Top 5 Cities (Besides Mexico City) to Study Abroad in Mexico

by Charleen Johnson Stoever

Mexico City seems to have become the mecca of study abroad in México. While, yes, it is the birthplace of Frida Kahlo and is a microcosm of Mexico, let’s not leave the rest of the country out of the picture! There’s a lot more to fall in love with outside of the (former) D.F. Mexico in the world’s most populated Spanish speaking country; not to mention, each one of its citizens has a different story to tell about what makes the country special. Whether you study intensive Spanish in Cuernavaca or realize how little you knew about Mayan culture in the Yucatan Peninsula, studying abroad in Mexico will teach you that there is always more to learn.

View of D.F. Palace in México City from above
Studying abroad in Mexico doesn’t have to mean studying in Mexico City.

Deciding where to study abroad in Mexico entails choosing from an array of cities, each with their own distinct culture and vibe. However, this list of top cities to study abroad in Mexico will inspire you to rethink what makes the perfect study abroad destination. While making your decision, think deeply about which city will jive with your interests, then read about each program, check out alumni reviews, and research both the benefits and challenges of studying abroad in Mexico. The more prepared you are to study abroad in Mexico, the more rewarding it’ll be!

1. Cuernavaca

This ciudad has a semitropical climate throughout the year, so it’s no wonder this is the “City of Eternal Springs.” Cuernavaca is renowned for its Spanish language schools and cultural immersion programs that attract thousands of students from around the world. Spanish language programs in Cuernavaca often place students with local host families in order to facilitate language learning, but this place isn’t just for Spanish aficionados. History buffs will love exploring the city’s colonial buildings and archaeological sites. Don’t miss the Cuauhnáhuac Museum and the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary.

Cuernavaca is a pre-colonial city with a history over 3,000 years long and exhibits a blend of indigenous and Spanish influences today. So, what does that mean for you, you hungry estudiante? That means that you will never tire of regional dishes, like pozole blanco, a white hominy and pork meat soup seasoned with oregano, chili powder, lemon, chopped onion, lettuce, and radishes. There’s also pumpkin seed green mole and black tamales specially prepared for religious ceremonies. Other popular topics to study in Cuernavaca (besides food, of course) include social science and history.

Plaza with a fountain in Cuernavaca, Mexico
Wander through plazas in Cuernavaca, Mexico

2. Guadalajara

Guadalajara, Guadalajara! This city’s roots go way back; it had a song composed to honor it as early as 1937, afterall. Today, Guadalajara is Mexico’s second largest metropolis and a high-tech hub. The perfect place for business and computer science students looking to escape Mexico City’s overwhelming size, Guadalajara is a less daunting alternative for study abroad in Mexico. This is the birthplace of so many things Mexican, like the world famous Maná band, classical mariachi music, and charreadas (rodeos).

Studying abroad in Mexico will, aside from studying, involve lots of strolling through historic centers, and Guadalajara's historic core is a wonderful place to do just that. Visit the Instituto Cultural de Cabañasa and grab a bite to eat at the modern, expansive Chapultepec neighborhood before dancing the night away at a discoteca. The next day, spend a lazy morning drinking Mexican hot chocolate with conchas (shell-shaped bread) before window shopping in the Tonalá neighborhood, a folk-art paradise.

3. Cancun

Before you dismiss it as a party town full of sunburnt college students on spring break, think again. There are many other reasons for studying abroad in Mexico that have nothing to do with fake margaritas, and Cancun is no exception. There is much to discover about Mayan culture in Cancun; did you know Cancun is Mayan for “The nest of serpents”? Instead of taking too many selfies with that oversized sombrero and coconut, make an effort to learn about the area’s history. Head to the pyramids of Tulum and you can appreciate some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in all of México, for example.

La Catedral de Guadalajara in Mexico
Spend time in the historic city center and visit Guadalajara’s Cathedral

Because ot its proximity to historical landmarks as well as environmental preservation efforts, Cancun is a great place to study anthropology and conservation in Mexico. On the weekend, take a study break and visit the pyramids of Chichén Itzá followed by the turtle farms of Isla Mujeres, or snorkel in The Great Mayan Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world. Too much sun? Three of the largest underwater cave systems in the world are right around the corner. You’ll learn that media portrayals of Mexico don’t talk about the nation’s natural wonders nearly enough.

4. Puebla

This city only has about 1.5 million residents and 70 churches in its historical center, but it’s still one of the best cities to study abroad in Mexico. Starving students will find refuge in its famous mole, a thick, rich sauce that comes in a rainbow of colors (it even has a cumbia dedicated to its tedious preparation). For dessert, have some spicy tamarind candy; it’s addicting. This colonial spot is packed with cathedrals, universities, and museums, making it the perfect place to study history and development in Mexico.

Many relevant historical events have occurred in Puebla, like the Battle of Cinco de Mayo. Though many people mistake this day for Mexican Independence Day, it is the battle in which the Mexican army defeated the French army in 1862. A few years later, in 1910, Puebla became the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution. Today, Puebla’s laid-back vibe sets it apart from Mexico City. Take a day off from studying to snap photos of the buildings decked out in azulejos (painted tiles) and try some escamoles (rice-like ant larvae sauteed in butter). Even if you don’t, you’ll never forget your time studying abroad in Puebla.

Cityscape of Puebla
Study abroad amidst a splash of color in Puebla

5. San Cristóbal de las Casas

Last, but not least, this relatively sleepy town is set in the pine forests of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. Don’t be surprised to hear languages different from Spanish if you study abroad in San Cristobal. With twelve federally recognized ethnicities, Chiapas has one of the largest indigenous populations in the country, including the Tzotzil and Tzeltal communities surrounding San Cristobal. Stroll to Spanish class through cobbled streets and head for a market, where you won’t resist unwrapping a tamale steamed in banana leaves. You’ll be studying abroad in the country’s fertile region, so don’t leave without trying the locally grown coffee; Starbucks will never taste the same again.

The city has a history of being a hotbed for political activity, especially since it was the epicenter of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. Although, today locals poke fun at the Zapatourismo that has taken hold, since many shops sell mugs and t-shirts with slogans dedicated to the movement. Students, artists, and indigenous rights activists have made San Cristobal their home, and if you’re into long conversations about politics while slowly sipping that tequila with lime, this is the best place for you to study abroad in Mexico. If you’re up to it, why not learn Zapotec while you’re at it?

From Cuernavaca’s eternal springs to San Cristobal’s deeply political roots, Mexico’s cities prove the extent to which this is a dynamic, varied, and fascinating country.

The Latin American mix of heritages, from Spanish to African to indigenous, the towering Mayan pyramids, and a long history of revolutions and colonialism have shaped Mexican society into what it is today. Whether you’re brushing up on your Spanish or you’ve just realized that Mexico City isn’t the only place to spend a semester studying abroad, there’s no doubt that one (or more) of these top cities to study abroad in Mexico will capture your heart and leave you yearning to return before you even leave.