Why Visit Cozumel?
#1 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Cozumel's clear turquoise waters and powdery sands coax travelers from cold winter climates to this roughly 185-square-mile island off the Yucatán Peninsula. Cruise ships are a constant feature of Cozumel's coastal views, and the atmosphere on this charming island is often interrupted by tourist chatter. In fact, Cozumel's charms are so effective that the shopping plazas along the waterfront stay congested much of the year.
But crowds shouldn't deter you from discovering what this tiny Yucatán island has to offer, especially as Cozumel's real allure is far away from the downtown area. You can hire a fishing or diving charter boat to discover the shallow reefs along the coast (this is arguably one of the best diving destinations in the world), take a glass-bottom boat on a tour around the island or simply find a quiet beach where you can relax and do nothing. Once the cruise ships clear out, you should head down to a local bar for some live music and the real skinny on this little island.
Why Visit Tulum?
#2 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
In the past decade, Tulum has grown into a coveted vacation for luxury travelers; however, it still tempts bargain hunters who remember when this tucked-away jewel of Mexico's east coast was more of a secluded getaway. Here, you'll find some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in the Western Hemisphere, ruins that have the cerulean waters of the Caribbean Sea as a backdrop. And there are other out-of-this-world wonders, including several cenotes (or underground water-filled caverns) and bio reserves. As an added plus: Tulum continues to be the tiny, quiet alternative to the other Riviera Maya resort areas during the spring break season.
Why Visit Playa del Carmen?
#3 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Playa del Carmen has carved its own Euro-chic niche along the Yucatán Peninsula. Sophisticated expats and vacationing Europeans relax at the beachside lounges, upholding this small enclave's budding reputation as the place in Quintana Roo to see and be seen. The area's nerve center is El Zócalo, and similar to Mediterranean beachfront towns like Nice, the funky little public square is within walking distance of the beach.
Just off the square and running parallel with the shore, La Quinta Avenida features several blocks worth of delicious eateries and quirky shops. And with proximity to the ancient ruins of Tulum and ample natural landscapes to explore (like Río Secreto, Xel-Há and the underwater depths of the Caribbean Sea), Playa del Carmen caters to history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts alike. And of course, Playa's swaths of white sand and brilliantly turquoise water impress even the most selective beach bums. Cancún is Mexico's vacation of the past – today's savvy beachgoers choose the cosmopolitan "Playa."
Why Visit Mexico City
#4 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Mexico's capital is one of the liveliest and largest cities in the world, with a renowned arts and culture scene (an entire district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and some of the best cuisine in the Western Hemisphere. Even better, Mexico City is affordable – and safer than you might expect. It promises visitors an unforgettable stay, perfect for the frugal, culture-loving traveler who feels at home in a large, crowded place. If you want the full experience, some say you should spend at least a week in the city so that you'll see most of the historic and popular sights. Even after a week, you'll find plenty more to explore. In short, it's best to plan extensively before diving in.
Founded in 1325 as Tenochtitlan, the city was colonized by the Spanish in 1521 and later dubbed "Mexico." Today at nearly 500 years old, its pre-colonial history is alive throughout much of the modern-day capital. The city is overflowing with opportunities to study the country's rich and conflicted past. But it's also one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and although it does grapple with common urban problems like crime and pollution, many neighborhoods – including Condesa and Polanco – are as safe as any city in the United States or Europe. Sign up for one of the best Mexico City tours to experience this bustling metropolis with the help of a local.
Why Visit Cancun
#5 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Cancún is nothing if not resilient. Consider the debilitating effects Hurricane Wilma had on the region in 2005 – drowned shores, destroyed storefronts and capsized boats. But now, this skinny "7"-shaped barrier island in southeastern Mexico is once again a go-to spot for beaches, golfing and nightlife. Cancún also remains one of the most affordable vacation destinations in the Western Hemisphere, even during the self-indulgent spring break season.
So what's there to do here? Cancún's beaches are spectacular spots to try some jet skiing and parasailing. If you want to explore beyond Cancun, the city's top guided tours offer daytrips to idyllic spots like Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy. And there's also a host of after-hours activities; be sure to check out the acrobatic dance performances at the Coco Bongo Cancún. This area is also close to one of the most recognizable sites of Mexico – don't miss out on the chance to behold Chichén Itzá, a large Mayan archaeological site that is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Why Visit Oaxaca
#6 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Oaxaca – pronounced wa-HAH-ka – is both the name of this Mexican state and its capital city. Here, you'll find colonial streets lined with shade trees, vibrant markets filled with artisans, and mouthwatering aromas drifting from market food stalls and trendy eateries. These days, many claim that Oaxaca is Mexico's newest culinary capital. But that's not to say the city has forgotten its rich history, which dates back to the ancient Zapotecs that once occupied the now preserved ruins at Monte Albán. In fact, many of the handicrafts and recipes, which make Oaxaca such a unique place to visit and shop, have been carried down from generation to generation.
There are also abundant opportunities for day trip excursions – and a host of reliable tour operators to guide you – if you want to stretch your legs for a hike and dip in the mineral baths at Hierve el Agua or wander the agave fields at a Mitla mezcal distillery.
Why Visit Guanajuato?
#7 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Ornate colonial buildings, busy plazas and colorful homes are everywhere you turn in this UNESCO World Heritage-listed city. Guanajuato is known for its subterranean streets and tunnels, which you can explore on a walking tour or at your own leisure. After admiring the city's cobblestone roadways and charming architecture, grab a souvenir or bite to eat at the bustling Mercado Hidalgo. If you enjoy art, arrive in October when the popular Festival Internacional Cervantino takes place.
Why Visit Puebla?
#8 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
For a vacation packed with authentic character, head to Puebla. This colonial city, which sits southeast of Mexico City, is filled with churches – 365, to be exact – but its main draws are its stunning Talavera pottery and its sweet and spicy cuisine. Visitors must try mole poblano (made with numerous ingredients, including chiles, meat, chocolate, cinnamon and garlic) and chiles en nogada (chiles stuffed with beef and served with a walnut sauce and fruit like peaches, apples and pomegranate seeds). When the sun sets, venture to Callejón de los Sapos to listen to live music.
Why Visit Puerto Vallarta?
#9 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
This is more than just a coastal resort getaway. Somehow Puerto Vallarta – also known as "Vallarta" or just "PV" – maintains a small-town atmosphere, while still boasting one of the most unique and sophisticated oceanfronts in Mexico. The dining options and the hotel choices reflect more of the same – you'll find both elegance and efficiency mingled together within the hotel and restaurant areas.
Most people associate this west coast town with its boundaries – the Banderas Bay that snakes along the coast or the palm tree-lined Sierra Madre mountains that stand tall in the east – but Puerto Vallarta is more than its scenery. Take some time to discover its other perks for yourself by sampling the delicious food, discovering a hidden boutique in the Zona Romantica, sipping a signature cocktail at a bar along the Malecón or dancing to a salsa beat in a Havana-style nightclub. When you want a little guidance exploring beyond your resort, sign up for one of the best Puerto Vallarta tours.
Why Visit Cabo San Lucas?
#10 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Cabo San Lucas first beckoned to Hollywood's elite in the 1970s as a luxurious reprieve from the "dregs" of show business. The town's rather seedy reputation changed as world-class resorts took up residence here, in the neighboring village of San José del Cabo, and along the 18-mile stretch of highway that connects the two (known as "the Corridor"). The construction of an international airport in the 1980s made it easier for travelers from all over to hop a nonstop flight to the "Los Cabos" area.
Forty years later, this destination on the southernmost tip of Baja California is still known for its decadence – just take a look at the sprawling golf courses or deluxe villas. But the elitist pretense has dwindled: Days in the spa are just as coveted as evenings at a beachside watering hole. And there's a good chance that you'll see celebutantes and college freshmen sunning themselves side by side on the same stretch of sand.
Why Visit San Miguel de Allende?
#11 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
Vibrantly colored buildings line the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende, a romantic city with 16th-century origins nestled among central Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains. Through the past 50 years, this quaint city has evolved into a respite for ex-pats and a popular destination for tourists looking to delve into the music, food and arts scene of off-the-beaten-path Mexico. It's easy to swoon over the 500-year-old colonial city's narrow walkways, baroque architecture and artisan shops selling plenty of crafts, jewelry, and handmade accessories. Breaks from shopping can be spent exploring the city's defining Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church, taking classes at the well-recognized Instituto Allende art school, or discovering handcrafted Mexican masks at the Another Face of Mexico mask museum.
San Miguel's location — about 170 miles northwest of Mexico City in Guanajuato state — plays a key role in its dynamic history. Once full of wealth from nearby silver mines, San Miguel was left dilapidated after multiple wars (the early 20th century's Mexican Revolution among them). In 1937, Chicago native Stirling Dickinson stumbled upon the small town, established an artist's colony, and quickly got San Miguel's renaissance off the ground. Today, evidence of that compelling re-emergence can be seen tucked into every lively corner of the diverse, arts-driven destination.
Why Visit Punta Mita?
#12 in Best Places to Travel in Mexico
This secluded vacation spot is known for its luxurious lodging options (from vacation rentals to high-end hotels like the St. Regis and the Four Seasons), golf courses, and pristine beaches. The small resort village of Punta Mita sits on a peninsula in Banderas Bay and most appeals to travelers seeking a relaxing atmosphere. Those interested in scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and surfing will be able to enjoy those activities here as well.