Growing up in Mexico City was a unique experience for me. It shaped my identity in many ways, from my love for its food, its arts, culture, and breathtaking architecture to my struggle with allergies triggered by the city's pollution. Despite the mixed emotions I have when I think of going back, every visit to CDMX teaches me something new and reminds me why I've loved this city so much – even with the constant sneezing fits!
Mexico City is the kind of mega city where each neighborhood becomes its own smaller city with its unique culture, its customs, and nuances. To fully experience CDMX, one must take the time to walk its streets, sit at its cafés and bars, talk to its people, and ask plenty of questions. Figuring out where to start can feel overwhelming. A good way to get your bearings and explore some of its different neighborhoods is hopping on a red double-decker bus known as Turibus.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the neighborhoods (or colonias) that should be added to your “Must See” list.
Historical Center (Centro Histórico)
Mexico City’s Centro Histórico is a great starting point for any visit to the city. Flanked by colonial buildings, its huge public square, El Zócalo, is the main gathering site for government acts, cultural festivals, and political demonstrations. From here, you can step into the National Palace to see murals by Diego Rivera depicting different facets of Mexico’s history or take a look at the Metropolitan Cathedral’s elaborate baroque architecture and notice how the building, like many others around it, is sinking into the ground. This is due to the soft clay nature of the subsoil the city was built on centuries ago. Next to the cathedral, often overlooked, are the ruins of the main Aztec temple, Templo Mayor, which was destroyed when the Spanish conquered the great city of Tenochtitlán. The site’s museum has many interesting artifacts dating back to those times. Across from the National Palace is the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, a gorgeous historical building worth a stop at. The hotel lobby will take your breath away with its Tiffany-style stained glass ceiling. An intricate art nouveau elevator takes you up to the rooftop restaurant – a great place to enjoy a cold drink and a snack while taking in the best view of the square!
A few blocks from El Zócalo, but still within the historical center, you’ll come upon the magnificent Fine Arts Palace (Palacio de Bellas Artes), with its impressive white marble façade and art nouveau design. The building functions as a theatre and also houses rotating art exhibits. Across the street, on the corner with Calle Tacuba is the Postal Palace (Palacio Postal), another historical building that catches the eye with its ornate architecture designed by Italian architect Adamo Boari in the early 1900s. Continue on Calle Tacuba, and you’ll run into the small but beautiful Plaza Tolsá with its famous equestrian statue, El Caballito, by Spanish architect and sculptor Manuel Tolsá, and the National Art Museum, featuring a large collection of Mexican art. You may want to take a break and enjoy the view from Los Girasoles, the highly-rated restaurant next to the plaza. You’ll be transported to a different time in a place that feels like a classic European city. Finally, make your way to the Latin American Tower (Torre Latinoamericana) for a view from above just before the sun starts to set. With 44 floors, it once was the tallest building in the city. It has observation decks on different levels and a restaurant on the 37th floor.
Polanco and Chapultepec
Posh Polanco is the place to go if you want to experience Mexico City at its fanciest. Upscale restaurants, luxury brands, and designer stores dress up both sides of Avenida Masaryk, the main shopping artery favored by the area’s wealthy residents. Pick a sidewalk table at one of the many cafés and get lost while people-watching. Next door is Chapultepec, home to amusement parks, the Chapultepec Zoo (always free admission), museums like the National Anthropology Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, and, rising above it all, the Chapultepec Castle – the only royal castle in the Americas. Built between 1785 and 1863, the castle has served as a military academy, imperial residence, presidential home, observatory, and presently, Mexico’s National Museum of History. Bosque de Chapultepec is to Mexico City what Central Park is to New York, and a popular destination for Mexican families, especially on weekends, when it can get very busy. Here you’ll find an artificial lake with paddleboats and rowboats for rent.
Close to the iconic Ángel de la Independencia monument, which rises 95 meters above Paseo de la Reforma, is Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s gay community hub. Offering a vibrant nightlife and a few good restaurant options to start your evening, this tourist-friendly neighborhood has recently seen an influx of Korean businesses, including karaoke bars, and it’s often referred to as Little Korea.
Condesa & Roma
These two popular neighborhoods blend into each other, sharing similar vibes with subtle differences.
It’s hard not to fall in love with La Condesa. With its European atmosphere, beautiful Art Decó buildings, chic restaurants and bars, boutique hotels, and a myriad of trendy shops selling anything from vintage clothing to artsy décor and unique articles from young designers – what’s not to love? Right in the center of everything, Parque México offers tranquil walking paths, play areas for kids, ponds, fountains, and lots of greenery. Take a stroll around the park on the oval-shaped Avenida Ámsterdam and admire the elegant façades of homes dating back to the early 20th century. Another way to explore La Condesa is by pedaling up and down its tree-lined bicycle paths. You’ll find stations with bikes for rent all around the neighborhood (and in others like Polanco and Roma as well).
La Roma has emerged as the heart of Mexico City’s alternative culture. Bohemian, artsy, and hipster all together, you’ll find a plethora of inviting restaurants and cafés lined up on both sides of Avenida Álvaro Obregón, which divides the neighborhood in Roma Norte and Roma Sur. This corner of the city is easy to explore on foot and an art lover’s delight. Examples of Art Nouveau and Art Decó architecture abound, as well as many galleries. Casa Lamm Cultural Center is housed in a mansion from the early 20th century, and it is the neighborhood’s most significant landmark. Established art galleries like Galería OMR, museums like the Museo del Objeto (Museum of the Purpose of the Object), and bookstores/cafés like El Péndulo are all must-sees. For an authentic Latin American food experience, head to Mercado Medellin and have your pick from any of the many street food stalls at your disposal.
This picturesque borough has been the home of legendary artists and political figures like Frida Kahlo (make sure to book your visit to Frida's La Casa Azul a few weeks in advance to guarantee your visit, as tickets tend to sell out quickly) and Leon Trotsky (whose house you can visit, too). Coyoacán is a little Mexican village of its own. Its main plaza features a big fountain decorated with statutes of coyotes (which give its name to the neighborhood) and is surrounded by an eclectic mix of cafés, cantinas, bookstores, public markets, and street vendors. Venture out into any of the narrow streets that lead to the main plaza and discover a variety of colors, sounds, and smells coming from its markets, restaurants, and food stalls. Coyoacán’s intellectual yet hippy vibe attracts large crowds on weekends, so it’s better to visit on a weekday.
A walk down the cobbled stone alleyways of San Ángel, in the south of the city, is like stepping back into old colonial Mexico on a sunny afternoon. Adorned with colorful bougainvillea flowers, San Ángel comes to life on Saturdays with its famous Bazar del Sábado. The bazaar has been a tradition for more than 50 years. With indoor and outdoor areas, it offers an array of crafts from different regions of Mexico, genuine art from local artists, many good restaurants to enjoy delicious Mexican food, and a super chill atmosphere that invites you to spend a whole afternoon enjoying the sights, colors, and smells of traditional Mexico.
This isn't by any means an exhaustive list of places to see in CDMX. Being such a vast city, there are plenty of other things to explore and discover at your own pace, depending on your interests and how much time you have. There are also many day trips you can plan to places like the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (for an exceptional experience, consider booking a hot air balloon flight over the city) and magical towns like Tepoztlán.
Just make sure to bring with you allergy medication, Vick VapeRub and several packets of tissues in case that, like me, you feel your nose constantly under attack.