In our previous post, we described our experiences in and around Mexico City’s Centro Historico district – the beating heart of the city and ground zero for Mexico’s history as a unified country. In this post, we’ll roam a little further afield and look at our favorite things to do in Mexico City beyond the Centro district.
NOTE: As always, photos are in galleries. Just click the first to click through larger versions of each.
1. Experience the Pyramids of Teotihuacan
Well, this one really is further afield – about an hour’s drive northeast of Mexico City. But it’s so worth it. The enigmatic city of Teotihuacan was once the largest city in pre-Columbian America, peaking sometime around the first century AD. The pyramids themselves are recognized as some of the most architecturally significant from that period. Teotihuacan is thought to be a religious center; in fact, its name means something like “birthplace of the gods” in Nahuatl. There’s speculation about exactly who the ancient residents were, occupying Teotihuacan centuries before the Aztec Mexica people arrived to settle what is now modern-day Mexico City.
Tip: We took a group tour to Teotihuacan through Get Your Guide, which also included a stop at the Virgin of Guadalupe Basilica (see next). The main advantage was that transportation was taken care of, and the tour also included a stop at a souvenir/artisan shop (kinda cheesy) and a nice lunch at a Mexican restaurant just outside the pyramid grounds.
2. Visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
It’s hard to overstate how important the Virgin of Guadalupe is to the Mexican people. It turns out, Mexico City is ground zero for the series of miracles that have made Our Lady central to so many Mexican hearts and minds. In a previous post, we wrote more about about how the Virgin presented herself to an indigenous man, Juan Diego, in 1531 on Tepeyac Hill in what is now Mexico City. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s a cool story – and Mexicans’ devotion to the Virgin is profound and deeply moving.
The Basilica complex is anchored by two monumental buildings – the original church, completed in 1709, and the modern, green-domed basilica. In the modern cathedral, you can view Juan Diego’s actual tilma (a type of cloak) imprinted with the Virgin’s image.
3. Take a Cruise in Xochimilco
The Mexico City borough of Xochimilco is best known for its network of canals, vestiges of Lake Texcoco – the lake upon which the Mexicas founded Mexico back in the early 14th century. (Again, we tell more of the story in a previous post.) Today, a large fleet of colorful, gondola-like boats called trajineras ply the canals and offer access to the chinampas, man-made islands that have been used for agriculture since Mexica times. Many of the chinampas are still under cultivation today, with nurseries selling all types of plants and flowers to the public. For all of these reasons, Xochimilco has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The trajineras are a big tourist draw, but they’re also hugely popular with locals looking to celebrate with a floating fiesta. Vendors float by offering all kinds of snacks, beverages, and souvenirs, and you can even hire a floating mariachi group to serenade your boat. For a fun, relaxing, and oh-so-Mexican experience, a cruise on a trajinera can’t be beat!
Tips: Any taxi or Uber driver will know where to take you for the best access to the canals and trajineras. It’s easy to hire a boat from any of the docks – you should be able to negotiate a price under $500 pesos (about $25) per hour. Take a group and split the cost – most trajineras can accommodate up to 20 people. Fridays and weekends are party days for Mexicans; for a more tranquil experience, go during the week.
4. Follow Diego and Frida’s Footsteps in Coyoacán and San Ángel
The pretty Mexico City borough of Coyoacán (Nahuatl for Place of Coyotes) is well-known as the birthplace of Frida Kahlo, but we didn’t realize that it was also the first capital of New Spain after conquistador Hernán Cortés conquered the Mexica in 1521. Cortés set up residence in Coyoacán for several years following the conquest.
Although it was something I’d dreamed of for a long time, we decided to take a pass on Frida’s Casa Azul – the Coyoacán house of her birth and also her death, now one of the most popular museums in all of Mexico. We’d heard from more than one party that it’s something of a tourist trap, and most of Frida’s most important artwork is elsewhere. Still, I regret passing it up . . . next time, I guess. If you want to see Casa Azul, be aware that you need to buy tickets well in advance, and photos are not allowed. More info here.
Not far from Coyoacán is another picturesque and historic town, San Ángel. Anchored by the landmark El Carmen monastery, San Ángel is also known for the side-by-side homes and studios of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Designed by noted artists and architect (and close friend of Diego and Frida) Juan O’Gorman, the houses are connected by an elevated walkway – and Diego lived there until his death in 1954. San Ángel borders University City, the sprawling campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
5. If you don’t go to any other museums, visit these two.
Mexico is a city of museums; in fact, there are over 150. Of course we didn’t have time to visit them all, but the two that stood out for us are the National History Museum in Chapultepec Castle and the Anthropology Museum. These two should be at the top of the list for any CDMX visitor. TIP: It’s possible to see both in one day; they’re within easy walking distance to each other.
Perched atop a high hill in Chapultepec Park, the Chapultepec Castle/National History Museum has a storied history. Built in 1785 as the summer home of the Viceroy of New Spain, the castle has also served as a military academy, observatory, the royal residence of Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota, and official residence of Mexico’s presidents up until the 1930s. Chapultepec Castle became the home of the National History Museum in 1939.
At the museum, you’ll see reminder after reminder of the fabled Niños Héroes. These were six young military cadets (the youngest only 13) who died defending the castle against the United States during the Battle of Chapultepec, in the final days of the Mexican-American War in 1847. The martyred Niños have reached celestial status in Mexico, honored with a national holiday and monuments all over the country.
The National Museum of Anthropology is a true national treasure, honoring the rich history and cultures of the many indigenous nations whose presence is still felt deeply throughout Mexico. The museum’s current home was built in 1964 and consists of 24 exhibit halls. On the ground floor are the Archaeology Halls, each highlighting a different pre-Columbian civilization. The largest is devoted to the Mexicas, founders of the sophisticated city/state that would become Mexico City. On the second floor are the Ethnography Halls, tracing the vivid cultures of present-day indigenous groups throughout Mexico.
6. Stroll Roma and Condesa
Mexico City’s Roma Norte and Roma Sud neighborhoods, bordered by Condesa, were originally developed for the city’s wealthiest residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the 1950s the neighborhoods were in serious decline, and many homes and buildings were devastated by the great earthquake of 1985. But in the past couple of decades, gentrification has transformed Roma Norte, Roma Sud, and Condesa into Mexico City’s hipster epicenter, with an unrivaled culinary scene and many beautiful restored Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco buildings and fountains that harken back to a different era.
Lodging. Upon our return to Mexico City after visiting the beautiful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende (posts coming!), we spent two more nights before flying home to Colombia. This time we stayed in the Condesa district, in the Casa Condesa Amatlan. This boutique hotel was perfectly situated within walking distance to Parque de Chapultepec, the Chapultepec Castle, and the Anthropology Museum. It was also a great base for exploring more of Condesa and Roma Norte, with restaurants galore.
Here were our favorite dining experiences in Roma Norte and Condesa:
- Contramar. John made our reservations well before our trip for the fantastic seafood restaurant. It was well worth the effort – I’m getting hungry just looking at their website!
- Vecchio Forno. Outstanding Italian food and super-friendly servers. After almost three weeks in Mexico, wewere craving anything that wasn’t a taco – and Vecchio Forno filled the bill.
- La Vineria. This cozy little spot was on the same block as our hotel. Eclectic menu and great wine list.
- Fonda Garufa. Our hotel host suggested this spot for breakfast, and it was fantastic.
- Sala Gastronómica. This is the fabulous restaurant inside the Museum of Anthropology prides itself on its menu inspired by six regions of Mexico, including a unique take on corn. A great place to take a break and enjoy a lovely meal while you’re visiting the museum.
- El Tizoncito. This friendly joint claims to have invented tacos al pastor (although it’s not the only one to make that claim!). At any rate, those tacos were delicious, washed down with a cold Indio.