Photo: Chris Mellor, Getty Images.
Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day (That date is Sept. 16). What is celebrated on May 5th is the Mexican army’s triumph over French forces twice its size during a battle in Puebla in 1862. Located southeast of Mexico City and within view of the Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes, Puebla is among Mexico’s largest and oldest cities. Founded in 1531 by the Spanish, the city once known as Puebla de Los Angeles is a UNESCO world heritage site, home to thriving art and culinary communities, and a travel destination for history buffs and admirers of architecture. Should you decide to celebrate Cinco de Mayo where it all began, make sure to experience the places and things that make this beautifully antiquated destination unique.
You can visit the site where the aforementioned Battle of Puebla took place, Fuerte de Loreto and Fuerte de Guadalupe, just north of the city of Puebla. The forts are now part of the Centro Cívico Cultural 5 de Mayo, which includes a natural history museum, an anthropology museum, and a planetarium.
Puebla is a hub of centuries-old chapels, churches, monasteries, convents, and cathedrals. La Capilla de Rosario, built in the late 1600s, is a baroque masterpiece replete with gold leaf and an onyx pulpit. Don’t be fooled by the imposing gray stone exterior of the Cathedral–inside, it contains ornate Moorish details, statues of angels and saints, and dome ceiling. It also boasts the tallest bell towers in all of Mexico. Travel to neighboring Cholula, about thirty minutes by car from Puebla, to see the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, a church built atop an ancient pyramid. If you can withstand the climb, the views from the church are breathtaking.
A former hospital houses the Amparo Museum, located in the historic center of Puebla. Considered one of the most important museums in the country, it displays thousands of pieces of art and artifacts from pre-Hispanic Mexico to the present. You’ll need a day to take it all in–and make it a Sunday or Monday, when admission is free. Before you leave, head up to the roof deck for a coffee break and 360-degree views of the city.
La Biblioteca Palafoxiana
Book lovers can admire the spines in what is considered the first public library of the Americas, founded in 1646. Tucked away in the Casa de Cultura, this restored reading sanctuary features intricate woodwork and original bookshelves and furniture. The collection contains over 40,000 titles. Hire a guide for an in-depth informational tour.
Mesón Sacristia de la Compañia
Within walking distance of the town square known as the zócalo, the Mesón Sacristia is a colonial-style boutique hotel painted in bright hues with an enviable art collection and antique touches throughout. The hotel’s restaurant dishes up traditional cuisine like the chili-chocolate sauce mole poblano, huazontles (an herb native to Central Mexico oft compared to broccoli), and cheese flan. If you’re inspired to recreate these meals back in the States, sign up for a cooking workshop with Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and get 15 hours of instruction in basic Mexican cooking during your stay.
Chile en Nogada
Take a poblano chile, pack it with a mixture of meat, fruit, and spices, then drench it with a creamy walnut sauce, sprinkle it with pomegranate seeds, and you’ll have a patriotic entrée that represents the green, white, and red colors that dominate the Mexican flag. From July through September, the city celebrates this festive dish, which you can enjoy al fresco at many restaurants in the area.
The Callejón de los Sapos (Alley of the Toads) is a picturesque, cobblestone pedestrian street where merchants sell unique gifts and souvenirs on the weekends. La Gran Fama, a dulcería in business for over 100 years, is your source for a wide variety of regional sweets, including the city’s trademark camotes (a soft, sweet potato-based candy), alegrías (a Rice Krispies-like treat made with amaranth, seeds, and honey), jamoncillos de leche (Mexican fudge), and tortitas de Santa Clara (filled thumbprint cookies).
Because of the city’s natural abundance of clay, Puebla has long been known for its ceramic artistry. Between 1550 and 1570, potters from the Talavera de la Reina region in Spain introduced Poblanos to European techniques such as potter’s wheels and tin glazing, resulting in what is now known as the Talavera style, frequently seen in housewares and covering buildings in tile form throughout Puebla.