultural and culinary capitals, this city in the southwest of the country is home to some of the best traditional food and drink in the country – think mole, grasshoppers and barbecued goat – and is still brimming with indigenous traditions.
It also happens to be one of the most affordable destinations in the country. This is the Mexico you’ve always dreamed of, the land of chocolate, mole, and mezcal, of artists and artisans. It also serves as a central location as a jumping off point to see ancient ruins and natural wonders like Hierve el Agua (the frozen waterfall).
Protip: After spending a day wandering through the markets and scoping amazing traditional handicrafts, stop at Mezcaloteca – a mezcal library that offers tasting flights of the region's most famous drink, will educate you in all things mezcal, and sells reasonably priced bottles. All of their mezcal comes from farms around Mexico and is fair trade. It's best to make a reservation.
Only about 50 miles from Mexico City, Tepoztlán is steeped deep in its Aztec roots, nestled among towering vertical cliffs and verdant landscapes. The town is a mix of old world and new age, with a well-preserved pyramid and Náhuatl culture, and is a home to expats who come for the town’s purported mysticism and healing vibrations.
Even if you’re not into yoga, vegan food and getting in touch with your spiritual side, there are still enough artisan markets, ancient sites and stellar hiking opportunities to keep you busy.
Protip: Hike to El Tepozteco, a mountaintop pyramid dedicated to Tepoztecatl, the Aztec god of pulque (an ancient agave-based drink that precludes tequila and mezcal). The pyramid itself is impressive, but it’s really just the cherry on top of a hike through a lush rainforest, otherworldly landscapes and gushing waterfalls.
The capital of Mexico is one of the world’s biggest, most sprawling cities on earth. It’s also earned a reputation as a metropolis in the midst of a cultural renaissance, with thumping nightlife, world-class museums and a burgeoning culinary scene that spans everything from 50-cent tacos at street stands to 10-course tasting menus at restaurants considered to be the vanguard of modern Mexican gastronomy.
You can visit a half dozen cocktail stands, take a selfie with the Aztec Calendar Stone at the National Anthropology Museum and get a handcrafted cocktail at a hipster bar in Roma all in a day’s work.
Protip: Come during Day of the Dead. Remember that scene in the James Bond film Spectre, set at the epic Dia de los Muertos parade? Well, that wasn’t real. But now it is. Mexico’s government decided the parade was so spectacular, it invested a bunch of money to make it a reality, and even in its first year in 2016, it was extremely impressive.
Puebla is the fourth biggest city in Mexico, but it doesn’t feel like it. This super-walkable city manages to have the best of both worlds: a thriving cosmopolitan vibe and colonial center that feels like it’s centuries in the past. Dozens of historical churches, shiny new nightclubs, modern restaurants and indigenous cuisine that dates back centuries are all within a stone’s throw.
Protip: While Oaxaca is the “land of seven moles,” Puebla is home to the world’s most famous mole (a sauce usually containing a fruit, chili pepper and nut): mole poblano. This rich brown or dark red sauce is worth the trip to Mexico, and while the most traditional can be found in the markets, restaurants like El Mural de Poblanos will give you a sampler to taste a wide variety of Puebla’s claim to fame.
Homeland Monument in Mérida — Photo courtesy of istock/temis
The Yucatan Peninsula is famous for its azure Caribbean seas and white-sand beaches; that means most people overlook this interior city, which is a huge mistake. The capital of the Yucatan has stunning colonial architecture, Mayan culture, funky boutique hotels, and some of the region’s best restaurants, nightlife and museums.
Protip: Get out. Merida’s greatest attribute might be its proximity to some of the Yucatan’s top attractions. It makes a great jumping off point for exploring the rest of the region’s beaches, cenotes (natural swimming holes) and pyramids – including Uxmal, Dzibilchaltún, and Chichen Itza.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
Located in the highlands of Chiapas – a state many people consider to be the most beautiful of Mexico, with its balmy jungles, gushing waterfalls and hidden lagoons – San Cristóbal might as well be part of another world. It’s at once mystifying and comforting; it’s got the amenities of a city (albeit one that looks like it’s stuck in another time) and the tranquility of a remote village. With an elevation of 7,000 feet, the air is clean and the views are spectacular.
Protip: San Cristóbal is a market town, and exploring the cobblestone streets and bargaining for locally made handicrafts can keep you busy for days. It’s also at the epicenter of Mexican indigenous culture, and is immediately surrounded by hundreds of tiny indigenous villages. This is one of the places where it’s worth hiring a guide to get the most out of visiting the surrounding area.
If you look up Morelia, the first thing you’ll see is the city’s cathedral, with its baroque architecture and multicolored domes. Day or night, it’s a sight to behold – and it’s the gem of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site colonial center. But while nobody was really watching, the city quietly became a hub for art. And from a tourism perspective, the city is wonderfully walkable with plenty of hip cafes, restaurants and bars lining the streets.
Protip: Less than an hour away from Morelia, Pátzcuaro is the colonial Mexico you won’t see in larger cities. It has all the grand architecture of a city like Morelia (on a smaller scale), but it’s gloriously decaying in the most beautiful way. Pátzcuaro is most famous for having one of the best Day of the Dead celebrations in all of Mexico, but this lakeside town is stunning all year round.