Vast, vibrant, diverse, and beautiful – my impressions after a short 5 day stay in Mexico City last fall. Known for it’s food, art, architecture and historical and archaeological sites, the city has a lot to offer year round. I almost titled this post “Part I” because even while I was there, I knew I’d be back to explore more of the most populous city in North America (sorry NYC).
If you do a search on what to see or do in Mexico City (aka CDMX) you’ll be inundated with endless lists and recommendations that signal just how popular this city has become as a travel destination in the past 10 years or so. Personally, I found all the lists and recommendations overwhelming.
With all the great things, where do you start?! My approach was to focus on recommendations from friends who’d traveled there recently or had family in the area. I then sprinkled a couple of places I’d come across online and worked with my travel buddy Laura to nail down a few “must sees” and a whole lot of maybes.
Below, you’ll find some of my favorite spots, travel recommendations as well as my hit list for next time. It’s by no means exhaustive, but I hope it will be helpful to anyone looking to travel (vicariously, or IRL) to this amazing city. Let’s go!
Where To Stay
CDMX has over 100 colonias or neighborhoods. Some of the popular neighborhoods for proximity to tourist sites, dining, safety and/or charm, are Roma Norte, La Condesa and the downtown/historic district. Many of the larger 4 & 5 star hotels are in the upscale Polanco neighborhood. After spending a bit of time in the Coyoacan neighborhood, I think staying there would be a good option as well.
Laura and spent our first night in downtown Mexico City at Hotel Historico Central. It was $145 for the night and it turned out to be a great find. Built in 2015, it features a living plant wall in the lobby at the bottom of a central atrium that brings natural light into each of the 5 floors. We loved that in addition to providing a legit hot breakfast buffet, each guest has access to a complimentary 24 hr snack bar! I’d never seen such a thing. In addition to the water bottles in your room, each floor has a refrigerator with bottles of water which was clutch as you should only drink bottled water in CDMX (more on this in travel tips). We also took advantage of the free historic tour (more below).
My friend found us great house to sleep 10 of us in Condesa on Airbnb. We were close the the grocery store and many coffee shops and restaurants. The house had a covered rooftop deck with a grill and fully stocked chef’s kitchen that we enjoyed. BBQ time! It was one of the nicest rentals I’ve stayed in.
Another great option in Condesa is The Red Tree House. It’s a top rated B&B with several different housing configurations and a favorite of a friend who loves the warm environment created by the owners. Laura stayed their her last night in town and enjoyed meeting other guests at their evening happy hour.
Exploring the Historic City Center
Staying a night in the historic center was great launching point for exploring the history of Mexico City. Our hotel offered a complimentary guided tour of the area each morning so we signed right up because we’re suckers for a guided tour. We had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be over 2 hours long and quite expansive. Deals on deals! It was led by a professional tour guide from a company contracted with the hotel.
I would highly recommend a walking tour or Hop On/Off Bus tour to explore this area. That way you can learn some of the context and history of the area, from how it’s was built on a lake system by Aztecs starting in the 1300s to the how the Dia De Los Muertos parade became a new tradition after it was created for a James Bond movie in 2015.
It was amazing to learn that the main through streets today lie on the same grid used by the Aztecs around and seeing how architectural choices work with or against the geological characteristics of a city literally built on shaky ground.
From the Plaza del Zocalo, the main square, you can see and walk to the National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral. Both worth checking out. Nearby you’ll also find the Palacio de Bellas Artes (palace of fine arts) and Palacio de Correos (main post office), which are worth peeping for their eclectic styles.
Make sure to swing by the Casa de los Azulejos, a house covered with a beautiful handcrafted blue tiles that come from Puebla state. It was built as a residence for Counts, but today it houses restaurants in shops. We just peaked in to get a look and it’s pretty ornate and grand inside as well
We stopped at Callajeros for tacos after the tour as it was recommended by our guide (a legit recommendation, not for commission. They are known for their “tacos guisado”, where corn tortillas are stuffed with a home-style stew. They were pretty tasty.
Pasteleria Ideal was a site to see. This pastry shop has been open since 1927 and serves a dizzying array of pan dulces (sweet breads), cakes and many other desserts and baked goods. It’s not known for having the best desserts, but it’s a local institution that’s fun to experience. We went right before Dia de Los Muertos and it was packed with people clamoring to stock up on traditional breads and sweets. They have two locations in this neighborhood and we visited the 16 de Septiembre location.
My Thoughts On Street Food
I was super excited for a Street Food tour a colleague had recommended. I normally avoid most street food when I travel, but felt confident that a highly recommended and rated tour would be the way to go. Well, I was wrong. Somewhere along the 15 or so stops, I got food poisoning. It didn’t hit me until the next morning, conveniently hours before my flight back home, but I’m pretty certain it was from one of the stops. Boo! This was very disappointing because eating tacos on the street or at a neighborhood market is something so quintessential to CDMX. All of the tacos I tasted were delicious, but my microbiome was not having it.
My recommendation pretty much lines up with the CDC, That is, don’t eat street tacos. Whomp, whomp. Yes, the meat or fillings may be hot, but the salsas, limes and onions are not and could be washed with problematic water. I’m sure there are some places that are totally fine, but getting sick may keep you from missing many more delicious meals and activities on your trip. Sticking to recommended restaurants is the way to go. I had no problems with tacos there. OK, I’m done parenting.
If you decide to dive into street food, I salute you and may the odds be ever in your favor.
Coffee & Eats in Condesa
We spent a lot of time in the Condesa where our Airbnb was located. I was struck by all the cute coffee shops, open air cafes tucked next to homes and apartment buildings. Our street, Amsterdam, was shaded by tall trees with a median dividing the wide avenue that people used as a running trail day and night. It’s definitely high on charm. Many of the popular restaurants are here, so it was also quite convenient.
Contramar is one of the most notable restaurants in the city (at least for US travelers), serving some of the most instagrammed fish around. I’d heard an interview with the chef/owner, Gabriela Cámara, earlier in the year which made me even more eager to check it out this beach-inspired seafood restaurant. It’s only open for lunch and I strongly suggest you make reservations in advance. They are on Opentable. The service here is excellent and even better if you speak a little Spanish. When we asked about a special our server went and got us a generous sample to try. He also suggested a smaller size option for trying their famous grilled fish with red and green salsas when he learned it’d just be for me. They are also known for their tuna tostadas, which I regrettably didn’t try. I’ll be back! However, their seared tuna steak was amazing. Save room for their desserts as well.
Dinner at La Capital was one of my favorite meals on the trip. It’s an elegant and open restaurant serving modern yet approachable Mexican food. We loved their take on guacamole. Some of the best I’ve ever had! It was beautifully presented as wreath decorated with dollops of tart white cheese and pomegranate seeds filled with a pool of green herbaceous… juice? We mixed it into the avocado for a burst of bright and savory flavor. The guacamole was served with mixed root vegetable chips in place of tortilla chips, which was a delicious surprise. We also had tortilla soup, grilled octopus and grilled chicken al pastor, which were all delicious. The portions here are pretty large so we left with doggy bags.
Cardinal is a sweet and tiny coffee shop that works hard to collaborate with Mexican farmers growing sustainable coffee beans.
Frida Kahlo & Pottery in Coyocan
Coyoacan was once a suburb of Mexico City proper, but today is one of the city’s many neighborhoods. It has a relaxed neighborhood vibe with lots of lush tall trees, it’s own open market, and many restaurants. I’d like to spend more time there on my next trip. The most notable spot for tourists here is the Blue House/Museo Frida Kahlo. It was the childhood home of famed painter, Frida Kahlo and for a time, her husband, Diego Rivera.
We booked tickets to the Frida Kahlo museum in advance, which is key doing because the line is out of control. True to form, Laura and I both got tour guide headsets, which take your through the museum and garden. I would recommend this if you want to learn about the lives of Frida and Diego because the signage walls is very limited. The museum was packed, so were almost walking in a single file line through each of the rooms in the house. Outside, there are sculptures and when we visited, a Dia De Los Muertos ofrenda (altar) to Frida covered with marigold flowers, pictures, sweet and other objects left as offerings to here. I enjoyed my time there, but if you are crowd averse or are nominally interested in Frida Kahlo then it may not be for you.
After the museum, we walked a few minutes down the street to the Experimental Ceramics Workshop. It’s an open pottery school that also has a shop where you can buy pottery. We spent about 30 minutes there looking for pieces to bring back. Many have a Japanese influence, both in style and function (think soy sauce holders). I think this is more of an outlet where some of the pieces have flaws so look carefully when selecting. I got a pair of Japanese inspired black bowls and a couple of saucers that I love and use all the time back home.
Food & Shopping in Roma
The Roma neighborhood borders Condesa, so we were able to walk there from our AirBnB. Apparently, both are known for being the “hipster epicenter” of the city, which likely explains their popularity with millennial tourists. While both neighborhoods have quiet tree lined streets, the architecture of the homes is very different. You’ll see mid-century and contemporary homes in Condesa and ornate stone and brick buildings in Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical styles built in the early 20th century (thanks, Wikipedia! Otherwise I’d just say old European) in Roma. Many of these mansions have been converted into businesses. FYI, within Roma there are sub-districts, like Roma Norte, and Roma Sur.
Panaderia Rosetta is a super popular bakery cafe right in a residential block. Laura says you should try to work in a stop here every morning you’re in town and I agree. The bakery offers a range of breads, donuts and pastries that combine Mexican and French flavors and techniques. I read an article about them last year and was excited to try it for myself. It did not disappoint. Their Rol de Guayaba (Guava Roll) is one of my all time favorites. Expect a line on Fridays or weekend mornings, but it moves very quickly. There also have a line for dining in at a few tables and counter seats. The bakery is tied to acclaimed restaurant, Rosetta, around the corner that requires reservations and is on my hit list below.
We stopped by El Parnita for tacos and cocktails at 3:30pm on Wednesday and it was bustling with cool kid locals. This popular lunch-only spot turned out to be a great place for people watching. They serve tasty, elevated tacos in a small plates style – each careful presented and garnished. There’s a standing menu and rotating specials which are worth checking out. The menus here are only in Spanish, but there will likely be a server, if not your own, who can help you navigate ordering.
Between many pastries and lunch, we made what we thought would be a quick peek at goodbye folk vintage boutique. Well, we emerged several hours later with bags in hand after exploring the 5 floors of well curated vintage clothes, handmade shoes and accessories. While Laura is a pro thrift store shopper, I rarely check them out because I assume they will bee overwhelming (the racks and racks! ahh) and/or overpriced. Goodbye Folk was able to win me over with it’s easy to navigate layout and welcoming vibe. The space is hip and sophisticated, the staff was friendly and helpful but not hovering which encouraged me to take my time and explore. This is definitely a place worth checking out. We met the owner, and heard his amazing story of building the shop and expanding in the current location after the 2017 earthquake destroyed their original location.
Mercada Roma is a stylish little open air food hall with a range of foods and snacks to try. It’s definitely worth swinging through for lunch or just to peruse for souvenirs if you’re in the neighborhood. The vendors will likely offer you samples.
Traveling Around Dia De Los Muertos
We were there during this holiday, Oct. 31- Nov 2nd which is a very festive time. If you travel around this time, be sure to try Pan de Muerto, a traditional sweet bread often flavored with orange flower water that people eat and put out as offerings for their deceased family members who are honored during this time. It is delicious and we enjoyed trying different versions around the city. My favorite was at Maque, a cafe known for their pastries. Their version was made with a delicate and tender brioche dough. It was heavenly. Ha.
You can check out the large and elaborate decorations on the main boulevard, Paseo de Reforma, that are up during this time. There is a parade on Nov 2nd as well as number of other events throughout the city.
Tips For CDMX
- UberEats is popular so you can order in easily if you want to chill inside for a meal.
- 15% tips are customary at restaurants. Before a server runs your card, you can tell them “con el quince” (“with 15”), because it may be hard to add a tip later on, unless you have cash.
- Locals eat lunch much later than in the US – think 2-4 pm, so check the times at restaurants and keep that in mind for planning your meals at restaurants. Some lunch spots don’t open till 1pm and may go to 6 or 7 pm.
- Be careful with ice in drinks. If it’s a nice restaurant, you can ask if they use “agua pura”, purified water for the ice. I asked at several places and it was never an issue.
- Avoid street food (particularly things with fresh salsa, limes, etc.) if you have a weak American stomach, like I do. I learned the hard way.
- They have a city wide bike rental system for those so inclined.
- There’s an extensive metro system which seemed pretty safe, especially during the day. Though, we primarily walked or took Ubers or Lyfts to get around.
- Be careful with your belongings, especially in touristy areas like Centro Historico. Ex. don’t put your cell phone in your pocket, and watch out for pickpockets. Our friend lost his phone when someone pushed him in a crowded street.
- Drink bottled water and use it to brush your teeth. There are often bottles in your bathroom. At our Airbnb, the host showed us how to triple filtered our tap water before drinking it.
Hit List For My Next Visit
- Gin Gin – cocktail bar
- Parker & Lenox – jazz bar
- Supra Roma – rooftop bar
- Limantour – creative cocktail bar
Places to Visit