Long gone are the scary days of Mexico City. Here to stay are the days of Mexico City as a cosmopolitan oasis for travelers. The bustling, artistic, culinary-focused beating heart of Mexico continues to be one of my favorite long-weekend destinations from Chicago, thanks to a convenient four hour direct flight on several different airlines.
Mexico City, the largest city in North America, has recently exploded onto the tourist circuit, thanks to high profile features in major travel publications proclaiming the wonders of the art, design, and modern cuisine scenes here. I have had a string of friends and family heading to Mexico City recently for long weekends who have been asking me for advice. That’s when I knew it was time to write a post about all of my tips for first time visitors!
You’ll often see Mexico City referred to as CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico) or the DF (Distrito Federal) by locals to encompass the entire sprawling footprint of this massive city. I will also use those terms in this article as shorthand.
This travel itinerary will take you to Mexico City for 3-4 days as a first-time visitor!
Day One: Centro Historico
Morning: Zocolo Walking Tour
Start your 4 days in Mexico City by getting your bearings of this sprawling city with a walking tour of the historic central district. The entire centro is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a must see on any trip to CDMX!
Modern CDMX sits on the ruins of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which was destroyed by the Spainards in the colonial period. Most of the buildings date back sometime between the 16th and 20th centuries, spanning a wide range of architectural styles. Zocolo was hit hard by the 1980s earthquake, so there are also swaths of old architecture in disrepair which may remind some travelers of Cuba.
There are many interesting sights to see in Zocolo and you could easily spend your whole day exploring on foot. Hello Little Home has a helpful free walking tour guide covering the entire historic downtown, but the biggest highlights to notice are:
- Templo Mayor
- Palacio Nacional (don’t miss the Rivera Mural!)
- Post Office
- Casa de los Azulejos (pictured below)
Afternoon: Palacio Bellas Artes + Coffee
One of the most iconic buildings in downtown Mexico City is the Palacio Bellas Artes, thanks to its orange and yellow tiled domes. It is stunning from all angles, but one of the best views of the building is actually from the Sear’s coffee shop across the street. You’ll head up to the top floor, order a coffee and enjoy the beautiful views of the Palacio Bellas Artes. I recommend bringing a book to spend a view hours sipping coffee, people watching and enjoying the view!
Evening: Mariachi + Lucha
If you are interested in a quintessential CDMX experience, don’t miss the sunset at Plaza Garibaldi where mariachi bands gather in full costume to perform what essentially boils down to mariachi band battles. It tends to be pretty touristy, but the vibe is fun and the music is actually pretty good!
One thing that you absolutely cannot miss while traveling in Mexico City is a night of Lucha Libre. This is professional wrestling, and before you roll your eyes and keep scrolling, give it a chance. I never once watched WWE or professional wrestling, but going to Lucha Libre was one of my top 10 favorite experiences I’ve ever had. Yes really! It is a lively scene unlike anything else, and the fans get SO into it. It is a must-do activity in Mexico City! There are Lucha shows every Tuesday, Friday or Saturday night at 2 different arenas in the city, and tickets range from approximately $20-$75 depending on your seats.
Day Two: Neighborhoods
If day one in Mexico City was all about the history of the city, day two is all about modern life for the city’s residents. With over 20 million inhabitants, CDMX is a sprawling assortment of neighborhoods each with their own distinct flair. This is where city dwellers really spend their time, so it is worth exploring!
Compared to other neighborhoods in Mexico City, Coyoacan might seem a little sleepy, but this area of the city has a rich culture of art and history. There are several significant museums in this area, but the most famous is the Casa Azul.
The Blue House was the home of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo which was turned into a museum by her husband after her death. Most of the relics in the home are original from Frida, and you can see a small collection of her work there as well.
I think the most fascinating part of this museum is actually learning about Frida’s day-to-day life and seeing the extreme ways she had to cope with her physical disability. This museum is very popular and there is almost always a line to enter. It is important to arrive approximately 1 hour before opening time (opens at 10:00am most days and closed on Mondays) if you hope to visit within a few hours.
Following your visit to Caza Azul, spend a few minutes wandering through the nearby Mercado de Coyoacan which will give you a taste of what a typical Mexican market looks like. There is pretty much anything you could want to buy there, but they have an especially good selection of art and handicrafts from around Mexico. Perfect souvenirs!
During our visit to CDMX, we stayed in the Condesa neighborhood and got to know this charming hipster area pretty well. This is a great neighborhood to spend a few hours simply walking around and stopping in places that seem interesting to you. Condesa has a young, cool vibe thanks to the copious vintage shops, coffee bars, and clothing boutiques that line avenues like Michoacan and Tamaulipas.
The streets in this area of the city are lined with big trees, and the colorful Art Deco architecture is a treat for the eyes. Take a stroll through Parque Espana, a lush tropical oasis in the heart of Condesa. It is packed with monuments celebrating Mexican Independence and historical heroes. Grab one of the massive and delicious baked treats at Panaderia Rossetta to enjoy in the park with your coffee.
As for shops and cafes, there are definitely a few that I recommend. El Pendulo Book Cafe is a sprawling English and Spanish language bookshop that also doubles as a cafe. We spent a few hours just soaking in the ambiance as we paged through some coffee table books while eating a tasty sandwich. My favorite coffee shop that we discovered in Condesa was Blend Station, a popular location for young professionals to work in. Their coffee is excellent and their branding is spot on.
Evening: Fancy Dinner + Polanco
One of the ritziest neighborhoods in Mexico City is Polanco, a luxury upper-class area of the city where the city’s elite go to be seen. Before jumping into the heart of the neighborhood, wander through CDMX’s equivalent of Central Park — Chapultepec Park. Our AirBnb had a stunning view of this park overlooking the 1,700 areas of gardens, forests and zoo that make up this park.
Another attraction in Polanco is the distinct architecture of Museo Soumaya. The exterior of the museum is an unusual curved shape and paneled with shiny silver panels which make the build gleam in the daylight! Inside, the collection consists of a wide range of pieces from the colonial period forward, including many works by influential Mexican artists.
The real draw of Polanco for me however, is the culinary prowess of this neighborhood. Two of the most famous restaurants in the city — Pujol and Quintonil — are based in Polanco, along with countless other delicious options. There is quite a debate among locals about whether Pujol or Quintonil are better, but regardless of which you select for your fancy dinner, you are sure to be blown away by fine dining experience. Their modern takes on Mexican cuisine is unlike any other Mexican food I had ever eaten!
We opted to try to chef Enrique Olvera’s Pujol since we fell in love with his methods after watching “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. If you want to do the same, you’ll need to make a reservation weeks in advance. In fact, I made my Pujol reservation before I made my flight reservation! There are two tasting menu experiences you can have at Pujol, either the taco omakase or the formal dining room menu. We did the taco omakase, and LOVED it. You’ll sit at the bar for a more casual but amazingly delicious experience.
Day Three: FOOD!
Spend your third day in CDMX fully immersed in one of the best parts of traveling in Mexico — the food! Mexican food is truly spectacular and almost nothing like the “Mexican” food we often eat in the US. For most people, they’ve never really had true Mexican food. Today is the day that changes!
I highly recommend doing a full-day food tour with Culinary Backstreets. I have done several of their CDMX tours and I can easily say they are one of the most fun and informative food tours I have ever been on!
Their tours are not cheap, but find out why it is worth the steep price in my full post about the Culinary Backstreets experience. Either tour will take you from the food sources at the market, exposing you to Mexican ingredients you’ve probably never tried before, and ending with a full service meal.
Watch us eat and drink our way through CDMX with this video from our Culinary Backstreets tour!
Day Four: Day trip to Xochimilco or Teotihuacan Pyramids
For your last (and optional) day in Mexico City, head out of the city on one of two awesome day trips — to Xochimilco canals on the south side of the city or Teotihuacan Pyramids on the northside of the side. Both day trips are likely to take all day, so you’ll have to choose between the two.
I haven’t been to the pyramids myself, but I can recommend this comprehensive and highly detailed guide from the Laid Back Trip. The pyramids date back of hundreds of years and sound like an incredible opportunity to learn about the ancient civilizations that called Mexico home. I will definitely be going there on my next return visit!
We opted to go to Xochimilco for our day trip because it involved lots of eating. Big shock, I know… The most famous attraction in Xochimilco is the ancient canals, which were built by the Aztecs using an ingenious form of layering soil and roots to create stable, arable land for farming. Nowadays, the canals are still used for farming, but are more popular for the colorfully painted gondola boats that take passengers through the canals while listening to Mariachi music and drinking beer. It’s like a big party with a lively and festive atmosphere!
Get a glimpse into what Xochimilco is like with the video above!