Mexico city, one of the biggest cities in the world, is full of surprises. The city has thousands of years of history and some violent history at that but it also has peaceful canals, plenty of parks, mariachi music, an efficient transport system and is safe contrary to what you may hear and hopefully this list of what to do in Mexico City will reflect this diversity. There is a sightseeing gem around every corner and a lot of the older ones are tilting to the side! I must admit that when planning fo visit Mexico I was expecting it to be fairly dirty, very packed, difficult to get around but it is in fact the opposite. This huge sprawling city is clean in general, and very clean in the Centro Historico, there is plenty of police presence and even at night time I never got the feeling of being under threat.
With so much history and turmoil from ancient times and up to the present the city has an awful lot to offer and I would encourage anybody to head to Mexico to check out the attractions, tequila and sombreros in this enchanting city. Before I checked it out I wouldn’t have thought it could be so good so make sure not to let your preconceived ideas stop you from going. From my time there I will list out my favourite 10 things to do in Mexico City:
Time to do all 10: 3-4 days. 3 days if you keep moving and see them quickly but 4 days if you take it easier.
1) What to do in Mexico City - Zocalo – Cathedral / National Palace (World Heritage Site)
The very heart of ancient Mexico and today is one of the biggest city squares in the world. The Zocalo (plinth) itself is long gone and in its place is a huge open square with a massive Mexican flag. This hosts everything from protests to street sellers to fairgrounds. The square and indeed the city gets very, very busy on Saturdays when every available square inch is taken up with people selling something. You can buy anything during this time, handcrafted pieces, pens, school bags, dvd’s and as soon as a drop of rain is felt then any number of people spring into action selling ponchos for 10pesos (80cent). A great place to enjoy the square or for great views is either the top of the cathedral or on one of the roof top restaurants (with rain cover) on the west side of the square. There are 3 or 4 in a row and are not crazily expensive as you might expect. They are worth it for the views.
The Metropolitan Cathedral: One of the largest cathedrals in the America’s and dominats Zocalo. The Spanish built it in stages directly on top of Aztec buildings after the conquest and even used some of the destroyed buildings stones in the construction work. Construction began in 1573 and recently a lot of work has gone into stabilising it from tilting. If you go to Mexico City you will hear on most tours about the city being built on the lake and the bad flooding the ancient civilisations had. Now the city takes up most of the lake but despite the foundations lasting over 400years they still need help. The Cathedral is huge and is very impressive on the inside and is more like the combination of several churches rather than just one cathedral. Admission is free. Nearest metro is Zocalo Station on the blue (no. 2) line.
National Palace: This impressive building on the east side of El Zocalo is used by the government (Federal Treasury and National Archives). It is mostly inaccessible to tourists although if you go to the north side of the building (on Calle Moneda) you will find the National Museum of Cultures. This small museum about cultures from around the world gives a small look at what the rest of the palace is like. The museum itself is not an eyecatcher though. Did you come to Mexico to find out about the Romans or the Egyptians?? On the other hand it is free admission. Open Tues-Sun 10:00-17:00. The nearest metro is Zocalo Station.
2) What to do in Mexico City - Templo Mayor (World Heritage Site)
When you visit Templo Mayor it is hard to get your head around what was there 500years ago. Now, right in the middle of the city, just behind the cathedral are some barely perceptible ruins and it is only as you walk around this jumble of small walls and serpents that it starts to make sense. The Templo Mayor was undiscovered for a very long time due to the fact that it was thought to be under the Metropolitan Cathedral after centuries of Spanish rule. But in February 1978 some workers hit a monolith 2mtrs down which ended up having a diameter over 3mtrs. From this discovery the site was then excavated in several projects over the next 30years and the artefacts are now in the excellent museum attached to it. This is now one of the attractions that the locals are most proud of despite it not being the most visually attractive and should definitely be on your list when you visit Mexico City.
It is not explained well initially on the self guided walk boards but once you read them all you understand the scale of the development. When the Aztec’s ruled just before Hernan Cortez made his mark, there stood a 60mtr high pyramid on this location. That is onlyl 15mtrs shorter than the top of the cathedral. The saw tooth walls you see now were actually the 7 different temples that were expanded every generation. Each new ruler built a bigger temple around the older temple so that it started small but within 200years there was an extremely impressive sacrificial monument. This was only part of the Aztec town but the Metropolitan Cathedral was built on top of other buildings that are now lost forever.
Admission $57 Mxn (includes museum and archaeological site). Open: Tues – Sun, 09:00-17:00. Nearest metro is the Zocalo station on the blue (no. 2) line. www.templomayor.inah.gob.mx/
3) What to do in Mexico City - Teotihuacan – The Pyramids (World Heritage Site)
This huge and hugely impressive ancient site lies about 45km northeast of Mexico City. The residents are still up for debate and are probably not as well known today as they didn’t have a cool short name like Aztec, Inca or Maya! What isn’t debatable is the influence they had with the Aztecs believing the Gods were born here and their pottery style reaching far and wide. This city reached its zenith around 450AD and was one of the largest cities in the world at the time with approximately 175,000people. When you arrive and peer down the Avenue of the Dead (main road) you can see two huge pyramids in the distance, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. The larger Pyramid of the Sun is 75mtrs high (246ft) and 225mtrs (738ft) long on the base. This is an enormous structure even today never mind one built almost 2000yrs ago (100AD). It is also possible to climb to the top to get the views of the whole site. There are several smaller pyramids which have brilliantly decorated serpents and people dedicated to various different Gods in which the usual human sacrifice took place to keep them happy. Luckily the Gods today take a different view!
The site is big and you can be dropped off at Puerta 1 (front gate) or Puerta 2 (closest to Pyramid of the Sun). Once you get inside the Avenue of the Dead is almost 2km long (from Puerta 1 to Pyramid of the Moon) so there is a lot of walking involved. On Sundays the site is busy and especially the queue for climbing the Pyramid of the Sun.
Admission $57 Mxn for foreigners. Open: Tues-Sun, 09:00-17:00. To get there take a bus from Terminal Autobuses del Norte . This is just outside Autobuses del Norte Metro station (yellow (no. 5) line) and tickets for the metro is a flat fee of $3 Mxn per journey regardless of length (very good value). The bus goes from Gate 8 and costs $40 Mxn per leg. The buses go every 20minutes and takes approximately 45min. The last return bus is approximately 18:00 but depends on the day of the week so make sure to ask when you get off.
After wandering around Teotihuacan we made our way down to the Pyramid of the Sun. We could see from a long way off that people were on it and thought it would be great to climb and see the views. The queue at the pyramid was enormous but seemed to be moving. We tagged onto the tail and after a long 40min we were only half way up. The problem with the pyramid is that the width of the stairs gets smaller with each level and so by the last one it is single file which really slows everything up. As we waited in the crowd, everybody had now noticed a huge thunderstorm drifting ominously in our direction. The line of where it was and wasn’t raining was clearly visible. We thought it too late to turn back and were just at the top when the heavens opened 10min later. We were almost instantly wet and the wind at the top was like a gale. What we didn’t count on though is having to queue to get down! We, along with hundreds of others stood patiently in a queue in a storm for 20min while getting drowned. Being in a thunderstorm in a t-shirt and shorts is not pleasant I can assure you. By the time I got down I had the shivers and had to run to keep warm. At least we had the 2hr journey back to the hostel to look forward to!!
4) What to do in Mexico City - Castillo de (Castle of) Chapultepec / Museum of Anthropology
Castillo de Chapultepec: This very plush former residence and home of the National History Museum is located on a hill in the centre of Mexico, surrounded by the huge Chapultepec Park (1700 acres) and thousands of squirrels (they are everywhere). The castle started off in 1775 as a house but in fact a near fortress was built but was virtually abandoned until 1833 when the military took it over. A grand battle took place in the Mexican-American war here in 1847 but it started to become more like a palace from 1864 onwards and was home to many Mexican presidents including Benito Juarez, Porfirio Diaz and 7 others. Nearly all rooms are maintained and can be looked into from all doors. The luxury is unbelievable. As you walk around you can get a history of Mexico from the Spanish invasion onwards except all the information boards are only in Spanish unlike most other museums.
Admission $57 Mxn. Open Tues-Sun, 09:00-17:00. The nearest metro is the Chapultepec Station on the pink (no. 1) line.
Museum of Anthropology: This excellent museum is the most visited in Mexico and brings you on a journey from the arriving of man in the America’s right up until Hernan Cortez met the Aztecs in 1519. The history doesn’t go beyond this point much to my dismay and this history is located in the National History Museum (above). Except there it is entirely in Spanish but in the Anthropology museum any of the main information boards are in English. The individual smaller boards are only in Spanish but in a way you remember more because you don’t read about all 10,000 exhibits! The museum is very well laid out and easy to follow and has a huge number of artefacts on display including the huge ‘Stone of the Sun’ from the Aztecs that adorns the 10peso coin. The rooms are in chronological order so it’s easy to get to grips with the cultures that were in power at different times. It even has replica pyramids that show what actually lies beneath in the tombs of the ancients.
Admission $57 Mxn. Open: Tues- Sun 09:00-19:00. Nearest subway is the Auditorio Station on the orange (no. 7) line. It is also not a long walk through the park from El Castillo (above).
5) What to do in Mexico City - Xochimilco Canals (World Heritage Site)
The canals are a very strange sight when you arrive, more like Venice than what you expect when visiting Mexico City. The colour of the boats (trajineras), the shape of the boats and the sheer number of them is even more unexpected than the canals themselves. There are boats packed everywhere and when you think that you are out of the ‘port’ then you see hundreds more packed in some other ‘port’. The canals date from pre-Hispanic times and were the form of transport on what used to be the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan in Aztec times. Due to the consumption of aquifers the canals have been shrinking but there is currently 170km of canals remaining. They are less romantic than the gondolas in Venice as the driver is wearing a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and doesn’t sing but they can provide plenty of information when asked. The propulsion system is a long bamboo stick they push off the bottom of the canal. The canals are full of little boats with old women selling beer, old men selling sombreros, young men selling potted plants, mariachis selling music etc. It all makes for a very colourful atmosphere. If you want something they just paddle over and grab onto your boat until the deal is done. The canals are very popular with locals as well as tourists and on the weekends and holidays it can get very busy. They are well worth a visit if you are spending a few days in Mexico City.
The official board says is costs $350 Mxn per hour but you shouldn’t pay more than $300 per hour and if you are good at negotiating then even less, maybe even down to $150. There are 3 main tours, a short one (1hr, $300 Mxn), a medium (2hrs, $600) and a long one (4hrs, $700). A short one is plenty to get an idea and the atmosphere of the place and to see plenty of music and sellers on the water.
To get there take the blue (no.2) metro line to the Tasquena Station and then go to the ‘Tren Ligero’ (light train) that is located in the same station. Take the tren ligero all the way to the last stop, Xochimilco Station. When you come out of the station turn right and basically go straight all the way. There will be people telling you the way anyway but there are also shoddy signs indicating the way. It is about a 10minute walk from the station to the canals.
6) What to do in Mexico City - Lucha Libre
If you are around Mexico City when this is on you should definitely go. Wrestling may not be everybody’s cup of tea but Lucha Libre is more like pure entertainment rather than actual wrestling. The now world famous WWE wrestling from the USA took its idea from this and made it global and the recent film of ‘Nacho Libre’ was based on it. The ‘luchadores’ wear colourful masks and perform lots of aerial manoeuvres. You may have seen kids around the city sporting colourful masks and capes, well now you know what it’s for. As I said it is pure entertainment and the crowd play a big part. The heckling, abuse, teasing are all part of it and all the fighters play up to it. The results are already known by the fighters so they just make it as acrobatic and entertaining as possible while trying to make out they are really fighting. In general the fighters are either ‘technicos’ (the good guys) or ‘rudos’ (the bad guys) and so you just slag off the guy you don’t like. If you understand Spanish then some of the abuse is priceless. The 5year old girl behind me was even getting in on the act! Even if you don’t understand you know it was funny because of the amount of people laughing afterwards. The show lasts over 2hrs with several fights taking place on a best of 3 basis. There are female fighters as well as tag team matches.
Lucha Libre takes place in Arena Mexico which is a 4min walk from the Insurgentes metro Station on the pink (no.1) line. The events take place on Tues, Fri and Sun with Friday and Sunday being much busier. Sometimes there are also events on Monday. Tickets cost between $93 Mxn and $390 depending on the seat and how important the event will be. Tuesdays are not busy and even a ring side seat (expensive) costs a maximum of $200 Mxn.
7) What to do in Mexico City - Frida Kahlo / Diego Rivera Museum (Casa Azul)
Frida Kahlo: This museum in Casa Azul (blue house) shows the works of the very talented Frida Kahlo and to a lesser extent her husband Diego Rivera. The house is where Frida Kahlo grew up and lived for a time with Rivera (whom she married, divorced and re-married). Kahlo had polio as a child and then was involved in a tram accident when she was 18 which left her confined to bed for 2years during which she began to paint. Her works depict her struggle and her wanting to have a child, which she couldn’t have among other things. The museum is probably best enjoyed if you know a small bit about Kahlo before you go. Another notable point about Casa Azul is that the Russian Leon Trotsky lived in the house and was friends of the family for a time. The house is very open and spacious and laid out as it would have been when it was lived in. There is a coffee shop on site.
Admission: $80 Mxn with an extra $40 to use a camera. Open: Tue,Thur-Sun 10:00-17.45 and Wed 11:00-17:45. Nearest metro station is Coyoacan on the green (no. 3) line and is a 10block (20min) walk from Casa Azul. The museum is where Calle Londres intersects Ignacio Allende. If you buy a ticket here you get free into the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum. www.museofridakahlo.org.mx
Museum of Diego Rivera Anahuacalli: This museum was designed by Diego Rivera before his death from his interest in Mexican culture. It contains artefacts from all of Mexico’s civilisations. There are also gems of Rivera himself such as a replica of his studio, some of his works and even his first sketch done at the age of 3. It’s of a train if you are interested! Rivera was very famous in his own lifetime and was commissioned to paint several works in the USA, Russia among others and of course Mexico.
Open: Wed-Sun 11:00-17:30. Admission $35 Mxn. To get there take the metro to Tasquena station on the blue (no. 2) line. Then take the Tren Ligero (light train) to Xotepingo Station (4th stop). Head to the west side of the road and when you get onto the footpath from the stairs head back on yourself by 100mtrs and you will be on Calle Museo. Follow this street for approximately 9 blocks (15min) and you will find the museum on your right hand side. If you buy a ticket here you get free into the Frida Kahlo museum. www.museoanahuacalli.org.mx
8) What to do in Mexico City - Plaza Garibaldi / Tequila and Mezcal Museum
If you go during the day all you will see is a small plaza and a small road with real life statues but if you come at night then the plaza is transformed into an almost carnival atmosphere. It is the spiritual home of Mariachi music in Mexico City which started here in the 1920’s and every evening the place comes alive with tens of bands trying to get you to pay a small amount to hear them play. Mariachi music fills the air and with all bands dressed up in the very impressive mariachi costumes it is not hard to be pulled in by it. The Tequila and Mezcal Museum is on the east side of the square which teaches you all you need to know about Tequila and Mezcal. Mezcals are a similar drink to the more famous but smaller variety tequila. All tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas, did you know that? Mezcals are intertwined with mariachi music and so it is appropriate that both are in the one place. Plaza Garibaldi is now half covered in the agave plant from which mescals are made. Beside the square on the north side there are a load of restaurants in a market style arrangement.
The museum costs $50 Mxn to enter and includes a small shot of both tequila and of mescal. Open: Sun-Wed 13:00-22:00, Thurs-Sat 13:00-midnight. The nearest metro is Garibaldi Station on the green (no. 8) line. http://mutemgaribaldi.mx
9) What to do in Mexico City - El Angel de la Independencia / Plaza de la Republica
Although it is only a roundabout with a nice statue on top, this angel is the symbol of Mexico City. If you look closely enough you will see her face everywhere. She is on the side of taxis, on several cards including the metro/metrobus cards and on any number of shops and items throughout the city. She was erected in 1910 to celebrate the centenary of the beginning of Mexican independence. Located where Monterrey and Reforma intersect. The nearest metro is Insurgentes on the pink (no.1) line.
A 10min walk from El Angel and from Bellas Artes is Plaza de la Republica. And what a fine plaza it is too with the huge Monument of the Revolution standing tall in the middle of it. This monument houses the Museum of the Revolution and 5 of its heroes. It is possible to get a lift to the top to get great views of the surrounding city. Open: Tues-Thurs 09:00-17:00, Sat-Sun 09:00-18:30. Admission $25 Mxn. Nearest metro is the Revolucion Station on the blue (no. 2) line.
10) What to do in Mexico City - Wandering around
I know this may seem like a strange thing to suggest to do but to see the city how it really is rather than going just to tourist sites is a good way to get a feel for the city.
Markets: There are plenty of markets all over the city from little craft ones (Mercado de la Ciudadella off Calle de Balderas and Plaza de la Ciudadella) to huge food ones with anything from cheese to rabbits to veal to dragon fruits (Mercado San Juan just off Plaza de San Juan and Ernesto Pugibet) to buy anything you can think of ones in (La Lagunilla, Comonfort and Rayon, nearest metro La Lagunilla Station)
Walking Around: There are too many historic buildings to mention but with any small amount of walking you will pass dozens of them. There are many churches and government buildings that go back hundreds of years and just blend in to the facade of the city. A lot you will notice are actually leaning over to the side! Places such as the beautiful Bellas Artes (metro Bellas Artes) and the parks of Almeda Central beside it with dancing fountains and Deportivo Carranza park (metro Moctezuma)are some of the beautiful parks that you can relax in.
Puebla City: This world heritage city full of Spanish colonial architecture is well worth the trip out from Mexico City. It can be done in a day trip but overnight is a better option. Puebla has the distinction of being the first city in Mexico the Spanish founded without building on top of Aztec ruins! A wander around the Angelopolis for the cafes is a good way to soak up the atmosphere. The library, the cathedral and the Casa de Alfenque museum are top class. Puebla is a large city in itself and is not just confined to the historic section so there is plenty for backpackers as well as high end tourists.
To get there take a bus from Mexico City, Terminal Oriente (TAPO) beside San Lazaro metro station (pink, no. 1, line) and from the airport. In the airport the ticket desk is upstairs in Terminal 1 and downstairs in terminal 2. A bus with ADO or Estrella Roja cost around $160 Mxn for a one way and $300 Mxn for a return. Journeys take approx 2.5hrs each way depending on traffic. There are about 8 buses by each company each way each day. There are 2 bus stations in Puebla (CAPU, the main bus station, and 4 Poniente for Estrella Roja in the west of the city). 4 Poniente is closer to downtown. The best way to get to the historic district is by the official taxi stand inside the bus terminal
Subway: Maybe not as relaxing as sitting in Almeda Central but for the experience you should get on the subway at rush hour (sometimes it may not even have to be rush hour) and try and get on and off the metro. Packed is not the word. I have been the New York and London subways at rush hour and it doesn’t come close. Sardines in a can have a good life! Getting off is nearly as hard as getting on!
Food: Mexican food can be found all over the world and I deliberately haven’t mentioned it here because no matter where you stop to eat you will be confused by the different tacos, nachos, not so much burritos, quesadillas, sopes, sopas, chorizos, enchiladas, tortillas etc etc etc.
Practicalities – About Mexico
€1 = 17.5 Mexican Peso, US$1 = Mxn $13
- Language – Spanish. English is not spoken by the general public but spoken well by anybody involved with the tourist industry. ie. hotels, tour operators, restaurants etc.
- Bus – Mexico has a good bus service between all the main cities and the roads are also in decent shape. A good list of which companies go to which city and which bus station in Mexico City to use is on this site. Buses cost about $70 Mxn per hour of travel. The main companies are www.ado.com.mx, www.estrelladeoro.com.mx, www.etn.com.mx, www.futura.com.mx, www.estrellablanca.com.mx, www.ticketbus.com.mx (searches all companies)
- Metro – The metro is very efficient and you are never waiting more than a few minutes for one to arrive. It is also one of the cheapest subways in the world. There is a flat cost of $3 Mxn for a journey. You can switch lines all you want for this fee and only when you exit will you have to pay for the next journey. You can purchase a DF card in a metro station or in the airport which costs $10 Mxn. This card can be topped up and used on the metro, tren ligero and metrobus.
- Flights- Mexico city’s main international airport (Benito Juarez International Airport) is very close to the city. A metrobus is the easiest way to get into town if you are staying in the Centro Historico. You can purchase a DF card which costs $10 Mxn and the bus journey costs $30. This one card can also be used for the metro and tren ligero rather than getting a separate card for each. The metro bus stop is beside Puerta 2 (Door 2) in Terminal 2 and is not well signposted. The nearest metro stop is about a 15min walk away. Main airlines are www.aeromexico.com, www.volaris.mx/en
- Safety: With the recent war on drugs the government has been waging there is a perception that Mexico is a dangerous country. From my time in the Yucatan peninsula and in Mexico City it looks like in these parts at least the police and government are doing a lot to make sure it stays peaceful. These are important tourist areas so police presence may be higher but the police are everywhere. They stand on every second corner, sit permanently on buses (you also get frisked getting on buses) and the police drive everywhere with their flashing lights on to make sure everybody knows they are there. Even when out on Saturday night at 4am there wasn’t a sniff of trouble and we were the only English speaking people in the place so it wasn’t a ‘gringo’ bar in case you are wondering. From talking to locals, most of the violence is confined to the north of Mexico and to the provinces near the USA border. Like any big city, Mexico City has its share of black spots but as long as you are taking the normal reasonable precautions the city is as safe as any other.
- As a note, pickpockets are said to be problem in Mexico City. Personally I didn’t see any incidents but at the same time I was careful to keep my hands in my pockets when things got busy. An easy solution so that you are not targeted.
- Accommodation – $400 Mxn per night for an average double room
- Beer – 1 bottle of beer costs between $30 – $40 Mxn
- Visa: All foreigners must get a visa for Mexico but a large number of tourists can get a visa on arrival. A tourist visa last for 90days on arrival in the airport/border. Your passport must be valid for at least the following 6 months. To see if your country is on the list see http://www.inm.gob.mx/index.php/page/Paises_No_Visa
- Population of Mexico City: 8.9 million (19.5million in larger metropolitan area)
What to do in Mexico City - Map of Mexico City
|Zocalo - Metropolitan Cathedral|
Zócalo, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico
Templo Mayor, Seminario, Centro Historico, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico
|Teotihuacan - The Pyramids|
Teotihuacan Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico
|El Castillo de Chapultepec|
Castillo de Chapultepec, Lomas de Reforma, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City, Mexico
Museo de Antropología, Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City, Mexico
|Lucha Libre - Arena Mexico|
Arena México, Doctor Lavista, Doctores, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico
Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico
|El Angel de la Independencia|
Angel de la Independencia, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico
|Monumento a la Revolucion|
Angel de la Independencia, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico
|Plaza Garibaldi / Museum of Tequila and Mezcal|
Plaza Garibaldi, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico
My Photo Gallery of Mexico City