The Best Things to Do in Mexico City

The old, the new, and the scarcely imagined sit side by side in Mexico City, and no one blinks an eye. The more you can be curious about that balance—and the more you can achieve it yourself—the better you’ll understand and enjoy this magical city.

Mosqueta, Eje 1 Nte. S/N, Buenavista, 06350 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
A detour to the centrally located yet way-off-the-tourist-track neighborhood known as Buenavista leads to one of Mexico City’s most dazzling 21st-century landmarks, the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a gorgeous public library. The structure, by Alberto Kalach and Juan Palomar, has the public entering a pyramid-style form, on an almost subterranean level, that opens up, cathedral-like, into a soaring space lined on either side by cantilevered book stacks that float nobly above it all. Dramatic artworks contribute to the overall temple-of-knowledge feeling that is, in fact, quite moving. More beautiful yet could be just how busy the library is, filled with eager students and bookworm families alongside (no joke) groups of teens always practicing pop-music dance routines in the library’s lateral gardens.
S/N Plaza de la Constitución
Mexico City’s mammoth cathedral was built across three centuries (1573–1813)—starting soon after Cortés and his allies vanquished the Aztec Empire—using stones taken from a destroyed indigenous temple. Today’s sanctuary serves up contrasts between unadorned neoclassical walls alongside exuberant gilt chapels and altarpieces as well as a massive pipe organ, with some baroque elements, that’s still dusted off and played from time to time. Be sure not to miss the high altar, and consider shelling out for a visit to the sacristy, with its glistening dome, grand canvases, and massive cabinets, fit to hold an archbishop’s entire stock of holy utensils. And for a queasy view of how much the ground beneath the city is sinking, note how chandeliers appear to list in comparison to the chapel’s vertical lines.
Calle Salvador Díaz Mirón S/N, Sta María la Ribera, 06400 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Forever on the verge of being the next big target of gentrification, the district known as Santa María la Ribera—northwest of downtown—retains its neighborhoody, down-at-the-heels charms. Its streets are home to a mix of old-school cantinas (all perfectly visitor-friendly) and mom-and-pop restaurants, alongside some neglected architectural gems, hipster coffeehouses, and standard-issue, sometimes grimy local businesses—in short, it’s still real. The district’s centerpiece is its central plaza, known as the Alameda, and its exuberant Moorish-style gazebo (it started life as the Mexico Pavilion at a long-forgotten world’s fair). Recently restored and awash in color, the kiosk is a gem—and the proud emblem of the barrio. Note some amazing old mansions and the spooky Institute of Geology lining the plaza. The nearby Museo Universitario del Chopo—housed in a glass-and-cast-iron former natural-history museum—is a renowned center for avant-garde art that leaves no viewer less than provoked.
Av. Juárez S/N, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06050 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The imposing, white-domed wedding cake now known as Palacio de Bellas Artes was originally planned as a national theater, and construction was begun in 1904. The Mexican Revolution, among other things, postponed its completion until 1934, which explains the stark contrast between its creamy art nouveau exterior (note amazing iron- and stonework with local motifs like serpents) and its art-deco-inspired interior, finished in black and red marbles, and with walls that feature dazzling murals by Rivera, Siqueiros, and other postrevolutionary masters. Today the beloved edifice is home to a concert hall, exhibition areas given over to blockbuster shows, and Mexico’s National Architecture Museum; take an auditorium tour—or better yet, see a performance—to lay eyes on the theater’s magnificent Tiffany glass “curtain,” a mosaic formed (they say) by more than 1 million separate glass components.
Plaza de la Constitución S/N, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06066 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Though his reputation is now arguably overshadowed by that of his former wife, painter and muralist Diego Rivera—commissioned by Mexico’s postrevolutionary governments starting in the late 1920s to adorn several national monuments in complex, pageantry- and allegory-laden wall paintings—was among the first Mexican artists to gain worldwide acclaim. Many of his finest works are on display in the Centro Histórico. Perhaps most spectacular are Rivera’s portrayals of Mexico’s millennia-long history, as seen in the Palacio Nacional on the Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square; take a state-issued ID for admission to the palace); a more contemporary depiction of socialist workers’ struggles (and one which includes a Frida Kahlo cameo) decorates a courtyard at the Secretariat of Public Education. One of the artist’s earliest pieces can be seen inside the amphitheater at the San Ildefonso museum. Additionally, the dazzling Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central, a surrealist who’s-who of Mexico’s turbulent fin de siècle, is the chief artwork on display at the nearby Museo Mural Diego Rivera.
Calle Isabel la Catolica 21, Centro Histórico, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The splendid neoclassical church of San Felipe Neri (commonly called “La Profesa”), whose present structure was completed in 1720, is a gem in Mexico’s bustling downtown that many visitors never see, with a balanced, harmonious main chapel in sober stone and glossy gold tones. Even fewer visit the church’s picture gallery, called the Pinacoteca, home to one of the city’s most complete collections of colonial-era religious art, imposingly arrayed in a handful of high-ceilinged chambers that seem not to have changed a whit since viceregal days. No such thing as gilding the lily here.
Seminario 8, Centro Histórico, Cuauhtémoc, 06060 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
With the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, Iberian overlords set about imposing their customs on the subdued populace, eliminating traces of pre-Hispanic religions they deemed heretical by demolishing major temples and building churches and other structures atop their ruins. Centuries later, in 1978, workers laying electrical lines happened upon the remains of the Templo Mayor, the Aztecs’ most important ceremonial center (and, yes, the location of their notorious human sacrifices). Subsequent excavations have revealed superimposed pyramid foundations and priceless artworks, many now displayed at the on-site museum. Thrillingly, treasures keep turning up—including the spring 2017 discovery of a stone box containing some of the finest Aztec gold ever found, just off the Templo Mayor’s steps.
Justo Sierra 16, Centro Histórico, Centro, 06020 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The former Colegio de San Ildefonso is a magnificent colonial structure set around several imposing, multistoried arcades with halls now decorated by some of Mexico’s most spectacular murals. Even better, it serves as one of the city’s most ambitious and engaging art museums, with an edgy, wide-ranging focus that never fails to surprise. Recent years’ exhibitions have featured avant-garde foreign artists like Vik Muniz and Ron Meuck; homegrown blockbusters like Javier Marín; Candida Höfer’s striking architectural photography; and Marilyn Manson’s macabre visual works. Try to get a peek into the Colegio’s old amphitheater, where one of Diego Rivera’s first major commissions looks better than ever.
Lázaro Cárdenas
One of Mexico City’s most historic neighborhoods—a once-independent city-state politically joined to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan—Tlatelolco is a fascinating side trip few tourists make. At its center lies the district’s so-called Square of the Three Cultures, where a colossal public housing development (of revitalized interest to architecture buffs) surrounds a 17th-century Spanish church (notably embellished with stained-glass windows by 20th-century artist and architect Mathias Goeritz) as well as the ruins of pre-Hispanic Tlatelolco pyramids and other structures. In addition to being the exact spot on which the Aztec empire fell, the square was also the site where Mexican armed forces perpetrated a bloody 1968 massacre of university students and political activists. Tragedy aside, the area is still home to thousands of hardworking average Joes, and the community garden, known as the huerto, is pure down-home bucolic charm; it’s well worth a pop-in.
Calle del Mercado 133, San Jerónimo, 16420 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The system of canals and chinampas (cultivated artificial islands fashioned from the area’s swampy soils) that has survived in the far-south neighborhood known as Xochilmilco once stretched all the way to the Centro. To this day, the community is known for its plant nurseries and vegetable gardens. These ancient landscapes now contribute to what has become one of the most singular pleasure gardens in the world, where visitors hire “gondoliers” to propel boats known as trajineras as they sail these channels in the company of floating mariachis and food vendors, partying teens, and extended families out for a picnic lunch. Since a tour is usually a four-hour-plus investment (it flies by), ask your oarsman to take you to Xochimilco’s more-rural precincts, where you’ll enjoy marvelous quiet, far from the madding crowd, in the company of cranes, curs, and picturesque cornfields.
Plaza de la Constitución, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Its massive size, centrality to daily life in the capital, and easy accessibility (a Metro station opens up right onto the plaza) makes the Zócalo an ideal place for large-scale temporary exhibits. The government hosts occasional exhibits and makes entry free for residents and visitors alike. Past exhibits have included Gregory Colbert’s “Ashes and Snow,” a show of large-format photos of animals and people, and Willy Souza’s “Mexico en tus sentidos” (“Mexico in your senses”), lush, vivid photos of people and places around Mexico. To see if a show is planned during the time you’ll be visiting, check the website of the Secretary of Tourism.
Londres 247, Del Carmen, Coyoacán, 04100 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The cobalt-blue-and-brick-red residence where now-legendary Mexican visual artist Frida Kahlo grew up—and at times lived with husband Diego Rivera—is one of the city’s most consistently packed attractions; buying tickets in advance is strongly recommended. That said, the visit is essentially (and justifiably) mandatory and offers fascinating glimpses into this extraordinary woman’s life and work. In addition to holding some of her paintings, the house also functions as a showcase for her library, astounding wardrobe, and collection of pre-Columbian artifacts; it additionally bears witness to her close association with left-wing politics. What’s more, the museum portrays the artist’s struggles with depression, marital infidelities, disability, and illness. The house’s garden—home to a modest café and mostly bashful felines—makes for a great breather before more strolling in the Coyoacán neighborhood.
Though from Guadalajara (he never let friends forget), Pritzker Prize–winning architect Luis Barragán lived much of his life in Mexico City, where he designed and constructed this, his last residence, completed in 1948. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the home is open to be toured by small groups—by appointment only; English-language guides are available upon request—who want a chance to tap into Barragán’s brand of minimalism, which involved bold monochromism and a masterful use of light; striking horizontality and framing applied to windows, gardens, and views; a highly sui generis Catholic spirituality; and, not least of all, the architect’s bizarre need for control, in everything from what staircases guests might use to what records got played in different rooms.
Gobernador Rafael Rebollar 94, San Miguel Chapultepec I Secc, 11850 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Three friends who found themselves thrown together in the New York of the 1990s—artist Gabriel Orozco, who has been featured at MoMA, the Pompidou Center, and the Tate Modern; Mónica Manzutto, who worked at the Marian Goodman Gallery; and José Kuri, who was completing an M.A. at Columbia—originally came up with the idea for what is now arguably Mexico’s most influential gallery. Kurimanzutto began with some ephemeral Colonia Roma events, often in nontraditional spaces. Today the gallery occupies a structure commissioned from renowned architect Alberto Kalach; its stable of artists includes Mexican creators of international stature like Dr. Lakra, Miguel Calderón, Carlos Amorales, and Damián Ortega, as well as global talents like Akram Zaatari, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Anri Sala, Danh Vo, Jimmie Durham, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Monika Sosnowska. Kurimanzutto’s shows—not to mention the openings—mark the pulse of the Mexico City arts scene.
5 General F. Ramírez
Pamela Echeverría founded her original Avenida Ámsterdam space in 2010, after experiences at Galería OMR and the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil. Since then, the gallery has made a name for itself by providing a forum for contemporary-art proposals based on impassioned research; its catalog has included artists such as Teresa Margolles (2009 Venice Bienniale and the 2012 Prince Claus Award), Erick Beltrán, Santiago Sierra (2003 Venice Bienniale, representing Spain), and Héctor Zamora, as well as Jill Magid, Pablo Vargas Lugo, Terence Gower, and Antonio Vega Macotela. Labor’s current headquarters were originally functionalist architect Enrique del Moral’s 1948 residence and lie just across the street from 1980 Pritzker Prize winner Luis Barragán’s house, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004.
Calle Diego Rivera s/n, San Ángel Inn, 01060 Álvaro Obregón, CDMX, Mexico
A who-knows-how-happily-married Diego Rivera commissioned this three-residence compound from Mexican artist and architect Juan O’Gorman in 1931. Jarringly Bauhausian for its time (especially in comparison to the surrounding San Ángel neighborhood’s mission revival gentility), it included separate buildings for Diego and his wife, Frida Kahlo, connected by a slender bridge (as well as a third dwelling for O’Gorman). Visits lead to interiors, showcasing Rivera’s studio and its fascinating collection of artworks, creative infrastructure, and amazing windows. Take time to wander the garden and pause to appreciate the property’s tableaux; then re-tox from all the aesthetic purity across the road at the San Ángel Inn, a gloriously indulgent hacienda bar and restaurant that takes you straight back to the country club—flawless margaritas and all.
Blvd. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Granada, 11520 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Much of Mexico City’s fervid contemporary art movement—galleries and collectors abound; the scene is now a launching pad for Mexican artists looking to conquer the world—can be traced to art patron Eugenio López Alonso, heir to the Jumex packaged-juice fortune, who over decades has amassed Latin America’s most extensive contemporary art collection and brought dozens of artists to the international spotlight. The collection’s flagship museum, itself a work of art by the British architect David Chipperfield, is a surprisingly intimate exhibition space that supports a rotating calendar of shows; the basement bookstore will delight bibliophiles and design freaks alike. Right nearby lies the Museo Soumaya, whose dramatic architectural form (which earned it the nickname “the Blender”) makes up for a collection some consider erratic.
Paseo de la Reforma & Calzada Gandhi S/N, Chapultepec Polanco, Miguel Hidalgo, 11560 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Housed in a 1964 structure whose modern lines and central fountain greatly complement what’s on view, this anthropology museum is a repository of the most important pre-Hispanic treasures modern Mexico has discovered. The works are displayed in exhibits that trace the entire history of the Americas’ indigenous population, from the Bering migration to the present day. Exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) in scope, many visitors choose to jump ahead to “greatest-hits” galleries focusing on name brands like the Aztecs (to see their misnamed calendar stone); the Maya and their artifacts; or the Olmec culture, famed for its colossal (and quite sensual) head sculptures dating back to Mesoamerica’s earliest recorded eras.
Blvd. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Granada, 11529 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The Museo Soumaya, financed by Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico, has the ambitions of the Guggenheim Bilbao from the outside. It’s a stunning building whose sweeping, soaring curves couldn’t help but make it an instant landmark near Polanco, one of Mexico City‘s ritziest neighborhoods. Inside, the museum recalls the Guggenheim New York, with galleries off of a ramp which spirals down (or up) the building. Unfortunately the museum’s permanent collection isn’t as impressive as those at either Guggenheim. The Soumaya does have some strengths—one of the world’s largest collection of Rodins and some especially noteworthy colonial Mexican works—but it can feel hit or miss, with many undistinguished pieces. Slim’s museum is free, however, so you won’t regret paying admission even if you just pass through quickly to take in the building itself and some highlights.
Calle de Tacuba 8, Centro Histórico, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The smallish Plaza Manuel Tolsá—at the end of Calle de Tacuba—is an all-but-perfect urban conglomeration that will thrill architecture fans. To the south lies the 18th-century Palacio de Minería (a former engineering college) whose solid, sober mastery of imposing volume is leavened by the wavy effects of the city’s sinking soils; to the north is the former Palacio de Comunicaciones, now Mexico’s National Art Museum. The collection here is a winner—but some of the structure’s soaring neoclassical spaces will leave you agog. At the corner with the Eje Central thoroughfare stands the city’s beloved old post office, noted for its eclectic, Venetian-style facade and coruscating interiors in marble, bronze, and iron (don’t miss the grand staircase). A recently restored equestrian statue of a somewhat dopey-looking King Charles IV of Spain is a marvelous finishing touch.
Córdoba 55, Cuauhtémoc, 06700 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The close-in neighborhood called Colonia Roma was first developed at the dawn of the 20th century as a high-end suburb laid out along tree-lined boulevards and plazas. Prominent families erected elaborate residences in architectural styles ranging from neoclassical to art nouveau and even neo-Moorish. A century later—despite some ups and downs—the district is at a peak as one of Mexico City’s most fashionable areas, and old mansions now serve as retail spaces or smart dining rooms that open out onto the street, day and night, in that marvelous dolce vita way. Stroll the quarter’s main drag, Álvaro Obregón, afternoons and evenings, for a complete sampling of its urban pleasures; shopaholics with an eye for edgy design won’t want to miss the whimsical boutiques that line adjacent Cerrada Colima. Deeper dives into side streets and nearby plazas turn up even more surprises when you’re ready for a walkabout.
Ignacio Allende Esquina Av. Miguel Hidalgo, Coyoacán TNT, Coyoacán, 04000 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Once a separate town, the leafy colonial neighborhood known as Coyoacán has long been absorbed into the city at large, but retains a separate, old-fashioned air that’s impossible to resist. Restaurants and ice cream parlors (plus some venerable, divey cantinas) cluster around the quarter’s two central plazas that fill daily with strolling families, bootblacks, balloon sellers, and organ grinders. Feeling noshy? Locals swear by the esquites (stewed and seasoned corn kernels) on offer at a street stall next to the Sanborns store, right on Plaza del Centenario. A walk down Calle Francisco Sosa takes you past some of the city’s most valuable (often colonial-era) residences and ends at adorable Plaza Santa Catarina, with its petite parish church and a handful of friendly watering holes when it’s time for a drink or a snack.
Paseo de la Reforma, Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Mexico City’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, the wide, tree-and-statuary-adorned Paseo de la Reforma was first known as the Paseo de la Emperatriz, laid out as a ceremonial lane to take Their Majesties Maximilian and Carlota between the Centro’s government palaces and the imperial residence atop Chapultepec Hill. Today, it functions as one of the city’s most striking business districts, lined with skyscraper banks, offices, apartment towers, and shopping centers, and studded with old-fashioned traffic circles that add big-city excitement. Be sure to hit the roundabout that’s home to Mexico’s Monument of Independence—a beautifully carved column crowned by a gilt, winged Victory that has come to symbolize the city. Great for strolls day or night, Reforma is especially appealing on Sundays when the boulevard is closed to motorized traffic in favor of cyclists, skaters, and just plain walkers.
Calle Dr Mora 9, Colonia Centro, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Originally laid out during Spanish rule, the Alameda Central was Mexico City’s first municipal park, at one time reserved for the elite. Today it’s a well-manicured garden for all, especially popular with working-class crowds on Sundays. Its willow-lined lanes lead to old-fashioned statuary, fountains, and a gazebo (where something’s always going on), as well as a rotating calendar of contemporary sculpture exhibitions. On the park’s western edge and occupying a beautifully restored art deco structure, the shopping and design center known as Barrio Alameda houses edgy boutiques, a chic guesthouse, and trendy restaurants whose outdoor seating is a people-watcher’s delight. Duck in for a glimpse of how the city center continues along its gentrifying course.
Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico City, CDMX, Mexico
Mexico City is often depicted—and not incorrectly—as a capital city teeming with buildings, people, and cars. It also, though, has a surprising number of green spaces and parks, the most expansive of which is Bosque de Chapultepec, right on the edge of Polanco. It’s easy to while away a good bit of time in Chapultepec; the park has a zoo, a lake where you can rent pedal boats, street performers making music and magic, and the Castillo de Chapultepec—Chapultepec Castle—which houses the National History Museum. If you’re hungry, you’ll find plenty of vendors peddling everything from roasted corn on the cob to cotton candy.
s/n, Av México, Hipódromo, 06100 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Long the heart of the Condesa district (even during the dark days following Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake), today’s Parque México is the quintessential urban park. Well-manicured with ample seating and a recently refurbished open-air forum that plays host to groovy neighborhood events as well as perennial skateboarders, the park’s venerable trees provide shade to the area’s easy-on-the-eyes crowd of joggers, dog walkers, cute old folks, and amorous teens. Along the garden’s perimeter, some of the city’s smartest apartment houses (often in flawless art deco style) share space with cool cafés, kicky boutiques, and crowded restaurants. Few city pleasures surpass Parque México’s people-watching (and pooch-watching) over coffee or cocktails, as golden sunlight streams through branches onto lively, see-and-be-seen sidewalk venues.
Dr. Lavista 189, Doctores, Cuauhtémoc, 06720 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The concierge at the hotel was skeptical. The cab driver was amused and skeptical. Lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling, is clearly an unsophisticated embarrassment, tantamount to telling a visitor to the U.S. to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Attending a match, though, is a way to see a side of Mexican culture not found in museums or historic churches, but one that definitely uses some of the same mythology, iconography, and pageantry seen there. The crowd shouts, chants, and laughs through performances featuring dancing girls, inept referees, men in lavish and ridiculous costumes (a caveman with a plastic club, fur boots, and a skimpy loincloth), and some honest-to-God astounding feats of athleticism. Matches—loud and funny and thrilling—take place on Friday nights and occasionally during the week. Tickets can be bought in person at the arena, but arrive early to avoid a long line and use your time to shop the stands set up outside for handmade lucha libre wares (wrestling capes, masks, T-shirts, onesies for infants).
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