Updated: January 23rd, 2019
I just did something I’ve never done before. No, it’s not eat grasshoppers again. No, it’s not injure myself while attempting lucha wrestling moves again. The completely new and surprising thing I did: I just visited the same country back to back. In less than five months. That’s how much I adore guacamole Mexico.
The oft-misunderstood Mexico City has a soul like no other place I’ve been and it’s as colorful as a drag queen’s eyeshadow palette. The history, the culture, the art, the people, and the dang quesadillas all combine in the most magical way for an experience like no other and certainly like nothing you could have expected. Actually, not unlike a drag show. Hmm. I was hooked after my first trip and, having just returned from my second, I can definitively say that Mexico City is one of my favorite cities in the world. In partnership with Expedia.ca, I’ve put together these 15 essential and un-missable Mexico City experiences so you can get started planning your best trip ever.
ESSENTIAL MEXICO CITY EXPERIENCES
Even having just visited on packed, back-to-back trips, there are so many more things to do in Mexico City that I haven’t been able to squeeze in yet. (I even consulted the Aztec calendar this time and, still, no more room in my schedule.) It’s a city of countless museums and cultural opportunities. It’s the perfect destination for lovers of art, food, and unbelievable views. It’s a city to satisfy your every travel desire but still have you yearning for more (guacamole) on the flight home. Start here:
01 | OBSESS OVER THE PALACIO DE BELLAS ARTES
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is undoubtedly Mexico City’s most drool-worthy piece of architecture. (Translated into Millennial that means “hella Instagrammable, yo”.) This Palace of Fine Arts is Mexico City’s home to world-class theater, dance, opera, music, art exhibitions, and, maybe someday, drag shows. It’s part Art Nouveau, part Art Deco, was completed in 1934, and is located in the heart of downtown Mexico City. What does it look like inside? No idea. I love the outside too much. (Seriously, have you been in it? Do share in the comments!)
There are three places from which to see the Palacio de Bellas Artes in its best light:
1.) From in front of the building itself. From here you can see all the details of the façade but watch out for the po-po. For reasons beyond me, guards out in front of the building don’t allow you to use “professional” cameras to take pictures here. Only cell phones. Even though you’re outside, photographing a quite large public building. Even though most cell phone cameras are now better and more high-quality than actual cameras. I guess just file that away with “why Honey Boo Boo is famous” among the great mysteries of the universe.
2.) From the terrace at Café Don Porfirio aka Sears. Directly across the street from the Palacio de Bellas Artes is a Sears department store in all its Craftsman glory. Enter from the street and take the elevator up to the 8th floor aka home furnishings. Take a right out of the elevator and follow your nose to the scent of coffee and tourists. The entirety of this café exists on a narrow terrace with a face-to-face view of the Palacio and some of the best (non-alcoholic) drinks you’ve ever had. (The taro frappe and the piña colada are my favorites).
3.) From the lookout at the Torre LatinoAmericana. Across the street-ish from the Palacio de Bellas Artes is what looks like a mini-Empire State Building. Inside on the ground floor you’ll see a short line protruding from a glass window—get in it. The line, not the window. (What? I don’t know how many margaritas you’ve had today.) For 110 pesos (about $6 US) you’ll get a wristband for the Mirador (rooftop lookout platform) that you can use as many times that day as you wish. From up on the 44th floor you’ll get an ultra-unique look down at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (along with much of the rest of Mexico City).
Gawking at the Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of the most iconic Mexico City experiences—to come here and not get a brag-worthy shot of it is just un poco loco.
02 | EXPLORE THE ZÓCALO
Mexico City’s Zócalo is a big deal. Like, a freaking huge deal. At 620,000 square feet, it’s one of the biggest deals in the world, actually. It’s formally known as Plaza de la Constitución (you may need that for your Uber) and is Mexico City’s main square… that was once the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan’s main square. (See? Like Brad Pitt, it’s older than you think.) It’s the center of government for both Mexico the country and Mexico the city, and is the site of countless rallies, artistic events, major parades and gatherings, and more. It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 but, most importantly, you can get your aura cleaned here and don’t we all need a li’l spiritual cleansing, okayyyy?
The Zócalo (a pretty broad term referring to the main square in almost any Mexican city) is the center of town and home to many essential Mexico City experiences such as:
Templo Mayor | Templo Mayor is—here’s your first Spanish lesson—the “main temple” of Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec capital we now call Mexico City. According to Aztec legend, Templo Mayor was considered the center of the universe. The CENTER of the UNIVERSE—them’s some mighty big shoes to fill. You can find Templo Mayor, or at least what remains of it, just to the right of the Zócalo’s cathedral. You can check out the ruins from street level or head below ground into the museum. You can call that your “journey to the center of the
earth universe” if you want. I would.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral | Or, officially, the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, because I assume an entire Hail Mary wouldn’t fit on the mailbox. You know, that big church at the end of the Zócalo? It was built, in sections, from 1573 to 1813 and serves as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico. It was built on the former Aztec sacred precinct and with those very stones—the first of which is said to have been personally laid by Hernán Cortés himself, jerk. I don’t think there are enough spiritual cleansings in Mexico to save you, amigo.
The National Palace | Mexico City’s National Palace is the seat of Mexico’s federal government but that’s kinda boring. You’ll want to go there for the famous murals, the botanical gardens, and ALL THE CATS that live there. More on the National Palace in a jiffy…
Spiritual cleansings | They’re more commonly known in the area as “limpia” and you’ll wanna get yo’self one of these—I know what you did last summer. They’re performed over in the Templo Mayor area of the Zócalo by dressed up shamans and how legit they are bears argument, but really, some of us could use any help we can get, am I right? The ritual involves being rubbed with herbs and covered in incense in an attempt to cleanse your aura and promote harmony within your body—a far cry from last night’s tabletop rendition of “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, hmm? Your aura be dirtay! You can see an example in this video (skip to 1:20) but know that these limpia can involve various levels of herb slapping.
Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico | Not only does the Gran Hotel appear in the James Bond movie Spectre and the Disney Pixar flick Coco, they also have the BIGGEST margaritas with the BEST views. Head inside (cell phone photos only of the redonkulous stained glass ceiling, again) and take the elevator to the top floor. Head straight across to the opposite side of the hotel and you’ll find both a terrace bar and a rooftop patio restaurant, both serving some of the biggest and best margaritas this side of Trump’s wall with priceless Zócalo views.
03 | SAIL THROUGH XOCHIMILCO
Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-meel-ko) is what happens when Venice, Italy and Las Vegas, Nevada make a baby. Or like if Bourbon Street dropped acid on a riverboat. Actually, you know that boat scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory? The one that jump-started your lifelong fear of waterbourne transportation? Just. Like. That.
Xochimilco is technically a borough of Mexico City, but sailing down its canals on colorful trajineras you’ll find one hell of a party. Show up, snag a boat and a captain (drunkenness may vary), and spend the next three hours floating through Wonderland. Bring your own food and drinks, or don’t—there are bar boats and snack boats and food boats a-plenty. Bring your own mariachi band, or don’t—you’ll pass boats with those for rent too. Bring a group of friends, or don’t—you’ll make some new ones in no time. Join a dance party on someone else’s boat—you can jump from one to another as you please—and get scarred for life on the Island of the Dolls.
Xochimilco is one giant river party, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the top must-do Mexico City experiences, and, thanks to the dolls, sometimes even your worst nightmare. I have an entire post about this coming soon. (Subscribe over in the sidebar so you don’t miss it!)
04 | EAT ALL THE FOOD
Mexico is one country you can visit where the chances of having a bad meal are slimmer than the “after” photo in a Spanx ad. You typically know what you’re going to get here and though there can be a few surprises (like how your margarita is probably rimmed with salt made from crushed up grasshoppers), they are few and far between.
Is food a main reason for some people to travel to Mexico in the first place? I’d bet my enchilada on it. Everything in Mexico is delicious—perhaps because it’s all variations of the same thing: a tortilla, meat, cheese, spicy sauces. Food here is cheap and can be found anywhere—on street corners, in the backs of trucks, on passing boats, in market stalls, even in restaurants if you’re so inclined. But know that you don’t need a reservation to experience something potentially life-changing.
You’ve got tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, pastor, chilaquiles, chicharrones, tlayudas, queso fundido, nachos, chalupas, tamales, and I could go on because I’m reading this straight from my Mexican food map. In terms of Mexico City experiences you can’t pass up, eating all the food is the one you may enjoy the most. The options are endless so experiment! Try to not eat the same thing twice. Ask the server what you should try. Choose something from the street cart that you have no idea what it is (ahem, chicharrones). Just eat ALL OF IT. Some of my favorite spots are: La Cerveceria de Barrio Condesa, El Califa, Señor Taco, Taco Naco, Malande Café, El Tizoncito, and every street corner in between.
05 | EXPERI-DRINK
So you wanna visit Mexico City and drink mucha tequila, eh? That’s fine, I don’t blame you—speaking Spanish is sometimes hard without it. But use tequila as a gateway into trying other, less famous Mexican agave bevs like mezcal and pulque. Agav-yay!
Mezcal, like tequila, is a liquor made from the agave plant but is produced differently and comes from different regions of Mexico (with most of it coming from Oaxaca in the south). While tequila can only be made from Blue Agave, mezcals can be made from almost 30 different agave varieties. The special production method of mezcal (involving an underground pit, some fire, and a dizzy donkey) results in a super smoky flavor that is not particularly my jam, but is the jam of many visitors to Mexico, allll of my friends among them. It’s typically served with orange or cucumber slices and salt that is probably made from crushed up grasshoppers but can also be found in mezcalritas if crushed ice is more your thang.
Pulque… how to describe pulque, hmm… I don’t think any description of pulque will have you dying to try it, that’s the problem. It’s an alcoholic drink that’s been traditionally produced in Central Mexico for just about ever. It’s made from the fermented sap of the agave plant and—hear me out—looks like milk, is pretty chunky, and has a kind of a sweet/sour yeasty flavor. BUT I SWEAR IT’S DELICIOUS!
Pulque has been produced for at least 2,000 years and was at times, even still in some places, considered sacred. It’s been used by priests for religious purposes, by doctors for medicinal purposes, by sacrificial victims for oh-shit-I’mma-die purposes, and by yours truly because why the hell not? Some love it (like me) and some don’t (like most of the people I was with) and while there’s no enticing description for pulque other than “it’s a Central Mexican tradition and YOLO”, definitely break out of your tequila shell and give it a try when you spot it.
06 | CHECK OUT A LUCHA LIBRE MATCH
Did I know anything about Mexican wrestling before watching Nacho Libre? Nope. Do I give any craps about professional wrestling in general or otherwise? Absolutely not. But was attending a lucha libre match one of the most eye-opening and entertaining experiences of my life? HECK YES.
Lucha libre (which literally means ‘free fight’) became a thing early in the 1900s, with the masks and secret identities (and probably the lycra too) coming later. Me jumping up and down and screaming at the top of my lungs at a grown man in Spandex didn’t show up ‘til late 2017. Lucha Libre is unlike anything you imagine professional wrestling to be with high-flying aerial and acrobatic moves to put both athletes and circus performers to shame. After soccer, it’s Mexico’s most popular sport and attending a match at Arena Mexico, the sport’s birthplace and Mecca, is another of the essential Mexico City experiences.
Lucha Libre matches are held on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays and tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com.mx or at the arena the day of. Tickets are cheap so opt for the best available because ballers gonna ball, no? For more on these matches, check out CMLL.com. For some helpful tips on attending one and one SUPER important piece of advice, read this post ⇣
07 | EXPLORE ANCIENT CULTURES AT TEOTIHUACAN
Teotihuacan (pronounced tay-oh-teh-wah-kahn) is an ancient city that was at its peak between the 1st and 7th centuries, when it was the 6th largest city in the world and you were just sitting down to watch “one quick video” on YouTube. To give you some perspective: the city was already in ruins by the time the Aztecs stumbled upon it. The colony eventually collapsed due to—tale as old as time—internal strife. So… basically a bunch of disgruntled workers showed up and burned the place down. It’s been revealed through mucho archaeological evidence that they, indeed, could not find their staplers. That was the last straw.
Today, visiting Teotihuacan is high on the list of Mexico City experiences you can’t miss. The site is located just 45 minutes(ish) northeast of Mexico City and is easy and cheap to get to both by public bus and via Uber. At Teotihuacan you can visit:
The Pyramid of the Sun | The largest structure at Teotihuacan and believed to have been constructed around 200 AD, like Dolly Parton. It’s the third largest pyramid in the world and the most popular spot at Teotihuacan so arrive as early as possible if you want to climb to the top. After about noon, lines get long and people are SLOOOWWWW.
The Pyramid of the Moon | The second largest structure at Teotihuacan and dedicated to the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. It’s no wonder she’s at the head of everything here. This Pyramid is slightly smaller and sees fewer crowds (but it’s my favorite).
The Temple of the Feathered Serpent | The third largest pyramid at Teotihuacan beneath which was discovered (in 1980) the bodies of more than 100 sacrifice victims. It’s located at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead and hidden a ways back. The pyramid is covered in carved representations of the “feathered serpent” aka the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. However, it’s the carvings of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of hilarious snake emojis, that really make me LOL.
…the Avenue of the Dead, the Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl, and every carved and painted structure in between.
08 | PAY HOMAGE TO FRIDA AT CASA AZUL
Frida Kahlo is Mexico’s most famous artist. She’s known for her fiery attitude, her surreal self-portraits, and her fierce, unapologetic unibrow. Regardless of how familiar you are with her art, you know the brow of which I speak. Frida was born in and spent her childhood and most of her adult life at Casa Azul, the family’s blue house in Coyoacán, one of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs.
Casa Azul is now a museum dedicated to Frida’s life and work and a shrine to people who don’t pluck the world over. It consists of ten rooms including the bedrooms (where you can see her death mask, ahh!!), the kitchen, her painting studio, an outdoor courtyard, and more. It’s decorated with her personal art collection and various Mexican artifacts and makes both the perfect pilgrimage for Frida fans and a great introduction for those less familiar.
Casa Azul is one of Mexico City’s most popular tourist sites (if not the popular-est) and booking your tickets ahead of time is almost mandatory. Unless standing in long lines under hot suns is one of those Mexico City experiences you were really looking forward to?
09 | AND HER HUSBAND DIEGO IN THE ZÓCALO
Next up in the line of super famous Mexican artists is Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s scoundrel of a husband. Philanderer though he may be, his murals are still a sight to behold. They’re massive in size, they’re world famous, and.. wait, how did we get on the subject of Dolly Parton again? Diego Rivera’s murals are bright and beautiful and as big as his ego. He painted frescoes in various cities throughout Mexico and even here in the United States, but my favorites can be found at the National Palace in Mexico City’s Zócalo.
Looking at the cathedral in the Zócalo, the National Palace is the long building on your right. Admission is free but you must present an ID and, for reasons I just don’t get, remove your sunglasses for the duration of your time there. Even though it’s all outside. Even though you’re out unprotected under a Mexican sun beating down with the strength of a thousand uncompromising unibrows. Inside the open-air hallways of the palace you’ll find Diego’s murals on the history of Mexico that were painted between 1929 and 1935. You can take guided tours of his National Palace murals Tuesdays through Sundays at 11 am or tour them independently with your Mexico guidebook (pages 74 & 75 are where you want to be).
10 | HEAD UP TO CHAPULTEPEC CASTLE
Chapultepec Castle is the only royal castle in North America to ever have housed actual royalty—and I’m not talking about the time it appeared as the Capulet Mansion in the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet. It was constructed in 1725 [insert Donatella Versace jab here] for the commander in chief of the Spanish colony then abandoned during the Mexican War of Independence. In 1864 it became the residence of Emperor Maximilian I who was officially the “Emperor of Mexico” but was actually an Austrian Hapsburg prince who wasn’t Mexican at all—like margaritas or the high drinking day of Cinco de Drinko.
The word Chapultepec comes from a Nahuatl word meaning “holy crap the views up here are fantastic!” which you’ll discover is indeed true. Today, the castle serves as a history museum dedicated to the former military academy that once called it home, and to the personal effects of Emperor Maximilian. You can see famous murals, a fancy carriage collection, and totally your house from here! As far as Mexico City experiences go, at 7,628 feet above sea level, this one’s the highest.
11 | TOUR THE ANTHROPOLOGY MUSEUM
Also found in Chapultepec Park is the National Museum of Anthropology, the largest museum in Mexico and one of the most visited in the world. The museum opened the same year the Beatles came to America and everyone lost their ever-loving minds, but the museum’s collection dates all the way back to the year the modern shoelace was patented. That’s 1964 and 1790, respectively, for the non-history nerds in the audience. The museum houses collections on:
- an introduction to anthropology
- Mexican nomadic groups
- Mesoamerican cultures from 2300 BC to 100 AD
- Teotihuacan—see all the stuff that was found near that pyramid you climbed
- The Toltec and Mexica civilizations
- Cultures of Oaxaca
- Cultures of the Gulf Coast like the Olmec, the Totonac, and the Huastec (missing from this section are the elusive Spring Breakers and Cruise Takers)
- The Maya
- As well as cultures from the Mexican West and the Mexican North (+ Southern U.S.)
But, without a doubt, the most popular piece in the entire museum and the piece whose discovery sparked the formation of the museum in the first place is the Aztec Calendar. It’s huge; it’s captivating; it’s centered around a 365-day cycle; and maybe someday it’ll have your crazy neighbor running around amassing guns and soup cans the same way the Maya calendar has done for so many.
12 | WATCH THE DANCE OF THE VOLADORES
Outside the main entrance of the Museum of Anthropology, just past the trees and street vendors, you can watch the Danza de los Voladores, the Dance of the Flyers. Watching the Voladores is not only one of the great Mexico City experiences but the “dance” is also a traditional ritual meant to appease the gods and end drought. It’s also related to fertility which could be considered a drought of a different color. It originated in the nearby Mexican state of Veracruz but eventually made it all over Mexico, much like Emilio, the guy I sat next to on my flight there.
The Danza de los Voladores is an astonishing sight to see, even as someone who used to fly through the air with the greatest of ease as a daring young girl on the flying trapeze. Although it was not easy and calling myself “a young girl” may be pushing it. The dance involves 4, 5, or sometimes 6 men (always men—very strict rules) climbing up an almost 100-foot pole and wrapping themselves in rope. Four of them launch themselves off the pole backwards and drift slowly back to earth in an elegant fashion the complete opposite of the crapshow that was me leaping from the trapeze board. The Voladores make 13 rotations around the pole all the while flute-playing and drum-banging the gods’ favorite tunes.
The Voladores ceremony is performed at certain intervals (I’m told every ten minutes or so?) outside the Anthropology Museum from 10 am – 7 pm every day. Look for the light blue pole behind the trees and find a seat—it’ll start soon. The ceremony is also performed in a field outside the gates of Teotihuacan between the parking lot and Entrance 1. And if all goes according to plan, in my backyard this summer as well.
13 | SHOP AT A STREET MARKET
Mexico City refreshingly lacks the plethora of tacky, knick knack-y gift shops and aggressive junk peddlers of most European tourist capitals. This is a travel blessing in many ways, one of them being that you must do your shopping at adorable local street markets instead. At these markets you can buy everything from jewelry to belts to clothing to bags to souvenirs to crafts to lucha libre masks and minimalist art to furniture and so on. And not only can you shop shop shop, you can also eat eat eat. These markets are colorful, vibrant, and sell everything you could possibly want or need and for dirt cheap.
My favorite is the Saturday Bazaar in the neighborhood of San Angel. It’s centered around two public parks that are themselves enveloped by quaint museums, indoor open-air markets, streets of locally owned and operated shops, restaurants, and a lady that sells fresh stroopwafels. I don’t even care that I’m 5,750 miles* from the Netherlands. *Thanks Alexa.
14 | CELEBRATE DAY OF THE DEAD (FALL ONLY)
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) takes place from October 31st to November 2nd each year and is the traditional Mexican holiday of remembering loved ones who’ve died. It’s characterized by setting up altars and presenting offerings to passed-on family members, candlelit cemetery strolls, painted catrina faces, and SO MUCH COLOR. Witnessing this holiday is so rewarding and, though it’s more popular in the smaller Mexican towns, you can still find plenty of marigold love in Mexico City.
Downtown Mexico City hosts a large-scale Day of the Dead parade a la James Bond’s Spectre and you’ll see “trick-or-treaters” all over town begging you for candy. I mean it—they’ll run right up to the open window of your Uber in the middle of an intersection and ask for the goods. More than the skulls and the face paint and the blatant affection for death, this is what is truly horrifying. You can head to the outer boroughs like San Angel where you’ll find plenty of spectacular ofrendas set up in local homes and businesses and be constantly invited in. Visiting Casa Azul during this time is particularly rewarding and, as expected, the Zócalo has nothing but the largest displays. And if you’re in the Condesa neighborhood (as you should be), don’t, under any circumstances, miss out on the pan de muerto at Malande Café—the traditional bread eaten during this holiday.
15 | OBSESS OVER THE JACARANDAS (SPRING ONLY)
Mmmkay. I’m a little more than obsessed with what I’ve come to learn is called a “Jacaranda”. Having first visited Mexico City last November, I didn’t even know these things existed. Now, having just visited in March, HOLY PURPLE HELL LOOK AT THESE.
Jacaranda is a genus of purple flowering trees in the holycrapsville family classification. They’re native to tropical and subtropical areas like Mexico, Central America, Florida, and the Caribbean. I lived in Florida. My Florida friends keep telling me I’m nuts because the Jacarandas are everywhere, yet I don’t remember them. It wasn’t until this latest trip to Mexico City that I noticed and instantly fell in love with them.
The Jacarandas are all over Mexico City–like, if you look up #jacarandas on Instagram, almost every single picture is of Mexico City. The trees themselves are stunning; the ground beneath them, covered in purple petals, is stunning; and when the wind blows, I only wanna see you laughing in the purple rain. Purple rain… purple rain!
The best places to see the jacarandas in Mexico City: the Condesa neighborhood and the park next to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. 💜