For most of us, Mexico is all about the party beach towns – but we're here to make a rebuttal. There is a whole other side of this culturally vibrant country outside the typical tourist stomping grounds. So, instead of a repeat trip to yet another all-inclusive beachside resort (admittedly, there are some incredible ones), open your heart to the colorful locales and stunning colonial architecture you’ve been missing out on. Prepare yourself for a magical ride through five of Mexico's most beautiful towns and cities.
Considered the most romantic city in Mexico, Guanajuato is a UNESCO World Heritage site chock-full of gorgeous colonial buildings, colorful homes speckling hills, narrow alleys akin to Venice, and tree-lined plazas. Sigh. Positioned in the northern central highlands about 220 miles from Mexico City, you can snag a luxury bus there (will take approx four hours) or drive, thanks to new high-speed toll roads. Since the city’s main roads meander around the hillside and through tunnels that used to be rivers, this drive is quite the epic one.
Because the city’s kick-ass architecture and maze-like cobbled streets are so well-preserved, coming to Guanajuato is like stepping back in time. Since the city is a UNESCO site, it’s illegal for people to paint their houses any other color – so you are seeing the real deal! This bustling city is best known for the Festival Cervantino in October, which celebrates the guy who wrote a little novel you may have heard of...Don Quixote. If you’re in the lovey-dovey mood, a must-see is Callejón del Beso “Alley of the Kiss,” where Mexico’s nod to Romeo and Juliet can be witnessed in the recited star-crossed lovers tale on the beautiful (and snug) balconies. If you’re over the romantic nonsense, head to Guanajuato’s Mummy Museum just outside the city on the northwest side, where you can take a fascinating tour of incredibly preserved mummies, courtesy of the country’s ultra-dry climate.
Killer place to stay: Nena Hotel, for the boutique rooftop terrace outfitted with a sophisticated bar and pool...oh, and 360-degree views of the city.
Amazing restaurant: El Midi Bistro, for when you need a break from Mexican food, this authentic French bistro serves excellent cocktails and has live music.
Lovingly called the “Soul of Mexico,” Oaxaca City is the cultural and culinary capital, and basically mecca for artists and artisans. Sitting pretty about 300 miles south of Mexico City, it’s a tad difficult to get to and the Oaxaca Airport is teeny with only one terminal. Your best bet is to fly into Mexico City and enjoy the rugged scenery on your six-hour bus ride to Oaxaca. All that effort is worth it for some of Mexico’s most charming and cherished colonial buildings, which are religiously protected by the government heritage organization INAH. Built for enjoying the tree-lined streets, cafes, and the bustling markets where the aforementioned artisans thrive, the center of town around the zocalo (Main Plaza) is closed to traffic, so it’s completely walkable.
Don’t let the seemingly laid-back pace fool you, because Oaxaca City is home to major national festivities like Guelaguetza (July) and Día de los Muertos “Day of Dead” (November). If festivals aren’t your thing, Oaxaca’s incredible culture equates to incredible museums, like the El Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo. For a unique nature experience, head about 45 miles outside of the city to Hierve el Agua, one of the few places in the world where you can see petrified waterfalls (read: waterfall-like rock formations which have been formed over thousands of years). Oh...leave some serious room in your luggage, because handcrafted Oaxaca black clay pottery and textiles will be calling your name.
Killer place to stay: Casa Oaxaca, for the adorable heart-shaped pool and cooking classes with their incredible chef, Alejandro Ruiz (Casa Oaxaca happens to be one of the best restaurants in Latin America).
Amazing restaurant: Pitionia, for recipes sourced from the chef’s mother and grandmother, including the unfairly delicious Avocado Duck.
Vibrant is an understatement when it comes to Valladolid, from the spirit of its people to the opulent colonial gems. Located in the southeastern part of Mexico, Valladolid is the third-largest city in the Yucatán Peninsula – though to most of us, it will scream quaint and charming. About 100 miles away from the party town of Cancun, flying into Cancun Airport then bussing it off-the-beaten path is the way to go, because you’ll definitely want to grab an airport margarita the second you arrive. The down-tempo vibe of Valladolid will be immediately noticeable when you catch your first glimpse of Magical Town (Pueblo Mágico), complete with pastel walls and pristine streets that are easy to navigate. And, the local women sporting the beautiful indigenous clothing made here will have you running to the nearest shop for an authentic souvenir.
Of course, you don’t have to go far to have an entirely different experience – underground. Built on the Mayan settlement of Zací, Valladolid is home to Cenote Zací, a rare urban sinkhole where the water and the eyeless blackfish offer a surreal, refreshing escape from the intense Yucatan heat. If you need a break from the seamless colonial buildings, nerd out on some ancient architecture with a visit to the Chichen Itza Ruins about 40 minutes away. Called the mother of all Mayan pyramids AND one of the seven new wonders of the world, unlike other ruins you might yawn through, you’ll definitely want to check these out.
Killer place to stay: Hotel El Mesón del Marqués, for the unbeatable location in Centro Historico and a great selection of tequila that can be enjoyed on the outdoor terrace.
Amazing restaurant: Restaurante El Meson del Marques, for the jicama margarita, a creamy and refreshing Mexican turnip margarita (you read that right) so you can earn healthy points while boozing it up.
A colonial city right on the Pacific, Mazatlán is celebrated as a hip party town on the northern coast of the Mexican Riviera. Extremely easy to get to, you can fly to Mazatlán directly from the US – and other cities in Mexico – then hop on a short 17-mile bus ride into the city. Depending on where you are in the States, you can potentially drive straight there in about 10 hours, as long as you’re down for some mountainous and windy roads. Though the beaches are tempting, it’s mission critical to get away from Zona Dorado (Golden Zone), which is your typical tourist trap along the waterfront.
Mazatlán is a revamped city bursting with character, so get lost in the candy-colored colonial town with its picturesque plazas and cathedrals before having a signature Mazatlán cocktail at a retro chic bar at sunset. Local boat tours are an amazing way to get to less accessible gems, and many offer secluded beach access and snorkeling lessons. Also worth doing away from town are the many options for eco tours, where you can go horseback riding, mountain biking, and bird-watching to see some of Mother Nature’s finest work. Love shrimp? Mazatlán is your jam, since it’s the shrimp capital of the world, exporting over 40,000 tons every year. (Holy shrimp!)
Killer place to stay: Casa Lucila, for spectacular beach sunsets, rustic minimalism decor, and close proximity to Old Mazatlán.
Amazing restaurant: La Cordeliere at Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay, for brunch and bottomless mimosas with stunning views of the Pacific.
Like being whisked away to a magical land, it’s no wonder the pastel colonial perfection of Campeche earned it a spot as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also situated on the Yucatan Peninsula, you can fly there via Mexico City or Cancun, then jump into a private taxi or Collectivo Taxi for the remaining couple miles into the city. An 18-hour scenic bus ride is also an option from Mexico City...then again, ain’t nobody got time for that! The walled city and narrow cobblestone streets frame mansions and buildings, which have been painstakingly restored to their glorious condition. Wandering along the massive walls – or on top of them – is worth a stroll, because you can fully envision the old city building them as a defense against pirates, who were a major threat back in the day.
Just outside these walls you’ll find a happening market and old fishing docks, but really the best way to soak in this delightful place is riding one of the Tranvias (trams) around colonial neighborhoods. Once the sun goes down, do as the locals do with a favorite pastime, an evening walk to ooh and aah over the illuminated pastel buildings. Although Campeche is technically a coastal city, it isn't the best for beach bunnies. Lema, a nearby fishing village, is where you can find Playa Bonita (aka Pretty Beach) and relax with a good book and a cerveza.
Killer place to stay: Hacienda Uayamon, for the candlelit private gardens and napping in the cotton hammocks by the crystal pool.
Amazing restaurant: Chocol’Ha, for savoring the best chocolate in Mexico while listening to jazz in a charming courtyard.