There are dozens of colonial cities in Mexico. Visiting these beautiful settlements is a highlight of any Mexico itinerary.
Many of them date back to the 16th century and were built by the Spanish conquistadors.
Mexican colonial cities are characterized by their pastel-colored houses and stores. Their focal point is usually a cobbled central plaza known as a “zocalo”.
The main feature of such squares is typically ornate catholic churches that are adorned with colorful frescoes and intricately designed religious icons.
At first glimpse, colonial cities in Mexico may appear as architectural marvels. Many are very reminiscent of cities in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
However, it is important to remember that there is a lot of tragedy and pain that surrounds their existence. Many colonial cities in Mexico are built on the remnants of ancient Mayan cities and other indigenous settlements.
In many cases, the Spanish conquistadors not only seized the local land with violence. But they forced the native locals to change their religion, cultural practices, and lifestyles.
They tore down important monuments, destroyed local texts, art, and literature, and it is for this reason that there are gaps in some of the history of Mexico today. The conquistadors also demolished local temples and religious sites and used stones and other building materials in order to construct their own Catholic churches.
So, Despite the tranquility and beauty that you may see in some of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico today, many of these places have a dark past. Still, the Spanish Colonial era played an important role in the history of Mexico.
If you were traveling through the country and its various states, you’ll encounter a colonial settlement at some time or another. Some of the most beautiful are detailed below.
10 Most Beautiful Colonial Cities in Mexico to Visit in 2023
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.
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 this time, Campeche operated as 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.
In 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.
The city of Puebla de Zaragoza is the capital of the central Mexican state of Puebla. It was founded by the Spanish in 1531 along the popular trade route between Mexico City and Veracruz.
Many of the buildings in Puebla have been constructed in baroque style. Many of the churches and structures here have been adorned with Talavera tiles.
This is something that you simply do not see in other Mexican cities. 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
Tlaquepaque is a pueblo magico in the state of Jalisco that sits 10km south of the state capital of Guadalajara. This region has been occupied for thousands of years.
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 organizes 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
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.
From here, you can also take a day trip to the local indigenous villages of Zinacantan and Chamula. These settlements are occupied by the Tzotzil people and are an autonomous region of Chiapas state.
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
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 that 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.
Ruins such as Ek Balam and Chichen Itza are also less than an hour away. (You can get a bus or a colectivo from Valladolid to Chichen Itza for as little as $2/40 pesos).
Comitan de Dominguez
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 was even named Travel and Leisure’s #1 city in the world to visit back in 2017 and 2018.
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.
Final thoughts on the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico
The cities of Merida, Valladolid, Puebla, San Cristobal De Las Casas, and San Miguel de Allende, etc as 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.
Discovering them is a highlight of exploring this culturally rich and historic country. if you are planning a trip to Mexico for the first time, you may also enjoy this article about safety in Mexico or this selection of interesting facts about Mexico.
Safe travels! Buen viaje! Melissa xo