There is so much about Mexico City (aka Ciudad de Mexico or CDMX) that just seems bigger than life. It’s the 5th largest city in the world and the largest Spanish-speaking city, with a population somewhere around 22 million. And CDMX is both the oldest (founded by the Mexica in 1325) and highest (7,350 feet) metropolis in North America.

For all of those reasons and more, planning a trip to Mexico City has always seemed intimidating, and therefore further down on our travel list. How would we ever negotiate such a huge city, and is it safe? And then we started to read accounts from friends and other bloggers about their recent visits there, and we were hooked.

We spent 10 days in Mexico City in April, and it was just enough time to get our bearings and start scratching at the essence of this fabulous and unforgettable city. We saw and did so many things that it was impossible to cover it all in a single blog post. So here, we’ll focus on our favorite things to see and do around Mexico City’s Centro Historico district. In our next post, we’ll cover some sights that are a bit further afield, in metropolitan CDMX and nearby towns.

As usual, some of the photos are in galleries – just click the first to see larger versions of each.

1. Bike La Reforma

The Paseo La Reforma is perhaps Mexico City’s most famous avenue – running diagonally through the heart of the city and studded with monument after beautiful monument. Traveling southwest, La Reforma bisects the city’s business district with some of Mexico’s tallest and most modern buildings – terminating at leafy and historic Chapultepec Park. On Sundays, La Reforma is closed to motor vehicles and chock full of cyclists, joggers, skaters, and plenty of families just out for a nice day.

Our very first day in CDMX happened to be a Sunday. Never mind that we were groggy from our red-eye flight the night before – we pulled up our traveler pants and did a bike tour down La Reforma. Not only were we able to join the Sunday bike fest, but we also got a highly informative overview of the city and its history from our guide, Gabi. It was a great way to get our bearings and kick off our CDMX experience.

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Gabi, our tour guide, was a wealth of knowledge on Mexico City history, culture, and current events.

Tip: We booked the tour with Poray Biclaturs and Rentals, located right on La Reforma and just a couple of blocks from our lodging near Alameda Park. The tour lasted four hours and took us down La Reforma, through Chapultepec Park, and through the picturesque neighborhood of Roma Norte. All for about $30 apiece.

2. Marvel at the Stunning Architecture

Mexico City is an architecture buff’s dream – from the ornate and centuries-old buildings of the colonial period, to the neoclassical masterpieces of the Porfirio Diaz presidency, to the eye-popping skyscrapers of this era.  Here are our three favorite buildings.

The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). This wonderful building had a rocky start: Construction began in 1904, but problems with the spongy subsoil and a little thing called the Mexican Revolution halted work in 1913. The Palace wasn’t completed until 1934, which is why you’ll see plenty of Art Deco as well as Art Nouveau features both inside and out. Today, the Palace houses a stunningly beautiful theatre and a world-class museum, one of  the few places where you can see works by all three of Mexico’s most famous muralists:  Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco.

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The Palacio is breathtaking at night. This is the view from the Sears building across the street.
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There’s the pretty girl. Aida looks a lot like our dearly departed Cocker, Tango.

Here’s my favorite Palacio story: The building’s chief architect, Adamo Boari, had a fur child, a beautiful Irish setter named Aida. Aida passed away in the middle of construction, and the grieving Boari insisted that she be immortalized somewhere on the building. He enlisted the sculptor Benno Gianetti Fiorenzo to incorporate Aida into the ornate decorations on the Palacio’s facade. You can see her today, gracing both sides of the arch to the right of the main entrance.

Insider Tip: For the best views of the Palacio, head across the street to the Sears building and take the escalators to the 9th floor. There, Cafe Don Porfirio offers panoramic views if you can score a window seat. The coffee and pastries aren’t bad, either!

 

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So much amazing detail, including imagery from Mexico’s colonial and indigenous past (in addition to Aida).
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Inside is one of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals: Man at the Crossroads/Man in Control of the Universe. This mural was originally commissioned for the Rockefeller Center in New York, but was torn down because of its communism themes (can you spot Lenin and Trotsky?). Rivera came home and repainted it in the Palacio in 1934.

The Palacio de Correos (Postal Palace). Built in 1907 to inaugurate Mexico’s brand-new postal system, the Postal Palace is another masterpiece from the tenure of President Porfirio Diaz. The building still operates as Mexico City’s main post office. With free entry, you can wander around inside and check out the little postal museum.

The Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles). This beautiful building, covered on three sides in blue and white tiles (azulejos) from Puebla state, was built in the 18th century as the palace of the Count Del Valle de Orizaba. In the early 1900s, the Sanborn brothers acquired the building to expand their growing soda fountain/drugstore business. Today, Sanborn’s is a huge company operating throughout Mexico, and the Casa de los Azulejos is its flagship location. Sanborn’s operates a restaurant, pharmacy, gift shop, and bar/event space on all three floors. The casa is just as ornate on the inside and well worth a stroll-through (although the restaurant is just so-so), and the upstairs bar is a nice place to unwind.

3. Get a Bird’s-Eye View Atop the Torre Latinoamericana.

When the Torre Latinoamericana was completed in 1954, it was Mexico City’s tallest building. The Torre was also the world’s first major skyscraper built successfully in a highly active seismic zone; in fact, it survived the devastating 1985 earthquake without damage. Today, the Torre is the headquarters of the Mexico’s leading telecommunications company, Telcel. Tickets to the top are about $7 apiece and can be purchased on the ground floor. The cocktail bar serves a mean tamarind margarita!

Tip: Go early on a week day! The Torre gets super-crowded on weekends.

4. Take in a Ballet Folklórico Performance

Mexico’s most famous folkloric dance company, the Ballet Folklórico de México, stages several performances a week in the lovely and ornate theatre at the Palacio de Belles Artes. Attending a performance was a huge highlight of our trip, not only for the stirring and colorful dance numbers, but to take in the sheer beauty of this stunning theatre.

Tip: You can buy Folklórico tickets online, but it’s super-easy and less expensive to buy them at the box office in the Palacio (you’re going there anyway for the museum, right?). We paid about $60 each for top-tier seats.

5. Tread upon ancient ground at the Zócalo.

Mexico City’s Ground Zero is its main square, the Plaza de la Constitución, also known as the Zócalo. It’s the largest plaza in Latin America, home to the sprawling Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace, current home of El Presidente and the seat of Mexico’s government. But the Zócalo’s human history goes back much further, to the first inhabitants, the Mexica (commonly referred to as Aztecs). As we recounted in our previous post, the Mexica were the true founders of Mexico City. Many of the buildings ringing the Zócalo, including the Cathedral, were built on top of Mexica ruins. It was sobering to walk around here and realize were standing on the holy ground of a lost civilization.

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Late-afternoon view of the Metropolitan Cathedral

The Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los Cielo, aka the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary Into Heaven, was begun in the 1520s by Hernan Cortez, the first conquerer of the Mexica. The cathedral was built adjacent to and on top of the Mexicas’ most holy site, the Templo Mayor, and the cultural symbolism of that is pretty hard to miss. The early conquistadors were bent on wiping out the previous culture and its spirituality and replacing it with Catholicism. So much so that the Cathedral was built with stones from the Mexica temples. Walking through the Cathedral, we were struck mostly by the incredible opulence and the gold, over the top even by Latin American standards (and we’ve seen a LOT of ornate Catholic churches in our travels).

6. Learn about Mexican cuisine from a local.

We are huge Mexican food fanatics from way back (after all, I grew up in southwest Texas), so it had long been our dream to go under the covers and learn the essentials of Mexican ingredients and cooking. Our dream came true in Mexico City, when we took a “cooking experience” tour with Diana, a trained chef and passionate advocate of Mexican cuisine who lives just a block off the Zócalo. Diana first took us to shop for ingredients at the Mercado San Juan, a traditional Mexican market that has become known not only for its gourmet and exotic foods (including insects and exotic meats such as lion – yes, lion!). From there, we strolled to Diana’s apartment and cooked up an array of dishes including hand-made corn tortillas, Oaxacan tlayudas with huitlacoche (corn fungus) and some of the most fantastic red salsa I have ever eaten. I don’t know if I can reproduce that salsa in my Colombian kitchen, but I sure want to try! All in all, a wonderful way to spend the day.

Tip: Diana’s tour is available through Airbnb Experiences. More info here.

7. Stroll Through the Oldest Park in the Americas

Parque Alameda Central is not only Mexico City’s oldest park, but its creation in 1592 makes it the oldest public park in the Americas. And lucky us, we stayed right on the edge of the park for our first week in Mexico City (let’s hear it for John the travel planner!). The Palacio de Bellas Artes is on the eastern edge of the park, and just beyond is the heart of the Mexico Centro Historico district. Built on the site of an ancient Mexica market, Alameda Central is graced with five fountains of French design and inspired by Greco-Roman mythology.

Other Centro Tips

Of course we ate ourselves silly in CDMX. Here were our favorite dining experiences in Centro:

  • La Opera. Sit at the ornately carved bar (original from 1895), have a drink and a snack, and soak up the history. La Opera has been the hangout of presidents, politicians, literary and artistic greats, and revolutionary figures for almost 150 years. True story: Pancho Villa once fired a bullet into the ceiling.
  • El Mayor. Fabulous food and a panoramic view of the Zócalo, including the Cathedral and the Templo Mayor excavations. In a crazy lopsided building (as we said, Mexico City is sinking!).
  • Taquería El Caifan. This fantastic taquería has two locations in Centro.
  • El Cardenal. This famous restaurant has several locations, but the original landmark site opened in 1969 near
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    El Cardinal’s original location in a beautiful old French Revival building

    the Zócalo. We ate at the location in the Hilton hotel, which happened to be right next door to our apartment. Hands down, the best tortilla soup I’ve ever had.

  • Testal. This elegant restaurant is right on the edge of Mexico City’s Chinatown. Try the Enchiladas Huastecas – to die for.
  • Tortería La Texcocana. We stumbled on this little hole-in-the-wall place one evening on our way home after a long day of sightseeing. This family business claims to be the oldest torta (a type of Mexican sandwich) shop in Mexico
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    La Texcocoana

    City, and the pork tortas were just the ticket.

  • The Mercado de San Juan. You don’t have to eat scorpions or lion there – the Mercado is a great place to have a super-cheap, traditional, authentic meal. That goes for any Mexican mercado, actually.

Lodging. For our first week in CDMX, we rented a cozy apartment through Puerta Alameda Suites. The apartment was no-frills but was clean, comfy, and had a washer/dryer (a DRYER!! We were in heaven, since dryers aren’t really a thing in Colombia). The best part about the apartment was its location – right across the street from the Alameda Central park and a stone’s throw from all of the fabulous sights in the Centro Historico area.

Coming Next: Things to Do in Mexico City, Beyond Centro

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31 Comments

  1. Wow guys you did get busy in Mexico City!! The idea of visiting such a large city is very daunting, but all theses activities are very much things that we would love doing.
    The bike tour and food experience sounds great. Amazing architecture and particularly the Palace looks gorgeous, I like the story about the architect wanting to imortalize his fur baby.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We had felt the same way – we just didn’t have a comfort level about going to CDMX until our close friends went and had an amazing time. They inspired us. And yes – the story of Aida really got to us, dog fanatics that we are. Hope you can visit there someday!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      ¿Tu eres Michoacana? I really enjoyed your post about La Virgen de Guadalupe – left you a comment 🙂 We were pretty amazed by Mexicans’ devotion to the Virgin. In our next post, we’ll write about our impressions at the Shrine in Mexico City.

  2. Wow! What an amazing place. I’m glad you changed your mind and made that trip.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Mimi! We loved this trip. There are so many other places in Mexico we want to explore.

  3. I might have said this before, but I’m really intrigued not only by CDMX, but also Mexico in general. Every time I read about the Mexican capital, especially about its cultural sights and food scene, my desire to see the city in person only grows bigger. So, many thanks for sharing such beautiful photos and useful information of this metropolis with us. If only I could book a ticket and fly tomorrow!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Bama! Mexico City really does have so much to offer – and it’s easier to manage and navigate than we expected. Hope you can go soon!

  4. Great post! CDMX is truly one of the world’s most interesting cities. And, yes, John did look especially fetching in his apron 🙂

  5. So many amazing spots in Mexico City. Love that Post Office-wow!! Like you I’ve wondered about safety in Mexico City, too many Narcos episodes I think. But you found it relatively safe? Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We did find it very safe, Maggie – even walking around after dark. Granted, we were in the touristed areas. And of course cartel violence in Mexico is real. But I think the threat to tourists is pretty minimal.

  6. Fascinating read and a visual delight of this incredible city. Mexico City is one of those places that like you has always intimidated me a little bit. But now I think I’ll be putting it on my list 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We had felt the same way – Mexico City seemed overwhelming. But it’s really pretty accessible once you’re in the thick of it!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      The Palacio was hands-down my favorite building!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Mel – I hope you can experience CDMX some day!

  7. Ah all so useful – we are definitely keeping that list if recommended restaurants handy for our upcoming Mexico City visit – we are due to be there at the end of July on our next adventure. Excellent info!!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, fantastic! We’ll look forward to your own impressions of the city and the discoveries you make. Everyone’s experience is different. But I can guarantee you’ll love Mexico City!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Stay tuned for our second post. We saw and did so much that we just couldn’t cram it all into one. I thought about putting all the restaurants in the first post, but decided to break them up as well.

  8. You are accumulating such fantastic memories. When you get to be as old as I am, you will look back with pleasure, on all your adventures. Good on you! Cheers, Muriel

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Muriel! You remind me so much of my mom. I wish we could meet! Hugs, Susan

  9. You two are invited!! Let me know when you are coming and a bed will be ready for you. Vancouver, Canada is a beautiful city. Hugs back, Muriel

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That is such a kind offer, and you never know – we might take you up on it someday. Vancouver is truly magical. Cheers,
      Susan

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much for your visit!

  10. Good thing you had 10 days to explore this sprawling city! Mexico City looks lovely – the parks, street art, and architecture call to me. Also the food, although not the bugs or the lion! I’ve never heard of anyone eating lion before. I also love the story about the Palacio’s architect’s fur child. What a beautiful way to remember and immortalize her!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Becky! Yes, the lion was a shock for us too. Mexico City never fails to amaze! And we are such suckers for a good dog story. Take care!

  11. I love all the places you visited in Mexico City; I’ve never visited there, but now I’m encouraged after reading your post! I like that you shared the links to the places you stayed and services you used. I really like the Mexican cooking class you took from a local, it seems that you and your wife had a great time there!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Liz! Likewise, we’re thinking we need to visit San Luis Potosi one of these days. Mexico is just like a giant birthday present, just waiting to be unwrapped. Our next stop will probably be Oaxaca. Take care and have a nice day!

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