Marvellous Mexico: the best destinations for food and culture

A magnificent country that goes way beyond its stereotypes, Mexico isn’t just tacos, tequila and unspoiled beaches – though that’s the perfect place to start. It’s a marvel of epic natural landscapes and spectacular archaeological wonders, boasting a rich culture that’s unrivaled. It’s also brimming with world-class museums and art galleries, and has an exquisite culinary repertoire to discover. Diverse cuisine and vibrant culture are an integral part of local Mexican life, and with this awe-inspiring guide you’ll be booking a trip quicker than you can say mezcal

Mayan archaeological site in Tulum. iStock/CampPhoto

Mexico City

Mexico City is a sprawling, mega metropolis of diversity and contrasts, where each neighbourhood has its own unique story to tell. Alongside a thriving nightlife and museums galore, it offers an irresistible culinary culture – one of the most exciting on Earth. With everything from traditional street food and laid-back cantinas through to fine Michelin dining and world-class chefs, there’s something to tantalise all tastebuds. 

A unique dining experience should be at the top of your list, and Pujol is the place for that, with a menu that takes classic Mexican cuisine to the next level. Further foodie highlights include the tasting menu at Quintonil, iconic Los Especiales for delicious tacos, and Rosetta for Italian flavours with a Mexican sensibility – they also run a number of panaderias that supply bread to the rest of the city. 

In-between cantina-hopping, soak up the beguiling beauty of the Baroque 18th-century palace that is Casa de los Azulejos, known as ‘The House of Tiles’, all before enjoying a dose of culture at Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Museo Soumaya and the world-class institution of Museo Jumex. Grab yourself a coffee from Eno Petrarca and spend a day exploring the city’s contemporary art scene, celebrating Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. 

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City. Getty/Marco Bottigelli

Oaxaca

Beautiful beaches, spectacular archaeological sites, mountainous valleys, and a multicultural art scene paint a pretty picture in Oaxaca. Then there’s the wildly varied local cuisine that has given the city its status as culinary centre of the sprawling country. Mellower than Mexico City, this marvel boasts unique regional specialities that will have your mouth watering, from mole and mezcal to chocolate and crickets. 

Head to Las Quince Letras, which people flock to for homey Mexican cooking including Spanish-style mole and amarillito, and for family-style comfort food with a contemporary twist, Criollo – opened by the chef of famed Pujol – is a must. Tetelas and soft tacos at Itanoni should be high on your list, while Pitiona is the go-to for Mexican-European culinary delights with a view. 

No trip to the birthplace of mezcal would be complete without a tour of mezcalerias, including In Situ, Los Amantes and La Mezcaloteca. For refreshments of a different kind, nature-lovers should visit Hierve el Agua, a thermal mineral pool with views of the petrified waterfall, as well as the stunning Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. Culture buffs wouldn’t want to miss Oaxaca Cathedral, Museo de Sitio de Monte Albán and Templo de Santo Domingo. 

Traditional tacos. Getty/arturogi

Sonora

The second-largest Mexican state, Sonora offers the best of everything the country is known for – postcard-pretty beaches, sprawling cacti-sprinkled desert, striking colonial towns and a rich cultural heritage and distinguished culinary excellence, notably its bacanora alcoholic drink. Culture and beauty abound in Sonora; it’s sure to leave a lasting impression, whatever you discover.  

Hermosillo is a Sonoran city that gives visitors a taste of old Mexico with its rustic rural landscapes and colonial buildings. And it’s certainly worthy of gastronomical pilgrimage; Viva Sonora preserves the flavours of traditional Sonoran cooking, and for classic coyota pastries, nowhere beats Coyotas Doña María. Then there’s the attractive town of Magdalena de Kino, where you can stroll through cobblestone streets to browse handicrafts and fill up on excellent local cuisine – Asadero Momos is great for tasty no-frills fare.

For an even more captivating trip, pair your foodie experience with landscapes of drop-dead gorgeous beauty and ecological prominence. The creek of Cuchujaqui is one of the Northern Hemisphere’s most important subtropical areas, while the Sonoran Desert is well worth a visit – discover cave paintings in La Pintada canyon, and don’t miss the otherworldly El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar biosphere reserve. Finally, cool off from the desert heat in the pristine waters of Puerto Peñasco.

Cacti in the Sonoran Desert. Getty/Thomas Roche

Puebla 

One of Mexico’s most under-the-radar cities, Puebla is often tacked on as a day trip – but this soul-soothing yet intoxicating city is a fabulous destination in itself, and one of the foremost foodie locations in the entire country. The state’s unique cultural combination of Arabic, Spanish, and indigenous influences reflects in its distinctive cuisine, making it perhaps the most compelling in Mexico. 

Puebla is the birthplace of Mexico’s famous dishes, mole poblano and chile en nogada – it’s also the only place to eat authentic tacos árabes, and Las Ranas is a local favourite for these tasty creations. Cemitas las Poblanitas is a go-to for sampling cemitas sandwiches, while bar La Pasita is an iconic place to knock back a sweet-and-salty shot of the same name. For a unique dining experience to remember, Augurio is where classic Pueblan dishes are elevated with a contemporary touch. 

When you aren’t gorging on classic cuisine, embrace the city’s increasingly thriving art and nightlife scenes, discover a few of over 300 churches, and explore the vibrant UNESCO World Heritage centre. Be sure to visit Casa Nueve, which bills itself as a mini cultural emporium that’s equal parts art gallery, book store, and restaurant, and stock up on edible goods at Casa Relámpago.

Traditional mole poblano dish. Getty/Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez

Yucatán Peninsula

There’s much more to the Yucatán Peninsula than Cancún’s lively spring break reputation. Famed for its turquoise waters and coral-white sands, not to mention its marvellous ancient Mayan ruins like the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itzá, this Mexican region is one that remains distinct in its natural and cultural offerings.

The colonial gem of Mérida is a gateway to Mayan culture. Alongside some of the most important archaeological Mayan sites, including the sensational Ruta Puuc, you’ll find enchanting cenotes (natural sinkholes) to explore, including the Cenotes de Cuzamá. Then there’s the cosmopolitan heart of the ‘White City’, where the local food is best enjoyed at a laid-back cantina (La Negrita or El Cardenal, to name a couple) – a Yucatán street food speciality to look out for is the marquesita, a type of crêpe filled with cheese and cajeta caramel. Another hotspot for Mayan foodie favourites is the city of Valladolid, where cochinita pibil and relleno negro de pavo are worth a taste.

Natural beauty abounds here, and there’s plenty to keep outdoor-lovers entertained outside of the cities: snorkel in the calm waters of Cozumel; scale the tallest pyramid temple on the Yucatán Peninsula in Coba; soak up the glimmering red-pink waters of Las Coloradas lake; find off-the-tourist-trail cenotes in boho-chic Tulum; and discover abundant wildlife in the Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

El Castillo pyramid in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. istock/fergregory