The best things to do in Guanajuato, Mexico

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The Mexican state of Guanajuato is known for colorful buildings, beautiful pottery and stunning architecture. The Mexican state of Guanajuato is known for colorful buildings, beautiful pottery and stunning architecture.
This monument is dedicated to the man who aided the independence movement. This monument is dedicated to the man who aided the independence movement.
By Lauren Cocking CNN

(CNN) -- Color, culture and a bizarre obsession with a Spanish author come together in the underexplored Guanajuato state, the central highlands destination which lies just four and a half hours by bus from Mexico City.

Whether you're looking for pretty-as-a-picture pastel buildings or a wealth of souvenir-buying potential, Guanajuato has everything, minus the frantic pace.

Guanajuato city

Conservative Guanajuato city -- which, incidentally, once tried to ban public kissing -- is the capital of its namesake state.

It also eschews the classic grid system of most other Mexican cities. Instead, there's a network of crisscrossing roads beneath its cobbled streets and a honeycomb of winding back alleys.

Stealing a (now legal!) public kiss and a photo at the well-known "Callejón del Beso" (Kiss Alley) is a Guanajuato rite of passage.

Naturally, the best way to get a feel for this peculiar place is to walk, walk, walk.

And right before you're done walking, ascend to the Monumento al Pípila. This pays tribute to Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro, aka El Pipila, a miner and local independence movement hero.

From the top, take in 360-degree views over that iconic Guanajuato skyline made up of mountains and squat candy-colored buildings.

The mustard-colored gem at the heart of it all -- the Guanajuato basilica -- deserves a closer look, and while you're in the area, you should also set aside an hour or so to enjoy the other nearby edifices, including the impressive Teatro Juárez and the Universidad de Guanajuato's imposing, dramatic staircase.

Buildings aside, there is perhaps no city which revels in the legacy of "Don Quixote" author Miguel de Cervantes more than Guanajuato.

In fact, each October it hosts the International Cervantino Festival, an incredible celebration of art, literature and music which helps temporarily swell the already skinny-streeted city's population for the duration of its month-long run.

For a Cervantes fix outside of festival hours, head to the Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, or visit the former home of Guanajuato's other creative, muralist Diego Rivera. Whatever you do though, don't miss the famed Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum) which is both self-explanatory and spooky to boot.

For an evening of entertainment, look no further than Guanajuato's most inimitable after-hours attraction, the callejoneada. Follow a band (literally, they play music) of knickerbocker-clad tour guides around the alleys, and listen as they recount tales of the city's history along the way.

When it comes to eating, you can sample any number of riffs on Guanajuato's classic potato and carrot-topped enchiladas mineras from the street vendors, whereas El Paisa Tacos is the spot for tacos al pastor.

Yet the city is also home to a surprising amount of international dining options. Grab sushi or curry from the first-floor blink-and-you'll-miss-it Delica Mitsu or indulge in some very reasonably priced falafel at Habibti.

Finally, satisfy that sweet tooth with an assortment of chewy macarons from La Vie en Rose, and round out the evening by buying a to-go craft beer from the Craft Beer Company.

And if you really must eat at the heavily-touristed Santo Café, make sure you get one of the coveted outdoor tables. Otherwise, skip it.

After all that on-foot exploring, where should you lay your head in Guanajuato? Well, Hotel 1850 has an unrivalled downtown location combined with a chic interior design.

Meanwhile, Villa Maria Cristina Hotel practically oozes elegance and corners the high-end accommodation market in Guanajuato.

Callejón del beso, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato

Monumento al Pípila, Ladera de San Miguel 55, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato

Basilica de Guanajuato, Calle Ponciano Aguilar 7, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 0314

Teatro Juárez, De Sopeña 10, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 2521

Universidad de Guanajuato, Calle Pedro Lascurain de Retana 5, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 0006

Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, Manuel Doblado 1, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 6721

Museo Diego Rivera, Positos 47, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 1197

Museo de las Momias, Explanada del Panteón Municipal, Centro, Panteón, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 0639

El Paisa Tacos, Av. Benito Juárez, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato

Delica Mitsu, Del Campanero 5, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato

Habibti, Sostenes Rocha 18C, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 9418

La Vie en Rose, Cantarranas 18, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 7556

Craft Beer Company, Cantarranas 56, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 734 0577

Santo Café, Campanero 4 Puente, Del Campanero, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 1 473 122 2320

Hotel 1850, Jardín de la Union 7, Centro Histórico, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 732 2992

Villa Maria Cristina Hotel, Av. Paseo de Presa de La Olla 76, Centro, 36000 Guanajuato, +52 473 731 2182

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende, the umber- and ochre-hued Guanajuato destination du jour, has received no end of coverage over the years.

Despite the roving bands of silver-haired transplants you'll find wandering the streets, the dusky pink of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, hole-in-the-wall coffee spots-cum-cocktail bars like Tres Hojas Café and tiny tequila tasting rooms do make it an unmissable spot on any Guanajuato itinerary though.

Endless strolling and unabashed people watching are recognized musts, while the fabulous breakfasts-and-brunches at Lavanda Café are well worth the almost guaranteed wait (read: curbside queue) to get in.

Souvenirs from San Miguel? Tin, tin and more tin; flaming hearts are classic, while mirrors are pragmatic.

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, Plaza Principal, Centro, 37700 San Miguel de Allende, +52 415 152 0544

Tres Hojas Café, Correo 37A, Centro, 37700 San Miguel de Allende, +52 415 170 1376

Lavanda Café, Calle Hernández Macías 87, Centro, 37700 Guanajuato, +52 1 415 152 1610

León

Guanajuato's largest and most populated city, with bike lanes galore, León is regularly overlooked by foreign visitors despite offering some of the best souvenir bargains.

It's also home to the state's signature sandwich, the guacamaya (literally 'parrot'). You'll be happy to hear that guacamayas (the snack) don't feature guacamayas (the bird) though, instead consisting of a crusty bread roll filled with crispy chicharrón (pork crackling) and topped with tomato salsa.

Beyond the street sandwiches, make it a priority to explore the shops and vendors selling high-quality, affordable leather goods in the Zona Piel (Leather Zone).

If you're unsure what to buy, a pair of classic huaraches is always a safe bet.

Finally, Guanajuato city might play host to the raucous Cervantino, but León is the home of November's impressive Festival Internacional del Globo (International Hot Air Balloon Festival).

Zona Piel, Avenida Hilario Medina, Coecillo, 37219 León, +52 477 763 4159

Dolores Hidalgo and beyond

If you're San Miguel-ed out, head instead to Dolores Hidalgo for a sliver of Mexican history.

This was the site of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla's Cry of Independence (a.k.a., Cry of Dolores) back in 1810.

Nowadays, Dolores Hidalgo is known for pottery -- in and amongst the fairly humdrum streets of this tranquil town, you'll be sure to see plenty of primary-colored pots and elaborately-painted tiles -- but the best time to go is really for Mexican Independence Day on, not Cinco de Mayo, but September 16.

Finally, for an excursion off the moderately well-trodden Guanajuato path, stop by the high-altitude 16th century ghost town of Mineral de Pozos in the Sierra Gorda.

Once the beating heart of Guanajuato's mining past, there are hundreds of abandoned mines in the area; however, the trio of adobe smelting ovens, which are all that remain of the Santa Brígida mine, are particularly striking. There's also a lavender farm!

Santa Brígida Mine, Desviación Camino a Sta. Brigida Km. 3, San Pedro de los Pozos, +52 468 123 5050

Lauren Cocking is a travel, food and drink writer, specializing in Mexico and Latin America. Follow her inane inner monologue on Twitter at @laurencocking or read her blog Northern Lauren.

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