Mexico City often gets a bad rap, but the visitors who confront the supposed reputation are in for a satisfying shock. Expect to be jolted by the juxtaposition of expectation and reality, with art on every corner, a cosmopolitan vibe, sinking churches jostling pagan temples, and a pumping party scene. And that’s just scratching the surface of this 22-million-people metropolis.
Dig deeper and you’ll discover the city’s 150 ultra-niche museums, the best gourmet dining scene in Latin America, and pockets of colonial neighborhoods that feel as if you fell through a timehole. When you need a time-out, in the middle of the city’s organized chaos is one of the largest parks in the Americas – Chapultepec – which is double the size of New York’s central park.
One look at the sky-rise street of Reforma gives you the first clue that Mexico City is going to reveal many secrets you weren’t expecting.
1. Chapultepec Castle
From the balcony of the opulent ‘Castillo de Chapultepec’, you get a bird’s eye glimpse of Mexico city and its green lungs, Chapultepec Park. The Castle (Tues–Sun, 9am–5pm) sits on what the Aztecs considered a sacred hill, named after the Nahuatl word chapoltepēc, meaning ‘grasshopper’s hill’. The Castle is most known for being the residence of Mexican Emperor Maxmilian I from 1864, whose renovations you mostly see today. It is the only royal castle in North America that served as a royal residence, and was the reason Paseo de la Reforma was built – ordered by Maximilian to replicate Europe’s great boulevards and to better connect the castle, which was isolated on the outskirts of Mexico City at that time.
But its longer history conjures many stories, having served as a stronghold during the Mexican-American war, a military college, gunpowder warehouse, presidential home, and as an observatory and official guesthouse for foreign dignitaries. Today you can discover this history in the Museo Nacional de Historia (take a virtual tour), and you may even spot some scenes from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet film, when the castle was used for filming the Capulet Mansion. The castle is reportedly haunted, if you note any ghostly footsteps or translucent figures. If you enter via the Reforma entrance, you’ll pass by the Monument to the Niños Héroes (Hero Children), who died defending the castle when United State forces took it during the Battle of Chapultepec, also honored with a large mural above the castle’s main entrance.
While you’re in Chapultepec park, don’t forget to check out the oasis of Audiorama, a no-talking zone with comfortable resting chairs and a different style of chill-out music played each day (closed Mondays). On the other side of the park you can find the free Botanical gardens, and a small lake where you can hire a paddle boat.
2. Mexico City’s Center – ‘Zocalo’ – and Metropolitan Cathedral
Mexico City’s main Cathedral (Sun–Sat, 8am–8pm) epitomizes the struggle between the religions of indigenous paganists and the Catholic church, the latter building on top of the former’s temple of worship. After destroying and reusing the stones from the neighboring Templo Mayor, it is said that Hernan Cortes laid the first stone himself. It is one of the largest cathedrals in Latin America, standing over the city’s zocalo and the temple remnants of the once-prosperous Aztecs, which you can see through glass panels in the ground.
It took three hundred years of construction to reach its present-day structure, and you can note the distinct styles that dominated the 16th to 19th centuries: Baroque, Neo-Classic and Neo-Renaissance. Much like the rest of Mexico’s historic center, the cathedral is slowly sinking into the soft ground, the consequences of building on top of a lake. You can also climb the bell tower, or see if you can spot where the “Piedra del Sol” was placed outside the cathedral’s left tower.
With those crossed off the list, Mexico City’s historical center can take days to explore. Check out the post office, the intricate glass ceiling of Hotel Mexico, the monuments in Alamaeda park, Franz mayer museum, museum of popular art, and the Revolution Monument.
3. On the Muralist Trail
Diego Rivera’s goal was to educate the world about Mexico’s rich history, politics and culture. He was a prolific muralist in his native backyard, and you’ll especially find his mark in Mexico City’s historic center. Some of Rivera’s most visited murals are in the Palacio Nacional, next to the zocalo. But just turn the corner to the Secretary of Public Education–with free admission and almost no crowds–and you’ll find yourself among 120 fresco panels by Rivera, which the artist said represented the ‘life of the people’ (take a virtual tour; you can also book to see the multimedia show of Mexico’s 33 World Heritage Sites, the sixth most in the world). On the top level of Rivera’s murals, fat unattractive capitalists represent the elite that dominated Mexico’s politics and economy before the revolution. He typically represented indigenous traditions, the revolution, and scenes from Mexico’s labor, industry and agriculture.
Diego’s most famous work, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central), is located across the Alameda park in the Museo Mural Diego Rivera. The 15m-long mural is packed with historical figures from: the Mexican conquest in 1521; the Porfirio dictatorship between 1870 and 1911; and the 1910 Mexican revolution. Rivera appears as a pudgy child holding hands with Mexico’s iconic skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, and you’ll easily recognize the mono-browed Kahlo, dressed distinctively in the indigenous clothing she favored.
On the top floor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum), you’ll see an entire wall covered by Rivera’s El Hombre en la Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads), the mural originally commissioned for New York City’s Rockefeller Center. Rivera repainted it in Mexico after the original was destroyed for its communist and anti-capitalist themes.
Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, a Jesuit college turned into a museum, is dominated by Rivera’s first mural, La Creación, which depicts the creation of science and art. He completed it on his return from Europe in 1923, paving the way for the birth of Mexican muralism, a movement that spanned around 50 years. Few people know about this gem, so you may even have it to yourself.
Chapultepec Park also features Rivera’s mosaic of Agua, el Origen de la Via (Wáter Source of Life), and the functioning Teatro Insurgentes has a 46-m mosaic on its façade.
4. Templo Mayor
The Templo Mayor–Great or Main Temple–reveals the human need to continually improve and out-do those before us. Today, you can see the remains of six temples, each leader building upon the previous leader’s temple. A seventh template–the original–still hides underground, dating back to around 1325. According to the legend, the Templo Mayor was located exactly where the god Huitzilopochtli gave the Mexica people a sign that they were in the promised land: an eagle with a snake in its mouth, perched on a nopal cactus – the symbol on today’s Mexican flag.
The temple was initially destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 to make room for the city’s main cathedral, and stayed mostly buried until the 1970s. Archaeological work was carried out for years, especially under the cathedral where the temple was thought to be, but it wasn’t until construction workers struck a 10-foot, pre-Hispanic monolith–just 2m underground–that full excavation began. It required demolishing 13 buildings in the area, but the reward was some 7,000 artefacts, which you can see in the Templo Mayor Museum (Tues–Sun, 9am–5pm; or take a virtual visit here). There is a new viewing platform to oversee parts of the temple for free, but paying the 70 MXN (4–5 USD) gives you a closer look at the political, military and cultural development of what was the capital city of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) that once dominated Mesoamerica.
5. Get Lost in Mexico’s Museums
Mexico City has a museum for almost everything you can think of – the hardest decision is deciding which museums are worth your time. Many have changing exhibitions which may sway your decision, while others are small enough that they’re worth the 10-minutes it takes if you happen to stumble across their door. Otherwise, some of the best museums are:
- Fine Art Museum – the murals of “Bellas Artes” are a side-dish to their permanent and changing exhibitions, set against art deco architecture.
- National Art Museum – even if you’re not into art, you won’t be disappointed by the grand staircase.
- Modern Art Museum – easy to combine with a trip to Chapultepec castle and the small botanical garden nearby, plus you can see one of Frida’s most famous works.
- National Anthropology Museum – see the famous Aztec calendar that ended in 2012.
- Franz Mayer Museum – with a shady courtyard to take a coffee, set in a historical building.
- Tamayo Museum – an art museum from a reknown Mexican artist, with a great restaurant and shop attached, and an architectural blend of light and space.
- Soumaya Museum – this “beehive” architectural feat hosts Carlos Slim’s personal collection, Rodin and Dali included.
- Jumex Museum – designed by David Chipperfield, with a restaurant below by famous Mexican chef Enrique Olvera; next to Soumaya, so you can tick off two museums in one go.
6. Shop at Ciudella
Hold on to your shopping urges until you visit this market. It has hundreds of stalls selling the typical artisanal goods you see all over the country – in fact, some shops buy from this very market themselves. Browse hand-made rugs and pillows, ceramic skulls, tequila glass sets, dresses and shirts with embroided flowers, artworks, metal works and so much more.
6. Frida Khalo Museuem
The ‘Blue House’, also known as the Frida Kahlo Museum, is a splash of cobalt blue among the vibrant neighborhood of Coyoacán. It was the birthplace and final residence of the artist who left a distinct mark on Mexican art and fashion.
The lines usually snake around the block, so book a ticket online (just show the barcode on your phone); you can also buy a joint ticket to visit Anahuacalli Museum, 4km south of Coyoacán, a replica temple with art deco elements, designed by Diego Rivera for his pre-Hispanic art collection and some of his works. A short walk away sits the home of Leon Trotsky, where his bathrobe still hangs where he left it before he was killed with an icepick. If you want to follow in Frida’s footsteps, head to Cantina La Guadalupana, where she used to knock back tequilas with her husband Diego Rivera.
Besides these touristic draws, Coyoacán itself deserves at least half a day, with its cobbled streets and colonial charm. Head to the central plazas, Jardín Centenario and Jardín Hidalgo, and you’ll spot historic sites: the ‘coyote fountain’, the gilded church of San Juan Bautista, the yellow 16th-century residence of Hernán Cortés. Tucked away nearby, the Mercado de Antojitos is filled with local food stalls, or head to the three-storey Mercadoroma for a gourmet market experience. Restaurant Los Danzantes also is located on the plaza, renown for making its own mezcal.
From the plazas, walk along the picturesque Avenida Francisco Sosa to see how the historic rich families lived, and you’ll eventually stumble across the Capilla de Santa Catarina, and across the road, the Casa de Cultura Jesús Reyes Heroles with changing exhibitions. A little farther east of Coyoacán’s main square, and you’ll stumble across Plaza de la Conchita, a peaceful park and one of the oldest churches in Mexico, mixing styles of indigenous Tequitqui and Spanish baroque.
7. Brunch and the San Angel Art Market
The traditional restaurants of San Angel Inn and Cardenal are the weekend brunch institutions of the up-class San Angel neighborhood, both set in grand historical houses. They are also perfect to jump over to Diego Rivera’s and Frida Kahlo’s studios (take a virtual tour); these 1930s modernist studios by Juan O’Gorman were ahead of their architectural time, and give a small glimpse into the artists’ lives together, watched over by Mojigangas (giant papier mache puppets). You may recognize these studios from the Hollywood movie “Frida”.
The real buzz starts on Saturday, when a giant art market is held in the central plazas and the artisanal Baazar opens (Sat, 10am–7pm) off San Jacinto Street. The courtyard inside the Baazar is a leafy stop for an affordable meal to the otherwise classy establishments on the plaza. Head a couple of blocks from either end of the plaza, where you can peek into the gardens of the Parroquia de San Jacinto, or see exhibitions in the 17th-century Temple and Ex-Convent of Carmen. You can get inside one of the grand colonial houses by visiting Museo Casa del Risco, with 17th and 18th art, or see Carlos Slim’s personal art collection in the first of his three museums, Museo Soumaya Plaza Loreto.
Nearby is the art museum of Museo Dolores Olmeda Patiño, set in a 16th-century hacienda (estate) with lush gardens, peacocks and, on occasion, the pre-Hispanic, hairless species of Xoloitzcuintle dogs.
8. Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe
On the 12 December, on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, millions of pilgrims from around Mexico mark their penance by visiting the church of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country’s patron saint. The night before, a midnight mass is held for some 5–7 million believers, who crowd in to get a blessing and a glimpse of the virgin. Out front, feathered Aztec dancers in a curious blend of pagan and Christianity belief.
According to accounts from the 1600s, the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous peasant, Juan Diego, in the hills of Tepeyac. Speaking in Nahuatl, the Virgin told him to build her a church where an Aztec Temple once stood. With no-one to believe Diego, the Virgin promised a sign during her fourth apparition: he was to collect flowers from Tepeyac hill, and when he opened his cloak to show the local priest, her image was imprinted there. Today, this very cloak reportedly sits in the basilica today, while the Virgin’s famous scold to Diego are inscribed over the main entrance: “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?” (Am I not here, I who am your mother?)
Pilgrimages have been made since that first sighting around 1531. Today, the basilica is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, and the third-most visited sacred site in the world.
9. ‘Trajinera’ Boat Trip in Xochimilco
The tilting and crooked buildings around Mexico City are the consequences of building a metropolis on a lake. The lake is long buried under this immense city – except for in the southern borough of Xochimilco, where 170km (100 miles) of canals stand as the final guards of the city’s water-logged history. Today, the canals are stalked by hundreds of colorful, gondola-type boats called ‘trajineras’–large enough to fit 20 people–rented by residents and tourists alike for parties and celebrations. As you cruise along, you can buy tacos, plants, and drinks from smaller boats that hook onto your boat – or you could rent a song or two from boats carrying full mariachi bands.
The canals are studded with artificial islands called chinampas – or ‘floating gardens’– drawing from Mesoamerica agricultural practices involving small land plots built on shallow lake beds. As remnants of pre-Hispanic history, both the canal and chinampa systems have earned Xochimilco heritage status.
While it used to be a cheap outing based on your bargaining skills, Xochimilco has caught onto organized tourism. You’ll now be presented with a list of prices, down to a T for taco prices. An hour on the boat costs around 400–500 MXN per hour, although some may let you bargain lower if you book several hours. Split between big groups, the cost is still relatively insignificant. Some boat vendors try to finish before the allotted time, so make note of when you start and insist on what you’ve paid for. While it has tourist-ville written all over it, if you go with the flow–literally–there’s plenty to enjoy about the surrounding party scene.
There are 11 docks – embarcaderos– in Xochimilco, and several canals to float down. The most common one is Embarcadero Nativitas, which tends to be livelier. Regardless of where you go, you’ll likely be hassled for your business, chased by bike sellers, or maybe even told that your chosen dock is closed. Stick it out – it’s worth it.
For a creepy experience, head to the doll island–Isla de las Muñecas. It was started by local resident Don Julián Santana Barrera after he failed to save a drowning girl, but managed to save a doll floating nearby. Whispers and wails spurred his 50 years of hanging 100s of dolls and toys around the island, in what he believed appeased the drowned girl’s spirit. The canal trip is quieter than other routes, so can feel less touristic. Make sure you are not tricked into visiting the smaller, fake doll island a few meters before.
In the center of Xochimilco, there’s a nice plaza and church to visit, and the grand Dolores Olmedo Museum and Cuemanco flower are also recommended. Although Coyoacán’s center is also close and offers much more,
10. Plaza Garibaldi
music competes for your attention as you walk through this grand plaza, where multiple bands belt out songs while dressed in silver-buckled suits. Considered the city’s heart of mariachi music, Plaza Garibaldi is the place to listen–or rent a band to take home–to this iconic Mexican music. You can visit the Tequila museum at the entrance of the square, although most head to the historical Salon Tenampa. The area is known as being a bit dodgy at night, enough to keep an eye on your belongings and avoid wandering around drunk, but not enough to avoid this area altogether. It is recommended to get a taxi straight there and back if you visit.
11. Mexico’s ‘Mega Library’, Arabic Pavilion, and Micro Theatre
While the historical center should take center-stage for short visits, the nearby neighborhoods of Buenavista and Santa Maria are worth a visit if you got a few days. Mexico City’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos might only be a “public library”, but once you gape at it’s towering, floating book stacks you’ll get an idea why the media coined it the mega-library of Mexico. Costing more than $1bn and spread over 38,000 square meters (409,000 square feet), its vastness is filled with Mexican sculptures, including Gabriel Orozco‘s Ballena (Whale), music rooms, rotating exhibitions and, of course, books. The library is centrally located in Cuauhtémoc, where the Buenavista train station, metro and metrobus meet. This area has plenty more to offer.
Nearby in the Santa María la Ribera neighborhood, you can find the underrated yet impressive pavilion of Kiosco Morisco, also called ‘Alameda de Santa María’. Its geometric elaborate patterns feel Arabic, yet it was designed by a Mexican engineer to, ironically, represent Mexico internationally at two expositions in the US. Once it arrived back in Mexico, it first staged National Lottery draws, before being relocated to its final resting place. Today it serves as a space for open-air dance, tai chi, or music performances, set inside the rotunda of 44 colorful pillars.
For an intimate theater experience, drop into the ‘Micro Theater’, where you can experience 15-minute plays served for 10–20 people at a time. Plays are held at certain times, so get your ticket first, and kill time later wandering the neighborhood.
Day Trips Outside Mexico City
- Teotihuacan Pyramids: See the official website for these
- Magic Town of Tepoztlan – an hour outside Mexico City brings you to the lush valley of Tepoztlan. As the reported birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent god, the area is considered to have special spiritual energy.
- Dieserto de los Leones – in the south of the city is a green escape of 1,870 hectares of forests and hiking trails.
Know Before You Travel to Mexico City
- Mexico City sits at an altitude of around 2,250m above sea level, ranking it among the 10 highest capital cities in the world. Most visitors only notice the occasional shortness of breath and extra tiredness, although some may feel more severe effects like nausea, dizziness or flu-like symptoms. The rule is to drink more water than normal and eat carbohydrates, and don’t overdo exercise and drinking alcohol, because the effects are increased with lower oxygen.
- Pollution can be a nasty culprit in Mexico City, especially during the dry months from November to May. Allergy and asthma sufferers need to be aware that they may have chronic symptoms.
- When you arrive to Mexico City Airport, you will see many official taxi companies that offer a fixed price depending on the neighborhood you are traveling to.