7 Reasons Guanajuato Is The Perfect Cultural Destination In Mexico
After visiting a number of beach destinations in and around Mexico at the end of 2018, I was ready for a change of pace. The city of Guanajuato offered exactly that and so much more! It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and for good reason: Guanajuato is absolutely packed with historical attractions dating back to the earliest days of Spanish colonization.
As a former mining town, the city was extremely wealthy and of strategic importance to Spain hundreds of years ago. This is obvious as soon as you arrive. The dozens of ornate churches throughout the city evoke images of European royalty both inside and out. In fact, this city feels so European that it’s perfect for any American craving a trip to Spain, but without the expensive plane ticket or jet lag!
It may not have the name recognition of places like Cancún or Mexico City, but I would be willing to bet that Guanajuato may become a household name in a couple of years. The historical center feels like another time and place, it’s compact enough that you can explore on foot, and it felt very safe due to the large number of tourists on the streets from morning until late into the night.
Guanajuato is great, but don’t just take my word for it! Check out the seven reasons below and see for yourself why this town should absolutely be on your next trip itinerary!
1. You can see the entire city from el Pípila.
The very first thing you should do after getting settled in is go climb the hill where el Pípila is. If you start at the centrally located Teatro Juárez, you could take this route to see one of the typical alleyways of Guanajuato as you go up (more on that below).
Once you arrive, you’ll come to the stunning view shown below! The walk up the hill is certainly a mini-workout, but the reason I recommend doing this first is that it’s a great way to mentally orient yourself in the city. If you clicked on that link above, you’ll see that Guanajuato looks like an absolute mess of streets, so viewing the most prominent attractions in person is actually a more effective way to get a sense of the urban layout.
There is also a massive monument here (El Pípila) which can be seen from many parts of the city. For a small fee (10 pesos), you can go up to the observation “deck” (box?), but it doesn’t really offer a better view than the base of the statue.
2. You’ve heard of island hopping, but in Guanajuato you’ll be cathedral hopping.
After you’ve finished admiring the view, head back down towards Teatro Juárez and start exploring. Guanajuato, which was founded in 1548, is definitely not organized into city blocks, so be prepared to get lost (at least a little) and explore some of the alleys and streets that look interesting to you.
You’ll undoubtedly encounter at least half a dozen churches, many of which you’ll recognize from el Pípila. Most of the time, they will have open doors, and the public is welcome to come in and enjoy their elaborate interiors. I assume that the different churches I saw were built over the centuries because they are all quite distinct stylistically.
3. The callejones will make you feel like you’re in Iberia.
Guanajuato is filled with alleyways (callejones), and if you don’t take some time to explore some of them, you’re missing out! The old architecture and bright colors made me feel like I was walking through a city in Europe; in particular, they reminded me of the neighborhood of Alfama in Lisbon.
4. The network of tunnels is fascinating to explore.
Another thing that gives Guanajuato such a European vibe are the network of tunnels and streets that run below the city. Originally, these were designed for water, but eventually they were converted into roads that function as the most important avenues in the area. Because the town is so old, most surface streets are too narrow for cars, so the tunnels provide a way for traffic to move efficiently.
You’ll almost certainly pass through some of these tunnels on your car or bus ride into the historic center, but they are also fascinating to explore on foot. Some of them are very long, though, so it may be a good rule of thumb to only enter one if you see sunlight at the other end of the tunnel!
Some of the prettiest parts of this network of roads are the portions which are not covered, but lined on both sides by tall, stone buildings that look almost ancient.
The tunnels are safe to walk in, but keep an eye on your surroundings because the sidewalks can be narrow and cars tend to zoom by.
5. Check out the Mummy Museum if you want to be creeped out.
This museum isn’t strictly in the historic center, so it’s probably better to take a cab or Uber. It should be about a 15-minute drive. Note that the museum is located here; originally Google Maps suggested this location, which is clearly much more remote. Technically you can see mummies at both (they are part of the same overall collection), but why not go to the closer and more convenient location?
The exhibit is basically a large collection (maybe 50 to 100) of mummies which were preserved by the unique climate and soil composition of Guanajuato. It definitely is a bit strange, especially because these people were mummified within the last 150 years. Go if you think it would be interesting, but you’re not missing out too much if this isn’t the museum for you.
6. Las callejoneadas will be your vocal instructors for an hour or so.
Spend even a few minutes in Guanajuato and you’ll be sure to notice the young men and women standing around in Spanish clothing from centuries ago. They’re not just there to take pictures with; they’re actually musical performers who put on shows every night. If you want to go on the tour, just ask any one of them for a ticket and be sure to confirm when and where it starts.
Remember the Spanish word for an alleyway? Callejón! Well, these performers are called callejoneadas, which means something like a street performer. The show I attended started right in front of the church next to Teatro Juarez. Their opening act is free to the public, but after that, the band of musicians moves into the narrow alleyways, and you’ll need a ticket to follow them and watch the rest of the show. I paid about 120 pesos (6 USD) for mine, and I’m glad I did it.
The show is interactive, and they invite everyone to participate. It’s also only in Spanish, and while they did have one employee translating to a small group of English-speaking audience members, I just decided to pick up what I could and not worry about having everything translated. There’s jokes and comedy that may go over your head if you’re not fluent, but it’s still fun nonetheless.
The tour ends at a famous spot called the Callejón del Beso (Alley of the Kiss). This was probably my favorite part of the show, because the musicians enlist members of the audience to help reenact the legend that goes along with this famous little spot in Guanajuato. I won’t spoil it for you, but even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish, you’ll get the general idea as long as you know that the story is very similar to Romeo and Juliet.
The reason the alley is so famous is that it is so narrow that its said that lovers can share a kiss from two adjacent balconies. I thought that was just part of the story, but was surprised to learn the next day that it’s actually, verifiably true!
7. There’s an international food scene where you can find almost anything you want to eat.
So here’s the good news: being a tourist town, Guanajuato has a ton of restaurant options including international choices. Here’s the bad news: It wasn’t the easiest to find amazing local food, but in all honesty, I didn’t try as hard as I should’ve.
I ate at two of the restaurants on the square (here) that clearly catered to tourists and they were just so-so. The dishes may look good, but they just didn’t have that full range of flavor that good Mexican food does.
One place in this area I did like was called La Erre Cocina Creativa. The steak dish I had there was actually quite tasty.
Although the area surrounding Teatro Juárez has everything you need, the one thing it seemed to be lacking was simple, family-owned restaurants. I guess that’s not that surprising, but I would recommend that visitors to Mexico who are intent on trying more local cuisine should venture a little ways away from the public square to look for some more authentic (and probably cheaper) places to eat.
8. Bonus reason: Teatro Juárez is absolutely breathtaking, inside and out.
Visiting Guanajauto’s most extravagant theater is a simple activity that only takes about half an hour, and the interior is something you’ll have to see to believe. The exterior evokes images of Ancient Greece and Rome, as you can see below.
However, the performance hall has a distinctly local design with all its bright colors and geometric patterns. The theater is open for self-guided tours throughout the day, although they appear to close for a few hours during the afternoon, as long as there isn’t an event. A ticket and a “camera pass” needed to take photos cost less than 10 USD per person.
Hints and Tips
You have a few options to get from Guanajuato from Mexico City. You can either take a bus (read more here, but I can’t verify if it’s accurate), or you can fly like I did. Flying domestically in Mexico can be hit-or-miss, but this time I had no issues. I flew with InterJet and it took less than an hour each way from takeoff to touchdown.
The airport serving Guanajuato is called Del Bajío International Airport (BJX), but is also known as Guanajuato International. It’s about a forty-minute car ride into the historic center of town from this small yet modern airport, which also serves passengers heading into surrounding cities such as León or Silao.
Uber does operate in this area, but I had a problematic ride when I requested one from the airport to town. You may be better off requesting an official taxi at the desk at the airport, but otherwise Uber is an option, especially within the town of Guanajuato itself.
In terms of where to stay, I’d recommend trying to find an Airbnb within walking distance of the Teatro Juárez. This is the heart of the historic center, and everything you need will be nearby. I stayed at a lovely home in one of the callejones, but you could certainly stay at a hotel or hostel located on one of the town’s main roads as well.
Guanajuato was one of my favorite cultural experiences of Mexico so far. As more American millennials discover the joys of traveling in Mexico, I think this city has the potential to become one of the country’s next hottest destinations.
I’d also like to give credit where credit is due: these two blogs, Amaixico’s guide to Guanajuato and The Wandering Daughter’s extensive list of family-friendly things to do were all I needed to have an amazing trip, even as a solo traveler just spending 48 hours here! They both have more activity ideas for visitors who plan to stay longer than a few days. Thanks Luisa and Astrid for your suggestions!
This weekend I’ll be heading to Puerto Vallarta (for the second time since the first was so much fun), so keep an eye out for that post! Afterwards, I’ll be heading to Dallas, and I’ve got a number of other Latin America trips scheduled after that.
Later this year, I’m planning some trips in Asia, which will be so exciting to finally be able to add that as a category on Caffeinated Excursions! So stay tuned, 2019 is looking like it’s going to be a great year for the blog!
Have you ever been to Guanajuato or a nearby city? Have any additional recommendations or thoughts about this beautiful town? Let me know in the comments below! I love feedback from my readers. Thanks and check back next week for the inside scoop on Puerto Vallarta!