Best things to do in Mexico
Find out more about those top places in Mexico
Puerto Vallarta, one of the most historic towns on Mexico’s Pacific coast, is famed for its stunning beaches, enchanting colonial-era center and backdrop of tropical mountains. While the town is no longer the hidden gem it once was, Puerto Vallarta is undoubtedly one of Mexico’s star attractions. The faded grandeur of the Spanish colonial streets are complemented by a mouth-watering array of traditional Mexican street foods, bohemian art galleries and café culture fit for a city far larger. Sleepy during the day, Puerto Vallarta’s terracotta roofed old town comes alive in the evenings, as it is a haven for more discerning ‘spring breakers’ and Mexico’s LGBT community. What is more, the surrounding white sand beaches, coral reefs, lofty mountains and world famous cave beach make for splendid day trips.
Set sail from the charming city of Puerto Vallarta to the Marieta Islands, where you can swim in one of the world’s most iconic beaches, the Playa del Amor. The beach, which is only accessible through a cave, is sunk down into a deep crater and filled with turquoise waters and pristine white sand. Tours of the Marieta Islands also include trips to the many coral reefs that pepper the sea.
Puerto Vallarta is one of the best places in Mexico to spot whales, dolphins and other ocean dwelling giants. For the best experience take an ecotour from the town where expert guides will take you out to sea to get up close with these majestic creatures.
The Yelapa district of Puerto Vallarta is undoubtedly its most picturesque. Sandwiched between a perfect white sand beach and gently rolling tropical hills, this fisherman’s quarter is also the best place to taste the town’s award-winning seafood and immerse yourself in local culture. For the best experience, come just before sunset when most of the day-trippers will have left and you can get the most authentic experience of Mexican nightlife.
Located on the rolling Pacific Coast is one of Mexico’s most verdant landscapes, Puerto Vallarta’s world-class botanical gardens. Spread over rolling hillsides, the more time you leave to explore this wonderland the more hidden gems you will find: vast bromeliads playing host to innumerable hummingbirds; grottoes clad in Technicolor green mosses and ferns; and gentle rivers that are perfect for swimming.
Less touristy than Puerto Vallarta is the charming seaside village of Boca de Tomatlán, which can be easily reached via sea taxis. Once there laze on its pristine white sand beaches, go snorkeling in tropical reefs and make sure to try one of the ceviche tostadas that are served up at beachside stalls.
The real emblem of Puerto Vallarta are a series of Romanesque seaside arches, known simply as Los Arcos. The beautiful architectural ensemble makes for the perfect photo opportunity and looks particularly gorgeous at sunset. What is more, the plaza surrounding Los Arcos comes alive in the evenings with mariachi bands, gaucho parades and more.
Welcome to Mexico City, the capital and most important city of Mexico. Regarded as the cultural and financial center of the nation, it is the most populous city in Northern America with over 8.5 million people.
It is one of the major players when it comes to tourism in North America, which comes as no surprise due to the sheer amount of intriguing and amazing sites it has to offer – from ancient ruins to skyscrapers, incredible museums and beautiful neighborhoods.
Often described as one of the world’s creepiest places, the La Isla de las Munecas or the Island of Dolls is not a place for the fainthearted. Located on in the Xochimilco Borough 17 miles (27.36 kilometers) south of the center of Mexico City, the island is filled with hundreds of hanging dolls of different shapes and sizes. The dolls were said to be the handwork of Don Julian Santana who left the city to the island - according to him the dolls were to honor a young girl who died on the Teshuilo lake on the island.
If you have pictured libraries to be boring or not worth the time, you are certainly going to have a change of heart after see the Biblioteca Vasconcelos – the biggest library in Mexico. Dedicated to Jose Vasconcelos, it was inaugurated on 16 May 2006 by then President of Mexico Vincente Fox - covering over 38,000 square meters, the library is surrounded by lush gardens and several sculptures. The interior is also quite impressive with its transparent walls and stacks of books.
One of Mexico City most visited sites is the Somaya Museum – a private museum donated and constructed by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu. It has an impressive collection of over 66,000 works from pre-hispanic Mesoamerica to current times, most of which are works from Central America and Europe. Some of its most seen collections include Madonna of the Yarnwinder and several sculptures from Rodin and Salvador Dali. Admission into the museum is free and it is opened every day except on Tuesdays.
Located on top of the Chapultepec Hill, the castle is recognized as the only one in North America to ever house actual sovereigns. Fully built in 1863, the building was designed and constructed by some of the nation’s best hands and it has a Neoclassical style. The building has been used for different functions over the years including a military academy, observatory and presidential resident – currently it houses the National Museum of History.
At first glance the market which is found at the southeast of the historic center, seems like a regular market found in several major cities – but unlike most markets the Mercado de Sonara has a special side to it. The market is known as the largest esoteric market in Mexico, with several of its vendors divulging in traditional medicine and items related to magic and the occult. The best time to visit the Mercado de Sonara is on the “Day of the dead”, one of Mexico’s most popular festivals.
Just off the coast of the touristy resort city of Cancun, Isla Mujeres seems like a world apart. Moving at a carefree pace, the island is one of Mexico’s most relaxing destinations ringed by crushed coral beaches and turquoise seas. What is more, the unspoiled clapperboard villages that pepper the island are a refreshing change from the skyscraper hotels of the nearby resorts. However, the island’s main draw is undoubtedly the chance to swim with dolphins and snorkel in some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular coral reefs.
One of Mexico’s greatest conservation stories can be found at the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm where local fisherman, who once hunted these remarkable creatures, now protect a large expanse of their nesting grounds. Every year some 100000 baby turtles hatch but, due to predatory birds and fish, only around 1000 survive, which only highlights how important the work of the Turtle Farm is.
Most people come to Isla Mujeres for its beaches and Playa Norte is undisputed the best of the bunch. Indeed, once you set foot on the seemingly endless expanse of white sand or take a dip in the tranquil turquoise waters you will not want to leave.
The reefs that life off the coast of Isla Mujeres are some of the Caribbean’s finest and can easily be explored with tours that leave regularly from the island. The most spectacular of these even do their best to let you swim up close with the gigantic but completely peaceful whale sharks that cruise the waters between June and September.
Punta Sur, the southernmost tip of Isla Mujeres, is one of Mexico’s most scenic spots: azure waves crash against tide worn rocks; colorful seabirds barrel overhead; a picturesque lighthouse guides ships to safety; and a crumbling Mayan temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility perches on the cliff’s edge. In short, you have to see Punta Sur to believe it.
Set out in the Caribbean Sea, there is no better way to explore the coves and reefs of the Isla Mujeres that by sail boat. Regular tours leave from the island either on single hulled or catamaran vessels that take you out to dazzling coral reefs and tranquil spots where you can go paddle-boarding, swimming and sunbathing.
Perched at the tip of the arid Baja Peninsula, Los Cabos is Mexico’s Land’s End. Los Cabos itself is one of Mexico’s premier resorts with an overwhelming choice of hotels, restaurants, bars and entertainment. Given the turquoise waters that surround the Baja Peninsula, it is no surprise that water sports are a big deal in Los Cabos – jet skiing, banana boating, scuba diving and parasailing are all on offer alongside romantic horseback rides amongst the region’s dramatic beach side sand dunes. While Los Cabos is no hidden gem, the nearby cacti littered deserts of the Baja Peninsula certainly are. The remote historic town of Todos Santos is a perfect day trip where sea turtles hatch in their hundreds on the beach while the East Cape provides some of Mexico’s most dramatic seaside landscapes.
Los Cabos’ most recognizable landmark is El Arco, a sea-cut arch that forms the southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula. The best way to experience the area’s natural wonder is to take a tour in a glass-bottomed panga, which can deftly explore the rocky coves and sandy beaches that surround the famous rock formation. Make sure to watch out for the spectacular sea lions and pelicans that call the arch home.
One of Los Cabo’s most thrilling experiences (besides its intoxicating nightlife) are the whale watching tours that depart regularly from the area. The best time to spot the region’s iconic gray whales is between late-October and early-March where thousands of them inhabit the shallow lagoons of the desert coast.
Beyond the strip of resorts that line the coast around Cabo San Lucas lies the charming town of Todos Santos, which is a must-visit for lovers of music and art. Tours of the picture-perfect town run throughout the day and take in the iconic Hotel California, which was made famous across the world thanks to The Eagles, and many of the folk-art galleries that line the colonial-era streets. They also give you the opportunity to recharge at one of the town’s New Age spiritualist retreats.
Regular tours run to the marine reserve of Cabo Pulmo, which is the perfect place to explore Los Cabos’ bio-diverse coral reefs. The best place for snorkeling is likely Los Arbolitos beach but all the coves and islets of this remarkable park are packed with colorful fish, psychedelic coral formations and rare sea turtles.
Famed as the resort of choice for the more discerning ‘spring-breakers’ crowd, Cabo San Lucas is one of Mexico’s most lively towns. To experience the best of Baja’s most party loving town, take a bar crawl tour which will allow you to avoid the usual tourist traps and take you straight to the city’s best nightlife, including the iconic El Squid Roe.
With the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing down on the Baja Peninsula’s western coast, it is no surprise that the area is a real paradise for surfers. Surf tours depart daily from Cabo San Lucas that take you to the area’s best waves, including those at the enchanting Zippers Bay, and are suitable for varying levels of experience.
One of Los Cabos’ most romantic spots, the white strip of sand that makes up Lover’s Beach is the area’s crown jewel. This remote beach can only be reached by water taxi and is perfect for a lazy day of sunbathing, snorkelling and swimming.
Close by to Lover’s Beach is the aptly named Divorce Beach. While the former is a tranquil spot for sunbathing, the latter is one of Los Cabo’s most turbulent with huge breakers crashing against cragged rocks. Looking on in awe at the sheer size of the waves is well worth a trip to the beach on its own.
While visitors flock to Mexico’s sprawling capital city, the country’s second largest metropolis remains a hidden gem combining laid back siesta culture with the cutting-edge of art and gastronomy. The downtown area, centered around the golden spires of the city’s wonderful cathedral, has changed little since the colonial-era while Guadalajara is the home of numerous iconic Mexican traditions ranging from mariachi music to oversized sombreros and charreadas (rodeos). Despite its palpable history, Guadalajara is also Mexico’s capital of all things cool. The hipster Chapultepec district is packed with street art, chic galleries and artisanal coffee houses while fusion chefs are reinterpreting traditional Guadalajaran classics such as pozole, a pork and ground maize stew, and the artery clogging torta ahogada, a meat filled roll smothered in a deep red spicy salsa.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, Guadalajara’s Instituto Cultural de Cabañas is one of Mexico’s most fascinating attractions. Housed in a breathtaking building, which believe it or not is a former orphanage, are a series of modernist murals by the renowned artist José Clemente Orozco alongside a collection of other works. All 57 of the murals were painted in the late-1930s and their near-biblical images of fire, crumpled armor, blood and rallying armies were intended to be a warning against fascism. To see these unrivaled works of art tours leave throughout the day.
Capped with a series of iconic 19th century towers built following the originals collapsed in an earthquake, Guadalajara’s 16th century cathedral is as old as the city itself. The Gothic interior is somewhat gloomy but make sure to look out for the dazzling side altars bestowed to the cathedral by King Ferdinand VII of Spain who ruled in the early-19th century. Guided tours of this brooding building are available throughout the day.
Famed as the birthplace of mariachi music, the best place in Guadalajara to listen to this infectiously charming style of traditional music is at the aptly named Plaza de los Mariachis. During the day there is not much to see but by night it becomes a buzzing square packed with colorful bands, beer stalls and loudspeakers.
Just outside Guadalajara’s city limits is the UNESCO listed tequila producing region of Jalisco. Guided tours take you through the region’s rolling fields of agave, which is harvested, fermented and distilled to make one of the world’s favorite spirits. Of course, the tour concludes with a tasting of different tequila styles produced in the region.
Tours depart Guadalajara daily to the shores of Lake Chapala and the picture-perfect town of the same name. Boardwalks let you walk out over the water and get close to some of Mexico’s best bird life while the town itself is one of the country’s most beguiling. Make sure to soak up the area’s literary pedigree by visiting the former homes of D.H. Lawrence and Tennessee Williams.
Guadalajara is a mecca for food lovers and there is no better place to get to grips with the city’s vibrant gastronomy than at Tonalá Market. Open on Thursdays and Sundays, the labyrinthine market is gigantic and would take hours to explore alone. For the best experience, local food guides can take you to the best torta (sandwich) stalls and vendors selling refreshing michelada (beer and tomato juice).
The Basilica de Zapopan is one of Mexico’s main points of pilgrimage for devoted Catholics due to its petite but sacred statue of the Virgin Mary. The church itself is stunning with vaulted ceilings and more than its fair share of dazzling gold.
The most enchanting of all Caribbean destinations, Yucatan wonders visitors with pristine beaches, diverse coral reefs, vast Mayan ruins and gilded colonial cities all in one go. Yucatan is most famed for the resorts of Cancun and Tulum, which draw millions of tourists per year searching for sun, sea and sand. While the resorts are the perfect place to unwind, authentic Yucatan experiences can be had in the colonial-era city of Mérida, which is notable for its blindingly white limestone architecture. Beyond the peninsula’s de facto capital are the jaw-dropping Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, which are peppered with well-preserved stepped pyramids. What is more, if history is not your thing then the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún is a sea of pink, as it is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of flamingos. In short, the tropical peninsula of Yucatan has something for everyone.
One of the world’s most popular attractions and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá are the Yucatan Peninsula’s crowing gem. Given the near constant throngs of tourists, the best way to visit the Mayan ruins is with an early morning tour, as you can see the dazzling array of temples, stepped pyramids and palaces in relative tranquility.
The ruins of Uxmal are second only to those of Chicén Itzá in their grandeur. Towering over the jungle is the awe-inspiring Pyramid of the Magician but the site is also home to numerous other buildings of worldwide significance, including the Pigeon House and the sprawling Governor’s Palace.
Home to the tallest Mayan temple still existing, the ruined city of Calakmul is one of Yucatan’s hidden gems. Set deep in the rainforest – so deep that it was not ‘discovered’ until 1931 – the city was once home to well over 50 000 people but today most of its buildings have been swallowed up by the dense foliage. For the best experience, take a local guide who can reveal the site’s immense history.
Although less grandiose than the Mayan temples built at Uxmal, Chichén Itzá and Calakmul, the ruins at Tulum are some of Yucatan’s most breathtaking. Set high on a cliff above a dazzling white beach and turquoise waters, it is doubtful whether any archaeological site on earth has a better setting. Given its proximity to numerous beach resorts, make sure to head to the ruins early in the day to see them at their least crowded.
Deep beneath the dense rainforests of Yucatan lies the Río Secreto, a phantasmagorical world of stalagmites and stalactites framed by an underground river. To experience this subterranean wonderland, guided tours let you swim, wade and climb through nearly one kilometer of underground passageways where you will be awe-struck by the cave system’s geological wonders.
Close to the party town of Cancun but a world away in spirit, the Parque Nacional Isla Contoy is a dream for birdwatchers. With more than 170 types of colorful birds packed onto a series of small tropical islands, you are guaranteed to see some spectacular species. What is more, if you look out at sea you can spot whale sharks, which feed offshore between June and September.
One of Yucatan’s most underrated attractions are the sprawling ruins of Edzná where you can see the remnants of a Mayan city that flourished between 600 BC to the 1500 AD. Like most of the peninsula’s Mayan ruins, it is best to arrive early in an organized tour before the day-trippers from the coastal resorts arrive.
For visitors fed up with the resorts of Yucatan’s coast, head inland and discover the majestic colonial-era city of Mérida. With some of Mexico’s best Spanish architecture, including the 16th century Casa de Montejo and Catedral de San Ildefonso, the state capital has more than enough history to merit a few days stay. What is more, Mérida is famed for its traditional Mexican street life that goes on well into the night.