Colorful buildings in historic downtown Puebla // © 2015 Mexico Tourism Board
Feature image (above): Cafes and historic structures are among sights in the “zocalo,” or city square, in Puebla. // © 2015 Mexico Tourism Board
As the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo approaches, conversations sometimes veer toward the event’s history. Any Mexicophile will quickly confirm, of course, that this hallowed day is not Mexico’s Independence Day, but rather a commemoration of an important (and hard-fought) victory by Mexico’s army against invading French forces in 1862.
The fight took place in the state of Puebla — hence the holiday’s name in Spanish, El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla), and it’s here, in the state’s eponymous capital city, that the largest celebrations take place.
Travelers who visit for Cinco de Mayo will be treated to impressive visuals, in the form of a long parade that includes marching bands, local children acting out historic scenes atop grand floats and crisply dressed military personnel marching in step (this is, after all, a holiday that commemorates an important military victory). However, the historic city of Puebla is a destination worth discovering any time of year.
One of Mexico’s most noteworthy colonial cities, Puebla was founded in 1531 and is a thriving business hub today. But it is culture and history, not business, that lure vacationers — after all, this is the birthplace of mole poblano, a tasty Mexican dish, and popular crafts, such as Talavera pottery. Puebla is also just a few miles from the Great Pyramid of Cholula, cited as the largest pyramid on earth by volume. In short, there’s no lack of things to do in and around the city of Puebla.
Puebla’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a big draw for travelers. A logical starting point for any tour is the “zocalo,” or city square, which is dominated by a soaring cathedral that dates to 1575. Its 200-plus-foot towers are the tallest in Mexico. Open-air cafes along the plaza make for a good resting point before continuing the tour to the nearby Santo Domingo church, built mostly between 1571 and 1611. It is an excellent example of Mexican baroque style.
The city’s cultural institutions include Amparo Museum, which is home to large collections of pre-Hispanic and colonial art, and Uriarte Internacional, where Puebla’s famed Talavera pottery is made (and sold). Puebla’s Museum of Religious Art — housed in the former Santa Monica convent — is billed as the birthplace of chiles en nogada, another popular local dish.
Speaking of cuisine, Puebla is one of Mexico’s true culinary hot spots. It’s easy for travelers to uncover the secrets of local creations, such as the aforementioned mole poblano, through cooking classes offered at Meson Sacristia de Capuchinas, an upscale hotel, and during the Gourmet City Tour offered by BestDay.com, a local tour operator.
A company called Turibus, which also operates in Mexico City, offers a hop-on/hop-off city tour that stops at 12 key sites in Puebla, as well as a four-hour guided tour to the nearby town of Cholula.
The town of Cholula, indeed, is a must-do day trip for visitors to Puebla — thanks to Great Pyramid of Cholula. A revered religious site in the days before the Spanish conquest, the pyramid dates to the third century B.C., and rises 217 feet from its wide base. To visitors in the present day, Great Pyramid of Cholula may resemble a grassy hill at first glance, with a 1594 Catholic church at its top.
Puebla offers hotels at a variety of price points, including large international brands such as InterContinental Hotel Group and Nh Hotels. Travelers looking for unique accommodations will do well at properties such as La Purificadora, a stylish creation of Grupo Habita set in a former 19th-century factory, and Casona de la China Poblana, a lovely boutique hotel set in a 17th-century residence.