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The Ultimate Guide To Mexico City (for first timers)
July 25, 2016
This has to be written.
Before we left for our trip to Mexico City, Aaron and I scoured the internet, print magazines, published books, and videos for tips. We found very little akin to what I’m about to share. Mexico City has been increasingly on the radar of savvy travelers, but there still aren’t too many people who have written about it. And it deserves to be written about.
You see, I am pretty convinced that Mexico City is a must-see for any foodie, history lover, architectural enthusiast, culture junkie, artist, adventurer, and travel geek. Basically, it’s an awesome destination for anyone with high curiosity and a desire to be surprised, inspired, and entertained.
Why Mexico City By Neighborhood?
The best way to think of Mexico City is as a patchwork quilt of a bunch of different cities, knitted together by Paseo de la Reforma, its main boulevard. Each neighborhood is not only distinct from the other; it is also larger than you might imagine.
Greater Mexico City is home to nearly 25 million people. As such, there is a wealth of innovation and also an expansive socioeconomic range. The neighborhoods I highlight here are the ones most popular for foreign visitors in search of mid-to-high culture and reasonably safe travel. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write about the less-than-savory neighborhoods of the city, but not now.
Is Mexico City safe?
Is New York City safe? Is Los Angeles safe? The answer depends on who you ask. That said, I do believe that the crime and danger in Mexico City has been exponentially inflated in American (and some Mexican) media; while crimes are rarely front-page news here in the U.S., they often do make the tabloids in Mexico. As a result, citizens and foreigners alike are subject to sensationalist crime reports– even if the majority of Mexico City residents claim they’ve never been the victim of a crime (see David Lida, First Stop in the New World).
I do believe I’ve been in cities (internationally and domestically) less safe than the neighborhoods we visited in Mexico City. While we stayed mostly in the neighborhoods of El Centro Historico, Zona Rosa, Polanco, Roma and Condesa, we did wander off occasionally to visit coffeeshops and joints that were reportedly awesome. Never did we feel unsafe; never did we receive unwanted attention. I’ll leave you with that.
The best things about Mexico City
My favorite thing about our visit was discovering the complexities of traditional Mexican culture, as well as the innovation of the younger generations in food, art, space, and custom. Here are a few features to discover and love:
Culinary traditions and innovation. I’ll share my favorite restaurants in each neighborhood, but this was one of the main reasons we wanted to visit. From world-famous chef Enrique Olvera at Pujol to the nearest taco stand, the food scene is vibrant here. Oaxacan dishes are paired alongside the local Mexican take on European cuisine (it’s fantastic).
Re-conceptualized spaces. Mexico City has a wide variety of architectural styles, but the interiors testify to the same thing: the locals’ ability to turn any space into a whole different world. From cafes to cathedrals to museums to neighborhood parks, the spaces in the city are absolutely stunning.
Friendliness and warmth. It’s easy to say that people all over the world are more often friendly than not– but can you say that people in most metropolises are friendly? Mexico City dwellers struck me as some of the friendliest people I’ve met, especially in one of the largest cities in the world. I shared more kind smiles with abuelas in Mexico City than with any old people anywhere else in the world.
Guide to Mexico City By Neighborhood
Below I’ll share in-depth about the major neighborhoods we explored and loved, making recommendations for where to stay, what to see, and where to eat in each.
Beguiling and beautiful, the historic downtown is perfect for wanderers. Stroll in slow awe as you make your way to the Zocalo, the main plaza that fits hundreds of thousands of people. Then turn toward the Templo Mayor, indigenous ruins that mark the old place of worship by inhabitants dating centuries back. Be sure to grab a balcony seat for dinner or afternoon champaign overlooking the gorgeous area.
Where to stay:
Hotels in this area are pretty affordable! We stayed at Historico Central, and were generally pleased! But skip the breakfast and head to Maison Kayser.
What to eat:
The food in the Centro is generally less interesting– there are also lots of tourist “traps”– decent food but not Mexico City’s best. Here’s what we enjoyed:
Breakfast: grab a croissant at Maison Kayser (location not listed online, but it’s right by the Zocalo on Av. Francisco I. Madero).
Coffee: Cafe 123 has a fabulous vibe and is worth the walk.
Lunch: Taqueria Tlaquepaque has amazing al pastor tacos
Dinner: Try the Azul location in the Centro.
What to see in Centro Historico:
The historic downtown has some of the best of Mexico’s traditions and history on display.
This gorgeous palace has an amazing mural by Diego Rivera, a lovely succulent garden, and a good collection of contemporary local artwork. Bring a form of identification and line up early! (website)
These ruins are GORGEOUS and right in the middle of Mexico City. At just a few dollars to enter, this is a must-see and a great alternative to Teotihuacan. (website)
Palacio de Bellas Artes
If you’re lucky enough to get tickets to a show here, definitely attend. If not, come in the morning when it opens and explore its gorgeous interior. (website)
Eat Mexico Food Tour
We absolutely loved our tour of the huge market– especially being able to learn about Mexico’s diverse food traditions straight from someone who talks about it all day. We stuffed our faces with tacos, moles, and other local staples (I did not partake in the insects). It also made our evening meal even more meaningful that night– because we could identify so many ingredients. (website)
Other Centro Historico highlights:
Museo Nacional de Arte (website)
Museo de Arte Popular (website)
Palacio de Correos (the post office– it’s gorgeous)
La Casa de Azulejos (the House of Blue Tiles)
Alameda Central (a beautiful park right next to the Palacio de Bellas Artes)
Roma and Condesa
If you have more than a few days in Mexico City, and have time to go beyond the historic downtown, then these neighborhoods south of Chapultepec Park are an absolute must. Hip, edgy shops are punctuated with innovative restaurants and cafes in an area known for its lovely treelined streets. Roma and Condesa are where the cool kids hang out– and if you love good food and drink for a good price, there’s no better place in the world.
Where to stay:
Hands down, The Red Tree House is the perfect spot. This bed-and-breakfast in Condesa boasts friendly staff, super fun guests, daily happy hour, and delicious breakfast. The place is a renovated home with many different types of rooms to choose from. We’re pretty sure that when we go back to Mexico City, we’re staying here for the entire time!
What to eat:
You could really eat all day here– we pretty much did! Thankfully the restaurants are spaced a little further apart, so you’ll at least have to walk a good distance from one spot to the next!
Best meals in Roma and Condesa:
Rosetta: this might be one of our absolute favorite restaurants ever. On the Top 50- Latin America list, Rosetta is beautiful Italian-inspired cuisine with a Mexican twist. Save room for dessert!
Contramar: We absolutely loved the tuna tostada here. This place is a classic!
Mercado Roma: A fun spot where hip (read: well-to-do) young people grab drinks, juices and bites.
MeroToro: One of our absolute favorite meals in Mexico City. Also on the Top 50 Latin American list!
Maximo Bistrot: Excellent seafood and pasta, paired with an incredible cocktail. Also Top 50.
Best coffee shops and bakeries in Roma and Condesa
(because this deserves a separate category!)
Memorias de una barista
Cardinal casa de cafe
Panaderia Rosetta: absolute magic.
Fournier Rousseau: best croissants ever.
Coyoacan and San Angel
This area is up-and-coming, mostly made famous by the Frida Kahlo House. We did not get to see her house this time (I know, stone me) but I loved the artistic vibe of this area and definitely hope to come back. We did stop through the artisan Saturday market– and it’s a very classy and lovely place to wander, and to purchase some local art!
What to see:
Frida Kahlo House
Xochimilco floating gardens
Where to eat:
We absolutely loved Restaurante Carlota. It’s a perfect respite with a gorgeous interior. I wouldn’t recommend the coffee itself, but the cocktails are delicious and so was the food.
Depending on who you ask, Polanco is either lovely or terrible. Home to Mexico City’s upper crust, some of its streets look similar to nearly any major developed city in the world. Designer stores, high-end restaurants, tree-lined streets and elite department stores are regularly frequented by residents here. But so are the gorgeous museums and parks.
Where to stay:
That is the question. You can definitely stay in Polanco for a pretty penny, but it’s just as easy to come here for a day (or night) without having to call it home. That said, we loved Las Alcobas, a beautiful boutique hotel with some of the best breakfast I’ve ever had.
What to eat:
Some of Mexico City’s best restaurants are in Polanco (the ones that aren’t in Roma and Condesa, that is!).
Pujol: Incredible doesn’t even begin to describe it. Enrique Olvera’s masterpiece restaurant is #25 in the world for a reason. Elevated Mexican flavors are playfully mesmerizing; you’ll have the best taco of your entire life, and the down-to-earth service only makes it even more authentically Mexican.
Dulce Patria: Another absolute gem, this high-end spot offered me the most amazing seafood twist on pozole. Definitely deserves to be on Latin America’s Top 50 list!
La Casa del Pastor: Much less expensive but extremely tasty is the amazing al pastor spot. Succulent spit-grilled pork is paired with tangy pineapple in tacos I couldn’t stop eating.
Biko: This funky, fun spot is on our list for next time!
Quintonil: Another Mexico City essential (and top world restaurant), on our list for next time!
Coffee shops and snacks:
The little food shops at El Palacio de Hierro: Yes, this may be the Saks 5th Ave of Mexico City, but it contains some of the best food! Churreria el Moro is a famous churro bakery (?) all over the city, and it’s located in here.
El Pendulo: a bookstore and cafe merged into one awesome experience.
Que Bo!: this chocolate shop sells very interesting truffles! Some of them have salty, spicy flavors– you’ve been warned!
What to see in Polanco:
This is the place to live it up with the locals and explore the fantastic Chapultepec Park and museums.
Museo Nacional de Antropología
If you can only make it to one museum in all of Mexico City, let this be the one. Its stunning architecture and lovely flow house some of the most unique pieces from pre-Columbian civilizations.
Carlos Slim and his wife have quite the collection of art from around the world. It may not appeal to you to visit every collection, but the building is very neat, and there’s something inside for everyone. (website)
I love it when I’m traveling and I see local families having fun together. This is what happens every Sunday at Chapultepec Park– and you have got to experience it. The park also houses some fabulous museums such as the Chapultepec Castle and the Museum of Modern Art. There’s also a zoo!
Some final notes on Mexico City
Go. Just do it. If you’re looking at this (and you’re not a regular follower of this blog), then you must have stumbled upon it because Mexico City piques your interest.
And to you, I say go.
No, it’s not the destination for absolutely everyone. Like all cities, it has problems large and small. But here’s what I know for sure: for those even slightly interested in visiting, Mexico City will not disappoint.
Oh, and take Uber all over the city! It’s fast, friendly, and super cheap.
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