11 Essential Things to Do in Guanajuato: A First-Timer's Guide

Guanajuato

Frog statues, callejoneadas, narrow streets leading into dark tunnels, brightly colored houses atop steep hillsides; the unique traits of Guanajuato assures its place as one of Mexico's gems. Already well known among Mexicans, and growing in popularity with foreigners, Guanajuato is attracting more tourists each year, but that shouldn't deter you from visiting this spectacular city.

Although Guanajuato has long passed the point of being an 'off-the-beaten-track' destination, it's striking architecture and unusual attractions (perhaps the most famous of all being the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato where visitors can view a collection of naturally mummified bodies) keep this one-of-a-kind city right at the top of the list for Mexico-bound travelers looking for an alternative to the all-inclusive resort towns along the coastline. 

For the first-time visitor, there are plenty of things to discover and explore in Guanajuato - here are my top 11 picks!


#1. WANDER THE NARROW STREETS AND ALLEYWAYS

Bougainvilleas in Guanajuato 

Nestled into a hilly valley, this UNESCO World Heritage Site town is rich in history, local traditions, and color. Truly the best way to get to know Guanajuato is to simply meander through the small alleyways on foot, camera in hand. The further up the slopes you go, the less tourists you'll find, providing you the tranquility needed to fully appreciate the beauty of the city. Bring comfortable shoes and avoid the hassle of finding parking - the major points of interest are all within walking distance of each other.

Don't be afraid to set out alone either. Guanajuato is generally an exceptionally safe city and if you have enough common sense and street smarts, you'll have no problem exploring on your own.


#2. DIVE INTO ART HISTORY AT THE DIEGO RIVERA MUSEUM

Known primarily for his murals and temperamental relationship with fellow Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez, or simply Diego Rivera, was one of the country's greatest artists. Fans can now visit his birthplace, which has been converted into a museum honoring the famous artist and his work.  

Rivera was born in the house in 1886 and lived there until the family moved to Mexico City six years later. The ground floor of the museum is a replica of the Rivera family home, complete with 19th century antiques and furniture. The upper floors contain permanent exhibits of Diego Rivera's sketches and artwork, as well as pieces by other Mexican and international artists.

Entrance to the museum costs $25 pesos per adult.


#3. Celebrate Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Plaza Allende 

Each October, Guanajuato pays tribute to Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, author of the famed novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, with its Festival Internacional Cervantino, a huge fiesta featuring dance, music, visual arts, film and theater performances. 

Across from Plaza Allende, where you'll find statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, you'll find Teatro Cervantes, a theater which hosts a number of different performances and productions during the Cervantino festival. 


#4. Visit the bizarre Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato

Definitely one of the strangest museums I've ever seen, the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato houses a collection of naturally mummified bodies that were unearthed from the town cemetery during the 19th and 20th century to make room for more bodies. With an ideal climate and the right soil conditions, Guanajuato provides the perfect environment for natural mummification, although scientists later discovered that a few of the bodies were embalmed prior to burial.

Many of the mummies have grotesque looks of horror on their faces, mouths agape in silent screams, so initially it can be quite unsettling to gaze upon them. The museum also includes a room which has mummified babies, as well as what is believed to be the world's youngest mummified fetus. The children were definitely not easy to look at, but I still found the museum fascinating. Although this is perhaps the quintessential Guanajuato attraction, those too squeamish should probably avoid it. 

Entrance to the museo costs $56 pesos for adults and an additional $21 pesos if you wish to take photos. 


#5. Admire the architecture of the UNIVERSIdad de Guanajuato

University of Guanajuato

Located in the heart of Guanajuato, the architecturally intriguing Universidad de Guanajuato is one of the oldest universities in Latin America. The universidad first opened its doors in the 18th century as a Jesuit school for children, before becoming the property of the state of Guanajuato in the 19th century. Today, the school has a student population over 30,000, adding a youthful energy to the city.

For a funny photo opportunity, don't miss posing with the minotaur statue directly in front of the building!


#6. SEAL YOUR LOVE WITH A KISS AT CALLEJÓN dEL BESO

Although there are many variations, Guanajuato has its very own Romeo and Juliet story:

In one incredibly narrow callejón, there are two buildings whose balconies almost touch. According to legend, a young woman from a wealthy family once lived here and one day she fell in love with a common, working man. Her father, hoping to marry his daughter to a rich suitor, discovered their romance and forbade them from seeing each other ever again. Determined not to let their love die, the young man moved into the building next door, and the couple continued their relationship in secret, exchanging kisses from the balconies at nighttime. Inevitably, the woman's father found out, and in a fit of rage, descended upon his daughter stabbing her in the chest with a dagger. The young man, overcome with grief and unable to continue his life alone, eventually committed suicide.  

Like many places that feature a tragic love story, Callejón del Beso is now a major, albeit free, tourist attraction in Guanajuato. Sharing a kiss with your significant other on the third step beneath the two balconies is meant to seal your love forever. 


#7. Take part in a Callejoneada

Tile street art in Guanajuato

Once you arrive in Guanajuato, it won't take long until you see men walking around the streets dressed in festive pantaloons, like jesters from the Middle Ages. Often they will try to sell you tickets to take part in a callejoneada, a group tour which leads you through the streets of Guanajuato for approximately one hour while being accompanied by enthusiastic traditional singers and musicians. In between songs, the amusing performers stop to tell stories and legends of the alleys.

It's a fun experience, but these popular tours are only offered in Spanish, so it may not be worthwhile to travelers who don't understand the language. Callejoneadas typically cost between $100-150 pesos per person.


#8. Stop at CRISTO REY and marvel at the view

Cristo Rey, or Christ the King, is a 23-meter high statue on the summit of Cerro del Cubilete, about 45 minutes outside of Guanajuato.

This bronze sculpture is located at the approximate geographic center of the country and is of special importance to Mexico. During the 1920s, when the country was ruled by an anti-Catholic government, rebels destroyed the original Cristo Rey figure, which was significantly smaller than the one standing today. The latest structure, built in 1944, honors the Mexican people who fought against the government during this time.

Daily 3-hour roundtrip tours to Cristo Rey depart from Guanajuato.  


#9. PEEK INSIDE THE BEAUTIFUL BASÍLICA DE NUESTRA SEÑORA DE GUANAJUATO

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato

Undoubtedly the center of the city, the red-domed Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato contains a jewel covered image of the Virgin, patron of Guanajuato. The wooden statue was supposedly hidden from the Moors in a cave in Spain for 800 years. Felipe II of Spain gave it to Guanjuato as thanks for the wealth the city provided to the Spanish Crown. 

Directly in front of the basílica you'll find a lovely little green square with benches to rest tired feet after a day of walking, and around that are many restaurants and bars, usually with street-side seating to watch the crowds stream by. 


#10. DISCOVER THE DETAILS

Nicknamed the "city of frogs", Guanajuato is filled with monuments, street art, and other details representing the webbed-foot creatures. If you explore long enough, you're bound to discover plenty of other public artwork, from the religious to the abstract to the modern. Much of it can be found along the main streets, but Guanajuato has many little alleyways and side streets that contain individual pieces. 


#11. Walk UP TO EL PÍPILA

Pipila sign

And finally, navigate your way uphill to El Pípila, a statue honoring a local hero of the Mexican War of Independence. Here you'll find an impressive viewpoint where you can gaze upon the city of Guanajuato, with it's colorful buildings and towering cathedrals, and the surrounding mountains. This panoramic vista is best experienced twice - during daylight hours and after the sun has set for two completely different experiences. 

There are a few ways to reach the monument. Near Teatro Juarez, visitors can take the city's funicular up to El Pípila. It's a short ride and costs $30 pesos for a round trip. My recommendation would be to take the longer way up, a brief but steep 15-minute walk through one of Guanajuato's vibrant neighborhoods.  


A few notes on Guanajuato

Dining Maybe my favorite place to sit and have a drink, Santo Café is perched atop a lovely Venetian-style bridge - the perfect place for a romantic dinner or to do some people watching, and the food menu is extensive and well priced.

Funky restaurant Truco 7 serves a nice collection of Mexican dishes, but really it's the design of the interior of the building that is so fascinating. The entrance of the restaurant opens up into the first dining room and through a doorway you enter another, then another, and another. It's basically a maze of a restaurant, with each room being individual in it's own style and color.

Accommodation Should you book your accommodation ahead of time? Yes and no. Guanajuato is a tourist mecca and national holidays can be extra busy. Nice, reasonably priced places can and do sell out quickly during these times. That being said, if you're a little more adventurous, there are plenty of hostels, guesthouses, and boutique hotels within walking distance of each other in the center of town where you can try your luck and see who has availability. 

One more thing to note: Although Guanajuato's callejoneadas are a cheerful affair, they tend to be less pleasant when the street parties continue to pass directly below your hotel well into the night, every night. If you're looking for accommodation in the historic part of the city, you may want to double check the room's windows first or ask the front desk if it's particularly noisy. Chances are, if it's centrally located, the callejoneadas will pass by for hours after nightfall. Take my word for it - it's worthwhile to check-in somewhere a little outside of the city center to avoid looking like a Momia de Guanajuato after your stay. 

 

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Although Guanajuato has long passed the point of being an 'off-the-beaten-track' destination, it's striking architecture and unusual attractions keep this one-of-a-kind city right at the top of the list for Mexico-bound travelers looking for an alternative to the all-inclusive resort towns along the coastline. There is plenty to explore and discover - here are some essential things to do for a first-time visitor.