Puebla lacks the name recognition of San Miguel de Allende, at least for United States travelers. But fans of San Miguel’s colorful colonial architecture, fine restaurants and mild climate will find much to love about Puebla. Founded in 1531 to compete with the nearby indigenous religious center of Cholula, Puebla retains a well-preserved historic center (a UNESCO World Heritage site) that feels less touristy than that of San Miguel. Perhaps that’s because many of the visitors to Puebla come from Mexico City, about two hours by car to the northwest, rather than from the U.S. or Canada.
We spent four nights in Puebla, but we still didn’t have time to visit all the sites we would have liked. Having a guide and driver was very helpful — ground operator Journey Mexico made our arrangements, with the assistance of the Andrew Harper Travel office — but experienced travelers may prefer to explore Puebla on their own, by foot and using inexpensive ride-shares.
Here are the sites and activities in Puebla we found most memorable.
We spent half a day eating our way across Puebla, with our Journey Mexico guide introducing us to a range of restaurants we wouldn’t have discovered on our own. All the establishments were casual places frequented by local people; for more-upscale dining, consult this list of my recommended Puebla restaurants. We started at a no-frills corner shop with some tamales filled with hoisin-like mole and mugs of atole (a hot and thick corn-based drink infused, in this case, with chocolate). We next sat down at a table overlooking the main square for a more local specialty: cemitas, delectable sandwiches of thin fried chicken, avocado, Oaxaca cheese and aromatic pápalo leaves. But the best was yet to come.
After a digestive break at the Museo Amparo (see below), we tucked into tacos árabes, a local dish of flour tortillas filled with — of all things — pork. Arabian these tacos are not, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious. Our last savory course was at a molote counter, serving empanada-like pastries with a range of fillings. I relished the huitlacoche (corn fungus) molote, but it was the decadent chicharrón version that truly dazzled. For dessert, we headed to the Calle de los Dulces (the Street of Sweets) to try samples at an elegant old-fashioned candy shop. I ended up stuffed like a gordita and very happy.
One of Puebla’s great attractions is this superb small museum, which houses a trove of exquisitely beautiful ancient Mexican art. The collection of stone-carving and ceramics, including numerous striking polychrome pieces, is nothing less than world-class. I marveled at the sophistication and expressivity of the pieces. I was particularly charmed by the dog- and duck-shaped vessels, and I won’t forget an intricately carved conch trumpet. The museum also puts on diverting temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. Closed Tuesdays.
Avenida 2 Sur 708. Tel. (52) 222-229-3850
The Templo de Santo Domingo looks impressive as soon as one enters, what with its towering gold reredos behind the altar and elaborately inlaid onyx pulpit. But the church’s real glory is the 17th-century Rosary Chapel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the vaults and dome of which are encrusted in an explosion of interwoven gold filigree. Entering the chapel is about as close as one can get to walking inside a Fabergé egg. The craftsmanship (and geometry) involved in creating the tangle of gilded-plaster ribbons boggles the mind. Beneath the center of the gleaming dome is a golden baldachin sheltering a sculpture of the Virgin Mary. The splendor of the space cannot be overstated.
Capilla del Rosario
Calle 5 de Mayo and Avenida 4 Poniente. Tel. (52) 222-242-3643
The hemisphere’s first and oldest public library, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana dates to 1646, founded with a collection of books donated by Bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. Its elaborately carved shelves reminded me of those in Prague’s baroque Klementinum library. But whereas an expensive advance reservation is required to access the library in Prague, it’s cheap and easy to access the Biblioteca Palafoxiana. We had it entirely to ourselves, aside from a librarian reshelving books in the upper gallery. On the main floor, its tiles worn from hundreds of years of continuous use, we enjoyed an exhibition of centuries-old manuscripts, including a well-preserved 16th-century Spanish-Mixteca dictionary. Closed Mondays.
Avenida 5 Oriente 5. Tel. (52) 222-246-4835
Puebla has a long tradition of making fine ceramics called Talavera, named after a Spanish town also known for its majolica. Poblanos are justly proud of this craft, a form of pottery that is both durable and beautiful. As in Lisbon, many of Puebla’s façades have ceramic-tile embellishment, including that of the Templo de San Francisco, the Museo Casa de Alfeñique and the Uriarte Talavera factory, founded in 1824 and the largest of several Talavera producers in the city.
The showroom-boutique alone is worth a detour, for its large selection of pieces with both traditional and contemporary designs. It contains everything from dishes to midcentury modern-inspired ceramic chairs. We took a fascinating private tour of the factory, where Talavera is made by hand by a small army of talented craftspeople. I also enjoyed visiting the Talavera de la Reyna boutique attached to the Casareyna hotel and restaurant. It’s much smaller, but it has a very tempting selection, including numerous chic contemporary pieces.
Opened in 2016 on the outskirts of Puebla, this museum has a striking design with curvaceous ribbon-like white walls. Inside, some of the pieces proved interesting, notably a large-scale model of Puebla’s historic center, an extraordinary inlaid desk and a replica of a temporary triumphal arch, elaborate polychrome structures erected to honor high-ranking visitors. The stylish restaurant would be a fine place for a lunch break. However, the museum has a didactic mission, explaining how baroque philosophy influenced architecture, music, writing and so forth. An exploration of its galleries makes for a fine introduction to the period, but those who have been to Europe and seen examples of baroque buildings and décor will find this museum less than thrilling. Closed Mondays.
Museo Internacional del Barroco
Reserva Territorial Atlixcáyotl 2501. Tel. (52) 222-326-7130
Although Cholula feels almost like a suburb of Puebla these days, the city is much older than its larger neighbor and has indigenous origins. At its center is the world’s largest ancient pyramid (by area), which now resembles a large hill. The pyramid had already been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived, and they may not have realized that the “hill” on which they built the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios was man-made. It’s possible to explore some of the pyramids — six ancient structures were built one on top of the other — via tunnels bored between them. But I found the narrow tunnels, just large enough for one person to squeeze by another, too claustrophobic. I much preferred exploring the open-air archaeological park on the south side of the pyramid, where plazas, altars and other structures have been excavated.
The panoramic views from the top of the pyramid are also memorable, and tired climbers can reward themselves with water, ice cream and other snacks from one of the small shops at the top beside the church. I also recommend visiting the new Museo Regional de Cholula, opened in 2017 near the pyramid’s base (closed Mondays). The collection of ancient art and the old maps are especially diverting. Unfortunately, only some of the texts in the museum are translated into English, making it helpful to visit with a guide. And Cholula has a superb restaurant for lunch, Ciudad Sagrada, which has a quiet and shady garden patio.