Exploring Mexico’s Historic Cities: Spanish Colonial Foundations

Merida cathedral - Jose Mier Sun Valley

Jose Mier Traces Ancestors’ Route from Spain to Sun Valley, CA

Jose Mier in Sun Valley, CA is surrounded by family and friends who share a similar heritage. Explorers from Spain moved westward to Mexico and their descendants move to what is now the United States. The U.S. is a young country by comparison to Mexico, some cities of which were founded in the 16th century.

Mexico, with its rich history and diverse cultural heritage, is home to some of the world’s oldest cities founded by Spanish explorers during the colonial era. These cities are a testament to the fusion of indigenous traditions and Spanish colonial influences, resulting in a unique and vibrant cultural tapestry. In this essay, we will delve into the history and significance of some of the oldest cities in Mexico founded by Spanish explorers, exploring their origins, development, and the lasting impact they have had on Mexican society.

  1. Mexico City: The Aztec Capital Reinvented

One cannot discuss Mexico’s colonial history without starting with Mexico City. Originally known as Tenochtitlan, it was the thriving capital of the Aztec Empire before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés in 1519. The city was captured and subsequently destroyed by the Spanish forces, who then laid the foundations of what is now Mexico City, officially known as Ciudad de México.

Mexico City’s founding marked the beginning of Spanish colonial rule in Mexico. The Spanish used the remains of the Aztec city to construct their own, layering European architectural styles on top of the indigenous infrastructure. The city became the administrative, religious, and cultural center of New Spain (Nueva España), the Spanish colony encompassing Mexico and parts of Central America.

One of the most iconic structures in Mexico City is the Metropolitan Cathedral, built over the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a significant Aztec temple. The cathedral’s construction began in 1573 and was completed over several centuries, reflecting various architectural styles. This merging of indigenous and Spanish elements is a hallmark of Mexico City’s historic charm.

  1. Puebla: A City of Angels

Founded in 1531, Puebla de los Ángeles, commonly referred to as Puebla, is renowned for its stunning colonial architecture and unique culinary traditions. The city was strategically established between the major port of Veracruz and Mexico City, making it an important stop on the trade route between the two.

Puebla’s historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, characterized by its well-preserved colonial buildings, colorful facades, and ornate churches. One of the most famous landmarks in Puebla is the Puebla Cathedral, an imposing structure with a blend of Renaissance and Baroque architectural elements.

The city is also famous for its cuisine, particularly the dish known as “mole poblano,” a rich and complex sauce often served with poultry. Puebla’s culinary heritage is a testament to the fusion of indigenous and Spanish ingredients and cooking techniques.

  1. Guadalajara: The Pearl of the West

Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco, is one of Mexico’s oldest and most vibrant cities. It was founded in 1542 by Cristóbal de Oñate and has since played a significant role in Mexico’s history and culture.

The city’s historic center is a treasure trove of colonial architecture, featuring grand plazas, churches, and government buildings. The Guadalajara Cathedral, completed in 1618, is a prime example of Spanish colonial architecture and remains one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.

In addition to its architectural heritage, Guadalajara is known for its contributions to Mexican culture, particularly in the realms of mariachi music and tequila production. Mariachi, a traditional Mexican music genre, originated in the region around Guadalajara, and the city hosts an annual International Mariachi Festival.

  1. Morelia: A Colonial Gem

Founded in 1541 as Valladolid, Morelia is the capital of the state of Michoacán and is renowned for its well-preserved colonial architecture and vibrant cultural scene. The city was renamed Morelia in 1828 in honor of Don José María Teclo Morelos y Pavón, a key figure in Mexico’s struggle for independence.

The historic center of Morelia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with numerous colonial buildings, churches, and plazas. The Morelia Cathedral, completed in the 18th century, is a stunning example of Baroque architecture.

Morelia also has a rich cultural heritage, including a thriving arts scene and a strong tradition of culinary excellence. The city is known for its regional dishes, including carnitas (braised and fried pork) and uchepos (corn tamales).

Merida cathedral - Jose Mier Sun Valley
Merida cathedral – Jose Mier Sun Valley
  1. Mérida: Yucatán’s White City

Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Americas, with a history dating back to the ancient Maya civilization. However, it was the Spanish who formally founded the city in 1542 on the site of the Maya city of T’hó.

The city’s colonial architecture reflects a unique blend of Spanish and Maya influences. Mérida is often referred to as the “White City” because of the prevalent use of white limestone in its buildings, a tradition that dates back to the Maya period.

The Cathedral of Mérida, built between 1562 and 1598, is one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas and a prime example of Spanish colonial architecture. The city’s central plaza, the Plaza Grande, is surrounded by historic buildings and is a hub of cultural and social activity.

  1. Oaxaca: A Cultural Treasure

Oaxaca, founded in 1529, is the capital of the state of the same name and is celebrated for its rich cultural heritage, indigenous traditions, and culinary excellence. The city’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, showcasing beautifully preserved colonial architecture.

The Santo Domingo Church and Monastery, completed in the 17th century, is a standout example of Baroque architecture in Oaxaca. Its interior is adorned with intricate gold leaf ornamentation and stunning frescoes.

Oaxaca is also known for its indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec cultures, which have left an indelible mark on the city’s identity. The city is famous for its artisanal crafts, including textiles, pottery, and intricate alebrijes (wooden sculptures). Additionally, Oaxacan cuisine is celebrated for its diversity and flavors, with dishes like mole and tlayudas being local specialties.

  1. San Cristóbal de las Casas: Highland Jewel

San Cristóbal de las Casas, located in the Chiapas Highlands, was founded in 1528 by Diego de Mazariegos. The city’s colonial architecture, set against the backdrop of lush mountains, makes it one of Mexico’s most picturesque destinations.

The city’s heart is the historic center, where cobblestone streets are lined with colorful buildings and churches. The San Cristóbal Cathedral, with its Baroque facade, is a prominent landmark. The city’s architectural beauty is complemented by a vibrant arts scene, with numerous galleries and workshops showcasing indigenous crafts and textiles.

San Cristóbal de las Casas is also known for its cultural diversity, with a significant indigenous population, including Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan communities. Visitors can experience the blending of indigenous traditions with Spanish colonial influences through music, dance, and cuisine.

  1. Campeche: A Walled City by the Sea

Campeche, founded in 1540, is a coastal city located on the Yucatán Peninsula. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is celebrated for its well-preserved city walls, which were built to protect against pirate attacks during the colonial period.

The city’s architecture reflects a unique fusion of Spanish, Mayan, and Caribbean influences. The Campeche Cathedral, built between 1540 and 1564, is an outstanding example of Renaissance-style architecture in Mexico.

Beyond its historical charm, Campeche boasts a vibrant cultural scene and is known for its traditional music and dance. The city’s cuisine is influenced by the sea, with dishes like seafood stews and grilled fish being local favorites.


The oldest cities in Mexico founded by Spanish explorers are living testaments to the enduring legacy of colonialism and the rich tapestry of Mexican culture. These cities, including Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara, Morelia, Mérida, Oaxaca, San Cristóbal de las Casas, and Campeche, offer a glimpse into the complex history of Mexico, where indigenous traditions merged with Spanish colonial influences to create a unique and vibrant cultural landscape. Their stunning architecture, culinary traditions, and cultural diversity continue to captivate visitors from around the world, making them essential destinations for those seeking to explore Mexico’s rich history and heritage.