15 unmissable attractions to experience the best of Mexico
When concocting pictures of Mexico many things can pop up in your head – from the paradisiac Riviera Maya beaches with their ample selection of luxury all-inclusive resorts, to guitar-strumming mariachis clad in typically flashy suits and giant sombreros to match or mouth-watering tacos, nachos and burritos dripping in spicy sauce with fresh chillies with off-the-scale hotness. None of these images is wrong but none is wholly representative of all that Mexico has to offer, beyond these and other Mexican clichés lies a world of wonder that will see your jaw hit the floor.
Mexico is such a vast country in terms of geographical expanse and variety of landscape (from jungle to desert, mountains and two coastal seascapes (half of the country looks out to the Pacific Ocean and the other side to the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea), there’s no shortage of natural marvels to be admired. The same can be said in equal amount and with equal emphasis when it comes to its ancient ruins and historical Mayan and Aztec sites, dating back centuries and spanning millenniums in the case of the Mayan civilisation.
With a booming 112 million population scattered along no less than 31 states, this is a country that revels in its culture, that keeps traditions alive and honours its heritage. While some traditions are universally practiced, many are indigenous to one place only, so getting a true picture of diverse, multi-faceted Mexico is not as easy as it seems. But this is the purpose of this blog, to save your reading hundreds of guides and travel publications to help you find some of Mexico’s top must-see places in one single place. Then, you can plan your future Mexico holidays more easily.
My list of things to see and do in Mexico
These are the Mexican experiences I dare recommend if you want a well-rounded taste of the best of Mexico. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive, but nevertheless a good starting point to tackle all that Mexico has to offer – without further ado, here they are.
- Palacio de Bellas Artes – Mexico City
No Mexico holiday would be complete without a stop in the capital, even if it’s a short one. If you really want to get under Mexico’s skin (even if only scratching the surface slightly) and find out about its multi-layered culture this is the best place to start and the number one place to visit here is the majestic Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City. Regardless of whether you are an art lover (although it would certainly help), this grand palatial construction houses some of the world’s finest pieces: from full-size Mexican murals taking over the top floors to seasonal exhibitions showcasing the work of renowned classic and contemporary international artists.
Just the setting alone, next to the centric Alameda Central park is breath-taking enough, with the museum’s façade and interior surfaces sculpted in exquisite Italian Carrara marble, polished to its highest gleam. At night the building’s exterior lights up in vivid colours making it all the more attractive and eye-catching for night-crawlers – and while the museum’s art exhibits might be closed at this time, the Palacio de Bellas Artes also hosts frequent live performances by the National Company of Opera, the National Symphonic Orchestra and the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. After all, it was here that Maria Callas made her opera debut in 1950.
- Castle of Chapultepec – Mexico City
Also known as Castillo de Chapultepec in Spanish, this grand neoclassical construction in Mexico’s capital, with touches of Neo-Romanticism and Neo-Gothic styles, dates all the way back to 1785, when construction first started on it; although completion wouldn’t happen until nearly a century later, in 1863. Why should you care to visit it? Firstly, because of its stunning hilltop location overlooking the Chapultepec Park, at a height of over 2,000 metres above sea level.
Secondly, because it was once the grand dwelling of Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota, who made this their residence during the Second Mexican Empire, and as such the castle guards unique treasures related to that time period with exquisite timepieces in the form of murals, exquisite rooms with opulent furnishings and décor (including Emperor Maximilian’s bedroom, preserved intact) as well as a magnificent long hallway with floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows running all alongside it. It will draw your breath.
And thirdly, because it is home to the National Museum of History. It stands as the only royal castle in all of North America to have been actually used as residence of a sovereign and it later served numerous purposes including an observatory, Military Academy and Presidential home.
- Chichen Itza and Tulum Pyramids from Cancun
Easily (and best) accessible from Cancun – the coastal jewel of the Quintana Roo state in Mexico, bathed by the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea – the two stunning archaeological sites of Tulum and Chichen Itza will ease you into the world of the once great Mayan civilisation. They are located on the Yucatan peninsula, approximately two hours apart by road, so you can easily squeeze them both into a one-day sightseeing journey.
An excellent addition or extension to a Cancun holiday which will add another dimension to your overall Mexican experience, allowing you to dig deeper into the country’s ancient history; visiting the Tulum or Chichen Itza ruins involves leaving the beach for a day in exchange of a full cultural immersion. You can make Tulum your first stop after a scenic two-hour drive along the coast. After reaching it you’ll be gaping in awe at the beauty of Tulum’s seaside with emerald waters and floury white sands – even though it attracts hundreds of tourists every day it remains more off the beaten path than Cancun and you’ll be glad for it. Oh, and there’s great opportunities for cave diving in crystalline “cenotes” here, as well as an ample selection of restaurants to suit every pocket. The ruins themselves are found in the Tulum National Park, spectacularly poised atop 12-metre-high cliffs.
Another two hours on the road will get you to the archaeological marvels of Chichen Itza. Declared one of the “Seven Wonders of the New World”, the amazingly well-preserved ruins of Chichen Itza are, understandably, far more crowded than Tulum’s but the archaeological remnants of this city are all the more impressive for it. Its inland location means no beaches and no seaside views but you don’t need any of that when you’re standing and contemplating in awe an entire Mayan City of breath-taking dimensions. You’ll feel especially small and insignificant when looking up at “El Castillo”, the tall centrepiece dominating this wondrous site.
You can make it to both and that’s what I would advise, but if you had to choose only one of these two, it ultimately depends on whether you favour ticking off the list a “New World Wonder” or you fancy a more laidback and relaxing approach to exploring the remnants of a smaller Mayan city in a quaint beach resort town.
- Archaeological Site of Teotihuacan
This is Mexico’s most visited archaeological site and the first in our list to belong to a Mexican indigenous culture other than the Mayan. With a name whose literal translation from the Nahuatl language has been disputed among the following variants: “place where men become gods” and “birthplace of the gods”, the imposing site of Teotihuacan was once a vast Mesoamerican city located in a sub-valley that is nowadays part of the State of Mexico, just 40 kilometres from the heart of Mexico City. Little is known about its founders, the Teotihuacanos, who mysteriously disappeared and vacated the city before, many years later, the Aztecs discovered it and took over.
The collection of amazingly well-preserved pyramids and ruins in Teotihuacan stand as one of the most architecturally significant in the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. During its heyday, somewhere around the first half of the first millennium AD, this was the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, which in turn made it the sixth largest in the whole world at the time. It’s also home to the world’s third largest pyramid, the awe-inspiring Pyramid of the Sun, trailing behind the Great Pyramid of Cholula, also in Mexico, and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. There’s much to explore beyond the dominating pyramids (among them the 1,800-year-old Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent), with multi-family residential compounds, vibrant murals and the intricate Avenue of the Dead complex.
The anthropological museum onsite holds an insightful collection of objects and remnants from the Teotihuacanos and Aztec population that once dwelt here, although the site’s original inhabitants (and their ethnicity) remain unknown with inconclusive clues as to who they could have been or whether this was a multi-ethnic society made up of Otomi, Maya, Mixtec and Nahua people.
- Xplor Park in Playa del Carmen
Those in search of an adrenaline rush in Mexico should look no further than the Xplor Park, offering unique adventures in the most amazing natural surroundings. You’ll feel like a true explorer, swimming through cavernous depths, zip-lining your way along lush treetops and getting amazing birds’ eye view over the jungle-like landscape.
Xplor’s biggest feature is its system of underground caves, complete with impressive stalagmites, stalactites and fossils. There are six main activities to be enjoyed here: zip-lining, rafting, spelunking, swimming in underground rivers, hammock splashing and driving amphibian vehicles under and over the earth. All of these fun pursuits put you in direct contact with nature and your day pass allows you to enjoy each once, with each lasting an approximate 45 minutes. Entry to the park also grants you unlimited access to a cooling selection of juices and smoothies, plus a hearty buffet lunch at “El Troglodita” restaurant.
If all of this wasn’t exciting enough, extreme adventurers also have the option of embarking on a thrilling nighttime adventure with a torch-lit tour taking you to experience spectacular sunsets from the treetops and hiking journeys in the darkness of the jungle surrounded by bonfires. You can plunge into underground rivers where the stars will be your only guide.
- Xcaret Eco Park in Riviera Maya
Xplor’s next door neighbour, the Xcaret Park is more about eco-wonders and eco-friendly archaeological wonders to be discovered as you follow the Mayan trail and experience this natural reserve much in the way the Mayans would. As much a cultural immersion as an adventurous one, there’s many activities to choose from, including tasting delicious local fare, witnessing a game of traditional Mayan Ball, performed by indigenous Mayan descendants or enjoying a typical Fiesta Charra (a Mexican cowboy style party). If nature is more your thing, then you can sail away to the nearby Jaguar Island or visit the beautiful Butterfly Pavillion.
For more thrilling action in the most spectacular of natural settings, you can opt for a snorkelling tour in protected waters of amazing crystal-clear visibility and home to thriving marine life. Or you can swim in underground rivers and make a splash with the friendly dolphins. At night the park comes alive with an amazing show introducing the audience to all things Mexicans, with a particular emphasis on national and regional customs and traditions with 300 performers taking you through Mexico’s history.
- Diving into a cenote in the Yucatan Peninsula
Some of the best spots to swim in the cool waters of a crystalline “cenote”, the Mexican name for a natural sinkhole are found in the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly Tulum and Chichen Itza, with Tulum being home to not one but four of the most impressive ones. You’ll find some in the open air while others are totally or partially hidden inside the most beautiful caves you could imagine.
One of the most stunning is the cenote Dos Ojos in Tulum, of which there are about 82 kilometres surveyed and accessible with 28 known entrances. This popular diving and snorkelling site receives a good number of tourists every day with most of the flooded caverns found at a depth of between five and seven metres. Guided dives are arranged twice daily and are roughly 45 minutes long with a 60-minute surface interval. With visibility being excellent, there’s great snorkelling to be done at the adjacent “Bat Cave”, which you can reach after traversing the cave underwater. Another one with fantastic swimming opportunities is the Gran Cenote, of amazing dramatic beauty and also offering unique diving and snorkelling opportunities. In fact, Dos Ojos and Gran Cenotre are the two most famous.
You can always go more off the beaten path and swim in less visited cenotes, in the Yucatan Peninsula there’s a real wealth of them, from the Sacred Cenote next to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza (and therefore having a mystical allure to it) to the dramatically spectacular Ik Kil in Puerto Juarez. There’re over twenty of them…and we’re talking about discovered ones!
- Mayan ruins of Palenque
Also known by its ancient name of Lakamha, Palenque was a once thriving Mayan city in southern Mexico, in what is now the State of Chiapas. Its adjacent location to the Usumacinta River earned it its name, which literally translates as “Big Water” and its glory days date back to the 7th century, when the city flourished and developed at a fast pace. While it’s much smaller in scale than the ruins at Chichen Itza, this medium-sized ancient city is impressive for containing some of the finest architecture of the times. Here you can feast your eyes on beautiful bas-relief carvings, finely detailed sculptures and ornate roof combs.
This outstanding archaeological site feels more remote than most due to the fact it’s surrounded in deep jungle and what you can see is only 10 per cent of the city’s original area. The buildings that you can admire have been uncovered from centuries of oblivion after nature took over and engulfed them. After years of effort unearthing these marvels, the compact area that you can now peruse unfolds in an expanse of around two-and-a-half kilometres, with the rest still being covered by dense jungle. It is estimated that over a thousand structures still lie sleeping underneath the heavy cloak of nature but you can still find out more about its once famous ruler, Pacal the Great, on the Temple of Inscriptions, where his tomb is exhibited.
- Monte Alban in Oaxaca
Yet another archaeological site of great historical significance, once home to the Zapotec civilisation that inhabited this part of Mexico some 2,5000 years ago, the excavated city of Monte Alban in Oaxaca is indeed an imposing sight. With a collection of well-kept buildings standing on a tall hilltop plateau overlooking the Valleys of Oaxaca, this was one of the first Mesoamerican cities of great importance and the centre of the Zapotec community, who dominated the majority of land that now occupies the state of Oaxaca.
The epicentre of Zapotec culture and its ruling seat, the views to be observed here are nothing short of spectacular. Rising 400 metres above the valley floor, while walking amidst temple ruins, palaces and stepped platforms you can drink in stunning 360-degree views over the rolling valleys below, the city and mountains in the distance. Sites to roam around and discover also include a neatly arranged ball court, magnificent tombs and funerary objects as well as a good museum (where a basic knowledge of Spanish would come in handy as explanations are written in Spanish only). If you want a deeper immersion into the ancient Zapotec ruins and culture you can hire an English-speaking guide outside the ticket office.
- Palancar Reef in Cozumel
A must for those serious about scuba diving and nature lovers thirsty for amazing underwater adventures; the beautiful Palancar Reef, part of the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, gives you a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get up-close and personal with the colourful underworld of this protected area.
Found in the beautiful island of Cozumel (Isla Cozumel) bathed by the Caribbean Sea on all sides and accessible by boat from Playa del Carmen, this vastly undeveloped natural haven sits at about 82 kilometres south of Cancun. Divided into different sections according to depth and coral formations, the nearly mile-long Palancar Reef is home to flourishing marine life in the form of colourful fish species of all sizes and a “horsehoe” of coral heads making for the most picture-perfect moments. Ideal for underwater photographers with up to 70 metres of crystal-clear visibility, the diving depths range between 15 to 34 metres in most areas, with dramatic coral swim-throughs to be found along the way.
The shallower north end of the reef, known as Palancar Gardens is equally beautiful, with plenty of caverns to explore and brightly coloured marine creatures to greet as you swim by.
- Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Mazatlan
A marvellous 19th century structure that will see your jaw hit the floor, the majestic Cathedral of Immaculate Conception (otherwise known as “Catedral Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepcion de Mazatlan”) is Mazatlan’s most prized possession and for good reason too. The towering baroque edifice found right at the heart of the city’s old town and historic centre, is as astonishingly beautiful and striking outside as it is dramatic and humbling inside.
Unmistakable for its yellow twin towers and its centric location on the highly photogenic Plaza Principal, swarmed by pigeon feeders and local businesses in the form of vendors and food stalls, the Cathedral grandly rises over the leafy square, high above it all, taking up an entire block and built over an ancient indigenous temple. Dating back to 1856, when construction for the church as we know it today began (even though it wasn’t finished until 43 years later in 1899), entering it is like stepping into an 1800s fairytale, with a gilded, hand-carved triple altar atop of which stands the virgin its named after and the city’s patron saint: Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
Even though the cathedral is, for its most part, of baroque design, a combination of styles can be appreciated, from Moorish motifs on the exterior to refined Gothic touches in the main altar (with angels sculpted in the finest Carrara marble) and some clear Neoclassical influence in other areas. A true masterpiece of eclectic art to be admired.
- Angel Flores Street in Culiacan
The vibrant and colourful colonial beauty of Angel Flores Street, with its bright, pastel-coloured buildings and pretty houses, coming to life every day and night with the excited buzz of the many daily passers-by, is one iconic place in Mexico you shouldn’t miss. Even if a little off-the-beaten-path, the journey to Culiacan in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, is certainly worth it. It will reward you with an authentic immersion into daily modern local life in a part of Mexico little explored by tourists, yet having plenty of interesting nooks and corners to photograph.
Lined by commerce after commerce, shop after shop, there’s nothing mass-commercialized about Angel Flores Street and everything about feeling and absorbing the identity of this part of Mexico. To sum it up, running up and down this street is like soaking up the past and present of a Mexican microcosm. Plenty of historic houses and buildings still stand the test of time here, some of which have been home to famous Mexican personalities and famous families. This was also the site of Culiacan’s first casino, with the long avenue-like promenade also giving way to two scenic and centric squares, the “plazuelas” of Rosales and Obregon. It’s also on this famed street that you’ll find the Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa based.
Two stunning buildings of remarkable beauty that stand out on this long and wide street are the Cathedral “Senora del Rosario” and the “Santuario Sagrado Corazon de Jesus” (The Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish). After snapping up these beauties and venturing inside, you’re free to continue on your quest of discovery. At night the view of the whole street is even more spectacular, with beautifully lit up buildings that include the two pretty churches. And if after the flurry and fast pace of such an energetic city centre you want to exchange the urban landscape of Angel Flores for a sandy beach, the beautiful and romantic coast of Mazatlan is only a little over two hours away by car.
- Street markets in Oaxaca: recipes, traditions, religion, arts & crafts
The flurry of colours, smells and sounds surrounding the lively Oaxaca street markets draw tourists like moths to a flame, without the dire consequences for the moth; instead you’re rewarded by a daily festival of flavours, quality handcrafted items and colourful handmade textiles in a variety of styles. The cuisine takes centre stage here, with the regional fare in this region famous for being Mexico’s most diverse and delicious. My top recommendation here is paying a visit to the meat isle at the “20 de Noviembre” market, famous for its freshly prepared servings of barbecued “tasajo”, which consists of thinly sliced strings of grilled beef, often accompanied by tlayudas (traditional handmade thin and crispy tortillas, partially fried or toasted) or chilaquiles (lightly fried corn tortillas cut in quarters) and “cecina” (sheets of marinated pork or beef thinly sliced and coated with chilli pepper) prepared right in front of your eyes.
An initial shock to the senses and a true feast for the eyes, perusing stall after stall will soon have you loosening the purse strings and indulging in a fine souvenir or two, all the while sampling local delights in the form of sizzling hot local cuisine, available from countless vendors here and there. Everything is mouth-wateringly fresh and authentic. Tasty bites come in various levels of hotness and the mole sauce is a must-try typical of the region, as is the crispy tlayudas tortilla, the quesillo and the chapulines (fried grasshoppers in spicy sauce, in case you were wondering!).
With the area being home to 16 different indigenous village, each with their own dialect, dress, customs and festivities, you can only imagine the resulting melting pot of cultures and variety that comes with a shopping experience here. There’s so many street markets to choose from you best come armed with a map and a planned route, or you can always wing it make it up as you go along. You’ll have fun regardless!
- El Arco rock formations in Cabo San Lucas
No doubt about it that Cabo San Lucas’ naturally formed rock arches, rising above the most crystalline of blue waters, have been extensively and heavily photographed all over travel brochures, magazines and postcards. But you have to forgive photographers for their insistence on capturing this place, and editors for choosing it as the heading picture to introduce you to Los Cabos. You’ll instantly understand why when you stand in front of these natural beauties yourself – you won’t be able to refrain from snapping it up either.
Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas may be known as many a celeb’s favourite holiday haunt, with a variety of ultra-luxurious beach resorts dotting its pristine sandy shore. Indeed, one of its most photogenic spots can be found in the sea: the stunning rock formations found right at the spot where the Pacific Ocean meets the Gulf of California. An area where sea lions are often found gathering and splashing about, this beautiful spot is also the place to enjoy the most stunning sunsets and sunrises. But there’s more to this postcard-perfect enclave than beaches and outrageously indulging resorts; there’s beauty to be observed beyond the water with horseback riding opportunities, caracara birds and cardon cacti if you venture to drive a little outside the city.
- Historic town in Puerto Vallarta
Perhaps better known as a beach resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Puerto Vallarta may not be an avid traveller’s choice when it comes to raw adventures and unique encounters. Yet there’s much to be enjoyed for well-seasoned travellers and novices alike. There’s certainly more than beautiful beaches to Puerto Vallarta, with great sightseeing opportunities as well as an energetic nightlife.
Making it to this port town’s historic centre is the actual icing on the cake, with its quaint cobblestone streets being home to numerous boutique shops, trendy cafes and bars, but most importantly, the Church of our Lady of Guadalupe, beautiful inside as it is outside. Exploring the town when (and if) tearing yourself from the lure of the beach includes scenic sights like that of El Malecon, a seaside promenade littered with contemporary art, sculptures, bars and nightclubs (it also is one of Mexico’s most prominent gay-friendly haunts, with what has been declared the gay beach capital of Mexico). Take a leisurely stroll around town, peruse the many objects, arts and crafts on sale at the quirky shops and be wined and dined in style against the most picturesque of settings. All that and more, is Puerto Vallarta.
Is that really it?
With Mexico being such a vast and colourful country you might ask yourself if this list could possibly capture a veritable picture of Mexico. The short answer is that yes, it can indeed give you a good understanding of its culture, history and recreational options, but that’s not to say there aren’t places just as magical or special to recommend elsewhere in the country.
Depending on who you ask, the top attractions to see can vary somewhat, but these are my very top highlights, and what I would prioritise if I went for the best-rounded adventure. I’ve tried to include a variety of experiences for all kinds of travellers, but in many cases there’s more than one place to enjoy similar cultural immersions, it’s a case of poking around and finding what’s more personally attractive or interesting to quench your travel thirst.
A wild card?
If I had to recommend two perhaps less famous and less visited Mexican enclaves I’d throw in Puerto Morelos, also in the Yucatan Peninsula but a world away from tourist crowds. If you’re already based in Cancun, it’s easy to reach by car and it is here that you’ll get a true feel of the real day-to-day Yucatan for the locals. If you’re averse to large tourist resorts and crowded hotels this is an ideal place to lose yourself in while getting a refreshing dose of culture. What has kept this peaceful coastal village so quiet and somewhat isolated?
The fact that government decrees to protect its reef and mangroves stop further development right on its tracks. So it will never become another Cancun, ever. Here you can take your pick from a wide variety of outdoor pursuits, from scenic bike rides to thrilling jungle trails, moped adventures and amazing scuba diving excursions.
But if what you want is true seclusion in a completely undisturbed natural paradise, Holbox Island, also in the Yucatan Peninsula is Quintana Roo’s best kept secret. This tiny island feels worlds away from everything, so much so, it only has a few small boutique accommodation options. So exclusive you’ll hardly come across guests and with a style many would describe as hippy chic or barefoot luxury. No high-rise buildings in style, instead thatch-roof “palapas” are the norm.
Part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, nature lovers can feast their eyes in a variety of rich marine life, from sea turtles to the pink flamingos and pelicans found at the Yalahau Lagoon. Highlights the relaxed easygoing vibe of Holbox Village and Punta Coco Beach, famous for the stunning sunset views it provides. This is indeed quite the alternative place to feel like a castaway without wanting for nothing.