Millions of visitors flock to Mexico every year for sand and sun, but there’s much more to this expansive country than seaside scenery, such as historic and cosmopolitan Mexico City, Aztec and Mayan archaeological sites, scenic colonial towns and stunning cenotes.
Here are five things to do in Mexico that will take you well beyond the beach.
1. Explore Mexico City
The heart of Mexican culture and the hub of the Aztec Empire before the Spanish colonists arrived, Mexico City is the ultimate urban destination for people seeking history, art and gastronomy in a buzzing metropolis. Start with the museums (it’s said that Mexico City is home to more museums than any other city), then hit up the historical buildings and architectural wonders. Visit the popular Museo Frida Kahlo and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and check out the immense Museo Soumaya (it houses 66,000 works) and the contemporary Museo Jumex. Tour the Aztec ruins at Templo Mayor, the main temple of Tenochtitlán, the original Mexico City.
The Centro Histórico is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s a must-see. Sample tacos al pastor and spicy chilaquiles around the historic city-center square, or have breakfast at the popular La Pagoda. Shop at La Ciudadela for arts and crafts from across Mexico, or wander to the two-story Mercado de Coyoacán.
For an unforgettable dinner, try the Balcón del Zócalo on the rooftop of the Zócalo Central Hotel for sweeping views and delicious, inventive seasonal fare. Afterward, head to Plaza Garibaldi to see live mariachi bands. If you’re around on a Wednesday or Sunday evening, head to the Palacio de Bellas Artes to catch a folkloric dance performance from the Ballet Folklórico de México
2. Hike ancient archaeological sites
Mexico was once home to a host of ancient civilizations, most famously the Aztec, the Olmec and the Maya peoples. Exploring the cities they built is one of the top things to do in Mexico and provides a glimpse of the country’s fascinating history. Start just outside Mexico City in Teotihuacán, one of the most influential cities in the pre-Columbian era. Climb 216 feet up the Pyramid of the Sun and take in the panoramic views of what was once one of the largest cities in the Americas.
From Playa del Carmen or Cancún in the state of Quintana Roo, take a day trip to the most well-known and one of the most impressive archaeological Maya sites in Mexico: Chichén Itzá. Admire the remains of this once sacred city, including the palaces, temples and baths. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. For even more striking Mayan sites, visit Uxmal and Tulum, which are also in Quintana Roo.
3. Go on a food adventure
Hopping between taco and tequila stands is a bona fide Mexico bucket list item, but there are many more ways to experience the exquisite food and drink on offer in Mexico. Sign up for a cooking class at Casa Jacaranda in Mexico City, where you’ll feel like you’re spending the day shopping at local markets and cooking with friends. In Oaxaca, cooking classes at Seasons of My Heart take you on a guided tasting tour of tamales, mole and chiles relleños, among other local favorites, before you tie on your apron and create a five-course meal.
If you’re looking for a more upscale dining experience, try some of Mexico City’s world-renowned restaurants. Grab a table at Pujol, where you can savor a seven-course tasting menu or a 10-course taco bar menu, or Quintonil, where you can try traditional Mexican flavors with a twist (think cactus sorbet and pibil duck).
4. Stroll colonial towns and pueblos
Cancún and Mexico City get the most attention from tourists, but there are many more culture-packed colonial towns in Mexico worth visiting. Shop for handicrafts in San Miguel de Allende, stay in a boutique colonial hotel in colorful Oaxaca and explore the architecture and art scene in Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you’re looking for a laid-back, pedestrian-friendly, bohemian town, check out Guanajuato, where you’ll find delicious cuisine and cultural events year-round.
5. Embrace the great outdoors
There’s no denying Mexico’s spectacular beaches, but the country’s lush interior and coastline brim with opportunities to commune with nature. Start with the magical and popular cenotes scattered along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. These giant cavernous chambers were where the Mayans got their fresh water and communicated with their gods. Head to Cenote Ik Kil near Chichén Itzá or Cenote Dos Ojos near Tulum to swim in clear turquoise waters surrounded by jungles and caves. Or go offshore to snorkel, dive or swim with whale sharks along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.
To go beyond the beach and take in the country’s rich culture, history and outdoors is to truly understand Mexico. Once you try it, you’ll want to come back for more.