Guanajuato (pronounced Gwan-a-wat-o) recently got named as one of Lonely Planet’s destinations of 2018, and I had no idea I was so ahead of the curve. I recently visited the city and was totally enamored with the colonial architecture and friendly locals.
More GTO: Read My recent visit to Guanajuato and Where to stay, eat and drink in Guanajuato.
Guanajuato was founded in the 16th century and is most well known for its silver, gold, and mineral mining. Here, you will be surrounded by ornate Spanish colonial buildings; much of the time I felt like I was visiting a Mexican version of Madrid. One of the most unique things about the hilly city is its series of tunnels, which remove most cars from the main roadways. Thanks to the tunnels, exploring the city’s cobblestone streets on foot is very enjoyable.
If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten path, but at the same time cosmopolitan and easily navigated, I highly recommend planning a trip soon!
Flying in is easy. The closest airport is León (Airport code BJX), which is 30 minutes or less from Guanajuato. You can take a taxi into the city for 400 pesos (about 20 bucks). Make sure to decide upon the price before getting in the cab.
You can also take a bus from other parts of Mexico inexpensively. My friend Rachel (remember her guide to Guadalajara?) took a direct bus from Mexico City and said it was fine.
I’ll go ahead and discourage you from renting a car and driving all over Mexico. Parking is insane, and cabs/busses are cheap. Guanajuato is a colonial town and is best experienced on foot.
Things to do
I mentioned above that walking the winding cobblestone streets is the best way to experience the city. We had a local guide, our friend that lived in Guanajuato for much of his life. If you don’t have that (😉) put on some comfortable shoes and follow this detailed walking tour to see the best that the city has to offer. Don’t worry about getting lost: that’s part of the city’s charm. If you do get lost, a taxi will take you back to the center affordably.
You should definitely check out Alhóndiga de Granaditas, the armory where one of the first confrontations of the Mexican war of Independence happened. Other important buildings you should see are the University of Guanajuato (the beautiful white building in my photo above) and the theaters (Teatro Juarez & Teatro Principal). The city’s cathedrals will also wow you: the vibrant yellow Basílica de Nuestra Señora, the Iglesia de San Diego with statues atop it, and the Templo de la Compania which is more than 250 years old.
Another popular stop is the Callejon del Beso, or the legendary alleyway of the kiss. You may hear a tour guide sharing the Romeo-and-Juliet style legend of Ana and Carlos, a rich Spaniard and a poor miner. The alley is so narrow that it’s possible to kiss from one balcony to the other. Make sure to bring another friend along to photograph you and your love. Off of the Plaza de Los Angeles.
Monumento al Pípila or “El Pípila” for short, is a statue commemorating a local hero of the Mexican Revolution. Legend has it that he set the colonial powers’ arsenal ablaze while wearing a massive slab of rock on his back to protect himself from gunfire.
Up here at the monument you can get the best view of the city. I recommend visiting during the day and again at night. You will note the city’s crescent shape that follows the natural geography of the valley. From this vantage point you can fully appreciate the way the colorful buildings appear stacked atop each other. Get to the monument by taking the funicular: 25 pesos each way. Otherwise, be ready to climb an extremely steep hill.
Guanajuato used to be a booming mining city and still operates mines in the area. You can explore a mine, many of them offer tours. We toured Mina el Nopal (30 pesos) and thoroughly enjoyed it. The tour was conducted by a university engineering student entirely in Spanish. My bilingual friends helped fill in the gaps of what I couldn’t understand. Learning from a student enhanced our experience by adding a layer of relevance.
Mercado Hidalgo lies in the heart of the city and in many ways is the heart of the city. Complete your daily shopping quickly—you can buy fruit and veggies, meat, snacks, gifts, and more. In the morning it isn’t too crowded, but the after-work rush is very busy. This is a great place to buy souvenirs (the prices are good, so no need to barter).
You can buy some very fine silver here, but look for upscale stores to make sure you’re getting the real deal. Casa de Quijote is very fancy and worth window shopping even if you don’t buy anything there. You can find some silver of varying quality near the Callejon del Beso, but remember: if the price is too good to be true, it probably is.
I really liked Cuidado con el Perro (“beware of dog”) which is a chain shop throughout Mexico. They have an especially chic, affordable men’s section.
Sweets: Two shops really enchanted me: La Galereña, a candy store that sells traditional sweets (I love the circular pepitas brittle) and other treats. Find it west of Mercado Hidalgo. The other shop I was impressed by is called La Purisima, a pandelaria or shop where you can buy bread (normal and pastries). Sweet breakfast isn’t really a “thing” in Mexico, so I made my own by grabbing a few panes dulces and a coffee.
San Miguel de Allende is very gorgeous. Many Americans skip Guanajuato and come here, and I get it. It’s well curated and friendly to English-speakers (read: within comfort zone). However, I feel that Guanajuato gives a more authentic experience and has more surprises around each turn. I’ll write more about San Miguel de Allende soon, so make sure to come back for more information.
Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato, or the mummy museum. While the museum’s reputation precedes it due to the creep factor, there are so many better things to see in this beautiful town. The story behind the museum is extremely sad. Apparently, families had to continually pay a tax (or lease) on a burial plot and the deceased people whose family could not continue to pay got disinterred (dug up). WHAT!? Those dry, shriveled bodies are now on display. Terrifying, sad: I give it a hard pass.
Of the three areas of Mexico I’ve visited, this one provided me with a unique, great experience. The old world charm is beautiful and relaxing. Instead of go, go, the city invites you to pause, enjoy delicious food and drink, and soak up the ambiance. I highly recommend coming here for a three or four day getaway.
View more in my “First Time Visiting” series: London, Mexico City, Paris, San Diego
Photos by Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.