Nestled in the Central Mexican lowlands of the Bajío lies a temperate colonial treasure that somehow continues to elude the guidebooks and the travel blogosphere. Just a few dozen miles away from backpacker favorites San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, Querétaro hides in the shadows of the Sierra Gorda mountains and urban monstrosities like Mexico City and Guadalajara, where just short of a million Mexicans enjoy life in one of the most tranquil and picturesque cities in the country.
Santiago de Querétaro, as the city is officially named, is the center of gravity for so much that’s happening in modern Mexico. It looks nothing like the media images of conflict and unrest from along the northern border, nor the cruises and all-inclusive resorts of Cancún and the Caribbean. Its idyllic, semi-arid climate and a longstanding reputation for safety and stability have made it home to burgeoning tech industries and an influx of young, educated Mexicans looking for work and a good life. It’s its own contentedly beating heart, at the crossroads of climates and cultural regions in the world’s thirteenth largest country. And if it’s not on your Mexican itinerary, it needs to be now.
Centro Historico, the 16th century colonial city center that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, is invitingly open and walkable. Parque Alameda is the natural starting point for arriving travelers, on the southern edge of the historic center, and you can easily make an entire afternoon of winding between vendors’ stalls at the market.
Cut across Parque Alameda heading northeast and maneuver around jogging students and stroller-pushing families to head for the Aqueduct of Querétaro, the literal lifeblood of the city. Constructed in the 18th century as the byproduct of a starcrossed love affair between a nobleman and a nun, its stone arches step over the Pan-American Highway and lead you deeper into Centro Historico, where its irrigation fuels the soothing sounds of idyllic fountains in nearly every plaza.
Travelers of all budgets and styles should beeline for the Blue Bicycle House hostel as soon as they arrive in town. Located on the edge of Centro Historico and just steps away from the Aqueduct, it offers a selection of dorms or private rooms, all of which have access to the rooftop terrace overlooking the city and the Sierra Gorda mountains. After breakfast, you can rent one of the hostel’s namesake blue bicycles to spend your day taking in the city on two wheels.
Throughout Mexico there’s an endless inter-regional battle waged over whose local take on national dishes is the best, but even Norteños of Monterrey and Yucatecos of the Caribbean will admit, if you corner them in private, that Central Mexico is the king of street cuisine. Flautas resembling deep-fried chicken-filled flutes and crunchy chicharrón-filled gorditas await you around every corner in the city. If you search the quiet side streets surrounding the Blue Bicycle House, you’ll find delicious tacos al pastor for as little as three for one US dollar, which you can then wash down sitting in a mezcalería and sipping on mezcal.
Dive deeper into Centro Historico with your flautas in hand on any given evening and you won’t have finished chewing and swallowing before you stumble onto an impromptu live music performance in one of the many plazas with amphitheatre-like acoustics. Full uniformed mariachi bands share the streets with yukulele-strumming Central Mexican hipsters, streetside cover bands, and outdoor pianos; and brick walls and winding alleys keep the sounds of the band around the next corner from drowning out those of the one in front of you.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city you’ll discover yet another thing to love about Santiago de Querétaro: it’s close to everything. Within a four-hour bus radius lie the cosmopolitan capital of Mexico City, the famous monarch butterfly reserves of Morelia, and the vibrant cultural capital of the west, Guadalajara. If you need a reprieve from the urban density and festive streets, head northeast into the Sierra Gorda mountains, where you’ll find, among other things, another World Heritage Site in the form of the 18th century Franciscan Missions hidden in the steep wooded slopes of the Sierra Gordas.