Exploring Guanajuato City
Visit and Explore Guanajuato City
Guanajuato is a colonial city in the mountains of central Mexico was once a silver mining town and although it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite its beauty, it’s not perfectly restored. Its colors, graceful churches, shady plazas, and lively atmosphere. Guanajuato is a compact, walkable city.
Guanajuato has been called the most beautiful city in Mexico and it’s definitely a very attractive city with its colorful buildings, tree-lined streets, lovely plazas, and easy escape to the mountains.
A travel guide to Guanajuato
The houses of Guanajuato tumble down the hills that surround it in every imaginable color. There’s no subtle, complementary color scheme—fuchsia pink mingles with pillar box red, saffron yellow, baby blue, and lime green.
Thanks to its valley location, Guanajuato’s streetscape is one of narrow, winding lanes and alleys, often suitable only for pedestrian traffic due to their width and flights of steps (some of these lanes are even located underground).
It is a perfect place for slow travel activity of aimless wandering.
Guanajuato is a place where it is easy to get pleasantly lost in the cobblestone lanes that climb steeply from the center, turning a corner to find yet another tiny plaza with locals chatting on benches shaded by manicured trees.
It’s definitely a walking city as the narrow streets are a nightmare for cars and one of the city’s unique features is a network of underground tunnels that are used as roads.
Fine baroque and neoclassical buildings are the result of the prosperity of the silver mines in the 18th century and there are many churches.
Things to Do in Guanajuato
Guanajuato is famous for its numerous small plazas, colonial-era mansions, and churches built using pink or green sandstone, along with many excellent museums and art galleries.
Plaza Jardin de la Union
The Jardin de la Union is the heart of historic Guanajuato and serves as the city’s main square.
Always bustling, this pleasant plaza, with its fountains and flower beds, is ringed by numerous hotels and restaurants, making it a perfect place from which to venture out to explore the rest of the city.
Indian laurel trees have been trimmed to create a dense canopy shading the craft stalls and benches, and it’s surrounded by bars and restaurants whose outside seating is a prime location for people watching.
The area is lively in the evenings with mariachi bands and street performers.
Dominating the Jardín de la Unión, Guanajuato’s pretty main square, is the beautiful Juárez Theater (Teatro Juárez), the city’s opera house.
Opened in 1930 after some 30 years of construction, this splendid neoclassical building is notable for its massive Doric columns supporting a Romanesque portico adorned with nine bronze statues of the Greek muses, as well as the steps leading up to the building, a favorite meeting place for locals and tourists alike.
The building’s plush Art Nouveau interior is also worth seeing for its rich gilded décor, finely carved wood, and stained glass, especially if you can do so while taking in one of the theater’s regular musical or dance performances.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato
In picturesque Peace Square (Plaza de la Paz), the sandstone-colored Baroque Basílica Colegiata de Nuestro Señora de Guanajuato.
Built in the 17th century and much altered thereafter, this attractive building houses one of Mexico’s most important relics, the much revered seventh-century statue of the Virgin of Guanajuato, a carved wooden figure on a silver base presented to the city by King Philip II of Spain in 1557.
By far the largest building in Guanajuato, the church owes much of its splendor to area miners, who sponsored its construction, a relationship that is marked to this day during annual miners’ parades and offerings to the church’s patron saint.
In addition to its famous statue, other highlights include its pretty tower, the numerous relics on the main altar presented by the Pope, as well as a number of important paintings by leading Mexican artists.
Other old churches worth seeing are Templo de Belén, built in 1773 and notable for its Churrigueresque façade, and Templo La Valenciana, notable for its three splendid large altars, each of which has been richly decorated in gold leaf.
Alhóndiga de Granaditas
Completed in 1809, the Alhóndiga de Granaditas is one of the largest and most interesting of Guanajuato’s historic secular buildings.
Built as a granary and also serving for a spell as a marketplace, the building was used by the Spanish and their loyalist allies as a fortress that was overrun by troops led by Miguel Hidalgo in the first defeat for the colonialists who had ruled Mexico for centuries.
A statue commemorating the event and Hidalgo’s role overlooks the city from a nearby hillside park accessible by a funicular railway.
The building now serves as the home of the Guanajuato Regional Museum with its displays relating to the battle, as well as the eventual execution of Hidalgo when his head and those of his compatriots were placed atop the building for all to see.
In addition to its displays of colonial-era artifacts, the museum also has a large collection of Pre-Columbian materials.
The Mummies of Guanajuato Museum
Although a little gruesome, the Mummies of Guanajuato are one of the city’s most popular attractions and remain an important cultural phenomenon relating to local customs and traditions.
Consisting of the naturally mummified remains of locals who died during a cholera outbreak in the mid-19th century, the Mummies Museum (Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato) got its start after the bodies were disinterred between 1865 and 1958 for the failure of relatives to pay cemetery taxes.
Entrepreneurial cemetery staff charged the curious a small fee to see the mummies, and as word spread, it became something of a spectacle enjoyed by tourists from far and wide.
Adding to the somewhat grisly display is the knowledge that some of those buried were still alive at the time, hence the sometimes frightening expressions on their faces. In addition to a few clothed mummies, the museum also claims to have the world’s smallest mummy, a fetus.
Don Quixote Iconographic Museum
Don Quixote Iconographic Museum is a diverse collection of paintings, murals, and sculptures depicting the character in different styles.
Easily spotted thanks to the statue of its namesake standing welcoming by its entrance, this museum pays homage to Mexico’s long-standing fascination with the writings of Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes.
With a focus on displays of artwork and artifacts related to Cervantes’ most popular piece of fiction, Don Quixote, the museum is well worth taking the time to explore.
Highlights include numerous paintings and statues, along with tapestries and a variety of commercially available materials relating to the story.
Also of interest is the International Cervantino Festival held at the Teatro Juárez and other locations across the city each October in celebration of the works of Cervantes.
Casa Diego Rivera
Casa Diego Rivera contains some of Rivera’s early works so you can see the development of his style, as well as a gallery for contemporary artists.
The University of Guanajuato
Built by the Jesuits in the 18th century as a school, the splendid University of Guanajuato’s city center location opened its doors in 1828 and remains the oldest university in Latin America.
Located just a few minutes’ walk from Peace Square (Plaza de la Paz), the university is well worth taking the time to visit if only to see the famous staircase leading up to this fine neoclassical structure.
If you’re up to it and can make the 113-step climb, you’ll be able to see some of the building’s splendid interior during a visit to the university’s natural history museum, as well as its old church.
Plazuela de Los Angeles and Kissing Lane
Los Angeles Square is one of the must-sees. The Plaza de Los Ángeles has a steel fountain in the center, around which visitors sit down to wait for the “rondallas”, a musical band playing popular songs.
It is a place full of legends, as well as being the scene of a large number of Cervantes performances, rock concerts, musical presentations of various types, and theater.
Plazuela de Los Angeles, which leads to the city’s most famous street, the Callejón del Beso, or Kissing Lane, so named as it is narrow enough to allow a loving couple to kiss from windows on opposite sides.
Mercado Hidalgo is a market hall opened in 1910 that’s worth visiting for its local crafts, souvenirs, and produce.
Exploring Guanajuato’s Tunnels
A highlight of a walking tour of Guanajuato is diving into the city’s amazing network of subterranean streets and alleys.
Built of necessity to handle the often-flooded Guanajuato River (Rio Guanajuato), which once flowed under the city, the tunnels became obsolete after a nearby dam was constructed to control the river upstream.
The extensive network of tunnels that remained was put to good use as roadways, alleviating the congested streets above ground while making them safer and more interesting for pedestrians.
These cobblestone roadways also accommodate pedestrians through a number of well-marked footpaths that are fun to explore.
Accessible from stone staircases at numerous locations around the old city, the tunnels are a must-see attraction and can also save time if you need to get from one place to another in a hurry. Just be sure you have a map with you.
Silver City: La Valenciana Mine
Once the silver mining capital of Mexico and responsible for 80% of the country’s production of this precious metal, Guanajuato’s long-standing connection to mining runs deep.
The La Valenciana mine was first worked in 1558 but abandoned in 1559 as it was thought to be exhausted.
Antonio de Ordóñez y Alcocer, the owner of the La Valenciana Mine, dug various mines and went broke many times until he reopened La Valenciana Mine in 1760.
Digging 80 meters, he found the largest silver vein ever in Mexico, according to Baron von Humboldt who studied operations here in the late 18th century.
The find earned him the noble title of Count of La Valenciana and Viscount of the Mine granted by Carlos III in 1780.
The earnings from the mine financed the building of the San Cayetano Church.
Today, these old mines – some dating to the mid-1600s – are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be easily visited while staying in Guanajuato as they lie just a few minutes’ drive outside the city in the village of La Valenciana.
La Valenciana was largely responsible for much of Guanajuato’s wealth and the splendid architecture that came with it.
Today, a visit to the La Valenciana Mine includes a chance to don a mining hat and tour the old shafts as part of an English-language guided tour. Highlights include seeing a number of caverns and drilling equipment, as well as historical artifacts and tools used over the centuries.
San Cayetano Church
San Cayetano Church (Templo de San Cayetano de La Valenciana), is an ornate 18th-century basilica famous for its richly gilded altars, carvings, and artwork.
Located on one of the hillsides overlooking the city of Guanajuato, on the highway that leads to Dolores Hidalgo, the church is an important example of the Mexican Churrigueresque style.
La Valenciana is one of several churches that were built at the openings of mines in Guanajuato, such as the Cata and Rayas churches.
It was built by Antonio de Ordóñez y Alcocer, the owner of the La Valenciana mine, to give thanks to his patron saint, Saint Cajetan, for the riches the mine provided.
The church is noted for its use of gold leaf, especially the main altarpieces which are completely covered in metal.
Construction of the church was begun in 1775 under architect Andrés de la Riva and master carpenter Manuel Antonio de Cárdenas. Both died before the project was completed, with their roles taken over by Jorge Archundia and José Simón Cayetano Tovar respectively.
The project was completed in 1788, with the dedication to Saint Cajetan. The family of the count also intended to found a monastery for the Theatine order, constructing a house for the monks, but it was never occupied.
The church is built of pink volcanic stone (cantera), fronted by an irregularly shaped atrium surrounded by a wall topped by merlons. Around the main and side entrances, this stone is intricately carved to form altarpieces.
The two doors of the main entrance are typical for the time, carved from fine wood.
The interior layout is that of a Latin cross, with a notable octagonal cupola at the intersection. The chancel holds three very large Churrigueresque altarpieces, all covered in gold leaf, with the one in the center dedicated to Saint Cajetan.
The church still has some of the original furnishings such as the pulpit and the organ. The baptismal font dates from the 19th century and is of a different style from the rest of the building.
Since its construction, the church has lost a bell tower and several saints from its facade. In 2014, concerns have been raised about the church’s condition, especially the remaining bell tower, mostly from water damage and the accumulation of dust on the altarpieces.
There are also several paintings by Luis Monroy done at the end of the 19th century.
The annex of the church houses the archives of the University of Guanajuato.
San Cayetano Church is one of the sites of the Festival Internacional Cervantino.
Cristo Rey and Cerro del Cubilete
Perched high atop Cerro del Cubilete, an impressive mountain towering some 2,700 meters above sea level, stands Cristo Rey, a huge statue of Jesus Christ.
Located just outside Guanajuato and making a splendid half-day trip, the site is the geographic center of the country and is considered to be one of the most significant religious sites in all of Mexico.
The statue itself is 23 meters tall and was completed in 1950, built in an Art Deco style on top of a smaller monument that was destroyed in 1928.
Notable features include an altar under a large metal dome from which is suspended a large crown, signifying that said to have been worn by Christ.
The glowing natural light that seeps through gaps in the dome adds an otherworldly glow to the experience.
Afterward, be sure to spend some time relaxing and enjoying the amazing views over the surrounding countryside, especially lovely at sunset.
Festival Internacional Cervantino
Guanajuato is home to world-class events, like the Festival Internacional Cervantino, which attracts artists from across the globe each fall.
Key events held at spectacular venues such as Teatro Juárez, in addition to some other locations across the city, draw thousands of visitors to witness numerous presentations of art, music, and theater.
In addition to the performances, many city museums host related exhibits, while numerous cafés and restaurants get in on the act with special menus and demonstrations aimed at celebrating Spanish culture from around the globe.