With an area of some 600 square miles and a population of 21 million, it feels like it would take weeks to navigate the sprawling, dense metropolis of Mexico City. But sometimes you only have a weekend to make your mark.
Good news: it’s surprising how much you can do and see with only 48 hours in North America’s largest city. The key is to carefully plan and to cluster your stops around different neighborhoods. Hiring a driver isn’t a bad idea if you are pushed for time, and can be arranged by your hotel for a reasonable price. That way, you don’t have to worry about flagging down cabs on the street and don’t have to waste time figuring out the metro system or wandering around aimlessly with a map. Of course, most areas are walkable once you arrive, and absolutely should be explored by foot.
Stay at Four Seasons Mexico City. This colonial-style hotel has recently unveiled a $14 million renovation and is one of the most beautiful spots to stay in the capital. It is centrally located in the heart of the historic Paseo de la Reforma area, just steps from Chapultepec Park and the exclusive Polanco neighborhood.
Start your day at Plaza de la Constitución, colloquially known as the Zócalo, which is one of the largest public squares in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it spreads out over an entire city block and is a lively mix of tourists and locals—from businessmen to buskers. Notable buildings include colonial-style Palacio Nacional—built on the site of a former Aztec palace—and Catedral Metropolitana, the largest cathedral in Latin America. It took almost three centuries to complete, and blends architectural styles from colonial to art nouveau to art deco.
About a half-hour walk west is MUCHO Mundo Chocolate, where you can learn all about one of the sweetest gifts Mexico has given the world. The tour, which takes about an hour, is run by a chocolate historian and covers everything from the history and lore of the cacao bean to the role chocolate plays in Mexican society today. Best of all, it ends with a hands-on preparation and cooking demonstration.
So chic, so boutique
If you’ve woken your sweet tooth, nearby Hotel Carlota is a cool and buzzy destination that serves some of the best banana bread in the city. (The chef here used to work at Pujol, a local restaurant that is continuously ranked one of the world’s best.) The hotel also has a stylish, design-driven boutique, Taxonomía, which carries jewelry, clothing, pottery, and even high-end mezcal.
The chic neighborhood of Polanco is an obvious next stop, with its luxury home and apparel stores. Make sure to stroll down the Presidente Masaryk, which is often compared to New York City’s 5th Avenue. Have lunch at Entremar, one of Mexico City’s top dining spots (and sister restaurant to long-standing staple, Contramar). Enjoy a leisurely meal of seafood and Mexican or South American wine amid the large canvases on the airy blue-and-white second floor.
After lunch, stroll across the charming Plaza Uruguay to Onora Casa, a project founded to help preserve traditional crafts and encourage artisans to refine their techniques and promote their work internationally. Here, you’ll find giant wooden bowls, woven scarves, tasteful holiday ornaments, and more.
Hit the museums
Spend the rest of the afternoon wandering some of the museums in the area. A half-hour stroll northwest of Plaza Uruguay are the spectacular Museos Soumaya and Jumex. Museo Soumaya is an abstract shiny steel structure designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero. Opened by philanthropist Carlos Slim Hélu, the museum is free to enter and has a collection of some 66,000 works of art spanning the 15th through 20th centuries, including works by Rodin and Dalí. Just next door, Museo Jumex is equally arresting. Designed by architect David Chipperfield and topped with a skylit saw-tooth roof, the five-story museum houses Eugenio López Alonso’s contemporary art collection.
Alternatively, head southeast to Museo de Arte Moderno, before finishing up in the Camino Real Polanco. It’s worth a stop at the hotel just to see the bold architecture and to browse the 400+ original works of art—including a mural from Tamayo and a Jeff Koons sculpture—that fill the grounds. Even better is to reward yourself with a drink after a hard day’s exploring.
Why leave the area? The recently opened J by José Andrés sees the famed Spanish chef exploring dishes in which “Spain meets Mexico,” incorporating iconic ingredients from both countries. A classic Mexican torta is built with Spanish mollete bread, whereas the gooey and addictive Mexican specialty queso fundido features a simmering pot of Spanish cheeses. The wine list is a mix of Spanish and Mexican.
If you are in the mood for Oaxacan flavor, famous Chapulín offers the likes of duck mole tacos or “grandma’s beans” with sardines, along with a wine list that stretches into the thousands of labels, plus an impressive variety of mezcal. Also, it was shortlisted at the Restaurant and Bar Design Awards 2015 for its design by Rafael Sama and Jesus Irizar.
First up, grab a flaky almond croissant—one of the best this side of Paris—and a strong coffee from the lobby bakery at The Four Seasons. Then head south towards the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City, which is about 30 minutes by car.
Frida and Diego
Start with a visit to Casa Azul, more properly known as the Frida Kahlo Museum, birthplace and home of the city’s most celebrated artist. Explore the whole house, from her light and airy studio to the boudoir with the tiny four-poster bed where she spent many years convalescing and painting. The tour also leads you out to an inspirational garden and patio, where you can sit and soak in the creative force from the red-and-blue pyramid built by her husband and fellow artist, Diego Rivera. New to the compound is a separate house that showcases some of Kahlo’s most spectacular dresses and accessories.
Not far from Kahlo’s Blue House is El Bazaar Sabado, a chaotic bazaar held every Saturday in a colonial-era suburb with cobblestone streets and charming homes. The main market is set in a two-story structure brimming with craftspeople selling jewelry, pottery, leather goods, and clothing. Don’t miss the handmade tortillas and some of the best chicken and cheese quesadillas in town. Other vendors set up on the outskirts of the market, and sell everything from paintings to toys.
Stop for an early lunch at the San Angel Inn. This former Carmelite monastery is one of the loveliest restaurants in the city, and a bastion of Mexican-colonial architecture. Sit in the courtyard or in the fountain-filled gardens and enjoy a strong margarita followed by chicken mole or tortilla soup topped with chicharrones and queso. A new wing of the inn now serves high tea and sells souvenirs and coffee-table books about the property.
Across the street is Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera, the former home and studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. It’s now a museum featuring Rivera’s paintings and memorabilia. The famous couple lived in this avant-garde compound in separate houses from 1934 to 1940. After they divorced, Rivera remained in the home until his death in 1957.
Roma and Condesa style
Depart for the ultra-hip Roma and Condesa neighborhoods to explore colorful, one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, and food markets. Don’t miss top Mexican designer Carla Fernández’s high-fashion boutique, which sells garments and accessories worthy of a Milan runway. For something a little more casual, Fábrica Social is hidden behind a gated courtyard and shares a similar design aesthetic while using handwoven and hand-stitched local fabrics. Just a couple blocks away, Córdoba 25 has separate men’s and women’s fashion boutiques, along with an upstairs art gallery and bookstore.
Try pork or seafood tacos from El Parnita for lunch. Arrive early, as the space fills up quickly. Alternatively, Tlapalería Gastronómica, which is next door and owned by the same family, sells a selection of local gourmet treats as well as mezcal.
If you can’t choose where to eat, go for a progressive meal. Start at Blanco Colima, a meeting point known both for its food and culture. Grab a coffee and macaron on the patio, or a glass of wine with a gourmet seafood dish in the bar. The upstairs area holds pop-ups once a month with artists, designers, and DJs. Next door, Rosetta—voted one of the world’s 50 best restaurants by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna—offers a bird’s-eye view into the basement kitchen and features short ribs with polenta, among other delights. End your evening—and your trip—at lively mezcaleria Alipús Endémico, which has a wide range of artisanal mezcals to sample.
If you still want to squeeze the last few minutes of entertainment out of your 48 hours in Mexico City, watch some authentic Lucha Libre—masked pro wrestling—at Arena Mexico, known as the “Cathedral of Lucha Libre.”