Mexico City is a behemoth. Around 22 million people live here, and it has a reputation for being dirty, dangerous and choked with traffic. Unfortunately earthquakes in Mexico City have been known to occur too, with a serious one hitting in September 2017. However, I didn’t find CDMX any more dangerous than any other big city in the world, and if you skip Mexico City on your Mexico vacation you are seriously missing out. With a UNESCO listed historic centre, UNESCO listed cuisine, and battling with Paris to be the city with the most museums in the world, Mexico City is not to be underestimated. These are ten of my favourite things to do in Mexico City.
Delve into the Historic Centre
The UNESCO listed ‘Historic Centre’ of Mexico City is made up of the Zocalo Main square and surrounding area, including the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes. The Zocalo which often plays host free events, from a huge ice-skating rink at Christmas or hundreds of ‘ofrendas’ or shrines for Day of the Dead, to free concerts from top Mexican and International stars. Latin America’s largest Cathedral presides over one side of the square, which you can admire from inside, or take a tour up the bell tower. On another side, the Palacio Nacional Government building houses a magnificent Diego Rivera Mural (which is free to enter but you must bring ID with you) and small museum. The square was the centre of the city founded by the Mexica people, whose huge temple lies beneath and just behind the Cathedral. Some of the temple ruins are visible from the street, or go into the fabulous Templo Mayor Museum to see the artefacts they discovered inside. Another excellent way to explore the Centro Historico is on a free walking tour with Estacion Mexico.
Marvel at the Palacio de Bellas Artes
A spectacular building which is as impressive from the outside as it is from the inside, the Palacio de Bellas Artes took 30 years to construct, mainly due to the Mexican Revolution, and shows a mixture of architectural styles. It is a theatre and museum, and you can buy a ticket for the Folkloric Ballet, which is more traditional dance than ballet as you may know it, or take a tour of the museum to see the incredible collection of murals from Mexico’s most important painters, like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, as well as several temporary exhibitions. The best place for a photo of the building is across the street from the SEARs department store; simply take the escalators to the top floor & snap a photo out of the window. Alternatively, have a coffee and cake in the café on the 8th floor and watch as the sunset bathes the Palacio in golden light.
Eat, Eat, and Eat Some More
Mexican cuisine is one of the only cuisines in the world that has been awarded Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Mexico City has an incredible array of excellent restaurants, offering local specialities, national dishes, and international cuisine too. The area known as Roma, and neighbouring Condesa, is exploding with top restaurants, and if you like to cook then I highly recommend taking a Mexican cooking class at Casa Jacaranda.
A visit to Mexico City is not complete without sampling the street food, which is excellent – and cheap! Tacos al Pastor are the go-to option, with juicy pork, pineapple and whichever salsa takes your fancy. As well as tacos though, you’ll find tlayudas, elotes, quesadillas, sopes, juices, and more – just be brave and try everything! If you are worried about hygiene, watch where the locals go, a busy street food stand is a good sign – the food is good, and hasn’t been sitting out in the sun too long! However, never trust a Mexican who tells you the salsa is not hot! If you’re sensitive to spice, test it first by popping a dot of salsa on the back of your hand. Another excellent opportunity to learn more about Mexico’s cuisine is on a food tour with Sabores Mexico, who will take you to some of the best spots to stuff your face.
Visit Coyoacan & the Frida Kahlo Museum
Frida Kahlo wasn’t really famous or revered in Mexico while she was alive – she was more commonly known as the wife of Diego Rivera, who was a well-known muralist. However, in recent years her popularity has grown, following the 2002 film with Salma Hayak, and Frida’s association with the feminist movement and fashion, with designers including Jean Paul Gautier using her trademark corsets as inspiration. The Blue House, as the museum is known, is where Frida grew up, and later, where she and husband Diego Rivera lived until they moved into separate homes. The museum shows fascinating insights into her life, including her childhood and accident, her struggle with not being able to have children, and her married life with Diego. There is a small amount of her work exhibited here, as well as photographs of Frida & her family & friends, and a temporary exhibition of her clothes which were found several years after her death. If you’re not a Frida fan, Coyoacan is still a pretty little town to visit, not quite swallowed up Mexico City’s growth, Coyoacan still retains its small-town feel. There is cool street art to find here, awesome street food, a handicraft market and a pleasant main square, with cathedral and a fountain with two growling coyotes.
Get serenaded at Xochimilco or Plaza Garibaldi
Due its location an hour or two outside of the centre, Xochimilco is not the easiest place to get to. Part kitch and gimmick, part party and part culture, the rivers & floating islands of Xochimilco offer a glimpse into Mexico City’s past and how the Aztec (Mexica) people lived after founding their city on a lake, albeit on colourful Mexican gondoliers. For a peaceful boat ride, go early in the morning, or if you prefer more of a party vibe, go on the weekends or holidays when you can barely move on the river as hundreds of boats take to the water, filled with drinking & dancing Mexicans. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and flag down a passing boat-load of Mariachis to serenade you as you drink enough michelada beers to sink your boat!
If you prefer your mariachis on dry land, head to Plaza Garibaldi where mariachi bands gather to offer tourists a song. Bizarrely they also hang out on the street, waiting for people on the way to a party to pick them up.
See the Aztec Sun Stone at the Anthropology Museum
Mexico’s most popular tourist attraction and my favourite museum in Mexico City, el Museo Nacional de Antropología is spectacular. This huge museum covers two floors, all around a central courtyard, and tells the story of Mexico’s inhabitants from the origin of the human species in Mesoamerica, the development of indigenous cultures, the Spanish conquest & beyond. With fascinating exhibits on all indigenous cultures in Mexico, the highlight is the Mexica room, including the magnificent Aztec sun stone, which is worth the visit alone. If you are a history buff I would also suggest two separate visits, as trying to digest everything covered in this massive museum in one visit is a challenge indeed.
Explore Chapultepec Forest
Chapultepec means ‘grasshopper hill’, and this huge green space in Mexico City is hard to miss. It really is a forest filled with trees, a boating lake, the Botanic Gardens, Mexico City Zoo (complete with pandas), several museums and plenty of scampering squirrels. You’ll find some of the best museums in the city here, including the excellent Anthropology Museum, as well as the Museum of Modern Art, the Tamayo Museum, Chapultepec Castle, and the Natural History Museum. Dozens of stalls line the footpaths, selling sweet & savoury snacks, cuddly toys, and crappy souvenirs, and you’ll find street performers providing entertainment for the kids. On Sundays, most of the museums are free for nationals (and some for foreigners too), which also means the park gets packed. Every month there is a calendar of special events for activities like a night picnic in the Botanic Gardens or film on the lake!
Shop till you Drop in the Markets
Ciudadela Artisan Market is without a doubt the best place to buy souvenirs in Mexico City. This immense market is filled with traditional handicrafts, including painted skulls, beautifully beaded artwork, silver jewellery, and much more. San Juan Market is perfect for foodies, famous for its exotic meats, imported herbs and spices, homemade mole sauces, as well as fresh meat, fish, fruit & vegetables. You’ll also find unusual specialities like salted chapulines (crickets), worms and even a scorpion or two! To get more of a local experience, La Merced is the biggest market in the city, and although it’s best not to wander with an expensive camera on show, here you’ll find a vast maze of stalls selling everything from socks to sandwich makers – including a section dedicated to potions, rituals and witchcraft called Sinaloa Market.
Scream like a Madman at Lucha Libre Wrestling
I really expected to hate Lucha Libre Mexican Wrestling. I expected it to be like American wrestling, with lots of pouting, posturing and not much fighting. While there was plenty of all that, I was surprised how quickly I got into it, taking sides and yelling at the masked luchadores as they leapt around the ring. As much part of Mexican culture as mariachis, Lucha Libre is spectacle of acrobatics and hammy acting skills that you just can’t help but love. It is definitely more fun after a few beers, and I preferred the Friday night performance as it was busier, but on Tuesdays you have a better chance of snagging a good seat. To channel your inner Nacho Libre, buy a lucha libre mask from one of the stores outside and practice at home!
Climb a Pyramid at Teotihuacan
An easy a day trip from Mexico City, the Pyramids of Teotihuacan is a chance to get up close and personal with the 3rd largest pyramid in the world, the Pyramid of the Sun, which you can still climb up. There is also a temple to the feathered snake god Quetzalcoatl, with magnificent, scary carvings of the god all along the temple. The temple of the moon is smaller yet better restored than it’s larger counterpart, and recently a new tunnel was discovered beneath the pyramid. You can also arrange a dawn hot-air balloon ride over the pyramids, or watch out for dinner in the sky for an extra special experience.
Where to Stay in Mexico City
I stayed in Hostel Home, and loved it! Hostel Home is in the Roma Norte (North Roma) area of Mexico City, and is close to tons of restaurants and bars, but on a quiet safe street.
Have you been to Mexico City? Tell us your experiences in the comments below.
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A similar version of this article first appeared on Travel with PedroLast updated: October 5, 2017