This city was an afterthought when planning my trip to Mexico. It ended up being a highlight.
Puebla, the 4th largest Mexican city with a population of 1.5 million, is located 75 miles from Mexico City. The Historical Center (named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987) is packed with colorful colonial buildings, churches, monuments, and the most beautiful zocalo (main square) that I’ve seen in Mexico.
This city is probably the most underrated and overlooked in Mexico. In this post I’ll cover the highlights of our recent visit to Puebla (lots of photos below).
Puebla: some interesting facts
-The historic center of Puebla was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December of 1987. With 2,619 monuments, the city has the largest number of monuments in the Americas.
-Puebla is sometimes called ‘City of Street Lights’ due to the numerous decorative street lamps crafted by the French. The French legacy can also be seen in the city’s elaborate wrought iron balconies and the fine crystal chandeliers adorning historic buildings.
-Puebla is one of the richest cities in Mexico and is considered to have the highest quality of life in the country due to its wealth and safety (2nd only to Tlaxcala) .
-Puebla has the largest Volkswagen factory in the world outside of Germany.
-Puebla is home to the first public library in the Americas, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, which is the only remaining library from the Spanish Colonial period.
-Puebla’s culinary tradition, known as Cocina Poblana, is popular throughout Mexico. A distinctive feature of the region’s cooking is mole, a rich, spicy sauce containing chocolate, cinnamon and nuts as well as different types of hot peppers. Mole is the most renowned of Puebla’s dishes.
-The Cinco de Mayo holiday has its roots in Puebla. In 1862, France invaded Mexico, planning to make it part of the French Empire. Outnumbered Mexican forces met the French at Puebla and managed to defeat the French army (many of who were weakened by diarrhea). This is the reason for the Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the US and Mexico every year and also the reason that streets all over Mexico are named Cinco de Mayo. What few know is that the French came back the following year, won, and occupied Puebla until 1867.
-Talavera ceramics (pictured below at the Casa de la Cultura) are unique to Puebla and many of the buildings in the Centro Historico have these beautifully painted tiles adorning their walls.
1. The Zócalo (main plaza)
The main square has existed since the founding of the city in 1531 but was used mostly as a marketplace where bullfights, theatre and hangings occurred. Today it looks like a huge botanical garden with its jacaranda and palm trees. Surrounding the square are some of the city’s most impressive buildings, among them the colossal cathedral and city hall. I’ve mentioned in the above ‘facts’ section how safe Puebla feels – I came here by myself early in the morning and sat on a bench with a coffee, watching uniformed kids heading to school and vendors setting up their magazine stands. I could have been in Spain except there were no beggars or gypsies. Even in Oaxaca (our next stop) I couldn’t sit down at the zócalo without someone coming up to me, looking for a handout or trying to sell me something. It’s one of the reasons I really appreciate Puebla. Over the next few days we came here regularly, having a coffee at one of the many cafes lining the square or just relaxing next to the large fountain in the middle of the park, watching the square burst with life as the day progresses. A great spot to soak it all in.
2. Puebla Cathedral
The huge cathedral, which takes up the entire block on the south side of the zócalo, has the highest towers of any cathedral in Mexico (69 m) as well as an incredible, intricate interior filled with frescos and side chapels. Construction of the cathedral began in 1550 but most of what you see was finished in the 1640s.
3. Incredible Churches
Puebla has too many churches to count. The Centro Historico alone has 79 churches within its boundaries.
Santo Domingo church (below) is one of Puebla’s most popular churches, famous for its stunning Rosary Chapel (which looks gold plated – it’s not. It’s actually decorated using gilded plaster and onyx stone).
Below: Church of the Holy Spirit ‘La Compania’ is located on 4 sur, a pretty pedestrian-only street a block east of the zócalo.
More of the many churches…
4. The Colorful streets of the Centro Historico
Walking the streets of the Centro Historico is the best way to see all its buildings, churches and monuments. It is made easy in Puebla by wide sidewalks and a few pedestrian-only streets (marked in grey on the map). Most of the city’s highlights can be found within a few blocks of the zocalo.
5. Amparo Museum
The Amparo museum is an art/history museum with one of the largest pre-Hispanic art collections of any museum in Mexico. It also showcases temporary exhibits by current artists, most with a Mexican or Latin flavor (they had a exhibit by a Brazilian photographer while we were there). But the museum is worth seeing for its architecture alone – it is a beautifully constructed building of glass and steel highlighted by a rooftop café featuring some of the best views of Puebla. Tip: Museum is free on Mondays.
6. Turibus Tour
For those looking to see as much of Puebla in a limited time, the Turibus is worth taking. The 90 minute city tour will pass by many of the Centro Historico sites but will, in addition, take you to some of the city’s highlights in the outskirts such as the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe (both made famous for the Cinco de Mayo victory over the French). This area on the city’s northeast flank includes a Planetarium, Regional Archaeological Museum, the Olympic Soccer Stadium, a large auditorium and some great views over the city.
7. A visit to Cholula
Half an hour from downtown Puebla, Cholula is both a historical and scenic highlight in the region. Built here starting around the 3rd century BC is the Great Pyramid of Cholula (also known as Tlachihualtepetl), the largest pyramid ever built, even surpassing the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Abandoned around the 8th century AD, it became overgrown and by the time the Spanish showed up in the 1500s the Pyramid was covered by earth. Cholula became the site of a major battle in 1519 in which the Spanish defeated the Aztecs. The Spanish, as they liked to do, built a church over the ‘pagan’ site of the Pyramid. Today you can visit the site, explore the tunnels of the pyramid, and climb up the hill to the church (Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios). Cholula is fascinating and worth a full day visit. This post covers Cholula in much more detail.
Above image credit: visitmexico.com
The above were my highlights in Puebla and is probably enough to keep anyone busy for at least 3 days. For more on Puebla, I recommend this site – she writes exclusively about Puebla and you’ll find detailed information on its museums,activities, as well on its culinary traditions. You’ll find some restaurant as well as hotel recommendations.
Getting here: 2 hours by bus from Mexico City or from the Mexico City airport.
Have you been to Puebla? Do you have any special highlights that you would add to the above list?
If you haven’t subscribed yet and want to get our posts and newsletters sent to your email, just insert your email address below: