There are dozens of beautiful colonial cities scattered across Mexico today, and these architectural marvels are one of the only positive marks that the Spanish Conquistadors left on the country. These settlements are usually distinguished by their pastel colored houses that are painted in every color of the rainbow, their ornate Catholic churches, and their cobblestone streets.
Many Mexican colonial cities have today been awarded with UNESCO-protected status or have been recognized as “pueblo magicos” by the Mexican tourism board. (Pueblo magicos are Mexican towns and cities that possess a particularly unique and interesting culture, nature, gastronomy or architecture and are therefore well worth visiting).
In this article, written by a British Travel Writer based in the colonial Yucatan capital of Merida (me!), we will review some of the very best and most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico that you can consider visiting during your travels in Mexico.
I have travelled extensively across 12 Mexican states during my past few years of living in Mexico, and have had the pleasure of encountering many famous and lesser-known colonial-era settlements along the way. Rest assured, you are in good hands here.
Colonial Cities in Mexico
The culture and traditions of Mexico as it exists today have no doubt been forever shaped and changed by the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. Hernán Cortés and his cohorts were the first Spaniards to arrive in the country in around 1519, when they created the first Spanish settlements in the Yucatan peninsula and declared it as being “New Spain”.
Hundreds more fleets of Spanish conquistadors would follow, and throughout the 16th century, many new towns and cities started to sprout up around the country, built in colonial Spanish style. Some settlements, like Puebla, were completely new and purpose built by the Spanish.
Others, like Merida and Valladolid, were built on the grounds of existing Aztec, Maya and indigenous settlements. While today many Mexican colonial cities are considered charming, architectural marvels, many have a dark past because the conquistadors took indigenous lands by violence and force, tearing down temples and religious buildings, burning important texts and documents and forcing locals to convert to Catholicism.
Still, the Spanish Colonial era played an important role in the history of Mexico. It is interesting to consider how very different the country would look today if the Spanish had never set foot upon Mexican shores.
Best Colonial Cities to Visit in Mexico in 2024 and Beyond
With so many gorgeous colonial cities to choose from, it is hard to know which to prioritize if you are interested in seeing this type of architecture on your trip. 16 of the best Mexican colonial cities are summarised below, along with their highlights.
Generally, when planning your trip to Mexico, I would say that the best places to visit depend on what you want to get out of your trip.
If a main focus of your trip is visiting Mayan ruins in the Yucatan like Uxmal and Chichen Itza, I would say that you can easily visit Merida and Valladolid during your Yucatan itinerary.
If you specifically want to create a trip around exploring Spanish-style colonial cities where you can enjoy cooler climes and feel like you are in Europe, consider travelling along Central Mexicos “Ruta de Independencia” and visiting the colonial cities of Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato City and Dolores Hidalgo.
Alternatively, if you are heading to the Pacific Coast and perhaps plan on working on your tan and sipping cocktails by the beach in Puerto Vallarta, you can take day trips from here to the Sierra Madre mountain villages of Mascota and San Sebastian del Oeste.
Guanajuato City is the cultured capital of the Central Mexican state of the same name, and a gorgeous place that is often overshadowed in favor of its more popular neighbor to the north, San Miguel de Allende. Founded in 1554, the city was one of the most important silver mining towns of the 16th century.
Today, it attracts intellectual and cultured travelers from across the world who travel far and wide to experience its art scene, museums, and European-style cafe culture. Many of the museums here focus on showcasing the artwork pieces of historic and contemporary Mexican artists.
Even Diego Rivera had a house here, and at Casa Diega Rivera (Positos 47, Zona Centro), you can view some of Rivera’s early sketches in the house where he once lived, explore rooms that have been kept as a “living museum”, and see temporary exhibitions that showcase the works of up-and-coming Mexican artists.
Every October, Guanajuato hosts the annual Cerventino festival. This is the largest cultural festival in Latin America, which sees hundreds of creatives (poets, singers, dancers, theatrical performers, and artists) travel to the city and perform at various theaters, plazas, and city buildings.
Still, whatever time you travel here, one of the most unique and magical experiences that you can have in Guanajuato City is participating in one of the Callejoneadas. These guided walks involve being led around the narrow backstreets and passageways of the city (callejons) as a group of men in traditional clothing sing Mexican folk songs and tell you the history of the area.
There are more than 10 different callejoneada tours to choose from, which each follow a slightly different theme. They cost just 150 pesos per person (circa $8.33 USD) and the tradition dates back hundreds of years to when students would entertain workers on their way to the mines by singing and telling stories.
Santiago de Queretaro
Santiago de Queretaro (often just referred to as “Queretaro City”) is the capital of Queretaro state and as of yet, is a destination that is massively overlooked by most international visitors to Mexico. The city as it stands today has a huge student population which gives it a very youthful and energetic vibe.
Queretaro was initially founded by Otomi Indians before the Spanish arrived in 1531 and expanded the city, creating the charming old town that still exists today. The historic center consists of a twisting, labyrinth-like network of old colonial alleyways and stone streets flanked by gorgeous, colorful Catholic churches.
The churches of San Agustín, Santa Clara, and Santa Rosa de Viterbo are particularly well preserved. Their interiors are just as spectacular as the exteriors, their walls adorned with colorful paintings depicting scenes from the bible and religious icons made from precious metals.
Queretaro has enjoyed UNESCO status since 1996. Locals affectionately refer to it as “Quereta-rock” because the rock music scene is pretty big here.
You will find that many bars and restaurants play out Classic Rock and Indie/alternative music, serve craft beers, and have interesting punk rock/alternative decor. In the Jardin Guerrero, there are often live musicians and street performers playing the likes of Guns n Roses and Aerosmith to delighted crowds, and along the narrow alleyway of Mariano Matamoros, you can immortalize your visit to Queretaro forever by contributing to the graffiti in this alleyway that has been dedicated to street art.
(Some of the murals here are pretty good. Others are just evident that someone has taken delight in being able to simply go nuts with a spray can!)
The gorgeous colonial city of Merida is the capital of the Yucatan state. It is widely regarded as being the safest city in Mexico.
Many people pass through Merida for a day or two as part of a wider Yucatan itinerary.
However, the colonial gem is worthy of a dedicated Merida itinerary of its own. Indeed, you could easily dedicate two or three weeks to staying in Merida and take day trips to other places in the Yucatan from here.
Merida was founded in in 1542 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo y León. It was built on the site of the Mayan city of T’ho which had been an important Mayan settlement for centuries.
The Catedral de San Ildefonso in the center of Merida was constructed between 1561 and 1598 using stones from an old Mayan temple. It is controversial because many of the religious icons and paintings within the cathedral depict a relationship between the conquistadors and the indigenous Mayans.
They show the Mayans worshiping their colonizers. Many of these were (understandably) torn down during the Mexican revolution. However many still remain.
Part of the joy of visiting Merida today is simply found in taking the time to get lost among its labyrinth-like network of streets and passageways. The pastel-colored houses in central Merida and the neighborhoods of Santiago and Itzimna are a photographer’s dream.
Charming churches adorn virtually every street corner. During the henequen boom of the early 19th and 20th centuries, Merida was one of the richest cities in the world.
Many signs of its former glory still remain to this day, including several very well-preserved colonial mansions. The best of these can be found on Calle 59 and the Avenida Del Deportista.
Mascota is a charming colonial town and pueblo magico that sits in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in the state of Jalisco. Its higher altitude location, some 1,268 m above sea level means that Mascota enjoys cooler, crisper climates than the coastal regions of Jalisco and the town is a great place to travel to if you want some respite from the heat and humidity of Puerto Vallarta.
In the summer months, the temperatures here rarely soar above 78°F, and during the winter, it often gets so cold in Mascota that you can see your own breath. Like many colonial cities in Mexico, most of the activity in Mascota is centered around a main square (zocalo) which is flanked by the impressive 18th-century baroque-style Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores church.
The central square (Plaza Principal de Mascota) is a popular rendezvous point for locals who often come here to gossip (“chisme”) and catch up with their neighbors. Along Calle Hidalgo and Calle 5 de Mayo, little street food tents (“tianguis”) are set up in the evenings selling everything from hot, freshly made popcorn, elotes and esquites, and toys and games for children.
While in Mascota, you can sample raicilla at one of the town’s many bars and indulge in local gastronomical delights like pozole. Raicilla is a strong Mexican liquor made from the agave plant that is popular in this part of Jalisco and has been affectionately nicknamed “Mexican moonshine”.
Mascota makes a great base for exploring several off-the-beaten-path towns and villages in rural Jalisco including Santa Rosa, Navidad, and Yerbabuena. If you are up to the slight physical challenge, you can also hike to a lookout point (“mirador”) above the village known as Mirador de la Cruz for sweeping vistas over Mascota and the rolling green hills of Jalisco.
San Sebastian del Oeste
Picturesque San Sebastian del Oeste is a former gold and silver mining town in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Jalisco, approximately an hour and a half away from the popular coastal city of Puerto Vallarta. It was founded in 1608, on the back of the Mexican gold rush and many of the town’s 5,600 inhabitants today are descendants of those “fundadores” all those centuries ago.
The architecture here is quite unlike anywhere else in Mexico, and in some ways, traveling to San Sebastian del Oeste in 2024 feels almost like traveling back in time. The houses and stores of San Sebastian del Oeste are characterized by their stone walls and burgundy tile roofs.
Meandering around the little streets, window shopping in artisanal stores and sipping thick, rich cinnamony Mexican hot chocolate are highlights of spending time here. If you consider yourself a coffee connoisseur, you can pick up some coffee infused with cinnamon and cacao that is grown at a local independent family-run coffee farm known as “Cafatalera La Quinta Mary”.
If you are seeking a little more adrenaline, you can rent an ATV or a buggy in the main square of San Sebastian and then whizz up the nearby mountain of “La Bufa” to enjoy off road fun with a view, and to visit the tiny mountaintop hamlet of Real Alto.
There are three different states that make up the Yucatan peninsula. Namely, these are the states of Quintana Roo, the Yucatan state, and the state of Campeche.
Campeche state is the least visited of the three. It shares its name with its capital city, Campeche city.
Records indicate that ancient civilizations have occupied this land from as early as 3000 BC. The city really started to thrive during the 17th century at which time, Campeche was one of the most important trade ports in Southern Mexico.
Campeche became the capital of the Yucatan peninsula several times over throughout the 19th century. It later became the capital of the newly-established Campeche state in 1863.
The success and strategic importance of Campeche’s port attracted the interest of pirates and Spain’s enemies from around the world.
Several defensive walls and fortresses were erected around Campeche during the 17th and 18th centuries. The sun-bleached remnants of these bastions, defensive walls, and lookout points still exist today.
In 1999, Campeche was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is incredibly well-preserved and feels almost frozen in time.
For 100 pesos per person (circa $5), you can take a trolley tour around Campeche in a quaint old-fashioned trolley cart. Like many of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico on this list, Campeche is filled with ornate Catholic churches.
CathedralIn particular, look out for the Campeche Cathedral dedicated to “Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.” which dates back to 1605. The gorgeous burgundy Iglesia de San Francisco dates back to 1546.
The first-ever Catholic mass in the Americas was hosted on the ground here in 1517.By nightfall, head to Calle 58 to eat Yucatecan food at the local bars and restaurants.
Many of the buildings in Puebla have been constructed in baroque style while many of the churches and structures are adorned with Talavera tiles.
This is something that you simply do not see in other Mexican cities and Puebla feels very European in nature.
It was given UNESCO-protected status in 1987. Puebla Cathedral marks the center of town.
A small leafy park area sits in the zocalo and is filled with water fountains, sculptures of important figures in Mexican history, and walking trails. Several charming al fresco coffee shops and restaurants encircle this square.
This is a great place to people-watch, sip cappuccinos, and indulge in tapas and other Mediterranean-inspired delicacies.
There are several charming streets and neighborhoods in Puebla and each has its own personality. The Barrio Del Artista is a leafy pedestrianized area filled with independent art galleries and artist studios.
As you wander down the cobbled street, you can gaze inside each of the different studios and see a local painter or sculptor at work. Nearby, the El Parian Marketplace is a great place to pick up handicrafts and souvenirs produced by local artisans.
DulcesMeanwhile, the Calle de los dulces is aptly named. The majority of the stores here specialize in selling traditional Mexican candies.
A lady named Victoria Ortiz opened the very first candy store here in 1892, known as La Gran Fama. After seeing the popularity of the store, many other entrepreneurs followed suit and started opening candy shops.
Today, this street is as popular as it has ever been. It continues to delight locals and tourists alike.
El Fuerte, Sinaloa
If you are looking for hidden gems in Mexico, you will love the colonial city of El Fuerte. The city sits in the northern part of the state of Sinaloa. It is close to the border with the state of Sonora.
El Fuerte was founded by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Ibarra in 1563. It was originally named “San Juan Bautista de Carapoa” and then renamed “El Fuerte” in 1610.
Locally, it is known for being the birthplace of the fictional character Zorro. Many statues of this local legend can be found scattered throughout the town.
The city has a very small-town feel about it and you can explore its historic center on foot in less than an hour. In the main square, you will find the gorgeous Parroquia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church. (Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).
The church dates back to 1804. A short walk from Central Square brings you to the Municipal Palace. This porticoed 19th-century building is used for local administrative purposes.
However, it is interesting because it contains a colorful mural that depicts the history of this region of Sinaloa.
El Fuerte takes its name from an old fortress that once protected the town. Today, a museum has been built at the hilltop site of the old fort. From up here, you have unparalleled views over the city and the river down below.
The museum’s exhibitions contain artifacts that have been recovered from the region and tell you the story of the various indigenous groups that call Sinaloa home.
An off-the-beaten-path walking trail that leads from central El Fuerte to a hill called Cerro de las mascaras takes you to some ancient petroglyphs and an old shamanic spiritual site.
The Spanish settlers first arrived here on March 24th, 1530. In their wake, several gorgeous churches and colonial structures were built.
Tlaquepaque is an interesting place because this area in western Mexico is widely regarded as being the birthplace of mariachi music. The music is believed to have originated in this region in the 1700s.
When you visit Tlaquepaque today, you can watch Live Mariachi performers in a little Bandstand known as El Parian. Numerous restaurants and bars encircle the bandstand and Mariachi performs here daily from around 3:00 p.m.
Mariachi have been performing on this historic bandstand since the 1920s. When the local event organizers first hosted them here it was a controversial move.
This genre of music was not widely accepted at that time and many opposed to it being hosted here. Today, many people credit the El Parian mariachi events for the reason that this type of music is so well known around the world.
This little town is also known for its handicrafts, tiles, and ceramics.
Many of the boutique stores here sell interesting artisanal goods. They make great home decor items for your house or as gifts for your friends and family back home.
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
San Cristobal de las Casas is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico. It sits high in the Los Altos mountain range in the state of Chiapas.
For many people, the opportunity to visit San Cristobal De Las Casas and the nearby Mayan ruins of Palenque are the main draws of visiting Chiapas state. The city was founded by the Spanish conquistador Diego de Mazariegos and his companions in 1528.
Its high altitudes provide cooler climates than what you can find elsewhere in Mexico, and this gives a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of traveling in the country. The buildings and architectural style in this part of Mexico differ from what you will see elsewhere.
San Cristobal De Las Casas is known for its whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs and terracotta fixtures and fittings. While you are in town, you should climb the 79 steps up to the Iglesia del Cerro de Guadalupe church for incredible panoramas over the town.
Another worthwhile hilltop church with a view is the red and white Iglesia de San Cristobalito. Chiapas coffee is famous across Mexico (and the world) and you can opt to take a tour of a coffee plantation on a day trip from San Cristobal.
In Chamula, people head to the San Juan de Chamula church to visit curanderos (witch doctors) and pray for a cure for their sicknesses and ailments.
Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas
If you mention Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico to most people, they haven’t even heard of it. However, this is one of the oldest settlements in the Americas.
It was founded by Spanish conquistador Diego de Mazariegos in 1528. The Spanish settled in this region early after their discovery of Chiapas.
That is until the hot, humid tropical climate here made it difficult for them to cope and they retreated to the hills to relocate to San Cristobal de las Casas. Chiapa de Corzo was given pueblo magico status in 2012.
It is a great jump-off point for visiting the nearby natural wonder of the Sumidero Canyon. However, the city is well deserved a day’s itinerary in itself.
Hunt for gorgeous street art, check out the ruins of the Templo de San Sebastian, and browse through the local stores and marketplaces to shop for regional agro products like Chiapas cheese and organic coffee.
Valladolid is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico and one of four pueblo magicos in the Yucatan state. It was founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1543 and built on the site of a Mayan city known as Zaci.
The destruction of this town and others in the region led to a lot of violent clashes between the Spanish and the indigenous Mayan people who lived in the Yucatan. Today, Valladolid is a sleepy, peaceful town.
Its current state is a stark contrast to its dark and violent past. In the main square, you will find the church of San Servacio, as well as a covered food market that serves Yucatecan street food as well as some Mexican classic dishes.
Nearby, awaits the Convent San Bernardino – one of the oldest convents in the Yucatan. Valladolid makes a great base for exploring some of the best cenotes (sinkholes) in the Yucatan, including the ring of cenotes (anillo de los cenotes) in the town of Homun.
Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas
Comitan de Dominguez is an off-the-beaten-path Mexican colonial city in the southern part of Chiapas state. It sits close to the border with Guatemala.
Despite the popularity of nearby San Cristobal de las Casas, Comitan remains somewhere off the tourist trail, at least for the time being. This is interesting as the city makes a nice alternative base for exploring the southern part of Chiapas state.
From here, you are a stone’s throw away from El Chiflon waterfalls, Lagunas de Montebello, and the archeological sites of Tenam Puente and Chinkultic. Comitan de Dominguez also provides a valuable glimpse into what life is truly like in Southern Mexico in a non-gentrified area.
While Comitan is arguably best explored as a base for visiting the rest of the region, it is also worthy of a day’s exploration in itself.
The Museo Arqueológico de Comitán Contains an array of Mayan masks and other historical artifacts that have been recovered from the cities in the region. Nearby, the 1920a Casa Del Marques hotel is a gorgeous hacienda-style 1920s mansion where locals often stop by for a traditional Mexican breakfast.
If you want to feel like royalty for the day, you can opt to treat yourself to a stay in one of the plush rooms here. Alternatively, anybody can make a reservation for breakfast. this is a great place to start the day with some huevos divorciados or chilaquiles naturale.
San Miguel de Allende
The gorgeous city of San Miguel de Allende sits in the Bajio mountains in Guanajuato, Central Mexico. It is quickly emerging as a favorite retirement and expat destination in Mexico and has even been named as the “best city in the world” by Travel and Leisure magazine on three different occasions.
The city was founded in 1542 by the Franciscan friar Fray Juan de San Miguel. It was originally called San Miguel el Grande before the name was changed in 1826 to honor Ignacio Allende, a hero in the Mexican War for Independence.
San Miguel de Allende received UNESCO world heritage status in 2008. Its historic center is a mixture of cobblestone streets, independent art galleries, upscale boutique stores, coffee shops, and international eateries.
The culture here is a seamless integration of European and Mexican influences. Many international expats call San Miguel De Allende home and so, English is widely spoken here.
Opt to take a walking tour when you arrive to get your bearings. The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel Church, designed by architect Zeferino Gutierrez sits at the center of town and is one of the most photographed buildings in Mexico.
The nearby Mercado de Artesanias is a great place to shop for textiles, homewares, apparel, and eclectic furnishings. If you enjoy nature and the great outdoors, you can also go hiking or take a horseback riding tour along one of the woodland trails that veer off from the center of town.
Aguascalientes City, like so many other beautiful travel destinations on this list, escapes most peoples attention and thoughts when they are planning a trip to Mexico. However, the capital of Aguascalientes state is bursting at the seams with culture and boasts a delightful colonial old town where centuries-old architecture meets modern city living.
Aguascalientes is known for its annual “Feria de San Marcos” – a fair that takes place here every April, just after the Feast Day of San Marcos. It goes on for three weeks and features traditional dances, performances and firework displays that are hosted across town, as well as a fairground featuring hook-a-duck, ferris wheels, and other traditional rides that the whole family can enjoy.
It is mostly Mexican domestic tourists that travel to Aguascalientes for the “feria” so if you want to experience events and festivals reflective of the “real” Mexico, this can be a great opportunity to do so.
Besides simply getting lost in the charming streets and plazas of the colonial old town, a great thing to do here is to check out the José Guadalupe Posada Museum (Lado norte Jardín del Encino s/n, Dr Jesús Díaz de León, Barrio Del Encino).
Posada was an artist credited with being the “founder of modern Mexican art” and is perhaps best known for his calaveras (skeletons) that have become something of a symbol of Mexican culture.
The city is also known for its textiles and you can pick up some excellent woven bags, accessories, and homewear goods at its various mercados. Aguascalientes is a safe destination for tourists, and a good alternative Latin American city break destination.
Taxco is a colonial gem that awaits in the central Mexican state of Guerrero. It sits some 177km away from Mexico City, and 244km from the coastal resort town of Acapulco respectively.
Although Guerrero is not necessarily a state that is best known for its safety, Taxco is a safe and charming place to visit that feels almost frozen in time. Centuries ago, it was another popular silver mining town, but as the silver has dried up and the mines closed, it is now best known for its silver crafting and jewelry stores.
Perched on a steep mountain incline, the streets and passageways of Taxco are very hilly and up-and-down, and would certainly give San Francisco a run for its money. The charming plazas here are adorned with chic eateries and cafes where a well-heeled crowd sip cappuccinos beneath beige umbrellas, reminiscent of the plazas of Europe.
Look out for the impressive 18th century cathedral of El Templo Santa Prisca. The structure was a gift to the people of Taxco from Don Jose de la Borda, a Spaniard who made a great fortune in the mines of Taxco and Zacatecas and at one point was the richest man in Mexico.
He nearly went bankrupt funding the construction of the impressive cathedral. Inside, its walls are adorned with hundreds of excruciatingly detailed tiny sculptures and statues.
Final thoughts on the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico
The cities listed above are among the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico today. Despite their dark past, nobody can deny how charming they are in their current state.
Many of the old colonial buildings, homes, and mansions in these colonial cities in Mexico have been converted into new premises. They retain their original charm while breathing a new lease of life into the structures.
For instance, many former Yucatecan haciendas that once thrived off the henequen industry now operate as hotels. Some have been converted into fine-dining restaurants or event halls.
Despite the horrible things that the Spanish did to the Mexican people during the colonial era, the Mexican people have reclaimed their settlements. In turn, they have transformed many of the old buildings into wonderful museums and tourist attractions.
There are many more colonial towns and cities in Mexico that go beyond this list and I will expand this guide and add them here as I discover and explore more.
Safe travels! Buen viaje! Melissa xo