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When Mexico was occupied by Spain, between 1510-1810, the Spanish did more than ransack the country’s natural resources, enslave the locals and destroy sacred temples and religious sites. No, they also used the leftovers from the destruction of these ‘heathen’ buildings, combined them with some colonialist architectural styles and sensibilities and developed a wealth of colonial cities for which Mexico remains well-known to this day. Here are ten of the most beautiful.
Guanajuato is up there as one of Mexico’s most popular colonial cities, thanks to its relative proximity to the capital, Mexico City, as well as the expat haven of San Miguel de Allende. Known for winding streets (callejones) and colourful facades which give Guanajuato its unique charm and character, you can also find many reminders of the city’s colonial past in the Teatro Juárez, the Alhóndiga de Granaditas and the plentiful baroque churches.
Speaking of San Miguel de Allende, this favourite with out-of-towners and retirees is another classic example of a Mexican colonial city and one which you should definitely add to your Mexico bucket list. After all, we’ve all seen the photos of San Miguel’s breathtaking pink-hued church, so why not go and see it for yourself? Even if the church doesn’t take your fancy though, San Miguel is also known for tin handicrafts and an artsy vibe.
The entire state of Oaxaca is littered with architectural remnants of Mexico’s colonial past, but the capital, Oaxaca City, is perhaps where you’re likely to find some of the most impressive examples, such as the Templo de Santo Domingo, the Basílica de la Soledad and the cathedral. Aside from exploring the colonial baroque buildings that dot the capital city though, you should also indulge in sampling Oaxaca’s renowned food scene.
If you’d rather head slightly north for your colonial Mexico fix, consider a stop in Baroque-happy Puebla City, which was founded in 1531. While Puebla sustained some damage in the recent earthquakes, everything is more or less back to normal in and around the historic centre, and you should definitely check out the striking central cathedral (complete with ornate, tiled cupulas) and deep purple paint job.
San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, is a backpacker favourite and with good reason. However, this colonial city is also a worthy destination in and of itself that you should consider visiting if you like affordable and abundant artesanías and rich cultural history. Aside from that, San Cris is also home to some magnificent buildings, such as the famous mustard-coloured cathedral.
Tlaquepaque is a municipality which extends much further than its petite and well-trodden historic centre. However, many people write it off as just a day trip from Guadalajara, when it really deserves a couple of days exploration at least. Relaxed, picturesque and full of artsy surprises at every turn (like tile shops, galleries and museums), Tlaquepaque is unbearably pretty. And the colonial architecture? Look no further than the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.
Zacatecas rarely factors on most Mexico itineraries, given that it’s a bit further north than most of the main sights and doesn’t have the same reputation of, say, Guanajuato. However, if you’re truly determined to visit some of Mexico’s best colonial cities, you have to stick Zacatecas on your bucket list for the ornate basilica alone. After you’ve done gawking at that though, don’t forget to try a local favourite dish in the form of tacos envenenados.
Taxco makes for an easy day trip from Mexico City and was once known for having some of the country’s most profitable silver mines. Nowadays though, Taxco is less about the mines and more about the shops (where you can pick up some sterling silver bargains), as well as the winding cobbled streets that seem to spiral on for miles, the pretty whitewashed buildings and, of course, the show-stopping Templo de Santa Prisca.
Humid Mérida is not for the faint-hearted in the height of summer, but it is growing in popularity amongst expats and visitors alike, who have started to recognise the casual Caribbean charm and beauty of the place… excessive sweating aside. With a burgeoning art scene, some great food and a wealth of well-preserved colonial buildings, including numerous chapels, theatres and cultural centres, now is really the time to visit.
Finally, we’ll wrap up this guide to Mexico’s top colonial cities with Cholula, which is just twenty minutes away from Puebla. It may be more of a town than a city, but don’t underestimate compact Cholula; after all, it was one of the most historically important colonial sites in Mexico and remains a must-visit for those of you who are into cute centres, good nightlife and interesting museums. Oh, and it’s home to the world’s largest pyramid (by volume).