Mexico City offers a large selection of nice colonial towns just a short drive away. Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende are definitely some of the nicest Mexican towns and can be visited from the city over a weekend. Both of them are UNESCO world heritage sites and are perfect to walk around and soak the atmosphere of the city.
Personally, I would recommend spending at least a night in each of these towns (i.e. 1.5 days), so that you have enough time to do some sightseeing and also to soak up the atmosphere by just wondering around. Queretaro, however, is not that interesting from a touristic perspective, but still worth a stop on the way to/from Guanajuato or San Miguel.
A mining town established by the Spanish in the colonial times.
In the 16th century the Spanish discovered large deposits of silver in the region and so they established Guanajuato. Hence, the town was not designed in the usual grid plan, but rather grew organically. Guanajuato region produced about half of the worlds silver and the production is still active today.
Today Guanajuato is the capital city of a Mexican state with the same name. Many say that Guanajuato is also one of the most beautiful Mexican towns and I can’t disagree. Its small streets, eclectic urban planning, beautiful colonial houses and an extensive network of underground tunnels used for transportation, offer a very unique experience for the visitor.
Exploring the city
The point in Guanajuato is to walk around the small streets, observe the nice houses and lively squares. It’s quite easy to get lost, but since it’s small you easily come back to one of the main streets again. There are plenty of really nice squares worth checking out, such as Plaza de la Paz, Jardín de la Unión and Jardín Reforma.
There is the always packed Callejón del Beso (kiss alley), the Mexican version of Romeo & Juliette, full of couples asking for a long relationship by kissing in the alley.
Some of the prominent buildings in the town are the main theatre, Teatro Juarez, and the University of Guanajuato main building.
There are several museums to see, including the birth house of the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. We chose only one museum the Museo Regional Alhóndiga. The museum is in a building that was crucial in the Mexican war for independence. On our sisit (on Sunday morning) we were very lucky to catch a talk about the history of the building and its importance in the war, which was very interesting.
On the hill above the city there is the Monumeto al Pípila, which commemorates a hero that burned the door of the Alhóndiga. Most importantly, though, are the amazing views of the whole city from there (see the main pic). The way up is really easy, but there’s also a funicular (25 pesos) to take you up.
We also took the guided tourist train (bus) around town. It leaves at 12, 14, 16 (and other times) from the Plaza de la Paz and takes about 1.5h to drive around town. It costs 100 pesos and a guide explains the history and significance of the sights you pass by. The most interesting part was that they take you through many of the tunnels and you can really see how this whole maze under the town is build.
Another famous sight in Guanajuato is the Museum of the Mummies. When they needed more space in the graveyard, they excavated some corpses and found out that they didn’t decompose, but rather mummify. I found it rather morbid and uninteresting so we didn’t go.
Guanajuato is also known for it’s nightlife. They organise callejonadas, which are guided tours at night with singing and telling of legends. Even without going on a callejonada, the centre of town on a Saturday night is absolutely packed with people.
Bocamina de San Cayetano, Valenciana
There is a large number of used and disused silver mines around the region and some are open for tourists. We visited the San Caetano one in Valenciana, about 15 minutes from Guanajuato. A miner takes you into the silver mine shaft some 60m underground and explains about the nine and the history of mining in the region. The tour is quite short and lasts only 30 min. For me it was quite interesting to see a silver mine, which is actually still active.
Cristo Rey, Cerro del Cubilete (close to Silao)
Mexican version of the Rio de Janeiro christ on the hill. Well sort of… it is a rather unassuming statue on top of a hill. The views are nice, but the road is really bad to get up there and it takes for ever. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you go there for religious purposes.
Restaurants in Guanajuato
Guanajuato is not known for any culinary delights, which is unusual in Mexico. A typical dish from the region are the enchiladas mineras, fried enchiladas filled with carrot and potatoes and chicken and cheese on top. Tt the same time they are the same as the enchiladas potosinas in San Luis de Potosí or enchiladas queretanas in Queretaro. Nevertheless, there are some nice restaurants we visited:
Los Campos: A delicious tapa style restaurant. The burrito and the guacamole was the best, but we didn’t like the cecina. Very good option for dinner with a pleasant atmosphere.
Cerro de las Ranas: Decent food, but nothing special. The enchiladas mineras were quite good. The best thing is that they have tables on the Plaza San Fernando so it’s nice to sit there in the sun for lunch or breakfast (they’re abut the only restaurant with morning sun).
Estación Gelato: Delicious gelato in a cute little alley.
San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel is one of these beautiful small colonial towns in the middle of Mexican countryside. It is very close to Guanajuato and also belonging to the same state. However, compared to Guanajuato it feels much smaller and more of a cute village rather than a town. There are also many more tourists and foreigners that live there. I’ve heard that many US veterans from WWII have retired here, which would explain the large number of English spoken on the streets.
The village is absolutely beautiful and it’s best just to stroll around the streets and sit-down for a coffee/drink wherever you fancy. The village is concentrated over a couple of streets around the main zócalo (Jardín Allende) and is best explored without a car.
We took the tourist train service (departing from Plaza de la Soledad), which makes a drive around town in 1.5h, and takes you to see the most important sights and a guide explains about the history. It was really worth doing, also because takes you to the mirador (viewpoint) where it makes a stop for 20 minutes for some great views of the town below.
I would also recommend going for an evening drink to the terrace of the Rosewood hotel. The night views of the town from there are beautiful and the hotel is very nice as well.
Close to San Miguel (30 min by car) there is the famous Sanctuary of Atotonilco, dubbed the Mexican Sistine chapel. In my opinion, it is a rather dull town with an unassuming church that has some nice frescoes inside. Next time I would skip it, it’s worth a visit only if you are really into church art.
Restaurants in San Miguel
Similar to Guanajuato, San Miguel is not famous for any type of dishes. In general, the restaurants in San Miguel are decent, but nothing special. They clearly cater to the large US tourist and resident clientele, and so for Mexican standard are pricey compared to the quality of food. However, there is a branch of the famous Mexican chef Enrique Olivera, who owns Pujol in Mexico City, called Moxi. We didn’t go there, but has some decent food at:
Los Milagros: A restaurant and a bar serving typical and decent Mexican food. The molcajete was particularly good and a super relaxed atmosphere.
El Pegaso: In the heart of San Miguel with a very nice terrace. The food was nothing special, but the terrace is great for lunch.
Campanio: Mainly a great bakery with a large selection of products. They also have a very trendy restaurant, which was extremely popular for breakfast.
Restaurante Tentenpie: A very simple family run place serving decent food. The lady was very nice and it felt rather homey.
Queretaro is a relatively modern Mexican city that, in the recent years, has witnessed a lot of development mainly thanks to modern industry. It is also one of the safer Mexican cities and states, which has also contributed to its development. From a touristic perspective the city itself does not have a lot to offer, but the state itself has other parts worth exploring, e.g. Tequisquiapan, Peña de Bernal and Reserva de la Biósfera Sierra Gorda.
I’ve only stopped in Queretaro town on two separate occasions on the way from San Miguel and Guanajuato. The historic centre is very cute and nice to see, but also very small and you don’t need more than an hour. As in any other Mexican town, there is the zócalo (or Plaza de Armas as it’s called here), and in Queretaro it is very nice and full of trees and restaurants.
Buildings along the two streets leading to the zócalo (Calle Libertad and Calle 5 de mayo) are also nice. Jardín Zena, Jardín Guerrero and the Monumento a la Corregidora also feature a lot of local life and are nice to see.
There is a very well preserved aqueduct in Queretaro, which is best viewed from the Mirador de los Arcos on Ejército Republicano street. Just next to the mirador, there is also a mausoleum of the Corregidora and a memorial to famous locals (Panteón de los Queretanos Ilustres).
Restaurants in Querétaro
Tikua Sureste: Really nice Oaxacan food restaurant. They have all the nice Oaxacan specialities, we especially liked the molotes (plantain balls) and the tlayuda (mexican pizza).
Restaurante 1810: Has a nice terrace on the zócalo, so you can enjoy the life on the square while eating. The food was decent but nothing special, and service a bit old fashioned.
La Mariposa: Famous for mantecado ice-cream and simple local food. I haven’t eaten here, but the ice-cream was good.
Palmillas on the highway between CDMX and Queretaro (close to San Juan de Rio): There is an area on the highway that is famous for barbacoa (sheep cooked underground). Barbacoa del Santiago, Los Arcos and El Güero are particularly famous. They sell the barbacoa by kilos (500 pesos per kg) or by tacos. For the 3 of us we took 1/2kg and it was just about right for a late breakfast. The meat was delicious and a really nice experience.