The 11 Best Reasons to Visit Campeche, Mexico

| Mila Rut on Unsplash

With most visitors to the Yucatán Peninsula making a beeline for the beach resorts on the Caribbean side, Campeche, which lies on the Gulf of Mexico coast, is often overlooked. But with hilltop fortresses, colonial-era architecture, buzzing nightlife and just-caught seafood, this richly historic port more than merits a stopover. Here’s a rundown of the reasons why.

1. There’s maritime and Maya history to explore

Architectural Landmark

Mexico, Campeche State, Campeche City, historical center classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, a Baluarte or old bastion
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

As a thriving port on an important trade route, Campeche was the constant target of pirate attacks in the 16th century and was thus heavily fortified. Much of the defensive wall from the 17th and 18th centuries still survives, as do two hilltop fortresses that were used to spot and guard against assaults from the sea. They both offer spectacular views over the coast, and one of them, the Baluarte de la Soledad, also houses the Maya Architecture Museum, which is well worth a visit.

2. It boasts a Unesco-listed city center

Architectural Landmark

Trolley buses in the plaza (square) in San Francisco de Campeche, Mexico, South America
© Nathan and Elaine Vaessen / Alamy Stock Photo

A lot of wealth poured into Campeche in the 18th and 19th centuries, much of which is still on display in the wonderfully grand mansions dotted around the historic center. A beautiful main square, the Plaza de la Independencia, fringed with colonial stone arcades, also features a soaring cathedral and leafy central park where locals stroll, sit and shoot the breeze. It’s all easily navigated on foot – the best way to explore is via a walking tour; alternatively, jump on a vintage tram for a different view of the famously colorful streets.

3. You’ll find ancient Maya sites within day-tripping distance

Archaeological site, Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark

The Five Story Pyramid at the Mayan ruins of Edzna, Campeche.
© Brian Overcast / Alamy Stock Photo

This region of Mexico features some of the most impressive and best-preserved archaeological sites of the ancient Maya. At under an hour’s drive away, Edzná is the closest major site, and features a dramatic Great Acropolis and a five-level temple. The site’s lesser-known status means fewer, if any, crowds, and a serenity that really adds to the magic of these ancient ruins. The better-known Uxmal, with its famed Pyramid of the Magician, is also just a couple of hours away, while the mighty Chichén Itzá is a three-and-half-hour drive away.

4. It’s a fabulous place for local seafood

Restaurant, Mexican

Coconut shrimps. Restaurante La Pigua. Campeche. Mexico.
© agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

A combination of its coastal setting and superb regional cuisine means Campeche offers some seriously tasty seafood. La Pigua restaurant is renowned for its fish-focused menu – its fried crab tostadas and breaded shrimp served in half a coconut are two firm favorites. Ceviche fans should drop anchor at Marganzo, which is also the top diner in the city for raw sea-sourced delicacies such as super-fresh oysters. For an extra treat, try its seafood “fountain” with lobster.

5. You’re surrounded by some of the best beaches in Mexico

Natural Feature

American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), Celestun Biosphere Reserve, Celestun, Yucatan, Mexico
© imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Just a couple of hours up the coast is the sleepy beach town of Celestún, with a lovely long stretch of white sand overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The whole area around here is a biosphere reserve, most famous for its seasonal flamingos. To the south is the still relatively unknown but beautiful beach resort and quaint colonial town Ciudad del Carmen. You’re also within road-tripping distance of the idyllic sands of Tulum, on the popular Caribbean side of the peninsula.

Around a 20-minute drive from Downtown Campeche, Playa Bonita is the closest proper beach to the port and ticks all the boxes for a day by the sea. There’s a small entrance fee, though plenty of free cabañas, shingly sand and a shoreline that gently slopes into usually calm waters.

6. The best places to stay are in storied buildings

Boutique Hotel

Casa Don Gustavo Boutique Hotel
Courtesy of Casa Don Gustavo Boutique Hotel / Expedia

With such a well-preserved historic center, it’s no wonder many of the colonial-era residences have been converted into boutique hotels. The Casa Don Gustavo Boutique Hotel is one such place, occupying a charming 18th-century mansion that feels like stepping back in time. Another top luxury pick on the outskirts of the old town is the Hacienda Puerta Campeche, comprising restored 16th-century haciendas (farms) with a secluded pool surrounded by ancient stone walls.

7. You can salsa the night away on buzzy Calle 59

Architectural Landmark

MEXICO. STATE OF CAMPECHE. TOWN OF CAMPECHE. AT NIGHT, THE CALLE 59 IS BECOMING AN OPEN AIR RESTAURANT.
© ONLY FRANCE / Alamy Stock Photo

The ever-popular nightlife strip in the city is home to numerous bars and restaurants that spill out onto the pedestrianized Calle 59. It’s a great street to wander, choose a table and drink while soaking up the balmy, buzzing atmosphere. Friday night is when it really comes alive, with the promise of open-air salsa parties where everyone from novices to seasoned dancers wiggles their hips to lively local bands.

8. Get real local flavor at Mercado Principal

Market

Four Mexican women selling produce outside at the Mercado Principal in Campeche, Mexico
© Mittelhaeuser Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s nothing like visiting the main market in most towns to really immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and, well, smells of a place – and the Mercado Principal in Campeche is no different. Across the street from the Baluarte de San Pedro, this bustling hive of commerce sells everything from just-off-the-boat seafood to precarious piles of fruit and vegetables. Also, there are numerous street-food stalls here serving local specialties, such as steaming tamales and tacos.

9. Take a sunset stroll along the Malecón de Campeche

Architectural Landmark

Denkmal Mundo Maya von Jorge Marin, Uferpromenade El Malecon, Campeche, Mexiko
© Schoening / Alamy Stock Photo

Almost as much as sitting in the zócalo, locals love a leisurely stroll along the malecón. In Campeche, it’s a lovely long waterfront promenade that runs for miles along the shores of Bay of Campeche, which is part of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the perfect spot for some early-morning exercise, such as jogging, skating or cycling along its length, which takes you past palm trees, the occasional antique cannon and a huge Mexican flag fluttering from a tall pole. Arrive around dusk for spectacular sunsets.

10. Give praise at the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción

Church, Cathedral, Architectural Landmark

Campeche, Mexico. Independence Plaza in Old Town of San Francisco de Campeche, Yucatan heritage.
© Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

With its two soaring towers overlooking the main square in the city, Campeche Cathedral (or Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) is a quintessentially colonial-style church and well worth a visit. The architecture is a fusion of baroque and neoclassical influences, while elegantly understated interiors are beautifully illuminated during the evening. Entry is free, though there’s a small fee for entry to a museum annex, housing a collection of sacred artworks and precious religious objects.

11. Day trip to a sleepy coastal island for a wealth of wildlife

Natural Feature

Isla Aguada, Campeche, Mexico
© Adam Wiseman / Alamy Stock Photo

The dramatic coastal geography just south of Campeche includes a huge lagoon, a long peninsula and Isla Aguada – a small fishing port with a wonderfully uncrowded stretch of sandy beach. It’s a couple of hours’ drive from Campeche, with superb seascape views along the whole journey. Sunset boat tours are the best way to witness the extraordinary abundance of wildlife here, from a large heron population to dolphins.

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