After four months of living in Mexico City, I am more obsessed with the city than ever before. Before I made the move, I had visited DF (short for Distrito Federal, the local name for the city) over a dozen times. With each visit, I fell more in love with this vibrant city, its people, and its rich culture.
Since returning stateside, I have been bombarded with questions about life south of the border. What I’ve found, is that most Americans know very little about our southern neighbor. And what they do know is often negative. Don’t get me wrong, Mexico certainly has its fair share of problems. But Mexico City is so much more than that. It’s a city with unparalleled cultural attractions, a world-renowned gastronomy scene, and expansive parks. It’s also the city with the most museums in the world! I have never once felt unsafe in Mexico City and I’m so glad I didn’t let my preconceived notions, or the misconceptions of others, prevent me from visiting (and then living in!) this enchanting city.
Even now, I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this enormous city. There’s a never-ending (and constantly expanding!) list of things to see and do. But if I had to narrow it down to my top 10 things to do, the following would have to make the cut:
1. Palacio de Bellas Artes
This lavish palace of fine arts is one of the jewels of Mexico City. I’ve been dying to see a concert, ballet, or opera here. But even if you don’t catch a performance, Bellas Artes is definitely worth a visit. It boasts impressive marble interiors and massive murals by practically every major national muralist, including the famed Diego Rivera. After touring it, head over to the nearby Palacio de Correos, by far the most opulent post office I have ever seen. Fun fact: It was designed by the same Italian architect who designed Bellas Artes.
Tip: Make a day of touring downtown, the historic center of the city. First visit Bellas Artes and Palacio de Correos. Then stroll down pedestrian-only Madero Street toward the Zocalo and visit the Cathedral and Palacio Nacional. Even better, explore downtown on a Sunday when the main avenue is closed to cars. Stroll down Paseo de la Reforma or take an EcoBici, a bike sharing system similar to Citi Bikes. Don’t miss the Angel of Independence on your way!
2. Zocalo / Historic Downtown
Even before the Spanish arrived, the Zocalo was Mexico City’s center square. Hundreds of years later it is still buzzing with activity and is full of history. Plan on spending some time here because there’s a lot to see! First stop by the Cathedral. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon a mass and get to hear the impressive organ. (Not so) fun fact: When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico City, they destroyed the Aztec capital and its “pagan” temples and used many of the stones to construct the Cathedral. In the 70s, the ruins of the Aztec’s central temple were unearthed and today the archaeological site (located right next to the Zócalo) is open to visitors.
Next, visit Palacio Nacional (pictured above). Built on the site of the last Aztec emperor’s home, this enormous palace was originally the home of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. Since gaining independence from Spain, it has served as seat of the Mexican government. Head up the stairs and you’ll find Diego Rivera’s massive mural representing the entire history of the Mexican people.
Tip: Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to El Mayor for an amazing view of the Aztec temple ruins or to the magical Azul Histórico for lunch. Dining in the courtyard of a 17th century estate is only fitting after a day of touring palaces!
3. Chapultepec Castle and Park
The first time I visited Mexico City, my boyfriend took me to this opulent imperial castle overlooking the city and I was absolutely blown away by it. Did you know Mexico was an empire not once but twice?? The story behind this castle and the emperor who lived there is a fascinating and important part of Mexican history. Perched on a hill in the middle of a forest, the view of the city is also unbeatable. After touring the castle (or before), stroll the grounds of Chapultepec Park. It is one of the world’s great urban parks and is over twice the size of Central Park! It would take ages to cover it all so I’d suggest making the Anthropology Museum or Tamayo Museum your destination.
4. El Bazar del Sábado (Saturday Bazaar)
If you happen to find yourself in Mexico City on a Saturday, make sure you stop by this colorful bazaar. Housed in a grand colonial plaza in the historic neighborhood of San Angel, Bazar del Sábado will give you a real sense of Mexican culture. It also presents an excellent opportunity to pick up some of the country’s best handcrafted jewelry, woodwork, ceramics and textiles. After shopping, dine at the restaurant within the plaza’s courtyard and watch traditional Mexican dances while eating fresh-off-the-pan quesadillas. Next, check out the weekly street market right across from the plaza. There you’ll find traditional indigenous products and the perfect regalito, or little gift, for your friends and family back home.
5. Floating Gardens of Xochimilco
Although this is a classic tourist activity, it’s still a lot of fun and is the perfect activity for a nice afternoon. Xochimilco (meaning “garden of flowers” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec’s) is also rooted in history. Fun fact: Mexico City was originally built on a lake and Xochimilco is the last remnant of the vast system of causeways, canals, manmade islands and floating gardens that existed during the time of the Aztecs. Select a colorful trajinera and spend your day cruising these ancient canals and exploring floating gardens that once fed the largest city on Earth (the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City).
Tip: For a fee, a mariachi trio will float along beside you and play songs at your request. And if you forget to pack a picnic, don’t worry, you can easily hail beer and snacks from your boat.
6. Teotihuacan Pyramids
Although it takes about an hour and a half to get to Teotihuacan from downtown Mexico City (depending on traffic of course), it is definitely worth the trip. Teotihuacan is the site of many of the largest pyramids built in pre-Columbian America. The best part is, these pyramids are well-preserved and climbable. The Pyramid of the Sun is one of the most imposing in the world and if you’re like me, you’ll be panting by the time you’ve reached the top. But the view and birds-eye perspective of the rest of the site is, as they say in Mexico, vale la pena (worth the pain).
Tip: Visit the Anthropology Museum before going and you’ll have much greater insight into the historical significance of the Teotihuacan civilization.
7. UNAM (National University)
The UNAM’s campus is so big it’s literally its own city. Located in the south of the city, Mexico’s National University is home to an incredible Modernist sculpture garden, the stadium of the 1962 Olympic Games, monumental murals, and over 235,000 students. It’s also classified as a World Heritage site. First, stroll through the lava rocks of the sculpture garden and snap some photos with the giant artworks (such as the 120-meter Sculptural Space seen above). Next, catch the latest exhibition at the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC). Afterwards, drive a short distance to the UNAM’s Central Library. There you can relax on the lawn under enormous murals (considered Mexican masterpieces) and enjoy some top notch people watching.
Tip: Entrance to the sculpture garden is free but it’s only open during the week.
8. José Vasconcelos Library
If you’re into architecture, a book lover, or both, you absolutely have to check this library out. It is an architectural design feat and pictures don’t come close to capturing just how awe-inspiring this space is. Climb the stairs and enjoy the view of the surrounding botanical garden and cityscape from the top floor. Afterwards, take advantage of being in this part of the city and walk through the charming streets until you reach the Museo del Chopo, a contemporary art museum with some wild exhibits. Then continue to the Kiosco Morisco. Designed for the 1884 World’s Fair, this Moorish-style iron kiosk is the last thing you’d expect to see in Mexico City. But that’s exactly why I love this city so much, it’s always full of surprises!
9. Frida Kahlo Museum
A visit to Mexico City isn’t complete without visiting the home of Mexico’s most famous icon–Frida Kahlo. Located in the charming colonial neighborhood of Coyoacan, la Casa Azul is the home Frida grew up in and eventually died in. A tribute to her life and work, the blue house showcases some of her most famous paintings. Today, it remains almost exactly as she left it.
Tip: Buy tickets online in advance here in order to skip the long line. If you haven’t already, I’d also recommend watching Frida, the movie starring Salma Hayek, before you go.
10. Anthropology Museum
Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology is an excellent introduction to the country’s pre-Hispanic history and culture. Visiting this museum on my first trip to DF really opened my eyes to the fact that, contrary to the media’s depiction, Mexico is not a homogenous country. It is a country made up of many ancient civilizations, each with its own language and traditions that endure today.
The Anthropology Museum houses thousands of pre-Hispanic treasures and many of the most important findings from archaeological digs across the country. Highlights include the original Aztec calendar unearthed in Mexico City, giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization from Veracruz, a jade mask found in a Mayan ruler’s tomb, and my personal favorite—an Aztec ruler’s exquisite headdress made from vibrant blue and green quetzal feathers.