9 Amazing Places to Visit in Mexico (That Aren't at the Beach)
When thinking of Mexico as a travel destination, most people are under the impression that this is where you go for the all-inclusive vacation and nothing else. Granted, Cancun, Cabo and Puerto Vallarta are among the most popular places to visit in Mexico and they are great options for that sunny getaway. But Mexico has SO much to offer and we’re sharing our favourite non-beach destinations for those travellers in search of a more than palms, playas and pina coladas.
Over the years, we’ve spent more than 11 months travelling throughout Mexico and have barely scratched the surface of this vast and diverse playground. We’ve been to 10 states, visited over two dozen cities and continue to be amazed by the beautiful landscapes, picturesque towns and delicious foods that you can really only experience once you venture out of your hotel. From metropolitan cities to towns full of colonial charm, here are 9 incredible places to visit in Mexico (that aren’t by the beach).
There are so many beautiful layers to Mexico City and each neighbourhood has a really unique feel to it. If you can get used to the constant sounds of the city (and avoid riding the subway during rush hour) you’ll soon find magic in the mayhem of CDMX. We love starting off in the Zocalo and walking along Madero Street to admire the beautiful Bellas Artes building. You’ll need comfy shoes when exploring the enormous Chapultepec Park and you can recharge with a visit to El Moro for some delicious churros.
One of the best things about visiting Mexico City is that you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to day trips and adventures. First-timers will want to visit the famed archaeological site of Teotihuacan which is located roughly an hour northeast of the city centre. Another one of our favourite things to do in Mexico City is ride along the canals of Xochimilco in a traditional trajinera. CDMX is so well-connected that you can literally head out in any direction and continue exploring the beauty of Mexico.
Jalisco is the state of mariachi and tequila so it’s no wonder its capital city is among the best places to visit in Mexico. For many, Guadalajara is the heart of the country. An impressive cathedral towers over the historic centre where you’ll also find Mercado San Juan de Dios: the biggest indoor market in all of Latin America. Make sure to visit nearby Tlaquepaque where you can enjoy daily mariachi performances at El Parian. We love that Guadalajara has so many traditional cantina-style bars which are great places to order a cazuela cocktail. And don’t leave the city without trying the infamous torta ahogada, a local specialty.
For a memorable night out, you can join a Lucha Libre tour to embrace the chaos that is Mexican wrestling and then continue the celebration on Chapultepec Avenue - a main street full of bars and restaurants. Guadalajara is one of those cities in Mexico you’ll enjoy more with each visit. I’ll admit that it wasn’t love at first sight for me but, every time I go, I stumble upon new gems and end up extending my stay.
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
Shared by Meredith of The Longest Weekend
Four hours’ drive from Guadalajara (and a world away), this small city is the perfect getaway to escape the bustle of Mexico’s larger hubs. Nestled in the Mexican highlands, San Miguel is everything you'd hoped Mexico would be and then some – colourful and vibrant, yet low-key and full of charm. San Miguel has become quite the cultural hotspot, and with good reason. It was voted the number one city in the world by Travel + Leisure readers in 2017 and 2018.
So what makes San Miguel so special? For starters, the city is a fusion of old world and new - colonial architecture meets modern minimalism. Narrow cobblestone streets open up to vibrant courtyards covered in greenery and beautiful flowers. Kick off your visit sipping ginger margaritas at a rooftop bar while sampling tostadas and stuffed poblanos. Wander the city markets in search of striking fabrics and jewelry. Rent a four-wheeler for an adventure in the desert, or even soar above the city at sunrise in a hot air balloon. If you’re still on the fence, this love letter to San Miguel de Allende showcases more of the beauty you’ll find in San Miguel.
An easy bus ride from San Miguel is where you’ll find Guanajuato. The colourful city is incredibly photogenic and sits atop many lists of prettiest places to visit in Mexico. Unlike more polished tourist destinations in the country, Guanajuato has an authentic, rough-around-the-edges feel to it. This is the kind of place where you can practice your Spanish while interacting with locals and exploring the narrow alleyways, underground tunnels and nearby mines. Head to El Pipila for unbeatable views of the city and enjoy delicious tacos al pastor at El Paisa.
I have such a soft spot for Guanajuato and often find myself telling others this is one of my favourite places in the world. It didn’t take long for me to fall for the city and, after speaking with others in town, I quickly realized I wasn’t the only who felt love at first sight. When Wes and I enjoyed our first walk around the lovely Jardin de la Union back in 2016, I knew we had to stay longer than the three nights we had booked. The very next day we met the sweetest lady who offered us a deal on a little apartment that she normally rents to students. That serendipitous moment led to a month uncovering so many things to do in Guanajuato and I look forward to returning one day!
Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca
If it’s authentic Mexican food you’re after, consider Oaxaca the kitchen of Mexico. Oaxaca City is where you come to eat — the fact that it’s also a beautiful city is a bonus. Try at least one of the seven main styles of mole known to Oaxaca before sampling other local dishes like tlayudas, memelas and tamales oaxaqueños. You can pair your meal with a locally made mezcal or a traditional hot chocolate.
Apart from the beautiful old town, colourful markets and impressive botanic gardens, Oaxaca is surrounded by landscapes that make for great day trips. Allow yourself a few extra days to explore the archaeological sites at Monte Alban and Mitla, the mineral pools of Hierve el Agua and learn about the weaving traditions at Teotitlán del Valle. Two of the most notable events in the capital city are the unique Guelaguetza Festival each July and the impressive Dia de los Muertos celebrations on November 1st. And, for a truly well-rounded visit, continue on to the coast of Oaxaca where you’ll find off-the-beaten-path beach towns like Zipolite and Mazunte.
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
Shared by Inge of Only Once Today
San Cristobal is our favorite city in Mexico because of its charm and authenticity. It’s a colonial town in the state of Chiapas where it’s easy to feel at home right away. Here you’ll find a beautiful zocalo (town square) and pedestrian-friendly streets like Real de Guadalupe that embody an essence of Mexico that’s hard to put into words. This is exactly the type of place where travellers get hooked and end up staying for weeks or even months longer than planned.
When you’re visiting San Cristobal, you should explore the many markets where you’ll find Mexican handcrafts and textiles that are unique to the state Chiapas. Aside from being a pretty town, San Cristobal has loads of great restaurants and cozy bars to suit every budget. If it’s adventure you’re after, many of Mexico’s best natural highlights can be explored from San Cristobal de las Casas. The impressive Sumidero Canyon and waterfalls like Aguas Azul and Misol Ha can be done as day trips or overnight excursions from San Cristobal.
The vibrant capital of Yucatan is a beautiful city full of culture, colour and life. Admire the exquisite architecture along Paseo de Montejo, explore some of the many Maya sites nearby and indulge in a marquesita, a Yucatecan crepe-like dessert. The way I see it, Merida has the best of both worlds. It’s big enough to have everything you might need for a long-term stay (banks, international airport, Walmart, etc.) but retains a friendly, local atmosphere with many lively events taking place around the Plaza Grande. There’s also a growing expat community in Merida and several options for adventure-filled day trips like Celestun and Progreso.
It’s worth mentioning that the sun hits hard on this side of the peninsula. Last spring, we found Merida and Campeche to be among the hottest cities we’ve ever visited in Mexico. It’s not uncommon to see locals starting their day quite early to beat the heat and an afternoon siesta is expected. Merida is the biggest city in the Yucatan Peninsula and it can certainly feel busy at times. If you’re looking for a smaller but equally central (and non-beach) base, you’ll probably love the colonial charm of nearby Valladolid.
San Francisco de Campeche, Campeche
With beautiful architecture and pastel walls everywhere you look, Campeche just might be the most colourful place to visit in Mexico. Despite being located along the coast of the state of Campeche, this port city isn’t known as a beach destination. Instead, it’s the colonial charm, quaint old town and slow pace that draws visitors. Campeche isn’t as crowded as some of the more popular cities in the Yucatan peninsula which means you’ll get to roam these picturesque streets without the crowds.
Colourful buildings aside, this is a great destination for history lovers who can visit the forts throughout the walled city and learn of the constant pirate attacks that once threatened Campeche. The well-preserved, fortified town also earned itself a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999. Get to know Campeche by taking an informative trolley tour and then join locals at Parque Principal. After watching the sun set over the gulf from the malecon, head to Calle 59 for dinner al fresco at one of the many restaurants on this popular pedestrian street. We had a great weekend in Campeche and would recommend this for travellers who want to experience local life in a beautiful setting.
Bacalar, Quintana Roo
What makes Bacalar one of the most amazing places to visit in Mexico is the stunning Lagoon of Seven Colours or La Laguna de Siete Colores. In all our travels, we’ve never seen anything quite like its brilliant blue hues. This is a great place to go sailing, visit the popular Pirates’ Channel and relax in a hammock overlooking the water. But how did such a tropical paradise make it onto our list of non-beach destinations? Because this is a freshwater lagoon, there are no actual beaches in Bacalar, though I’m sure that won’t stop you from wanting to visit!
While the lagoon gets all the attention, we quite liked the town of Bacalar as well. It’s small, walkable and has that quiet, sleepy feel that you used to see in nearby Tulum. Weekends and holidays (especially Easter) are the busiest times of year since this happens to be a favourite getaway among national tourists. Bacalar is only 40 minutes from Chetumal which makes this a worthwhile stop for travelers continuing onward to Belize. If you’re planning to visit this turquoise gem, our complete guide to Bacalar will come in handy.
Bonus: Cenotes, Yucatan Peninsula
We can’t end our list of worthwhile places to visit in Mexico without featuring cenotes. A cenote is a natural sinkhole caused by the collapse of limestone rock. These crystal clear water pools are a very important part of Maya culture as they were used to make sacrificial offerings to Chaac, the god of rain. There are hundreds of these natural phenomena sprinkled throughout the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo and they certainly make for a memorable experience.
Cenotes are a great alternative for travellers who crave something more adventurous than swimming in a pool or ocean. There are a handful of extremely popular cenotes (like Ik Kil) that are impressive in their own right but often very crowded. To increase your chances of having a peaceful swim, arrive early in the morning or before close and consider less busy locations like the Cuzama Cenotes. Trained and experienced divers can also look into diving at places like Cenote Dos Ojos near Tulum.
This post highlights some of our favourite destinations in the country but there are so many stunning places to visit in Mexico that we have yet to experience. High on our list of non-beach cities for next time are Puebla, Morelia, Monterrey, Querétaro and Taxco. We know the country is full of underrated gems so, if you’ve been somewhere we missed, please share it in the comments to inspire others!