Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán in central Mexico, is one of the country’s most underrated destinations for lovers of food, art and culture.
In the early 1800s, travel writer Frances Calderón De La Barca wrote that Morelia “seems to have started up as by magic in the midst of the wilderness, yet bearing all the traces of a venerable old age.”
Today, the city retains that same magic.
The gorgeous pink-stone city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is packed with restaurants, museums and historic buildings, but it rarely gets featured on the itinerary of international travelers, despite there being plenty of things to do in Morelia.
Fun fact: The pink stone (cantera rosa) that was used to construct the buildings in Morelia’s historic center can also be seen in other colonial cities in the region, like Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí.
Michoacán is also worth a visit for its mezcal, its artesanías, and Day of the Dead celebrations centered around Lake Pátzcuaro that are unlike anywhere else in Mexico.
Although there are some security concerns in Michoacán, Morelia itself and all the areas we are mentioning in this guide are just as safe to visit as other popular destinations in Mexico. With a population of around a million people, Morelia is the perfect long weekend trip from Mexico City, Guadalajara or San Miguel de Allende.
If you have more time, you can get to know the nearby pueblos and the cultures of the region.
This Morelia travel guide includes everything you need to know to help you fall in love with Morelia.
Who are we?
We’re Molly and Kevin, an Australian and a Mexican currently living in Mexico City. We put this Morelia travel guide together to share the best of Morelia, Kevin’s hometown, by highlighting our favorite places to eat, shop and explore in the city, as well as things to do nearby.
Kevin grew up in Morelia and provides all the local knowledge we’ll be including here. He’s a taco addict who likes to spend time in the outdoors and currently works in the nonprofit sector.
Molly is a travel writer who has spent plenty of time in Morelia over the past three years. She’s a vegetarian obsessed with mezcal, textiles and little-known history. Together, we’ll cover the city from both a local and a visitor’s perspective.
Morelia Throughout History
Morelia is an important but often overlooked city in Mexico’s history. Here, Kevin will explain a basic timeline of the city and its landmarks.
The Tarascan Empire
In the 15th and 16th century, the city of Tzintzuntzan (around 40 miles from Morelia) was the most powerful in the region. From the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, the Purépecha people (also known as Tarascans) controlled an empire of over 46,600 square miles, the second largest in Mexico after the Aztecs, and had been living in the area for over 2000 years. Other groups in the area paid tribute to the Purépecha but maintained their own languages and cultures.
The Purépecha used irrigation and terracing to maximize their agricultural production and support such a large population. They also controlled significant silver, gold, copper and obsidian mines, as well as forestry and fishing. As their empire expanded, the Purépecha came into conflict with the Aztecs and became known as fierce warriors who were never conquered by them.
When the Spaniards attacked the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), the Purépecha ignored requests for support from the Aztecs. In 1522, they surrendered to the Spaniards instead of facing the same destruction.
At that time, Tzintzúntzan alone had a population of around 35,000 people, alongside at least 90 other settlements around the lake, which all fell under Spanish rule. The Indigenous languages spoken in Michoacán today include Purépecha, Náhuatl, Otomí and Mazahua.
The Foundation of Morelia
Vasco de Quiroga, the first bishop of Michoacán, established religious missions around Lake Pátzcuaro in the 1530s to try to convert the Indigenous peoples to Catholicism. In 1540, he founded the oldest higher education institution in the Americas, the Colegio de San Nicolás Obispo, to train priests in Indigenous languages.
Nearby, the city of Morelia, which was originally called Valladolid, was founded in 1541 on the instructions of the first Viceroy of the colony of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza. The area was chosen to be a city where the Spanish could live away from the Purépecha Empire, in conflict with the ideas of Vasco de Quiroga who had already begun building a capital in Pátzcuaro.
In the beginning, the city struggled to gain inhabitants and was in danger of disappearing, due to political conflicts between Vasco de Quiroga in Pátzcuaro and the Viceroy. In 1580, the Viceroy finally succeeded in moving the religious and civil institutions of the region from Pátzcuaro to Valladolid. From then on, the city began developing quickly.
The 17th and 18th centuries are considered Morelia’s architectural Golden Age, as wealth poured in from the agriculture and mines of the surrounding region. The Morelia Cathedral, constructed between 1660 and 1744, is the crown jewel of this time, alongside the new, mile-long aqueduct.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Valladolid (known as modern-day Morelia) became a hotspot for the Mexican Independence movement, alongside neighboring cities like Guanajuato and Querétaro. In 1809, a group of military and religious men organized what became known as the Valladolid Conspiracy. They decided to rebel against the French occupation of Spain but were betrayed by one of their members and imprisoned before they could carry out their plan.
A year later, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest, launched the Mexican War of Independence in Guanajuato. After Hidalgo was executed, other working-class leaders, including José María Morelos y Pavón of Valladolid, took up the fight. Mexico finally secured its independence in 1821 and Morelia was renamed after José Maria Morelos in 1828.
The instability of the Mexican-American War, the Reform War and the French Invasion of Mexico slowed Morelia’s development until 1867. The full name of the state Michoacán de Ocampo pays tribute to a liberal intellectual and politician named Melchor Ocampo, who served as Michoacan’s governor and in the government of Benito Juarez during this time.
The city started to grow again throughout the Porfiriato period until the Mexican Revolution in 1910. After another period of conflict and change, Mexican politics began to consolidate under what would later become the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which would go on to hold power for 71 years from 1929 to 2000.
Another politician from Michoacán rose to be state governor and then the president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940: Lázaro Cárdenas.
Cárdenas carried out the social and economic reforms of the Mexican Revolution, including distributing land and financial loans to poor Mexicans and nationalizing the country’s railways and oil industry.
Today, Michoacán is a large agricultural producer, growing strawberries, blackberries, limes and most of Mexico’s avocados.
Fun fact: The volcanic soil in Michoacán makes it a very fertile region for avocados and other agricultural products. Michoacán, which produces 85% of Mexico’s avocados, exported $2.4 billion worth of avocados last year, mostly to the US.
Image: Mezcal from the mezcal festival in Morelia
Morelia is a popular arts and culture destination, especially during traditional Mexican holidays. A mezcal festival takes place in September, followed by the Morelia International Film Festival in October.
Since the 2000s, Michoacán has also suffered a surge of violence related to organized crime. These criminal groups concentrate their activity between the Tierra Caliente region and the coast of Michoacán, far away from Morelia. As in most large cities, it is recommended to take precautions like not carrying valuables or walking alone at night in Morelia, but you are unlikely to encounter any problems as a tourist.
Image: Callejón del Romance
Things to do in Morelia
In Mexico, twelve cities are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Morelia has the highest number of historic monuments of them all, with 1113 properties officially catalogued. The city center stands out due to its advanced urban planning and pink cantera facade, with many buildings in the Baroque style.
When wandering around the Centro Histórico, make sure to check out the Cathedral and the Plaza de Armas, the Callejon del Romance, the Jardín de las Rosas and the pedestrian Calzada Fray Antonio that runs from the Fuente de las Tarascas to the Plaza de San Diego. These places to visit in Morelia all offer gorgeous views and very Instagrammable architecture.
Morelia’s many 17th and 18th-century religious buildings are also worth a visit, including the Templo de San Francisco, the Parroquia de San José, the Templo de las Rosas and the Templo de San Diego. In Tzintzuntzán, an hour’s drive from Morelia, you can visit the Yacatas archaeological zone, which was part of the pre-Hispanic Purépecha capital.
The Centro Cultural Clavijero is Morelia’s top museum, with temporary exhibitions housed inside a beautiful building which was once a Jesuit monastery. You can also visit the birthplace of independence hero José Morelos, the Colegio de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, the Museo Regional Michoacano, the Casa de las Artesanías, the Biblioteca Pública Universitaria and the Alfredo Zalce contemporary art museum.
What to eat and drink in Morelia
Morelia’s traditional dishes take inspiration from Purépecha recipes and local ingredients, making them unique in Mexico.
Uchepos and Corundas
An uchepo is similar to a tamal, but a little smaller, sweeter and softer in texture as it is made from sweet corn instead of maize. It can be served as a savory dish with salsa verde, cheese and cream, or as a dessert with cajeta. A corunda is a triangle-shaped tamal that is often served as a side, topped with cream, cheese and salsa.
Molly’s pick: In the back of Mercado de San Juan, there is a stall with amazing corundas, including different types of meat and vegetable fillings. The same family has a small restaurant called Antojitos Mexicanos Charbel where you can get uchepos, corundas, pozole, atole and tamales. Insider Tip: You can even buy fresh corundas to freeze and take home with you.
Image: Enchiladas Placeras
Similar to enchiladas mineras, this tasty and filling dish is a speciality from Central Mexico. It consists of tortillas fried in salsa roja, topped with chicken, potato, carrot, onion, shredded lettuce, cream, cheese and jalapeños.
Kevin’s pick: La Lupita is Morelia’s most beloved regional restaurant, with a menu full of traditional dishes and a laid-back atmosphere. You can also get uchepos and corundas here.
Image: Gaspacho from Gaspachos de la Merced
Morelians are obsessed with gaspachos, a type of refreshing fruit cocktail that is often sold from street food stands. A traditional gaspacho is made with chopped pineapple, mango and jicama served in a plastic cup, topped with orange juice and lime juice and sprinkled with chile verde, onion, grated cheese and vinegar. (You can request it with other fruits or without onion, cheese or vinegar if that sounds a bit much!)
Kevin’s picks: I like Gaspachos del Boulevard because they have five locations throughout the city, but Gaspachos de la Merced is the most traditional spot. My favorite combination is watermelon, mango, cucumber and jicama with a little bit of cheese and chile verde. Y sin vinagre ni cebolla por favor (and without vinegar or onion please).
Image: Tacos de carnitas from El Infierno
Tacos de carnitas
If you’ve watched Taco Chronicles on Netflix, you’ll know that the best pulled pork tacos are found in Quiroga, a 45-minute drive away from Morelia. During the December vacations, the taqueros of Quiroga have been known to sell over 2600 pounds of carnitas each day. You can also find great tacos de carnitas in Morelia.
Kevin’s pick: If you can’t make it to Quiroga, try the carnitas Don Raúl in Morelia.
Image: Sopa Tarasca
This soup is similar to the sopa tortilla or sopa azteca that is found in other parts of Mexico, but with a slightly different texture and flavor thanks to added frijoles and epazote.
Kevin’s (mom’s) pick: We have it on good authority that the restaurant at Hotel de la Soledad, Marogui, serves the best sopa tarasca in town.
Tacos de charales
Charales are tiny fish found in Lake Pátzcuaro that are often served dried and salted in tacos. They are rarely on the menu of restaurants in Morelia, but you may be able to find them in the market or at a street food stand in Pátzcuaro.
Image: Ice cream from La Pacanda
Nieve de pasta
This mysterious ice cream flavor is so delicious that Morelians will make the two-hour round trip to Pátzcuaro just to get a taste. Nieve de pasta is made from a secret recipe, but is generally agreed to contain milk, almonds, honey, cinnamon and vanilla.
Kevin’s pick: If you visit Pátzcuaro, you must try the original pasta ice cream from Nevería La Pacanda under the portales of the main square. This ice cream place has been around since 1905 and sells many other flavors as well, like tequila and mango.
Image: Candy from Museo del Dulce
Michoacán is home to dozens of traditional sweets, made from fruit paste (ate in Spanish), tamarind or chile. They come in all different shapes and sizes and are a great snack when you’re exploring the Centro Histórico. In Michoacán, many people drink mezcal accompanied by fruit paste and hard cheese, instead of the chile and lime that is common in other places.
Kevin’s pick: At the Museo del Dulce you can see how the sweets have been made since the Calle Real store opened in 1840, as well as try all the different flavors.
Michoacán is the only state with three official ‘Denomination of Origin’ that certify the authenticity of its mezcal, tequila and charanda. The Denomination of Origin is a label awarded by the Mexican Government to indicate authentic local products, like feta cheese from Greece or champagne from France.
Mezcal production here uses specific types of maguey that aren’t found in Oaxaca, like the maguey cupreata and the maguey manso de Sahuayo. To learn more about local mezcal, take a tour of the Don Mateo vinata, an hour’s drive south of Morelia.
Charanda is an alcohol made from sugarcane grown around the city of Uruapan. While it is nowhere near as popular as mezcal and tequila, you might see it for sale in the market or on the menu at cocktail bars in Morelia. Since 2006, Morelia has put itself on the map when it comes to craft beer, thanks to microbrewery La Brü.
Kevin’s pick: Taproom Nacional Morelos has a huge selection of cerveza artesanal.
Molly’s pick: Tata is a must for mezcal and innovative Mexican food.
Image: A man dressed as a viejito for Danza de los Viejitos
Arts and Culture
Danza de los Viejitos
If you haven’t seen the Danza de los Vejitos, you haven’t been to Morelia. One of the best things to do in Morelia is visit the Plaza de Armas where you'll find a group of ‘old men’ wearing comical masks and colorful hats, showing off their dancing skills. They can often be found in Pátzcuaro, too.
This funny performance is said to have originated with the Purépecha people as a ritual to honor the gods and then developed into a way of poking fun at the Spanish conquerors with their pink faces and white hair. If you see a performance, make sure to tip the viejitos a few pesos.
Image: Día de los Muertos in Morelia
Día de Muertos
In Pátzcuaro and the surrounding pueblos of Tzintzuntzan (Janitizio, Jarácuaro, Ihuatzio and Tzurumútaro) the night of November 1 is a very special event. The tradition has evolved out of the combination of Purépecha religious rituals and Catholic ideas brought by the Spaniards.
Each town celebrates in a slightly different way, but most use cempazúchitl flowers, or Mexican marigolds, to create altars to those that have passed away. Throughout the night, the cemeteries overflow with flowers, music, dancing and drinking as families spend time with their loved ones who have passed away.
Keep in mind: People come from all over Mexico and the world to witness the Day of the Dead in Michoacán, so accommodation can book out months in advance. There is also heavy traffic in and out of these tiny pueblos for most of the day and night, so we recommend staying within walking distance of the town center if possible. Ninety-five percent of accommodation in Pátzcuaro is already booked out for Día de Muertos 2020, but there are a couple of hotels and Airbnbs still available. (Of course, you can also stay in Morelia and book a tour or organize a taxi to pick you up.) For next year, book early at La Siranda, Casa del Naranjo or Hotel La Parroquia.
Image: Mercado de Dulces y Artesanías
Where to shop in Morelia
In Morelia, you can find amazing textiles and other artesanías. Cross-stitch and geometric designs are popular on blouses, and you’ll also find plenty of decorated pottery and copper jewelry. The Mercado de Dulces y Artesanías is a great place to start.
For those who’d rather go straight to the source, the Mercado de Artesanías de Madero in Pátzcuaro is full of more unusual wooden creations, containing everything from furniture to viejito masks. The Casa de los Once Patios has a pretty souvenir market, too. On your day trip to Pátzcuaro, stop by the pueblo of Santa Clara del Cobre for copper and Capula for ceramic Catrinas and pretty dishes.
Image: Hotel de la Soledad
Hotels in Morelia
We recommend staying in the historic center, near all the top Morelia attractions. Next door to the cathedral, Cantera Diez and Casa Grande have the best location in town. For luxury, try Hotel de la Soledad with its imposing marble and cantera rooms or Hotel Casa Madero’s spacious suites.
If you’d rather be tucked away in one of the city’s more exclusive neighborhoods, Maja Boutique Hotel offers a modern oasis with great views. For something a little more affordable, we love the friendly and colorful Hotel Casa del Fraile in the city center.
How to Get Around
There are multiple daily buses from Mexico City to Morelia with ETN, Autovías and Primera Plus. Most depart from Terminal Central de Autobuses del Poniente, but there are some from Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte as well. The trip takes around four hours.
When you arrive in Morelia, you can take a registered taxi from the booth inside the bus station to your accommodation. The center of Morelia is very walkable, and taxis and Uber are available for longer distances.
There are two tourist routes (or itineraries for visitors to follow developed by the local tourism board) around Michoacán that can be helpful when planning your trip, la Ruta Don Vasco y la Ruta del Mezcal. If you would like to visit Pátzcuaro, the island of Janitzio or other pueblos with a guide, you can take a tour like this one with Mich Mex Guides.
How Long to Spend in Morelia
Morelia is a small city, perfect for a two or three-day escape to enjoy the Morelia attractions at your leisure. If you plan to visit Lake Pátzcuaro, you should add at least another day onto your visit.
During Día de Muertos, you can easily spend a week in and around Morelia, although the night of November 1 is the peak of the celebrations.
Kevin Pöll Garduño
Born and raised in Morelia, Kevin works at a nonprofit in Mexico City and spends his spare time in search of Mexico’s best rock climbing spots and taquerias. Even though he is half-Austrian and half-Mexican, he feels a strong connection to Morelia and its people, and through traveling he has gained a new appreciation for the beauty of his hometown.
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