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8 Central Mexico Cities to Add to Your Mexico Travel Itinerary

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Mexico is a country full of surprises. Whilst it is a popular holiday spot with tons of tourists flocking to Cancun and the beaches around the Yucatan Peninsula every year, few tend to explore the rest of Mexico, particularly the central region.

Having spent nearly 6 months traveling around pretty much the whole country, I can safely say there's so much more to the country than that sliver. The central region of Mexico was one of my favorite parts.

Home to cool cities, colorful towns, and beautiful beaches, all easily accessible as a day trip or weekend getaway from Mexico City, if you're planning on visiting Mexico, you shouldn't miss out on this area.

This Mexico travel guide will allow you to make the most of your time backpacking Mexico. If you start out from Mexico City, you can definitely fit all of these cities into your Mexico itinerary. This guide will also get you away from the typical tourist hotspots like Tulum and instead give you an incredible chance to experience Mexico culture, history, and, of course, get your fill of tequila.

Here's my list of the 8 best Central Mexico cities you really shouldn't miss out on.

Short on time? Here’s the cheat sheet:

🌮Start your trip to Central Mexico off by arriving to Mexico City. Give yourself at least a day or 2 to fill up on great food before moving on.

🪇While all these cities are fantastic, if you’re short on time, my favorites are San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and San Pancho.

📚Don’t know Spanish? Pick up some basic words and phrases on Mondly before your trip to help you get off the beaten path.

🏥Accidents happen so come prepared with nomad insurance, just in case!

🎭There are a lot of things to do, see, and experience in Central Mexico. If you want a guide, GetYourGuide and Viator offer a wide variety of tours and activities to suit your schedule, budget, and interests.

1. Mexico City

Mexico City street view, photo courtesy of Zoe from Zoe Goes Places.

If you're planning a trip to Central Mexico then chances are you'll be arriving in Mexico City. A large and vibrant city full of museums and parks, it's a popular city for expats in Latin America so you might just like it enough to live in Mexico City, too.

Although it's not my plan at the moment, I could definitely envisage myself living here.

While I was only here for a short period of time, it'd be so easy to spend two weeks in Mexico City or more and not run out of new things to do and see.

It's also going to be the place where you first taste real Mexican food, and oh my, you are in for a treat! After spending some time in Mexico you will have forgotten how you could ever have eaten a meal without tortillas and a ton of different salsas. Mexican food is amazing and Mexico City is the perfect place to experience it.

Mexico City is made up of a number of different neighborhoods, all connected by a great public transport system, or if that's not for you then Uber is available.

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Where to Stay in Mexico City

My favorite Mexico City neighborhoods were La Condesa and Roma. With pretty streets, small parks, street art and tons of cafes, bars, and restaurants, these are popular areas for expats.

‍📍When planning your trip to Mexico City, I recommend you stay in either of these neighborhoods as they're not too far from each other.

  • Budget Option: Cozy Condesa: This 1-bedroom apartment is snug but well-located and has all you could need for a comfortable stay. 
  • Mid-Tier Option: Casa Taman by Kukun: Get more space in this 2-bedroom apartment with big windows and shared amenities, like an indoor swimming pool.
  • Luxury Option: Aposento Boutique Hotel: Enjoy a variety of rooms to choose from, each offering a massive bathtub and a great breakfast. 

2. Queretaro

Queretaro street view, photo courtesy of Shelley at Tulum Travel Secrets.

‍About 3 hours north of Mexico City lies the place for wine and cheese in Mexico. Yes, you heard that right.

Although Mexico might not be famous as a wine-producing country, it does make its own wine and Queretaro is the place to head if you want to have a day exploring vineyards and wine tasting.

Most of the vineyards are just outside Queretaro itself, with a lot being found around the small town of Tequisquiapan. A cute place to visit in its own right, Tequis has a nice main square and loads of wine shops, and can easily be reached by local bus from Queretaro.

As well as sampling the wine, head to Cava de Quesos Bocanegra, which literally translates as 'cheese cave', to taste the locally produced cheeses. Here you can have a tasting of the different cheeses paired with wine, and/or buy a cheese board and sit in their peaceful garden.

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‍Where to Stay in Queretaro

‍📍Queretaro is a big city, with over 1 million residents. For just a few nights stay, I recommend staying in the heart of the action in the historic center.

  • Budget Option: Lolita & Enri: Enjoy city views from your private balcony that stretch all the way to the main plaza, ideal for people-watching.
  • Mid-Tier Option: Hotel Boutique Casa Loreta: Enjoy plenty of outdoor space, including an outdoor swimming pool, at this chic boutique hotel. 
  • Luxury Option: Hotel Patio Santiago: If you’re looking for a room with more space to spread out, you’ll love your stay at this 5-star hotel. 
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3. San Miguel de Allende

The central cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

A small but extremely pretty town, San Miguel de Allende is one of the nicest Pueblo Magicos I visited in the whole of Mexico. The church in the central square is gorgeous and walking through the pretty streets here you'll find tons of really nice restaurants and bars.

The town has a European feel with upmarket rooftop bars serving fancy cocktails. The best rooftop bar is Quince. Expensive by Mexican standards, it's totally worth it for its rooftop terrace overlooking the cathedral.

For sunset, buy some local San Miguel craft beers and head up to the Mirador (look-out point) to watch the sunset over the city.

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Where to Stay in San Miguel de Allende

The entire city of San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so really, the better question might be if there's a bad area to stay. In my opinion, there's not!

‍📍If I have to narrow down the areas though, I'd recommend staying the historic center, ideal if you're eager to soak up the city, or Guadeloupe, if you're a backpacker.

  • Budget Option: Hotel & Hostal Santuario: Meet other travelers by booking your stay in a dorm room with shared kitchen and outdoor space. 
  • Mid-Tier Option: Loft Exclusivo: If you need to work while traveling, you’ll enjoy the extra space this apartment offers, plus the private rooftop patio. 
  • Luxury Option: LOtel-Casa Arca: This vibey hotel has the aesthetics you’ll quickly be drooling over from the outdoor pool, restaurant, or within your own suite.

4. Guanajuato

View from Al Pipila Monument

As one of the most interesting towns on this list, Guanajuato has the unique feature of being built above a series of underground tunnels. This means all the cars and buses drive underground, leaving the city pretty much car-free and walkable.

The town has loads of plazas, including the one outside its famous yellow church. These are great areas to sit and chill at a cafe or bar. In the early evening head up to Al Pipila Monument for a great view of the colorful town from above.

Guanajuato is surrounded by hills so there are lots of hiking trails. Walk from town to the Presa de la Olla Reservoir and from here you can start the short but steep hike up to the top of La Bufa for great views.

One of my favorite things about Guanajuato was the lively vibe all over the town. In the evening the streets are filled with traditional mariachi bands each competing for attention. The plaza outside Teatro Principal seemed to be the main spot for music, so grab a seat outside one of the many restaurants here and enjoy the show.

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‍Where to Stay in Guanajuato

Like San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meaning well-preserved streets, architecture, and stunning plazas.

‍📍Just like in other Central Mexico cities, I still recommend staying in the centro histórico, or the historic center.

  • Budget Option: Casa Botanica IV: Stay right in the historic center at this affordable 2-bedroom apartment.
  • Mid-Tier Option: Hotel de la Paz: Located right in La Paz Square, this is the perfect location to explore all of Guanajuato. 
  • Luxury Option: Casa del Rector Hotel Boutique: This charming 5-star hotel offers a swimming pool, terrace, and bar right and your chance to sleep in a colonial building.

5. Guadalajara

Torta ahogada, one of my favorite dishes!

Guadalajara is the second biggest city in Mexico and as such has loads to see and do, including the biggest indoor market in Mexico. 

Head here to try all the Guadalajara specialties, including goat stew and torta ahogada (a pork sandwich covered with tomato salsa - seriously so much better than it sounds).

Aside from eating though, you'll be happy to learn there are still plenty of unique things to do in Guadalajara.

Spend a day walking around the Plaza de Armas and checking out the architecture and churches. One church you shouldn't miss is Templo Expiatorio del Santisimo. It's not right in the city center but it's stunning inside and out and up there with the best churches I've seen in Mexico, so it's worth the effort.

Many travelers fall so in love with this city that they decide to move to Guadalajara.

If you've had enough eating and drinking and want to get out in nature, grab an Uber to Bosque Los Colomos. It's a really nice park with a small lake and lots of walking trails. The afternoon I spent here I saw terrapins, iguanas, loads of giant squirrels (at least that's what they looked like!), and tons of colorful birds. It's a great reprieve from the city hustle and bustle.

Although you can explore most of the city on foot, Guadalajara has a great public transport system. Take the tram to Tlaquepaque where you'll find the main street lined with tons of bars and restaurants and the central plaza full of street food. It's a great place to spend a day hanging out.

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‍Where to Stay in Guadalajara

📍The best area to stay is in Tlaquepaque. The streets here are lined with bars and restaurants, most offering cheap drink deals, so it's a great place to hang out through the afternoon into the evening.

  • Budget Option: Hotel Boutique Casa Elefante: This no-frills apartment will put you right around Tlaquepaque without breaking your bank.
  • Mid-Tier Option: Abadia de San Pedro: Soak up Mexican charm at this beautiful hotel, full of small high-end details.
  • Luxury Option: La Villa del Ensueno Boutique Hotel: This brightly decorated hacienda-style hotel is a great option to have a pool and more outdoor space within the hotel.

6. Tequila

The stunning distillery at Tres Mujeres

‍Everyone knows that Mexico is famous for Tequila but did you know that Tequila is an actual town that you can visit?

Well it is and it's everything you'd imagine, with tons of tequila distilleries, tons of bars selling huge ceramic mugs of tequila, and everyone sitting around drinking!

As well as just drinking your way around the town, make sure to actually visit a distillery to learn how tequila is made. Not only will you see the whole process from agave plant to bottle, you'll get to taste all the different types. And there's a lot of types!

The Jose Cuevo distillery is the most famous, but I headed instead to a distillery just outside the center of town called Tres Mujeres, and I couldn't recommend it more.

More popular with local Mexican tourists, I had an English-speaking guide to myself and tried 8 different types of tequila. That's 8 shots, so safe to say I was pretty tipsy after!

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Where to Stay in Tequila

📍Since Tequila is a small town, nothing is too far away from the city center. You should be a quick walk from Tequila's main square regardless which hotel you choose.

  • Budget Option: Hermoso Departamento Céntrico: Right in Tequila’s city center, book this 2-bedroom apartment that can accommodate up to 8 if you’re traveling with friends.
  • Mid-Tier Option: casa AGAVE x Santiago de Tequila: Another centrally located 2-bedroom apartment, this one has trendier finishes and can sleep up to 4.
  • Luxury Option: Hotel Boutique Gloriagave: Opt for a stay in the countryside to fully soak up the tequila frields at this incredible boutique hotel.

7. Puerto Vallarta

A snap from the hike just outside of Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta is probably the one spot on this list that is well known amongst international travelers, especially Canadians and Americans. As such it has a number of large hotels and a stretch of large and brashy bars along the waterfront.

The Zona Romantica area is a much better place to spend an evening. Among the large number of gay bars here you'll find some nice restaurants and craft beer places.

But the real reason Puerto Vallarta is on this list is for the places outside of the city itself.

Whilst the beach in Puerto Vallarta is nice and a great place to watch the sunset, the best spots lie to the south of Puerto Vallarta towards Boca de Tomatlan. There are regular local buses heading this way for cheap, which is great as you'll probably find yourself taking this bus a lot!

Mismaloya Beach is a great beach only 20 minutes or so by bus. Or if you take the bus all the way to Boca you can get a taxi boat to Yelapa Beach. Not only is this beach beautiful, but the boat ride there is also stunning and gives you the chance to see the whole coastline from the water.

Alternatively, from Boca hike to Las Animas Beach. It's an easy but beautiful hike all the way along the coast, past some other small sandy beaches where you can stop. From Las Animas, you can easily grab a water taxi back to Boca if you don't want to hike back.

If you're visiting during whale watching season (December - March), then taking a boat trip is a must.

I did a boat trip to the Marietas Islands, and even though it wasn't technically a whale watching tour I still saw so many humpback whales and dolphins. It was one of the highlights of my trip.

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‍Where to Stay in Puerto Vallarta

📍While you certainly can choose to stay in the Zona Romantica, I'd recommend staying outside of town on the way to Boca de Tomatlan. To me, the reason Puerto Vallarta is one of the best cities to visit isn't for the city itself but for the natural wonders that surround it.

  • Budget Option: Mondavi: This studio apartment offers mountain views just south of Puerto Vallarta, in a much more calm area. 
  • Mid-Tier Option: Vallarta Shores Beach Hotel: The apartments here offer private entrances and beachfront access so you can spend your entire vacation with your toes in the sand.
  • Luxury Option: Maxwell Residences at Indah: Enjoy sweeping ocean views and beaches a quick walk away from this modern, luxury hotel.

8. San Pancho Beach

The beautiful, quiet coastline in San Pancho

An hour or so up the coast from Puerto Vallarta sits San Pancho Beach, a wide sandy beach by the small hippie town of San Francisco. Consisting of pretty much one main road, it still somehow has everything you need with nice cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Just up the road from San Pancho is Sayulita, another really great coastal town to visit. With plenty of things to do in Sayulita, it's slightly larger and more developed. It has become a popular spot with tourists and digital nomads.

It's therefore pretty busy and more expensive, and so between the two, I preferred San Pancho but if you're looking for more of a long-term base by the beach then Sayulita would definitely be a good option.

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Where to Stay in San Pancho

📍Given its small size, anywhere in San Pancho is a good choice. The closer to the beach, the better!

  • Budget Option: PAL.MAR Hotel Tropical: This laid back beachy hotel has great simplistic design and they offer beach chairs and umbrellas for your days on the coast. 
  • Mid-Tier Option: Hotel Ysuri: Stay beachfront in a jungly environment at one of the individual villas that make up this unique hotel.
  • Luxury Option: Agua de Luna Boutique Hotel: This hotel offers an outdoor swimming pool, terraces, and an on-site restaurant, alongside their rooms designed with relaxation in mind.

When to Visit Central Mexico

San Miguel de Allende, photo courtesy of depositphotos.com

In general, Central Mexico offers a pleasant climate all year-round but there is still some variability between the months.

Dry season in Mexico runs from December through to April. This is also Mexican winter, with December being the coldest month. However, you'll find that the days are still hot and you can definitely hit the beach during this time. Just bring a jacket to wear in the evening.

Each month brings different weather, amount of visitors, and local celebrations, so the best time to visit Mexico will most likely depend on why you want to visit in the first place.

Public Transportation in Mexico

The bus system in Mexico is great. Regular buses run between all the towns on this list and bus schedules and bookings can easily be found online.

The buses themselves are comfortable, with most having a toilet, charging ports, and sometimes even individual TVs!

This is undoubtedly the best way to travel around Mexico.

Things to Know Before You Go

Tequila's agave fields, photo courtesy of depositphotos.com

Now that you’re gearing up for your trip and planning the specifics of where and when you’ll go, there are a few things you don’t need to overlook. 

I know just how easy it is to look towards the big hike, bucket list city, or beach of my dreams and forget about all of the little things in between that’ll make your trip run as smoothly as possible. Be sure to take into consideration these few things before you go to make sure you get all the good bits of your trip without the stress. 

  • Make sure you have travel insurance. A good travel insurance, like SafetyWing, will ensure you’re covered in case of emergencies. While you will have to pay upfront for your doctor or hospital costs, unless it’s for a pre-existing condition, you can file a claim and should be reimbursed. For any Americans reading this, fear not, healthcare in pretty much every other country is far more affordable than ours, even if you’re paying out of pocket. 
  • Do your best to learn a few local phrases in their language. No, I’m not expecting you to be able to have a fluid conversation with locals at the bus stop if you’re just visiting their country for a week but knowing your numbers (for prices), how to order something (“I would like…”), and basic greetings really will take you a long way. Mondly is a great app for phrases and vocabulary. 
  • Book any popular tours you want to do in advance. I’m really not a great planner and I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. GetYourGuide and Viator offer a wide variety of tours and activities to suit your schedule, budget, and interests. 
  • Last tip certainly isn’t mandatory but it is helpful. Before you start booking your flights, hotels, and tours, consider opening up a travel credit card. Thanks to our Capital One Venture card, my husband and I have gotten countless free flights just by gaining points on everyday expenses.

Where in Central Mexico Will You Visit?

That's my travel guide to visiting Central Mexico! It's an amazing area to explore and one that takes you off the traditional tourist trail and lets you experience the real Mexico.

While I recommend taking your time and fully exploring these 8 best cities thoroughly, if you have to pick just 1 or 2 spots, where will you choose?

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