Cobblestone streets, colorful churches, and a domineering cathedral are just a few of the architectural wonders that make San Cristobal de las Casas a must-visit addition to any southern Mexico travel itinerary.
Throw in a prevalent indigenous culture that’s like nowhere else in Mexico, countless Mayan languages, and a rather fiery history of opposition to the central government in Mexico City, and you have an exciting city break destination that’s just waiting to be explored.
Keep reading as we unveil the best things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas!
1. Free Walking Tour of San Cristobal de las Casas
All great trips begin with a free walking tour, and in San Cristobal de las Casas, the local free walking tour is, of course, the best way to get acquainted with the city.
Even if you’ve visited the city before, the wonderful guides that run the twice daily tour are guaranteed to impart new nuggets of knowledge as you delve deeper into the city’s fascinating past and unique contemporary culture.
The “free” walking tours are tips-based, so you only pay what you feel the tour was worth at the end, making this an excellent way to see the city on the cheap. Meet at the wooden cross in front of the cathedral, let the guides take it from there, and enjoy one of the best free things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas.
2. Catedral de San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas is the old capital of Chiapas State, and the city’s domineering colonial architecture is testament to the fact that the Spanish conquistadors turned the city into a regional power base from the 16th century onwards.
One of the most impressive buildings is, of course, the cathedral (Catedral de San Cristobal de las Casas), which has stood firm in the center of the city for hundreds of years. The elaborate cathedral was built over several centuries, incorporating Baroque and Moorish features into its design.
It’s also been damaged over the course of several centuries, usually due to earthquakes. However, the famous wooden cross (the meeting point for almost any tour in the city) and the colorful yellow-red facade are always visible despite seemingly perpetual renovations.
3. Real de Guadalupe
This is very much a city that’s made for walking, and one of the top things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas is to take a stroll along Real de Guadalupe. This colorful, mostly pedestrianized street begins right by the main square and heads east across the city towards Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a lovely church with even lovelier views over the city.
Along the way, you’ll pass handicraft stores, bookshops, souvenir shops, and best of all, San Cristobal de las Casas’ busiest restaurants and cafés. Look out for the many alfresco Spanish-style tapas bars, where a glass of red wine also gets you a feast of delectable snacks.
4. Iglesia de Santo Domingo
The impressive Iglesia de Santo Domingo is one of the most ornate churches in the city, with a facade that features intricately carved sculptures and designs that were handcrafted on the orders of the Dominican friars who once lived here.
Dating back to the mid 16th century, the adjacent plaza of Santo Domingo is well known today for its indigenous handicrafts market. Surrounding the church are hundreds of market stalls, all selling unique works of art and carefully spun textiles.
Inside the grounds of the church, you can also find the Museum of Textiles of the Mayan World (Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya), where a fascinating collection of textiles from the surrounding region awaits exploration.
5. Chamula and Zinacantan
To find out more about where all the local textiles and handicrafts originate from, take a trip into the nearby hills when you’re visiting San Cristobal de las Casas to see the indigenous villages of Chamula and Zinacantan.
Here you’ll find many of the artisans at work to produce the beautiful textiles that they then sell in the city. You’ll also be thrown into the cultural clash of the local Mayan blend of Catholicism; it’s as loud and vibrant as it is removed from traditional Christian worship.
At the church in Chamula, there are no pews, while Coca-Cola drinking, fireworks, and the odd animal sacrifice are part of the daily services. Join a day tour from San Cristobal de las Casas – it’s only a half-hour drive from the city – to learn more about the local history and traditions from a local guide.
6. Iglesia de San Cristobalita
As in all Mexican cities, there are a lot of churches, convents, and cathedrals in San Cristobal de las Casa. However, even if you’re churched out, do save time for a hike up the hill to Iglesia de San Cristobalita.
Visiting this small red and white church is as much about the views as it is about the building. After a strenuous walk up hundreds, perhaps thousands of steps, you’ll have earned the right to enjoy one of the best panoramas over the city.
7. Shop at the Mercado Municipal
A municipal market might not sound like one of the most fun things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas, but you’d be mistaken for thinking so.
While much of the rest of the city can be incredibly touristy, the Mercado Municipal is anything but. This is where the locals come to do their shopping, and if you have an interest in learning more about the spices and ingredients that go into the local cuisine, you’ll gain first hand culinary experience among the vendors here.
Just take a walk and enjoy the market stalls – and avoid the meat section if you’re squeamish.
8. Museo del Ambar
As you explore the tourist attractions in San Cristobal de las Casas (particularly the markets), you’ll notice that there’s a lot of amber on display and for sale.
If you’re intrigued as to why this is the case, take a look around the Museo del Ambar, where you’ll find out all there is to know about the region’s amber industry.
The museum has hundreds of exhibits, and the building itself is a rustic ex-convent that’s certainly a few centuries old.
9. Casa Na Bolom
Casa Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar) is a fascinating museum that preserves the history, heritage, and culture of the Lacandon Maya, an indigenous group from southern Mexico and Central America.
The museum was founded by the Blom family, who were some of the first archaeologists to attempt to preserve the disappearing culture of local indigenous groups. In addition to its exhibits, the museum features a hotel and restaurant and functions as a Mayan library and cultural center.
Proceeds from the museum, the hotel, and the restaurant are all in support of indigenous community projects in Chiapas, making a visit here worthwhile while you’re in the city.
10. Sergio Castro Museum
If you visit just one museum while staying in San Cristobal de las Casas, then make it the Sergio Castro Museum. Variously known as the House of Sergio Castro or the Museo de Trajes Regionales de Sergio Castro, this is as much an experience as it is a museum.
Sergio Castro is the man who runs the museum, and all proceeds go towards his medical work. Sergio offers medical services to impoverished, primarily indigenous locals, and the museum is located in the same building – his home! – where he treats those in need.
Through his work with the indigenous groups in Chiapas, Sergio has amassed a huge collection of clothing, textiles, and artifacts, which are all on display. Each of the indigenous groups in Chiapas has its own distinctive style of clothing, and you can see as many as 100 different styles.
This is one of the best places to visit in San Cristobal de las Casas, but you need to arrange your visit in advance by giving Sergio Castro a call at +52 967 678 4289.
11. El Arcotete
A day at El Arcotete is the best way to leave the city without really leaving the city. Located just 15 minutes away by taxi, El Arcotete is an ecopark that’s the perfect destination for hiking.
Here you can hike through the forest, spot wildlife in the trees, and enjoy the beauty of nature so very close to San Cristobal de las Casas. You can also stroll over suspension bridges and under impressive natural rock formations.
If you want to make a real adventure of it, you can hike here from the city. It’s around three hours roundtrip.
12. Orquideas Moxviquil
It’s also possible to get close to nature without ever leaving the city at all. Just a 20-minute walk north of the city center, you’ll find the serene gardens of Orquideas Moxviquil.
For just 50 pesos, you can stroll through the gardens, a wonderfully calm area on the edge of San Cristobal de las Casas that’s teeming with orchids.
If you speak Spanish, you can join a short tour through Orquideas Moxviquil to learn more about the flowers and plants within this lovely botanical garden.
A visit to Oventic is one of the more curious things to do near San Cristobal de las Casas, and there’s every chance you might not be let in after making the journey from the city!
During your stay in San Cristobal de las Casas, you’ll have been hard-pressed not to notice the city’s association with the Zapatista movement. This group of primarily indigenous guerilla fighters briefly took over the city in 1994 in protest against the colonial ambitions of the government in Mexico City.
The movement became somewhat iconic, at least in the 1990s, and you will find left-leaning Zapatista-inspired murals, restaurants, souvenir shops, and events all over the city. If you’re interested in learning more, you can visit the Zapatista village of Oventic just outside of San Cristobal de las Casas.
Oventic is a show village run by the Zapatistas for their semi-independent communities in the hills. They do welcome tourists, but only when they want to (and there’s no way of knowing until you get there if they are open or not!) Inside the village, you’ll find museums dedicated to Zapatista history and politics.
14. Sumidero Canyon
If you’re looking to escape the city for the day, then one of the best places to visit in Chiapas is Sumidero Canyon. In fact, this magnificent canyon is one of the major reasons why many tourists are inspired to visit the region to begin with.
Sumidero Canyon is at least 1.5 hours away from San Cristobal de las Casas, and you can arrange a tour from the city that includes a cruise along the river.
Watch out for wildlife, including birdlife and crocodiles, in the trees and on the river banks, or simply gaze in awe as the canyon walls stretch high above you; in some places, they are up to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in height!
15. El Chiflon Waterfalls
The waterfalls of El Chiflon, in the forests of Chiapas, are another great place to visit on a day trip from San Cristobal de las Casas. Here you’ll find a staggering network of rivers and waterfalls, with the tallest waterfall being 70 meters (229 feet) in height.
It’s a fantastic location to spend the day walking and swimming, so don’t forget to pack swimwear and towels. The simplest way to visit is to join a day tour from San Cristobal de las Casas, but it’s also possible to travel here via Comitan.
If you were wondering what to do in San Cristobal de las Casas, hopefully you now have plenty of ideas to inspire you.
Although the city looks distinctively colonial when you first begin walking through the cobbled streets, you’ll soon realize that its culture and history are like nowhere else in Mexico.
Shop at artisan markets, hike to viewpoints above the city, delve into the indigenous culture, and get closer to nature. There are a lot of great things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas, so it’s time to start exploring!