The Best Way to Explore Mexico City? Pick a Neighborhood
Travelers are flocking to this bustling city and it's easy to see why.
With a million more people in its metropolitan area than New York City and a physical area more than 10 percent larger than Los Angeles, Mexico’s capital is definitely the largest city in the Americas. The bustling and cosmopolitan Mexico City offers an incredible range of sights and sounds, along with some of the world’s best food and drinks. Plus, it’s an easy trip from the States, with direct flights available into its Benito Juarez International Airport from more than 20 different cities in the US.
Mexico City needs to be higher on Americans’ wishlists, and it is indeed starting to become a more popular destination. But with a city so large and diverse, it can be hard to figure out where to start. You could try to hit all of Mexico City’s many attractions in a single trip, but you’ll run yourself ragged. My suggestion instead: Pick a neighborhood and spend a few days exploring it completely. Walk around, get to know the place, stumble upon something all the guidebooks and travel stories have missed. Different parts of Mexico City offer very different experiences for a tourist, and once you’ve seen one, you’ll want to come back again to see the rest.
Below you’ll find three Mexico City areas to explore. Pick one and spend a weekend, or plan a longer trip and take a couple days in each!
Polanco/Bosque de Chapultepec
With streets named after philosophers, authors and scientists from Archimedes to Edgar Allan Poe, Polanco is the ritziest part of Mexico City, a district of high-end shopping, luxury car dealerships and top-flight restaurants. It's home to many diplomats, politicians and celebrities, too. It’s also located right next to Bosque de Chapultepec, a massive park that could occupy a traveler for a few days all by itself. Containing nine museums, a zoo, an amusement park, a lake with pedal-boats for rent, the official residence of Mexico’s President and more, the 1700-acre, tree-filled space is kind of like a cross between Central Park in New York and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Where to Eat
Breakfast: JoSelo Café
Mexico is a nation of excellent coffee in general, and this spot serves what many call the best espresso in town. It’s also right across the street from the artificial lake and statues of the lovely Parque Lincoln, and you can sit and enjoy a pastry and a hot drink while you watch the morning traffic roll by, or get them to go and stroll through the park.
Lunch: Quesadillas Maria Isabel
This humble lunch spot looks like it hasn’t changed a bit in decades, and that’s a good sign. The quesadillas here are a bit different than an American might expect—they’re fried pockets of corn masa dough made to order and available filled with everything from potato to chorizo to squash blossoms, with or without cheese — but they’re a local legend for good reason.
Widely known as Mexico’s finest restaurant, Pujol sits at #20 on the 2017 World’s 50 Best list. Chef Enrique Olvera has won fame here and at several other outlets (including Cosme in New York) for his artistic takes on classic Mexican cuisine. Pujol offers a rotating six-course tasting menu, and you’ll definitely need to make reservations in advance.
Drinks: Jules Basement
To find this speakeasy-style cocktail joint, look for the burly gentleman in a suit standing next to what looks like a refrigerator door in the unassuming taqueria Surtidora Don Batiz. He’s actually the doorman for this basement bar, a small but often-packed space offering sophisticated mixed drinks, live jazz and Damien Hirst-esque skull-shaped tables.
What to Do
Bosque de Chapultepec is one of the world’s largest urban parks and offers an incredible amount to see and do. Highlights include the hilltop Chapultepec Castle, which was built in the late 1700s and has served as home to a Spanish viceroy, a French emperor and several Mexican Presidents, and is now the National Museum of History; the massive National Museum of Anthropology, an architectural marvel in its own right that houses artifacts from the Aztecs, Maya and other pre-Columbian cultures; and the Museo de Arte Moderno, with an extensive collection of 20th- and 21st-century Mexican art, including famous paintings by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Also, make sure to seek out Audiorama, a hidden oasis of calm where you can sit, relax and enjoy nature, books and classical music. The park is full of hundreds of cart vendors selling toys, snacks and souvenirs as well, along with a section of more permanent kiosks with outdoor seating cooking tacos, tortas and other tasty street food.
Where to Stay
Neither of this B&B’s two Polanco locations is very large — there are 32 rooms available between them both — but the quirky spots are among the best-designed hotel spaces in town. Between the functional and modern furniture; cookies, coffee and aguas frescas available at all hours; and delicious in-room breakfast, you’ll feel right at home.
On the opposite side of Bosque de Chapultepec from Polanco, you’ll find Mexico City’s hipster boroughs. Roma and La Condesa are full of Art Deco buildings from the early 20th century, as well as all sorts of independent coffee shops, contemporary-art galleries, tattooed chefs, mustachioed bartenders and vintage-shirt-rocking cool kids.
Where to Eat
Lardo has an extensive bar and serves excellent food and drinks in the evening, too, but it’s known best locally as a spot for a leisurely and hearty breakfast or brunch. Pair some chilaquiles or eggs and refried beans with a coffee or glass of house-squeezed juice and you’ll understand why. Lardo is the latest project of Elena Reygadas, who was named the best female chef in Latin America in 2014 for her nearby restaurant Rosetta.
The long lunch is an art form in Mexico City, and Contramar is one of the best places in town to settle in for an early-afternoon feast. Seafood is the focus here, and there are lots of excellent options. If you can’t choose between the house specialty whole-roasted fish, tuna tostadas, roasted octopus, snook meatballs or aguachile (an extra-spicy variation on ceviche), just order them all with a bottle of wine and stay for a few hours.
Huset relies heavily on a wood-fired oven and calls its cuisine “country cooking,” but this place is far from no-frills. The dining room is a magical outdoor patio decorated with hanging flowers and vines and Venezuelan-born chef/owner Maycoll Calderon has worked under several of the world’s top chefs, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Juan Mari Arzak and Ferran Adria. The menu changes every day, ensuring you’ll always be eating what’s freshest and most in-season.
Mexico City has heartily embraced the fancy-cocktail trend that’s spreading around the globe, with several world-class mixology bars around town. Licoreria Limantour, named the 14th-best bar in the world in 2017, is perhaps the best-known of those, and Baltra is run by the same owners, with the same level of sophistication — I’d say the drinks here are even better! Besides the list of clever and delicious cocktails, Baltra also frequently hosts guest bartenders from around the city and the world.
What to Do
If you’re into art or architecture, be sure to drop by Casa Lamm, a mansion built in 1911 that’s now a cultural center with a contemporary art gallery, an art library, a restaurant, college-level classes in art, literature and history, and frequent special events. Just a couple blocks away, you’ll find the Museo del Objeto del Objeto, which holds a collection of everyday items — from political buttons to toothpaste containers — dating back more than 200 years. You can also spiff up your wardrobe at Goodbye Folk, a cool boutique selling vintage clothing and shoes made by hand from Mexican leather, and pick up some gifts for the folks at home from Casa Bosques, a bookstore that also makes its own small-batch chocolate bars.
Where to Stay
Built into a fully restored Art Deco mansion originally constructed in 1928, the Condesa DF is a marvel of modern design, featuring custom furnishings created by Parisian designer India Mahdavi. Almost all of the 40 rooms offer either a balcony or private terrace, and the hotel looks out over the leafy expanse of Parque Espana. Oh, and guests can make use of the house BMW for rides around town.
Centro Historico means “historic center,” and the words could not be more apt for this heart of Mexico City: Before Europeans arrived in the Americas, the area was Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. After the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they built a city right on top of the ruins of that capital, and now the thriving neighborhood brings together all the eras of Mexico City’s history. Centro is anchored by El Zocalo, a massic public square surrounded by government buildings, the National Palace, a grand cathedral and many hotels, and full of historic buildings dating as far back as the 1500s. (The entire area is a UN World Heritage Site.)
Where to Eat
Breakfast: El Moro
Deep-fried churros and hot chocolate are an absolutely unforgettable pairing popular in both Spain and Mexico, and El Moro has been serving up both since 1935 in this historic storefront. It’s open 24 hours, which means it’s a great spot to start the day, to pop in for an afternoon snack or to stumble into after a big night out.
Lunch: Taqueria Los Cocuyos
If you leave Mexico without having eaten a street taco, you’ve done it all wrong. And this unassuming stand is among the best taquerias in the entire country. Try the chorizo (spicy sausage) or suadero (a beef cut similar to brisket), or if you’re feeling adventurous, order some tripe or brain tacos. No matter what, you’ll be happy you did.
Dinner: Cafe de Tacuba
Opened in 1912 as a grand palace of authentic Mexican food, Café de Tacuba remains one of the most popular restaurants in Mexico City. Order a classic dish like enchiladas or tamales and take in some live music — student groups perform every Wednesday through Sunday night. Make sure you take a walk around, too: The place is practically an art museum, filled with paintings, stained glass and other decorative elements.
Drinks: Zinco Jazz Club
Located in an actual former bank vault, this teeny-tiny club nonetheless attracts top jazz talent from both Mexico and abroad. (Plan to arrive early so you can score a table in the intimate venue.) Appropriate to a jazz club, the cocktail menu skews toward classics like the Sazerac and Martini, along with a few mezcal-based concoctions.
What to Do
If there are tickets available, you should absolutely not miss the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, which has been combining traditional and modern dance styles since 1952. The troupe usually performs in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an incredibly beautiful Art Nouveau theater that’s worth a visit even if there’s no show going on. For the fashion-minded, check out the Carla Fernandez flagship store (Isabel la Catolica 30), where the hotshot designer turns Mexican-made traditional textiles into ultra-modern looks. And to look into the past, go to the Templo Mayor, a museum of Aztec history located on the former site of Tenochtitlan’s main temple.
Where to Stay
First built in 1899 as a department store, this soaring building with a grand stairway, caged elevators and a stained-glass ceiling combines the elegance of an old-school grand hotel with all the modern conveniences you’d expect in 2018. And its location just off El Zocalo couldn’t be more convenient.