I also went on an incredible road trip through Mexico all the way from south-to-north, following the Pan-American Highway. Our contributors added some further tips for central Mexico to this guide.
While there are more must-see places in Mexico than can possibly fit in one trip, the following are all stops highly worth considering.
For more on how to travel between these places, see these travel routes and itineraries for Mexico.
Mexico Must-see places
Many trips to Mexico start in the capital. But with 12 million inhabitants, Mexico City is a bit of a beast. You might find it a bit overwhelming at first… so take a deep breath. This is not a place you’ll want to rush.
Mexico City is brimming with history, breathtaking architecture, incredible art and museums, limitless entertainment, and some of the best street food that will ever hit your tastebuds.
Many travelers end up staying in the central area around Zócalo main plaza, and this is not a bad place to be based. But there are countless other neighborhoods, each with something different to discover. Be sure to check out my video below with essential travel tips for Mexico City!
There are some great day-trips and tours you can do from Mexico City, such as:
- Seeing the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan
- Visiting the wonderful pueblo magico of Cholula
- Hiking the scenic mountain pass of Paso de Cortes
- Or visiting the historical town of Tepoztlán
Tepoztlán (Central Mexico)
Tepoztlán makes for a convenient excursion from Mexico City, as it’s about an hour south from the capital. Tepoztlán is believed to be the birthplace of one of the most important Gods in Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl, or the plumed serpent. With dramatic scenery, distinctive archaeological history, and deep preservation of pre-Hispanic traditions, it’s a must-visit destination for inquiring minds.
The main attraction near this pueblo magico is the archaeological site of El Tepozteco, but the town is also is a good place to kick back and relax.
Pyramids of Teotihuacán (Central Mexico)
Within day-trip distance of Mexico City, you’ll find the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán, where you can see (and climb) the largest and most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids. It’s a stunning place, especially outside of peak hours when the lack of crowds will enhance its mystique.
Teotihuacán was once the largest city in the Americas, with an estimated 125,000 inhabitants. There seems to be some uncertainty over the civilization that was based there — perhaps it was an entirely different one from the Mayas, Aztecs, or Olmecs, but some other sources suggest it may have actually been the capital of the Aztecs.
In any case, the site is amazingly well-preserved and should be considered a must-visit if you’re in the area. As is often the case at popular sites such as these, early morning visits will help you beat the crowds and catch the morning glow.
Guanajuato (Central Mexico)
Guanajuato, the capital of the state which shares its name, once lured in the Spanish searching for silver ore. It eventually became the temporary capital of Mexico and was later named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some bloggers have taken to calling Guanajuato the prettiest city in Mexico. It’s definitely a colorful city filled with colonial architecture and tree-lined plazas. What also sets this city apart are its numerous mountain tunnels, initially built to divert water during storms, but now making for intriguing shortcuts all throughout the city.
Our Guanajuato travel guide tells you about the top things to do in Guanajuato.
Oaxaca City (Southern Mexico)
Oaxaca state is known as one of the most bio-diverse states, one of the food capitals of Mexico, as well as being home to many indigenous peoples including the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs.
The city of the same name received UNESCO World Heritage status and is one of the cultural tourism gems of Mexico. It also serves as a great base for exploring the landscapes of Oaxaca Valley as well as the ancient archaeological site of Monte Albán. There are numerous things to do in Oaxaca and it’s highly worth going on a walking tour of Oaxaca to fully appreciate the history of the city.
In Oaxaca, you just have to try the mole. You might know some moles already (guacamole, anyone?), but the legendary sauces from Oaxaca are probably nothing like you’ve tasted before. The traditional black sauce, mole negro, can contain dozens of different ingredients and takes hours to prepare. It’s usually served with chicken and rice, and it should be your first mole to try. But it doesn’t end there; Oaxaca is known as “Land of the Seven Moles”, so you’ll have your work cut out for you.
Oaxaca is also where the drink of mezcal originates. Like tequila, it’s made from agave plants, but through a more complex process. You’re not meant to take it with salt or lime (unless you want to look like a real gringo!), and you should always nip it instead of taking a shot.
Oaxaca has a lot of cultural festivals throughout the year. It’s also a fantastic place to experience the Dia de Los Muertos, the day during which people pay their respects to the dead. While people lay flowers at the cemetery, others celebrate life at a fun fair (which is right next door to the cemetery). A big parade takes place at night, with many people dressed as skeleton figures.
San Cristóbal de las Casas (Southern Mexico)
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a charming mountain town with lovely churches, markets and squares. It is also one of the cheapest places I have visited in Mexico, with hostel beds going for as little as $6 a night, and basic rooms costing as little as $12 a night.
The low prices in San Cristóbal are mainly due to Chiapas being among the poorest states. But it’s also incredibly pleasant, with a pedestrian-friendly old town and many churches with colorful bunting. Consider staying at Rossco Backpackers, where there’s a campfire every night where you can warm up from the colder mountain air and trade stories with other travellers.
San Cristóbal makes for a great base from which you can visit many waterfalls in the mountains, or visit nearby Mayan villages and observe some traditional cultures.
For example, go to the nearby indigenous village of San Juan Chamula. There you will find a church where Catholic and pagan rituals have mixed in unusual ways. While not for the squeamish, you may arrive to see a live chicken getting ritually sacrificed at an altar. Remember to be respectful to the villagers and avoid intrusive photography.
Also in Chiapas State is the Sumidero Canyon (or Cañón del Sumidero), a long river canyon with steep sides up to 1km high. You can enjoy a boat tour along the river, which can be booked easily from San Cristóbal de las Casas or online via GetYourGuide.
The valley and mountain ridges are filled with lush tropical and rainforest vegetation and there are waterfalls coming down from the canyon ridges. There’s a lot of wildlife as well; you’ll probably see kingfishers and other native birds and, if you’re lucky, some river crocodiles.
Don’t expect the river to be entirely pristine: there are issues with plastic trash, especially at a hydroelectric dam that also serves as the endpoint of the boat tours. But don’t let that put you off, as the burgeoning ecotourism in this area helps generate money for cleanup efforts and increased environmental protection. Sumidero Canyon is an epic place and well worth the price of a tour.
Mayan ruins of Palenque (Southern Mexico)
If you’re thinking of visiting some Mayan temples, you’ll probably think of Chichen Itza near Cancún, which is by far Mexico’s most famous Mayan archaeological site. But with two million annual visitors, entertainers walking around in Mayan costumes, and light shows in the evening, I feel this site may be a bit too commercialized.
Palenque in Chiapas State gets just half as many visitors as Chichen Itza, but the temples are equally spectacular. They’re also beautifully situated amid the jungle, rather than out in the open. Some of the ruins are partially overgrown, giving the site a slightly more organic feel — though it’s well on the tourist trail these days.
Another cool thing is that you can stay the night in one of the rustic guesthouses in El Panchan (near the park entrance) and wake up in the morning to the sound of howler monkeys. If you’re travelling between the Yucatán and Oaxaca, then Palenque makes for a perfect stop.
Yucatán Peninsula (Southeast Mexico)
The whole of the Yucatán Peninsula is firmly established on the traveller map, famed as it is for its white-sand beaches, huge cave systems called cenotes, the epic ruins of Chichen Itzá, the mangroves and wetlands of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, as well as the Great Mayan Reef.
The latter is the world’s second largest barrier reef (after the one in Australia) making it a true paradise for snorkelers and scuba divers, with the island of Cozumel being a favoured base for reef excursions. Big pelagic species often pass through the area, including bull sharks and whale sharks.
Isla Holbox is the main backpacker haunt these days, with its hammocks and rustic island vibes. The town of Tulum has gone more upscale in recent years, catering to a trendier and possibly more pretentious crowd. Away from the beaches, the cities of Mérida and Valladolid make for great bases from which to explore the cultural highlights of the Yucatán. The Yucatán can easily keep you busy for weeks if you want to see it all — be sure to check out our guide to the Yucatán to decide where to go.
Cenotes of the Yucatán
The Yucatán peninsula is home to countless underground sinkholes, caverns and caves that stretch for countless of miles. Once considered highly sacred to the Maya as portals to the underworld, many of these so-called cenotes have been made accessible for swimming or scuba diving.
The Cenotes Cuzamá near Mérida are semi-open and perfect for a swim, as is the Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman near Valladolid — but there are dozens more all over the peninsula.
Scuba divers might want to take a look at Dos Ojos near Tulum, which has caverns you can dive through even with a basic Open Water certification. You will see beautiful sunbeams crossing past stalagmites from openings in the cavern roof. Angelita is another stunning cenote: it has a mystical layer of hydrogen sulfate that looks like a foggy cloud with various logs and branches passing through it—looking like a mysterious planet in a sci-fi movie.
The Pacific Coast (Western Mexico)
Mexico’s Pacific Coast is not always as immediately picturesque as the Caribbean, at least if you’re looking for that classic travel brochure look of white sand and palm trees. But there are tons of nice bays and charming beach towns that are well worth a stop.
Some of the seaside destinations include:
- Puerto Escondido, a favourite with backpackers in Oaxaca on the classic trail through Mexico.
- Puerto Vallarta, which is more of an upscale resort not far from Guadalajara.
- Mazatlán, a resort and expat town with many big hotels, but it also has a nice old town and at least one cool surfer hostel.
- Zihuatanejo, not at all on the backpacker trail, but it’s a small resort city with a local vibe and the occasional gringo. (Guerrero State has had security issues though, so check the current situation before going.)
Zihuatanejo is almost never mentioned in Mexico travel guides but I liked my stay there a lot. But maybe that was partly due to a rather unique attraction. Looming over the bay on one of its hills is what looks like a gaudy replica of the Greek Parthenon. This now-abandoned Greco-Roman luxury villa once belonged to one of Mexico’s most notorious crooked cops, who made millions through extortion and kickbacks. You can snoop around this abandoned villa if you give the guards a few pesos.
Copper Canyon (Northern Mexico)
The Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) in northern Mexico will blow you away with its scale, especially when standing along the vertigo-inducing cliffs. The canyon is so tall that at its bottom the climate can be almost tropical, while it’s an arid desert at the top. Surprisingly few tourists make it out there, but it’s easily one of my top things to see in Mexico.
You can see the canyon from the comfort of the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway line, which runs for 12 hours all the way across the region. This train ride is definitely one of my favorite experiences in Mexico. I have some incredible memories of just watching the incredible landscapes pass by from the window of my cabin while listening to the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption (it just seemed appropriate at the time!).
The Copper Canyon is far removed from the popular tourist areas of Mexico, but if you can spare some days to add it to your trip, it’s absolutely worth it.
Creel (Northern Mexico)
Creel is a small town in the Sierra Tarahumara in northern Mexico, near the Copper Canyon. It’s a lovely little base from which to take trips into the Copper Canyon, and explore the surrounding land by foot, horseback, or mountain bike. You can hire guides in the town of Creel, though nearby trails are signposted well and easy to do independently.
Around Creel, you’ll find many plains with cow ranches and valleys with beautiful rock formations created by centuries of wind erosion. The rugged scenery around the Sierra Tarahumara is also wild and beautiful; it was one of those places that conformed to my typical image of Mexico as a place filled with deserts, canyons, and other panoramic landscapes.
There are some epic waterfalls in the region; the Cascada de Cusárare is fairly close to Creel (about a 3o min drive), while the Cascada Basaseachi is much further (3 hours away), but it’s Mexico’s second-highest waterfall and well worth the effort to get there.
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