In recent years, Mexico’s capital has drawn the international spotlight, winning recognition for its world-class museums, culinary culture, and architecture. These are the best things to do in Mexico City.
Despite Mexico City’s air of refinement, it still retains an edge. This is a energetic, sprawling metropolis that refuses to be tamed. With that in mind, here are some of the top experiences for travelers in Mexico City – including sophisticated cultural destinations and sights that showcase the more eccentric aspects of its personality.
Take in the Zócalo
Officially called La Plaza de la Constitución, Mexico City’s main square is better known as the Zócalo. This historic location was a ceremonial hub for the Mexica indigenous people who ruled the Aztec Empire. The destination still has an important role in official celebrations and protests. Covering an area of 620,000 square feet, this is one of the largest public squares in the Americas. From the Zócalo, you can admire the impressive sights of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace, and frequent displays of Aztec dancing and music.
Running diagonally through Mexico City, the Paseo de la Reforma is home to many of the capital’s most famous landmarks, including the Angel of Independence and the looming Torre Mayor skyscraper. Austrian architect Ferdinand von Rosenzweig designed the street on the orders of Maximilian I, who briefly ruled as emperor of Mexico until his execution in 1867. A stroll down the Paseo takes you from the city center to Chapultepec Castle. Along the way, you can admire the city’s best architecture and sample the food in the boulevard’s numerous restaurants and cafes.
Just east of the Zócalo is the Templo Mayor Museum, which houses the remains of the main Mexica ceremonial center. According to the Mexica, this was the exact center of the universe. That meant it was the perfect site on which to build a monument to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war; and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture. The Spanish destroyed much of the temple, but you can still admire the remains at the excavated site, while other Mexica artifacts are on display at the adjacent museum.
Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, located within the Bosque de Chapultepec, is the country’s most-visited museum. It stocks a vast collection of artifacts recovered from pre-Hispanic civilizations such as the Mayans, Olmecs, and Aztecs. There are many highlights – including giant Olmec heads discovered in the Mexican jungle and a jade mask depicting the Zapotec bat god. The most famous artifact of all is the Sun Stone, an intricately detailed Aztec calendar.
Museo Frida Kahlo, or La Casa Azul (The Blue House) is a fascinating museum dedicated to the life and work of Frida Kahlo, a celebrated Mexican artist. The museum stocks an impressive collection of Kahlo’s artworks; but it has an intimate feel, too – the artist was born, grew up, and ultimately died within the walls of the building. Inside, you’ll find the decor virtually unchanged since the 1950s. You can sense the artist’s presence among the many artifacts, photographs, and personal items on display.
The Leon Trotsky Museum is just a short walk from La Casa Azul. The exiled Russian revolutionary had originally lived with Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, but was expelled by Rivera after he had a romantic affair with Kahlo. The Russian stayed at 410, Río Churubusco, until a Stalinist agent attacked him with an ice pick in the study in August 1940. He died from his wounds the following day. Much like Kahlo’s house, the museum gives you an intimate look into its former owner’s history – the rooms are preserved as they were when Trotsky lived and a tomb in the garden contains his ashes.
A short walk from the Zócalo is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the country’s most important cultural center. The building is of striking Art Nouveau and Neoclassical design. Inside, you’ll find a plush marble interior. The center hosts important art and photography exhibitions, as well as theatrical performances. It is also adorned with magnificent frescoes produced by each of the “Big Three” muralists – Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco.
The canals of Xochimilco are a celebrated attraction and UNESCO World Heritage site. At weekends, visitors take trips on the brightly painted boats that offer tours of the floating garden. But one secluded area along the shores of the water offers a far more haunting experience. On the Island of the Dolls, you’ll find dozens of discolored plastic figurines dangling from the branches of the trees. The island was once the home of a hermit called Don Julian Santana. According to local lore, Santana found the drowned body of a little girl in the lake and began collecting the dolls to honor her memory. Following his death in 2001, the island became a creepy attraction, with some visitors claiming to have seen the dolls move or open their eyes.
A surreal experience for visitors to Mexico City is the game of toques, where people pay a street vendor to give them an electric shock. The idea is to hold the positively and negatively charged metal bars for as long as possible as the current is gradually increased up to a hair-raising 120 volts. A game of toques typically costs 20 Mexican dollars and is popular in and around the Plaza Garibaldi.
Once a lush retreat for the Aztec ruling elite, the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Forest) is Mexico’s most famous public park. At 1,695 acres (686 hectares) it is nearly double the size of New York’s Central Park. Aside from lakes and lush woodland, the park boasts numerous other attractions, including the Museum of Anthropology and Chapultepec Castle. In 2019, the Large Urban Park Awards recognized Chapultepec as the Best Urban Park in the World.
Accessible (Wheelchair), Accessible (Blind), Accessible (Deaf), Dog Friendly, Family Friendly
Touristy, Peaceful, Outdoors
Enjoy a soccer game at the Azteca Stadium
Few countries in the world take soccer as seriously as Mexico, and the Estadio Azteca has hosted some glorious sporting moments. It was here that Brazil won the 1970 World Cup, with the team widely regarded as the greatest in soccer history. The stadium was also the venue for Diego Maradona’s illegal ‘Hand of God’ goal against England at the 1986 World Cup. The vast venue is famed for its boisterous atmosphere and makes for a memorable visit, especially if you can catch a game. The Azteca currently stages home matches for the club side CF América, and occasionally hosts the Mexican national team.
There are few spectacles more thrilling and surreal than a lucha libre (Mexican professional wrestling) event. With a capacity of 16,500, the Arena México is the largest lucha stadium in the world. Every weekend, the venue hosts bouts between superstar wrestlers. While the organizers fix the results, the performances still require impressive skill and acrobatics. In fact, lucha libre is taken so seriously that Mexico City’s government declared it an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2018.
Past patrons of Café La Habana include the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, and the Cuban revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara. The coffee shop that features in Roberto Bolaño’s postmodern novel The Savage Detectives is also closely modeled on the establishment. With its bright walls, swirling overhead fans, and framed black-and-white photos, the coffee shop has the feel of a bygone era. It still attracts a loyal base of regulars – many of them leftist intellectuals and retired journalists who have been drinking coffee here for years.
No trip to Mexico City would be complete without a visit to this majestic archaeological complex just northeast of Mexico City. Once the sixth-largest city in the world, Teotihuacan boasts the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, two of the largest ancient structures in the Americas. The on-site museum also offers an educational pit stop. Here, you’ll find countless artifacts documenting the daily, artistic, and spiritual practices of the ancient city.
Tacos al pastor (spit-grilled meat tacos) is a traditional Mexican dish with a Middle Eastern heritage. This variety of taco originates from Lebanese immigrants who began arriving in Mexico in the 1890s. The community opened restaurants and used the cooking methods they were most familiar with, including spit roasting. The tacos are made with pork marinated in spices and achiote paste, and slowly cooked on a spit. The thinly sliced meat is served in a tortilla with coriander, diced onions, and a slice of pineapple. El Vilsito offers the most spectacular tacos in the city.
The bitter beverage, pulque, has made a huge comeback in recent years, thanks to a renewed interest in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past. The drink itself has been produced in the country for more than 2,000 years and is made by fermenting – rather than distilling – the sap of the spiky agave plant. Many bars now offer pulque natural, which is a white, frothy drink with an acidic aftertaste. Newcomers to the beverage may prefer pulque curado, a flavored version that won’t overwhelm an unfamiliar palate. Casa Conejo is a popular bar offering both varieties of the drink.