Viva Morelia

City founded by one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution offers Spanish colonial charm

By: Lori Tenny

MORELIA, Michoacan Dozens of locales in Mexico’s interior region are steeped in historical Mexico flavor, but Morelia and its surrounding areas, in the state of Michoacan, are inimitable destinations of history and culture. Morelia best evokes the opulence of Spanish colonial Mexico, while a wealth of cultural attractions and its proximity to some of the finest crafts-producing indigenous villages make it a standout for clients interested in immersing themselves in Mexico’s rich heritage.

Whether as a stand-alone destination or in combination with a trip to one of Mexico’s Pacific Coast beach resorts, Morelia is easily accessible by plane or car; the city is a short flight from Mexico City, and a new high-speed freeway between Morelia and the resort area of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo has cut driving time down to three hours between the two destinations.


Capital of the state of Michoacan, Morelia was founded in 1541 as Valladolid, but the city’s name was changed in 1828 in honor of its native son, Father Jose Maria Morelos, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution.

Morelia is an architectural showplace that displays the magnificence of Spanish colonial Mexico with such panache it is often referred to as the “Aristocrat of Mexico’s Colonial Cities.” With more than 12,000 centuries-old buildings and a 219-block historic center boasting 1,213 monuments, Morelia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.

Graced by wide boulevards and narrow cobblestone streets lined with stately historic buildings, the city is ideal for walking tours. Majestic churches seem to dot every street, but the showpiece of the city is its 17th-century baroque-style cathedral, an elaborate pink stone structure looming over the tree-lined walkways of the city’s main plaza. Steeples 200-feet high top the cathedral. A prominent feature of the church’s rich interior is a 4,600-pipe German organ from 1905. In May, the instrument is in full swing during Morelia’s annual International Organ Festival, which spotlights world-renowned organists at the cathedral.

Among Morelia’s additional sights are numerous palaces, mansions and civic buildings. They include the Governor’s Palace, built in 1732 and adorned with sweeping murals by local artist Alfredo Zalce that trace the history of Michoacan; and the Garden of the Roses, surrounded by colonial structures such as the Church of Santa Rosa and the Conservatory of Music, which is lined with columns and arches that circle a peaceful, flower-filled central courtyard. The conservatory, founded in the 18th century, is one of the oldest music schools in the Americas. Today, it is renowned for the Children’s Choir of Morelia, which practices at the conservatory and stages performances in the city twice a year.

Cultural Center

As the cultural center of the state, Morelia’s atmosphere is further enriched by an abundance of museums and a wealth of native folk art from the surrounding region.

Main draws include Museum of Michoacan State, an archaeology and history museum housing comprehensive exhibits, including a collection of masks, costumes and other artifacts of the state’s indigenous Purepecha culture; Museum of Colonial Art, situated in a historic mansion and displaying a wide variety of 16th- to 18th-century religious art; and the Regional Museum of Michoacan, spotlighting art exhibits tracing the history of Mexico and the state in an 18th-century palace.

Casa de Artesanias is a high point. Located in the former convent of the 17th-century Church of San Francisco, the facility is a combination museum and market, where the intricate arts and crafts of Michoacan are exhibited throughout several rooms surrounding a courtyard. A vast selection of reasonably priced artwork from around the state is offered at the facility’s expansive store.

Clients might also want to browse for distinctive items at La Casa del Portal near the main square. Part gallery, part bazaar, part restaurant, the rooms of this old mansion are brimming with arts and crafts of Mexico, including many works by the owners, a family of artists from Michoacan who produce hand-carved and brightly painted furniture. For dining, the menu features hearty regional Mexican cuisine, including a delicious local rainbow trout cooked in macadamia nuts.


With its setting amidst a mountainous region of pine forests, waterfalls, lakes and countless small villages, Morelia is an ideal launching pad for excursions that take in the natural beauty and cultural allure of the surrounding area.

A popular side trip spotlighting one of the country’s ecological wonders is El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, roughly 100 miles east of Morelia. Every year in October, millions of Monarchs migrate from the United States and Canada to the mountaintop pine forests of Mexico. From November to early spring, when they head north again, visitors can view the unique natural spectacle of countless Monarchs turning green pine trees a glowing orange.

Patzcuaro Region

Located next to a highland lake in the mountainous region east of Morelia, the village of Patzcuaro and the surrounding area exude a rich combination of Spanish colonial and native heritage.

Inhabited by the Purepecha Indians for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Patzcuaro was once the capital of the Purepecha kingdom and later the capital of Michoacan State in 1540. After the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, Don Vasco de Quiroga, the state’s first bishop, taught the Purepechas new artistic techniques to combine with their centuries-old craft methods. The Purepechas have preserved their arts-and-crafts traditions over the centuries and now, the towns in the Patzcuaro region are meccas for shoppers and culture buffs.

The atmospheric village of Patzcuaro is a photographic ensemble of vibrant native markets and 16th-century colonial architecture. Leisurely walks along the narrow cobblestone streets turn up pretty whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs and spacious plazas with fine churches and artisan markets peddling the folk art of the region. Hand-loomed textiles, lacquerware, copperware, pottery and masks are among the finds here.

Another good place to pick up arts and crafts is the House of the 11 Patios, an 18th-century mansion that was originally built as a house for nuns but now serves as a historic venue for small shops and local vendors.

Janitzio, the largest island on Lake Patzcuaro, is noted for its dugout canoes, a fishing village, religious festivals and Day of the Dead ceremonies. Other nearby villages are worth visiting for their trademark crafts and quaint ambience accented by Spanish colonial buildings.

In Santa Clara del Cobre, clients can see demonstrations of the town’s trademark copperware, all of which is pounded by hand, at a few of the many shops that line the streets. Cuanajo is a peaceful village of woodworkers who create pine furniture adorned with intricate and colorful designs. Paracho is famous for its handmade guitars.

The Patzcuaro region can be a day trip from Morelia, or clients can add a couple of nights in Patzcuaro and use it as a base for exploring the area.

Where to Stay

With several unique boutique properties situated in Morelia and Patzcuaro, one of the most memorable experiences of a visit to the region is the hotel stay, and best of all, rates are significantly less here than what clients would pay in other worldwide destinations for the same caliber product. Following is a short list of recommendations.


Villa Montana. Having gained a reputation as one of Mexico’s best small luxury properties, Villa Montana is a historic haven set on a hillside above Morelia. The property encompasses a series of historic former vacation retreats, all sparing no detail in design and decor. Cobblestone pathways meander around the lush grounds of the property to buildings adorned with arches, wrought-iron gates, colonial art and regional Mexican art. The property consists of 22 suites and 13 guest rooms, each uniquely appointed. Nightly room rates start at $187. Call 877-278-8018. Web sites: or

Hotel Los Juaninos. This is Spanish colonial luxury at its finest a historic gem situated in a restored, former bishop’s palace from the 17th century. One of downtown Morelia’s true finds, this property sits across the street from the city’s majestic cathedral, and each of the 33 distinctively designed guest rooms and suites exudes the grandeur and charm of old Mexico while not skimping on modern-day amenities. Nightly room rates start at $144. Call 877-278-8018. Web sites: or

Hotel de la Soledad. Tucked into an 18th-century building a half block from Morelia’s main square, this cozy, reasonably priced property was built in 1719 as the city’s first stagecoach inn. Its original owners were Spanish counts devoted to the Virgin of Solitude. The property features 58 rooms and nine suites, all with period furnishings and artwork. A tranquil central courtyard has a stone fountain and antique colonial stagecoaches. Nightly room rates start at approximately $80. Call 011-52-443-313-0627. Web site:

Hotel Virrey de Mendoza. Situated next to the city’s main square overlooking the cathedral, this hotel features 55 guest rooms and suites set in a Spanish colonial mansion. Antique furniture and original period details characterize the ambience of some of the units. The lobby is noted for its elaborate stained glass skylight. Nightly room rates start at approximately $95. Call 011-443-312-0633. Web site:


Hotel Mansion Iturbe. A grand 17th-century residence is the setting for this 14-room bed and breakfast in the heart of Patzcuaro. Opened as a hotel in 1970, the property seems suspended in time, with restorations taking care to preserve the original features of the building. Some of the units are small, and all are uniquely decorated with antiques and Purepechuan artwork. Nightly rates start at approximately $75.Call 011-52-434-342-0368. Web site:

La Casa de Los Suenos. Built in the early 17th century, this property was purchased by an American woman who spent nearly two years restoring the building to its original splendor and adding elegant details such as expansive murals. The hotel is devoted to highly personalized service in a luxury setting that reflects the history and culture of the region. Rates start at $190. Web site: www.prismas.

Hotel Hacienda Mariposas. Set amidst pine trees and verdant gardens near Patzcuaro, this 12-suite inn opened in 1997 as a historic retreat that aims to expose guests to the area’s wealth of natural beauty. The rural atmosphere lends itself to soft-adventure activities and eco tours, which are offered through the property. The hotel is set in a historic hacienda, with suites preserving the original details of the architecture. Nightly room rates start at approximately $100. Call 800- 573-2386. Web site: www.

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