The diversity in experiences is one of the first things that attracted me to Mexico City. Its vibrant energy kept me there for nearly six months. In that time, I found it impossible to see and do everything I had hoped to. Still, you can enjoy a great deal within a short period due to the close proximity of many major attractions.
Mexico City is an intoxicating, passionate, and culturally-rich place with a largely misunderstood reputation. Though stories of crime and violence have warded off some travelers, the people who go are quick to tell you that it is one of their favorite destinations in the world. Like any big city, chaos is available to those who seek it, but most tourist areas are relatively safe attracting roughly 40,000 visitors each year. Unlike any big city, Mexico City has a personality that is enchanting beyond imagination. You must visit to understand the spell it gives.
Even before it was called Mexico City by the Spanish who conquered the region, the former Aztec city known as México-Tenochtitlán had grown to become the most powerful city in Mesoamerica. Now, serving as a modern economic hub, it is home to a diverse community of people from around the world. Built upon the ancient lake bed, this city is brimming with history, breathtaking architecture, world-class art and museums, limitless entertainment, and some of best street food that will ever hit your tastebuds.
To help you make the most of your time, here are the top 23 things you don’t want to miss during your trip to Mexico City!
1. The Zócalo
Not only is a visit to the historic Zócalo, or central plaza, a proper introduction to the city, but it will help you get your bearings and discover a plethora of nearby attractions and delights. Also known as the Plaza de la Constitución, it’s home to the National Palace, the famous Metropolitan Cathedral, and several other historic federal buildings. By day, the square is host to public events and festivals. By night, concerts are often played and are sometimes free to attend. Stroll the Zócalo at sunset to watch the changing scenery as the lights come on over the city.
2. Ruins of Templo Mayor
Though unexpected, Templo Mayor became one of my favorite places to visit in the city. Preserved in just behind the Zòcalo, these ruins are what is remaining of the ancient Aztec city, Tenochtitlán. Phases of building as leaders changed over the centuries can be viewed…a unique feature not easily seen at many other pre-hispanic archaeological sites. Original sculptures maintain some of their vibrant colors. The adjoining museum showcases the history with an array of artifacts and cultural information. Relics, such as a skull rack, have only been excavated in recent years and new discoveries are continuing to be collected each year.
3. Museums, museums, and more museums!
With over 150 museums, Mexico City is a Mecca for history buffs, art and culture enthusiasts, and anyone craving to learn a bit more about Mexico, the world, innovative concepts, and perhaps about themselves too. Though the list of phenomenal offerings is long, The National Museum of Anthropology is a top choice. With two massive floors of high-quality exhibits, you should plan to dedicate most of a day here.
Museo Soumaya is home to a private collection of over 66,000 pieces of ancient and modern art. And the Museum of Memory and Tolerance is an interactive memorial and education center dedicated to highlighting the consequences of intolerance and indifference int he world. Exhibiting history from modern-day genocides, this is a heavy, but highly impactful and moving stop.
4. Chapultepec Forest
The hustle and bustle of the city can get a little overwhelming at times. Fit in a trip to Chapultepec Forest, conveniently located to downtown and Condesa. One of the world’s largest urban parks, it spans 450 acres and provides numerous enjoyment options, including botanical gardens, a lake with paddle boats, hiking trails, special events and three of Mexico City’s best museums, including the National Museum of Anthropology.
To top it off, Chapultepec Castle rests atop of the hill where Aztec rulers once convened for respite. Here you can enjoy one of the best views of the city and take in the city’s history as you wander the this Nueva España estate.
5. Palacio de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes takes the cake for stunning architecture. In spring time, the purple jacarandas bloom for an impressive sight. But any time of the year, Palacio de Bellas Artes provides a spectacular ambiance at golden hour.
Next to Parque Alameda, couples tend to mingle here, basking in the romance. It also offers great entertainment with offerings of the Ballet Folklorico, world-class art exhibits, and other events.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Xochimilco is a southern barrio offering one of the most quintessential experiences in the city. Xochimilco contains a large system of ancient canals that serves as a major agricultural center for the region. Visitors can ride on the traditional, but now touristy brightly colored boats, or trajineras, through the canals.
It’s either a peaceful, refreshing experience or a private party, depending on the crowd you bring. A boat fitting up to 20 people costs about $40 USD for 2 hours. Other excursions include night tours or an extended ride to the spooky Isle of Dolls. As with everywhere, respect the natural area as preservation of this historic site is under threat.
7. Sunday Lagunilla Flea Market
Hands down, my favorite place to shop in Mexico City…If you haven’t already booked your travel, plan to be in the city on a Sunday so you can visit this epic antique and flea market.
A historic establishment dating back to the pres-hispanic era, it’s one of the Americas’ most important trading posts. Now, you’ll find a wide range of worldly treasures, Mexican folk art, and oddities. While Lagunilla Market is a typical market present all days of the week, the flea market is reserved to one lot and only happens Sundays 9-12.
While every colonía seems to offer some sort of charm, Cóyoacan is one of the most striking in its historic and vibrant appeal. Visited by most tourists hoping to tour Frida Khalo’s home, Casa Azul, Cóyoacan is an alluring day trip for art lovers and history buffs. The Frida Khalo museum is a very interesting stop, but is a bit pricey by Mexico standards at $12 for general admission.
Other intriguing stops nearby include the Museo Casa Leon Trotsky Museum, the Diego Rivera Museo Anahuacalli, and the Museo Nacional de las Culturas Populares.
And yet, simply walking the streets of Cóyoacan is rewarding enough with beautiful gardens and courtyards, quaint squares, brightly colored colonial homes, and mouth-watering food.
9. Roma Norte-Condesa
I could write a lengthy travel guide on this trendy area alone, but it’s better that you jump in and discover it all on your own. With an unbelievable collection of diverse restaurants and sidewalk cafes, excellent nightlife, boutique shops, and some of the most beautiful parks in the city… it’s a bit of a paradise for foodies and dreamers, often cited for being a haven for hipsters.
But, it is actually diverse with community events, shows, and festivals offering something for everyone. Spend a day or two here…maybe longer if you find you can’t leave like me! Definitely stroll or take a run on Avenida Amsterdam, an old horse track turned into a gorgeous Art Deco residential street with a pedestrian loop through lush gardens.
If you’re headed to Mexico City, you’ve most likely heard of this ancient Aztec civilization. Many travel guides refer to Teotihuican as being a destination in Mexico City, but it is really an hour out of the city, easily done by public bus.
People often question whether or not to visit many of the popular pre-hispanic sites in Mexico due to increasing number of tourists. And while sharing the experience with a crowd of people can take away from the overall enjoyment… a visit to Teotihuiccan is absolutely worth it. Try to visit early morning before the tour buses arrive.
The largest temple, the Sun Pyramid is the most well-known and can be climbed. Be sure to grab a map to explore the great variety of historical sites and especially make sure you visit The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, my personal favorite! As with many other top tourist attractions, beware of souvenir sales tactics here…”Almost free,” is not almost free and “One dollar” usually means “one dollar off.”
Mexico has designated over 100 “magical towns,” or “Pueblos Mágicos,” Aimed at increasing tourists to these places, finding these destinations is truly a great way to discover some of Mexico’s most special communities. Tepoztlán, is a particularly special destination, offering unique opportunities to become more acquainted with pre-hispanic cultures. The local market is home to one of the best stands I found in Mexico, offering foods that highlight traditional pre-hispanic herbs, seeds, and produce.
Another treat is the hike up to Tepozteco, an Aztec archeological site sitting atop a steep cliff. The hike takes about 1.5 hours and is strenuous, but people with diverse fitness levels complete it daily. At the top, you’ll likely make amigos with the friendly Coati—avoid feeding them. A small restaurant at the bottom of the hike offers large cervezas for post-hike celebratory rejuvenation. Tepoztlán is a little over an hour south of the city by bus.
12. Paso de Cortes
This scenic pass actually flows between two massive volcanos, the active warrior Popocatépetl and the sleeping woman, Iztacchíuatl. Spend the day or a couple of days hiking up Izta. A short hike will reward you with incredible beauty. Skilled hikers can navigate the snowcaps, but be aware this is a technical hike and people have died. Staying overnight is possible by bringing a tent or arranging at the park office to stay in the old microwave station… which is a bit spooky.
From the station, the trail heads down to the base of Popo through dreamlike meadows. Though a day trip is possible, I recommend staying overnight to enjoy the sunrises, sunsets, and many hours of exploration and hiking available. From Mexico City, you can take a public bus to the small town of Amecameca to sign in at the national park office and arrange a shuttle up to the La Joya parking lot at the base of Izta.
Puebla is the fourth largest city in Mexico, but maintains a relaxed small-town vibe. As one of the oldest cities, Puebla is a great destination to enjoy historic sites, visit museums, and stroll colonial streets. Puebla is where the misunderstood Cinco de Mayo celebration originated, following the Battle of Puebla in which the Mexican Army achieved an unlikely victory over the occupying French troops.
Check out Museo Amparo and do not leave until you’ve eaten the tacos árabes, a local Arab-Mexican creation of schwarma-style meat and pita-style tortillas dating back to the 1930s.
Just outside of Puebla, this Pueblo Mágico is an easy day trip from Mexico City or an extension to your weekend in Puebla. Known as the City of Churches, the small town of Cholula is home to 365 churches.
Undoubtedly the most visited one is La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora that sits upon the big “hill.” Actually, underneath the church is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the largest pyramid in the world by volume… once abandoned, overgrown and later mistaken as a hill by the Spanish. Cheap semi-structured trolly tours from Puebla depart multiple times daily.
Where to start?…Anywhere. If you see something tasty, I say be brave and go for it. Okay, first make sure you see a clean source of water and follow the rule—eat where other people are eating… it’s a good sign that it is tasty, safe, and food is turning over quickly.
To help you make sense and prioritize your food options, here are some of the best choices.
15. Street food!
The street food options are practically endless in Mexico City and can be found on most blocks. One option is to find a Tianguis, or small street market, distinguished by outdoor tents and various vendors. The Tuesday Condesa Tianguis is a great spot where you can try many different dishes as you stroll the local produce market. Other permanent markets, such as Mercado Jamaica offer daily options.
Tacos al pastor: schwarma-style pork topped with pineapple, onion, and cilantro on fresh corn tortillas.
Tortas: the Mexican sandwich on a large airy bun, stuffed with your favorite provisions.
Huaraches: “Sandal”-shaped, oblong masa boats filled with refried beans and queso, cooked on a comal (Mexican griddle).
Tamales and Atol: traditionally served together for breakfast, the tamal is savory or sweet masa steamed in corn husks or banana leaves, often stuffed with meat, salsa, or fruit. Atol is a thickened hot masa beverage, usually served plain or champurrado (with chocolate).
Juices & Licuados: While it’s true, you need to be careful about eating raw fruits and veggies, I just can’t resist the fresh juices and smoothies available in the city. The variety and richness of the produce is unreal and these make for a great late morning refreshment.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Plantains: Though I sometimes found the late night sounds of the steam whistle maddening, I now think back on those sounds fondly…the sound alerting us to the man wandering the streets with a small roasting cart, full of sweet potatoes and plantains. If you’re out late enough (or sleeping in your bed), you’ll surely hear or see him. These are a must try delicacy.
Pro tip: With street food, always ask how much before ordering, pay after you eat, and eat there at the stand.
Churros: Essentially fried dough covered in cinnamon sugar…yes you need them.
Pasteleria: Bake shops, which seem to line every street in Mexico City offer more carby, sugary things than you could imagine. With a few pesos, you can walk out with a box full of goodies.
Keep your eye out for some of these authentic specialities for a uniquely preserved culinary experience.
Huitlocochle: The Mexican truffle, a rich corn fungus, often served warm with cheese and bread for dipping…trust me, it’s wonderful.
Hoja santa: A savory large-leaf herb with a sassafras profile, frequently served with melty Oaxaca cheese.
Chapulines: Not my favorite on account of an intense bug phobia…these are actually one of the most popular snacks for locals in the region. Streetside vendors sell them in bulk, or you may find them accompanying your mezcal at the bar. Roasted crispy, they resemble pumpkin seeds.
18. Celebratory favorites
Pozole: The stew of celebrations, this tomato-based soup incorporates hominy, meat (usually pork), and an array of garnishes. It’s a quick, nourishing, and absolutely delicious meal.
Chile en Nogada: Arrive in Mexico City anytime between August and October and you’re likely to see advertisements for these roasted peppers all over the city. Traditionally stuffed with pork and fruit, then topped with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds, this dish symbolizes the Mexican flag in celebration of Independence Day, September 15th.
19. World cuisine
Don’t get me wrong—the Mexican food is mind blowing. But you’d be amiss if you didn’t take advantage of some of the global eats in the city. Asian food was particularly impressive, with a revitalizing Chinatown and numerous Japanese eateries. Great options for Lebanese, French, Italian, Brazilian, Colombian, and American gastro are also in plenty.
Nightlife in Mexico City is excellent and available til sun up for those who seek it. A few places to start are:
20. Mezcalerías: usually laid-back, chill bars offering tequila’s cousin…a unique, smoky liquor, harvested from wood-fired agave.
21. Pulquerías typically alternative dive bars serving pulque, a traditional thick fermented drink made from agave sap.
22. Colonias Juarez, Roma-Condesa, and Polanco: the hot spots for world-class nightclubs, dance parties, shows, and the like.
23. Lucha Libre: A truly unique local entertainment experience—a famous professional, albeit scripted and comical wrestling match of masked figures that dates back to the early 20th century.
Transportation: Public transportation is plentiful and cheap with an extensive bus and subway system. Ubers are inexpensive, and in my experience, reliable (though some may try to take you the long route). Taxis can be obtained from official stands in the airport. Otherwise, I would avoid them due to the perils of cash handling, such as refusal to provide change or having a “broken” meter. Mexico City is not an ideal place to rent a car.
Money Matters: ATMs are readily available and stocked throughout the city. For street (food and shopping) purchases, you’ll need cash (pesos). Otherwise, most places accept cards.
Safety: Particularly at late night hours, travel with a group in well-lit, public areas. Keep your passport in a safe, secure place. NEVER keep your wallet in your pocket, but especially not on the bus/subway. Methodical thieves are known to work together to crowd and push people, while one takes the wallet…unbeknown to the person until later when they go to make their next purchase. I follow the two-zipper rule (money in a zipper, in a zipper).
Earthquakes do happen in the city and are typically felt stronger in Roma-Condesa and Juarez colonies due to their position on the old lake bed. Always be aware of your exits. It’s a good idea to keep your passport and other essential items in a easily accessed location.