There’s something about the light in Guanajauto, Mexico.
Situated in a deep valley with colorful and picturesque colonial houses perched on the surrounding hills, Guanajuato is positively luminous at any time of the day. When we arrived after driving all day from Mexico City, the city was aglow in the late afternoon sun.
Guanajuato isn’t just beautiful, it was also ground zero in Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain in the 19th century. The sense of history here is palpable – just visit the Alhóndiga de Granaditas to understand Guanajuato’s key role in shaking off Spanish colonial rule. Guanajuato is also a city shaped by mining; at one time in the 18th century, it was known as the silver mining capital of the world. Today’s Guanajuato hosts several universities and a large student population, which gives the town a youthful and lively feel (especially during Holy Week, when we were there!).
Our four-day visit to Guanajuato was a huge highlight of our April trip to Mexico, bookended by stays in Mexico City and also including a couple of days in San Miguel de Allende (post coming up!). Here are our favorite things to see and do there. As usual, some photos are in galleries – just click the first one to view each in sequence.
Just . . . walk
There’s no better way to catch the vibe of a city than to explore it on foot, and Guanajuato is an incredibly walkable town. Over our four days there, we walked almost 40 miles! Our first night, we lost ourselves in the narrow, cobbled streets and alleys in the shadow of colorful old homes, watching the light play over the surrounding hillsides as the sun went down.
Soak up the history
To begin your Mexican history lesson, start with the Alhóndiga de Granaditas – also known as the Regional Museum of Guanajuato. Completed in 1809 as a grain storage facility, the monumental building has also served as a warehouse, military barracks, and prison. But the Alhóndiga’s stately appearance belies its rather grisly role in the Mexican War of Independence, beginning with the events of September 1810.
Then, about 300 Spanish loyalists took refuge inside the building when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s insurgent troops arrived in Guanajuato. Later, in the first battle of the war, the insurgents stormed the building and killed everyone inside. But their victory was short-lived. The Spanish authorities rounded up the four insurgent leaders – Hidalgo, along with Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, and José Mariano Jimenez – shot and decapitated them, and then hung their heads from the four corners of the Alhóndiga to discourage any other would-be rebels. Those pitiful heads hung there for 10 years (eww!!) until Mexico achieved its independence in 1821.
Today, the Alhóndiga is an impressive museum with 14 permanent exhibition rooms covering Mexico’s pre-colonial, colonial, and national eras.
Another very interesting historic site is the Museo Palacio de los Poderes, a beautiful neoclassical building that served as the seat of government for Guanajuato state until 2016.
Tip: These and most other Guanajuato museums are closed on Mondays.
Experience Las Momias
We’re a bit conflicted about Guanajuato’s famous mummies. On the one hand, the Museo de Momias is fascinating, and it’s also Guanajuato’s most-visited tourist attraction. On the other hand, upon leaving we couldn’t help but feel sad. The mummies are displayed beautifully and with dignity, but the museum still felt a little exploitive. I wonder what the people who originally occupied those bodies would think, if they could see themselves like this with tourist after tourist gawking at them?
The museum displays 57 mummified bodies, remains of people who died during a cholera outbreak in 1833. The mummies were disinterred between 1870 and 1958, apparently because no one had paid a tax on their behalf for perpetual burial. The evicted mummies were stored for many years in a building that eventually became today’s Museum of Mummies. It’s well worth a visit, albeit unsettling.
Walk up to El Pipila – or take the Funicular
It’s hard to miss the El Pipila Monument, looming high on a hill overlooking Guanajuato. Completed in 1939, the monument honors a mine worker who played a key role in the insurgents’ taking of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in 1810. To reach the top, you can walk up the scenic, mural-festooned path or take the Funicular, a quaint rail car pulled up the mountain by motorized cables. We took the Funicular up and then walked down.
Tip: Look for the Funicular station located behind the Teatro Juarez; it opens at 8 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. on weekends. Beware of weekends and holiday weeks, because it can be a mob scene. We arrived right as it opened at 8 a.m. and were the first ones up. Later, the line of Holy Week vacationers waiting to ride was snaking around the block.
Explore Diego Rivera’s roots
The world-famous muralist Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato in 1886 and spent the first few years of his life there. His family home was turned into a museum in the 1970s, the Museo Casa Diego Rivera. If you’re a fan of Rivera’s work, and that of his legendary wife Frida Kahlo, this small museum is a must. Its permanent exhibits include Rivera’s early drawings and paintings.
When we were there, the museum featured a temporary exhibit of photographs by the famed Colombian photographer Leo Matiz, a contemporary of Diego and Frida’s.
Tip: The Museo Casa Diego Rivera is only open Tuesday-Saturday.
Take a day trip to Dolores Hidalgo
The nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo is much more than a pretty Mexican pueblo – it’s known as the birthplace of Mexican independence. Here, on September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued his famous Grito de Dolores, a call to arms that triggered the war for independence from Spain. Yup, the same Father Hidalgo whose followers would storm the Alhondiga in Guanajuato a little over a week later.
Today Dolores Hidalgo is also known for its ceramics industry. You’ll find workshop after workshop selling colorful and beautiful ceramics items in the talavera style, and at very reasonable prices.
Tips: Dolores Hidalgo is about an hour’s drive from Guanajuato through some very pretty, rugged and mountainous desert terrain. We had our rental car, but Unebus offers bus service every two hours from the Guanajuato central bus terminal. For lunch, check out Da Monica for excellent Italian food.
More cool things about Guanajuato
- Check out El Callejon del Beso, the Alley of the Kiss. One of the city’s narrowest alleys terminates at a spot where two balconies are just a few feet apart. The story goes that two young lovers living in the opposing apartments met on the balconies to kiss on the sly, although the girl’s father forbade the relationship. There’s more to the story, which is supposedly true and tragic in a Shakespearean way. The alley is kitschy but fun and worth a stop.
- Guanajuato is famous for its tunnels. This network of subterranean roadways was originally designed to support the mining industry and to prevent flooding from the nearby Guanajuato River. Today, the tunnels are effective in keeping most traffic off the surface streets and making the city even more pedestrian-friendly.
- Guanajuato is a college town, anchored by the monumental Universidad de Guanajuato. Two examples of Guanajuato’s collegiate influence are the International Cervantes Festival and the Callejoneadas, groups of strolling minstrels (primarily U of G students) who traverse the streets every night playing music and telling jokes and stories. We didn’t join a group this time – just too much Holy week craziness – but we heard them come by our street almost every night. Tip: To join a Callejoneada group, you can buy a ticket from one of the costumed musicians who hang out at the Plaza de la Paz in the afternoons. There are typically two tours each evening.
- We rented a car at the Mexico City airport from MEX Rent-a-Car and drove to Guanajuato, about a four-hour trip. We were happy with the car and the rental company; however, we would hire a driver or take a bus next time (the many tolls and cost of gas really added up!).
- In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best idea to come to Guanajuato during Holy Week. The city was bursting at the seams with tourists, mostly Mexicans from Mexico City and other larger cities nearby. On one memorable afternoon, after driving back from Dolores Hidalgo, we spent a couple of hours stuck in near-standstill traffic in the tunnels. Our advice: Avoid major holidays; even normal weekends can also be crowded.
- We had a lovely stay at the Antiguo Vapor Hotel. Our room was spacious and comfortable and featured panoramic views of the city.
- Bartola is a fabulous rooftop bar in the Casa del Rector, a beautiful boutique hotel. Bartola is a great place to watch the sun go down and take in fabulous views of Guanajuato.
- Guanajuato is filled with outstanding restaurants. Our favorites were: La Bohemia, Mestizo (we loved Mestizo so much that we went twice), La Tasca for excellent sangria and people-watching on the Plaza de la Paz, La Vela for tacos near the Funicular, and Santo Café for breakfast.