When travelers fly into Del Bajio International Airport en route to artist hub and resort community San Miguel Allende, many often overlook Guanajuato, a hilly and picturesque city whose golden age in the 19th century is still reflected in the legacy of its silver mining heyday and lavish Neoclassical-Colonial architecture now awash in crayon box hues. While the name Guanajuato loosely translates to “gathering place of frogs,” it stands as a princely UNESCO Heritage City with a variety of wonderful discoveries waiting to be mined within its hilly terrain.
Art and history thrive in this now bustling college town anchored by Universidad de Guanajuato. As one would expect, there is an eclectic array of museums small in scale but big on the all-ages “wow” factor. First and foremost, it is the birthplace of internationally renowned muralist Diego Rivera, and some hidden treasures from his long career can be viewed in his childhood home, Museo Casa Diego Rivera, along with work from other contemporary Mexican artists.
San Miguel Hill and the statue of El Pipila is great place to start the trip, as you can get your geographic bearings and shoot a few incredible selfies or family portraits on its terrace. Another camera-ready spot is Callejón del Beso (“Alley of the Kiss”), though pretty much every location in the city center is visually striking with the many churches and plazas as well as the Jardín Unión and Juarez Theater. Other historically important sites include Casa de Gobierno on Luis González Obregón Street, where Benito Juárez made the city the temporary capital of Mexico, and the Real Caja de Guanajuato, which dates from 1665. In its storied existence, it was where the first authorities of a newly liberated Mexico were appointed, and later, a women’s prison and teachers’ college.
Most of the narrow, photogenic streets lead to Hidalgo Market, designed by Ernesto Brunel in 1910. It sells pretty much everything you would want to find in Mexico, from peasant tops and leather goods on the balcony level to produce booths and stalls prepping and serving aromatic, delicious and inexpensive street fare (seafood fans are strongly encouraged to check out Mariscos La Playa, offering succulent fresh shrimp and seafood cocktails and tostadas for $5 or less).
Other cultural havens worth exploring include Regional Museum of Guanajuato/Alhóndiga de Granaditas, recounting pre-Colombian civilizations, the War of Independence and other key events, and Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato, which contains works by Olga Costa and José Chávez Morado. While they are a lesser-known art power couple than Diego and Frida outside of Mexico, the collections include powerful murals illustrating the end of the colonial period and the War of Independence. Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, on Manuel Doblado Street, pays tribute to literary hero Don Quixote through a large collection that includes pieces created by Pedro Coronel, José Guadalupe Posada and Salvador Dalí.
The other landmark must-do is the Museum of the Mummies, which puts new meaning into the old maxim, “the dead tell tales.” It could be described as a spooky funhouse enhanced with personal stories relayed by its naturally mummified inhabitants. These characters were found in and around the municipal cemetery between the mid-19th and 20th centuries, and run the gamut from participants in the first battle of Mexican Independence to prisoners to average citizens meeting with a variety of unfortunate fates.
If you have a teenager learning Spanish, family members fluent in Spanish or you want to brush up on your language skills, be sure to find a starting point for a Callejoneada, an evening stroll through Guanajuato’s alleyways and plazas led by guides and strolling musicians in period costumes. The city’s plazas and alleys by night are as magical as anything you may find in Europe, especially with a narrative in Spanish that weaves together comedy show, cultural narrative and musical performance. Different groups operate tours, so be sure to do your research to find one the locals favor.
Santa Cecilia Castle overlooks a cluster of beautiful, well-priced hotels in the San Javier neighborhood, such as the Camino Real Guanajuato, built out of former haciendas and private homes dating to the 17th century. Getting there by a taxi or rented car allows you to experience the intricate maze of underground tunnels, some graced with beautiful Baroque or Art Deco entry arches and murals in some unexpected places.