Updated: January 23rd, 2019
For my 3 days in Mexico City, I almost completely improvised the whole thing. And if my stacks of manila folders and excess of Excel spreadsheets could talk, well, first they’d tell you I need to get out more. Then they’d shout at the top of their lungs that winging it internationally is not my style. The last time I remember winging it (on purpose) was during my 3 days in Caye Caulker, Belize and that’s only because it’s a 6-square-mile island in the Caribbean with a sunshine and rum punch problem and “winging it” is literally the only option.
So how did I fare during my 3 days in Mexico City? Well, I had a great time. But I could have had a FREAKING PHENOMENAL time, had I been able to plan better. I did a lot of stuff, but I could have done ALL THE THINGS. I was exhausted the whole time, but still felt I missed out on about half of what I wanted to see/do/eat/drink (and if you received my latest newsletter you’d know why!). My 3 days in Mexico City were the last in a long line of trips during three action-packed months so, sadly, the planning of it got more neglected than those french fries I dropped in my husband’s car last year. So… yeah… umm…
DON’T WING YOUR 3 DAYS IN MEXICO CITY.
The thing about Mexico City… it’s bigger than big. It’s enormous. Enormous-er than enormous, if such a thing exists. In fact, it’s actually the 7th largest city in the world and home to more than 21 million (muy simpático) people. Knowing this, it’s no wonder you may think spending only 3 days in Mexico City is loonier than a laced-up luchador. And while, sure, it actually is pretty cuckoo, you can still have a worthwhile time if you plan 👏🏼 your 👏🏼 days 👏🏼.
In addition to being huge with literally a decade’s worth of things to see and do (and eat), Mexico City is also #1 in the world in terms of traffic congestion, everyone’s favorite. So what does that mean for you, the casual short-term visitor? It means a large part of your 3 days in Mexico City will be spent in the back of an Uber if you don’t plan accordingly. Because of these two striking statistics, I think it’s clear that winging it during your 3 days in Mexico City is simply a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea and should be left to the likes of pint-sized Caribbean islands and season-long sabbaticals.
So what can you do to maximize your productivity during 3 days in Mexico City?
Plan your activities by neighborhood | Enter everything you want to see and do on a Google map and group your activities according to where they’re physically located. Walking from one site to the next or relying on only the shortest of Uber trips will allow for so many more activities than will zig-zagging all over Mexico City—even considering all the sidewalk taco stands you’ll patronize along the way (i.e. all of them). Lemme just tell you, the latter will take between 45 minutes to an hour to get anywhere you want to go, regardless of distance or time of day—and you can say Adios to casual corner quesadillas.
Prioritize what you want to see and do | Know right now that with just 3 days in Mexico City you won’t be able to do everything you’d like to. Things are going to get skipped, forgotten about, and/or forcefully thrown down the shitter due to lack of time. Make a list of everything you want to do, starting with the things you absolutely need to see more than you need air to breathe, descending in importance to the things your co-worker suggested that you don’t actually care about (and that will almost absolutely get tossed).
Have a backup plan | Plan your days out, yes, but be prepared to improvise in case of inclement weather, strike, religious holiday you didn’t know existed, 12-car pileup on the highway, and/or (dear God please let it be “or”!!!), a devastating natural disaster occurs shortly before your trip.
Plan for sleep | I know including sleep here seems counterproductive, but it’s quite the opposite. If you remember to get adequate amounts of sleep, your waking hours will be so much more productive than whatever it was I did the whole time I was in Mexico City. I think I was just trying to take Dia de Muertos seriously by becoming an actual member of the walking dead during my trip.
Purchase admission tickets ahead of time | For certain activities you’ll need to pay admission. And since this is the 21st century, you can do that ahead of time with this thing called a computer. Doing this will save you literally hours and hours for which you can use to eat more tacos.
DON’T PLAN TOO MUCH ON YOUR FIRST DAY.
Here’s the dilemma: you have only 3 days in Mexico City so you need to jam-pack your schedule BUT there’s also this thing called altitude sickness that will make you feel as though a giant has just swung you around above his head 100 times then chucked you against a tree trunk head first. Now he’s sitting on your chest enjoying some empanadas while you fight for oxygen, the jerk. (More on my experience with Mexico City-induced altitude sickness in this post.)
My suggestion for Day One, which I will be trying on my next visit in March, is to plan all the super chill activities for the first day. While the inside of your body is adjusting to the high elevation of Mexico City (7,382 feet), the outside of your body should be taking it easy, staying away from anything hyper-physical, abstaining from alcohol, and drinking lots and lots and lots of water. Maybe visit a cathedral and pray to feel like a normal human again, stroll the Zócalo or a local market, check out a quiet museum, or relax on a rooftop with a gorgeous view. Def kick back with some tacos, tho.
DO BUY ADVANCE TICKETS TO CASA AZUL.
Casa Azul—AKA Museo Frida Kahlo—is the former home of, and museum dedicated to, Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s undeniably most famous artist. It’s also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico City and therefore the source of long, long lines ain’t nobody got time for.
Because this museum is so small, only a certain number of visitors are allowed in at any given time. I highly recommend reserving your admission tickets ahead of time—a reservation that will guarantee you entrance into the museum at the hour you’ve chosen, regardless of how many schmucks are waiting in line outside. *sheepishly raises hand*
Because we were winging it, my husband and I ended up waiting in line for entrance into Casa Azul for two hours. That was on a Wednesday and as soon as they opened, to give you an idea of wait times and how I ended up with a magnificent November tan. That’s time wasted that prompted the crossing off my list of something else I wanted to do. Tickets do sell out, but typically not much before the day you plan to visit anyway. (Like, while we waited in line people were on their phones buying tickets for later times so they could leave and come back. So, yeah.)
Tickets can be purchased at boletosfridakahlo.org and, it appears, only up to a month in advance. Choose your date on the calendar, then choose an entrance time, then get started on growing in that unibrow. You’ve got a month! A lot can happen in a month when you just completely let yourself go, no? (Note: photography isn’t allowed inside Museo Frida Kahlo unless you purchase a photo pass. The photography permit was something like $1 and you can buy it when you get into the museum, not ahead of time.)
DON’T GO TO XOCHIMILCO AT SUNSET.
Because almost every part of our 3 days in Mexico City didn’t go as we’d hoped, we ended up at Xochimilco about four hours later that we’d planned—if you can call randomly deciding things we were gonna do as the day passed a plan. Consuming muchas cervezas on a hilariously fun boat ride down the canals at Xochimilco was high on our list of goals we wanted to accomplish in Mexico City. Until we got there and decided consuming muchas cervezas on a sidewalk would have to suffice.
My friend Stephanie who lives in the area and has done the hilariously fun boat ride thing many, many times—on weekends, on holidays, at all times of the day—swears she has never waited in line at Xochimilco. Apparently, she’s never been at sunset.
We arrived about an hour before sunset and there stood, by my husband’s estimate (that’s an important tidbit because I’m known to exaggerate and he habitually underestimates), no less than 600 people in line to reserve their trajineras—the brightly colored boats with benches for which my butt would not be boarding. The line wove in and out of the food stalls and tables of people eating, down around and into the parking lot, to infinity and beyond. Fearing we wouldn’t get a boat no matter how long we waited (hello, pitch darkness), we opted for pounding our Modelos on the sidewalk to the sounds of hijacked reggaeton.
I should also mention that after the sun goes down the streets to Xochimilco are roped off and taxis are prohibited from entering the area leaving you no possible way of escape. For more on how we finally hightailed it outta there, check out this post.
DO EAT ALL THE FOOD. AND I MEAN EVERYTHING.
If you’re the kind of person whose friends tag you in taco memes all the livelong day, you’re going to love Mexico City. But don’t tie yourself down to tacos—try everything you can get your grubby little mouth on. (That actually seems a little harsh since I don’t know you that well…) And I mean everything. Grasshoppers included. Empanadas, enchiladas, piña coladas, anything that ends in –ada is probably a winner. Quesadillas and chilaquiles and alambres and chicharrones. It’s all AMAZING and cheap and sometimes just a complete mystery. Eat whatever someone will give you in exchange for money. Don’t tell your mom I said that.
DO SEE A LUCHA LIBRE MATCH.
Did I think seeing a lucha libre match was going to be… cheesy? Lame? Cray cray? Awesome? Well, I actually had no earthly idea what to expect. But did I want to find out? Oh hellll yes.
To preface this, I don’t whatsoever care for WWE, or WWF, or Smackdown, or MMA, or UFC, and… I can’t even tell you if those things are different or the same. But how could I pass up the chance to see the Mexican equivalent of Jack Black in stretchy pants? Well, an “experience” is what I wanted and an experience (jazz hands) is what I got.
Turns out, the lucha libre match we attended was one of the highlights of my entire year. It blew every high hope and elastic expectation I had of it right outta the ring. The entire arena was jam packed with screaming, shouting, jumping, boo-ing, air-horn-blowing fans—including myself. There were lights and lasers, music and dancers, smoke machines, some ancient Aztec rituals, and a whole lotta latex. The luchadores are some of the most talented athletes I’ve ever seen and, yeah, it’s clearly choreographed but that takes away nothing from the experience. It only adds hilarity, suspense, and in the end, shock and awe.
To save much needed time, as encouraged earlier, you can buy tickets in advance but know that the ticket buying process at the arena is an experience in itself. Get in a line, tell whoever or whatever is behind the window (seriously, you can’t see or hear through it) that you want X number of the best seats available. For real though, even first row tickets to these things are like $20 USD so feel free to go all “Money is no object!” tonight.
⇢ Where to go | Arena Mexico, Calle Dr. Lavista 189, Doctores, 06720 Ciudad de México
⇢ When to go | Lucha libre matches take place on Tuesday (martes) and Friday (viernes) nights.
⇢ Website | cmll.com
⇢ Where to buy tickets | ticketmaster.com.mx, or at the ticket window right before the event
⇢ When to buy tickets | Tickets only go on sale about a week in advance.
⇢ Where to sit | There isn’t a bad seat in the house but next time I’m aiming for the splash zone.
⇢ Expect | to be amazed.
BUT DON’T TAKE YOUR CAMERA WITH YOU.
Photography is not allowed at the lucha libre matches and they will confiscate your camera upon entering the arena. Had the security guards been Spandex-clad luchardores themselves, maybe it’d be worth the spectacle but, alas, they were just guys in suits… heading back to their offices with armfuls of DSLRs and the like. Now, I don’t know what they do with them—I’d imagine you could get your gear back after the event is over? But do you really want to risk it? (Turns out money actually is an object. Wah-wahhh.)
However, cell phone photography is allowed and the matches themselves are broadcast live and uploaded to YouTube for you to watch and share later. (My Google Pixel camera is far superior to a lot of actual cameras so the rules have yet to catch up to reason, but here we are.) There are bag checks heading into the arena so, whatever you do, don’t forget about the camera you have in your purse or try to smuggle one in. I’d heard this tip via word-of-mouth and decided not to risk it, but here are the words straight from Arena Mexico’s mouth, ridiculous translation courtesy of Google Chrome:
And trust me, those memories (read: outfits) are indeed graphic.
DO HAVE BREAKFAST IN MEXICO CITY’S BEST BAKERY.
Mexico absolutely kills breakfast, as I’ve mentioned before, but I fell particularly in love with Malande, a bakery/café/breakfast joint in the Condessa neighborhood of Mexico City owned by my friend’s aunt. My husband and I went multiple times during our short visit, sampled everything our stomachs could hold, and begged and pleaded for more Pan de Muerto even after the holiday was over. Malande is a cozy, neighborhood-y spot with the best food and the nicest employees and you’d be stupid to pass up a morning here if you’re in the area. “The area” being the country of Mexico.
Personal recommendation: Chilaquiles verdes and a cappuccino.
My much more specific recommendation: Come during Dia de Muertos (between October 31st-November 2nd) for the absolute best pan de muerto you’ll ever consume.
DON’T MISS THE TWO BEST VIEWS IN MEXICO CITY.
When I visit a new city, one of my top priorities is to seek out the spots with the very best views. And I know you thought front row for luchadores was all the eye-candy I needed, but you’re (only slightly) wrong.
Café Don Porfirio @ Sears Centro
Located in, yeah, a Sears department store is a small café with a massive view. On the 8th floor of the Sears, tucked away in the home decor section, is Café Don Porfirio, a Starbucks-like café offering sweet treats and an even sweeter view of Palacio de Bellas Artes, arguably the most gorgeous building in Mexico City. The terrace is small but even in the middle of the day there were plenty of open tables and my (n/a) piña colada was the best piña colada I’ve ever had.
⇢ Address | Av Juárez 14, Cuauhtémoc, Centro Histórico, 8th floor, 06010 Ciudad de México
⇢ Hours | Couldn’t find this anywhere…
⇢ Website | There isn’t one as far as I could tell. I’m really no help here.
La Terraza @ Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico
La Terraza is a restaurant and bar located on the top floor of the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico, AKA James Bond’s hotel. It’s the place with the grandly impressive stained glass roof and bird cages (with birds) in the hallways. There’s likely a drop-dead gorgeous woman in a floor-length red gown having her photograph taken on one of the balconies while you fish a hair out of your mouth nearby. I just assume that’s a normal occurrence at the Gran Hotel.
I haven’t visited the restaurant, though I hear great things. However, my husband and I spent a good amount of time on their terrace enjoying the views, the booze, and the rising full moon. The margaritas are huge and amazing, the mezcal presentation is aces (where did that description even come from just now), and this view of the Zócalo is not to be missed.
⇢ Address | 16 de Septiembre 82, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México
⇢ Hours | Brunch, Saturday & Sunday: 9 am – 6 pm | Daily, 1:30 pm – 11 pm
⇢ Website | granhoteldelaciudaddemexico.com.mx
DON’T STICK TO JUST TEQUILA; TRY MEZCAL TOO.
Personally, I’m not a fan of mezcal. However, from my experience, I appear to be the sole possessor of this belief. Regardless, I tried way more than my fair share of mezcal during my 3 days in Mexico City and actually found one I didn’t hate. (small wins)
Mezcal is sort of like tequila but not really. You could call it tequila’s cousin, I guess—like, they may have some similar personality traits and a comparable family history but only slightly resemble each other. It’s Mezcal who got tequila to try his first cigarette. Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant and you can often find it with various “creatures” lying on the bottom. However, it’s meant to be sipped, not shot, and it tastes absolutely nothing like tequila but more like… oh, I don’t know… the pit of a BBQ smoker? My usual comparison is “an ashtray” but I’m trying to actually get you to try it, not turn you off.
So yes, mezcal has a flavor and burn akin to a Mexican cowboy putting out a cigarette on your uvula but it’s a Mexican specialty you just have to try. It’s often served with either orange or cucumber slices and a sprinkling of worm salt–because why drink a traditional Mexican agave spirit without also eating the bug that eats the agave plant from the inside out?
I realize I’m not helping get my point across here.
What I’m trying to say is, tequila is everywhere but good mezcal is still hard to find outside Mexico—and you may be surprised by how much more you like it. If you don’t know where to start, and you probably won’t, everyone we asked came across as pretty knowledgeable on the subject and will most likely have a list of recommendations. Seriously, listen to them, not me.
DO CHECK OUT TEMPLO MAYOR.
Templo Mayor is something you could easily miss and I know because I almost did. Just northeast of the Zócalo you’ll find the ruined remains of Templo Mayor, one of the main temples of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). You can clearly see preserved parts of the temple along with artist renderings, maps, and scale models of the ancient city, all at street level, and there’s probably a nearby tour group whose information who can jack.
Head down into the museum for a subterranean view and to check out all the archaeological artifacts from before that guy Cortez came over and acted like a real jerk. The museum costs just about $3 USD and, for the love of Quetzalcoatl, don’t bring anything suspicious with you—like energy bars. (I got my Clif Bar confiscated after about 10 minutes of the security guard trying to figure out if it was a weapon or not. Then when I went back to pick it up (you bet your ass I’m getting my snack back), I had to search for it in the locked box of suspicious items—a steel cabinet full of only protein snacks and cereal bars. While I was standing there, one girl came back to retrieve her three mandarin oranges.)
MUSEO TEMPLO MAYOR
Address | When you’re in the Zócalo looking at the cathedral, it’s in the plaza just behind it on the right.
Hours | Tuesdays – Sundays, 9 am – 5 pm | Closed on Mondays
Website | templomayor.inah.gob.mx
Social | Facebook | Twitter
Note | The outside parts are always open and free for viewing
DON’T STAY AT THE STAYINN BAREFOOT CONDESSA.
It’s rare that I ever have a bad lodging experience—most places are great, if not just perfectly fine or obviously trying. But sometimes I do have a crappy experience and that’s when you need to be warned. During my 3 days in Mexico City I stayed at the Stayinn Barefoot Condessa and it was a dumpster fire. Also, ironically, the last place I’d ever go shoeless.
I am, if ever existed one, a low-maintenance lodger but this place was downright unacceptable. And don’t think that it being a hostel counts as any sort of excuse. There are countless top-notch hostels out there that defy stereotype. And then there’s the Stayinn Barefoot Condessa which serves up every negative assumption about hostel life on a dirty, unwashed platter with someone’s gross old hair hanging off.
It had it’s good points: I felt my stuff was safe when locked in the luggage storage room; the price (not value, price); and our Uber drivers had no problem finding us.
But it was mostly terrible: All the common area furniture was stained with god-knows-what; there’s an open-air bar on the roof that plays loud-ass bumpin’ techno until 2 am (and our room was right under it); overnight there were always people sleeping on the lobby couches (like, do they rent those out too?); the rooms were filthy and the bathrooms in the private rooms had hair caked on the walls and floor from previous guests; the curtains only covered part of the windows, not the whole thing; the windows and walls are about as thin as my interest in your child’s visit with Santa.
The common area toilets were always clogged; it’s located on what has to be the busiest, loudest, and most insane intersection in Mexico City—to get just across the street we either had to cross three different intersections or wait, no joke, 20 minutes and then run for our lives; the doors to the rooms are confusing AF and half the time we couldn’t get in; there was a random duffle bag left in the MIDDLE of the lobby for THREE DAYS and no one moved it; the kitchen sink overflowed with dirty dishes on a daily basis; the common areas were always full of trash and empty beer cans; the Wi-Fi worked only about 4% of our entire time there; and the kicker, the couch in the lobby was situated so that when you sit down and lean back, you’ll hit your head on the metal shelf above it. Not cool, amigos.
My point—don’t be fooled by the pretty pictures. This place looks super cute online but in reality it’s super gross and weird. Seriously with the duffle bag…
DO WATCH SOME RELEVANT MOVIES BEFORE YOUR TRIP.
This is something I do habitually both before and after my first trips to a new place. As I said way at the beginning of this post, I didn’t get a lot of planning done for this trip but you can bet your ass I watched these two movies:
Nacho Libre | One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and did you know this is actually based on a true story? Fray Tormenta is a Mexican priest who spent 23 years as a masked luchador to earn money to support the orphanage he directed and this couldn’t make me any happier.
Frida | The (way less hilarious) story of Frida Kahlo (and by association, Diego Rivera) starring Salma Hayek as Frida. This movie is a great explanation of Frida as an artist and takes place in many of the places you can visit around Mexico City, Casa Azul being one of them.
Bonus: The opening scene of James Bond’s Spectre, which you can watch here, takes places during Day of the Dead in Mexico City and even inside the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de México.
What other movies would you suggest watching before/after a trip to Mexico City?
DON’T ASSUME YOUR FLIGHT’S CANCELLED JUST BECAUSE AEROMEXICO SAYS SO.
Long story short, Aeromexico is part of Delta–whether they realize it or not.
The night before I was to head to the airport for my pre-dawn flight to Mexico City, I logged on to check into my flight when I saw this message:
Uhhh… my flight’s in six hours…
Aeromexico told me to call Delta, get some code to get a new flight if there was one, yada yada, a whole bunch of crap, on the phone for an hour. Delta had no record of me as a passenger, no record of my confirmation number, nada. Eventually we realized that I had been booked on a Delta flight (independent of Aeromexico) under a different confirmation number and, yes, my flight did totally exist. I was never made aware of this and even Aeromexico themselves had no clue that this had happened.
So if you see this message, don’t freak out and turn over your freshly packed suitcase in a heated rage. I mean, it’s possible that your flight was canceled without your knowledge, but chances are something similar to what I experienced could have happened as well. Even if Aeromexico tells you your flight doesn’t exist and you’re screwed, get a second (Delta) opinion.
DO SAVE THE BOTTOM PART OF YOUR IMMIGRATION FORM.
Upon arriving for your 3 days in Mexico City, you’ll get a standard immigration form on the plane that must be filled out along with a delicious turkey sandwich. Clearing customs, you’ll get the bottom part of the form back that you’ll quickly shove into a ball and squish down in the pocket of your personal item because who actually cares?
Later on when you’re trying to return to the United States (or wherever), you’ll be told you can’t board your plane under any circumstances without the small portion of immigration form that was given to you when you entered the country; the one that not a single person hinted at possibly being of utmost importance later. By the grace of whatever Aztec god is responsible for this, my husband and I both hadn’t cleaned the trash out of our carry-ons (judge us if you must) and were able to hand over our (very wrinkly) immigration forms.