The coolest things to do in Guanajuato, Mexico includes local festivals, delectable regional cuisine, colonial art and architecture, mummies…wait, what? Mummies? Yep…(but more on that later), and so much more. A labyrinth of roads and alleyways, this colorful city is about 4 hours northwest of Mexico City by car. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of 35 in Mexico, the country with the most sites in the Americas.
Coolest things to do in Guanajuato Mexico
Guanajuato is nestled in a narrow valley in central Mexico right smack in the middle of a cultural powerhouse confluence with other equally impressive cities nearby.
Due to its geographic positioning, the city branches out from the main road in narrow streets and alleyways. Too narrow for cars, the city is best explored on foot. Some of the thoroughfares suddenly turn into stairs that crawl up or down steep mountainsides and some streets are partially or totally underground.
That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the town. Meandering through town on the narrow cobblestone streets you suddenly come upon a sun splashed plaza decorated with intricate tiles and those “strong” colors like burnt orange and cobalt blue you see so often in places like Mexico and India.
A Kiss for Luck
Some streets are so narrow that the buildings on them are so close they almost touch. One such alleyway that typifies the layout of Guanajuato streets is known as El Callejon del Beso (Alleyway of the Kiss.)
Legend has it that Carlos and Ana, two young lovers, were thwarted in their love by Ana’s father who wanted her to marry a rich older man so he banished Carlos. Not easily dissuaded, Carlos noticed Ana’s bedroom window faced a balcony within touching distance of the one across from it. Carlos bought the building across Ana’s window and the two lovers would meet and kiss every night across the 69 centimeters that separated their balconies.
Ana’s father discovered the lovers and, in a fit of rage, killed his daughter. Carlos tried to intervene but fell and plunged to his death breaking his neck on the third step of the street below.
Today, couples who kiss on that third step, conveniently painted bright red, will have good luck for the next 7 years. So, first on the list of coolest things to do in Guanajuato is to kiss in the Callejon del Beso.
A Museum Lover’s Paradise
Being that Guanajuato is the birthplace of world-renowned muralist Diego Rivera, the city takes its artistic heritage very seriously. Guanajuato’s many museums range from displays of fine art to historic recreations to the totally bizarre.
If you are a museum lover and enjoy delving into the history and culture of a location, museum hopping is one of the best things to do in Guanajuato. Some of my favorites are below.
Diego Rivera Museum and home. Even if you are not an art lover, you must visit this museum. The museum is Guanajuato’s homage to local-boy-done-good, Diego Rivera. On display is his art but what I found more interesting is his home. Ever wonder how an artistic prodigy decorates his own home? Here is your chance to find out.
The art is as big and brash as was the artist’s life. Much is made of his romantic relationship with fellow artist Frieda Kahlo. Some of her works are also on display.
Museo Ex-Hacienda San Gabriel de Barrera. This is a large hacienda, or country home, of the former Spanish royalty that managed the silver mines during colonial times. At one point over two thirds of all the world’s silver was produced in the nearly La Valenciana mine.
The building is decorated as it would have looked during the 1600 and early 1700s. The interior is also decorated with period art and furniture, but from three different time periods. This affords the opportunity to follow the town’s development through its art. There is also a beautifully landscaped garden great for a pleasant stroll.
The Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato (Museum of the City of Guanajuato) is a short walk from the Diego Rivera Museum so you can see both in a morning or afternoon. The museum explains the history of the city through interesting exhibits from the original local native populations up through the present time.
The City Center
Like many Hispanic towns, the square in the center of the city is called Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza) although the official name of the square is Plaza de la Paz (Peace Plaza).
This is where many of the city’s wealthiest colonial families and royalty built their homes. These elaborate structures have been maintained, and in some cases entirely reconstructed, to appear as they were in the city’s 18th Century golden age. Some of these familial mansions, designed in Baroque and Greek Revival style, are now government institutes. It is interesting to look at these government buildings, some of which house dozens of employees, and think that they once housed a single family. Imagine the opulence!
Also decorating the Plaza Mayor like a colorful wedding cake is the Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato (Our Lady of Guanajuato.) Built in that “heavy” Mexican Baroque style between 1671 and 1696, the church is painted a bright orange-yellow color with red highlights. Its size and color combination make it visible from just about anywhere in the city, so you won’t get lost using the basilica as a reference point.
The basilica’s altar houses the image of Our Lady of Guanajuato, a gift from the King of Spain in the 1500s.
Nearby is an oddly shaped building that takes up an entire block. This is the Alhondiga de Granaditas, loosely translated as “grain house.” It was originally built to store grain to protect the residents from a famine due to crop failure. Today it is a regional museum. But the Alhondiga’s real claim to fame is its importance as the site of the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain in 1810.
Other important and architecturally impressive structures in town include the Juarez Theatre, University of Guanajuato and the Basilica of La Valenciana.
What to Eat in Guanajuato
You won’t go hungry in Guanajuato. Foodies will love the street food including local favorites tamales, tacos and gorditas (a pastry filled with meat or vegetable.) Foodie fanatics, however, will arrange to be in Guanajuato in June for the Cumbre Internacional de la Gastronomia de Guanajuato, (the international gastronomy apex of Guanajuato) a two weeklong food festival. Here lovers of glorious food can sample the cuisines of up to 10 different countries and enjoy over 120 gastronomic activities.
Whatever your eating style; Michelin-starred restaurants or a taco on a street curb, Guanajuato has got you covered.
Where to stay in Guanajuato
Like the wide range of food options in Guanajuato, accommodations also offer choice in all price ranges. Want to stay in a restored hacienda, former home of Spanish royalty where you can luxuriate in the spa? Try the Hacienda de San Cristobal. You can check out all the reviews and prices for a fantastic boutique hotels in the central district here for a fabulous stay in the historic district of Guanajuato.
Every fall around October the city of Guanajuato takes center stage as the host of one of the most important cultural festivals in Latin America, the Cervantino. Performers go from plaza to plaza putting on plays by Spanish playwright, Miguel de Cervantes. There are accompanying musical celebrations, and roving musicians wander the cobblestone streets dressed in 17th Century costumes. Truly a can’t-miss activity in Guanajuato
The Gruesome Mummies of Guanajuato
But what about those mummies?
Ah…the mummies of Guanajuato. This is what Guanajuato is REALLY famous for.
Near the center of town there is a Mummy Museum. Inside there are about 120 mummies 60 of which are on display. What are they doing there? How did they come to be on display?
In the early 1800s Guanajuato was racked by a cholera epidemic. Many people died at once and they had to be buried quickly in the local cemetery to stop the epidemic.
Time passed. People forget about the epidemic. In the 1870s, the Church, seeking revenue, declared that if people did not pay the upkeep on relatives’ cemetery plots, their long-dead loved ones would be disinterred.
When bodies were disinterred the locals were shocked to see that many bodies looked remarkably well-preserved. Scientists determined that the unique soil composition in Guanajuato was perfect for preventing corpses from decomposing.
Little by little word got out that there were mummies in Guanajuato. Visitors wanted to see them so the local authorities started charging for the privilege and that’s how the museum was created.
To make things more interesting, the rumor is that some folks were buried prematurely and woke to find themselves in coffins. Some of the corpses appear screaming in terror which would appear to substantiate that claim.
The mummies of Guanajuato are so unique, so unexpected, so weirdly Mexican that you’re almost obligated to visit. Truly the most interesting thing to see in Guanajuato.
Day Trips from Guanajuato
Two hours southeast of Guanajuato is another UNESCO World Heritage site, Queretaro. The town has over 1,400 registered monuments (yes, not a typo), and many of the museums are free. The best part is that this is Mexico’s wine producing region and a lovely place to take a wine tour accompanied by the region’s gastronomy.
San Miguel de Allende
I know it seems like an embarrassment of riches, but closer still, about 1 ½ hours from Guanajuato is yet another colonial gem, UNESCO World Heritage site, San Miguel de Allende.
San Miguel has evolved into a major ex-pat community for retired U.S. citizens. As such, English is almost a second language. The town is known for all things colonial, especially Spanish Baroque architecture. There is a lively music and art scene and the restaurants offer traditional Mexican as well as international cuisine.
Guanajuato is the perfect location to park yourself for a few days, or weeks, to explore the town as well as the surrounding area. There is a good reason why visitors say “Mexico Magico.” Visit Guanajuato and see why.
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Guest writer – Talek Nantes bio:
Talek Nantes is an author and the founder of the travel blog, Travels with Talek, where she shares travel tips, advice and inspiration to help travelers create their own unique travel experiences. Talek has travelled to over 110 countries and believes that when it comes to travel, it’s all about the experience.
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