Street in Puebla

How to Spend a Day in the Historic Center of Puebla City

Puebla city has been a place I wanted to visit for some time now. A couple we met in Tulum got me interested when they told us about it as a place they considered moving to.

When I looked into it I realized that the ancient site ofCacaxtlaI wanted to see, and its sister site, Xochitécatl, were close by. Adding a few volcanoes, one active and smoking, the largest pyramid in the world in nearby Cholula de Andrés, and the first and largest library in the Americas made this city I didn’t even know existed before one of my top destinations.

Since we had a long weekend, we flew down to check it out.

Two Major Volcanoes Dominate the View as We Fly into the City

As we were landing at sunset, I glimpsed two of the major volcanoes surrounding the Valley where Puebla sits, Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl.

In the Valley of Cuetlaxcoapan (meaning “where the serpents change their skin”), Puebla City is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Bend, also known as the Sierra Nevada. Crossing Central-Southern Mexico, the Sierra Nevada has a few peaks with snow on their top year-round.

Popocatépetl, one of the mountains we were admiring from the plane, is one of them. In fact, I noticed it smoking, while landing, and remembered that it is the most active volcano and the second highest mountain n Mexico. Its name means Smoking Mountain in Nahuatl, the language of the indigenous people of the area.

The other peak we noticed while landing, Iztaccihuatl means White Woman, for the individual snow-covered peaks that look like the head, chest, knees, and feet of a sleeping woman. It is the third highest mountain in Mexico.

Watching these two mountains from the landing plane, I reflected upon the legend of how their creation.

Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl

According to Aztec mythology, the warrior Popocatépetl, and the princess Iztaccihuatl were in love. But the king thought a simple warrior wasn’t worthy of his daughter. To see if he could prove himself, he sent Popocatépetl to war. If he returned unharmed, it meant he proved himself and he would allow them to marry.

When word came that Popocatépetl died in the war, the Princess was heartbroken and died of grief.

But Popocatépetl didn’t die, and eventually returned from the war. Seeing his beloved Iztaccihuatl dead, he took her body outside Tenochtitlan, laid her down and knelt at her grave. The gods covered them both with snow and turned them into mountains.

Sunset over the volcanoes of Puebla
Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl mountains, both volcanoes. Popocatépetl smoking, about a week before its latest eruption.

Former warrior or not, Popocatépetl is the most active volcano in Mexico. It had over fifteen major eruptions since the Spaniards arrived in the area in 1519. The latest one was in November 2017.

It was smoking when we saw it. A week after we returned from the trip, it erupted, covering the city in a layer of ash.

If he was a warrior, he is still angry.

The Historic Center of Puebla City

The city, referred to as Puebla de Los Angeles (the City of Angels), dates from the Colonial era, founded in 1531. Since the Valley was not populated when the Spanish arrived, they had plenty of room to build the city the way they envisioned it. The result is a colonial style city, old and colorful, filled with churches and buildings showcasing great architecture.

Although Puebla City is a huge metropolitan area, being the fourth largest city in Mexico, hanging out in its zocalo still had a cozy feel to it. We stayed in a hotel close to the center and only visited the central areas. We only spent a day in Puebla since our main reasons for the visit were the neighboring ancient sites.

As I walked around the historic center of Puebla de Los Angeles, I could tell why it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its architecture is stunning, ranging from Renaissance to Mexican Baroque. The city preserved its Cathedral built in the 16th-17th century, and many other churches and exquisite buildings. On every corner, and sometimes even in between, we found a church, each one more elaborate than the other. Besides the churches, the buildings themselves are all colorful, many of them covered in mosaic tiles.

The Zócalo, the main square, is still the cultural, political and religious center of the city. If you only have one day in Puebla, as we did, it is the place to explore.

1. Relax in the Zócalo

The Zócalo itself is a plaza with a famous fountain in its center, filled with trees, trails and a modern sculpture. The square has been there since the city was founded, a marketplace until the 1700s. It is the social center and meeting place of the city.

Sunday afternoon in the Zocalo of Puebla
Sunday afternoon in the Zócalo of Puebla

The Fountain with the statue of Archangel Michael in its center dates from 1777. On a Sunday afternoon, the surrounding area was filled with families hanging out together and kids running around, playing catch or hide-and-seek around it.

On a far side, a modern structure offers a contrast to the old architecture surrounding the place. Musicians played rock songs on one side, while they set up a whole structure on another side, where speakers, vendors, and artists were presenting something, though I could not figure out what it was.

At some point, a group of protesters took up a small part of the plaza, but again, I didn’t understand what they were protesting about, though they were holding flags, and they had a few speakers. By late afternoon, the plaza was quiet, other than the families sitting on benches or chatting by the fountain.

Gorgeous historical buildings, the Cathedral, the City Hall and the Casa de las Muñecas surround the actual square.

Puebla Center City Hall
Puebla Center City Hall

Puebla’s City Hall, the Palacio Municipal, sits on the North side of the Zócalo. Built in 1906, it showcases a French-Spanish Renaissance style.

The East and West side are both home to restaurants, cafés, fast-food places housed in beautiful historical buildings.

But the building that dominates the area around the Zócalo, is the Cathedral, on the South side of the square.

2. Visit the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Like most famous churches in Europe, the Cathedral of Puebla also took a few centuries to complete. Started in 1575, they consecrated it in 1649, but it was still far from complete. Its towers, most of its roof and half its walls still missing. It was 1768 by the time they added its last tower, thus finishing it.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Puebla City Center
The Cathedral’s main entrance

Given the long building time, the Cathedral has a mixed architectural style though they all complement each other. The facade is Late Baroque with Neoclassical elements, with Doric and Corinthian columns. It has two organs, both donated by Charles V, and the inside is richly decorated. It comprises fourteen chapels, all decorated in different styles. The most impressive artwork decorates the main cupola and main altar. The choir is a great example of Moorish architecture, with the inlaid wood in eight different colors.

One of the Cathedral’s claims to fame is its bell towers, the tallest in all of Mexico, at about 70 meters (200 feet) high. The other one is being pictured on the Mexican pesos 500 bills.

As I was standing in front of the Cathedral, I noticed two modern sculptures on both sides of the courtyard in front. Built in 2011, they represent angels. The contrast of their shiny, new, modern design and the old church works, offering a great perspective of the culture in the city.

The Cathedral in Puebla City Center
The shiny new modern sculpture of an angel stands in sharp contrast with the old cathedral.

3. Visit (if it’s open) or Walk to the Biblioteca Palafoxiana

Behind the Cathedral, the old Archbishop’s Palace houses the Casa de la Cultura and the oldest (and most likely the largest) library in the Americas, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana.

While searching for it, we walked back and forth a few times in front before I realized that it was inside the Casa de la Cultura. You need to walk into the building, and a stairway leads to the library. Happy to find it, I realized that it was closed. I’m not sure if it was just closed that day, though we were in the building twice, two days in a row and didn’t find it open either time. With no hours posted, I could not tell if they would open it at another date.

Biblioteca Polixiana - door
Biblioteca Palafoxiana – behind the closed door. We’ll have to return another time to see it.

Disappointed that I could not see this famous library, I stood in its ornate doorway, hoping it would open if I stood there long enough. It didn’t. But now I have a reason to return to Puebla. I heard great things about this library; I want to see it someday.

4. Enter the ornate Church of Santo Domingo

Though from the outside it didn’t look as pretty as some other churches in the area, entering the Church of Santo Domingo took my breath away. Baroque style, elaborate sculptures, and paintings decorate every inch of its walls. Built in 1611, it showcases a few beautiful Baroque altars and an elaborate onyx pulpit.

Church of Santo Domingo Puebla
The Main Altar of the Church of Santo Domingo

But the church is most famous for its chapel, the Capilla del Rosario, added in 1690. No wonder it’s famous since it is one of the most decorated in Mexico. Ornate, Baroque style sculptures in gold leaf cover its walls and dome. I noticed cherubs, saints, and angels, in different positions. Golden vines frame six paintings on the walls.

It is overwhelming, maybe a bit too much, but it is a perfect showcase of the baroque style at its height. I don’t know how anyone would pay attention to the sermon in this setting, I’d be staring at the decorations instead, but maybe that was the point. Show off the riches of the church? No matter how you look at it, I gasped when I saw it all – and I visited a few elaborate churches in Europe.

Capilla de Los Rosario Church of Santo Domingo Puebla
The Chapel, Capilla de Los Rosarios

The interior is in much better shape than its exterior, and I noticed they were collecting money to renovate the exterior. I added a few pesos myself, it would be worth seeing its walls match the inside.

5. Walk through the Center of Puebla City

The Cathedral and the Church of Santo Domingo are only two of the 70 churches just in the center of Puebla.

Spending a Day in Puebla City Center Mexico

In fact, the city has so many churches, locals often joke they have a church for every poblano (people of Puebla). The missionaries who arrived here between the 16th through the 18th century had plenty of money and built churches, monasteries, convents, and chapels on every corner, and then some.

Church on the streets of Puebla Center
Just another church on the streets of Puebla Center, this one painted bright orange.

As we were walking, we noticed them everywhere, sometimes multiple churches on a small street. Each has a different color and of a different style, adding variety to the city.

But churches are not the only colorful buildings in the city. Many of the buildings have their walls covered in the Talavera tiles that Puebla is famous for.

Puebla city center street
The front of this house is covered with tiles.

They painted others but the walls still burst with color, from deep blues to orange and yellows. Just walking around I felt energized. I believe the colors profoundly influence our mood, and Puebla capitalizes on it. Maybe that’s why people are so friendly here, and all over Mexico.

Dine in Puebla City

With no English on their menus, I had to rely on my limited Spanish and sometimes, photos of the dishes to order. Since I knew about the mole dishes from a previous trip toOaxaca city, and I also knew I liked them, it was my first choice for a meal. Though Oaxaca had many mole dishes, in Puebla I only found one. Still, I found out that the dish originated here.

Mole Poblano

A lot of chocolaty mole sauce, a huge chicken breast, and some rice. Simple, yet it bursts with flavor.

Mole Poblano
Mole Poblano

The sauce makes this dish. And no matter how many times I tried to reproduce it, I never quite succeeded.

I’m sure I’m missing something. But at least I learned where the dish originated from, and a few versions of how. The most plausible version credits the nuns from the Convent of Santa Rosa of Puebla with its creation.

Like most amazing dishes around the world, it came from necessity. When the nuns found out that the Archbishop was coming to visit, and their pantry was empty, they didn’t know what to serve him. So they gathered everything they had, all the spices, chiles, chocolate among them, and boiled them for a few hours until they got a thick sauce. They killed the only turkey they had and served the sauce over the meat. The dish turned out great; the bishop was happy, and the nuns created a dish we enjoy to this day. I don’t know if it was the nuns who first made it, but it is one of the greatest meals you can have in Mexico.

Chiles en Nogada

As much as I like the mole, my favorite dish in Puebla was a different one.

chiles en nogada in Puebla
chiles en nogada

Chiles en nogada means peppers in a walnut sauce. I love walnuts, fruit, and roasted pepper. Combining these ingredients, as odd as they may seem together, resulted in a dish that became my favorite.

Given the fact that Puebla city is a home of many churches, it’s no wonder they also credit the nuns with the creation of this. It was first cooked by the nuns at the Santa Monica convent to honor Agustin de Iturbide, who co-wrote the treaty with Spain in 1821 and later became Mexico’s Emperor.

Since they made it in his honor, the dish has Mexico’s colors, white red and green. The walnut sauce is white, and they sprinkle it with cilantro (for green) and pomegranate seeds (red). The colors make it spectacular, but it’s the exquisite taste makes it a meal worth savoring.

Leaving Puebla City

Since our visit to Puebla city was part of a long weekend trip (three days in Mexico), we only spent a day in the home of churches, savory dishes, colorful streets, and friendly people. It is not the place I want to live in; it is still a major city, I couldn’t even spend time in its marketplace, it was so crowded. Still, I won’t mind returning.

Considering it is such a major city, the center of Puebla city has a friendly, almost small-town vibe, which makes it a worthy destination in my book.

Puebla City

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