Your First Time Visiting Mexico City
The whole time I was planning my trip to Mexico City, my dad kept referring to it as “Old Mexico.” Is that more of a 60s/70s era thing to say? In any case, Mexico City, the sprawling second-largest city in the Western Hemisphere (8.8 mil residents), is really heating up as a vacation destination. It was a lovely place to visit last December and I would return in an instant.
For starters, my friends and I saved money by flying out of Tijuana, something I’d recommend to Southern Californians. Flying on AeroMexico was great; our seats had touch screens with a pretty good movie selection. We got snacks but not a meal (the flight was about 5 hours). Coming home we flew VivaAerobus and I wouldn’t use them again unless the flight was significantly less than other carriers. Significantly. I ought to review them in a separate post, though. If you don’t live near the border, there are regular direct flights out of LAX, DFW, etc.
Compare Mexican Airlines before you book!
Mexico City is a city made of neighborhoods not unlike my home of San Diego. We stayed in Cuauhtémoc, extremely close to the famous Ángel de la Independencia and shared a street with foreign embassies. I highly recommend this calm, upscale, central neighborhood for someone uneasy about visiting Mexico (although you don’t really have a reason to be nervous). Other popular neighborhoods for young people are La Condesa and Roma Norte. Put those keywords into airbnb* and you should be able to find something nice.
Things to do:
Chapultepec park is like Mexico City’s version of Central Park. There is so much open space with different kinds of trees and vegetation, it is nice (and free) to walk around and take it all in. There are lots of toy vendors and street food vendors. You could easily spend half a day to a whole day here, and spend very little. Make sure to visit the very nice museums of anthropology (pictured above, 70 pesos) and modern art (60 pesos).
The Zocalo is the main part of the city where you’ll find lots of businesses, the famous large cathedral, city square, and museums. Two main things to see in the Zocalo:
- You can buy a ticket to explore the ancient Aztec/Pre-Aztec sites of Templo Mayor and Templo de Tláloc, or you can do what we did and go up to the cafe atop Librería Porrúa and eat lunch in the sun overlooking the ruins.
- Catedral Metropolitana – this is the largest cathedral in North America, and is stunning. We were there in December and loved the poinsettias.
- Palacio des Bellas Artes is walking distance from the Zocalo, and is the beautiful building in the photo at the top of the post. Inside the museum (60 pesos) you can see large murals by some of Mexico’s most famous painters, Diego Rivera, Siqueiros and Tamayo, in addition to walking through more traditional museum exhibits like sculptures, paintings and artifacts. You can also attend an opera or ballet inside the Palacio, but that requires a separate ticket.
Find Mexico City lodging to meet any budget.
If you’ve traveled all the way down to Mexico City, you must make it a priority to take a half-day and tour the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). I even wrote a whole post to help you manage it cheaply.
Visiting Xochimilco (southeast of Mexico city center) and Coyoacán (between Xochimilco and CDMX city center) is a great two-part day trip.
Your guide to riding the technicolor gondolas in Xochimilco
Coyoacán is a smaller community famous for its markets and Frida Kahlo’s casa azul (the Frida Kahlo Museum) as well as the Leon Trotsky Museum. Frida lived here for much of her life. It’s much quieter than bustling Centro or Zocalo. They are famous for wonderful sweets.
Down in Xochimilco (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), you can take a one or two hour gondola ride and listen to mariachi bands out on the water. If you travel this far south, don’t head north without touring the Museo Dolores Olmedo (75 pesos; near the hwy sign 113 on the map shown here). Dolores Olmedo was a close friend of Frida and Diego. You will see lots of wonderful art, rotating exhibits, and beautiful grounds populated by a family of xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless) dogs and peacocks roaming free. This museum was one of the highlights of my trip.
The city has so much amazing food and drink to offer. I’m talking tacos for dayssss. If you get sick of tacos, there are lots of other options, like a torta, which is a sandwich with a fluffy white bun. Just in case you’re vegetarian, don’t worry–I found that rajas, which are roasted peppers with cream, with refried beans, sometimes corn, and cheese, could be requested on tacos, tortas, etc. A couple other delicious central and southern Mexican specialties easily found in Mexico City are tlayudas and tlacoyos. I can’t really find these in Tijuana, so I gotta head back south to get some more!
Recommended restaurants: La Chinampa (chain), Casa de Toño, Mercado Roma (hipster/foodie; multiple restaurants with common eating area).
Thanks to Instagram, I had the most picturesque churro place on my radar even before I booked my plane tickets. You must visit one of the Churrería El Moro locations. I also was happy to see that craft coffee culture is worldwide; I had great pour over coffee at Drip Specialty and espresso at Loncheria Bravo.
View more in my “First Time Visiting” series: Guanajuato, London, Paris, San Diego
Final Mexico City Notes:
Definitely, definitely take the metro. Don’t be intimidated by the crowds, it is fast, reliable, and really cheap. Like in all major world cities, watch out for pickpockets and keep your hand on your purse/bag while in crowded areas.
Anything I missed? I just know there are other must-visit museums and attractions. Leave a note in the comments for others planning upcoming trips!
All Photos by Staci and Doug Jackson for The Voyageer.
*Traveling with airbnb with my link (new sign ups only) will result in a discount for you and a credit for me. High five!
Great post – I’m interesting in seeing something besides tourist places like Cancun so Mexico City may be it. Is it hard to get around without being fluent in Spanish? I’d like to brush up on some basics but I have felt intimidated in central America previously.
Great question Noelle! One of the friends I went with is fluent in Spanish so I admit I had a built in tour guide. Knowing some basics would be helpful (directional signs, menus).
However, the city is so cosmopolitan I think you would find many people who speak at least elementary English, not only that, it is SO easy to get around with just a map and the metro, or a Lonely Planet book. The Google translate app can also be very helpful if you get an international data package like I did.
Such an awesome guide for Mexico City, Staci! Your post is worth rereading!
The UNESCO sites and Kahlo history would totally pique my interest! Mexico is a country I definitely need to know more about. 🙂
Yes and yes! I am dying to return to Mexico City. I have been twice on long layovers from other parts of Mexico and had a blast both times. But, I would like to see much more. Love all your recommendations and beautiful pictures. My friends go to Tijuana often to catch their flight, especially when they are going to places like Michoacán or Merida. The flight from LA are not that bad (at the moment). #TheWeeklyPostcard
I would love to visit Teotihuacan and Frida Kahlo museum – great post, Staci, thanks for sharing with us! Central America is really far away from Asia but I’m hoping that one day I get there 🙂 #TheWeeklyPostcard
I’ve only been to the Riviera Maya and would love to see more of Mexico. Thanks for sharing your tips on Mexico City with #TheWeeklyPostcard
I have not been to Mexico City yet. I think the main reason is that I have heard it is dangerous? But it looks like you had a great time and the food sounds so good. Who could get sick of tacos!! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard
Love this! Would like to get to Mexico City one day soon! As a socal resident I appreciate your advice for how to get there! #theweeklypostcard
I loved Mexico City so much, and only scratched the surface in 4 days – I can’t wait to go back! #TheWeeklyPostcard
Awesome and comprehensive guide to Mexico city, you’ve definitely convinced me to go. I like the look of that churros place 😉 #TheWeeklyPostcard
Great suggestions! I have not been to Mexico City in years, and remember it fondly. I think it’s high time to get my other half to see these great sites, and enjoy the culture! Thanks for sharing – and the great pictures – on #TheWeeklyPostcard!