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6 Small Cities in Mexico You Should Visit That Aren’t Cancun

From its great weather and its delicious food to its inviting culture and a whole lot more, there has never been any shortage of reasons for visiting Mexico. During the pandemic, however, the country’s popularity surged among American and Canadian travelers seeking a continental destination they could reach with relatively little difficulty. The thing is, while many are familiar with hotspot tourist magnets like Mexico City, Cancun, Tulum, or Puerto Vallarta, few visitors know where to best wander off the beaten path. With this in mind, we’ve decided to take a look at a few of Mexico’s smaller cities that get less attention but offer plenty of solid reasons to visit.

Book your plans with confidence, knowing that these are well-proven recommendations. I’ve spent a total of roughly five years living and traveling in Mexico, including the vast majority of the past three years. I’ve road-tripped throughout some two-thirds of the country and know each of these cities firsthand, and I can attest that these places are exceptional.

Calavera sculptures displayed in a pile.

Zacatecas

A statue in Zacatecas.

Located in the middle of nowhere, almost directly in the center of the country, the little mining town of Zacatecas is one of my favorite places in Mexico. With world-class art museums housing works from ancient indigenous peoples, contemporary Mexican artists, and renowned names like Dali, Picasso, and Miro — not to mention its own thriving local art scene– it’s a surprisingly creative, offbeat sort of place. The meandering jumble of architecture and bustling streets are a photographer’s dream. And there is outstanding food to be had (I’m looking at you, Villasuncion).

Sadly, the wider state of Zacatecas has been in the news recently due to an eruption of violence between rival cartels, but the fact is that this danger is almost entirely limited to those who have the misfortune of living in its shadow. Let’s put it this way: As long as you don’t happen to be caught up in narco business, you will find Zacatecas to be a charming, welcoming place.

Guanajuato

A view of Guanajuato at night.

Located in the hills between Guadalajara and Mexico City is the old mining city of Guanajuato, where the winding, cobblestone streets have a distinctly classical Spanish aesthetic. An exceedingly popular destination among domestic tourists, you’ll rarely encounter visitors from beyond Mexico. It’s the kind of place where you go to wander the streets and shop for handicrafts and enjoy the energetic nightlife from a restaurant terrace, but without a doubt, the most distinctive characteristic involves Don Quixote.

During the Spanish Civil War, a Guanajuatan who happened to be in Spain fighting against the fascists ended up being taken prisoner. While imprisoned, he first read Don Quixote and developed a passion for all things Cervantean. Upon returning to Mexico, he began a Dox Quixote collection that grew into a museum, which gradually spilled out into the culture of the town. Today there are statues of Don Quixote all over the place while hundreds of youths dressed in old Spanish garb provide city-organized tours. Appropriately, it’s now the home of a major international Don Quixote festival that happens every year.

Tlaquepaque

The offbeat street of Calle Independencia in Tlaquepaque.

Located on the southern edge of Guadalajara, Tlaquepaque is an unassuming, largely residential district that turns out to have a thriving downtown scene. Along Calle Independencia in the Centro region, you’ll find a string of restaurants boasting lively terraces, many of which feature the traditional mariachi music for which the state of Jalisco is renowned. It also has a fantastic string of galleries and shops selling handicrafts, furniture, and other aesthetic delights.

The standout among these is the Galeria Sergio Bustamante, a gallery dedicated to showing and selling the work of the renowned Mexican surrealist. It’s a real Alice in Wonderland kind of a place, where the deeper you go, the more bizarre and wondrous it becomes, culminating in a surreal garden in the back. Next door you’ll find Almacen Central Arte en Cobre, which houses a collection of shops run by local artisans. Further down the street, be sure to check out Gallery el Dorado, which offers a slew of interesting wares, particularly the stunning handmade furniture.

Durango

A nighttime view of Durango.

A little further off the beaten path, you’ll find the old western city of Durango. The state of Durango has a pretty notorious reputation as it shares a border with the cartel haven of Sinaloa and consequently has seen its share of violence. That being said, the city of Durango itself is a safe, inviting place with a unique downtown region that draws obvious influence from its old west history. Durango was, after all, where hundreds of classic western films were shot.

The thing to do here is enjoy the nightlife in the Centro area. The streets around the town cathedral have a thriving arts and handicrafts scene, and there are plenty of tasty food and booze options. The restaurant Fonda de la Tia Chona offers a delicious menu of traditional regional dishes, and just down the street is Botica Concina Bar, where you can enjoy cocktails with a side of jazz.

Chihuahua

Rico's Tacos in Chihuahua.

The furthest north of my suggestions — almost so that it verges on the label “border town” — Chihuahua definitely has a Tex-Mex vibe. A compact city in the middle of the desert, the majority of its attraction is focused in the Centro area around the cathedral. Here you’ll find a bustling market where leather goods are the standout wares. While you’re shopping, be sure to pop into La Sotoleria for a shot of sotol, a regional liquor that has a flavor that is somewhat akin to tequila but is made out of desert spoon rather than agave.

Staying downtown is a good way to be in the heart of the action, but I suggest finding an Airbnb in the nearby residential neighborhood of Mirador, which has a more laid-back atmosphere. Here you must eat at Rico’s Tacos, which without a doubt has the best tacos I’ve eaten in Mexico. That’s really saying something.

Campeche

A street in downtown Campeche with motorcycles.

Located down on Mexico’s great southern nub of the Yucatan Peninsula, Campeche is a delightful coastal city with a truly unique aesthetic. Originally built to be, for all practical purposes, a stronghold against pirates, the downtown area within the old protective walls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its colorful streets provide ample opportunities for photography, with plenty of tasty food options along the way.

Just down the highway is Champoton, a pleasant little town where you can get a glimpse of day-to-day life in Yucatan. Here I specifically recommend checking out the restaurant Pelicanos, which leans into delicious seafood dishes and sits on the bayside boardwalk where you can watch the fishermen at work and buy uniquely coastal handicrafts.

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