San Miguel Arcangel ChurchZai Aragon/Shutterstock.comBy Judy Waytiuk

Whenever I tell friends I’m going to spend time in one of Mexico’s colonial cities, their eyes widen in a peculiar combination of horror and awe. They fear travelling outside protected tourism resort areas isn’t safe, though in truth, it’s no more risky – and is likely much less so – than our own cities. But they also envy the experience, because resort beaches, while delightfully sybaritic, offer little genuine exotic culture, glorious history, stunning architecture and real folk art and crafts.

The colonial cities – many of them World Heritage Sites – are the places to go for that side of Mexico. They’re harder to get to but they score big points with discerning travellers.

Go Big, Go Baroque, Go Native
Bigger cities like Yucatan’s Merida (the White City), west coast Oaxaca, and inland Morelia and Zacatecas all have nearby airports with regular flights connecting mostly through Mexico City, and shelter perfectly-preserved cores within 21st century urban sprawl. Huge town squares cobbled with centuries-old stones are surrounded by equally venerable architecture and crowned by showpiece, massive cathedrals. Museums from archeological to art pepper these areas, local markets are crammed with traditional food, crafts and clothing, and local people fill the areas with their everyday lives. Basic English is commonly spoken.

ArchitectureJudy WaytiukIn Oaxaca, the central square (zocalo) is closed to vehicles, fringed by busy cafes (fried grasshoppers are local delicacies), and outdoor musicians play on Sunday afternoons. The 18th-century cathedral sits on the north side, the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) on the south. Iglesia de Santo Domingo, once a Dominican monastery, faces the zocalo, and Oaxaca’s oldest church, Iglesia de San Juan de Dios built in 1521, is a few blocks southwest.

As in other colonial cities, the list of museums here is long; top-rated ones include the Museo Regional de Oaxaca (Regional Museum of Oaxaca) and Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (Museum of Oaxacan Contemporary Art).

El AcueductoJudy Waytiuk
In Morelia, the city centre’s baroque pink stone architecture’s ornate and almost excruciatingly-detailed, its piece de resistance the twin-towered cathedral that supposedly took more than a century to complete. For blocks around the cathedral on the zocalo, ornate architecture runs riot, housing plenty of museums including the Museo de Arte Colonial, Museo de la Mascara (mask museum), Museo del Estado (State Museum), and Museo Regional Michoacano (Regional Museum of the State of Michoacan). At the colonial district’s edge, El Acueducto (aqueduct) stretches for over a mile, dozens of colonial arches alongside a busy commuter road.

ZacatecasJudy WaytiukPinker and fancier is Zacatecas, an old silver mining city, (others include Queretaro, San Miguel, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Alamos – all of them northwest of Mexico City); the distinctive stone is quarried here, and Zacatecas has been dubbed Ciudad Rosa – the Pink City. Thanks to wealthy mine owners in earlier centuries (most mines are now closed), these cities boast even more complex architectural facades. The Plaza de Armas and cathedral here are flanked by the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace), Residencia de Gobernadores (Governor's Residence), and Palacio de la Mala Noche (Palace of the Bad Night). Museo Rafael Coronel has more masks than Morelia’s museum, Museo Francisco Goita houses local artists, and Museo de Pedro Colonel is one of Mexico’s best art museums. Outside the colonial centre, ride the cable car (Teleferico) to Cerro de la Bufa, the mountain on the city’s far side, after taking the little train into Mina El Eden, the old silver mine with its entrance near the cable car station.

Puebla, Mexico’s fourth-biggest city, is probably its most visibly Spanish. There’s heavy-duty history here – locals won a battle against Napoleon’s troops in 1862, though the French did take over the city a year later. This is the home of fine Talavera pottery you’ll see everywhere, truly-Mexican foods like Mole and Chile Poblano, and the Volkswagon Beetle; this is where all current Beetles are made. The huge main square, with the city’s massive cathedral, tallest belltowers and biggest pipe organ in Mexico, is crammed with music, performers and people on weekends, and dozens more churches and cathedral domes dot the city skyline.  Beside the cathedral, the Casa de La Cultura houses Biblioteca Palafoxiana, the Americas’ oldest library.

Other larger, colonial-cored cities (Queretaro, Taxco, San Luis Potosi, Aguascalientes, Cuernavaca, Guanajuato, Campeche, Veracruz, Villahermosa, and Chihuahua) are well worth the work involved to get there. If they don’t have their own small airports, they can be reached by obtaining rental cars on arrival, and driving; the road system in Mexico has been nicely upgraded in recent decades, but travellers should carry cool drinks in their vehicles and pocketfuls of pesos should be on hand for toll highways (maxipistes).  

Small Is Beautiful
On the flip side of big and bold are smaller, still highly-traditional colonial settlements, where Spanish and indigenous blend into more subtle visual flavours.

Patzcuaro, a 45-minute drive from Morelia, is marked by its Purepecha and Tarasco native history and makes a perfect base for exploring Lake Patzquaro’s traditional island of Janitzio as well as other colonial villages nearby, all of which practice specific crafts: guitar-making, pottery, copperwork.

Patzcuaro’s  central Plaza de Quiroga is surrounded by historic buildings, and occasional trinket shops. Just east, in front of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud (the town’s patron saint), an open-air daily market sells local crafts. A block north, La Plaza Chica hosts the town’s daily local market with everything from food to herbal medicines, and small cafes offer real Mexican food, not the Tex-Mex version common in resort areas. The Museo de Artes Populares (popular arts museum) south of the Basilica, is said to be the site of the first university in the Americas, founded in 1540. The Casa de los Onze Patios (house of eleven courtyards) a couple of blocks southeast, once a convent, now is filled with higher-end art and craft outlets.

Little-known colonial towns like Tuxtla Gutierrez, Comitan and San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas state, Cholula near Puebla, or Alamos (another silver mining city), are not as easy to reach as the bigger cities with their airports, and English is frequently a little-known third language in these more remote spots (after the local indigenous language and Spanish). Hotels are usually within easy walking distance of colonial centres, and range from chains like Holiday Inn, Best Western, and Marriott to local inns. With less expensive chains, local quality may vary from usual cookie-cutter standards – which can often mean they’re far more charming. They can also be ludicrously inexpensive ($40 for a Best Western double in Cholula, less than $60 for the Holiday Inn Suites in Tuxtla Gutierrez).

But local hotels can offer far more enthralling options – though during some holidays and festivals, they book up fast with vacationing Mexicans. Some, like Oaxaca’s 16th-century, 16-room Parador San Agostin, are converted colonial buildings that fairly drip history: high, wooden-beamed ceilings, Spanish-style grillwork and colourful courtyards. Small, traditional hotels like this one, or Casa del Refugio in Patzquaro, can start at about $50 a night. Travellers who stay in one of these will come home with loads of travel bragging rights (mine revolves around the friendly ghost at the Meson de Jobito in Zacatecas. For real.)

GrasshoppersShutterstockFor the Not-So-Adventurous
To dip an experimental toe into colonial Mexican cities, many people first head for more Americanized versions where they can feel both safe and comfortable until they get a little more adventurous and have a bit more conversational Spanish under their belts.

Over the past 30 years or so, San Miguel de Allende has morphed from a quiet traditional city into a North American artists, retirees and expatriates colony. One of the silver mining cities, it’s still got the feel of a colonial city, combined with enough of the usual North American creature comforts that this is often the first real colonial city North Americans visit. Art schools, Spanish language schools, plenty of good hotels, and loads of pricey boutique shops fill in the gaps between the patches of colonial architecture, museums and galleries scattered around the main square. But because it’s been Americanized, it can be disappointing for those who really want the real thing.

Similarly, the once-small craft village of Tlaquepaque (Tla-Kay-Pa-Kay), buried inside the massive metropolis of Guadalajara (Mexico’s second-biggest city), has become a tony, trendy, touristy, pricey boutique shopping and dining area. It no longer genuinely reflects colonial history as do other well-preserved and less-trodden cities, but it still looks colonial, and is worth a stroll, a shopping trip and a meal if you’re in the neighbourhood.

And once these spots have been sampled, even more timid travellers will want to grab phrasebooks and head for the colonial frontiers, Mexican-style. They may even learn to love fried grasshoppers. I did. Sort of. With lots of salsa.