Just Back From: Mexico City

Museo Frida Kahlo Mexico CityBright blue exterior of the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City
Maya Stanton

From cutting-edge museums and fine dining to street-side taco stands and hyper-colorful graffiti, Mexico's capital has something for everyone.

When a friend suggested a trip for her banner-year birthday, we needed a destination that was reasonably priced, close enough for a short visit, and, in early September, warm enough to make us forget that summer was ending. With Mexico City, we got two out of three: It is indeed reasonably priced, both in terms of getting there ($250 roundtrip from New York!) and getting around ($5 to Uber from the airport to the city center!), and the time change is negligible, making it more than manageable for a holiday weekend. The weather wasn’t as unrelentingly hot and sunny as expected, but we packed northern California-esque layers, and it was perfectly pleasant. 

Mexico’s capital is a sprawling metropolis that offers so much to see and do that it’s practically impossible to check everything off your list in just three or four days. Which is fine—you’ll be planning your next visit before your return flight has left the runway. Here’s a little taste of what to expect from one of the world’s most populous urban centers.

1. A Network of Neighborhoods

Home to more than 20 million people spread across some 571 square miles, there's no chance of seeing all of the city in one go. Your best bet is to focus on a few colonias, or neighborhoods, and even then, you’ll probably be frustrated by the sheer volume of museums, galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars in each that you don’t have time for. We stayed in the Centro Historico—a friend called it the Times Square of Mexico City, but with more monuments and historical landmarks. It may not be the prettiest or the trendiest, but true to its name, its central location makes it a convenient base of operations. Check out the Zócalo, the city’s main plaza; visit the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán at Templo Mayor, and hit a museum or two before taking an Uber (or the metro) to one of the outlying neighborhoods. West of the Centro, a half-hour cab ride away, the moneyed, tree-lined streets of Polanco provide a respite from the downtown scrum, with posh boutiques (and plenty of upscale chains familiar to the American eye), fancy restaurants, and chic cocktail joints. Southeast of Polanco, Condesa offers ample opportunities for people-watching, with sidewalk cafés and bars that draw tourists and locals alike. And to the east, the neighboring Roma is a hipster hangout par excellence, with great restaurants, coffee shops, and bookstores.

2. A Collection of Curiosities

For unique sights and experiences that give a distinct sense of place, look further afield. The Museo Frida Kahlo (museofridakahlo.org.mx), for one, sits in the peaceful suburb of Coyoacán, and it’s worth braving the throngs for a glimpse into the private lives of two of Mexico’s most iconic artists. Pro tip: For the best chance of avoiding the crowds, book tickets in advance for the earliest timed entry available, and go on a weekday. Allot plenty of time to wander through Frida’s bedroom, gaze out onto the idyllic gardens from her studio window, and imagine yourself at the kitchen table, sipping tea with Diego Rivera. Directly north, in the decidedly nondescript environs of Buenavista, is Biblioteca Vasconcelos (bibliotecavasconceles.gob.mx), an architectural marvel designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach. With interlocking, towering metal-and-glass stacks holding more than 600,000 volumes, this public library is pretty much heaven for bibliophiles.  

3. An Array of Fantastic Food

Anyone who’s nibbled on a subpar burrito and dreamed of the real deal, rest assured: You'll find it in abundance here in the motherland. From perfect little three-bite tacos in the Centro to upscale bistro fare and chi-chi tasting menus in the outlying neighborhoods, a culinary revolution is underway in the Ciudad de México. We booked a table at Máximo Bistrot Local (maximobistrot.com.mx) in Roma for a leisurely—if unfashionably early—lunch. (The cognoscenti don’t sit down until at least 2:00 p.m.) A swank, smart-casual spot, Máximo specializes in beautifully plated, Frenchified takes on classic Mexican dishes, from an outstanding sea urchin tostada to an unparalleled octopus ceviche. Also in Roma is Fonda Fina (fondafina.com.mx), a small space that treats Mexican cuisine with the reverence it deserves. Try the memela, a masa cake topped with octopus, pressed pork, and roasted cauliflower; the tortilla soup and the squash blossom–laden salad are also standouts. On the other end of the scale, the tiny tortillas from Taqueria Los Cocuyos in the Centro are as good before a night on the town as they are after one. The suadero (brisket) is good, as is the lengua, but the mixed-meat campechano was my personal favorite. If a sugary nightcap is more your speed, the 24-hour outpost of Churrería El Moro is not to be missed. Four churros and a side of dipping chocolate will set you back less than $2, and you’ll have sweet dreams to boot. Do note, though, that almost all sit-down spots close at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. on Sundays, so plan your meals accordingly. 

4. A Booming Art Scene

From hyper-colorful graffiti to carefully preserved murals by national treasures like Diego Rivera, and from sleek contemporary galleries and museums to grand dame institutions, Mexico City is a hotbed of artistic activity. In the Centro Histórico, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (palacio.bellasartes.gob.mx) is a must-see. This extraordinary theater was completed in 1934 and boasts a neoclassical facade, Art Deco interiors, and eye-catching murals. Take a tour or catch a show (the folkloric ballet is particularly memorable; see below for details), but whatever you do, get there before the curtain—a shimmering stained-glass number from Tiffany & Co.—goes up. A few blocks away, the Museo Nacional de Arte (munal.mx) focuses on art produced between the late 1500s and the early 1950s, with rotating exhibitions on subjects as varied as landscape master José María Velasco and modern muse Nahui Olin. A few miles to the west, the 1,655-acre Bosque de Chapultepec plays host to a number of noteworthy sites, including the Castillo de Chapultepec, a mansion with historic displays, a solid gift shop, and a terrace with sweeping city views; the Museo de Arte Moderno (museoartemoderno.com), featuring assorted work by 20th-century Mexican painters, sculptors, photographers, and more; and the Museo Nacional de Antropología (mna.inah.gob.mx), a supremely cool collection of galleries arranged around a central courtyard and dedicated to the country’s pre-Hispanic history. Just be aware that most museums are closed on Mondays. 

5. A Show of National Pride

The citizens of North America’s largest capital have plenty of reasons to be proud of their city. I visited just before the country celebrated its Independence Day on September 16th, and Mexico’s red, white, and green were on full display throughout the streets. But you don’t need a special occasion to get a feel for the city’s national pride. Performed year-round, twice a week, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández (balletfolkloricodemexico.com.mx) is a high-energy interpretation of classic Mexican dance. Through costumes, characters, and music that reflect the country’s heritage, the members of this skirt-swirling, lasso-twirling, tap-dancing company channel the traditions of days gone by. For 300 pesos (roughly $15), you can snag a seat in the nosebleeds, and you won’t find better value for the money. ¡Viva México! indeed.

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