As you might have read on my previous writings, San Luis Potosí has a very special place in my heart, but the Historic Downtown of the capital of San Luis Potosí is even more important to me as this is the area where I spent most of my childhood.
San Luis Potosí is not as popular a city to American tourists as it is Guadalajara, Mexico City or Veracruz. Even its very name is hard to remember for some travelers and tourists who stumble upon this state as part of their travel itineraries. If you find yourself in Mexico and have a few days to spare, I encourage you to make this city part of your itinerary. Especially if you are the type of traveler who enjoys history and being immersed in authentic culture and heritage.
San Luis Potosí is also not your typical touristy city as is the case with small cities in sun and beach destinations such as Los Cabos, Cancun, Playa del Carmen or the Rivera Maya. It is a colonial, conservative city with lots of history and cultural heritage. History buffs and art and design lovers would definitely enjoy this city. That’s not to say other types of visitors won’t find anything for them in SLP. Whether you enjoy adventure and thrills or you like to visit museums and admire art, the state of San Luis Potosí will not leave you disappointed.
Previously, I have shared about my trips on past posts to La Huasteca Potosina, which where adventure and outdoor enthusiasts go to spend their summers in San Luis Potosí. However, this post is intended to introduce you to one particular area in the city of San Luis Potosí – one of my favorite places anywhere – the Historic Downtown of SLP.
I grew up in this area. Our house was just a few minutes walking distance from Historic Downtown SLP. My mother used to take us there for a stroll on Sunday afternoons, sometimes even during the week, in order to relax and spend family time. Some of my fondest childhood memories were spent here in the heart of Historic Downtown. I can recall many afternoons and Sundays prancing around every corner of the plaza. I think that’s why this place became very special to me.
The city of San Luis Potosí is more than 400 years old and it is known for its mining history. It was in this territory, before the city was founded, that the Spanish found gold and silver in the 1500’s and the extraction of these metals made San Luis Potosí famous as well as one of the wealthiest cities at the time.
The older buildings in Historic Downtown SLP were built by the Spanish government during their occupancy in Mexico under the Viceroyalty of New Spain, as it was known at the time. Following the Mexican revolution, the country took control of their own government. Those buildings remained and became property of the newly established Mexican government. They were restored, rehabilitated, and became museums, universities or art centers.
The state capital of San Luis is full of historic buildings and churches built in baroque 19th century and neoclassic architectural styles, which would make for a great tour for anyone who enjoys architecture and history. San Luis Potosí’s Historic Downtown, also known as the Historic Center, was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010.
If you are interested on a walking tour of the Historic Downtown SLP there are two ways you can do this. One is to go straight to the Secretaría de Turismo or tourism office, located right across the Catedral Potosina in the Plaza de Armas. They provide tours by trolley accompanied by an explanation of a tour guide. Some of these tours are also available in different languages. These tours would be ideal for those with walking difficulties. The other option is to take a self-guided tour with a group of friends, which I would recommend if you feel comfortable speaking basic Spanish and if you don’t mind walking.
I prepared this guide for those interested in visiting San Luis Potosí and also as a visual guide for anyone who has never visited this country. I want to show that Mexico offers more than just sun and beach destinations. The following walk-through will provide you with a glimpse of what Historic Downtown SLP looks like. When you do plan your trip to this city, this walking guide should help you get to know the highlights of the area.
Historic Downtown SLP has four large plazas (Plaza de Armas, Plaza de los Fundadores, Plaza del Carmen, Plaza de Aranzazú) and one main street (Calzada de Guadalupe). Each plaza has its own temple or cathedral in honor of a saint and a main square plaza usually with a water fountain in the middle and each one is about the size of a block. All together these collection of buildings – including churches, cathedrals, shrines, museums, cultural centers and statues – comprise to more than one hundred historical landmarks.
On average, taking a tour of Historic Downtown, including visiting all the four plazas as well as the main street, would take about three hours walking without much stopping. If you take a more leisurely approach, stopping to eat and touring the insides of the buildings, you can spend a whole day comfortably exploring the area.
Interestingly, most of the buildings in Historic Downtown SLP were constructed under the supervision of well-known masonry architects. The material they used to build them was cantera rosa or cantera stone, which is a natural stone that is endemic to the mountains of this area. It is similar to cast stone and cast limestone found abundantly throughout Mexico and Central America.
We’ll start our self-guided tour at Plaza de Armas or Arms Square. The name reminds me of the phrase “form arms!” This is a military command used by military squadrons to call troops to attention. Plaza de Armas is one of the most important plazas in San Luis and also my favorite one. Built towards the end of the 1500’s, a few years after the city of San Luis Potosí was founded, a monument was built in this location in honor of the Constitution. That monument was tore down thirteen years later and replaced by another monument to honor the religious rendition of the saint San Juan de Ulúa. It was tore down again in 1874 and replaced by yet another monument, this time to honor a famous revolutionary Hidalgo. This time the monument was not demolished but was transferred instead to another neighborhood, La Alameda, in 1889.
In the era of Porfirio, a ruthless well-known Mexican dictator who ruled in the late 1800’s for three and a half decades, a kiosk was built in this soon-to-be-famous plaza. This kiosk was later replaced by another bigger and newer kiosk, which is the one found in present-day Historic Downtown Plaza de Armas.
The present-day famous kiosk found at Plaza de Armas was commemorated as a historic landmark of this city on November 25, 1948 and has become an important piece of architecture in this plaza. If you look closely at the walls of the kiosk you will see the inscribed names of famous Mexican musicians such as Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, Alfonso Esparza Oteo, Genaro Godina, Guty Cárdenas, Mario Talavera, Julián Carrillo y Manuel M. Ponce. This kiosk as well as the stone water fountains found in the surrounding gardens were built by the famous Italian mason architects, the Biagi brothers.
As you stand at the south side of the kiosk, if you look to your right you will see the Palacio de Gobierno or Government Palace. You can’t miss this big building which covers a whole street block. This building constructed in neoclassic style is one of the most important government buildings in SLP. In the 1860’s it served as the presidential home of the famous indigenous president of Mexico, Benito Juárez. It is the place where government officials meet and one of the most elegant buildings in the plaza. The inside is open to the public and visitors report that it feels like being inside a fancy castle.
Opposite to the Palacio de Gobierno you will find the Palacio Municipal or Municipal Palace also known as Cultural Center Municipal Palace. This building constructed in 19th century style has 16 stone arches, which is its main feature. Many famous exhibits take place here like the famous altars for Día de los Muertos on November 2nd.
A few steps to the right of the Palacio Municipal you will come across one of my favorite churches in this city and one that I often photograph when I visit: the Catedral de San Luis Potosí also known as Catedral Metropolitana de San Luis Rey or the Cathedral of San Luis Potosí. Construction started in 1670 and completed in 1730, this Catholic cathedral functions as the seat of the archdiocese of San Luis Potosí in Mexico. The inside as well as the outside is visually striking and very well worth your visit.
If you continue walking down towards the intersection of Francisco I. Madero avenue and Ignacio Aldama, you will find a very well-kept 19th century baroque building called Caja Real. Built in the 18th Century, this building used to be where the Spanish government collected taxes and monies from the gold and silver they extracted from San Luis Potosí’s mines. These taxes and monies were property of the Viceroyalty of New Spain during 300-year Spanish control of Mexico. The inside of the building is just as striking as the outside, it is open to the public like most of the other historic buildings. This building became now the Centro Cultural Universitario or University Cultural Center where famous exhibitions and concerts are held.
Continuing to the north on Aldama street, you will come across another famous plaza known as Plaza de los Fundadores or the Founders Square. This is my second favorite plaza and one that many historians and research scholars consider the most important plaza of Historic Downtown SLP because of the historic events that took place here. Plaza de los Fundadores is where a group of Spanish and Guachichiles natives, who were working for the Viceroyalty of New Spain to extract the silver and gold mines of SLP, founded the beginnings of the city of San Luis Potosí in 1583. What began as a small settlement founded in the late 1500’s, has become now part of the large Historic Downtown district in the capital of San Luis Potosí.
The temple found on the first corner of the plaza is known as La Capilla de Loreto and it has a lot of historical significance as this is the first Catholic church built in the city of SLP. It was built in 1675 under the supervision of the order of the Jesuits who were sent by the Spanish government to colonize this part of the country. Right next to La Capilla de Loreto, the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí or Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí can be admired. This neoclassic style building was also constructed under the supervision of the Jesuits and founded in 1624 as a college to teach literacy as well as secondary and high school studies. It is one of the most prestigious, oldest and largest universities in the state of San Luis Potosí.
To the southeast of Plaza de los Fundadores or Founders Square at the intersection of Guerrero and Iturbide streets, you will come across the Palacio Federal or Federal Palace. Built in 1894, this building was the residential home of Don Ramón Martí, a prolific entrepreneur of Catalan descent whose family settled in San Luis Potosí. Before Don Ramón Martí constructed this building, there used to be residential homes in this area, but in 1894 he purchased the homes and had them demolished. In their place he built this neoclassic style building designed by architect Enrique Campos.
This elegant building houses one of the best museums in San Luis Potosí: the Museo Nacional de la Máscara or the National Museum of the Mask. This museum is the best place to learn more about Mexican culture as it houses the largest collection of masks in the country. Its permanent collection of about 1,300 is composed of Mexican masks and dance costumes. The masks and costumes found there represent Mexican cultural masked dances and ritual heritage from the pre-Hispanic period to the present. This museum is at the top of my list of places to visit in San Luis Potosí.
Across from the Museo Nacional de la Máscara, you will find El Teatro de la Paz or Performance Theater of la Paz. One of the four main performing theaters in the country, this neoclassic style theater was also built during the Porfiriato era (1889 to 1894) under the supervision of architect José Noriega. The strong French influences and neoclassic style of the building is attributed to the Porfiriato, which is the era in which most of these historic buildings were constructed in SLP. This theater offers theater, opera, music, dance, children’s performances, conferences and government press conferences. One of its main features, its dome, was made in Paris, France as requested by the president Porfirio Díaz.
As you walk towards the north side of El Teatro de la Paz you will find another one of my favorite plazas: la Plaza del Carmen. In this plaza another famous and striking church temple can be admired: el Templo del Carmen also known in SLP as El Templo de Nuestra Señora del Carmen. The construction of this temple began in 1743 and the cornerstone was placed on February 23, 1749 when king Felipe V granted the license to begin building this convent. It was not finished until 1764 and the temple was officially inaugurated on October 15, 1764.
Before this temple was erected, there used to be in its place a very humble and primitive church built in 1592. Later, this church was replaced by another one in 1596. This second church was eventually demolished in order to build the present day Templo del Carmen. The temple has also witnessed some important events in the history of San Luis Potosí such as the famous night of 1810, when a group of local insurgents took hold of this temple as part of the Mexican Independence Movement that reached San Luis Potosí that year.
Walking towards the southeast of el Templo del Carmen you will come across el Templo de San Francisco and la Plaza de Aranzazú, which is the fourth and last plaza that makes up the Historic Downtown of San Luis Potosí. The beautiful garden where the temple is located is known officially as Jardín Guerrero or the Guerrero Garden, but most locals call this place San Francisco hence the name of the temple. This temple has a monastery, which used to be famous and operated by the order of the Franciscans during the evangelization of the New Spain in present-day Mexico. Construction of this temple and monastery began in 1591 and both were remodeled in the 18th century. Considered the most remarkable church of the city of San Luis Potosí, and one of the most valuable because of its architecture, paintings, sculptures and furnishings, el Templo de San Francisco is a must-see when while sight-seeing around Historic Downtown. The surrounding garden with its beautiful water fountain are perfect for a stroll in the afternoon or evening. Many famous pictures of San Luis Potosí are taken in this garden, in front of this water fountain. Adjacent to both of these is also Plaza de Aranzazú or Aranzazú Square which is also worth visiting.
Lastly, the Calzada de Guadalupe, main street and part of the Historic Downtown of SLP, is another attraction worth visiting. This is the oldest as well as the first street built in this city. The name calzada translates as road in English, but it is an archaic word used more often during the Spanish colonial times. This main street is about 2 km (1.24 miles) long. On this historic calzada you’ll find three important historic sites: Centro de las Artes, Caja del Agua and Santuario de Guadalupe, among other interesting sights.
La Caja del Agua found in Calzada de Guadalupe is my favorite historical landmark in San Luis Potosí. This famous landmark in SLP is a ‘water box’ or stone water tank, which collected water in order to distribute it to the people in the city. It was built in 1827 by then state governor Idelfonzo Díaz de León as part of a water source project to help with the problem of water scarcity in this city. Since San Luis Potosí is located in a semi-arid area where water is somewhat scarce, La Caja del Agua, a project designed by José María Guerrero y Solachi and built by Juan N. Sanabria would bring water from la Cañada del Lobo, a mountain glacier located in the Sierra de San Miguelito mountains, to the main city of SLP. La Caja del Agua was officially inaugurated in 1833 and provided a source of water to all the city for many years during the 19th century. La Caja del Agua no longer serves as the main water distribution system. As the city grew, newer technology took its place, but the water box still collects rain water that streams from the lower fountains. This landmark has remained in place and has become a symbol of cultural identity to the people from San Luis Potosí.
As a bonus, I’ll cover two museums which are not located in Historic Downtown. They are however, just a few blocks from each other. These two museums are really worth visiting as they contain a great collection of art and history from San Luis Potosí.
La Casa de la Cultura also known as El Museo Francisco Cossío is located on Avenida Venustiano Carranza; one of the most famous and historic main streets in San Luis Potosí. It is within walking distance of Historic Downtown and if you are up for the exercise, you will be very satisfied with your visit to this museum. This is one of those museums that you won’t find on your typical travel guide. It does not appear to be very popular among tourists perhaps due to its location, which is a little far off from the rest of Historic Downtown.
This mansion was built in 1919 by Gerardo Meade Lewis who was an Irish merchant. He was married to Josefina Sánchez Trápaga who was of Spanish descent. This couple was one of the most important and affluent families in the city of San Luis Potosí in the 19th Century. The house, originally a summer vacation retreat for the family, was named “La Casa de Campo Quinta Vista Hermosa.”
In 1970 this mansion became La Casa de la Cultura, an art museum housing one of the most important collections in Mexico. In 1994 this art museum was named Museo Francisco Cossío in honor of renowned architect Francisco Cossío Lagarde.
Among the many collections you can find in this museum there are archeological findings, visual art, applied arts, pop art collections, as well as objects from dating the 16th century until the 21st century created by famous international and national artists. The museum also holds special exhibitions throughout the year.
Lastly, el Centro de Difusión Cultural is a modern theater and museum located in the Avenida Universidad in Barrio de San Sebastián. Even though it is a bit far from the main Historic Downtown, if you have the time, this theater is worth the visit. This modern museum was built by architect Marco Antonio Garfias in 1976 and inaugurated in 1978. Compared to the neoclassic style structures found in Historic Downtown, this theater and museum is quite a contrast due to its modern-style architecture. It houses permanent and temporary expositions of contemporary and modern art.
It is important to note that there are many other museums, historical landmarks, temples and smaller plazas that San Luis Potosí which are not included in this guide. I feel though that this is a good place to start if you decide to visit this city. My best advice when visiting a city like San Luis Potosí, with lots of history, hidden treasures and off-the-beaten path locations, is to hire a knowledgeable tour guide. It is not expensive and hiring them also helps the local economy. However, if you have a friend who is from this city, who is willing and knowledgeable about the history in SLP, I recommend you lure him or her into taking you around and helping you to get to know this beautiful city.
I have walked these streets many times as a child and as an adult and I have to admit that even though I am from this city, back then I didn’t know half the history that I know now. Walking through these historic streets and not knowing anything about them does not really make it meaningful or worthwhile. After all, to the untrained eye these are just buildings. But, when someone takes the time to walk you through these places and tell you the history behind them, the many anecdotes that took place in front of or inside these buildings, what it took to lay the foundation of that first building, it all comes to life and it makes you appreciate the people that came before you.
I hope you enjoyed this walking tour of Historic San Luis Potosí and if you have visited or will visit, please share with us what was your favorite place in this city!
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