As we boarded the plane in Los Angeles, bound for Mexico City, I was super excited. We were heading back to Mexico, my favourite country. But it would be our first time in its capital city and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Mexico City has a reputation for being busy, polluted and dangerous. That being said, one of my rules is to take everything I read in the press with a grain of salt, particularly when it comes to deciding which places are safe to travel to.
As we sat on the plane, I started reading my favourite travel book, the Lonely Planet. I was sitting next to an older man and he asked me where we were headed. He was on his way to Mexico City to visit his family.
When I told him that we would be spending five nights in Mexico City, he looked at me strangely. Why would you want to stay there? It’s not a place for tourists. You should be extremely careful. His comments scared me a little and I began to doubt my decision. Was this a terrible idea? Was Mexico City really that bad? Either way, sitting there on the plane, there wasn’t a lot we could do. We’d just have to find out for ourselves!
Coming into land over Mexico City was impressive, to say the least. This huge metropolis seems to go on forever and as we began our descent, it felt like we were about to land on top of the city’s buildings!
After passing through immigration and collecting our bags, we met up with our hotel transfer. I can’t say that our first impression of the city was very positive, because we sat for almost two hours in traffic on our way to the hotel, hardly eight kilometres from the airport!
But as soon as we checked in, left our bags and began to explore the city, all of our worries faded away. Mexico City is truly an amazing city to visit. It is bursting with colour, culture, beautiful architecture, fantastic art galleries and museums. The street food smelled incredible and tasted just as good. By the end of our first day there, we were so pleased with our decision to visit.
What are Mexico City’s main attractions?
Mexico City is huge and it turns out that five days was not nearly enough. There are so many great attractions to see. But for a first time visitor, five days is enough to get you hooked on the city. So here’s our list of what to see and do in your first five days in this wonderful metropolis.
The Zócalo, or “Plaza de la Constitución”, is the largest square in Mexico City and one of the city’s most famous attractions. It is surrounded by beautiful buildings, the Catedral Metropolitana to the north, the National Palace (Presidential Palace) to the east, the Federal District buildings to the south and the Old Portal de Mercaderes to the west.
In the centre of the square is a flagpole flying a giant Mexican flag. This flag is ceremoniously raised at 8am every day by members of the military police and lowered again at 6pm and carried into the National Palace. Even though it gets very crowded at these times, it’s a great ceremony to watch. Just remember to keep your valuables safe and to watch out for pickpockets.
The Catedral Metropolitana is one of the largest and most magnificent churches in all of Latin America. Construction on this cathedral began in the 16th century on top of a sacred Aztec precinct. It now dominates the north side of the Zócalo. You can enter for free or pay to climb the bell towers, where you’ll enjoy an incredible view out over the Zócalo and the Palacio Nacional.
The Palacio National (Presidential Palace)
The Palacio National is home to the offices of the Mexican president and the Federal Treasury. It has a beautiful interior courtyard and ceremonial rooms. But for us, the best bit was the nine murals created by artist Diego Rivera that depict Mexican history. The Palacio National is free to enter but you need to show a photo I.D. You’ll also have to check in any bags at the entrance.
Museo del Templo Mayor
Just around the corner from the Zócalo, you’ll find the ruins of the Templo Mayor. Templo Mayor was the main temple of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan (now known as Mexico City).
Sadly the temple was destroyed during the Spanish conquests. After that, many colonial buildings were built above the temple site and it wasn’t until 1978 that archaeological excavations began. The temple ruins are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s amazing to be able to visit such an impressive archaeological site right in the middle of such a big city. After you explore what remains of the pyramid, you can visit the museum next door which houses artefacts uncovered during the excavations.
Admission: 70 pesos
Palacio de Bellas Artes
With its white marble facade and its shiny gold dome, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is the most beautiful building in Mexico City. It is used as a top performance hall for concerts, ballet, opera and symphonies. It’s also home to several permanent and temporary art exhibits and more murals painted by Diego Rivera.
Bosque de Chapultepec
The Bosque de Chapultepec is Mexico City’s largest park. It’s huge, stretching over 1,600-acres and packed with stalls, open spaces, ponds and trees. Inside its vast grounds, you’ll also find a zoo and a handful of museums, including the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. While you’re there, take a walk up to the Chapultepec castle for some great views out over the skyline.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia is Mexico largest and most visited museum and the world’s most comprehensive natural history museum. It houses four square kilometres of exhibits, over twenty-three exhibition halls. The museum has fascinating exhibits that are a must see for anyone wanting to understand Mexico’s multicultural heritage and history. You should allow yourself at least half a day here.
Admission: 70 pesos per adults.
The Torre Latinoamerica is no longer the tallest building in Mexico City but its 360-degree observation deck located on the 44th floor still offers magnificent views out across the city. On a clear day, you can fully appreciate the immense scale of the city and see all the way out to the surrounding mountains. The ticket to the observation deck lasts the entire day so you can visit during both day and night.
Admission: 110 pesos per adults.
Xochimilco is Mexico’s version of Venice. In this colourful neighbourhood, you’ll find a network of canals and floating gardens. The best way to experience it is by hiring a trajineras (a colourful gondola-like boat) and floating down the canals. You’ll pass by lots of vendors selling food and drinks and even mariachis providing some entertainment.
A trip to Xochimilco will take about half a day. You can join a tour if you like but it’s also easy to reach by public transport.
National University of Mexico
The National University of Mexico is the largest university campus in the world. Its main campus was world heritage listed in 2007 and was designed by some of Mexico’s best-known 20th-century architects. It contains numerous works of monumental art. Be sure to visit the Biblioteca central to see the iconic mural created by Juan O’Gorman.
Coyoacan used to be a rural village but it is now a quiet neighbourhood of Mexico City with colonial-era architecture, great food and good shopping. It’s lined with old mansions and is home to some of the best museums in the city. This includes the famous Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s former home, which has been turned into a museum. If you want to visit Casa Azul, head there very early to avoid the lines at the entrance.
The Mercado Merced is one of the country’s best-known produce markets and one of the largest markets in the world. It’s a staggering maze of vendors selling anything from vegetables, hardware, piñatas and traditional crafts. It’s so vast that if you go there alone you should be careful not to get lost! Keep a close eye out for pickpockets as well.
You just can’t visit Mexico City without taking the time to visit the Teotihuacán Archeological complex. Teotihuacán is an hour northeast from Mexico City. It’s well worth the trip because the ancient city of Teotihuacán is one of the largest and best-preserved ancient cities in the world. It is famous for its giant Aztec temples (the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon).
You can climb to the top of those pyramids for some spectacular views of the whole city. But be sure to arrive early, because climbing them in the hot Mexican sun is no fun at all!
There are many tour operators running daily trips from Mexico City to Teotihuacán. You can also take a public bus or taxi to get there. It costs seventy pesos to enter the ruins and you need at least three to four hours to explore the complex.
Where to eat?
Mexico City is paradise for all the foodies out there. If like me Mexican is your favourite food, then you are in for a real treat! My mouth is watering just thinking about the tacos, tortas, chilaquiles, enchiladas, mole and all the other delicious Mexican food that you can find all around the city. There is appetising street food to be found on every street corner but Mexico City also has some of the top restaurants in the world. If you love food, you’ll love Mexico City!
Tostadas de Coyoacan
We found this low key place in the middle of the Coyoacan market. You sit at the counter and order tostadas on a small card, just like in a sushi or Yum Cha restaurant. You’ll find different sorts of tostadas at about 30-40 pesos each. All are freshly cooked and delicious!
Restaurante El Cardenal
This place serves authentic Mexican cuisine in a historic building. The food is exceptional, especially the chicken in green mole. They are also open early if you fancy a yummy Mexican breakfast and they make the best hot chocolate ever!
La Casa de las Sirenas
This restaurant is housed in a 16th century stone building, right behind the cathedral gardens and next to the Templo Mayor. It serves delicious classical Mexican cuisine, including regional and seasonal dishes. The food is delicious but the views are even better! Ask to sit on the rooftop terrace to have a view of the back of the Cathedral, part of the Templo Mayor and the Palacio Nacional.
Enrique Olvera’s famed Pujol is renowned as one of the best restaurants in the world. It delivers the finest traditional Mexican dishes with a 21st-century twist. If you can afford it, try and fit in a dinner there, but be sure to book early as it’s extremely popular.
Where to stay?
Hostel Suites DF
This is a small but cosy hostel located close to Mexico City’s tourist attractions and close to public transportation. They have private rooms as well as dorms. Prices start from AU$80. Click here to find the latest prices.
Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico
We stayed at The Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico because of its location. It’s right on the Zocalo Square and close to all the main historic centre attractions. As soon as we stepped inside we could feel its history. With Art Nouveau decor, gilded open elevators and immaculate stained-glass ceilings in the lobby, the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico is a tribute to the past without compromising on comfort. Prices start from AU$170. Click here to find the latest prices.
Four Seasons Hotel Mexico City
For a luxurious stay, you can’t beat the Four Seasons. Located on the Paseo de la Reforma, the Four Seasons Hotel Mexico City is an easy walk to the Bosque de Chapultepec park, Chapultepec castle and the hot neighbourhoods of Condesa and Polanco. Prices start from AU$400. Click here to find the latest prices.
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So is Mexico City’s bad reputation well founded? We certainly didn’t think so.
Is it dirty? Well, we didn’t think it was any worse than many other big cities. We have seen way worse over the years. It’s certainly not as clean as Singapore of course but it’s no worse than Paris.
Is it polluted? Well, nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains that trap in pollution, and with more than twenty million people living there, the air quality can get quite bad. I wasn’t affected but Simon is asthmatic and he started to really feel it after four days there.
Is it dangerous? Like every big city, there are places you should avoid, but the city is a lot safer now than it was twenty years ago. Did we ever feel unsafe? No. I am so glad we weren’t deterred by this and went ahead with our visit. I’d love to go back there one day to see all the places that we missed the first time.