Although it may be best known as a densely-populated city with heavy traffic, first-time visitors are astounded by Mexico City’s vibrancy and a vast array of cultural offerings. There are layers of rich history to uncover, from the time of the Aztecs through the Spanish invasion, to modern-day times. Visitors are tantalized by the numerous museums, parks, and archaeological sites, as well as markets, shops, and amazingly delicious food. You’ll never run out of things to do so make your list of priorities, but don’t be afraid to ditch your plan and go where the wind blows. Here’s a list of some of the best experiences to have on a trip to Mexico City—whatever you don’t have time for on your first trip, you can save for the next.
Explore the Historical Center
A wander around this area of town will give you insight into how Mexico City earned its nickname “City of Palaces.” Home to historic landmarks dating from as far back as the Aztec era, the Centro Histórico is Mexico City's beating heart. Centered around the massive main plaza, the Zócalo, visitors flock to its museums and iconic buildings like the Art Nouveau Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Metropolitan Cathedral, the oldest and largest in Latin America. Enjoy a drink on one of the terraces overlooking the Zócalo as you take in the view and the activities taking place below.
Ride the Turibus
This hop-on hop-off bus tour allows you to get a viewpoint of the city and an understanding of its layout that you won’t get any other way. Hop on by the cathedral and from the city center, you’ll make your way down Paseo de la Reforma, traversing many of Mexico City’s interesting neighborhoods. You’ll go through Chapultepec park and get a feel for that area and the distances between neighborhoods.
Marvel at Murals
The Mexican muralist movement got started after the Mexican Revolution when the government hired painters to cover the walls of public buildings with images postulating a re-visioning of Mexican history and Mexican identity. Diego Rivera was the most prolific and you can see his work in several buildings in the city center. The "History of Mexico" mural showcases the country’s past from the Aztec era through the conquest and the Revolution to the development of industry. Located in the National Palace building on the east side of the Zócalo, this is a convenient spot to get your dose of art. If you want more, head to the Antiguo Colegio San Ildefonso, a block north, which has murals by several different artists, and another block north to the Secretary of Education building where there are more murals to admire.
Admission to both the National Palace and the Secretary of Education building is free. You’ll need to leave an official I.D. (one per group) at the entrance and which is returned to you when you exit the building.
Situated within the lush forest of the Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology is vast, well-organized, and possesses the largest collection of Mesoamerican artifacts in the world. Within its 23 exhibit rooms, this museum offers a look at how life, tradition, and culture, were formed in ancient Mexico. The first two exhibit halls are devoted to the beginnings of civilization, then continue through the history of Mexico with halls devoted to the different regions and civilizations. The second floor is dedicated to exhibits of living cultures. You could spend at least a full day here learning about Mexico's ancient civilizations, but if you’re pressed for time, be sure to see the Aztec room at the far end of the museum as well as the Maya display
Walk on the sacred grounds of the ancient people of Teotihuacan, at one time the largest city in Mesoamerica. The immense Avenue of the Dead that runs through it was built between the 1st and 7th centuries and includes 2,000 residential compounds as well as the enormous Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. UNESCO considers the city a model of urbanization and large-scale planning, which had a great influence on subsequent cultures. If you’re not afraid of heights, climb the 200 plus steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. If you manage to go on the spring equinox, dress all in white to fit in as you receive the special energy the sun imparts on that day.
Cheer on Luchadores
Though it combines techniques of wrestling, judo, and other martial arts, Mexican Lucha Libre is a sport like no other. The daring luchadores clad in tights and masks (and sometimes capes) entertain the crowd with their high-flying acrobatic moves in and outside the ring. This quintessentially Mexican show needs to be experienced first-hand. The fun atmosphere, athletics, showmanship, and crowd response make it a fun activity whether or not you’re a wrestling fan. Lucha libre matches take place several nights a week at Arena México and less frequently in the smaller, more family-friendly Arena Coliseo.
Take in a Folk Dance Performance
Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet puts on an enthralling spectacle of color, rhythm, movement, and music in regular performances at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Add to that the majestic location, in the opulent art nouveau theater, with a unique stained glass curtain designed by Tiffany’s, and this is a show you should be sure to include in your itinerary. Each number is highly entertaining and tells a story of folk traditions from across Mexico. Performances take place most Wednesdays and Sundays. Find the schedule and get tickets at the Palacio de Bellas Artes website.
Visit the Home of Architect Luis Barragán
You’d never guess from its plain gray facade what lies inside the former home and studio of architect Luis Barragán. It blends seamlessly with the neighboring homes in the residential area of Tacubaya, but UNESCO listed this as a World Heritage site in 2004. Inside, you’ll find striking use of light and color, as well as water features and interesting textures. Built between 1943 and 1948, Barragán lived and worked here until his death in 1988. In his home, the architect put into practice the concepts for which he was well-known: thick walls and stark lines reminiscent of Mexico’s colonial-period friaries and convents, contrasted by rich textures and bold colors. Visits are by appointment only, so be sure to schedule a time through the website.
View the City From Above
The Mirador Torre Latinoamericana was the tallest building in the city when it was built in 1956. Now there are many that are taller, but not in the historical center, where its 44 floors make it a prominent landmark, towering above its neighbors. You can pay admission to go up to the observation deck at the top, or go to Miralto Restaurant on the 41st floor to enjoy dinner along with your view. You’ll get a distinctive perspective of the Palacio de Bellas Artes across the street, the traffic along the city’s main thoroughfares, and on a clear day, you can see across the Valley of Mexico, from mountains to volcanoes. And don’t worry about earthquakes: this was the world's first major skyscraper successfully built to endure high-level quakes, a fact which was proven in 1985 and again in 2017.
Visit a UNESCO-Listed University Campus
Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) is one of the most important cultural projects in the country’s history. Built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the project employed more than 60 architects, engineers, and artists and integrated varied disciplines including urbanism, architecture, engineering, landscape design, and fine arts along with aspects of local tradition. Known as Ciudad Universitaria “University City,” the campus hosts buildings you would usually associate with a university as well as a sculpture park, a botanical garden, the MUAC contemporary art museum, and the iconic Biblioteca Central. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s worth spending a day exploring this fascinating place.
Cruise City Streets on a Bicycle
Although it may sound like a scary proposition in a city of this size, you can join thousands of locals and other visitors on Sundays between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. when several main streets are closed to vehicular traffic to give cyclists (as well as rollerbladers and pedestrians) the chance to take over the city. Check out the various statues and monuments as you cruise along Paseo de la Reforma. There are several bike-sharing and rental services to choose from including the public EcoBici which has numerous docking stations throughout the city, and private companies like Mobike and Dezba which require you to upload an app to your phone to pay and unblock bikes. You can rent and ride a bike any day, but if you’re unfamiliar with the city and its traffic, it’s best to start on a Sunday when you won’t have to negotiate right of way with motor vehicles.
Sample Street Food
Mexico City has excellent restaurants at every price point, but savvy visitors know that some of the best food experiences in this city can be found on the street for just a few pesos. Tacos al pastor, tacos de canasta, tamales or guajolotas (a tamal in a crusty bun), carnitas (cubed, fried pork), chilaquiles, esquites (sweet corn), quesadillas and tlacoyos are just a few of the options to try. Street food stands with the biggest crowds are always your best bet. If you don’t speak Spanish and find the street food scene intimidating, take a tour! Both Eat Like a Local and Eat Mexico offer excellent food tours.
Discover the City’s Largest Green Space
El Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s largest park, is considered the oldest urban park in America. Covering 1,600 acres, it’s home to several significant historical sites, as well as multiple museums, an amusement park, a zoo, and a variety of recreational spaces. Follow the road to the top of the hill overlooking Mexico City, where Chapultepec Castle houses the National History Museum to get great views of the park and the city beyond. Chapultepec Lake has rowboats and pedal boats for rent by the hour to enjoy the scenery from a different perspective.
Float Among the Gardens at Xochimilco
Board a trajinera (a colorful gondola-like boat) to explore the canals and “floating gardens” of Xochimilco. This area is located 12 miles south of the historical center and has a network of canals and artificial islands known as chinampas. These are vestiges of the traditional precontact land-use in the lagoons of the Mexico City basin, a testament to the efforts of the Aztec people to turn a marshy area into arable farmland. As you float along, you’ll come across other boats carrying food sellers and others carrying musicians who will offer to play you a few songs to entertain you as you go.
Visit the House Where Frida Lived
Frida Kahlo, one of Mexico’s most recognized artists, was born, lived, and died in her family home in the southern Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán. After her death in 1954, her home was turned into a museum. Some of her and her husband’s (famed muralist Diego Rivera) artwork is on display here, but the real attraction is seeing the space where they lived, which they lovingly decorated with Mexican folk art and turned into a work of art in itself.
Sip a Mezcal at a Traditional Cantina
When you’ve done your share of sightseeing, and want to spend some time among locals having their own version of a good time, head to one of Mexico city’s traditional drinking establishments. Order a drink and enjoy some on-the-house botanas (bar snacks) while you soak in the ambiance. There are hundreds of traditional cantinas in the historic center alone. Although these places used to be exclusively for men, nowadays, women are welcome. Check out El Tío Pepe, which opened in 1890, and is usually uncrowded, located on Dolores at the corner of Independencia, or Bar La Opera famous mainly because of a bullet hole in the ceiling left by Pancho Villa.
Listen to Mariachis at Plaza Garibaldi
This historic square located at the northern edge of the historical center is the destination for live music in the capital city. Although the plaza is famous for mariachis, you’ll also find trios, norteño groups, and groups playing Son Jarocho, traditional music from Veracruz state. Settle in at the bar at one of the many establishments that line the plaza, such as Bar Tenampa, or find a spot at an outdoor table to enjoy some people watching while mariachi groups wearing their silver-studded outfits perform. traditional songs. If you choose to hire a band to play for you, expect to pay around 150 pesos per song. The plaza itself is safe, but the area around it can be sketchy, especially at night, so avoid wandering around the surrounding streets.