Mexico City is the largest city in the Americas, home to over 8 Million people in the city (21 million in the greater Metropolitan Area). The city has 16 different boroughs. There are so many unique parts of this incredible city worth exploring. We’ve only had a small sample so far. There is so much art and history that dates back to the Aztecs and beyond. It is not a place that you can see in only 2-3 days.
Fortunately, we’ve given ourselves a full three and a half days, so we’ve had time to see everything… There is a lot to see in the Valley of Mexico. To truly grasp how big the city is, take in the view from the balconies of Chaputlpec Castle or from the top floor of the Torre de Latinoamericana. Only after you see the endless city stretching off in all directions can you appreciate how big Mexico City is.
The city is a melting pot, drawing residents and visitors both domestically and from around the world. The city embraces and absorbs the best of the country has to offer all in one place. The quality and selection of food here were unparalleled. I think you have to live here to truly understand Mexico City, to transform from a visitor to a local.
The experience of visiting Mexico City was as wonderful we had been told to expect. It lives up to the hype. The city has a definite buzz that is hard to grab hold of when you’re just visiting. Upon leaving the city, you’re left with a sense that you were lucky to get a peek at its greatness.
You will never see Mexico City in a day, so don’t try. Instead, try to find a few key attractions or locations that you want to explore and wander around until you’re amazed.
We know it will take us many trips to truly master Mexico City. We like to think we’ve taken a pretty good snapshot of the city. As the title of this article suggests, we’re only confident enough to recommend 8 at the moment.
From the impressive ruins of Teotihuacan to the Zocalo at the center, Mexico City will not disappoint. Around every corner, you will find new ways to be impressed by Mexico City. There are many great tourist attractions to explore and time will be at a premium.
All lists are subjective and each visitor will have a different opinion based on their own experiences and expectations. We strongly dislike the idea of declaring that these are “the best” things to see in Mexico City. We just wanted to give our two cents (two pesos?) worth.
Presented in no particular order, these are the “8 Incredible things we did in Mexico City”.
8 Incredible Things we did in Mexico City
1 Palacio de Bellas Artes
This is one of the prettiest and most memorable buildings in the city, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is a concert hall and art gallery. The outside of this building is stunning, made of white Marble that sparkles in the sunshine. It has a distinct orange and yellow roof you can spot from a distance while you approach on foot.
Bellas Artes was designed in the Art Nouveau style and looks like an opulent palace, worthy of royalty. The hall is still used today for major events and movie premieres and hosts art exhibits from around Mexico. We don’t like to pick favourites, but especially with the murals by Diego Rivera found inside, this one might be top spot.
The Palace of Fine Arts was completed in 1934 and is an important cultural landmark in the city. It is surrounded by the Alameda Central Park and is the perfect place to start your tour of the city. It is located on the western edge of the historic city center and has easy access to Paseo de la Reforma.
Inside you will find many great art pieces from some of Mexico’s most famous artists. Most impressive are the spectacular murals by Diego Rivera, including famous ones like the Carnival of Mexican Life.
The inside is decorated in an Art Deco style and is an incredible achievement in itself, especially the ceiling of the dome. Bellas Artes is sometimes reffered as the “Cathedral of Art in Mexico”. It hosts important theatre, opera and other shows in the massive concert hall.
When we visited the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the concert hall was closed, which was disappointing. They were preparing for the world premiere of the new Disney movie Coco. There were may people busy putting together last minute art pieces and decorations for the big event.
2 Torre Latinoamericana Building
It’s hard to feel how big Mexico City is until you’ve seen it from above. Climbing the 44-story Torre Latinoamericana Building is a popular way to first experience the size of Mexico City. With the help of an elevator of course. From the top you will find the best views of the city in all directions.
The Torre Latinoamericano building was the tallest buidling in the city when it was completed in 1956. This building is 44-stories and stands at an impressive 182 meters (nearly 600 feet). It is recognized as an important architectural landmark in the city. It was built to withstand earthquakes in the highly active seismic region.
The tower has performed well when put to the test, It has withstood several earthquakes, including the 1985 earthquake (an 8.1 on the Richter Scale). This event violently shook the city and was responsible for causing massive damage, killing over 5000 people. The Torre Latinoamericana remained untouched, living up to its design.
The viewing platform at the top of the tower is the place to visit. From here you can see the city stretch off endlessly in all directions. You can see many distant skyscrapers along Reforma, and the views of both Plaza Zocolo and the Palacio de Bellas Artes from above are incredible. From here, you can begin to understand the sheer size of the city and recognize that you’re not going to see the whole city in one visit.
3 Plaza Zocolo & Historic Center
It’s time to explore the heart of Mexico City, which begins with a trip to Plaza Zocolo (the Plaza of Independence). The entire historic center of Mexico city is a UNESCO World Heritage designated. This includes many of the well preserved colonial buildings and the ruins of the Aztec city which was buried beneath.
The historic center of Mexico City has a lot of history condensed into a small area. The influences of the Aztecs, Colonial Spanish and Modern-day Mexico can all be explored within a few city blocks.
Plaza Zocolo is the centerpiece of the historic center, and is the largest in Latin America. This plaza is able to hold over 100,000 people. It was here in the 16th Century that the Spanish built the center of their new city. While this effectively erased the history of the Aztec empire they eventually replaced, it represented a major turning point in the history of modern Mexico. Most of the original Aztec city was destroyed but part of Templo Mayor has been explored and excavated thoughout the 20th Century.
The Historic Center of Mexico contains many historic buildings, including the Metropolitan Cathedral (which overlooks the Zocalo). It is walking distance from many of the most popular nearby attractions.
The main street that connects the Zocolo towards the Palacio de Bellas Artes is Calle Madero. This is a pedestrian-only street lined with restaurants and shopping. If you’re walking from Bellas Artes, this is likely how you will get here. Before you visit Zocolo, first take the time to climb to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana Building, as you get a great view from above.
4 Museum of Popular Art
There are many different museums and art galleries worth exploring in the Mexico City. We made the choice to visit the “Museo de Artes Populares”. From very traditional to the very modern, it is home to many exhibits showcasing different eras of popular art from Mexico.
The museum is built into an old fire hall. It has a large indoor plaza with balconies looking down from each of the 4 floors. It aims to protect Mexican Handicrafts and folk art while promoting the work of modern-day Mexican Artists.
We had a wonderful time exploring the museum, which has done an amazing job of collecting and promoting the vast history of art in the country.
They are most famous for hosting the annual “La Noche de Los Alebrijes”. This is a parade of massive fantastic creatures made of cardboard or wood and painted in bright colours. This tradition began in 2007 and features art from Central Mexico and Oaxaca.
We visited in November, so much of the artwork being featured during the Noche de Los Alebrijes was still located along Paseo de Reforma. It would soon be part of the parade. It would eventually end up at the Museum. We visited just before the Day of the Dead, so there were many skulls and other “death” themed displays.
5 Mercado Roma
After a long day of exploring Mexico City, you’re bound to be hungry. Not far from Paseo de la Reforma or Chaputlpec Castle, is one of the best foodie destinations in the city. The Roma neighbourhood is already one of the trendiest neighbourhoods in Mexico City, and the addition of this upscale Mercado has only made it more of a destination.
Mercado Roma is one part beer garden, one part market and one part food court. It’s overwhelming when you first walk in the doors, as there are many different food stands that catch your nose and you wander in through the entrance. Tacos, sandwiches and desserts in all directions. Pushing our way through the crowds of people, we found seats on the second floor balcony.
With a great view of the market space below, we could now see many of the food offerings. Someone was quick to offer us drinks and we started with a few different local craft beers. Once we had our appetites going, it was time to start exploring the food. We tried an incredible beef brisket sandwich, a bone marrow taco and eventually churros for desert. It was a lot to take in, and we were stuffed by the time we left.
This market is quite unique and works great in a city like this where people are always coming and going. Much like the city itself, it brings together many different styles and cultures into one place.
On the way out we decided to window shop a little and were eventually tempted buy some spices from a local stand. We were tempted by even more desserts and delicacies we missed. Local cheeses and macaroons towards the exit. It was quite difficult not to sit down for a round two, but we were much too full and it was time to leave.
6 Paseo de la Reforma
Paseo de la Reforma cuts diagonally across the city. Today is home to some of the tallest buildings in the city (and country). This major avenue is modeled after the grand boulevards of Europe. It is a living part of the energy of CDMX for people on the go.
In the 1860’s, during the French Intervention, the government of Benito Juarez was overthrown and the new Emperor Maximillian began building the Paseo de la Reforma. This major avenue stretched from the city center to his imperial residence Chapultepec Castle located to the south-west. It was made to make Mexico more like the old world.
Its original name was the “Paseo de la Emperatriz”, the Promenade of the Empress. When the Juarez government was later restored, it was renamed after the Guerra Reforma (Reform War). Today this long road is home to some of the tallest buildings in Mexico, including the Torre Reforma, which stands at 246 meters (over 800 feet).
The street is used for parades, protests, and celebrations, and forms an integral part of the city’s make up today. The street is lined with tourist attractions, luxurious restaurants and hotels, office buildings. It is regularly used to display public art exhibitions. It is very pedestrian friendly and worth taking a walk along during your visit to Mexico City.
The pyramids are meant to reach towards the sky. Teotihuacan means “the place where the gods were created”. This site was used both as a religious and ceremonial center from a long lost civilization that pre-dates the Aztecs. This ruin complex is located about an hour outside of the city and it is definitely worth dedicating at least half a day or more if you have the time.
Both of us have visited impressive ruins from around the world, from Machu Picchu to Tikal. The Pyramids and architecture of this ancient city are equally impressive to anything we’ve seen elsewhere. Not much is know about the original inhabitants of the city. It pre-dates the Aztecs but influenced all of the civilizations that would come after it.
The city was massive and what remains today is a huge sprawling complex. Therefore, give yourself as much time as possible. You could easily spend hours wandering around and still not appreciate everything.
The two main structures – the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon – are beautiful examples of the building techniques and capabilities. Between the two is the avenue of the dead, and the complex is massive. While it is still possible to climb the staircase at the Pyramid of the Sun, there are rumours that they will likely close this staircase soon, in order to preserve the ruins. So visit while you can!
8 Chaputlpec Castle / National Museum
Mexico isn’t the first place you think of when someone mentions the word castle. Mexico City is home to one of the most impressive castles in the Americas. The construction began in 1785 at the request of the local Viceroy, who was the colonial governor at the time.
The setting here is amazing. Beautiful gardens and lavish rooms with paintings and artwork. The views of the surrounding city from the castle are incredible, as it is built at the highest point of a hill. The castle is located in the middle of Bosque de Chapultepec (a 1,700 acre park in the middle of the city). Designed to be a prestigious city monument, it is worthy to be a stately home for the Viceroy of the city.
Chapultepec Castle has been witness to many important parts of Mexican History. It has been the official residence of Viceroys, Archbishops and Emperors. It has been home to different government agencies, such as a Military Academy and a astronomical observatory.
In 1847, during the Mexican-American war, Chapultepec Castle was captured by American forces. This was a major defeat for the locals; the battle it is remembered by the story of the Niños Héroes, remebering the young soldiers who died protecting the castle.
In 1939 the president of Mexico decided that the castle would become the home of the National Museum of History. We enjoyed exploring the castle, as many of the rooms have been restored to their former glory with extravagant decor. In many ways it’s like looking into a time capsule. There are many different paintings and exhibits to see, telling the story of Mexico from its early inception as a colony to the modern day state of Mexico.
It’s definitely worth the walk up the hill if even just for the views of the city. We spent several hours wandering around Chapultepec Castle and the museums inside. Make sure to save some time to explore the massive park that surrounds the castle.