Located in the mountainous central state of Michoacan, Morelia has distinctive food, authentic culture, and stunning nearby natural areas, such as the world-famous monarch butterfly reserves. There are numerous things to do here, and places to visit.
In my opinion, other than Mexico City, the city of Morelia has the most beautiful architecture in Mexico.
Originally called Old Valladolid after the city in Spain, Morelia has long played an important role in Mexican history.
Founded in 1541, it’s one of the oldest colonial cities in Mexico and one of the places where the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821) began.
Its unique barroco moreliano architecture reveals both the importance of the city’s history and the originality of the builders.
Indeed, wandering around the city streets and soaking up the atmosphere is one of the best things to do in Morelia. The city is also gorgeous at night when the top attractions in Morelia are lit up in colorful lights.
I’ve visited Morelia many times, and each time I go I find more things to do, such as different festivals, concerts, plays, or art exhibitions. This is one of the more underrated places to visit in Mexico you won’t want to miss it. If you’re short on time, you can also visit on a side trip from Mexico City.
Here are the top 15 things to do in Morelia, Mexico.
1. Wander Around the Centro Histórico
One of the best things to do in Morelia is to walk through the city’s fifteen plazas and marvel at the 249 pink stone Spanish colonial buildings in the historic center.
The architecture’s mix of medieval, baroque and neoclassical elements is why the historic center of Morelia was declared a World Heritage Site in 1991.
The core of the city is the zocalo, known as the Plaza de Armas or Plaza de los Mártires. It’s one of the best places to visit in Morelia and the starting point for exploring the city’s many streets of remarkable colonial-era buildings.
The zocalo is broad, full of trees, and surrounded by shopping arcades, government buildings, and the twin towers of the cathedral.
Entrance is free at Morelia’s government palace on the north side of the square. Along with its elegant design, the palace features large murals by artist and Michoacan native Alfredo Zalce.
Next, walk west on Av. Francisco Madero to pass by the Colegio de San Nicolas, one of the most representative buildings of the city.
Built in the 17th century, it was an important school in New Spain, and today entrance is free to admire the large building’s arches, murals, statues, and manicured courtyards.
There’s a lot more to see in Morelia’s historic center, including the Michoacan Regional Museum, the next recommendation on this list.
To make sure you don’t miss anything, you can take a walking tour, like this one. Or, you can hop on the city’s tranvia (tourist tram), which takes about an hour and is one of the best things to do in Morelia when you’re tired of walking.
2. Soak Up Some History and Culture at the Michoacan Regional Museum
The Michoacan Regional Museum is the oldest in Mexico’s network of museums from the National Institute of History and Anthropology.
Besides exhibits about history, pre-Hispanic artifacts, and art, the building itself is worth seeing. It’s an 18th-century mansion located in the heart of the city on the southwest corner of the zocalo.
Entrance is 50 pesos (about $2.50 USD), and the museum is closed on Monday. Find it here on the map.
3. Enjoy a Light Show at Morelia’s Cathedral
Every Saturday at 20:45, one of the most awe-inspiring things to see in Morelia is a world-class light and sound show at Morelia’s cathedral.
Get to the zocalo early to find a nice spot to enjoy this show of lights, fireworks, and sound prepared by the same company that lights up the Eiffel Tower.
The cathedral itself is majestic, with two towers so high that they can be seen from nearly every part of the Valley of Morelia.
It took 84 years to finish the construction of this emblematic site, and among its treasures is a monumental tubular organ made in Germany. With 4,600 pipes, it’s the second-largest in Mexico.
One final bit of trivia: Morelia’s cathedral is the only one in Mexico that faces east instead of the usual north.
4. Enter Another World in the Santuario de Guadalupe
Although Morelia’s cathedral is undeniably beautiful, it doesn’t hold the informal title of prettiest in town. That honor would most likely go to the Santuario de Guadalupe, also known as the Temple of San Diego.
An average-looking church on the outside hides the real attraction within — the church’s astounding interior, a dazzling combination of pink paint and gold trim. Paying a visit to the church to take it all in is definitely one of the best things to do in Morelia.
The pretty pedestrian street Calzada de Fray Antonio de San Miguel was built to connect the church with Morelia’s Aqueduct, the next entry on this list.
Close to Santuario de Guadalupe is Bosque Cuauhtémoc, which is the biggest park in the city. It has a bike track, an area for children, and even two museums, the Alfredo Zalce Contemporary Art Museum and the Universidad Michoacana Natural History Museum.
5. Stroll Under the Arches of Morelia’s Aqueduct
This is one of the activities in Morelia that’s suitable for day or night. Morelia’s aqueduct is formed by 253 arches, some of them nearly eight meters high.
The aqueduct was built in 1785, and today only about a quarter of the original seven kilometers remains of this historic symbol of the city.
Tourist trams pass by on the streets on either side, or it makes for great walking—especially at night when its lights cast eerie shadows on the surrounding buildings.
Next to the aqueduct is an emblematic symbol of the city: the Tarascas fountain with its statue of three native Purepecha women holding a basket of fruit. Find the aqueduct here on the map.
6. Bring a Date to the Alley of Romance
If you’re looking for some romance in Morelia, look no further than the aptly named Alley of Romance.
The atmosphere is undeniably romantic among the stone walls and bubbling fountains of the narrow alley. Between stately colonial homes, pink flowers grow, lanterns hang, and poems are inscribed on the walls.
Make sure you have a full battery on your cellphone or camera, because you’ll get your most Instagrammable picture of the day in the Alley of Romance. It’s famous for being one of the best places in Morelia for taking photographs.
If you happen to visit on Valentine’s Day (or any anniversary) and want to know what to do in Morelia on such an important day, this romantic tour is a good option.
7. Refresh Yourself With a Gazpacho Moreliano
Gazpacho is one of the gastronomic symbols of Morelia, and trying it is one of the best things to do in Morelia on a hot day.
It’s a mix of fruit with a touch of spice and salt.
The traditional recipe includes tiny pieces of mango, jicama (a kind of Mexican turnip), and pineapple drenched with orange juice and then topped with chili and cotija cheese.
As you wander the streets of Morelia, you’ll find Gaspachos for sale in small shops and on street corners. They usually cost around 40 pesos ($2 USD), and if you want, you can ask for different combinations of fruit and garnishes.
To sample the original recipe and have a real local experience, go to Gaspachos Morelianos El Güero de la Merced, located in the historic center.
8. Browse for Crafts at the Casa de las Artesanías
Located in front of Plaza Valladolid, the Casa de las Artesanías (House of Handicrafts) is dedicated to promoting and preserving the history and traditions of artisans from several regions in Michoacan.
Formerly the San Francisco Temple and San Buenaventura Convent, it’s one of the oldest constructions in the city.
Today, it’s undoubtedly one of the best places in Morelia to shop for everything from tasteful art and home decorations to colorful clothes and jewelry, all made by local artisans.
In its museum, you can learn about the daily life of artisans, appreciate the production of crafts in Michoacan, admire artisanal masterpieces, and even take a workshop.
Entrance is free, and it’s open every day of the week from 9 AM to 8 PM. Check out their website to get an idea of some of the products they offer.
9. Learn about Mexican Independence at the Museo Casa de Morelos
If you’re eager to learn more about Mexican history, you can visit the house where one of the heroes of Mexican Independence was born.
Jose María Morelos y Pavon was a crucial figure in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, and after the war, in 1828, Old Valladolid was renamed Morelia in his honor.
Located in the historic center, his former home, a lovely colonial mansion, is now a museum dedicated to exhibits and artifacts housed in nine rooms, where the city origins, the history of the house, and the life of Morelos are described.
Entrance is 45 pesos (about $2 USD), and like other Morelia attractions, the museum is closed on Monday.
This museum is included on many organized tours of the historic center, including this one.
10. See a Concert at the Centro Cultural Clavijero
Morelos wasn’t the only hero of the War of Mexican Independence with strong ties to Morelia.
Miguel Hidalgo, the Mexican emancipator priest who’s also known as the father of the independence movement, was educated at the building that now contains the Clavijero Cultural Center.
For more than half a century, this baroque-style building with murals and large courtyards was a Jesuit convent. Today, the impressive structure is a World Heritage site and a place for concerts, festivals, workshops and rotating expositions.
11. Join a Cooking Lesson at the Zirita Culinary Workshop
This is one of my favorite activities in Morelia not just because I love to eat Mexican food, but because I love to learn about it too.
During a marathon lesson at the Zirita Culinary workshop (eight and a half hours), experienced local cooks teach how to cook the most typical dishes from the state of Michoacan.
You can choose from three different types of classes or take a gastronomic tour through nearby small towns.
You can request information and reserve a place for the course or tour at the San Miguelito restaurant, which is also a good place to eat authentic local food.
For this experience, there’s a minimum number of people required, so if you’re traveling alone or in a small group, you can choose to take a different tour, like this Morelia fishing and cuisine tour.
12. Try Morelia Tamales
Tamales are as diverse as Mexico itself. Wherever you go in the country, you’ll find regional variations on the basic recipe of masa (corn dough) steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf.
Corundas and uchepos are the representative tamales of the state of Michoacan. Corundas feature dry, sour cotija cheese and are often cooked with chicken broth.
Uchepos are the sweet version, made with sweet corn, butter, piloncillo (a kind of sugar) and fresh milk.
You can find these and other tamales served from big steaming pots on street corners in the morning. Or, try the famous ones at the Cenaduría Lupita restaurant, which also offers a breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet of local food.
13. Indulge Your Sweet Tooth at the Candy Museum
Like tamales, Mexican candies are also specific to the region. Trying local Michoacan candy is one of the best things to do in Morelia if you can’t get enough sweets.
You can find local candies in many shops in the historic center. But, for the complete candy experience, the Dulces Morelianos de la Calle Real (Royal Road Morelia Candies) factory is one of the best places to visit in Morelia.
Morelianas, cocadas, and chongos zamoranos are only three of the nearly 300 different variations of candies that are sold in the store.
This business has a long history and has won many prizes over the years. The candy store was once a Parisian-style cafe and cake shop where high society people from Morelia used to hang out, sip coffee, and sample French desserts.
The museum was created in order to preserve the history and tradition of Morelia candies.
In its five rooms, experts explain how the candies are a fusion of Spanish and indigenous cuisines, along with how life in Morelia has changed over the years.
It’s open Sunday to Friday from 11:00 AM to 07:30 PM and Saturdays from 10:00 am to 8:30 PM. Find it here on the map.
14. Observe Countless Butterflies at a Monarch Butterfly Reserve
One of the best things to do in Morelia is to take a trip into the surrounding mountains to witness the enormous monarch butterfly migration.
Every year from December to April, millions of butterflies leave Canada and fly to the forests of Michoacan. It’s one of the largest animal migrations in the world, if not the largest, and the only one by insects that includes a return trip.
There are eight monarch butterfly reserves in Mexico, with five open to tourism. They’re all a little remote, meaning that unless you have a rental car, your best bet is to take a tour from Morelia.
You can read more about this fascinating migration here.
15. Take a Day Trip to Patzcuaro
After the monarch butterfly reserves, the second most famous day trip and one of the most adventurous things to do in Morelia is to visit the magic town of Patzcuaro on the lake of the same name.
Established more than 500 years ago, this town’s cobblestone streets and well-conserved baroque and neoclassical churches make it a quieter and more peaceful alternative to Morelia.
In the middle of Lake Patzcuaro is Janitzio Island, where there’s a lovely town on a hill and a massive statue of Morelos. It’s only accessible by boat.
The main attraction in Janitzio is its cemetery, which is famous throughout Mexico as one of the best places to experience the Day of the Dead holiday.
Every year on November 2nd, locals fill the cemetery with flowers, candles and music. This experience is not only one of the best things to see in Morelia, but also in all of Mexico. If you want to visit during that time, you should book more than a year in advance.
Any time during the year, however, is a good time to visit the charming small town.
You can drive on your own or take a tour from Morelia. This one allows you to choose between Janitzio or an artisan copper crafting workshop at Santa Clara del Cobre.
Now You Know What to Do in Morelia
In Morelia, come for the incredible architecture and history, and stay for the food and culture.
The most popular festival in Morelia happens in October, the Morelia International Film Festival, where Mexican and international films are presented to support Mexican filmmakers and spread the cinematographic culture of Mexico.
Outside of the city, the Monarch Butterfly Reserves and Lake Patzcuaro make for fantastic day trips, and offer a Mexican experience not found anywhere else.
This means that whatever you’re interested in, you’ll find it in Morelia, Mexico.