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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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.