When spending some time in Mexico City during the December 2017 holidays, my family benefited from the tips shared by a number of friends, as well as recommendations from guidebooks, websites, and articles, along with other tips we stumbled upon from locals as well as our own experiences there. Ultimately, there was so much information that we wish we knew in advance of our trip. This doesn’t include every great spot we visited, but what it lacks in comprehensiveness I hope it makes up for in color.
Given the rich options to enjoy food, arts, history, natural beauty, nightlife, and so much more, this was one of our favorite trips. As a bonus, for Americans, the exchange rate is currently ridiculously favorable – a sumptuous meal for two at a great restaurant that would easily run over $200 in a major US city might not top $50 or $75 there, and street food or local options can run a couple bucks. Plus, it’s a short flight from practically any central US city, or accessible via fairly painless connections from most others. Practically the only thing it lacks is a beach, so if you go through there en route to one of Mexico’s many appealing beach options, try to spend a couple days enjoying the city (though you could easily spend a week or more and not even see all the highlights).
Anyway, the sales pitch (of which I receive no comission) is done. Here are the tips. ¡Buen viaje!
[Note: I returned to Mexico City for a conference in August 2017 and added to some of the recommendations.]
* Get tickets in advance to the Frida Kahlo Museum (Casa Azul). It could save you hours of waiting on a busy day. It’s outstanding.
* The Diego Rivera Museum (Anahuacalli) is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s one of the few major ones I missed.
* The Diego Rivera Mural Museum in Centro Historico is small but powerful. Visit it – you could spend a half hour ducking in there on the way to lunch (El Cardenal is very close by), or a bit longer if you’re not in a rush.
* Rivera’s best works may well be in the National Palace, which you can visit for free just by waiting in line. But you can visit the Secretariat of Education (Secretaria de Educacion Publica or SEP) just a couple blocks north. It’s also free, and there are some tremendous murals in a much less crowded environment where there isn’t even a line.
* Museo de Arte Popular is one of the best museums in the city, especially if you like folk art. It’s a really fun, expansive amalgamation of Mexican culture. While other museums feature more great works by great artists, this is perhaps the most fascinating (depending on your taste, of course).
* Soumaya Museum: Wow. It’s not easy to build one of the world’s great museums practically overnight, and yet the Slim family did it. If you love to see some of the world’s best paintings and sculptures by the best artists in one of the most unorthodox architectural marvels, this is your spot. Admission is free. Note that Soumaya is next door to Museo Jumex, another free museum with a relatively small collection of modern art. The exhibits were strange when I went, and not even featuring local artists; go if you’re curious and have extra time, but don’t budget time just for that. The best thing about the museum was the cafe in the lobby.
* National Art Museum: At Museo Nacional de Arte, there are two real treats: the historic building itself, and the works of Diego Velazquez. It’s a crash course on Mexican history, and not just art history. It is right next to the Bellas Artes palace in Alameda Central park. You could have a great day pairing this with Arte Popular, the Mural Museum, and then other sights in the Zocalo.
* Templo Mayor Museum: Not every city dedicates some of its most prime real estate to ancient history. Here, in the main square (Zocalo), you can visit archaelogical ruins and get a striking feel for Aztec life; points of interest are well labeled in English. For those with young children, there’s a stroller storage room.
* Chapultepec Castle: Plan on VERY long waits if it’s peak season. They let professors and students with valid ID cards in right away (you can walk past the line and go to security), but this does NOT apply to spouses unless they also have a student/professor ID card. Also, they let in children under 3 for free, but the parent still has to wait in line and buy a ticket. So, in a hypothetical scenario, if you’re a professor and you have your ID (even one on your phone may work), and you’re with your spouse and a one-year-old, you all still need to wait in line for the spouse to buy a ticket, or only you and the baby can go through.
* Boats in Xochimilco: It’s well worth the excursion. Take the boats from Embarcadero Cuemarco (if you need an Uber, you need an exact address like that). Uber takes 45-60 minutes (could be longer on a really ugly traffic day), and on the day we went, it was only about $10 (US) for the ride from the central district, so it’s far easier and faster than navigating trains.
* Ballet Folklorico de Mexico: This is one of those things that could sound really cheesy, but they’re ridiculously talented, and it’s a great education in Mexican history and culture. By the time they’re done, you’ll be wondering how anyone has the physical stamina to do those routines over such a long period. Tickets are sold on Ticketmaster, but if you want to get the tickets in hand and not deal with a service fee as a bonus, they’re also on sale at the famous Anthropology Museum (often cited as one of the top few attractions in Mexico City), so you can buy tickets at the booth there near the gift shop. For those visiting around Christmas, they have a special show that week outdoors in front of the castle (arrive at least 30 minutes early though given long lines for the shuttle to get up to the castle).
GETTING AROUND / CITY TIPS
* Take Uber – it’s currently about 25% of taxi meter prices. But expect some of the drivers to be a little confused and get lost. Be VERY clear with them where you’re going, especially if it’s not a concrete address. For instance, two drivers couldn’t find the entrance of the park closest to Chapultepec Castle – and it’s the only castle in the city, in the largest and best-known park.
* Convenience stores: 7-Eleven is common, but even more common where we stayed is OXXO, which is basically the same exact thing, but a local version, and some are open 24/7. They come in handy. And a lot of sundries there are so ridiculously cheap, especially assuming the exchange rate stays anywhere near this vicinity. You could stock up on a week’s worth of supplies for your hotel for $20 – no joke.
* Viator (app/website): We found a great private guide for Teotihaucan through here, and it was well worth it. The guide, David, even brought a car seat. In the app, that tour is code 33804P1. In general, the app is a reliable way to see attractions in any city, whether on group or private tours.
–El Bajio (Polanco): The highlights were carnitas (pork) by the kilogram, and a crab quesadilla. Barbacoa (lamb) was good, but the carnitas are just so much better. And get a Saga beer from the nearby city of Puebla (whether there or anywhere else you see it) – it’s one of the best beers we’ve ever had. There are other locations that are probably as good.
–Puerto Madero (Polanco): At this Argentinian steakhouse, the seafood platter for two is a splurge, but so good and filling. Good wine too.
–El Cardenal (Centro Historico): The shrimp tacos were amazing, and the bread alone is unreal. All around, an excellent spot. There are a few locations. I went back to the one on Calle de la Palma right by Zocalo, and it was very good, but I’d stick to the more elegant one by Bellas Artes on Marconi 2.
–Pasteleria Ideal (Centro Historico): Excellent pastries right off the main square. We stocked up on more than a half-dozen sizeable treats, and the bill was under $3 (US). So yes, try one of everything if you like. Not all are the best, but you can decide for yourself. I later went to Pasteleria Madrid nearby, and it was very good too, while doubling as a food court.
–Pujol: It’s often hailed as one of the world’s greatest restaurants. You need to book reservations potentially months in advance. I couldn’t get in when booking the December trip but had enough time to plan in advance for the August outing. It was disappointing – not even among the top 5 meals I ate in Mexico City, and maybe not the top 10. The food is exquisitely plated, and the flavors are interested, but there was nothing I’m dying to eat again.
–Villa Maria: This is a really fun spot in Polanco. Chase down the tequila with some sangrita (a fruitier, alcohol-free kind of Bloody Mary). I enjoyed the pollo con huitlacoches (chicken with a kind of mushroom). The highlight for me was going with some locals who swooned over the mariachi band. Tip them well for more songs.
-Booking in general: A lot of restaurants, including Pujol, use OpenTable, so give that a shot. Others, like San Angel Inn, have their own reservation system.
* Safety: We had no issues whatsoever. We were mindful of our surroundings and didn’t have the luxury of looking for random dive bars in sketchy neighborhoods late at night. Keep an eye out though, especially in crowded squares or on mass transit, but this is true when visiting practically any city.
* Language: For one of the world’s largest, most cosmopolitan cities, knowing some Spanish still helps, however rudimentary. For taxis, even Uber, be sure to have destination names and maps saved in Spanish on your phone or on paper. If you want to brush up on or learn a bit of Spanish, try the free apps Duolingo or Lingvist; both will get you some basic knowledge relatively quickly.
* Kids: The city is very kid-friendly. They’re welcome at nice restaurants (except some tasting menu spots like Pujol, where it doesn’t make sense to bring them), and the city is great for strollers. Some nice restaurants have changing tables.
* Shopping: The Saturday art market in San Angel is wonderful – make a point to go if you’re there on a Saturday. Another fun spot centrally is Uncommon Market by Common People, a funky boutique in Polanco with a nice little rooftop café. The Fonart gallery at Av. Juarez 89 is a great shop en route to the Centro Historico attractions.
* Conde Nast Traveler: Top Things to Do in Mexico City
* NY Times column on a writer returning to Mexico City
* For a great read on Aztec-era Mexican history, a great page-turner is Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas
* A great read on the more modern Mexico City is First Stop in the New World by David Lida. It’s a little dated, from 2008, and the city has changed quite a bit since then, but it gives a good feel for the city from an outsider who becomes an insider.