Blessed with exuberant Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Puebla is a World Heritage city on a grid of streets laid out in 1531. This parcel of land, ringed by gargantuan stratovolcanoes, was picked by Mexico’s early colonists as a mid-way point between Veracruz on the gulf and Mexico City.
The Historic Centre is bursting with colonial-era churches, like the Baroque masterpiece the Capilla del Rosario.
Two colonial mansions contain the Museo Amparo, one of the country’s superior museums, documenting 4,500 years of Mexico’s history.
Puebla has its own colourful pottery style, known as Talavera, and is also the place where the sweet and spicy mole poblano sauce was invented.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Puebla:
1. Museo Amparo
Up there with Mexico’s most prestigious museums, the Museo Amparo chronicles the history of Mexico from 2,500 BC to today.
The museum is in two colonial complexes with a modern annexe, an apt setting for a journey through the nation’s past.
Many of the artefacts were curated throughout the 20th century by the entrepreneur Manuel Espinosa Yglesias.
The pre-Hispanic collections are vast and have steles, ceramics, everyday utensils, sculptures and altars from a host of civilisations, including the Mayans, Olmecs, Aztecs and Mixtecs, but also the Totonacs, Teotihuacans, Huastecs and Zapotecs.
The displays offer some extra context by pointing out what was happening in the rest of the world while these cultures were flourishing.
They are also presented by theme, and not culture, so if you’re curious about pre-Columbian history you’ll come away with a complete picture.
2. Capilla del Rosario
In the Templo de Santo Domingo is a chapel that is held as the pinnacle of the New Spanish Baroque.
After it was finished in 1690 the Capilla del Rosario was even touted as an eighth wonder of the world.
Almost every surface of this barrel-vaulted chapel is covered in stucco, moulded in bewilderingly complicated patterns and trimmed with gold leaf.
Ensconced in the decoration are polychrome images of saints, while the altar holds the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary in a Baldachin under Solomonic columns.
The walls of the chapel have Baroque paintings evoking the Nativity scenes: Annunciation, Visitation, Birth of Jesus, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation and Christ among the Doctors.
Below these works the walls are clad with colourful tiles made in Puebla using the Talavera technique.
Begun in 1575 and finished in 1690, Puebla’s cathedral is part of the World Heritage Site encompassing the city’s Historic Centre.
The building is in the Herrerian style, at the transition between Renaissance and Baroque and abounds with high-quality wood carving, goldsmithery, painting, liturgical artefacts and stonework.
The magnificent main altar (Altar of the Kings) is the burial site of a number of Puebla’s bishops and was designed by the 18th-century Neoclassical architect and sculptor Manuel Tolsá.
Above this, in the dome of the apse, is a glorious tempera painting from 1688 by the Baroque artist Cristóbal de Villalpando.
Representing the Triumph of the Eucharist, it’s one of the few tempera paintings preserved in Mexico.
4. Zócalo de Puebla
Essentially the place where the city was founded in 1531, the Zócalo is Puebla’s central plaza.
The cathedral is on the south side of the square, while to the north is the Palacio Municipal (City Hall), which is on the shoulder of a delightful shopping arcade, the Pasaje del Ayuntamiento.
On three sides the colonial-style houses and municipal buildings are arcaded, and most of the private properties are restaurants.
You could start the day at a restaurant watching the square come to life over breakfast.
Between the palms, cypresses and formal gardens on the square are balloon-sellers and shoe-shiners, and at the centre is a Baroque fountain from 1777.
5. International Museum of the Baroque
This new museum is all about the Baroque, the style of art, architecture and music that defined much of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and the New World.
The museum building was designed by Pritzker Prize-winner, Toyo Ito, taking inspiration from Baroque notions of movement, the contrast of light and shade (chiaroscuro) and the relationship between man and nature.
Don’t expect stacks of Baroque art and artefacts, as the museum is more conceptual, exploring the religious origins (counter-reformation), philosophy and driving forces behind the Baroque movement.
There are studies of Baroque wonders like St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Bavaria’s Ottobeuren Abbey and Puebla’s own Capilla del Rosario.
Also interesting is the model of Puebla as it would have looked in its Baroque heyday in 1754.
6. Fuertes de Loreto y Guadalupe
Protecting the old centre atop the Acueyametepec hill are two 19th-century forts from the time of the Second French Intervention in Mexico (1861-1867). These are named after the Virgin of Loreto and the Virgin of Guadalupe, harking back to the hermitages that had been founded at this location in the 16th century.
They saw action in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 when they successfully helped defend the city against the French army.
The story of that battle is recounted at the museum inside the Fort of Guadalupe, while both buildings are stocked with weapons, documents, portraits and uniform from that time.
The park at Acueyametepec deserves a stroll and has panoramic views of Puebla.
7. Biblioteca Palafoxiana
Established in 1646, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana was colonial Mexico’s first public library, and may well be the oldest in the entire Americas.
In one long hall with cross vaults in its ceiling are carved wooden shelves, three storeys high, laden with 41,000 books, manuscripts and documents like original maps from the days of the conquistador Hernán Cortés in the 16th century.
The library was founded by Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, the illegitimate son of Aragonese nobility, who joined the clergy and rose to become Bishop of Puebla from 1640-1655. Some of the many volumes are out on display.
Due to the great age of the library scholars now need to apply for permits to be able to study in Biblioteca Palafoxiana.
8. Estrella de Puebla
In Puebla de Zaragoza, to the west of downtown Puebla, is a complex that incorporates the Parque Lineal, the Ecoparque Metropolitano and the Jardín del Arte.
The Angelópolis Lifestyle Center here is the largest mall in the city, with more than 150 shops.
But the star of the show is the Estrella de Puebla, officially the largest portable observation wheel in the world.
Put up in 2013, this ferris wheel is 80 metres high, and will take 20 minutes to complete a rotation in one of its sealed gondolas.
If you want to push the boat out you can ride in one of four luxury gondolas, which have glass floors and leather seats.
In clear weather, the natural landmarks to pick out are the Malinche volcano to the northeast and Iztaccihuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes in the west.
9. Parian Market
The San Roque square northeast of the Zócalo dates to 1805 and in 1961 was turned into a permanent arts and crafts market.
More than just a place to do some souvenir shopping, the Parian Market is somewhere to get in touch with Puebla’s traditional knowhow.
There are dozens of stalls selling Talavera pottery, and Puebla is one of only five places in Mexico (four of which are in the state of Puebla), where these ceramics can be produced authentically.
So if you buy something you’ll be taking a piece of Puebla home with you.
Among the other crafts sold at the Parian Market are leather goods, textiles, candles, pewter, copper-work and puppets.
Follow up with a visit to the adjoining Barrio del Artista (Artist Quarter) which has galleries, art shops and cafes.
10. Iglesia de Santa María Tonantzintla
Minutes west of the centre of Puebla, in the municipality of San Andrés Cholula is a colonial-era church in an extraordinary Folk Baroque style, mixing the indigenous with Catholic traditions.
The Iglesia de Santa María Tonantzintla was built in stages from the 16th century to the 19th century, and its Franciscan clergy gave free rein to its newly evangelised indigenous congregation to decorate the interior.
The result is a mass of polychrome sculpture of faces, fruits, flowers and plants, with not a centimetre left bare.
If you wanted to count the multitude of faces on the ceiling you would be here for days.
As for the meaning, it could be a glorification of the Virgin Mary, but may also be the sky of Tlaloc (the Aztec god of rain). In which case that sea of faces wouldn’t belong to angels, but victims of drowning and lightning bolts reincarnated in the sky.
11. Calle de los Dulces
Avenida 6 Oriente, beginning just after the Templo de Santo Domingo, has been nicknamed Calle de los Dulces (Street of the Sweets) as it has more than 40 shops making traditional sweet treats.
These hark back to the convent of Santa Clara, whose nuns came up with all sorts of recipes in the colonial era.
There are a few delicacies to keep in mind, starting with Los camotes de Puebla.
They are a colourful blend of sweet potato and sugar, rolled into a sausage shape, flavoured with lemon juice and wrapped in wax paper.
Tortitas de Santa Clara are small tarts with a sweet calabaza (winter squash) filling, while muéganos are sweet, crunchy bites flavoured with cinnamon and bound with honey.
12. Casa de los Muñecos
In the first block northeast of the Zócalo is a fine 18th-century Baroque house with a facade adorned with tiles and sculpted reliefs.
The most remarkable feature is the set of 16 mosaics depicting strange characters captured in motion.
All manner of legends swirl around these figures, known as los Muñecos (the dolls). The corbels above the mosaics have busts and atlases holding up the wavelike cornice, which is embellished with gargoyles.
The Casa de los Muñecos is the headquarters of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla and also hosts the university museum.
In the galleries are antique scientific instruments, furniture, plasterwork and art by prominent painters like José Luis Rodríguez Alconedo and Cristóbal de Villalpando.
13. Museo de la Revolución Mexicana
Also known as the Casa de los Hermanos Serdán, this museum is in the 17th-century home of the Serdán family, who were prominent figures at the start of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). They were members of the Anti-Reelectionist movement against president Porfirio Díaz and supported the banned candidate Francisco I Madero’s call for an armed uprising.
When the Díaz government found out about the Serdán family’s revolutionary plans they stormed the house, killing the brothers Aquiles and Máximo Serdán and around 12 of their cohorts, taking the women of the family into custody.
The facade of the house is still pocked with bullet holes and the interior is unaltered.
Rooms facing the street have damaged furnishings from the gunfight, and there are modern bronze reliefs of the brothers and their sister Carmen in the house’s underground hideout, the “Sala del Sacrificio”.
14. Africam Safari
Latin America’s largest safari park is under half an hour from Puebla’s Centro Histórico.
The attraction aims to recreate African habitats as closely as possible.
Animals roam freely in huge enclosures and you’ll be able to watch them from your own car or in a guided bus.
The habitat is modelled on Botswana’s Okavango Delta have savannah species like impalas, giraffes, African elephants, ostriches and lemurs.
There’s a Serengeti, reserved for lions, and the Kalahari, for white rhinoceroses, zebras, wildebeests and cape buffalo.
The Adventure Zone is more like a traditional zoo and has X-Mahana, a Mayan-themed butterfly attraction, a botanical garden, enclosures for kangaroos and wallabies and terrariums for reptiles, insects and amphibians.
An hour on the road northeast of Puebla, Cantona is a compelling archaeological site.
Set on a trading route connecting Mexico’s Central Highlands and Gulf Coast, it was the largest pre-Hispanic city in Mesoamerica.
Cantona was one of an array of regional centres that came to prominence after Teotihuacan had lost hegemony in the second half of the 1st millennium AD. What’s mind-boggling is that even though the site boasts 12 square kilometres of low pyramids, 3,000 patios, homes and an acropolis with temples covers around, as little as 1% of the site is believed to have been uncovered.
A total of 24 ballgame courts have been excavated at Cantona, more than at any other Mesoamerican city.
The full magnitude of the site becomes clear once you scale the acropolis, while there’s a small museum detailing Cantona’s origins and history.