How do you describe a city of almost 22 million people? Well, maybe start in the centre, because it features all the extremes of Mexico City. From skyscrapers, awesome murals and classic museums to the craziest street market and gentle parks.
- General introduction
- Food and drinks
- Activities / Things to do
- Getting there and getting around
Growing pains. Those are probably the best words to describe what Mexico City has been experiencing in the last couple of decades. The city just wasn’t prepared for the huge growth in inhabitants anbd economic activity. Combined with the physical constraints of the valley – the mountains here are a tangible and not-to-be neglected barrier – that created a lot of problems. Pollution and crime being the main ones.
The subway is a good example of it. It is rather efficient, but didn’t grow with the city. Which means that huge areas are not covered by the best means of public transportation. And safety has been a serious issue in the metro as well: nowadyas 25% of the carriages have been reserved for women and children, police presence has been increased considerably.
This not-so-friendly face to the outside world also deceives a bit though. Yes, in the northern edges are favelas not unlike those in Rio de Janeiro, where crime is rife. But huge parts of the city are relatively safe. And for such a huge place, it has a surprising amount of small-scale neighborhoods.
And the character of a big city of course also shows in its cultural life. Their crazy lucha libre wrestling is almost a copy of the American WWF. The amazing museums in the centre and in Chapultepec are world-class, some of the best artists perform in the huge arenas. And for sports fans the Azteca football stadium is a temple. Exhausting? Yes. Boring? Never.
- City center: when you look at the map of Mexico City, it is hard to imagine the metropolis would have a tiny centre. Funnily enough, the Mexicans did a good job in retaining the colonial small-town feel in the centre. To such an extent that the skyscraper that would not be called skyscraper in another city, the Torre Latino, is the highest building.
- For tourists, some historic buildings are the obvious main attractions at first sight. Around the zocalo – all central squares in Mexican cities are called like that – one can find the cathedral, the Palacio Nacional (with a lot of murals of course) and the Museo de Ciudad de Mexico. But it gets more interesting on either edge of this district. On the west side you can find the Alameda park, with a famous Diego Rivera mural in a museum on the west side, and the world-famous yellow/gold-domed Palacio de Bellas Artes on the other. Oh, and the Museo Franz Mayer is on the northern side in an old patio-style building, and the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia on the southern side in a modern construction. On the eastern side of the zocalo, the Merced market (best to be entered from the subway with the same name) is a no-holds-barred introduction to Mexican street life. Loud, busy, colorful: an overload for the senses.
- Polanco was made for the word ‘swanky’. The bustling city life has been reduced here by only four-lane traffic arteries, interlaced with quiet streets full of trees. This is the place where you can find all the expensive luxury brands (Avenida Presidente Masaryk), imaginative high-class restaurants, hipster bars, expensive coffee and Parisian patisseries. It has one of the best libraries of town (El Pendulo, where time seems to have stood still), and the Soumaya museum with its metal modern facade is the icing on the cake. Adjacent is also the excellent Jumex contemporary art museum. This is the neighborhood where most tourists go, as it is green, safe and around the corner of Chapultepec park
- Roma was made famous by the Alfonsu Cuaron movie of the same name in 2018 (Tepeji street, in case you were wondering). In recent years several neighborhoods in this area southwest of the city centre (Zona Rosa is another one) have been slowly improving. The nice thing here is that, away from the main streets, these low buildings actually generate a small-town feel. This really is a neighborhood, with small cafes and restaurants and shops. It will be interesting to see whether it develops into something swanky and expensive, as happened in Polanco. The main traffic artery, Alvaro Obregon, has some great art nouveau architecture. The Casa Lamm is the cultural heart of Roma
- Zona Rosa is probably the best place to go for a party. At night this area comes alive and is the epicentre of the already vibrant gay scene in the Mexican capital
- La Condesa is in the early stages of the one-day walk along Avenida Insurgentes Sur. It has the same gentle, leafy feel as Polanco and Roma, partly due to the green heart of Parque Mexico
- Santa Fe is the modern heart of Mexico City. On the western edge, it showcases dazzling skyscrapers that want to shoot the city vertically up on the world ladder of prosperity. Fitting for a city that seems to cover all the extremes possible
- San Angel was a small suburban village decades ago. By now it has been swallowed by the big beast, located just before the university city. This colonial town still feels like a village, has a great saturday market and in the evenings features the finest cuisine of the entire city probably
Food and drinks
In a city of this scale, it’s probably wisest to stick to areas instead of specific venues as a recommendation.
- Polanco obviously has it all, from posh places like Nobu to countless other restaurants and slightly more affordable eateries. The epicentre is around Calle Oscar Wilde and Calle Julio Verne, with the intersecting Calle Virgilio and other surrounding streets hosting a lot of hotspots
- A similar relaxed feel and affordable gastronomy can be found in the La Condesa area (around Parque Mexico) and in Colonia Roma. In the evening, the long trip to suburban colonial San Angel is worth the trip as well, if you have a thick purse
- Mexico is known for its very affordable Menu del Dia, usually a three- or four-course meal for around 5 dollars, offered usually over lunchtime in mid-range eateries. Even eating a la carte doesn’t break the bank. Obviously, there are many many fast-food options in the big cities (American chains have expanded into Mexico and beyond as well). And then you have the countless street vendors, where locals buy a tortilla or torta for lunch. You can grab a roadside seat and join them for a chat. Food quality in general does not seem tobe the biggest issue in big cities, though caution is advised. If it doesn’t look good, listen to your gut feeling and protect your gut
- In most areas with good restaurants you can have drinks as well and relax until slightly after midnight. After that, your best bet is one of the raucous clubs of Mexico City, which are always too full and warm. Zona Rosa is the main gay district. According to locals, the Patrick Miller is great on friday nights where the Mexicans shake their thangs. El Real Under is popular on both weekend nights and more for rock music. If you want techno, the Foro Normandie, YuYu and Terminal Club are institutions
- The city centre boasts a lot of worthwhile places:
- Palacio de Bellas Artes: this yellow/gold/rusty-domed palace is a must-see, though hopelessly unprepared for the huge crowds it attracts, especially during public holidays. Most of the building is actually a venue for performing arts, but the exhibition part is the main attraction. The wood-panelled interior has several huge murals of Rivera, Siqueiros and others (including Orozco works) in the main atrium. Temporary exhibitions vary in quality and can get very busy (tip: for perfect views go to the rooftop coffee bar of the Sears shopping center opposite the Bellas Artes)
- Museo Mural Diego Rivera: I actually expected a range of murals here from Diego Rivera, the husband of Mexico’s sweetheart Frida Kahlo. It actually only has one, but in typical Rivera-style it wants to depict almost the entire history of Mexico. Short but compulsory visit, on the western edge of Alameda park
- Centro de la Imagen: the entire library complex of Ciudadela (and the nearby artesanal market) along Calle Balderas are worth a visit. The Centro de la Imagen takes only a small part of it, but has some great photography exhibitions. Walking distance from Alameda as well
- Palacio Nacional: if there is one place where Rivera left his mark, it is in the national palace, dead-bang on the eastern edge of the Zocalo square. Between 1929 and 1951 he created an alternative version if history for those who could not read, including satirical portraits of the Spanish conquerors. The scale of the works is so vast, he never managed to finish them completely
- Museo Nacional de Arte: the muralists are present here as well, including the astonishing and grueling Cabeza Flechada painting by Orozco. Works by Velasco and many many more are on display in this dark building as well
- Museo Franz Mayer: on the northern side of Alameda park, it houses temporary exhibits in an old mansion. Amongst others it hosts the World Press Photo exhibition annually
- Museo Memoria y Tolerancia: dedicated to the decades-long violence in the country, this exhibition is housed in a mdern building at the southern edge of Alameda park
- Museo de Ciudad de Mexico: contemporary art exhibitions in this old huge mansion three blocks from the Zocalo
- Chapultepec park has plenty of museums to keep you busy for a day. Some highlights:
- Inside the hilltop castle twelve rooms of the National History Museum try to show part of the country’s past. The next museum is much better at that, but the views here of the skyline are unsurpassed
- National Museum of Anthropology: the entire history, and more, of this vast country in this vast museum
- Museo de Arte Moderno: the sculpture garden is only a prologue for a vast collection of Mexican contemporary art, mainly paintings from the two main eras. It’s a good place because it doesn’t only show you the regulars (Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco and Kahlo), but shows the breadth and depth of Mexican painting
- Museo Rufino Tamayo: this one has more temporary exhibitions than its neighboring Museo de Arte MOderno. Exciting place, architecturally as well, and not as busy as the other institutions in the park
- Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil: unassuming place, a bit west of the Avenida Insurgentes Sur. But its permanent exhibition has a lot of paintings (not murals) of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco that were intended for an exhibition in Chile in the seventies. that one never took place because of a coup, so the paintings were given to the Carrillo Gil instead
- Polyforum Siqueiros: the entire building is an artwork. From the architecture to the interior and exterior, where muralist Siqueiros could show all of his skills. In front of the World Trade Center, along Insurgentes Sur
- MUAC: the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte is one of the city’s finest for contemporary art, in the middle of University City. Opening times are tied to the student semesters though, I can unfortunately tell from own experience. Further south in the same area is the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporaneo, which I haven’t visited yet
- Casa Azul: probably the only museum in Mexico City that charges Western European prices, because of its popularity and limited capacity. Buy your tickets in advance if you can. Compared to other museums in town, both quantity and quality of the art are limited, but then again there is only one real Frida Kahlo house
- Museo Anahuacalli: Kahlo’s lover / husband / muse Diego Rivera was fascinated by pre-Hispanic art. He wanted to leave a legacy to his country by building Anahuacalli, with its 50,000 (!!!) artefacts. The building itself, in the southern parts of town, is a remarkable god’s house made out of black volcanic stone
- Soumaya: amazing place with a srange but impressive collection. It’s metal-draped exterior reminds you of many Frank Gehry buildings (the Guggenheim Bilbao for example). The Soumaya houses contemporary art and historical artefacts and is located in the western part of Polanco. Paid for by Carlos Slim, a media mogul and one of the richest men of Mexico
- Jumex: contemporary art museum next to the Soumaya. Interesting temporary exhibitions
- Casa Luis Barragan: former house of the world-famous architect. Can only be visited as part of a guided tour, by previous reservation only
- Ecoducto: in the middle of a highway, on top of an aquaduct, is the Ecoducto. It’s an ecological park / walkway, a nice walk of 1’000-1’500 metres. Located east of the Avenida Insurgentes Sur along Miguel Aleman Valdez boulevard, on the southern edge of the Roma neighborhood
Activities / things to do
- Xochimilco: these lakes / canals south of the city are a major tourist attraction, though hard to reach. It is a rather surreal experience though to walk and boat around here
- Biblioteca Vasconcelos: not in most tourist guides, this is one of the most baffling libraries in the world. Partly that’s due to its enormous size (38,000 square metres), partly due to its construction. Most floors seem to almost float in nothingness, hanging by their steel cables. This was a 2006 prestige project by then-president Vicente Fox
- Lucha libre: America has its own professional wrestling, Mexico has lucha libre. The masked men stage ludicrous spectacles, which are still baffling popular. The most important fights are held regularly in the huge Arena Mexico
- Azteca stadium: the stage for the World Cup finals in 1970 and 1986, this is a genuine football temple. It will be renovated for the World Cup 2026 which will partly take place in Mexico again. The local teams Cruz Azul and Club America have it as their homebase nowadays
- Luis Barragan: this one could have been filed under art as well. The former house of the famous architect is the perfect illustration of some of his best work. On the south side of Chapultepec
- Centro Cultural Tlatelolco: off-the-beaten track, this cultural centre can get lively in the evenings when students and locals gather for the cinema and bars here. Adjacent is agood archeological site as well
- El Pendulo: sweet little library where time seems to have stood still. It’s a good place to eat as well. You would expect Harry Potter to show up anytime here. Located inconspicuously in the heart of Polanco
- Mercado de Artesanias de la Cuidadela: if you are looking for souvenirs but want to escape the huge crowds of La Merced, go to this place
Getting to CDMX and getting around
- Airport: plans for a new airport have been shelved for now. The current one, quite close to the eastern edges of the city, is too small for the insame amounts of visitors. Connection with public transport is good. If you arrive late though, after 11pm, catching the subway becomes tricky. Your best and safest bet is a taxi for a fixed price. Tell your destination to the dispatch agent and they will charge you the appropriate amount for that zone
- Long-distance bus: Coming from the north and west of the country, buses almost all leave from Terminal Autobus de Norte, which is connected to the subway system. When leaving early or arriving late, taking a taxi there might pe preferrable. From here buses go to most major cities in Mexico. The TAPO bus terminal is on the eastern edge of the city and has connections to Puebla, Oaxaca and beyond. It’s also connected to the metro (San Lazaro station)
- Getting around: the subway system is cheap and efficient. It doesn’t cover the entire city though, and in rush hour it can get crowded (and be aware of pickpockets then). To diminish the problem, the red metrobuses have been driving for around fifteen years now. They have their dedicated lanes, which means they are relatively quick as well. These can get VERY crowded as well though. Avoid the outskirts of the city and the slower buses there, as they are infamous for robberies. You can also subscribe to the BICI system, a network of bikes you can pick up and leave at designated locations throughout the city
- local tips: to get even more inspiration, especially about galleries, cafes and restaurants, the Spotted By Locals site and app is an excellent source
- shopping: spread all over the entire city. The Liverpool shopping centres are relatively luxurious. In Polanco there is an avenue full of luxury goodies
- The weather: because of the height (around 2,200 metres above sea level) the weather is very gentle here. Winters are smooth and dry (around 20-25 degrees during the day, at night it can get chilly). Summers are warmer and much more humid, rainy season is from april/max until september/october. Best time to visit is after the New Year holidays until the week before Easter (the Semana Santa, holy week)