Founded in 1546, the silver-mining town of Zacatecas, 190 mi/320 km northeast of Guadalajara, was a major city of Spain's New World empire, and today it's the crown jewel of Mexico's colonial cities as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
You can explore many of the buildings with delightful colonial architecture on your own. The pink-cantera (stone) cathedral, with its intricate carved-stone facade and striking interior, is considered the premiere example of Churrigueresque architecture in the world.
Zacatecas' 13 museums include the exceptional Pedro Coronel Museum, which features works by Chagall, Picasso, Goya and Daumier, as well as exhibits of Chinese, Indian, Japanese and—surprisingly—Tibetan art. Another museum showcases the town's native-son artist, Francisco Coronel. A collection donated by Rafael Coronel (Pedro's brother) displays 3,700 hand-carved masks in themed displays, mostly from Mexico.
After a day of museums, drop by the Hotel Quinta Real, even if you're not staying there. It was built around the beautifully paved (now restored) Plaza de Toros San Pedro, among the oldest bullfight arenas in the Americas. The central market and almost all of the historic center have been restored to a pristine state and contain upscale boutiques (some sell beautiful silver jewelry).
You can also take a gondola ride across the city; it ends at the Cerro de la Bufa, a peak outside of town that has a nice view. (It closes if there's high wind, however.)
El Eden is a former silver mine that has been renovated and opened to visitors; you descend into the mine via elevator and take tours on an open flatbed coal car through a mining museum (not for the claustrophobic). At night, the former mine transforms into a lively bar. The nearby Convento de Guadalupe has religious paintings and is now considered the second-finest colonial-art museum in Mexico.
A tour to the mysterious La Quemada ruins two hours away is a popular day trip, with a stop in the town of Jerez.
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