The Plaza de Armas, the town's main square on Avenida Hidalgo, is where you'll find the cathedral, with its famous facade. Nowhere else in Mexico is there anything like this; the depth of relief in the carving and wealth of detail create the impression that the images are formed not in stone, but in some softer material, such as cake icing. The cathedral took 23 years to build (1729-52), and the final tower wasn't completed until 1904.
To the left of the cathedral, on the Plaza de Armas, is the 18th-century Palacio de Gobierno, where governors lived in colonial times. By the time of Mexico's revolt against Spain in 1810, Don Miguel de Rivera (Count of Santiago de la Laguna) owned it. Since 1834, it's been a government building. Inside is a modern mural (c. 1970) by Antonio Pintor Rodríguez showing the history of Zacatecas. It is a straightforward chronological presentation of history from left to right, except for the center panel, which represents prominent Zacatecans. Below the mural is a stone frieze depicting the economic underpinning that supports society and drives historical events. It flows into the mural's central panel, tying society's leaders to the soil of their motherland.
To the left of the Palacio de Gobierno is the Residencia de Gobernadores, with its multicolor stonework. This building is newer than the Palacio and served as the governor's house until 1950. Across the street from the plaza are the Palacio de la Mala Noche (Palace of the Sleepless Night) and the Hotel Emporio. The palace's name comes from the mine that brought great wealth to its original owner, Manuel de Rétegui, a philanthropic Spaniard. In case you're thinking that such fine stonework is becoming a lost art, look at the hotel's facade, which was done within the last 40 years.
Climb the small street next to the Palacio de la Mala Noche, and you'll face the massive walls of the church of Santo Domingo, which fronts an open space that it shares with the Museo Pedro Coronel. This church and the building that houses the museum belonged to the Jesuits, until their expulsion in 1767. Afterward, the Dominicans occupied the church and convent. Inside are some lovely baroque gilt retablos.
Two blocks south of Santo Domingo, on Calle Dr. Hierro (a mostly level street that parallels Hidalgo), is another grand church, San Agustín, in partial ruins. During the Reform Wars, Zacatecas's liberal leaders kicked out the Augustinian friars, converted the church and convent into a brothel and casino, and destroyed the reportedly beautiful gilt altarpieces. The bishop of Zacatecas promptly excommunicated these Philistines. Twenty years later, a Presbyterian missionary society bought the property and dismantled the ultrabaroque facade that decorated the east door. Again, excommunication for all who aided the missionaries. Now the government has begun restoration of the church and has converted the inside into exhibition space.
Turn and go downhill, and you'll be back on Avenida Hidalgo. Walk back toward the cathedral (left), and you'll pass on your left the Teatro Calderón (inaugurated first in 1836 and again in 1891 after a fire). A stately building with lovely stained-glass windows, it is also a favorite spot for people to sit and watch passersby. The opera star Angela Peralta sang here several times in the 1800s. Zacatecas has a flourishing music school, and occasionally it offers performances here. A little farther down Hidalgo, a block before the cathedral on the same side of the street, is the 19th-century Mercado Jesús González Ortega, which used to be the town's main market. This pleasant, old-fashioned market now holds small stores selling handicrafts and some regional wines.
Backtrack along Hidalgo, and over the next few blocks you will pass by some lovely buildings and climb up to Enrique Estrada Park (the street changes names and becomes Av. General Jesús González Ortega). The equestrian statue (1898) portrays none other than the general himself, hero of the Battle of Calpulalpan. Behind it are a gazebo with marvelous acoustics and a pleasant, shady park that is a romantic spot for young couples at night. Beginning at Estrada Park and extending southward are the lovely arches of the Aqueduct of Zacatecas. Two of these arches frame the doorway to the Quinta Real Hotel, which you can enter to see the town's old bullring, a lovely sight. Go to the hotel bar and order a margarita -- another lovely sight.