Walking around the historic center of Mexico City, you’ll see enthusiastic street performers, wonder at a range of architectural styles and feel an intense craving for anything corn thanks to that sweet smell permeating the air.
All of your senses are on high alert as your mind races to take it all in.
In some ways, Mexico City is a bit of an acquired taste. We spent four days there in November and my feelings for it changed with each day along with the weather.
From the unseasonable chilliness, scattered showers and gray clouds to our final days of sunshine, my outlook awakened to the many things to love about this populous city built on lakes.
Unsure footing has left buildings in parts of Mexico City’s metropolitan area sinking at a rate of about three feet annually. What at first seems like an optical illusion becomes somewhat disconcerting as you realize that building straight ahead of your gaze is truly leaning.
Another dizzying factor is the city’s sheer size. It overwhelms from the moment you fly over the sprawling metropolis of close to 9 million.
With surrounding areas, the population count jumps to around 25 million, making it the largest city in North America. An exact population count is difficult to come by since every person I asked had a different 20-something answer.
We stayed in the posh Polanco neighborhood. This area is a more sterilized version of Mexico City, where high-end retailers and restaurants adorn the streets.
Along with these glitzy jewel boxes, there are plenty of creative and authentic Mexican eateries that have been capturing the foodie world’s attention. Just around the corner, quaint restaurants, coffee shops and bars abound.
As we navigated our way around the city, we saw some of its grittier side. Graffiti-marked monuments were the most visually disappointing side of Mexico City. On the flip side, seeing friends and families gathered around street-side eateries, walking arm-in-arm and fully enjoying one another’s company warmed my heart.
The barometer of a culture can be measured by its street vendors. Street musicians, entertainers and other hawkers asking for your peso accepted a “no gracias” response with a smile. There was no desperation or entitled feeling when you simply had no peso to give and moved along.
This is a city to be savored, in terms of food and time.
Next time … oh yes, there will be a return visit in our future … we will balance our diet of eats and sights between the trendy and sophisticated and the local and casual.
There are so many delicious food options. A street taco can be as spiritual as a tasting menu at the highly acclaimed Pujol.
The same goes for seeing a gorgeous building like the Palacio de Bellas Artes and a tucked-away courtyard accented in colorful tiles.
Therein lies the beauty of this city. You can appreciate it at many levels, from grand to more intimate encounters.
Bottom line: If you think you’ve planned enough time to see this city, you didn’t. If you have days available to add to your itinerary, do it. You won’t regret your decision.
Where to stay
Las Alcobas in the Polanco neighborhood is conveniently located near lots of fine eateries. It has a sleek, modern look and is small enough to feel as if you’re staying in your own private and well-appointed apartment. The excellent breakfasts and top-notch service are an added bonus.
Our suite area
Any place that gives you a menu of soaps from which to choose is pretty cool in my book.
Balcony view from our room
Part of our breakfast package included this fresh-fruit starter topped with yogurt, granola and honey. How could I say no?
The perfect place to start and plan your day over breakfast
While we loved the Polanco area and our hotel for its proximity to great restaurants and museums, it would be nice to stay in the historic center another time to more fully experience it.
Where to dine
Rosetta won our hearts and stomachs. Housed in an old mansion in the Roma neighborhood, this Italian eatery is rustic and elegant at the same time. We ordered martinis to start, which our waiter prepared tableside to set the mood.
Tomato and cactus salad
What followed were distinctive dishes that bordered on Italian yet felt as unique in style as the home in which they were served.
Pujol is well known as one of the best places to eat in Mexico City. At first, we were disappointed with our seating near the kitchen, but the staff graciously moved us to a better table when asked. With that said, when you’re going to a high-end restaurant like this one, every table should be a good one.
With that aside, the food was unique, well presented and delicious.
This is one of several starter “street snacks.” We loved the presentation of wafting corn-scented steam as the waiter lifted the top off this gourd.
Octopus, habanero ink, ayocote and veracruzana sauce
Softshell crab, cucumber, daikon and shiso
Pujol’s signature dish: mole madre, mole nuevo. The smaller circle is fresh mole sauce encased in an outer layer of mole aged 1,731 days, according to our takeaway menu.
Wild mushroom cake with fennel, pear and lavender
La Docena is a lively casual seafood restaurant in the Roma neighborhood that’s perfect for meeting up with friends. Its convivial atmosphere just invites conversation.
We were fortunate enough to meet up with some local friends, which led us to La Docena, during our visit. When we asked what they loved about their country, the U.S.-born-and-raised expat of the two answered that she appreciated the focus on quality time and relationships. It’s typical to spend a long lunch-turned-dinner with friends and family. A clock’s dictation over the conversation is eliminated.
In our friend’s ordering exuberance, a plate of worm tacos found its way onto our table. Yes, I ate them. No, I won’t be reordering them, but I’ll never regret trying them. That’s the beauty of eating with locals – they’ll conspire to get you to try things you never would alone.
El Mayor offers traditional Mexican fare with a gourmet twist. Better than the food, which is plenty good, is the view overlooking the archeological excavation of Templo Mayor – an Aztec temple dating back to the 1300s.
El Cardenal (we tried the Calle de la Palma 23 location) is filled with locals. It seems to be the place where families and friends flock and are willing to wait for the experience. We just put our name on the list and spent our wait exploring the nearby streets in the heart of Mexico City’s historic center.
This is a great place to get a hearty dose of Mexican classics. I followed others’ lead and started my meal with a frothy hot chocolate – a true Mexican treat unlike any other.
Pastelería Ideal is the perfect stop for a sweet treat … or maybe a tray full. The process is simple. Choosing is hard. Just pick up a silver tray and tongs, select your favorite pastries, and check out with the cashier, who boxes them up beautifully.
After you’ve gotten an eye and belly full of hand-picked treats, head upstairs to browse hundreds of wedding and special-occasion cakes.
What to experience
Experience a range of history within a few city blocks. A visual history surrounds you in Mexico City, from the architecture and Aztec ruins in the historic center to the mansions wedged between skyscrapers along the Avenue de la Reforma.
Allocate plenty of time to explore this area.
Entryway inside the National Museum of Art
Architectural beauties are everywhere in Mexico City’s historic center.
The Metropolitan Cathedral dating back to the late 16th century is located on Mexico City’s main plaza, Zocalo. It is the oldest and largest cathedral in Latin America.
Another church near Casa de los Azulejos, the “House of Tiles.”
Peek into Mexico City’s main post office, Palacio Postal, for a surprisingly glitzy look of gilded staircases and fancy elevators. This elegant place is still a working post office.
The colorful blue-and-white façade of Casa de los Azulejos, the “House of Tiles,” is another stunner.
An inside look will reveal several bustling restaurants including the flagship Sanborns – a large restaurant, retail and pharmacy chain in Mexico. The 18th century palace’s courtyard houses the main restaurant and features murals painted by famous artists.
Discover a masterful weaving of color, dance and music. Get tickets to a show at the Palacio de Bellas Artes not only for the entertainment, but also to see the gorgeous Tiffany stained-glass curtain depicting Mexico City’s stunning landscape.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is art nouveau on the outside and art deco on the inside.
Seeing the theater’s Tiffany glass curtain portraying the Valley of Mexico with its two great volcanoes is worth the price of admission.
Don’t forget to look up to see another stained-glass showstopper.
The Ballet Folklorico de Mexico offers a beautiful sampling of Mexican acts filled with lassos, mariachi bands, comical characters with freakish giant heads and a dancing kaleidoscope of color.
Before or after the show, spend your time exploring the stunningly demonstrative Diego Rivera murals throughout the building. Other works include murals by Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
“Man, Controller of the Universe” is Diego Rivera’s recreation of another mural titled “Man at the Crossroads.” The Rockefeller family originally commissioned the work for the Rockefeller Center in New York City. The family later destroyed the mural because of its perceived radical message of man being caught at the crossroads between capitalism and communism.
See patriotism take on new heights. Mexico loves its flag. You’ll always find one flying high above most of its cities. We were fortunate enough to stumble upon Mexico City’s flag-lowering ceremony in its main square, Zocalo, just across from its cathedral. Zocalo is one of the world’s largest city squares, so it’s certainly deserving of one of the largest flags I’ve ever seen in my life.
When we were there, a rapt crowd watched as the military lowered and carried off the flag for safe-keeping.
Shop ’til you drop. There are plenty of shopping options in Mexico City. If you want to focus on a few special high-end items in one building, go to The Shops at Downtown (Isabel la Católica No. 30).
There you’ll find clothing, shoes, jewelry, home decor, candies, coffee and lots of other eateries. There’s even a trendy hotel within the space.
Que Bo! offers handmade Mexican chocolates
This instrument is used to create the perfect froth in your hot chocolate.
Frother turned bangles
Beaded heels are a brilliant idea.
See Mexico’s pride-and-joy museum. We were impressed with Mexico’s ancient culture just within the city’s perimeter in its historic center. Then we went to its largest and most-visited museum to see even more of its history on display.
The National Museum of Anthropology takes you on a deep dive into Mexico’s past. This is a massive museum, so prioritize your time beforehand. We later discovered we missed some important highlights.
Climb ruins that rival Egyptian pyramids. Egypt is known for its pyramids, but Mexico deserves some props for its massive structures, as well.
When we ventured about an hour out of town to see Teotihuacan, we were blown away by its scale and preservation.
We carefully walked up the Pyramid of the Sun, which dates back to the year 200, for a 360-degree view of the impressive complex and surroundings. While the view is striking, the climb is thrilling. With just a rope railing to hang onto, there’s nothing like the fear of death to induce laser focus as you navigate the rocky stairs.
A person and dog near the top of the Pyramid of the Sun give some perspective on its size.
Heading up the pyramid
This trek is not for those with a fear of heights.
This sunbathing dog had no interest in us tourists.
Pyramid of the Moon
Our most-excellent tour guide, Petra – you will want one to fully appreciate all there is to see at Teotihuacan.
Pottery shards are everywhere around this site.
Plan an early visit to avoid the crowds, which you can see climbing the Pyramid of the Sun.
On some sites you need to travel up to see the gems beneath the surface.
Temple of the Feathered Serpent
Be sure to stop by the Tepantitla complex, which is believed to have housed Teotihuacan’s upper class.
Inside the complex are well-preserved fresco murals that depict how the Teotihuacano believed the world worked.
Explore nearby markets. On the way back into town, we stopped at a nearby market for a lunch of quesadillas and freshly squeezed juices. A roving piano trio entertained as we ate and we felt like the only tourists there. We later strolled the market to sample treats including fresh passion fruit and chicharrones, and watch fresh tortillas being made.
It was the perfect ending to a day of discovery.
Chicharrones (fried pork rinds)
This market was filled with fabulous, friendly people.
Huitlacoche, pronounced weet-la-coh-cheh, is a fungus that grows on ears of corn and a delicacy in Mexico. It’s also known as corn smut and Mexican truffle.
Oh how I love the smell and taste of homemade corn tortillas.
Fresh passion fruit from the market is a delicious treat.
Something for everyone
Mexico City may be a mega city, but you can find an oasis of calm and simple pleasures in its distinct neighborhoods. Or, you can feed your more sophisticated tastes with some of the best highly rated restaurants, numerous art and history museums, and diverse architecture. There’s something for everyone.
Looking out my window seat as we left, I was struck again by the density of this city built on precarious footing and surrounded by dormant and active volcanoes. The hills in the middle of the city reminded me a bit of the lesser temples built around Teotihuacan that we had just explored.
After zooming in on this big, vibrant and historically rich city for a few days, my bird’s-eye perspective upon departure left me asking more. Wanting to learn more. And hoping to return soon.