One of the pleasures of being an expat in Mexicois getting to know other beautiful colonial cities in the country that I had never heard of before—like Puebla. And I’m not alone. Although Puebla is a culturally rich UNESCO World Heritage Site located only two hours southeast of Mexico City, it doesn’t draw international tourists or expats the way San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, and other Mexican colonial cities do.
Don’t let that stop you! With its colorfulcentro historico, abundance of baroque churches, and fabulous cuisine, Puebla is an unusual and quirky find. Here are some of its sensory pleasures:
#1. Colorful Streets And Historic Buildings
Many of the streets in el centroare lined with pastel-colored buildings, colonnades, and wrought-iron balconies dating to the late 19th century.
The Cathedral, a mix of Baroque and Renaissance styles, is located on thezócalo(main square). It’s the second highest in Mexico, with 14 chapels and an octagonal altar.
The colorful street calledCallejón de los Sapos, where you can buy antiques, books, and odds and ends, is named for the toads that surfaced when the river flooded in colonial times. On the weekends, the shops and markets extend down multiple walking streets.
#2. Baroque Architecture
You’ll see baroque architecture in many parts of el centro, but the most famous examples are the ornateCapilla del Rosario, with intricate carvings covered in gold leaf, and the lacy whiteIglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. The city even has an International Museum of the Baroque (oddly, with a spare, modernist exterior).
#3. Talavera Pottery
Talavera tiles, Puebla’s iconic export, are made from clay slabs that are baked, glazed, and hand-painted. You’ll see them on many building facades, including Casa de los Muñecos, a gastronomic cultural site, andCasa del Alfeñique, a 19th-century family house with a chapel. You can buy talavera tiles and pottery all over town, but for the widest selection, visit the ceramic Uriarte workshop and the Parian Market.
#4. Food, Glorious Food
Because Puebla was a major stop on the trade route between Mexico City and the Atlantic port of Veracruz, it became one of the most important gastronomic regions of Mexico, with influences from France and the Middle East.
Don’t miss the national dish that originated in Puebla,mole poblano, a thick succulent sauce which, according to legend, nuns created by accident in the late 1600s. It’s made up of over 20 ingredients—mainly chilies, chocolate, cinnamon, and cloves—and is served over rice or chicken. Or try the Lebanese-influencedtaco árabe, made with marinated pork prepared on a spit and sliced onto pita bread.
If you like sweets, head to Av. 6 Oriente, dubbedCalle de los Dulces(Sweet Street), three blocks of shops that sell baked goods and sugary treats in shapes like guitars and sombreros. Have somecamote, Puebla’s signature candy made from sweet potato.
#5. The Oldest Library In The Americas
The vaulted Biblioteca Palafoxiana, lined with three tiers of bookshelves, was recognized by UNESCO for being the oldest library and reading room in the Americas. It is named for the former Bishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, who, in 1646, donated 5,000 books to start the collection. It’s now home to 45,000 books, ranging from the 15th to the 20th century.
#6. Loreto And Guadalupe Forts
Many people think Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day, which actually falls on Sept. 16. But May 5 is a holiday in Puebla, because, on that day, the Mexican troops defeated the French army on a hill above the city. You can visit the museum of the Loreto and Guadalupe forts, located in a spacious, well-maintained park with great views of the city.
#7. Secret Tunnels
In 2015, archeologists, confirming a cherished urban legend, discovered an underground tunnel system dating back to 1531. One tunnel, tall enough that a person could ride through on horseback, connects Puebla’s centro with the Loreto and Guadalupe forts. Historians believe the tunnels were used by Mexican troops in the 1862 Battle of Puebla against the French. Marbles, kitchen goods, toys, guns, bullets, and gunpowder from the mid-19th century were found trapped in mud. You can take a tour led by the archaeologists who worked on the project.
#8. The Teleférico (Cable Car)
Suspended high above the city, the teleférico, located near the forts, is a 10-minute ride, offering views of the city and the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes.
#9. Cholula’s Great Pyramid
After the Spanish conquered Puebla in the 1500s, they constructed a church, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, four miles west of the city, on what they assumed was a hill. The church is now in the town of Cholula. Unbeknownst to the Spanish, beneath the tiny church was an ancient pyramid. Starting in the 1800s, archeologists dug five miles of tunnels through the hill to uncover what turned out to be the largest artificial structure in the world, with a base four times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza and nearly twice the volume. Enter on the north side through the center of the pyramid and exit on the south side. A tourist train leaves Puebla’scentro three times a day for the ruins.
After seeing the pyramid, you can visit Cholula, considered the oldest continually inhabited town in Mexico and a pueblo mágico, the designation the Mexican government gives to towns with special natural, historical, and cultural significance. Cholula is famous for its legendary 365 churches, one per day of the year. In reality, there are only 37 churches, but who’s counting?
While you’re there, check outSanta Maria Tonantzintla, whose style has been called “folk Baroque,” andSan Francisco de Acatepec, whose red-brick-and-talavera facade is covered with wild colors and geometric patterns.
Puebla is not only beautiful, but relaxed, friendly, and unpretentious. The city is experiencing a cultural rebirth, celebrating its unique role in Mexico’s history, cuisine, and the arts. Now is the perfect time to visit!