Five hundred years ago, Cortés's armies descended on what are now Mexico's heartland states of Guanajuato, Querétaro and Michoacán, drawn by the promise of gold. Today it's the resulting cache of small, perfectly preserved colonial cities lying within easy reach of one another that makes this undervisited region irresistible. The most famous town around here, without a doubt, is San Miguel de Allende; but a mere 50 miles away as the crow flies (though a thousand miles away in terms of attitude) lies a small city that, for my money, beats that arty-gringo haven hands down: Guanajuato, eponymous capital of the state, birthplace of the painter Diego Rivera and once, in its silver-mining days, among the richest cities in Mexico. I'm not knocking San Miguelit's stunning, it has some lovely hotels, and you can get blueberry waffles and veggie burgersbut I am here to praise its charming neighbor to the west.
Guanajuato looks like it's been poured into place, its pastel-painted colonial villas, basilicas and churches dripping down either side of a steep, narrow ravine and arranged along crooked cobblestone callejones (alleys) that suddenly climb 17th-century stone steps or flare out into tree-shaded plazas. The city manages to be simultaneously peaceful and bustling. Its students outnumber its tourists, and the paseothe evening strollis taken very seriously. Instead of a zócalo, or town square, Guanajuato has the Jardín de la Unión, a red-tiled, café-lined triangle with a topiary roof of Indian laurels and a well-used bandstand. The university is often said to be the best in Mexico, but not for its bulky, pseudo-Moorish mid-'50s architectureit's one of the more boring buildings in town. At the other extreme are the churches (like the Jesuit Templo de la Compañía, with its fizzy ultra-Baroque facade); Teatro Juárez, a neoclassical theater full of decadent velvets, gilt and chandeliers, opened by the then all-powerful general Porfirio Daz himself in 1903; and the forbidding Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a granary-turned-prison, site of one of the first battles of the War of Independence and now a rather good museum.
This city has been under UNESCO World Heritage protection just since 1988, yet its beauty is not only unchanged, it's barely even besmirched by trafficthanks to an ingenious network of underground roads, created in the '60s from an old riverbed. It's thrilling to twist and hurtle through these tunnels by taxi, getting voyeuristic flashes of somebody's washing overhead, then land suddenly in a sunlit central street.