Everywhere you turn in Mexico, you're confronted with a glorious cacophony of music, color and a staggering breadth of terrain. Whether it's your first trip or you're a veteran traveler of this wonderful country, there is always something new and exciting to discover.
No matter your budget, you'll find palm-fringed beaches, ancient ruins, color-drenched festivals, fireworks and mouth-watering cuisine that will ensure this ranks amongst your favorite holiday destinations. There are more reasons to visit this beautiful nation than any single list can contain but we've gathered together some of the best top experiences Mexico has to offer. It's time to see first-hand what provided endless inspiration to artists like Frida Kahlo.
Best place for vibrant culture
The nation's long-standing political capital clearly stands at the forefront of Mexico's cultural scene as well. Remember that this is where many of the country's top muralists left behind their most important works, such as Diego Rivera's cinematic murals in the Palacio Nacional and the social-realism work of José Clemente Orozco in the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Art, music, dance and theater are everywhere in Mexico City – even a gondola ride along the ancient canals of Xochimilco wouldn't be complete without the accompaniment of a mariachi ballad.
A stroll through the buzzing downtown area reveals the capital’s storied history, from pre-Hispanic and colonial-era architecture to the contemporary megalopolis. Old-school cantinas and intriguing museums sit alongside edgy contemporary galleries and glamorous plazas displaying a treasure trove of artisanal and designer shopping. This is culturally diverse Mexico at its best.
Best place for scuba diving
Rediscover the magic of old Baja by visiting the largely undeveloped east coast, discovering world-class diving off Cabo Pulmo, the only significant reef on the west coast of North America and, at 27 sq miles (71 sq km), one of the largest and most successful marine protected regions in the world. In this beautiful place you can expect to see black coral bushes along with schools of horse-eye jacks and triggerfish. Depending on the seasons and currents, you may also spy hammerhead sharks, huge manta rays and whale sharks.
You don't necessarily need a 4WD to enjoy the drive out here along the spectacular Eastern Cape (from the south) coastal road or through the Sierra de la Laguna (to the west), but the road can get rough at times. You will escape the crowds and find a very mellow scene that can be hard to leave.
Copper Canyon Railway
Best train ride
The Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico (Copper Canyon Railway) remains one of Latin America’s best rail trips. Trains climb from sea level at Los Mochis to the adventure-minded town of Creel via the sensational rocky landscapes of the Copper Canyon. Vistas from your window include alpine forests, subtropical valleys, Tarahumara villages and glimpses of some of the world’s deepest canyons. Overnight en route at cinematic lodges overlooking the canyon's edge, or stay for days of exploring, hiking, horseback riding and even zip-lining in one of Mexico's most breathtaking destinations.
Best place for a city meets nature get-away
This highly individual southern city basks in bright upland light and captivates everyone with its deliciously inventive version of Mexican cuisine, gorgeous handicrafts, frequent colorful fiestas, colonial architecture, booming arts scene and fine mezcals distilled in nearby villages – Oaxaca City is actually considered the capital of mezcal. Within easy reach of the city are the superb ancient Zapotec capital, Monte Albán, dozens of indigenous craft-making villages with busy weekly markets, and the cool, forested hills of the Sierra Norte, perfect for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.
Oaxaca is a complex but intensely attractive city whose majestic churches and refined plazas have deservedly earned it a Unesco World Heritage badge. Flowing through handsome yet tranquil streets, life pulsates with an unadulterated regional flavor. See it in the color palette of historic boutique hotels, a meet-the-producer artisan store, satirical street art, bohemian bars and been-around-forever street markets. Trust us: there’s far more to this city than just pretty churches.
Best place for quiet beaches
Do yourself a favor and get to this region. Unlike in the overdeveloped Cancún and Riviera Maya, you can still find quiet fishing villages on the Costa Maya that put a premium on sustainable development, such as Mahahual and Xcalak, both of which boast some of the best dive sites on the Caribbean coast. Then head inland for Laguna Bacalar, a laid-back lakeside town known for its mesmerizing scenery, a 295ft-deep (90m) cenote and an old Spanish fortress.
Reserva de la Biosfera Santuario
Best place to watch the great Monarch migration
Canopies of golden-orange butterflies cover the forests and hillsides in the Reserva de la Biósfera Santuario Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve), perhaps Mexico’s most astonishing yearly natural phenomenon. It’s the kind of annual event to plan your trip around – between late October and mid-March the migrant monarchs cover every surface, clinging together in clusters that weigh down thick branches of the oyamel (Abies religiosa or `sacred fir') trees and changing the landscape into a permanent sunset as the butterflies winter far from the freezing Great Lakes.
When the sun rises and warms the forest, they take to the sky in gold and orange flurries, descending to the humid forest floor for the hottest part of the day. The best time to see them is on a warm, sunny afternoon when they carpet the ground brilliantly – they don’t fly as much in cool weather (55 degrees or lower). It is one of the planet’s most spectacular migrations and not to be missed. Note that the entrance fee includes a mandatory guide, who works for tips; the minimum recommended amount is M$220 per guide per day.
Best place for boho vibes
Take a dramatic Maya ruin, plonk it down beside the achingly beautiful white sands and turquoise-blue waters of the Caribbean and you’ve got the rightly world-famous Tulum. Add in accommodations for all budgets, from beachside shacks to top-end resorts, some fantastic restaurants and bars, and numerous attractions in the surrounding area from cenotes (limestone sinkholes) to other Maya ruins, and it’s no wonder many people come for a few days and find themselves staying for far longer.
Some may be put off by the fact that the town center, where the really cheap eats and sleeps are found, sits right on the highway, making the main drag feel more like a truck stop than a tropical paradise. But rest assured that if Tulum Pueblo isn't to your liking, you can always head to the coast and find a tranquil, beachside bungalow. Exploring Tulum's surrounding areas pays big rewards: there's the massive Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an, secluded fishing village Punta Allen and the ruins of Cobá.
Best city for mariachi
Mexico’s second-largest city dazzles, often feeling more like a collection of pueblos than a great metropolis. This charmer gets under your skin with lofty churches, labyrinthine markets, awesome public spaces and wonderful craft shopping in the arty suburbs of Tlaquepaque and Tonalá. The young party all weekend in hip bars and heaving dance clubs, and there’s nowhere better in western Mexico to eat out, whether you're after local specialties such as spicy goat stew, or chic nouveau Mexican and fusion cuisine.
While many of the images recognized as quintessentially Mexican have their roots here – mariachi music, wide-brimmed sombreros, the Mexican hat dance and charreadas (rodeos) – Guadalajara is as much a vanguard of the new Mexico as it is guardian of the old. Museums and theaters drive cultural life forward, anchored by the wonderful cathedral and Instituto Cultural de Cabañas.
Bet place to truly get away from it all
Part of a Unesco-protected Biosphere Reserve, Espíritu Santo island is spectacular in every way. Pink sandstone has been eroded by wind and waves into finger-like protrusions, each harboring a beautiful cove. And if this otherworldly beauty isn't enough, you can descend into the endless blue with whale sharks, dive the many colorful reefs, camp under a canopy of stunning stars, snorkel with playful sea lions at their island colony and paddle your way along myriad azure bays. A number of operators run activities here, including kayaking and snorkeling.
San Miguel de Allende
Best place for craft shops and folk art
This Mexican beauty has it all: a fantastic springlike climate, extraordinary light, breathtaking architecture, superb handicraft shopping and some of the best culinary experiences in the country. Its frequent festivities mean that music, parades and fireworks are never hard to find – check out what's on in Atención San Miguel. The Escuela de Bellas Artes and the Biblioteca (in the Sala Quetzal) host a variety of cultural events, many in English; check their noticeboards for schedules.
San Miguel has a mind-boggling number of craft shops, selling folk art and handicrafts from all over the country. Anyone serious about buying should book an appointment at the excellent Galeria Atotonilco. Once you're finished shopping up a storm, the town's nearby hot springs are a joy to unwind in. Famously a place for retired gringos to spend the winter, San Miguel has so much more to offer than expat hangouts; spending time here is often a highlight of Mexico for many visitors.
Pico de Orizaba
Best place for a trek
The perfect introduction to Veracruz state's most appealing town is to hop into the cable car up to the park atop 4068ft (1240m) Cerro del Borrego. From this lofty, green perch you can admire the domes and bell towers of the city's many historic churches and the surrounding mountainous terrain, including the snowcapped summit of Pico de Orizaba. The city is the ideal launchpad for closer inspections of Mexico's ultimate trekking and climbing challenge (the ascent requires some technical skills) and the six-day, five-night summit treks start from the small village of Tlachichuca.
If sea-level thrills are more to your liking, there's plenty on offer in the town of Orizaba including a beautiful riverside walk, a couple of impressive museums and galleries and a unique 'Iron Palace'.
Best beaches for surfing
With verdant coves backed by lush tropical mountains, untrammeled expanses of sand and mangrove-fringed lagoons teeming with birdlife, Mexico's Pacific coastline is stunning in its natural beauty. Punctuating this primordial grandeur is a series of lively resort towns – Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo and Acapulco – interspersed with world-class surf spots such as Barra de Nexpa, Boca de Pascuales, Troncones and Puerto Escondido.
You can indulge in all the tropical clichés here: eating sublime seafood under palm-frond roofs, drinking chilled coconut water while lounging in a hammock, or enjoying poolside cocktails at an upmarket resort. The nightlife in the cities is great and there's a beach for everyone, whether you prefer yours backed by high-rise hotels or tumbledown cabins. There's even more going on in the ocean, where you can spot humpback whales breaching on the horizon, mother turtles arriving to lay their eggs, pelicans flying in formation or pods of dolphins rising from the waves.
Best place to climb a volcano
As volcanoes go, Paricutín is still in its adolescence. Blasting out of a Michoacán maize field in 1943, it’s one of the youngest volcanoes on Earth, and one of only a few whose life cycle has been fully studied by scientists. And the dormant, 1345ft-high (410m) cone is relatively easy to climb. Some rock hop across barren lava fields to bag the peak, others ride horses through hot black sand before dismounting for the final summit scramble over volcanic scree. The goal’s the same: a chance to stand atop a geological marvel.
You should be leaving Angahuan before 9am if you want to climb Volcán Paricutín comfortably. There's no shortage of guides with horses at the tourist center offering their services to the volcano and back via the ruined church, and they will meet you at the bus from Uruapan. Horses and a guide should cost around M$500 in total per person per day.
Best place to see pre-Columbian architecture
The most popular of Mexico's ancient sights for good reason, Chichén Itzá is simply spectacular. From the imposing, monolithic El Castillo pyramid (where the shadow of the plumed serpent god Kukulcán creeps down the staircase during the spring and autumn equinoxes) to the Sacred Cenote and curiously designed El Caracol, the legacy of Maya astronomers will blow your mind. Admire the Wall of Skulls and the stone carvings at the Temple of Warriors, or come back at night for the sound-and-light show.
The heat, humidity and crowds in Chichén Itzá can be fierce; try to explore the site either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, though note that the 5pm closing is a hard exit. If you're determined to avoid the crowds and the heat, then consider taking a pricey private tour of the site, which allows you to enter the grounds between 5am and 8am. Bring bottled water and a wide-brimmed hat; there are plenty of shaded areas on the site if the unrelenting sun becomes a little too much. Proper laced shoes or boots are preferable to flip flops as the ground is uneven and dusty.
Best place for adventures in nature
The remote La Huasteca Potosina region is a hot and steamy land of iridescent tropical flowers and tangled jungles hiding a series of stunning toothpaste-blue waterfalls and swimming holes. It's a landscape and climate that's worlds away from the grand colonial cities and cool ranching country that makes up so much of the rest of central Mexico. This alluring region is attracts adventurous travelers who are drawn here by a beguiling combination of breathtaking scenery, the rich culture of the local Huastec people (Tének), plus extraordinary sinkholes, caves and bird-watching.
You might also like:
Mexico's family-friendly destinations to explore with kids
What travel looks like in Mexico in 2021
Best time to visit Mexico