Planning Your First Trip to Mexico? Your Guide to Mexico City and its Surroundings

For Cuisine Noir. July 2019.

From white sand beaches and Pacific blue waters in the west and ancient Mayan ruins in the east to traditional cuisine and tequila distilleries in the south, Mexico has a variety of landscapes and experiences to offer. However, it can be hard to decide where to begin and how to navigate this Spanish-speaking neighbor, and you will likely have to plan a few trips to see it all.

Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, is the largest metropolis in the country and often overlooked by tourists. Originally built by the Aztecs in 1325 A.D., it is the oldest capital in the Americas and one of the best places to learn about the country’s history, culture and food, while still having a big-city feel. There is a range of accommodations and more than 100 museums, art galleries, award-winning restaurants and performing art venues to choose from.

Most major airlines fly directly to Mexico City’s Juarez International airport, which receives thousands of business travelers each day. There’s no visa needed to enter Mexico (for visits up to 6 months) but you need to carry your passport.

Due to its high altitude, Mexico City enjoys pleasant summers and mild winters. Note that Mexico City sits about 7,382 feet above sea level, so you may want to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol as you get acclimatized. Remember to bring a sweater even in the summer months.

Mexican City Skyline
Pictured: Mexican City Skyline | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Stay in Fashionable Neighborhoods

It’s best to stay in one of the centrally located areas accessible by walking or taxi, to avoid traffic during peak hours.

La Condesa, with its largest city square, Zocalo, is lively from dawn to dusk. The streets are crowded with old-fashioned organ players, street vendors selling tacos and elotes (Mexican grilled corn) and businessmen and women chatting in bars after work. Local Mexicans also gather at Zocalo to eat dinner, listen to live music and dance the night away.

The Colonia Roma neighborhood was built by wealthy Mexicans who traveled to Europe in the 1800s. Here you will find French-inspired buildings, European cafes, bistros and gelato shops. Even if you are not staying in Roma, make sure to go for a visit or take a guided walking tour.

Savor One of the Biggest Art Scenes in the World

Art lovers can easily spend a week visiting more than150 museums dedicated to pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary arts. The Anthropology and History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the San Ildefonso Museum and the Templo Mayor Museum, are some of the most popular ones. A must stop is at Frida Kahlo’s private home, Casa Azul, where you can see some of her paintings and personal belongings.

Enjoy Live Music and Dance

Watch a colorful Mexican folklore ballet at the Tiffany-designed stained glass Palacio De Bellas Artes, or head to Plaza Garibaldi, known for its mariachi musicians. It is hard to find a restaurant or bar that doesn’t have live music in Mexico City.

Take a Day Trip Outside the City

There are many historic and natural sites within driving distance of Mexico City that make for perfect day trips.

Canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City
Pictured: Canals of Xochimilco | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Escape to the colorful towns of Puebla and Cholula, known for their beautiful Baroque-style old churches, busy craft markets and traditional restaurants.

You will find many Mexican families renting party boats, or trajineras, meandering through the canals of Xochimilco with food and music on board. This “Venice of Mexico,” a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about an hour’s drive from Mexico City. You can access it via taxi (about $20 round trip) if you want to avoid booking through a tour company.

Continue to Charming Colonial Towns

While there’s plenty to do in Mexico City, it is also a gateway to smaller towns in Mexico, where you can extend your stay.

Take a flight (1 hour) or road trip (6 hours) from Mexico City to Guadalajara, where you can hop on the Jose Cuervo Express, also known as the “tequila train.” This two-hour journey takes you through picturesque agave fields to the “Magic Town” of Tequila, also the birthplace of the spirit, where you can visit distilleries and enjoy tequila-based cocktails. Stay at luxurious hotel Solar de Las Animas, overlooking the main square for rooftop views of the town. You can watch traditional music and dance every evening as you smell the aroma of roasting agave molasses.

Jose Cuervo Express Train in Mexico City
Pictured: Jose Cuervo Express Train | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Puerto Vallarta is a popular resort destination on the Pacific west coast. It is known for its white sand beaches, artsy neighborhoods, water sports and nightlife. From Guadalajara, take a flight (50 mins) or drive five hours to Puerto Vallarta, once named as The Friendliest City in the World.” It is a popular destination with domestic as well as international tourists.

Whether you choose to go to Mexico City for a week or a weekend, you will find that the city and the surrounding areas offer a wide variety of attractions for all interests.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved. 

Why Mexico City Is the Cultural Destination You Should Visit Next

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2018

When you think of traveling to Mexico, you are likely charmed by the white sandy beaches of Cabo San Lucas, ancient Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, or the active night life in Riviera Maya. But, the capital of our neighbor south of the border has a unique, vibrant culture that often goes undiscovered by leisure travelers. Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away

Why Mexico City Could be the Next Paris

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August 11, 2015

North Americans need not spend hundreds of dollars to cross the Atlantic Ocean for a European getaway. With its historic architecture, booming gastronomy, and cutting edge cultural scene, Mexico City now offers the same charm as any big city in Europe.

Mexico City is a destination greatly undermined by its public perception. There is no more visible crime here than in other metropolises around the world. Pollution is minimal, and traffic a lot better than what you would find in São Paulo or Mumbai. If you take proper precautions, you will hardly feel the change in elevation. Most people working in the hospitality industry are fluent in English. The weather is temperate year round – it’s nice and cool even through the summer. Moreover, there is a lot to do beyond drinking tequila, listening to mariachi bands, and attending business meetings! Recently, the Mexico Tourism Board has done a great job in highlighting the city’s museums, artists, chefs, and boutiques – some of which are already on par with those in Paris.

There are enough museums to keep you busy for a month

Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world (150+ at last count). Not only can you find huge collections of pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary art, there are artifacts displaying Mexico’s rich cultural, social, political and economic heritage. The most famous national museums are the Anthropology and History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the San Ildefonso Museum, and the Templo Mayor museum.

There are also quirky and interesting themed museums around the city, such as
The Cartoon Museum, Shoe Museum, Pen Museum, Chile and Tequila Museum, Mexican Olympic Museum, and the wonderfully Interactive Economics Museum.

Remember that museums are closed on Mondays.

Its home to Frida and Diego’s world famous art

A visit to Mexico City would be incomplete without admiring paintings of this famous artistic couple. The largest private collection of works by Diego Rivera is housed at Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino. Casa Azul (Blue House) is Frido Kahlo’s private home, now museum and a shrine, where she was born in 1907 and died 47 years later.

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The city seems to attract artists from all over Latin America who want to learn and practice independent art expressions. At Galería At Despacho 29, you can see young artists at work as they display their paintings, sculptures, graphics and more, in this thriving artist colony. Galeria Omr in Colonia Roma is a must see with its international fame. Even walking around the city, you will come across many chic art galleries and stores representing all genres.

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Neighborhoods in Mexico City look like Europe

In the Colonia Roma neighborhood, you will see homes and building constructed in French, Italian and Spanish style architecture. Most of these were built in the 1800’s, when Mexican aristocrats traveled to Europe and modeled their surroundings based on what they saw there. Strolling through Colonia Roma’s Plaza Río de Janeiro Street, you will find bistros, cafes, gelaterias, bookstores, art galleries, as well as cantinas and dance clubs. Note that most art galleries are closed on Sundays.

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La Condesa is also a charming area that caters to the young and hip. Besides admiring the unique building styles and colors, you can also explore the nightlife here.

Zocalo (main plaza) bustles with organ players, street vendors, excited tourists, wandering bicyclists and downtown office crowds, with a backdrop of the Cathedral, National Palace, Federal District buildings, Templo Mayor site, and the omnipresent Mexican flag. At 57 thousand square meters, this is one of the largest city squares in the world. Explore side streets to see more architectural gems, such as the post office and the Opera Cantina. On weekends, the streets in Zocalo come alive with balloons, clowns, cotton candy, live music, and dancing.

Mexico City is the cultural capital of Latin America

Watch Mexican folklore ballet and temporary art exhibitions at the colossal white marble opera house with a Tiffany stained-glass curtain, known as Palacio De Bellas Artes. This beautiful building was designed by the famous Italian Adamo Boari, and inaugurated in 1934. Inside, you can see paintings by several celebrated Mexican artists, including Rufino Tamayo, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

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View current artistic trends across seven exhibition rooms at the Centro Cultural De Espana, along with a museum, conference center, and jazz bar designed specially for art and culture lovers.

To explore more of the mariachi music scene, spend the evening at Plaza Garibaldi, where you can even rent a personal band by the hour. Dressed in embroidered “charro” outfits and large wide brim sombrero hats, these musicians play guitars, trumpets and violins, sing, dance and entertain crowds.

Mexico City also has gondolas

Take a short drive to the southern outskirts of the city for an authentic Mexican fiesta on the boat experience. Xochimilco, a World Heritage Site is best known for its 110 miles of canals where tourists and locals come to ride on colorful gondola-like boats called “trajineras.” You can see families’ picnicking, dancing, and singing on the boats, as mariachi bands and food vendors ride along.

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Here you can eat well without breaking the bank

From street food and hole-in-the-wall regional establishments, to upscale restaurants, Mexico City offers something for all distinguished taste buds. The best way to get oriented to the local cuisine is through Gastronomic Tour Sabores de México (Mexico Flavors Gastronomic Tour). A guided walking tour will take you through some of the best places to sample tacos, tamales, tequilas, beer and coffee.

Visit the largest family run taco franchise in Mexico, El Fogoncito, where you can trace the evolution of tacos from the Middle East to Mexico City.

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Even high-end cuisine can be quite affordable in Mexico City. A dinner at Pujol, rated in the top 50 restaurants in the world, will set you back only $50 per person (excluding drinks). Also noted among the world’s best, five-diamond restaurant Astrid and Gaston, was one of the first to put upscale Peruvian cuisine on the map. Now they have locations in Lima, Bogota, Santiago, Madrid, and Mexico City’s Polanco Area.

Try the chocolaty mole from Pueblo region, cooked with different chilies (even a pink mole for Valentines Day) at Dulce Patria. Martha Ortiz, known as one of the best chefs in Mexico City emphasizes her menus on contemporary Mexican cuisine, drawing inspiration from the opera and the visual arts; her insatiable reading habit; Mexican women whose lives have influenced Ortiz, among them Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Frida Kahlo, and the many home cooks of the Mexican state of Michoacán who she calls “the queens of cooking.”

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The city is dotted with parks and plazas for strolling

At Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City, you can envision viceroys and counts dressed in their formal attire, taking a stroll through the French designed fountains, while admiring sculptures based on Greco-Roman mythology. There is even a monument dedicated to Beethoven in commemoration of the centenary of his 9th Symphony. While no street vendors are allowed in the park, you will see couples of all ages sharing romantic moments, kissing and holding hands, not just here, but in most parks across the city.

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Joggers, walkers and tourists can be spotted at Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s largest park, which also houses a castle, a lake, an amusement park, the Mexican president’s official residence, and five world-renowned museums. This is Mexico City’s equivalent of the Central Park of New York.

A must see neighborhood is Coyoacán. This charming and quiet residential area was home to many famous Mexicans including Miguel de la Madrid, president of Mexico from 1982 to 1988; artists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and José Clemente Orozco; Gabriel Figueroa, cinematographer for Luis Buñuel and John Huston; film star Dolores del Río; film director El Indio Fernández; and writers Carlos Monsiváis, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. It’s also the neighborhood where the exiled Leon Trotsky met his violent death.

It’s a shopper’s paradise

From high-end boutiques selling limited edition Christian Louboutin and traditional Mexican apparel designs, fine art galleries, modern furniture stores, to dozens of weekend markets selling Mexican artesanías (handicrafts) such as colorful hand-painted crockery to innovative blown glass made by regional artisans in poor communities, there are all kinds of products available to shoppers.

While state of the art shopping malls are scattered all through the city, Centro Santa Fe, in the western part of the city, is the largest shopping center in Latin America and boasts nearly 300 shops, with department stores, boutiques, restaurants, play areas for children, and 10 movie theaters.

Mexico City is so close!

Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, yet largely undiscovered by vacation travelers. Delta Airlines and Aero Mexico serve nonstop connections from most major cities in US to Mexico City. Depending on where you fly from, you could be in Mexico City in 1-4 hours and discover that you can enjoy a European style getaway so close to home.