San Luis Potosí: The Ultimate Guide

Last Updated on: 31st January 2024, 11:05 am

Photos alone can’t truly convey what a place is like, and without visiting, it can be hard to tell many of Mexico’s old colonial cities apart. But San Luis Potosí’s historic center is arguably the largest and most immersive of them all. Despite being a city of a million inhabitants, it’s also one of the country’s most beautiful, which is really saying something. The following San Luis Potosí guide covers what it is that makes this city so special.

Puzzlingly, SLP remains well off the tourist and expat radar, even as people continue to flock to Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. While it’s surely just a matter of time before people catch on, for now, San Luis Potosí is a great place to avoid other tourists.

Originally founded as a mining town, its unique name comes from a combination of Saint Louis (Louis IX of France) and Potosí, Bolivia, which was already known as a thriving mining town at the time SLP was established in 1592.

As you will also see at other former towns in the Bajío region, much of the wealth earned through mining was reinvested to create beautiful architecture throughout the city. But in stark contrast to Guanajuato or Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí’s historical center is totally flat. 

With its wide sidewalks and numerous pedestrian-only avenues, San Luis Potosí is easily the most walkable major city in Mexico and is a joy to explore on foot.

Following a summary of the main attractions, at the very end of this San Luis Potosí guide, you can learn more details about reaching the city and the best places to stay.

San Luis Potosí Guide

Around the Historic Center

The bulk of this San Luis Potosí Guide focuses on the historic center, simply called Centro by locals. As mentioned, it’s possibly the largest of all the historical centers in Mexico, though no official data seems to exist. 

While at least a few days in town is ideal, you could stay for weeks and continually discover new things.

The Plaza & Templo del Carmen

The Plaza del Carmen isn’t San Luis Potosí largest plaza, but it’s perhaps its most beautiful. You’ll find a fountain, well-manicured gardens, and plenty of benches, making this the perfect place to people-watch on a sunny day.

San Luis Potosí Guide
San Luis Potosí Guide

Facing it stands the Templo del Carmen, a beautiful example of Churrigueresque architecture. It was founded in the 1740s, with construction taking place over the next few decades.

The church remains functional to this day, while the former Carmelite convent now serves as the Museo del Virreinato which tells the story of San Luis Potosí throughout the Spanish colonial period.

One particularly interesting exhibit features various early sketches and blueprints of colonial cities and churches in San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas and Mexico City. A lot of these cities, of course, were meticulously planned and laid out before any major construction began.

Other exhibits showcase typical art during the colonial period, while you can also find summaries of the various Catholic orders that were present in San Luis Potosí. You’ll even find some interesting examples of pre-Hispanic art as well.

San Luis Potosí Guide

Coming back outside and walking through Plaza del Carmen, it’s interesting to consider how this space originally served as the monastery’s orchard!

Teatro de la Paz

Just south of the Plaza del Carmen, you’ll find two more important city landmarks. One is the stunning Teatro de la Paz, a 19th-century theater built in the Neoclassical style. While I didn’t go inside, it still regularly hosts events.

San Luis Potosí Guide

National Museum of the Mask

Just across from the theater is what many consider to be San Luis Potosí’s top museum: the National Museum of the Mask. As the name suggests, it’s entirely dedicated to traditional masks, both from San Luis Potosí state and Mexico as a whole.

The National Museum of the Mask isn’t the only mask museum in Mexico. In fact, quite a few cities have them. But this one must be the largest and most comprehensive museum of its nature.

San Luis Potosí Guide

As you’ll learn during your tour of the museum, masks played an important role in the culture of both pre-Hispanic and colonial-era Mexico, and they still do in many traditional festivals across the country.

The importance of masks could be traced back to the jade funerary masks the Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacano and Aztec elite. These masks were believed to help guide and protect the deceased’s spirit through the underworld, with the ultimate goal of achieving immortality of the soul.

In Aztec times, elite groups of warriors would also don eagle and jaguar masks. But with the old hierarchy eliminated, it was only from colonial times that commoners would begin wearing masks as well.

San Luis Potosí Guide
A dancer from the Danza de Tlacololoros, Guerrero

And during the colonial era, during which all pagan religious customs were officially banned, many of the old traditions and symbols were discretely preserved in mask form.

One of Mexico’s most remarkable mask-producing regions is the state of Guerrero. And a lot of fascinating masks from this Pacific state can be found at the museum, such as one from the Danza de Tlacololoros, recognizable for its giant afro.

San Luis Potosí Guide
Tiger masks from Guerrero
San Luis Potosí Guide
Various bat masks

Tiger masks are another common theme of Guerrero, and they’re used in the traditional Dance of the Tiger (despite there being no tigers in Mexico!). 

In addition to being visually pleasing, the bilingual signage of the museum also explains interesting aspects of local belief systems, such as the traditional emphasis on the concept of dualism.

It also explains how the symbolism of certain animals from pre-Hispanic times, such as bats, represented the underworld. And they continued to play such a role in colonial-era dances like the Dance of the Bats.

A costume representing Santiago the Apostle
San Luis Potosí Guide
An elaborate costume from the Michoacán celebration St. James the Apostle

Various dances throughout Mexico also retell the story of the Spanish conquest. And of course, plenty of Christian imagery, such as angels, devils and certain saints, have been commonly used as well.

San Luis Potosí Guide
A devil mask from Semana Santa celebration in Querétaro
A dancer from Hidalgo's 'Danza de Pintos'
San Luis Potosí Guide

While, as mentioned, the museum features masks from all over Mexico, there are indeed some rooms which focus on masks from San Luis Potosí state – particularly the Huasteca Potosina region to the east. 

San Luis Potosí Guide

You’ll also find traditional costumes from the area near Real de Catorce in the northern part of the state. And a small section of the museum even features international masks, including a small collection from Asia.

All in all, the National Museum of the Mask is a local treasure that is a must for anyone with the slightest interest in Mexican anthropology, crafts or folklore. And it’s arguably the most essential destination in this San Luis Potosí guide.

San Luis Potosí Guide
San Luis Potosí Guide

Capilla de Aranzuzu & the Regional Museum

The Capilla de Aranzazu, in the western part of the historical center, is a beautiful yellow church dating to 17th century that was established by the Franciscans. Its wide plaza and well-preserved fountain are popular gathering spots for locals.

And along the alley next to it, you’ll find street vendors selling a wide variety of crafts and handmade goods. The church itself, meanwhile, is now host to the San Luis Potosí Regional Museum.

The small Regional Museum of San Luis Potosí is managed by INAH, or the Mexican government’s anthropology and historical institute. It’s open daily except Mondays, while it cost $70 MXN to enter at the time of my visit.

Compared with Central Mexico, the Bajío region as a whole contains relatively few archaeological sites. And the reason for that is because before the arrival of the Spanish, this general area was inhabited by a semi-nomadic people known as the Chichimecas.

A prominent indigenous group called the Huastecas, however, did inhabit what’s now the eastern part of the state, and they tended to build more permanent settlements.

San Luis Potosí Guide
San Luis Potosí Guide

While I have yet to visit, one such Huastec archaeological site is known as Tamuín, which is where a statue in the center of the museum was found. The man represents a priest of Quetzalcoatl, while a baby on his back is believed to represent the sun.

This is actually a replica, with the original being located in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I also happened to come across yet another replica at the Querétaro Regional Museum!

Other parts of the museum focus on the colonial era, wile you can also walk up to view some of the ornately decorated altars of the Capilla de Aranzazu.

During my stay, a large portion of the museum was closed for renovations, so hopefully there will be a lot more to see by the time of your visit.

San Luis Potosí Guide

On the other side of the museum, you’ll find the Templo de San Francisco, yet another exquisite Baroque church that happens to remain in active use. 

This church too features its own well-manicured plaza, complete with a large fountain. It seems to be a popular place for locals to chat and relax.

San Luis Potosí Guide

Plaza de Armas

In the ‘center of the center’ is the city’s largest and most prominent plaza, Plaza de Armas. In addition to gardens in the middle, the plaza is flanked on either side by two important structures.

To the west is the Municipal Palace, which dates to the 19th century. It still continues to host the San Luis Potosí state government to this day.

San Luis Potosí Guide
San Luis Potosí Guide

To the east, meanwhile, is the Metropolitan Cathedral, which continues to serve as the seat of the archdiocese. Like the others mentioned above, it too is a Baroque-style cathedral established in the 17th century.

Given its huge size and the trees placed across from the entrance, it’s a very difficult structure to photograph, but it does indeed look stunning in person.

Museo Federico Silva

Another unique destination in the historic center is the Museo Federico Silva, housed in what was a former hospital constructed in the 17th century.

Federico Silva (1923-2022) originally began his career as a painter before shifting his focus to sculpture from the 1960s. And after decades as a sculptor, the artist himself founded this museum in 2003.

San Luis Potosí Guide

It houses nearly 70 of his sculptures, many of which take on a blocky, minimalistic aesthetic.

While not obvious at first glance, Silva was heavily inspired by pre-Hispanic art, with several of his sculptures being representations of deities like Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc.

San Luis Potosí Guide

What’s more, the museum even features a replica of an underground ‘tomb,’ meant to evoke the feeling of entering the tomb of Pakal the Great in Palenque or Egypt’s Valley of the Kings

On the upper floor, meanwhile, you’ll find exhibitions focusing on other contemporary artists.

At the time of writing, entry costs just $30 MXN, while the museum is open Tue.-Sun.

San Luis Potosí Guide

The Contemporary Art Museum

Not far from the Federico Silva Museum in the northeastern part of the center is the Contemporary Art Museum, which focuses on local talent. 

Like many such museums, it’s rather hit or miss, but I did indeed find some very interesting paintings on display.

A major reason to visit is to check out some sculptures on the terrace, from which you can also enjoy some great views of the surrounding area.

Like the other museums in this San Luis Potosí guide, the museum is open daily except Mondays, and entry cost 20 pesos at the time of my visit.

The Pedestrian Avenues

As you’ll notice throughout your explorations of San Luis Potosí’s historic center, the city is home to a plethora of pedestrian-only avenues. While it’s common for Mexican cities to have one or two, San Luis Potosí takes it to another level.

As they’re often lined with shops, some of these streets can indeed get crowded. But if you’ve grown frustrated with the narrow and oddly shaped sidewalks that are so common in Mexico, walking through San Luis Potosí is a breath of fresh air.

While, as demonstrated by this San Luis Potosí guide, the city has no shortage of landmarks, but simply going out and walking has to be one of the best things to do in town.

Calzada de Guadalupe

San Luis Potosí’s historical and cultural landmarks aren’t just restricted to Centro. To the south of the center, you’ll encounter the Calzada de Guadalupe, a long pedestrian-friendly road with numerous landmarks to check out along the way.

Caja de Agua

As you begin your walk, the Caja de Agua is one of the first landmarks you’ll encounter. It dates to the 19th century and has become one of San Luis Potosí’s prominent symbols.

But what is it? Essentially, it’s just a water tank that was built above one of the main aqueducts that brought water to the city from afar.

It just goes to show that not too long ago, things were built to be both functional and beautiful. Could you imagine a water tank being built in such an ornate style today?

San Luis Potosí Guide

Museo Leonora Carrington

Not many are aware that during and after World War II, Mexico saw a major influx of Surrealist artists from Europe. And many of them stayed well beyond the war. One such artist was Leonora Carrington, whose museum can be found in a massive former prison.

San Luis Potosí Guide

Officially, the building is known as the San Luis Potosí Centenario Arts Center, and it was originally constructed in the 19th century. As with the nearby water tank, even things like prisons were beautifully built back then, which is why it doesn’t seem out of place as an art venue today.

The Museo Leonora Carrington is quite new, however. It only opened in 2018 after the building underwent extensive restorations throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

It costs $50 MXN at the time of writing and is open every day except Mondays.

San Luis Potosí Guide

In addition to hosting a plethora of Carrington’s works – both large and small – the museum details the history of the Surrealist movement and its founding by André Breton in the years following World War I.

Unfortunately, the signage is in Spanish only, but what follows is an overview of Carrington’s life and her connection to Mexico.

Born in 1917 in Lancashire, England, Carrington was introduced to Surrealism at a young age. And against her parents’ wishes, she went on to pursue a career in art.

In the 1930s, she’d start a relationship with prominent Surrealist painter Max Ernst, and the two would move to southern France. But upon the outbreak of World War II, Ernst was arrested in Germany while Carrington managed to escape to Spain.

San Luis Potosí Guide
San Luis Potosí Guide

There, she suffered a mental breakdown and was interred at a psychiatric hospital in Santander. Later, her parents decided to send her to a sanatorium in South Africa. Stopping in Lisbon en route, she quickly married a Mexican diplomat named Renato Leduc who helped her escape to New York.

Then, after they amicably divorced, Carrington moved south to Mexico. While she’d later move back to New York for a few years plus some time in Chicago, she’d end up spending most of the remainder of her life in Mexico.

San Luis Potosí Guide
San Luis Potosí Guide

She based herself in Mexico City, where she made connections with a multitude of artists and writers – both local and foreign.

Those who’ve been to Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology should recognize her painting El Mundo Mágico de Los Mayas on display in the Mayan section. And her sculpture How Doth the Little Crocodile can be found on Paseo de la Reforma.

But what, you may be wondering, was Carrington’s connection with San Luis Potosí? While she never lived here, one of her main patrons, Edward James, did reside in the state. The Englishman was a good friend of Salvador Dalí and one of the most avid collectors of Surrealist art.

He was also an aspiring (yet largely unsuccessful) artist himself. He spent time in the United States and Mexico during the war and would end up buying lots of rural land around the town of Xilitla in San Luis Potosí’s Huasteca Potosina region.

San Luis Potosí Guide

There, he’d begin building something of a Surrealist playground known as Las Pozas that can still be visited today. James and Carrington were friends, and she frequently went to visit him in Xilitla.

And in 2018, this museum’s sister museum, simply called Museo Leonora Carrington Xilitla, was established there.

Carrington is known for both her sculptures and her paintings, and her style could best be described as ‘magical realism,’ as it blends both fantastical and autobiographical elements.

San Luis Potosí Guide
Some additional exhibitions by other artists

While I am indeed a fan of Surrealist art, I wouldn’t consider Carrington one of my favorites. Nevertheless, this museum is fascinating to visit both for its content and setting and is a must-do while in San Luis Potosí.

The entire complex is huge, and beyond Carrington’s section, additional rooms showcase the works of other artists from Mexico and abroad.

Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

The Calzada de Guadalupe culminates at the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As you could probably guess, it’s yet another stunning Baroque church from the colonial era. Construction commenced in the 1770s, however – a bit later than the others.

My stay in the city coincided with the lead-up to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day Celebration. Before and during the festival, replicas of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe are brought via elaborate processions to particular churches.

And the procession I happened to witness along the Calzada de Guadalupe was quite the spectacle, complete with loud drumming and dancers dressed in traditional costume, revealing how many of the ancient traditions have become syncretized with Christianity.

Parque Tangamanga & Beyond

San Luis Potosí Guide

If San Luis Potosí had a major downside, it would be the lack of easy access to nature (at least when using the historical center as your base).

While hardly essential to the short-term visitor, those doing longer stays may want to visit the massive Parque Tangamanga to the south of the city. In addition to a lake, you’ll find plenty of tranquil walking and running trails.

But does the area around San Luis Potosí city have anything to offer hikers?

San Luis Potosí Guide
A closed entrance to La Piedrota hiking trail

Further south of the city, I intended to do a hiking trail called La Piedrota which is said to take a few hours roundtrip. Unfortunately, I made the long journey there only to find it completely fenced off and closed, and with no other access to the trail.

But checking recent reviews, it seems to be open again, so hopefully you’ll have better luck.

Additional Info

For a city of its size, San Luis Potosí is a bit isolated geographically. While located within the dense Bajío region, it’s still a few hours away by bus or car from many nearby towns.

If you’re not able to rent a car, the small Aeropuerto de San Luis Potosí has direct flights from other major cities in Mexico, along with a few cities in the US.

Most people, however, will probably be coming by bus. From within the Bajío region, most cities big and small will have direct routes to San Luis Potosí. You can also find direct buses from Monterrey, Mexico City and Guadalajara.

In my case, I was coming from Puebla. And while there was indeed a direct connection, buses to SLP don’t depart from the main CAPU station. Rather, I needed to walk to the station simply called CAP a few blocks to the south. After figuring things out, the 6.5 hour journey with Apolo Platinum was smooth and uneventful.

Arriving in San Luis Potosí by bus, Centro will be too far to walk. Luckily, Uber, Didi and other ridesharing services work very well throughout the city.

If possible, I’d highly recommend staying within the historic center. While many of the surrounding neighborhoods are nice from what I saw, as you can tell from the San Luis Potosí guide above, just about all of the major attractions are located in Centro.

If you have the money to spend on a special experience in a colonial-era hotel, try the Hotel Museo Palacio de San Agustin.

Popular midrange options that are also in colonial-era building (albeit with modern interiors) are Gran Hotel Concordia San Luis Potosi and Palacio La Embajada.

For budget travelers, the highly-rated Capital O San Jose seems like a great option.

In my case, I spent an entire month in the historic center, so Airbnb was the way to go. Just be sure to carefully check the location of your rental apartment before booking if you go that route.

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