Things To In Morelia: Michoacán's Glorious CapitalMEXICO
25 October 2023
Things To Do In Morelia: Michoacán’s Glorious Capital
Michoacán is a state in Mexico which regularly features in other countries’ travel advisories along the lines of “Don’t go there unless you absolutely have to”. And, given the state’s propensity for cartel-fuelled violence, that would appear, at first glance, to be good advice.
But, as always, not everything deserves to be tarred with the same brush. And its gorgeous capital is a colonial-era gem that’s relatively safe and absolutely worth visiting.
Better still, it’s easy to get to from Mexico City and serves as a great base for some of the other treats that Michoacán has to offer.
Here then is our guide on some of the best things to do in Morelia.
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THINGS TO DO IN MORELIA
Situated 200 miles west of Mexico City, Morelia is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico – and unknown to a large proportion of Mexico’s international visitors.
Founded in 1541, and originally called Valladolid (after its namesake in Spain), it was renamed Morelia during the 19th century in honour of one its favourite revolutionary sons, José María Morelos.
With many of its grand baroque buildings constructed from local pink limestone, the city’s historic centre is a gorgeous blend of Spanish colonial architecture, churches and plazas. No wonder it was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1991.
Today, it’s very much a university city with a thriving arts culture.
Cerrada de San Agustin, Morelia
Things to do in Morelia
Take a walk from the historic centre to Morelia Aqueduct
Most of the city’s highlights are in the historic centre, which straddles the busy Federal Highway 15. In fact, it’s easy to loosely follow the main road on foot, taking the occasional detour through a plaza or into a side street. Our suggested route starts to the east of the Plaza de Armas and heads west until it reaches the Morelia Aquaduct.
Begin at the Mercado de Dulces y Artesánias, an indoor market specialising in Michoacán sweets and handicrafts. Morelia’s connection with sweets dates back to the colonial period when nuns raised money by producing and selling them from the convents. Nowadays, the market is probably Morelia’s most touristy attraction. But, if you have a sweet tooth you won’t be disapponted by the variety on offer.
Close by, the atmospheric Biblioteca Pública Universitaria (University Library) is housed inside a 16th century church and features floor-to-ceiling shelves packed to the rafters with old history books.
Next door, the Palacio Clavijero is an ex-Jesuit convent where Mexico’s father of the independence movement, Miguel Hidalgo, was educated. And, just another half-block away, Conservatorio de la Rosas is an ex-convent that was converted into a music school at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed you’re likely to hear students practicing on their instruments as you wander about the place.
Opposite the conservatory, Jardin de la Rosas is a pretty public square lined with cafés, and is a good place for a break along the route.
Over the other side of Highway 15, Plaza de Armas (aka Plaza de los Mártires) is the original centre of the city. Behind it the Michoacan Regional Museum features historic artefacts from the pre-Columbian period through to modern times. But the building itself is worth exploring on its own merit. As is the Palace de Justicia opposite, another magnificent baroque building featuring stairwell murals.
To the southeast corner of the Plaza de Armas, Cerrada de San Agustín is a colourful, pedestrianised street that represents ground zero for Gaspacho Moreliano, essentially a Morelian fruit salad. Only this one includes mango, pineapple and jicama (looks like a turnip, tastes like an apple) mixed with orange juice, Cotija cheese and chilli powder. They’re available all over the city but this seemed to us like a great place to try one. And, apart from tasting good, they’re quite substantial, too.
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Just beyond are a couple of museums worth seeing, if you’ve a fleeting interest in Mexican history. Museo Casa Natal de Morelos is housed in the building where Morelos, himself was born. There’s even an animatronic model of him in full cry. And the similarly named Museo Casa de Morelos has a further collection of documents, photos and artefacts relating to the great man and Mexco’s struggle for independence.
On the east side of the plaza, and dominating everything around, is the twin-towered Morelia Cathedral, over 100 years in the making and one of Mexico’s finest. It’s especially beautiful illuminated at night. And particularly on Saturday evenings when a light and sound show, including fireworks, envelops the whole building.
Trivia buffs will no doubt be thrilled to know that it’s the only cathedral in Mexico that faces east rather than north. Much more interesting to most visitors is its 4600-pipe organ, which along with the cathedral itself, plays host to Morelia’s annual International Organ Festival.
Back across the main road, the Palacio de Gobierno is the Michoacan state government building. However, entrance to the public is free, with the staircase and first floor adorned with superb murals by Alfredo Zalce.
From here, with the cathedral opposite, walk to the left along Highway 15 for about a kilometre. Along the way, you’ll pass grand buildings housing shops, restaurants, hotels and banks, along with a smattering of churches.
Once you’ve arrived at Plaza Villalongín and its centrepiece Fuente Las Tarascas (a fountain that bursts out of a sculptured fruit tray held by three indigenous women), a short walk leads to Callejón de Romance, (or “Alley of the Romance”). It’s a picturesque alleyway featuring pink stone (of course), cafés with outdoor seating, lots of flowers – and poems inscribed on walls. It’s certainly gone through something of a reinvention since its origins back in the 19th century when it was built as housing for workers in a nearby factory. And, back then, it was known as “Alley of the Bag” and later “Alley of Socialism”.
Callejon de Romance
Meanwhile, back to the fountain, a pedestrianised avenue called Calzada Fray Antonio runs parallel to Highway 15. Dating back to the early 18th century, it was built to provide a pathway from Morelia’s aquaduct to the recently constructed Sanctuary of Guadalupe. Nowadays, flanked by ash trees, baroque benches and hidden mansions, it’s used as a meeting place and walking street for families and couples.
Calzada Fray Antonio
Talk a stroll along the calzada and you’ll eventually arrive at the Santuaro de Guadalupe, a church noted for its opulent interior of pinks, purples, blues – and lots of gold. Adjacent to it, Plaza Morelos, complete with its sculptured Monument to Morelos reminds us once again who’s the main man in town.
And, finally, we arrive at El Acueducto. Built in the 18th century to carry water to the city’s wells, it originally ran for 8 kilometres. Nowadays, its 253 arches stretch for one-and-a-half kilometres along Highway 15. From Plaza Morelos you’ll arrive part-way along its length. By turning left, the arches gradually reduce in height as the road climbs. But a pathway on either side makes it easy enough to walk to the final point. By turning right, from Plaza Morelos and back towards the city, the tallest, and most dramatic arches come into view.
It’s one of Morelia’s most iconic sights and well worth spending the time to walk its length. And, like the cathedral, it’s beautifully illuminated at night.
Enjoy Morelia’s food scene
Like most Mexican states, Michoacán has its own gastronomic identity – a fusion of European and indigineous Purépecha cuisine. Much of which can be found in restaurants, cafés, mobile stalls and markets in Morelia.
If you’ve already tried the Gaspacho Moreliano (and you really should), then now it’s time to try one of Morelia’s other iconic snacks – the tamale. Or, in this case, Corundas (filled with dry cortijo cheese) and Uchepos (corn, butter, piloncillo and milk).
Then there’s Tarascan soup – mashed pinto beans with tomatoes and fried ancho chillies.
For sweet-toothed visitors, Dulces Morelianos are everywhere. Ates Morelianos are slabs of candied fruit cut into bite-size pieces. Cocadas are chewy pyramids of sweet coconut. And, just as decadent, Glorias are caramel rolls stuffed with pecans. All of which is a bit too sweet for our taste. We’d rather go for the Nieve de Pasta (almond and cinnamon ice cream), which is probably the best we’ve tasted in Mexico.
We can recommend two exceptional restaurants for you to try. Tata Mezcaleria + Cocina de Autor specialises in both mezcal (Mexico’s smokier cousin to tequila) and creative seafood dishes. We had a superb mixed ceviche to go with our happy hour margaritas.
And Cuish Cocina combines a menu that includes both Michoacán and Oaxacan food. So, it was only right and proper that we went for a bowl of Tarascan soup followed by an Oaxacan grilled octopus tlayuda (a huge, wafer-thin tortilla smothered in refried black beans, cheese, cabbage and avocado).
Tlayuda with grilled octopus at Cuish Cocina
Take a day trip to Patzcuaro
Just an hour away by bus, Patzcuaro is a gorgeously rustic antidote to Morelia’s grand buildings. With a historic town centre almost exclusively filled with red and white adobe houses, topped with terracotta rooves, it harks back to a time that pre-dates the conquering Spanish by nearly 200 years.
Indeed, it was the capital for the Tarasco people (who later became known as Purépecha) whose indigenous legacy lives on in the area today.
The town is easy enough to walk around – and you’ll never be too far from its colourful central square, La Plaza de Quiroga. Make sure you try one of the Michoacán ice creams that are sold from mobile stalls around the square. And experiment with some of the local food in the covered market nearby, too.
A typical Patzcuaro street with signature red and white adobe buildings
Templo de El Sagrario
Just outside of town, Lake Patzcuaro is surrounded by a number of villages where traditional Purépechan life remains. And in the centre of the lake, traffic-free Janitzo Island can be visited by boat. Although if you go on a weekend you’ll have plenty of other people for company.
The lake is beautiful in its own right. But it takes on an extra layer of poignance during the annual Day of the Dead festival when locals take candle-lit boats across to the island and keep an overnight vigil in the cemetery. In fact, along with Oaxaca, Patzcuaro’s Day of The Dead is the most authentic (and sought-after) in Mexico.
Where to eat
With plenty of Patzcuaro restaurants to choose from, we can highly recommend Meraki for its signature dish, Mixed Molcajete – a spiced combination of seared meat, seafood and vegetables served in a molcajete (a large, stone bowl, similar to a mortar and pestle). In fact, it was so good it might actually have been our favourite dish in nine months of travelling in Mexico.
Our Mixed Molcajete
Visit the Monarch Butterfly Reserve
If the prospect of witnessing up to one billion orange monarch butterflies in one place gets you excited, and you’re in town at the right time of year (November to March), then you might also want to find some time for a visit to Michoacán’s Monarch Butterfly Reserve.
The butterflies arrive en masse from the Great Lakes of the US & Canada during the autumn and blanket the reserve’s fir trees for the winter. But, when the spring weather of February arrives and the temperature increases, mid-afternoons usually come with clouds of flickering orange butterflies as they take flight.
Day trips from Morelia are available (including eight hours on the road), but for a more immersive experience, you’d be better off staying locally overnight.
How to get to Morelia
Morelia airport is connected to some US cities. But for most international visitors outside of the US, a connection is needed at Mexico City, Guadalajara or Leon.
If you’re already in Mexico, there are good connections by bus. For instance, ETN operates regular luxury buses from Mexico City to Morelia in just over four hours. From Guadalajara, it takes even less.
For us, visiting Morelia was just as rewarding (and surprising) as Guadalajara. Both are cities with a magnificent cathedral, sumptuous architecture and a youthful vibe that only university cities can muster.
Add to the mix great food and easy access to Patzcuaro, it’s perhaps more surprising that it’s not on the main tourist route just yet.
Which, in our books, makes it all the more attractive.
Mercado de Dulces y Artesánias
Biblioteca Pública Universitaria
Conservatorio de la Rosas
Jardin de la Rosas
Plaza de Armas
Michoacan Regional Museum
Palace de Justicia
Cerrada de San Agustín
Museo Casa Natal de Morelos
Museo Casa de Morelos
Palacio de Gobierno
Fuente Las Tarascas
Callejón de Romance
Calzada Fray Antonio
Santuaro de Guadalupe
Acueducto de Morelia
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Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.