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An Expert Guide to the Top Destinations in Mexico

A welcoming country with a stunning diversity of cultures, cuisines, and landscapes, Mexico is a place worth visiting over and over again. I’ve traveled the country from its northernmost border in Tijuana to its southern limit in Isla Mujeres, and there are still places I long to go or dream of seeing again.

From beachfront yoga retreats to avant-garde photography exhibitions, international performing-arts festivals to breathtaking wilderness, Mexico is a fascinating place with a seemingly endless variety of experiences to offer. The constant is the warmth of its people and culture—and, of course, its enviable weather—near-perfect year round in most of the country.

If you’re considering a trip to Mexico, here is a primer on the country’s most popular destinations as of 2019.


mexico city at sunset
Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral on the Plaza de la Constitución. Photo © William Perry/123rf.

Mexico City

Mexico’s capital is a city like no other—a sprawling, vibrant metropolis of 20-plus-million people that embodies the splendor and chaos of modern life, as well as the richness of Mexico’s culture and history. With a multitude of excellent museums, contemporary galleries, and critically beloved restaurants opening throughout the city, Mexico City’s star is rising quickly.

Best for: Adventurers, city types, artists, writers, couples, history buffs, and food lovers.

Belly button of the world: Mexico City’s central square, the Zócalo, has been the heart of the metropolis since the founding of the Mexica city of Tenochtitlan in 1325. Destoyed by Hernán Cortés’s army, it became the capital of New Spain in 1521.

Jewel of the city: The National Anthropology Museum holds a breathtaking collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and art from cultures across Mexico. The rooms dedicated to the city of Tenochtitlan and the Valle of Mexico (where modern-day Mexico City was founded) are particularly impressive.

City to scale: Futura CDMX is an interesting new museum dedicated to urban planning and development. The heart of the museum is a scale model of the city, which fills a room on the ground floor; however, the interactive exhibits upstairs, which chronicle the city’s past and present, are equally fascinating.

What to eat: Tacos are king in the capital. Try El Huequito in the centro histórico for tacos al pastor, “Los Tacos del Guero” (officially Taqueria Hola) in the Condesa for tacos de guisado, Por Siempre Vegana in the Roma for vegan tacos on the street, or Pujol in Polanco for a fine-dining rendition of tacos.


oaxaca skyline at sunset
Oaxaca is a top stop for food lovers. Photo © Matt Trapp/123rf.

Oaxaca

With its rich cultural traditions, mystical Zapotec ruins, and majestic colonial-era centro histórico, the city of Oaxaca is one of the most magical places in Mexico. It is also a top stop for food lovers: Oaxaca’s famous cuisine is among the most distinctive and delicious in Mexico.

Best for: Culture lovers, foodies, students, artists, activists, and families.

The spirit of the place: Fiery, smoky, and potent, Oaxacan mezcal is generally considered the best in Mexico.

Best bar snack: Fried grasshoppers are a salty compliment to a shot of mezcal or a cerveza.

Best late-night nosh: You can stop in till four o’clock in the morning at Tlayudas Los Libres, a famous little eatery on a street of the same name, which specializes in crunchy tlayudas (giant corn tortillas filled with beans and cheese) prepared on an open fire.

Market finds: The traditional markets in Oaxaca are a great place to eat and shop. Pick up tamales wrapped in banana leaf, fresh cheese, or a mug of chocolate caliente (made with water rather than milk, as is traditional in Oaxaca). Or try tejate, an unusual cold beverage made from chocolate, maize, the seed of the mamey, and sugar. In the market, it’s typically served in a hollowed-out gourd.

Off-the-beaten-path day trip: Visit the lovely Centro de las Artes de San Agustín, a contemporary art center located in a turn-of-the-20th-century textile factory, in the small town of San Agustín Etla.


oaxacan coast at sunrise
Playa Zipolite. Photo © Konstantin Kalishko/123rf.

The Oaxacan Coast

Take a rattletrap bus (or a quick flight) over the Sierra Madre to find cheap, tucked-away beach towns along the Pacific coast in Oaxaca state, including the hippie haven of Zipolite, the surfer paradise of Puerto Escondido, and quiet fishing village of Puerto Ángel.

Best for: Hippies, beach bums, and backpackers.

Sweet under-the-radar beach: San Agustinillo, between Zipolite and Mazunte, is a gorgeous little bay surrounded by small lodgings and cafes.

Turtle love: Many sea turtles come to nest on the beach at Mazunte, where the local Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga works to promote the turtles’ well-being and safety.

A touch of chic: Stylish Hotel Escondido, a design-centric beach hotel, run by chic Grupo Habita, opened in Puerto Escondido in late 2013.


surfboards on the beach in puerto vallarta
Surf boards on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. Photo © Julie Meade.

Puerto Vallarta

The Pacific Coast’s most romantic resort town is more than high-rise hotels and all-inclusive getaways. For thoroughly Mexican charm, head to Old Vallarta, where cobbled streets are flanked by Mexican restaurants, and family-style hotels line the beach.

Best for: Families, art lovers, spring breakers, and honeymooners.

Whale of a time: Marine mammals love the tranquil waters of the Bay of Banderas, and dolphins visit Puerto Vallarta throughout the year. From November to April, numerous companies offer whale-watching tours during the humpback migration off the coast.

Beat the crowds: Water taxis shuttle beachgoers to quieter coves and bays near Vallarta, like Yelapa and Las Ánimas.

Or join ’em: The multistory nightclubs along the Malecon are chapels to tequila shots and thumping dance music, where you can bump with the crowds till dawn, or simply enjoy a beer and the breeze with a view of the sea.


aerial view of lush vegetation in Sayulita
View of Sayulita and the bay from a house on Nanzal Hill. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Sayulita and the Riviera Nayarit

The Pacific beaches north of Puerto Vallarta, located along the Pacific Coast of Nayarit state, are quieter, more laid-back, and, in most cases, far cheaper than their famous neighbor to the south. Newly chic Punta Mita is the place to go for upscale luxury and get-away-from-it-all beaches. Come to Sayulita to surf, take yoga classes, and mingle with other vacationers in the low-key bars and cafes along the shore.

Best for: Surfers, yogis, beach bums, and families.

Best break: Sayulita is a popular destination for surfers, with its gently crashing waves suitable for beginners as well as more advanced surfers.

Upscale spot: The ultra-luxe St. Regis, the Four Seasons, and the W are located in Punta de Mita, the rugged point on the northern end of the Bahia de Banderas.

Low-key spot: North of Sayulita is San Francisco, unofficially known as San Pancho, a quiet little beach town with plenty of budget accommodations, a surf break, and a friendly community.

Best break: Sayulita is a popular destination for surfers, with its gently crashing waves suitable for beginners as well as more advanced surfers.

Fun fact: The state line between Jalisco (where Puerto Vallarta is located) and Nayarit also delineates the time zone; even though it’s just a short drive north up the coast, it’s is one hour earlier in Nayarit (Mountain Time) than in Puerto Vallarta (Central Time).


aerial view of colorful houses in Guanajuato, Mexico
The colorful city of Guanajuato. Photo © bpperry/iStock.

Guanajuato

Guanajuato is one of Mexico’s most spectacular cities. In the city’s unique centro histórico, crumbling 17th-century churches and pastel-hued houses climb the walls of a steep ravine, and twisting roads lead to shady open plazas. It’s a place to stroll, to sip coffee, to get lost. Originally founded in the 16th century, the city grew wealthy and opulent after silver was discovered in the craggy peaks near the city center.

Best for: Students, backpackers, families, and culture lovers.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Since 1988.

Cool urban quirk: In the centro histórico, all automobile traffic runs through underground tunnels, making the city particularly pedestrian-friendly.

Study bug: Home to the prestigious Universidad de Guaunajuato, this little town also has numerous Spanish-language schools for foreigners—and plenty of adorable coffee shops to study in.

Quixotic attraction: The two-week-long Festival Internacional Cervantino in October is Mexico’s largest and most prestigious arts festival, with performers from across the globe coming to the city’s many historic theaters and outdoor plazas.


church in San Miguel de Allende
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. Photo © Julie Meade.

San Miguel de Allende

A romantic colonial-era pueblo in the Mexican highlands, San Miguel de Allende has grown more sophisticated in the past decade, with stylish small hotels, creative fine-dining restaurants, and concept boutiques cropping up across town. Even so, this beautiful little town retains its quirky charm, its signature warmth and friendliness, and its unique beauty—San Miguel’s blend of earthy ochre- and rust-colored buildings, sandstone chapels, weathered fountains, flowering trees, and soft pink sunlight is a feast for the eyes.

Best for: Artists, art students, cultural travelers, first-time visitors to Mexico, couples, solo travelers, and retirees.

Iconic sight: The Parroquía de San Miguel Arcángel—a neo-gothic, pink-sandstone church, right in the center of town—is one of the most unusual landmarks in Mexico, and a symbol of San Miguel de Allende.

San Mike: Since the 1940s, San Miguel de Allende has been home to a sizable American and Canadian expatriate community, attracting writers, artists, and bohemian types with its beautiful light and easygoing atmosphere. It’s also a popular place to retire.

¿Que Pasa?: San Miguel’s weekly bilingual newspaper Atención San Miguel has a weekly insert called “¿Que Pasa?” that lists all the gallery openings, concerts, poetry readings, and other special events taking place around town. Don’t be shy: pick something that interests you, and drop by. San Miguel’s community is close-knit and welcoming.

Dive bar, bar none: With cheap beer and occasional art exhibitions, La Cucaracha is a San Miguel institution and one of the coolest low-key cantinas in Mexico.


waves on the shore of Isla Mujeres in Mexico
Take a day trip from Cancún to Isla Mujeres. Photo © Byelikova Oksana/iStock.

Cancún and Isla Mujeres

A glitzy resort town located on a spectacular stretch of coastline, Cancún is known for its all-inclusive resorts and multistory nightclubs, which seem to multiply with every passing year. Resorts aside, it is a place of unparalleled natural beauty, with a shimmering turquoise sea and powdery white sand, fringed by emerald mangrove forests. A quick ferry ride from Cancún, the teensy island of Isla Mujeres was, until recently, home to a small fishing community. Thanks to its picturesque beaches and proximity to Cancún, the island is today a popular destination for day trips from the mainland; however, it’s also an excellent place to spend your holiday, with a pleasingly laid-back atmosphere and lower prices than its famous neighbor.

Best for: Beach bums, families, adventure sport enthusiasts, and spring breakers.

Up all night at: Coco Bongo is the ultimate Cancún nightspot.

Rainy day activity: Opened in 2012, the interesting Museo Maya de Cancún includes a small ruin site in addition to its collection of Maya art and artifacts.

Most unusual gallery: Grab your snorkel gear to explore the environmentally friendly, PH-neutral sculptures of the Museo Subacuático de Arte or the Subaquatic Museum of Art, which has three underwater locations in the Mexican Caribbean.


beach near el castillo in tulum, mexico
El Castillo in Tulum. Photo © diegocardini/iStock.

Tulum and the Riviera Maya

The gorgeous coastline south of Cancún, often referred to as the Riviera Maya, is known for its azure sea, white-sand beaches, and interesting local culture, with history that stretches back to the Mayan cultures of pre-Columbian Mexico. The area has grown rapidly in the past decade, particularly around Playa del Carmen, where you can now find excellent restaurants, nightclubs, and resorts to rival Cancún’s—though Playa, as it’s often called, retains a pleasingly laid-back, beach-centric ambience. A little farther south is Tulum, a once-sleepy community that has become a locus for chefs, bohemians, and frazzled New Yorkers in search of picturesque wellness retreats.

Best for: Beach lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, scuba divers and snorkelers, and families.

Underwater sights: Surrounded by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the island of Cozumel is a world-famous scuba-diving destination.

Best place to party: The full moon parties at the Papaya Playa Project are legendary.

Best place to sit still: The small beachfront town of Akumal, between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, retains a low-key, locals-only feeling.

Wild time: The Biosphere Sian Ka’an, an emerald expanse of bays, estuaries, and mangrove forests on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, is home to an astounding diversity of wildlife, including howler monkeys, toucans, iguanas, crocodiles, and more.

Sense of history: Busloads of tourists come to Chichen Itzá from Cancún every day, and with good reason. The ruin of this Mayan city is among the most splendid in Mesoamerica. You’ll find fewer crowds at Cobá, a stunning Mayan city east of Tulum, where visitors can rent bikes to explore the ruins.


sunset over merida mexico
Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán. Photo © Jonathan Ross/iStock.

Mérida

The capital of the state of Yucatán, Mérida is a charming colonial-era city with a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere, stellar local cuisine, and a balmy tropical climate. While boutique hotels and stylish restaurants are cropping up around town, Mérida remains an attractively traditional and inexpensive destination, great for cultural travelers and those looking to learn more about local culture and Mayan history. In addition to strolling its historic streets and dining at its many excellent eateries, the city is good home base for exploring the greater region through day trips to the colonial-era town of Valladolid, the beach in Progreso, and the Maya cities of Uxmal or Chichén Itzá, among others.

Best for: Cultural travelers, families, solo travelers, and budget travelers.

Hot tip: The wonderfully flavorful and ultra-spicy chile habanero is the most popular accompaniment in traditional Yucatec food.

Chill out: Across the Yucatán peninsula, there are hundreds of deep natural sinkholes filled with freshwater, known as cenotes (say-no-tays). Taking a dip in these ultra-pure, spectacularly beautiful swimming holes are the most unique and effective way to cool off on a balmy, tropical afternoon.


Santa Maria beach in Los Cabos Mexico
Bahia Santa Maria in Los Cabos. Photo © rand22/iStock.

Los Cabos

Cabo San Lucas, on the tip of the Baja California peninsula, is perched right between the wild Pacific and the tranquil Sea of Cortez. It’s a stunning, upscale resort town, with some of the most dramatic beaches and poshest hotels in the country. San José del Cabo, Cabo San Lucas’s quieter, more inexpensive sister city, is just a 30-minute drive down the cape, and a great pick for travelers seeking a touch of traditional Mexican charm.

Suitable for: Newlyweds, couples, families, adventure-sport enthusiasts, and fisherman.

Best cheap snack: Fresh fish tacos, stuffed with deep-friend halibut and topped with shredded cabbage, lime juice, and salsa.

Take the kids: Enjoy a glass-bottomed boat ride to the famous arch off the point in Los Cabos, then spend a few hours lounging in the sun on the Playa del Amor.

Or rent a boat to see: Blue, sperm, humpback, minke, and gray whales, among others, come to breed in the Sea of Cortes November to December.

If you miss whale-watching season: Take a kayaking tour of the island of Espiritu Santo, off the coast of La Paz, where the surrounding reefs are filled with a remarkably diversity of fish, birds, and marine mammals.

Skip the beach to visit: Flora Farm, an organic farm and restaurant, is a charming oasis in the desert.


In addition to the destinations listed above, there are dozens more wonderful places to visit in Mexico today, like the wine-and-dining-centric Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California Norte and the magical alpine pueblo San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern state of Chiapas, in addition to other lesser-visited but nonetheless spectacular locations like Patzcuaro, Morelia, Puebla, the Copper Canyon, Real de Catorce, Mazatlan, Querétaro, Tepoztlan, Cuernavaca, or Zacatecas.

One thing is certain: The more you travel in Mexico, the more addictive it becomes.


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